The sleeper-waker

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December 9, 2017 by AK

“If one uncouples the last car from a train, the train will have no last car.” This pseudo-paradox is supposed to illustrate a certain property of natural languages. “Russia’s next president will be Vladimir Putin” is based on a similar, if inverted, logic, but few Russians experience it as a paradox. A case of bad infinity, rather – not in Hegel’s sense, not even in Dostoevsky’s, but in the simplest, most literal sense: it’s bad and feels like forever.

Dmitry Bykov is an extremely prolific Moscow-based writer, poet and all-round pundit. He used to produce excellent poetry and prose. His literary erudition is beyond belief. On the other hand – to put it uncharitably – he reads a lot, writes a lot, talks a lot but understands relatively little, although in view of the humongous amounts of textual fodder he consumes, “relatively little” could be quite a lot in absolute terms. At his best, he’s a grandmaster of inspired nonsense. At his absolute best though, he can get me to agree with him – up to a point:

Putin guarantees a relatively comfortable decomposition to the country, and the country is ready to pay dearly to prolong this comfort. Strictly speaking, it has nothing to pay with already. It would have to exert too great an effort to break this trend. Its current priorities are degradation, pushing out (not physically destroying, thank God) dissidents, and slow decomposition. It regards all other options as too bloody and bothersome to boot.

A while ago I wrote about a parallel between the country in its present state and Mr. Voldemar from Edgar Poe’s short story The Facts in the Case of Mr Valdemar.

Monsieur Valdemar, actually: M., not Mr. I read that story, in translation, at 12 or 13. Around that time, my best friend admitted that the tale gave him the creeps, being frightening and disgusting at once. It failed to raise my hackles then but it’s a high-quality horror story by most accounts:

The narrator of the story is a hypnotist who believes that mesmerism will preserve a dying person on a plane of consciousness and “the encroachments of death might be arrested by the process”. He decides to test the technique on a dying patient…

It works, in a way: the patient is put into a coma or a similar state. As Poe’s narrator explains:

It was evident that, so far, death (or what is usually termed death) had been arrested by the mesmeric process. It seemed clear to us all that to awaken M. Valdemar would be merely to insure his instant, or at least his speedy dissolution.

Seven months later, they try to awaken Valdemar despite this deadly certainty. The “speedy dissolution” that follows is worse than anything the experimenters expected. “…[H]is whole frame at once… absolutely rotted away beneath my hands. Upon the bed… there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome—of detestable putridity.”

I can’t argue with Bykov on this: Russia’s frame – its social compact, economy, and governing bureaucracy – might, after years of lifeless existence, decompose at some unexpected point, “within the space of a single minute, or even less.” On the other hand, the Russian society is larger and more varied than Bykov’s native segment, or mine to that matter, and its apparent unresponsiveness to political and economic stimuli, mostly negative of late, could be a sign of wintertime hibernation, not deathbed catatonia.


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