August 15, 2011

Illuminations: Superman vs. Superfluous Man


Though perfected by the Russian literary masters, the roots of the "superfluous man" are found in works like William Hogarth's cycle of paintings known as The Rake's Progress.

With the release of The Duel x5, Melville House is launching a new digital innovation, HybridBooks, which combines the concept of a digitally enhanced eBook with the printed book. For more information on HybridBooks please click here.

Throughout August we will be posting samples from the Illuminations — additional material that will appear exclusively in the first releases in our Hybrid Books series. So sharpen your sword, keep your powder dry and get ready for a month of dueling history, lore and technique. That’s right. Dueling technique…

One of the most important aspects of the Illuminations series is the didactic component. Certainly the expansive sections on dueling lore, swordsmanship and descriptions of extravagant duels in hot air balloons are very entertaining, but so too can be the “aha!” moment we try to place in each Illumination.

What do we mean by an “aha!” moment? It’s different for each book, and some are more concisely arrived at than others, but all concern the elucidation of a key element of the author’s plan for the story. In the Illuminations for The Duel by Joseph Conrad it is an article from the 1830s about the historical duel the novella was based on. For The Duel by Heinrich von Kleist it is a brief selection of his own writings, which reveals that the tenants of chivalry that are so important to his story were in fact a philosophical ideal for the writer as well.

In the case of the Illuminations for The Duel by Anton Chekhov, which is easily the most philosophical of the five novellas, the moment of realization is somewhat slower to develop but twice as profound upon its arrival. Chekhov’s tale is a satire at its core, in which the Russian master takes aim at two popular concepts of his day. He houses the polar opposites in the two characters destined to meet on the dueling ground. Von Koren, a wannabe ubermensch, and Laevsky, who represents the classic literary stereotype of the superfluous man.

The comedy is implicit. One man is a blowhard who quotes Herbert Spencer and Friedrich Nietsche and despises frivolity and weakness. The other is a gambler, drinker and though somewhat intellectually engaged, is also eternally distracted and incapable of doing anything except chasing pleasure. Their enmity is natural. Laevsky despises Von Koren’s judgment and in turn Von Koren openly proclaims Laevsky a being unfit to continue to live. The satirical element exists in the extended monologues each man gives as they gossip with others about the wretched state of their rival. The effect is that the reader alone realizes that both men are nattering gossips, neither really manifesting a clear sense of purpose.

In the case of the Illuminations for Chekhov’s novella we have provided a section for each stereotype. For Laevsky there is a series of selections from classic Russian and English writings concerning the origins and evolution of superfluous men. Born from the Byronic hero, we include a wonderful selection from Lord Byron‘s Cain. No collection of superfluous men would be complete without Alexander Pushkin, and so we include the entirety of his short story “The Queen of Spades.” The concept was later named by Ivan Turgenev in his Diary of A Superfluous Man and perfected by Mikhail Lermontov and Ivan Goncharov in A Hero of Our Time and Obolomov, respectively. The common thread is a talented rake, who squanders his ability on trifles and dubious hobbies.

And for Von Koren we have a series of readings from Nietzsche and Spencer, which culminates in a chapter from Jack London‘s The Sea Wolf, which wrestles with essentially the same theme, though in a decidedly not humorous manner.

The effect is dueling selections. For instance take for example this quote from Turenev’s Diary of A Superfluous Man:

Winter again. The snow is falling in flakes. Superfluous, superfluous…. That’s a capital word I have hit on. The more deeply I probe into myself, the more intently I review all my past life, the more I am convinced of the strict truth of this expression. Superfluous—that’s just it. To other people that term is not applicable…. People are bad, or good, clever, stupid, pleasant, and disagreeable; but superfluous … no. Understand me, though: the universe could get on without those people too… no doubt; but uselessness is not their prime characteristic, their most distinctive attribute, and when you speak of them, the word ‘superfluous’ is not the first to rise to your lips. But I … there’s nothing else one can say about me; I’m superfluous and nothing more. A supernumerary, and that’s all. Nature, apparently, did not reckon on my appearance, and consequently treated me as an unexpected and uninvited guest. A facetious gentleman, a great devotee of preference, said very happily about me that I was the forfeit my mother had paid at the game of life. I am speaking about myself calmly now, without any bitterness…. It’s all over and done with!

And now contrast this with the writings of English natural philosopher Herbert Spencer, a favorite of Von Koren, Chekhov’s wannabe superman.

Survival of the fittest insures that the faculties of every species of creature tend to adapt themselves to its mode of life. It must be so with man. From the earliest times groups of men whose feelings and conceptions were congruous with the conditions they lived under, must, other things equal, have spread and replaced those whose feelings and conceptions were incongruous with their conditions.

Sounds like we have a duel on our hands… Tomorrow we’ll delve into the dueling lore contained in the Illuminations for The Duel by Chekhov. In this case it focuses  on the rich tradition of anti-dueling literature.