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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

The price of awakened insight

Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky’s novella “Laughter” as artistic prophecy
22 January, 2008 - 00:00

There is a long-standing dictum that artistic works of a truly high level, including literature, offer the possibility to see a future path along which History itself will soon advance and to discern its face and mysterious design. Thus, it is no surprise that many historians, philosophers, sociologists, and even economists have admitted that they benefited much more from the heritage of the great masters of world literature than from hundreds of volumes of specialized (even if very important) scholarly research. What is more, the historical and educational value of such works never depends on their size: even a miniature story may well turn out to be a true artistic masterpiece, not just an “instant picture” of history but an artistic prophecy that one must read attentively, feel it, and understand it.

In Ukrainian literature, Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky was this kind of incomparable master. To verify the fact that Kotsiubynsky did not write any insignificant and “run-of-the-mill” works, one should reread, for example, his novella “Smikh” (Laughter) — a mere 10 pages of text. What we see is not simply a moment of history that flares up brightly for a second and then vanishes as quickly; nor is it an illustration of “dramatic social conflicts in the 1905 Russian revolution on the territory of Ukraine.” Not at all; rather, it is about the ability of an outstanding artist to foresee future “sore points” of history — and not history alone. As the respected reader will soon become convinced, I hope, this short story can essentially facilitate the search for answers to the burning questions of today.

Kotsiubynsky wrote “Laughter” in early February 1906 in Chernihiv and published it in the second volume of the journal Nova hromada (New Community, funded that same year by the prominent Ukrainian civic activist Yevhen Chykalenko). The story was written in 1905-06, when the very foundations of the seemingly impregnable empire of the Romanovs were beginning to totter, when Russia’s repressive governmental machine were starting to creak and break down, and when the first tender shoots of civic and national freedoms declared (only!) in Nicholas II’s manifesto of Oct. 17, 1905, entered into a relentless and tragic conflict.

It was also the age of the rabid Black Hundreds scum that unleashed a wave of pogroms (in the surprising absence of the “guardians of public order”) against free- thinking intellectuals, radical student “instigators,” and Jews. In the imagination of this furious mob of “loyal subjects” there were no grounds for disturbances in the empire, let alone a revolution; they put all the blame on the “Yids” and rebellious intellectuals. (Oddly enough, 100 years late, certain “respectable” Russian journalists and historians are adopting the same attitude, idealizing the “martyr” Nicholas II, who often sent congratulations to the Black Hundred pogromists.)

What did those zealous “patriots” of the empire and “defenders” of the tsar and Orthodoxy do? Kotsiubynsky’s novella shows this in a concise, unvarnished, and vivid manner. A student named Horbachevsky runs through the back door into the apartment of the story’s protagonist, the lawyer Valerian Chubynsky, who is a radical opponent of the tsarist government. His windows are tightly shut because “bad people are roaming the streets now. If only they don’t break in!”). Horbachevsky tells him about the latest events in the city: these are anxious times, which demand that every individual make a conscious choice and be fully responsible for all his actions. “There was a Black Hundred rally all night long,” Horbachevsky says. “They drank and discussed whom to beat up. First of all, they decided to destroy the ‘rators’ [orators — Ed.] and the ‘domocrats.’ There is a certain uncertain movement outside. Groups of three or four people are roaming about. Their faces are stern. Their eyes are rapacious and wicked, and they glower when they spot an intellectual. I walked through the marketplace. There were a lot of people. They’re distributing vodka. Some kind of secret meetings are going on, but it’s difficult to say what they are talking about. I only heard a few surnames: Machynsky, Zalkin, yours too...You are running a risk, a very great risk,” Horbachevsky says, ending his emotional and erratic account.

Chubynsky is truly running a risk. He is a public and passionate critic of the system and a good orator to boot. Describing his feelings, the author says, “An ocean of heads came rushing before his eyes...Heads, heads, and heads... sweaty, warm faces and thousands of eyes were looking at him out of a gray fog. He was speaking. A hot wave was beating him in the face and flying into his chest as he inhaled. Like birds of prey, his words were flying boldly and surely out of his lungs. The speech seemed to be successful. He managed to describe the opposing interests of those who offer work and those who have to take it so simply and so vividly that this thing became clearer even to him.” (In all probability, Chubynsky’s views indicate that he belonged to the Social Democratic Party and not its most moderate wing — Author). “And when he received applause, he knew that it was awakened awareness that was clapping.” Chubynsky is undoubtedly one of those “domocrats” and “rators,” so he has every reason to be wary of the further course of events.

Meanwhile, more alarming news is coming from the “street.” Tetiana Stepanivna, “a plump little woman” (perhaps a friend of the Chubynskys), says that “it has already begun...Crowds are roaming the streets, carrying the tsar’s portrait. I’ve just seen them beating up Sikach, a student, because he didn’t take off his hat to the portrait. I saw him, now without the hat, red, in a torn double-breasted jacket, doubled up and being tossed from one to another, and everyone was beating him. His eyes are so big, red, and mad...I was overcome with terror. I could not watch. And do you know whom I saw in the mob? The people...peasants in gray festive half-coats and high boots, ordinary stately sons of the soil. Among them were people from our village — quiet, calm, industrious ones. I know them because I’ve been teaching for five years in that village. And now I’ve run away from there because they wanted to beat me up — it is the old savage hatred for the master, whoever he is. They destroyed everything in our village. Well, if they had only taken on the rich... But the person I am really sorry for is our neighbor, an old and poor widow. One son is in Siberia, the other in prison. All she has is an old house and a garden. But they destroyed everything, took apart the house brick by brick, chopped down the orchard, and ripped up her sons’ books. She didn’t want to beseech them like others did. Some came outside to see the mob, with icons and babies in hand, knelt in the mud, and implored the peasants for hours, kissing their hands. Those ones were spared.”

This is an illustrative example of how a classic of our Ukrainian literature was able to reproduce the tragedy of the age in just a few lines: we see “the old savage hatred for the master, whoever he is” (this was the main cause of the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, not foreign influence), under tsarist banners, and the real and often cruel and savage face of the people, which Kotsiubynsky, an unimpeachable democrat and humanist, knew only too well.

This raises another, by no means unimportant, question: what stand did those “ordinary stately sons of the soil” in “gray festive half-coats” take; whom did they support during the terrible social upheavals of 1917-21 and in the late 1920s (if they were still alive at the time?). Kotsiubynsky was not only a profound, penetrating, and prophetic artist but also a man of considerable personal courage: during the Black Hundred pogroms in Chernihiv in late 1905, he and his wife Vira raised money among the employees of the Chernihiv Statistics Bureau, where both of them worked, in order to acquire weapons for volunteer units that were providing protection against the Black Hundred mobs. In order to protect the Jews, who were the most vulnerable victims of the pogroms, they formed a peasant force consisting of the residents of Loknyste, near Chernihiv. It would be wrong, therefore, to consider the Ukrainian peasantry of those times, and later, as a united, monolithic, and closely-knit mass: there had been no unity for a long time.

Feeling that his life may be hanging by a thread and unable to overcome his natural fear, Chubynsky searches — and this too is natural — for a person with whom he can share his alarm about his fate and that of his family. He thinks this kind of “living soul” is right here: it is Varvara, the Chubynskys’ housemaid, whom the lawyer sincerely considers his “true friend” and praises her “good character:” “Just think! She only takes a mere three rubles a month” (“She’s been with us for four years,” he adds. “We have gotten used to her, and she to us. And she loves the children.” Tetiana Stepanivna responds, “You are so lucky to have such a fine servant!”).

So it is only natural that in this trying hour Chubynsky wants “to speak sincerely” with none other than Varvara. “Have you heard, Varvara? They are beating the landlords,’ Mr. Valerian said plaintively and was shocked to see Varvara’s ample body twitching, as if she were trying to stifle laughter. Then that laughter suddenly broke through: ‘Ha-ha! Beating? Let ‘em beat! Ha-ha- ha! You’ve been masters long enough...Ha-ha-ha...Praise the Lord, the people have waited a long time for this.”

The picture that Kotsiubynsky recreates is terrible and prophetic: “She (Varvara — Author) could not check the invincible, riotous laughter that was bubbling in her chest and spitting out words, like froth: ‘Ha-ha-ha! Do away with all of them...ha-ha-ha...to the very last one...ha-ha-ha,’ she was almost sobbing.’ That wild roar was jumping around the house, and it was so painful and frightening, as though from a frantic dance of sharp, gleaming and cold knives. That laughter was like a rainstorm of thunderbolts, there was something murderous and lethal in its bursts, which inspired terror.”

This horror somewhat diminishes in the novella’s subsequent paragraphs, where the author gives a rational and convincing explanation of Varvara’s “sudden” and virulent hatred for the “lords.” Chubynsky, whose bespectacled “myopic eyes” (Kotsiubynsky deliberately focuses our attention on this detail) suddenly become “frightened, sharp, and unusually penetrating” (this is the price of insight), “saw what he had passed by every day, like a blind man, bare feet, cold, red, dirty and fissured, like an animal’s. A threadbare coat on her shoulders, which gave no warmth. A sallow complexion, blue circles under her eyes. A bluish haze in the kitchen, the hard bench on which she slept, barely covered, among the slops, dirt, and fumes. Like in a den. Like a beast. Her wasted strength that had been given to others. A wretched, squalid life, like in a yoke. And he expected friendliness from her!”

Dogmatic Soviet-era Kotsiubynsky research claimed that “Laughter” “exposes the inability of abstract humanism to resolve the deep-rooted contradictions of society as well as the awakened insight of its bearers, when they encounter real life.” But Soviet researchers skirted the question of the price of this insight: after all, people like the lawyer Chubynsky, who spoke at public rallies, could not even imagine the true horror of the volcano of popular wrath and hatred for the “masters,” and so it is not important who beats them — a Black Hundred mob or those who, 13 years later, did the job much more skillfully. Our prominent contemporary, Academician Ivan Dziuba, citing the testimony of Kotsiubynsky’s female acquaintance Pereida Berezniak, absolutely correctly posits the question in an entirely different plane: the writer regarded “Laughter” not as a satire on the Chubynskys but a drama of all the Chubynskys who speak out at rallies against despotism, defending the rights of the laboring people, yet at the same time exploit people in their own homes without even noticing this.

Kotsiubynsky would not have been a great writer whose works have retained all their artistic, esthetic, cognitive and prophetic value to this day if he had not understood a fundamental truth: it is impossible to mock history (even though the impression may be that he managed to do just this). History itself laughs at cynical “jokers,” and it laughs last.