Absurdism, Books

Soviet Deadpan

Here is an tale, written in 1936, by the Russian writer Daniil Kharms.

An old woman fell out of a window because she was too curious. She fell and broke into pieces.
Another old woman leaned out of the window and looked at the one that had broken into pieces, but because she was too curious, she also fell out of the window – fell and broke into pieces.
Then a third woman fell out of the window, then a fourth, and then a fifth.
When the sixth old woman fell out of the window, I became fed up with watching them and went to the Maltsevsky Market, where they said a blind man had been presented with a knit scarf.

1928 was not a propitious moment in the USSR to form an avant-garde artistic movement. Leon Trotsky was exiled from the country by Stalin on 31st January 1928. Trotskyites were admitting their mistakes and denouncing themselves and being sent to Siberia. The dogma of soviet realism was taking hold in the arts as part of an intense centralisation of Soviet culture. Daniil Kharms, with a group of thinkers and artists, set up the OBERIU days before Trotsky’s exile, on 24th January 1928. An OBERIU Manifesto was published that called for experimentation in literature, fine arts, theatre and cinema. Undeterred by a climate antipathetical to it OBERIU put on provocative performances and circus-like stunts around Leningrad, nonsensical verse was declaimed in tiny theatres and back rooms, prisons and university dormitories. Kharms’s play Elizabeth Baum (in which the protagonist is accused of a crime she has not yet committed) was performed at the first OBERIU event in 1928. A made-to-shock film montage called Film Number 1: The Meat Grinder was screened. Kharms, unable to buckle down under the strictures of the didacticism of soviet realism or submit to its socially conscious aims, wrote laconic absurdist tales. He wrote poetry in invented languages. Tall and striking Kharms dressed in the manner of an English dandy in spats or in plus fours with hunting cap and calabash pipe (like Mikhail Bulgakov who would sport a monocle). Given trainloads of aristocrats had not long since been deported this, in an atmosphere of the new soviet classlessness, was insubordination. Kharms’s stories written during this suffocating period were unpublishable and made their way into the world only at public readings or private circulation in manuscript to a limited circle. Here is another:

There was once a red-haired man who had no eyes and no ears. He also had no hair, so he was called red-haired only in a manner of speaking.
He wasn’t able to talk, because he didn’t have a mouth. He had no nose either.
He didn’t even have any arms or legs. He also didn’t have a stomach, and he didn’t have a back, and he didn’t have a spine, and he also didn’t have any other insides. He didn’t have anything. So it’s hard to understand whom we are talking about.
So we’d better not talk about him any more.

Kharms was attacked bitterly in the press. Some public performances angered audiences to near riot and Stalin disbanded OBERIU in 1931 on grounds of literary hooliganism. Very few members escaped jail or exile and three state security men soon came to arrest Kharms at his apartment. He was accused of anti-soviet activity by refusing to insert social values into his writing. In his signed confession he admitted that he consciously renounced contemporary reality and that the technologically orientated thrust of modernity was anathema to his world view. He was convicted of deflecting the people from the building of socialism and exiled to Kursk for about a year. When he returned to Leningrad from his sojourn he continued writing short stories but now they went straight to the desk drawer. Interested in opera reform he wrote a libretto for Shostakovich, which came to nothing. He worked, as other disenfranchised writers and artists did, for children’s publishing houses and tried to make a living writing children’s fables, such as a porcupine that cries cock-a-doodle-doo. Here is one of his children’s tales:

A king was drinking tea with apples in it, and something stuck in his throat, and the queen pounded him on the back so the piece of apple would come out, and the king thought the queen was starting a fight, so he hit her over the head with a glass. The queen got mad and hit the king with a plate. The king hit the queen with a dish. The queen hit the king with a chair. The king jumped up and hit the queen with a table. Then the queen caught the king by his hair and threw him out of the window. But the king crawled back into the room though another window, grabbed the queen, and shoved her into the stove. But the queen crawled up through the chimney onto the roof and then climbed down the lightning conductor and into the garden and came back into the room through the window. The king was making a fire in the stove to burn the queen. The queen sneaked up behind him and gave him a push. The king fell into the stove and burned up. That’s the end of the story.

Kharms’ fictional world is a world where woman made of glass are in plentiful supply and red-haired men can exist without body. His is a poetics where brutality and catastrophe are described in a blithe and comic method of yawning nonchalance. Birth, love, violence and death are made senseless though slapstick and interruption. In a diary entry in 1937 he wrote “I am interested only in absolute nonsense, only in that which has no practical manifestation. I find abhorrent heroics, pathos, moralising, all that is hygienic and tasteful’. Kharms rejected the use of plot, sense and all the consolations of meaning to disguise the unpredictable, disordered, random world. He parried meaning from within the fabric of his language. His is an aesthetics of fragmentation, a-logicality and the ludic. He refused to present meaningful theme-causing action or to generate emotion or moral truth. Standard cause and effect in a story force the world into parameters that impose a logical reading but Kharms refused to order language in a way that disguises the arbitrary. Where language subjects the world to reason and writers unthinkingly following predetermined patterns, Kharms avoided this dishonesty by refusing to give in to the scam. For him error, accident, chance and the arbitrary are the glue of the universe. He refused to craft a literature enslaved to deterministic logic. That Stalin’s police were troubled is not surprising: Kharms’s stories are troubling and subversive. They are plainly enough to make nervous the builders of utopia. It is to be expected that the authorities read all this as antipathetical to progress and the building of paradise.

There once was a young man by the name of Semyonov. Once Semyonov went out for a walk and lost his handkerchief. Semyonov started looking for his handkerchief and lost his hat. He started looking for his hat and lost his jacket. He started looking for his jacket and lost his boots.
‘Well,’ said Semyonov, ‘at this rate I’ll lose everything. I’d better go home.’
On the way home Semyonov got lost.
‘No,’ Semyonov said, ‘I’d better sit down awhile.’
Semyonov sat on a rack and fell asleep.

Deploying playful improbability and stressing incongruity, his is a comic world. Kharms’s anecdotes fall apart soon after they commence with beginnings that are not beginnings and non-sequitur endings. He deploys a comic syntax of temporal telescoping of events (‘garrulity is the mother of mediocrity’) using discontinuity and destabilising shifts. By deploying this comic language he highlighted the unbridgeable gap between what we demand of the world and what we know to be true. Within this gap a hollow laughter resides. The stories present as if they are the set up for a joke. The rhythms and verbal condensations and dry minimalism raise an expectation of laughter: then the pay off is deliberately thwarted. One definition of an absurd story is a carefully set up joke to which the punch line is made deliberately unfunny. One critic has defined a Kharms story as a Monty Python sketch written by Chekhov.

Once Orlov ate too many ground peas and died. Krylov found out about it and died too. Spiridonov up and died all by himself. Spiridonov’s wife fell out of the cupboard and also died. Spiridonov’s children drowned in the pond. Grandma Spiridonov took to drink and hit the road. Mikhailov stopped combing his hair and caught a skin disease. Kruglov drew a picture of a lady with a whip in her hand and lost his mind. Perekhrestov was sent four hundred rubbles by telegram and put on such airs that they fired him at the office.
Good people, but they don’t know how to take themselves in hand.

The Nazis invaded and crossed the Soviet border in 1941. Stalin’s police rounded up everyone with a political record and Kharms was arrested on 23rd August 1941. During his interrogation he asserted that he wore a cap to shield others from his thoughts. Already known for his general strangeness, he was declared non compos mentis and assigned to the psychiatric ward in a Leningrad prison. Some say he simulated insanity, but he only had to be true to himself to be diagnosed insane by a Soviet psychiatrist. Conditions in the city during the winter of the siege were so severe that it became a place of hellish starvation and residents started to eat one another. Prison officers had little to eat, let alone the inmates, and Kharms starved to death in February 1942. The manuscripts of his stories were saved for posterity by his friend, the philosopher and music theorist Yakov Druskin, who located them in Kharms’s apartment and dragged a suitcase crammed full of minimalist absurdity across Leningrad in the snow.

Now, one day, a man went to work, and on the way he met another man, who, having bought a loaf of Polish bread, was heading back home where he came from.
And that is it, more or less.

I am writing to you in answer to your letter, which you are planning to write to me in answer to my letter that I wrote to you.

It would be a mistake however to read Kharms’s work as a parable of totalitarianism or to force the stories into a political paradigm. Instead we should read Kharms, I suggest, as much more subversive than that. To seek to understand his absurdist stories through the prism of a politico-biographical interpretation does a disservice to him as an artist. The politically suppressed writer is a banal romantic cliche that endures. To boil his odd stories down to coded messages of allegories of soviet life would be to retrospectively reintroduce inherent meaning and re-incorporate his art into the logical fold. A late reversal to thrust sense back into nonsense and smuggle intrinsic value just as Kharms’s back was turned. That would be the final Stalinist irony. Oddity this deep stems not from a political but an aesthetic crisis. Kharms pushes us off the high board into the waters of negation. His poetics does not just dismantle a ruling ideology, it dismantles reason itself. His work is troubling enough to make all of us, not just secret policemen, break out into a fit of ontological hysterics.


A certain short man said “I’d do anything if only I could be just a little taller’
He had hardy finished saying this when he saw a witch standing in front of him.
‘What do you want?’ the witch asked him.
The short man stood there and he was so frightened he could not say anything.
‘Well?’ said the witch.
The short man stood there and said nothing. The witch disappeared.
At that point the short man started crying and biting his nails. First he bit all the nails on his fingers and then those on his toes.
Reader, think hard about this fable and you will fell pretty strange.

In August 2012 members of Pussy Riot, the feminist protest punk group famous for unauthorised provocative guerrilla performances, were sentenced after a trial to terms of imprisonment. They had been convicted of ‘conspiracy to hooliganism that is a rude disruption of the social order showing clear disregard for society and committed for reasons of religious hatred and enmity’. One of them, Nadya Tolokonnikova, gave a speech at her trial which quoted from the OBERIU writers:

The inexplicable pleases us, and the incomprehensible is our friend.

The OBERIU’s elevated and refined pursuits, their search for thought at the edge of meaning…to show that they had been right to believe that sexlessness and lack of logic expressed their era best.

The OBERIU dissidents are considered dead, but they are living.

There is a passable argument that Kharms would have fared just as badly in Putin’s Russia as he did in Stalin’s USSR.


One thought on “Soviet Deadpan

  1. Pingback: Notes on Lost Time #3: 19 – 25 March 2017 | Richard Wadwell

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