DANIIL KHARMS on SPIRIT; Selections from Russian Absurd: Daniil Kharms, Selected Writings (NWUP, 2017)
From Daniil Kharms's magnum opus, “Starukha” (1939)
“So you mean that those who wish not to believe already believe in something?” says Sakerdon Mikhailovich. “And those who wish to believe already, a priori, do not believe in anything?”
“It may be so,” say I. “I do not know.”
“But believe or disbelieve in what? In God?” asks Sakerdon Mikhailovich.
“No,” I say. “In immortality.”
“Then why did you ask me if I believe in God or not?”
“Well, simply because asking ‘Do you or do you not believe in immortality?’ sounds somehow foolish,” I say to Sakerdon Mikhailovich and get up from the table....
From "A Treatise More or Less in he Spirit of Emerson"
IV. On approaching immortality
It is characteristic of every person to strive toward enjoyment, which is always a kind of sexual fulfillment, either satisfaction or acquisition. But only that which does not lie on the path of enjoyment leads to immortality. All the systems leading toward immortality, in the final analysis, are reducible to a single rule: at all times do that which you do not want to do, because every person always wants to either eat, or to satisfy their sexual urges, or to acquire something, or all of the above, more or less, at the same time. Interestingly, immortality is always connected with death, and is represented by the various religious systems either as eternal enjoyment, or eternal suffering, or an eternal absence of both pleasure and suffering.
V. Of immortality
Righteous is he on whom God had bestowed life as a perfect gift.
February 14, 1939
From “The Conversationalists” (1940)
On the tram sat two men engaged in the following conversation. One was saying: “I do not believe in life after death. No substantial evidence exists that life after death exists. No such authoritative testimony is known to us. And in religions also, it is mentioned either not particularly convincingly, as in Islam, or quite nebulously, as, for example, in Christianity, or it is not mentioned at all, as in the Bible, or it is directly said not to exist, as in Buddhism. The instances of visions, prophecies, various miracles, and even accounts which relate direct experiences of life beyond the grave neither possess nor may serve as definitive proof of its existence. I am not interested one jot in such tales, like the one about a man who saw a lion in his dream and the next day was killed by a lion escaped from the zoological exhibit. I am only interested in one question: does life after death exist or does it not? Tell me, what are your thoughts on the subject?”
The second Conversationalist said: “This is my answer to you: you will never get an answer to your question, and if you ever do get an answer, you will not believe it. Only you will be able to answer this question. If you answer yes, then it will be yes, if you answer no, then it will be no. Only one must answer with complete conviction, without the shadow of a doubt, or, speaking more precisely, with complete faith in your answer....
From “A Young Man Who Had Surprised the Night Watchman” (undated)
Hey, you, ogre! a young man wearing yellow gloves hailed the night watchman.
The watchman realized immediately that his attention was required but he continued examining the fly. I’m talking to you! the young man screamed once more. You dumbass!
The watchman squashed the fly with his thumb and, without turning his head to the young man, said:
And you, shit-for-brains, what are you yelling at? I can hear you. There ain’t no need to raise a racket!
The young man wiped his gloves on his pants and delicately asked, pointing to the sky:
Would you please tell me, grandpa, how do I get up there?
The watchman looked the young man over, squinted in one eye, then squinted in the other, then scratched his little goatee, looked the young man over one more time, and said:
Well, there’s no reason to loiter here, go on, get going, sonny, get going....
From my Introduction to Russian Absurd: Daniil Kharms, Selected Writings: "Explaining his program, Daniil Kharms wrote: 'I am
interested only in pure nonsense, only in that which has no practical meaning. I am interested in life only in its absurd manifestation. I find heroics, pathos, moralizing, all that is hygienic and tasteful abhorrent . . . both as words and as feelings....' In some of his other work, we may find a precedent, for example, for the Theatre of Cruelty; but there is also, in his depictions of the minutiae of daily life (byt), a precedent for the postmodernist, documentary yet paradoxically ironic approach of the Moscow Conceptualist artists and poets of the 1970s who acknowledged Kharms as an essential influence. One of them, Ilya Kabakov, wrote: 'Contact with nothing, with emptiness, makes up, we feel, the basic peculiarity of Russian conceptualism....'* Kharms was similarly central for the postwar generation of nonconformist poets of the 1950s and 1960s (Kropivnitsky, Nekrasov, Satunovsky, Kholin, Sapgir, Eremin, Khvostenko, to name just a few) as well as for the Russian Minimalist poets of the 1970s and 1980s. Just to enumerate some of his aesthetic (that is, anti-aesthetic) values: plain speech, written as it is spoken, folksy simplicity, byt, but also the spiritual values of Absurdism— the ridiculous as a reaction and an alternative to revulsion and resignation before an absurd age. (*Mikhail Epstein, After the Future: The Paradoxes of Postmodernism and Contemporary Russian Culture. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995.)
The point I would like to make here is that our reading of Kharms in the West has so far been constrained, accounting I believe primarily for the negativist aspects of Russian Absurdism, and not at all for its 'afterlife,' and that a fuller consideration of his work might be facilitated if we were to pay particular attention to Kharms’s development as a writer over the short span of some decade and a half of creative life.... It seems to me that, as Kharms’s work matures, the elements of protoexistentialism present in all his writings emerge to the fore. My argument here is that we must take Kharms and Russian Absurdism more 'seriously,' as a species of protoexistentialist writing within which context Kharms, Vvedensky, and their circle may be viewed as essentially metaphysical poets. In closing, I once again wish to emphasize the afterlife of Kharms’s oeuvre, being a widely acknowledged influence on the postwar revival of the Russian avant-garde in its experimental, unofficial, nonconformist manifestations— Kharms as a patron saint to the Minimalists and Conceptualists of the 1960s and 1970s. There is something about Kharms that is emblematic of the condition of the Russian soul, for lack of a more precise word, and thus of our own modern condition. In this, he may well be thought of as a worthy member of the postwar generation of existentialist writers— Sartre, Beckett, and Camus— and (it is my hope) enlisted in the canon of world literature among their ranks."
And a bit more from the Introduction: "Another key to these writings is the Kharmsian whimsical narrative 'I' and his many heteronymous stand-ins—the Grigorievs, the Myshins, the Pronins, the Kuznetsovs—all of them objects of defilement and self-abasement. These 'perversions of self' may be viewed through the lens of Michel Foucault’s 'biopower,' the state’s subjection of the body to absolute control through its exercise of the right to punish (and not publish), a secular equivalent of the usurpation of God’s will on earth. (I have written elsewhere of this spiritual foundation of Kharms’s work, in the contexts of minimalism and of his fellow Absurdist Alexander Vvedensky’s 'prison prose....') However, such seething nihilism doesn’t preclude a spiritual dimension, it makes it necessary, something I believe to be true of all minimalist practice. And it is this particularly that will likely remain most incongruous to contemporary Anglophone readers. How is it possible to reconcile nihilism (I would argue Kharms was not a nihilist) and make it coherent with, and even motivated by, a personal conception of God? While the folk and Russian Orthodox contexts that are particularly evident in the writings of his friend Alexander Vvedensky (who was a genuinely religious person) and in the content of Kharms’s irreverence (he was the son of the religious mystical philosopher Ivan Yuvachev -- see photo to the right -- and seemingly an irrepressible person) are outside the scope of this introduction, it is fitting to end by noting that Kharms falls squarely within the Russian tradition of the yurodivy, the 'holy fool,' even to the point of feigning insanity to avoid arrest. I believe that in this naive and sacred ethnographic role, as court jester and sad clown, Kharms can tell us more about the spirit of his, and our, age than the millions of lives and deaths that became (to paraphrase the heartless tyrant) merely a statistic."
From "The Sabre"
...The death of the ear is hearing,
the death of the nose is nausea,
the death of the sky is silence,
the death of the eye—blindness...
Question: Strange. Then how are we to fit ourselves into the other objects, distributed in the world? By observing how much longer, wider, and taller the wardrobe is than we? Like so, is it?
Answer: The one is symbolized by us as the sign with the appearance of a stick. This icon for one is only the most convenient one for symbolizing the one, as is every other sign for a number. Just so we ourselves are but the most convenient form of ourselves.
The one, in registering the two, does not with its sign correspondingly fit within the sign of the two. The one registers numbers through its quality. And that is how we must act.
Question: But what is the meaning of our quality?
The death of the ear is hearing,
the death of the nose is nausea,
the death of the sky is silence,
the death of the eye—blindness.
We also know the abstract quality of this singularity. But this understanding exists in us as an understanding of something. Let’s say, a fathom. The one registers the two—there is this: one fathom fits within two fathoms, one match fits within two matches, and so forth. There are many such singularities. Just so man is not one, but many. And we have just as many qualities as there are people in existence. And each of us possesses our own particular quality....
[November 19-20, 1929]
From “The Whorld”
But as soon as I understood that I saw the world, I ceased to see it. And I was afraid, thinking the world had ended. But as long as I thought so, I understood that, had the world indeed vanished, then I would no longer be thinking this. And I looked out, seeking the world, but found it not.
And then there was no longer anywhere left to look.
That is when I understood that as long as there was somewhere to look, around me was the world. And now it is no longer. There is only me.
But the world is not me.
Though, at the same time,
I am the world.
But the world isn’t me.
But I am the world.
But the world isn’t me.
But I am the world.
But the world isn’t me.
But I am the world.
And then I thought no more.
May 30, 1930
* * *
I am incapable of thinking smoothly
My fear gets in the way
It severs my train of thought
As though a ray
Two or even three times each minute
My conscience is contorted by it
I am not capable of action
Only of spiritual angst.
The rain’s thunder spoke,
Time has come to a stop.
The clock helplessly tocks.
Grass grow; you have no need of time.
God answer, you have no need of words.
Papyrus flower, how wonderful your calm is.
I also want to be at peace. But all for nothing.
Detskoe Selo, August 12, 1937
One man went to sleep with faith, and woke up faithless. As luck would have it, in this man’s room stood very precise medical scales, and the man was in the habit of weighing himself daily, every morning and every night. And so, before going to bed the previous evening, having weighed himself, the man determined that he weighed four stone and twenty-one pounds. And on the next morning, having woken up without faith, the man weighed himself again and determined that he now weighed only four stone and thirteen pounds. “It may thus be determined,” the man concluded, “that my faith had weighed approximately eight pounds.”
I would like to conclude this post with a collection of links to reviews of Daniil Kharms's work available heretofore in English translation, including the piece by Ian Frazier I had referred to in an earlier post, so that those who are interested may explore further.
"The revelatory rediscovery of Russian absurdist writer Daniil Kharms" by Chris Cumming in Bomb Magazine
"Samuel Beckett's career is one possible model for how Kharms' writing may have evolved had he lived. Beckett, too, spent many years hammering out a mature style after deciding that the could go no further in the direction of experimental modernism, which he felt had reached its end point with Finnegan’s Wake. Both Beckett and Kharms experimented with absurdity, grotesquerie, and black humor in their early works; throughout their lives both were obsessed with logic, mathematics, chess, and arcane knowledge, and both believed that the highest goal of literature is to access the irrational that hides behind conventional language and categories of thought. Beckett was just three months younger than Kharms, and at age 36 he was working on Watt (1953), a novel whose craziness cedes no ground to anything Kharms wrote, and whose mixture of the bizarre and the pedestrian it recalls. With Mercier and Camier (1946), Beckett began to bring this aspect of his work under control, and his greatest books—spare, classically controlled, but no less artistically or intellectually radical—were all written when he was in his 40s. Kharms’ turn toward classicism in his last years makes me think he might have developed in a similar way.... His attitude toward the real world, the world of politics, history, war, and revolution, remains a puzzle. And his reticence on the great events that swallowed him up adds to the pathos of his diaries. He was killed over a game he had no stake in. 'I’m a tiny little bird who’s flown into a cage with big angry birds,' he wrote in 1935."
My personal favorite is this essay-review, "Art is a Cupboard!" by Tony Wood in the London Review of Books.
"Throughout his life, Kharms cultivated an eccentric public persona that reinforced the singularity of his written output. This involved such oddball stunts as perching on the façade of the Singer building on Nevsky Prospekt in plus fours and spats to invite the passing crowds to a poetry evening. One visitor to his apartment reported seeing a contraption made of bits of metal, wooden boards, springs, a bicycle wheel and empty jars; Kharms said it was ‘a machine’, and, when asked what kind, replied: ‘No kind. Just a machine.’ He also seems to have collected unusual friends: in her 1982 monograph on Kharms, Alice Stone Nakhimovsky mentions a Dr. Chapeau; apparently ‘ideally attentive’ as a physician, Chapeau also ‘drank a great deal and tended to urinate on the floor’. An obliging Kharms, we are told, ‘simply kept a mop on hand’....
Kharms’s ... short pieces do much more than parody the observational mode. There are wonderful send-ups of any number of genres. The epistolary: ‘I am writing to you in answer to your letter, which you are planning to write to me in answer to my letter, which I wrote to you.’ Literary biography, as in the deliberately misspelled ‘Anegdotes from the Life of Pushkin’, in which the poet writes abusive poems about his friends – He called these poems 'erpigarms”’ – and where we discover that ‘Pushkin had four sons and all of them idiots. One didn’t even know how to sit on a chair and was always falling off. Pushkin himself was not so great at sitting on chairs.’ Here the principal foil for Kharms’s wit is the Russian literary tradition, irreverently plundered and distorted, as in the novella ‘The Old Woman’, which effectively reverses Crime and Punishment by having an old woman turn up and die unaided in the narrator’s flat...."
Here is Ian Frazier writing on Kharms, "A Strangely Funny Russian Genius," in the New York Review of Books.
"Daniil Kharms, a Russian writer who came of age in the worst of Soviet times, is categorized as an absurdist, partly (I think) because it’s hard to know what else to call him. To me he makes more sense as a religious writer. He is really funny and completely not ingratiating, simultaneously...."
Here is Joshua Cohen's brief and witty summation, "Incidences," written in Kharms's own curtailed style, in Bookslut.
"One of his children’s stories features a man who goes out to buy cigarettes, and never returns. Presumably, he’s arrested. Like Kharms was again, in 1941. He died in February a year later, of starvation, in a Leningrad prison hospital a few blocks from his home. German bombs were falling that winter. Apparently, there was a war.... If I were Kharms, I’d be smoking its pages...."
"Daniil Kharms, Master of Deadpan, Father of the Absurd" by Freidemann Kohler in Russia Beyond the Headlines
"Many view his absurdity as a political seismogram from an evil age. 'Incidences', a work replete with chain dances of death, was written in 1936, during the reign of terror known as Stalin's Great Purge.... American critics called his work 'exhilarating' and even came up with a name for his powers of anti-description, calling it 'Kharmsifying'....What are the most important points for new readers? Kharms was witty, charmingly deadpan, cryptic and doomed. But seventy [five] years later, he now has the last word."
And last but not least, "Soviet Deadpan," George Saunders writing on Daniil Kharms in The New York Times.
Daniil Kharms's brilliantly weird stories, written during Stalin's terror, reflect an aesthetic and political crisis. "When I first discovered Kharms, my answer (like the answer of many readers and critics before me) was, These stories are an absurdist response to the brutality of his times...."
What else is there to say about infinity and the eternal? Kharms, in “The Permanence of Dirt and of Rejoicing” (1933): “…And then the fleeting years go flying by, / and people, arrayed in their orderly rows,/ march into their graves and disappear.” And later: “Motion itself has become more viscous, / and time’s acquired the consistency of sand.” And in “The Physicist who Broke his Leg” (1935): “Flashing joints of mechanical motion / A policeman is seen approaching. / Reciting the multiplication table, / A young student tries to help him." In his many meditations on immortality, numbers theory, and infinity, Kharms, having adopted for his critique of reason the languages of both the Old Testament and of Science, rejects all soulless automatism and circular reasoning in favor of a mystical philosophy, at the core of which is the Khlebnikovian Budetlyanin, or the man of the future – the Poet-as-Creator.
How satisfying to write without missing a beat!
And then what I have written out loud to read.
Yes, this is a most pleasant way to pass the time.
Whence at once participate both body and soul.
That's when I feel myself in the universe's stream.
Daniil Kharms, 1935