Eugene Vodolazkin on the Puppeteering of History

Once upon a time there was a puppet who could play chess with great skill. He won fists down and shamed all challengers who, sweating under all too human awe, sat on the table’s other side wondering: by what mysterious means did the machine achieve such a feat? In Theses on the Philosophy of History, Walter Benjamin uses the puppet allegory in order to reveal the metaphysical forces that move history: the puppet of “historical materialism,” who seems a prodigious algorithmic automaton, is actually guided by a dwarf “who was an expert chess player.” The dwarf Benjamin dubs “theology, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight.” In other words, even when history is reduced to material causes and culture, spiritual realities continue to operate. Still more, because theological truths make clear the fundamental meanings of human being in the world, even in a supposedly secular age religious categories persist. As the controversial jurist Carl Schmitt contends, “all key concepts of the modern doctrine of the state are secularized theological concepts.” In The End of History Josef Pieper puts the same point more directly: “the notion of a ‘City of God’ outside Time has been completely inverted to reemerge as the concept of an ideal social condition which can be realized within Time” through “intra-historical salvation.” Thus on May 17, 1938, when in a speech to high school workers Joseph Stalin coined the term “forward march,” he was thieving Christian properties of time and “improving” them for immanent, world-changing application.

In Eugene Vodolazkin’s A History of the Island, chroniclers of history undergo another such “improvement” when, by revolutionary fiat, they become prophets . . . or, rather, “specialists on scientific foresight, who had already been nicknamed foreseers, [and] told His Brightest Futurity about their work. They reported to the chairman that never before had their research taken on such a creative nature. That”—declares the tongue-in-cheek chronicler—“was the unvarnished truth.”

From page one, Vodolazkin’s preference for prophets over progress is plain. The Russian medievalist-turned-novelist who first wrote fiction in his forties has garnered many contemporary literary laurels, especially for Laurus (2012), which is set in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Russia, but he is most at home inhabiting the past. Yet which past, and whose? As pious monks and presumed poseurs recount the constant rise and fall of reigns from the Island’s ancient founding through its modern totalitarian madness and, at last, its apocalyptic end, rival versions of historical inquiry induce a distinctly modern hyperconsciousness in us: how we determine the past’s veracity (“The longer [we] live, the more surprised we are at how what’s true in the world is interwoven with what’s not true.”), or configure history’s foundations and ends; what an age leaves unseen or sees; why we fiercely remember and blissfully forget.

In undertaking an extended meditation on the metaphysics and politics of Time, Vodolazkin risks ruining a novel with ideas, but there is no necessary or a priori antinomy between the two. As Irving Howe argues, intellectual investigations do not “invariably contaminate a work of art,” for at its best “the ideas it appropriates” with “such intense heat” are “melted into its movements and fused with the emotions of its characters.”

Vodolazkin’s history is like a game of chess. While the book has been marketed and received as a simple dialectic between medieval and modern, the combinations of competitors and the peculiar amalgams of historical visions are almost as varied as the shifting capacities of pawns, bishops, and kings or queen. Even more: each piece can assume, over time, unprecedented potentialities: as Henry Adams reveals in Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres, the Marian crusaders’ reconfigured the queen as “Virgin,” and endowed her with the “liberty to move up or down or diagonally, forwards and backwards”—making the piece as potent as the Mother of God. What is not possible, at any period, is an ahistorical, Edenic contemplation of the board and the figures: “Chess pieces are at their highest level of harmony when in their initial positions,” contends an authoritative commentator. “The first move disrupts the harmony. Each subsequent move only aggravates the matter, but it is impossible not to make a move.”

Sometimes, as when written by the "specialists on scientific foresight," the materialist’s puppeteering of history is influenced by purportedly expurgated theological truths. At other times the theological dwarf plays in plain sight, humbly vying for checkmate. Prokopy the Nasal leaves two accounts of his era, one official record which he calls “daytime panegyrics” and another that reveals “how they were actually snakes in human form.”

The conflicting chroniclers do not lack an arbiter. Ksenia and Parfeny, two royal rulers whose marriage once healed the Island’s internecine hatred, comment upon and correct competing histories. Possessing the longevity of Methuselah (they have lived from medieval to modern times) they can do so. Remarking on the long lifespans of past peoples, Ksenia explains that “People were still filled with a paradisiacal timelessness. Standing with one foot in eternity, they were still becoming accustomed to time. Their lifetime shortened as they became more distant from paradise.” In defiance of historicism, as living evidence that past chroniclers of longevity did not lie, Ksenia and Parfeny “are now three hundred and forty-seven years old.”

While Ksenia and Parfeny possess an abundance of hard-won wisdom (“we study waves, forgetting about the ebb and flow of tides”), Vodolazkin’s allocation of so much authoritative truth into one thread might diminish one of the greatest gifts grafted into the novel’s form: the dialogic division of the good (and evil) and the true (and false) across a cast of characters, a device that allows truth to emerge dramatically instead of being inserted with monologic assertion. Nonetheless, the royal spouses’ perennial perspective is a potent corrective to the problem of presentism both inside and outside the book: lacking a perennial criterion, all too often particular passing fads of framing reality assume an undue aura of purported authoritativeness. More: maybe amidst all the other muses of history they stand in dialogic defiance of Milan Kundera’s insistence that “relativity . . . is indispensable to novelistic space.” Or maybe A History is not as novelistic as its branding proclaims. Perhaps it is closer to the novel’s predecessors: the saint’s lives and the moralizing sketch.

Vodolazkin treats events we may find fantastical as actual, and supernatural interventions are narrated with the same single-entendre credulity given hard facts, as when “Feofan fell under the hooves but remained unharmed due to the intervention of an angel” or “due to our sins . . . the sun was not visible and fish died in the water and birds fell to the ground, for they saw not where to fly.” But beware the forgery of forced transcendence. When, at the royal wedding, bats and doves descended from the cupola, the bishop is asked “what this signified.” “They mean nothing,” the bishop insists. “They simply flew.” (Later we learn that a servant trained the birds to fly down at the appointed time.) 

Allegory is often writ larger than the literal. The revolutionary Kasyan’s “reedy voice . . . sounded like this Russian melody . . . Yes, Flight of the Bumblebee.” The same flighty leader is killed by a snake that slips out from under the hood of a car and bites his ear. On the one hand, Vodolazkin’s slights of secularity are refreshing. While most of his peers sanitize the factual of anything spiritual, he refuses to concede angels and demons to the historical past. On the other, what sense are we to make of these sleights of hand across the centuries? Should we see the snake as a symbolic stand-in for a human assassin—a traitorous yes-man used to whispering in his ear, or an actual serpent hiding under His Brightest Futurity’s hood?

During one such “inarguable” incident, “A she-ass came out to the Main Square and uttered in a human voice: ‘Revolutions are the locomotives of history.’” This she-ass, whom the rulers try to consign to the circus, appears farcical, but the history she stands in for is tragic. It is as if Vodolazkin is making fun of Marx’s maxim while also conceding the latter’s contention that “history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

While the farces are sometimes funny, other times they fall flat. This typically happens when Vodolazkin takes shortcuts, slapping up plaster satire instead of doing the yeoman’s brushwork of perfecting compelling portraits, shade by carefully-chosen shade. He is at his most insightful when he is most inventive. A chairman visits the Church of the Bright Future and asks why his head fell off the fresco. The Guards of the Future “ventured a guess that the plaster manufactured in the bright future was not firm and that it had been far stronger in the dark past.” His Brightest Futurity, fearing that his human head will fall just like the frescoed one, asks his aid to turn his cranium counter-clockwise—a fatal gesture that operates on a literal level and also contains metaphorical meaning. At his best, Vodolazkin approaches the past master artistry of his novel Laurus, where the sinews binding idea and image, nature and supernature are subtler, silken.

Not all characters of A History are caricatures, and not all of the Island’s inhabitants are so comic. Chroniclers like Brother Ilary hold that “history’s primary event was the incarnation of Christ.” As “that had already happened . . . history generally had no more serious tasks.” Vodolazkin is visibly sympathetic with the medieval (“God was at the center of the world”) over the modern (“now, with the individual at the center of the world, there are many views, just as there are many people”). These grand assertions, so foreign to our fissured epoch, receive a rallying echo from Pieper, who holds that anyone “who accepts in faith” what is revealed in the Scriptures is “able to see more and, in addition, to see it in historical events and formations.”

For Pieper, as for Vodolazkin, the “fullness of time” (Gal 4:4) in Christ is not the sole serious event. Rather, the End is ever present, so that Christian historians have ever found in “persecutions and the figure of the tyrant . . . preliminary forms of the end-state.” For instance, from the vantage point of classical liberal thought, the twentieth century’s totalitarianisms “may appear as something monstrously surprising . . . something unbelievably extreme,” but “the observer who regards history from the viewpoint of the Apocalypse ‘recognizes’ the totalitarian [work] State, without surprise” and with adept grasp of its “innermost historical tendencies and structures,” for it is a “milder preliminary form of the State of the Antichrist.”

The novel’s apocalyptic culmination both ends history as we know it and asks all comers to yearn for an actual eschaton—not with a nihilist’s hateful indifference to existence or a resentment-ridden craving for vengeance but with a distinctly Christian capacity to conserve and revere what is good in the world while also being willing to shed blood—yes for the people, but by God.

A History re-envisions the tragic irony in the “forward march.” Vodolazkin’s varied angles on history leaves us with a verdict that could have been delivered by the “Angel of History,” Walter Benjamin’s figure for the mysteries hidden behind historical causality: the Angel reveals that “what we call progress,” casts “a pile of debris” that “grows skyward.” For every supposedly shiny progress, what shadowy cost remains untallied? Benjamin and his Angel prophesy against presentism: “The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are ‘still’ possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.”

Yet where Benjamin’s Angel “sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet,” Vodolazkin’s Seraph sees also—amidst the heavy, heady wrecks—a divine comedy. If sometimes the novel-chronicle’s unbearable levity lacks the burden of proof—if sometimes the farces are too on the nose to be funny, the gravitas of being, on other pages, in other ages, persuades. When the people do not heed A History’s Angel and a “horrible moaning” that “reminded many of infernal torture” until “their screams turned to bubbles.” When the bubble is popped and the angel says “A wish for war is not outside them, it is born within the heart of each of them,” then we know, even on this “no-place” island, the terrible weight of each human heart even on the scale of World-Historical events, leaving a yearning for the bright counterweight of Light that can unburden us.

Featured Image: Joseph Racknitz, From book that tried to explain the illusions behind the Kempelen chess playing automaton (known as The Turk) after making reconstructions of the device, 1789; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Joshua Hren

Joshua Hren is founder of Wiseblood Books and co-founder of the MFA at the University of St. Thomas. He regularly publishes essays and poems and Joshua’s books include Infinite Regress and How to Read (and Write) Like a Catholic.

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