‘Settlers on the Edge, or Sedentary Nomads: Andrei Platonov and Steppe History’

Landry, Donna E. (2009) ‘Settlers on the Edge, or Sedentary Nomads: Andrei Platonov and Steppe History’. In: Agnew, Vanessa and Lamb, Jonathan, eds. Settler and Creole Re-Enactment. Reenactment history . Palgrave Macmillan, Houndmills, Basingstoke and New York. ISBN 9780230576063. (The full text of this publication is not available from this repository)

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Abstract

When within a national narrative, “history repeats itself,” what is obsessively re-enacted? In Andrei Platonov’s novel *Chevengur* (written 1927-1928 but not published in its entirety in Russia until 1988), haunting the characters’ imaginings of a socialist future is a specter with two faces: the nomadic horseman of the steppe who is both their dream of liberty and their greatest terror. The specter of the mounted nomad, the perpetually mobile horseman, haunts the Russian national narrative as it erupts in the October revolution, civil war, and the struggle for socialism. It also haunts the Soviet narrative as it strives to incorporate Central Asian peoples into the dream of a new plenitude, as in *Soul* – *Dzhan* (written in 1935, but not published in an unbowdlerized Russian edition until 1999). In this fable about both “‘a soul in search of happiness,’” as Platonov himself described it, and a people, the wandering Dzhan, whose souls are their only possession, Stalin’s Sovietization of Central Asia offers hope. The word *dzhan* – “‘soul, or dear life’” -- is a Persian word in the Turkic languages of Central Asia and modern Turkish. These wandering souls are linguistically and materially a difference uneasily incorporated within the Soviet, just as the horsemen of “black Turan” who raid the gardens of the fat men of the lowlands are for a time incorporated into that land of plenty, both destroying and dwelling there. Platonov’s fiction resists the property-owning settler imaginary, substituting for more settled structures of feeling a melancholia (longing, desire, affect of attraction, not possession) – in Russian, *toska*, similar to the Turkish *hüzün* – that asks to be shared and revelled in, and can only be relieved, in so far as that might be desirable, by perambulating movement and friendship. The sharing of toska (or hüzün), especially in a roving existence, fills the space vacated by property relations. “Socialism as anti-depressant” is Jonathan Flatley’s diagnosis of what Platonov proposes in *Chevengur*. This structure of feeling could be understood as a Eurasian alternative to Western capitalist imaginings of space, place, subjectivity, and affect, in which settler ideology has proved so potent a force. A Eurasian perspective reveals something striking about other forms of settler ideology. The emphasis on settlement as a pause in nomadic movement, as a form of sedentarization, exposes how often settlers by definition might see themselves as having a tenuous entitlement to their property, or even a lack of entitlement, however powerful the ideology of settler-entitlement might be. In other contexts, where settlement is meant to be synonymous with possession of the land, if necessary achieved by elimination and expropriation of the indigenous population, settlers -- as settlers -- no matter how fiercely they might fight to claim or retain their land, may discover that no settlement is assured, no land guaranteed. Re-enactment for Marx appears as an irresistible tendency, a force of history operating like a force of nature. Revolutionary moments present particular problems of imagination and representation. When social actors attempt to break with the past and bring into being something socially new, an irresistible recourse to the past shadows their every move. We might call this process inadvertent re-enactment. Re-enactments undertaken to investigative the past, on the other hand, with the aim of gaining new historical insights, represent a deliberate endeavor to bring a vanished past back into being. Re-enactment in this sense, as a historically investigative practice and a narrative strategy, approaches – moves toward, seeks to re-inhabit – the past by means of immersion in an artificially constructed, however “faithful,” re-creation in the present. Katie King calls the knowledge produced by such re-enactments “pastpresents.” Re-enactments as pastpresents serve a potentially redemptive agenda, presupposing that sympathetic mimesis on the part of re-enactors might recover significant traces of what has otherwise been lost or reveal something previously neglected or overlooked. Such re-enactments draw upon what Benjamin saw as a receding cultural capability, the mimetic faculty. Where capital and commodities presuppose universal equivalence – identity – in the interests of limitless exchangeability, re-enactment harks back to an older economy of sympathy and perceived similarity. Re-enactment, then, in its playing out of similarities, might tend toward oppositionality; it will have a tendency to interrupt and defamiliarize things as they are. Like the Muskovite cavalryman and his horse, re-enactor and re-enacted become bound by an ethic of mutuality in adversity. This bond is not one of slavish servitude, but rather a willing being-of-service to another, a dignified relation between non-identical but similar beings bound together by affective attachment. Such imagined affinities lie at the heart of re-enactment. What Platonov reveals so compellingly is how the combination of freedom of movement, countering ideologies of settlement and colonization, and freedom of service, countering self-interest and identity, might exercise the mimetic faculty to good affect.

Item Type: Book section
Subjects: P Language and Literature
Divisions: Faculties > Humanities > School of English
Depositing User: Donna Landry
Date Deposited: 29 Jun 2011 10:41
Last Modified: 28 May 2014 11:10
Resource URI: http://kar.kent.ac.uk/id/eprint/20508 (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)
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