Wednesday, December 3, 2008

People as People, not Objects

I read two interesting books these past few weeks, books that really paint a picture of contrasts.

The first is Edward Bellamy's idyllic exploration of an American socialist utopia in Looking Backward, which I wrote about here.

The second is Aleksei Remizov's (pictured above) The Clock, which on one level I suppose you could chalk up as a typical Soviet indictment of western capitalism as the novel focuses on a family's financial and social deterioration after their clock shop falls on hard times. But in reading the novel, I feel Remizov's work trandscends the mundanity of East/West socioeconomic conflict and centerd squarely on the vain wishes and desires anyone might have or express when times are tough. Each character finds, however, that the escape hatches he or she envisions taking or takes represent only temporary respite from life's troubles not faced squarely.

Kostya Klotchkov, for example, decides he can erase the insults brought on by his crooked nose by obliterating time, which he sees as a burdensome taskmaster. In his task of winding the church clock, he sets it back an hour, then another hour, then breaks off part of the clock's big hand, all the time thinking he's become a benefactor to the city by stopping time's march.

Khristina Klotchkov, in another example, searches for that on emystical change, be it love, a purse of gold, the return of her husband from exile he imposed upon himself because of his business failure, as a way to stop the inexcorable closure of the family shop. She seems to do everything but figure out how to keep the shop open.

Then therea re others, Nelidov, who wallows in unrequitted love, Mr. Klotchkov senior, who hides in the simple pleasures of games and chocolates to avoid having to help his son and daughter-in-law save the shop he built, and a myriad of other characters who seek escape to nerw horizons in order to avoid the bitterness of the present.

Looking at the contrast between Bellamy's novel and that of Remizov, however, really cements in my mind the necessity of looking at people as people rather than as objects. Bellamy, in his novel, advocates looking at people as people, people to be loved, cared for, nurtured, employed as they desire and otherwise cared for. Remizov's novel paints people solely as objects -- especially in the minor character of Khristina's infant daughter, who only appears when Khristina is at her lowest, looking for affection and finding it there. Remizov's characters are all inherently selfish, while those of Bellamy are selfless.

Some might choose to paint Remizov as the realist and Bellamy as the dreamer, as the selflessness on a societal level that Bellamy paints in his novel seems out of reach in today's society. I find that attitude intriguing, especially in what purports to be a Christian nation, where the ethos of Christianity points us towards selflessness. Selfishness may indeed be the easiest societal route to take, but it causes us to look too inward for self-satisfaction ans self-righteousness that the Bible's talk of whited sepulchers warns us against. Remizov may be the realist, but I find more and more that realism is extremely cynical and denies that humanity can rise above the troubles of the day to find a nobler path.
Remizov, by the way, is an atypical Russian writer. Though he uses the typical Russian device of eliciting pity for his characters, he's also done some unorthodox writing, notably The Sacrifice -- which I'm trying to locate -- a gothic horror novel in which, according to Wikipedia, "a ghostly double of a father comes to kill his innocent daughter in the mistaken belief that she is a chicken." That's almost British sci-fi satirical, quite a leap for a staid Russian.

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