Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Counterfactual speculations

Okay, now that I'm not traveling, I can go back to my Narrative theory blogging. I'm rereading the chapter of Suzanne Keen's book entitled "People on Paper," where she talks about broad issues related to character. The central questions she asks introducing this discussion about "substantial hypothetical beings" (Baruch Hochman's term for characters) go like this:

"How broad a range of responses to character can be addressed within a formal analysis? Can counterfactual speculations about what characters might have done or said in extratextual situations ever contribute to a formal discussion of character?"

These questions reminded me of an argument I've gotten into recently on a Russian feminist community blog. It's a very lively community, and it's very easy to get sucked into a very intense argument, so I usually try to stay away from it -- but I do get involved sometimes when the discussion turns from activism to literary criticism. In this case, I responded to a post about Soviet texts that reinforced gender stereotypes by posting a poem by a well known Soviet author, Robert Rozhdestvensky. In this poem, the speaker addresses a woman and literally asks her to become weaker so that he would have a chance to be strong and rescue her. "Please, be weaker," he asks his lady, "And then I will grow taller, larger, will become special. I will carry you, still drowsy, out of the burning house" and "I will jump into the sea ... to rescue you." The poem goes on. The way I see it, the speaker basically asks his lady to drown ("at least in pretense") so that he could have a chance to play hero. I interpret this poem unambiguously as reinforcing patriarchal stereotypes on gender roles.

Another community member (she identified herself as a woman) refused to see my point -- she believed that the poem goes against the grain of the patriarchal stereotype in that it represents a strong female character -- and proceeded to engage me in a very involved argument. My opponent interpreted the speaker as an inherently weak man and the woman he was addressing as a dominating and oppressive figure who basically crushed his every wish. In many lines of the blog argument, it became clear that my opponent had an entire alternative narrative constructed in her mind: the speaker and his addressee were a couple on the verge of a breakup, and he would be forced to leave her if she didn't change. He was a weakling and admitting to it, and he thought she was perfect, and he was begging her to stop being so perfect because while she was perfect, he was no match for her.

None of these things were a part of the text: in the poem itself, it's not even clear whether the speaker and the woman he's addressing are romantically involved. The speaker doesn't attribute qualitative judgements neither to himself nor to his addressee (nowhere in the poem does he say that he thinks she's perfect). This story is entirely countertextual, it exists not on the page but in the mind of my opponent. All that we know about the two is best summarized in the speaker's opening request to his lady: "Please, be weaker."

I finally ended the argument by repeatedly asking my opponent to support her argument with textual references -- which she couldn't do, and so the argument fizzled out. But perhaps this is unfortunate, because the more insidious problem lies not in the fact that my opponent created this counterfactual legend in her mind, but the content of her legend itself. And this point I didn't have the patience to address: even according to my opponent's legend, the woman's strength is still her weakness, insofar as it's still unacceptable within the dimensions of this couple's relationship. This woman's perfection is still her failure and it fits very nicely within the patriarchal norms, built along the lines of the neat binary oppositions, strong -- weak, man -- woman, always privileging the strong man.


  1. Going solely on the information supplied in your blog post, I find it hard to swallow your interpretation of the poem as unambiguously reinforcing patriarchal stereotypes. To do that I’d have to accept that the poet is completely insensitive to the inherent irony that, by imploring a woman to be weaker, a man reveals his own weakness! Unless my understanding of Soviet sexual politics is completely off, surely some of the irony here must be deliberate on the poet’s part?

  2. James, the ironic interpretation is tempting, but this poem doesn't invite it textually -- the voice of the speaker is not only earnest but also rises to pathos. More importantly, the ironic interpretation doesn't change the fact that the male weakness is framed (textually) as something negative and a problem to be solved (preferably by women).

    This poem also harks back to Russian 19th C classic, Nekrasov, who wrote admiringly about a woman "who can stop a galloping horse in its tracks" -- Rozhdestvensky's poem very neatly fits into the late Soviet reaction to the early Soviet glorification of the strong woman. The 1960s and 1970s in Russian lit are filled with images of strong women who are too strong for their own good (and thus fail in their "biological duty" -- marriage and family).

    If you're interested in discussing this further, I should probably translate the poem in its entirety :))

  3. Olga, I'm so glad I found your blog. Your thoughts on this poem and the discussion you linked to are quite thought-provocative. (Who knew there were feminist blogs in the .ru zone?)

    I do however wonder if there is a crucial and vital difference between observing the patriarchy and perpetuating it. As you note, the poem references the patriarchal myth of the male hero who rescues (and thereby wins) a damsel in distress. So the fact that this speaker's lover is never in need of any rescuing poses a conundrum for him: how can he correspond to the received ideas about the proper way to be a man when the woman in his life so clearly defies the helpless female stereotype? The request he's making of his lover--that she become weaker because, in contrast to him, she can--is absurd. The speaker knows that posing the question is a weakness--he makes his request "робея" / "timidly." As you say, his voice throughout is filled with pathos, so we can infer that this man is unhappy about his own request. Yet he doesn't know how else to grow, how to start believing in himself and become "особенным." The patriarchal paradigm does not accommodate his particular experience, and as a result he's trapped. Thus, in my view, instead of perpetuating patriarchal norms, the poem demonstrates their limitations.

    In your comment, you mention images of strong women in late Soviet literature. I must confess I'm largely ignorant of Russian language fiction from this period and I wish I weren't. Any recommendations?

  4. Wow, exciting to receive such thoughtful comments to this post! Thank you, Anastasia!

    Your point is very well-taken: the word "робея" does show specifically that the speaker is aware of his own weakness -- although I would hesitate to infer from this his unhappiness at making the request. In fact, I would point out that the poem is written in the imperative mood, and even though the speaker uses the word "please," his request is still a command.

    I think we're tempted to describe his request as "absurd" today -- because it certainly is absurd, but I don't see evidence that the speaker sees his request as absurd in the poem. I think he's making a demand, and even though he does so "timidly" -- this "timidity" is merely an acknowledgment of his stated position, that he's weaker than her. He does not see himself as trapped here. I think he thinks it's a situation that needs to be corrected.

    At the very least, he feels justified in making this request and phrasing it throughout as a demand in the imperative.

    If you've read the discussion on the feminist blog (to which I linked) you saw that most participants in the community interpreted the poem very similarly to the way I did, even though my opponent didn't frame the discussion in a very favorable way :)))

    Soviet lit of the 1960s (I'm not talking about dissident literature here, although in its approach to female characters dissident lit is not all that different from socialist realist ficiton) is a deep field -- and not very well studied these days (it's kind of scary). A few top names are Simonov, Tvardovsky, Fedin, Fadeev (although I think he wrote his made fiction works a bit earlier), Bondarev, Astafjev, Shushkin, Iskander, German, Kaverin, Kataev -- etc. There were several different groups and directions..

  5. Thanks for the recommendations, Olga. I actually love both Kataev and Kaverin, so now I'm really looking forward to trying some of the other authors you mentioned.

  6. Yeah -- those guys are everyone's childhood favorites -- I probably still consider Kaverin my favorite author :))

  7. if you do translate it-- that would be interesting. I was wondering when I read the first half if the poet was subverting traditional gender roles, he can't perform the rescue unless the lady lets him...etc. But hard to tell without looking at the poem.

  8. Evelyn, done :) see what you think now.. very curious!