Lee Scheingold: The Hills Are Alive: a review of [the novel] 2017

  Lee Scheingold

  The Hills Are Alive:

  Transparency in Olga Slavnikova’s 2017

Wherever we look for essence, we won’t find it — because it exists. ‘Exist’ just means ‘withdrawn from access.’ (Morton 2012, 210)

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Ol’ga Slavnikova’s 2007 Russian Booker prize winning novel, 2017 (Slavnikova, 2006) contains untold riches. It is a visionary, magical, fantastical mixing-up of ‘animate’ beings and ‘inanimate’ stones, gems and rock, a long, difficult, beautifully sprawling tome translated expertly and poetically into English by Marian Schwartz (2010). The scope of the book’s undertaking is massive: as one reviewer has said, ‘Whether it’s the transparency of rainbow quartz, or the authenticity of a well-lived human life, or even the authenticity of history itself, 2017 examines the difficult problem of achieving authenticity in a modern capitalist state.’ (Semmel 2012.)

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We will pick up only this proffered quartz along with the idea / reality / event / object of ‘transparency,’ both of which perfuse the narrative in 2017. My argument is that Slavnikova uses transparency as (1) a way to view the protagonist Krylov’s inner world, (2) a bridge between Krylov and the stones and mountains as he searches for what is real inside the gems, and (3) a bridge between the text and the reader. Object oriented ontology as well as some psychoanalytic concepts will be our critical vantage points for infusing a certain transparency into our understanding of the novel, which can seem opaque at first. The reader must suspend disbelief and enter a slippery, altered state in order to appreciate this text and follow where it takes us.

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The timeline of the novel moves back and forth between various pasts and presents, and from city life to the ever-present mountains. Described are Krylov’s secret current affair with a mysterious ‘Tanya,’ his early childhood in what is probably Uzbekistan followed by the sudden family move to the Riphean mountains (based on the author’s native Urals). This move, made for financial reasons, is occasioned by the boy Krylov looking for transparency by destroying the only valuable possession the family owns, a glass vase of his aunt’s which he finds enchanting. In an attempt to get at its essence, he reduces it to powder with a hammer.

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After the family moves, Krylov survives his otherwise depressed adolescence by staying away from home and spending time with rockhounds — those who together and collectively mine the mountains for semi-precious gems. Krylov then meets a mentor, Professor Anfilogov, in whose laboratory the young man learns about the stones and minerals, how to find them and work with them to bring out their transparency, a quality which fascinates and shapes Krylov from a very early age.

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The second half of the novel moves into the political realm, with Krylov renewing his friendship with his ex-wife Tamara, a sort of postmodern funeral director. There are a spy subplot and riots in the streets, Krylov’s secret apartment, a Stone Maiden and the apparent imminence of another revolution.

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My stressing transparencies illuminates the decentering of the human in a larger phenomenological context, in light of the theories of object oriented ontology, in which a subject-object division is discarded and all objects possess their own unique wholeness. As Levi Bryant, who coined the term ‘object oriented ontology’ in 2006, has put it, ‘…all actors are placed on an equal footing as real entities, rather than suturing all being to the single subject-object gap’ (Levi Bryant, Larval Subjects blog 2006). Here lies the relevance of my epigraph quoting Timothy Morton.

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All things like the text or the stones or transparency in this view are not patterns or relations or cultural productions — they are real and always possess their existence as unique nonhuman objects withdrawn from all other objects and even from themselves.

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The combination of transparency and opacity will be our focus, rather than plot or character development. In both the Russian and the English versions the language is gorgeous, poetic, overflowing, mystical, both dreamy and down-to-earth, with a combination of interesting qualities: tenderness, precision, and something else a little like a Zen transmission: the words communicate before they are understood by the mind.

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One Russian review says of 2017: ‘There is nothing for the reader like a simple sentence, ‘Ivan sat on a chair’ — every paragraph, every sentence conveys a complex of tactile, olfactory, and auditory sensations.’ (Vladimirskii 2006, my translation). Reviewer Michael Froggatt (2010) points out that many a sentence ‘…requires multiple readings to render its meaning clear.’ Much of this dense, compact book is poetic, as it interrogates the nature of stone-and-man, thickly described. Slavnikova captures more poetic freedom than most prose as she breaks the usual narrative rules in an endeavor which is free associative in nature. The inquiry is poetic as well.

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As such it is reminiscent of Stephanie Sandler’s recent deft description of the poet Arkadii Dragomoshchenko in Jacket2 (2014): ‘Poetry as inquiry is in a sense poetry as philosophy. How to understand the nature of that inquiry? My hypothesis is that it is an ontological inquiry, an inquiry into the nature of self and other, an inquiry into the place of the self in a world of otherness.’

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For Krylov and his fellow rockhounds, ‘other’ refers to the mountains and the stones.’ They are also concerned, of course, with ‘those things which are not real,’ that is, simulacra: ‘The world appeared to Krylov as a string of copies without an original.’ (57) This is at the heart of the gemstones, of course: one of the ways one tells whether a gem is valuable or ‘the real thing,’ is by its transparency — though at the same time all transparent gems are not valuable, and so the boy was fooled at first. We as readers can illuminate the text by thinking of ‘real’ as transparent, and ‘unreal’ as opaque, with a long spectrum in between. The novel exists in this space.

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Slavnikova’s prose presents to us multiple questions: what and where is transparency? How can we think about it? Is it internal to people and objects, or external? What does it mean to see through? In what space does transparency lie: inside, outside, between, or everywhere? How then can it function as a bridge, not only between Krylov and stones, but between text and reader? What is the nature of the space that the bridge spans? What happens to it over time, how does it change as the novel progresses? Or in using transparency, is Slavnikova calling attention not to space, but to time? These are magnificently rich veins for the reader-critic.

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The rocks firmly occupy the role of ‘other’ in this inquiry. For Krylov is smitten with the Riphean mountains, and Slavnikova’s pursuit of the relations between humans and rocks is relentless. Bodies are turned to stone before our eyes!

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Slavnikova first and foremost draws attention to the nonhuman: rocks, mountains, crystals, man-made objects, gems, water towers, water, wind. She foregrounds mirrors, glass, water, stones and gems, and the flowing movement of transparencies, translucency, and opacity. The human as subject in this ontological inquiry is present, but is decentered.

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We must be prepared to be mystified by confusing material filled with polar opposites and events which are ‘impossible’ in the ‘real world.’ 2017 responds well to close reading with broad, relaxed attention: a holding of the text with precision and tenderness, mind and heart, the combination of which makes the enterprise of being present to our reading both possible and worthwhile. In other words, the same thing we do with poetry. This novel is, like the Riphean mountains, a wealth of riches.

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The precision means not stopping until an exact understanding of the experience is reached (which of course it never is: that’s the beauty of it!); the tenderness means leavening the project with a close, kind caring about its process, to help the endeavor lighten and rise to meet our attention. We do of course run the risk, in trying for precision, of returning to binary concepts and solutions. Let us hold in mind the tenderness and transparency while they abide in the background as cherished words.

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The author italicizes the word ‘transparency the first 43 times it appears in the book, and then, near the end, leaves it alone, without stress, to stand by itself, as if now understood. At this juncture, the word ‘death’ receives the italics (in Russian, the letter-spacing) which no longer characterize transparency. It is implied, then, that transparency is life.

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This notion of transparency can be seen as the organizing theme for the novel, appearing and reappearing but always present, as Krylov becomes fascinated by not only all the stones in the Urals, but by his own growing skill at bringing out their transparencies and using them in his inner life and development.

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In the word ‘prozrachnost,’ (transparency) the second syllable, ‘zrak’ penetrates the air. The ‘zr’ is a sonorous, pleasant sound with its trilling ‘r.’ The root of ‘zrak’ refers to sight, to the pupil of the eye. The prefix ‘pro’ meaning ‘through,’ is more penetrating than our English prefix ‘trans,’ which is defined first as ‘across,’ and second as ‘through’. Interestingly, ‘zrak’ is the word for ‘air’ in Slovenian, and it also acquired other meanings in South Slavic languages: Croatian (like Slovenian) ‘air,’ Serbian ‘ray’ (of light).

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A seeing-throughness, even an ability to see the future, and the notion of the air as being transparent, are all implied in the Russian definition. Related are ‘zrachki’’ (pupils of the eye); ‘zerkalo’ (mirror); ‘zaria’ (dawn); ‘preziriat’ (to look upon with hatred); and all the other ‘–zirat’ verbs: e.g., ‘nadzirat’ (to oversee), ‘nadzor’ (surveillance). ‘Prozrachnost’ (transparency) is a rich concept, linked to seeing: how the hero sees himself, and how we see the text. (I am grateful to Veronica Muskheli and Michael Biggins for explication of these linguistic subtleties.)

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In English the word ‘transparent’ comes from the Latin ‘trans’ (through) and ‘parere’ (to appear, as in to look or seem). The Oxford Dictionary of English lists four different meanings of the adjective ‘transparent:’ (1) made of a material allowing light to pass through so objects behind can be distinctly seen (a transparent fabric); (2) easy to perceive or detect (e.g., the meaning of a poem, one’s inner thoughts, or open to public scrutiny); (3) in computing, an interface which functions without the user being aware of its presence; or (4) in physics, transmitting heat or other radiation without distortion. The English seems to me less penetrating than the Russian and more — what? — passive? Secretive? Internal?

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Turning now to the text, a particular childhood event/memory makes a large impact on Krylov’s psyche. Early in the novel the boy’s memory, able to be re-experienced in its clarity, is described.

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[The young boy was holding][…] a sliver of blue glass, curved, from a bottle probably, through which the flashes of sunlight on the irrigation canal looked like welding sparks.[…] on his finger, there emerged […] a fat red tear. Who was that familiar stout man who leaned over him?[… ] He demanded that Krylov throw the glass away that instant, or give it to him, but young Krylov, smeared with blood, stubbornly held his find behind his back and retreated into the leafy shade… He had felt it with unutterable clarity at the time: the blue sliver contained something that almost never occurs in the simple matter around us: transparency, a special and profound element, like water and sky (2010: 55).

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The episode is for him ‘steeped in an ammonia-like reality:’ ammonia, used to clean glass and also to revive someone who has fainted. An object, the piece of blue glass, is privileged by the boy at those moments over the human interaction. This passage invites comparisons with psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott’s ‘transitional object’ (1969: 86-94), which is between inner and outer for the infant, blurring the boundaries and inhabiting the space. Here Slavnikova highlights not just the sliver of blue glass, but also the light behind it and the water and sky beyond, which are themselves transparent. The boy Krylov is mesmerized, and knows now the mixup of self and glass, with the transparency connecting them. Transparency plays the role of another character in the narrative: a constant absent presence which now occupies space in Krylov’s brain and psyche. The next few lines are:

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From this point Krylov remembered himself — he realized that he was one human being continuous over time. In moments when things didn’t make sense and he lost the thread of the pattern his life was following, narrowing his eyes, he tried to discern a glimmer of that sweet sweet blue color — so that, by this special turn of inner optics, the transparency again became more active. Having recaptured the light, Krylov paused, and at the very least he became convinced that he was still the same person he had been. (my translation) (2010: 55)

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The sweet blue glass is a lifelong bridge for Krylov between his inner world and the all-pervasive stones. This passage is reminiscent of Martha Nussbaum’s remarks on Proust: ‘Proust’s novel addresses itself to a reader who is eager for understanding of her own loves and their form, who would like to use the novel as an optical instrument…’ [to see herself more clearly] (Nussbaum 2001, 514.) Here is a parallel process: we readers can use Slavnikova’s novel as Krylov uses the glass shard: as an inquiry about transparency and about ourselves. We ask about how our own process of reading replicates the description in the text. We hold the book up to our eyes and look to and through the words, with the transparency between ourselves and the text.

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Moving on to object oriented ontology (OOO), we find material which reads as if it were made for the analysis of this novel. I will rely on the work of a post-disciplinary group of theoretical scholars (Jane Bennett, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, William Connolly, Graham Harman, Adrian Ivakhiv, Eileen Joy, Rebekah Sheldon, Timothy Morton). Far too simply stated, their views (following upon the earlier affective turn which began the job of decentering the human) are that human consciousness, thinking, and relating are not at the center of the world’s experience, which is unimaginably more complex than this view implies. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, whose work on geophilia is central to our reading of Slavnikova, has put it this way: ‘…things, especially things that appear to hold themselves in silence, must possess a power indifferent to language: something that comes from themselves, not via human allowance.’ (2012, 6) We have already seen that a great deal of the life of stones stands separate from the humans in 2017. Cohen invites us ‘to discern the queer life that looms beneath every still surface and to compose less anthropocentric frames for understanding materiality.’(6)

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Like the ‘thing theorists,’ Slavnikova attends to the physical world and presence of objects around us. For example, books aren’t simply about something, they also are something. Slavnikova describes a book in this beautifully translated passage:

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… The blue book had solidity and weight and held something apart from the book itself — it was a valuable ingot you could feel with your hand, which couldn’t help but weigh and caress the object. The new one was as empty as a husked kernel, and this emptiness was not a function of the text but existed independently. The book was bookless. The large font for the illiterate took up nearly half its yellowish flecked pages. The novel seemed to have been spread on the paper in too thin a layer, the way an economical housewife makes one tin of caviar cover fifty pieces of bread–and because of this the novel lost certain properties, at least its taste. (280)

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2017 itself is exactly the opposite of this blue book: it has almost too many words on the page, so rich and full is it. In looking at a sentence like ‘the book was bookless,’ a state of reverie can come over the reader. A book has the properties of an ingot, a husked kernel. In this passage are concepts related to my central concern: the notions of transparency (like space, invisibility, emptiness) are making an appearance, and they defy attempts to understand them cognitively or to explain them logically. The transparency both connects us to what we see and separates us from our vision.

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OOO scholars in their eco-focus even help us with our background of tenderness: Eileen Joy writes of her hopes for object oriented ontology: ‘By tuning into the nonhuman… one can at the same time engage in our human follies, but they would be follies borne out of a love, and not a capricious and careless use of the world.’ (my italics) (Joy 2012, 170) In a recent interview on the web, Slavnikova herself weighs in on this tender theme. When asked about her motivation for writing what some see as a political polemic, Slavnikova herself says: ‘to the writer, what is important is not protest, but the volume of beauty in the world… It is not against, it is always for. I would have wanted to protest against lots of things, but not in my books… because protest is too small a motivation for writing a novel.’ (http://www.chitaem-vmeste.ru/pages/material.php?interview=55&journal=64, my translation)

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In the novel’s first scenes, Slavnikova’s main character Krylov (no first name or patronymic given) meets a woman at a train station, and they begin an affair. At their first meeting they walk together in silence, both feeling drawn without explanation to the other. As the two are walking together away from the train, Slavnikova notes: ‘Here they couldn’t keep moving identically as before, so they demagnetized.’ (15, 13) This unexpected and efficient metaphor is just the beginning of Slavnikova’s central concern with a certain hegemony of unseen forces and objects which are highlighted and possess their own agency.

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Using again our psychoanalytic lens to view the novel, we see that the child Krylov with the blue glass sliver has a dawning sense that he is both a separate person, and himself over time, in a continuous way. This core sense is an achievement and remains within him for the duration of the novel. Slavnikova describes the therapeutic value of having a capacity to feel this intense, enchanted curiosity, and to allow, even to court, the rocks, gems, and glass to participate in the boy’s development of object constancy.

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The young Krylov creatively selects and uses transparency as a way of feeling himself to be continuous over time: transparency was ‘a substance’s highest, most enlightened state’ (Slavnikova/Schwartz 2010, 55; Slavnikova 2011, 57).

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When Krylov is eleven or so, he continues his inquiry about transparency:

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Once young Krylov attempted to extract the orange-glassy-juice trapped in the thick walls of his aunt’s vase, and that was much better than the colorless water previously poured into the vase. One afternoon, on the balcony, on a carefully spread out newspaper, young Krylov struck the vase with a hammer, exploding its emptiness like a grenade in a war movie. The shards, though — some of them flew into the sneering sycamore or under his aunt’s old tubs — were just as self contained as the intact object. Choosing the very best bottom piece, with the densest color, young Krylov continued to smash it on the scraps of the now slivered and silvered newspaper until he ended up with a hard, completely white powder. The only color in the powder came from his, Krylov’s, unanticipated blood, which looked like a chewed-up raisin. Not a drop remained in the powder of the transparency for whose sake the experiment had been performed. The experiment that ended in powder made a much bigger impression on Krylov than the fatherly beating that followed. He had learned that what is transparent is unattainable and, like everything precious, connected with blood. (Emphasis in original, 56)

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Krylov’s experiment is at once a complete failure and a complete success for his learning: Transparency is precious, and so is blood. We know that a transfusion, for example, must take place over several hours, as the precious fluid takes time for the body to assimilate it and know it as its own. The world is blue for the glass, red for the blood.

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In Chapter One the following sentence occurs: ‘The sky reflected in Riphean waters is much bluer than it is in reality.’ (27) Some critics have taken Slavnikova to task for statements as inviting and simultaneously as perplexing as this one. And yet something of prime importance to understanding her work is here. The text itself becomes the agent, as the author is telling us everything she knows. She seems standing right at the edge of the mystery with us.

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As for Krylov, his actions are actually not destructive at all: his curiosity in the service of his life must be satisfied. A vibrant creativity is at the heart of his act, as the smashing of the vase is an attempt to fathom transparency’s qualities.

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The other level of importance to this episode is that the aunt’s vase was the one valuable object the family possesses (hence the fatherly beating): they are now destitute and are fated to leave the city in which they live (Tashkent, presumably) and move to the Riphean mountains, the site of young Krylov’s learning and fascination.

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Later, getting to know his mentor, Professor Anfilogov, Krylov is fascinated to learn that people too, can possess or even be transparency:

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As for first-year Krylov, he saw the professor’s nature as a transparency of the highest quality, an absolutely solid emptiness inside of which there was nothing resentful people could detect, but it itself existed in a crystallized form worth top price per carat. (emphasis in original, 77)

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This passage is important because of its dynamic character, its adding the dimension of process, of time:

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Transparency was magic… Transparency belonged to a world of a different order, and you couldn’t open it up and get inside. Later, he could call transparency back, in moments when he felt he had lost his consciousness (things didn’t make sense) and sense of purpose for his life. It restored the boy to himself. (55, 57)

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When he starts working in Professor Anfilogov’s gem lab, Krylov finds the transparency accessible after all:

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grinding away a ‘window’ in a dirty, shapeless piece of rainbow quartz, all that interested him was what he saw inside: transparency in its natural state, a zone where the substance turned clear. …which Krylov had not been able to achieve in smashing his aunt’s vase on the newspaper shreds: [but now] the transparency opened up from within and slipped the bounds of its own vessel… (88)

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This passage opens the door to our seeing transparency as having equal right to prominence with the gems, the people, the water, and the air. Death also has a place, of course. Everything does, as binaries are only and always misleading.

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Constant mutations are nowhere more evident than in the gem-hunting expedition Professor Anfilogov and his chosen minion Kolyan carry out. Slavnikova goes out of her way to describe the way in which time appears to them:

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They could no longer say with any accuracy whether it was yesterday or the day before that Anfilogov’s medicine had run out. The most powerful déjà vu occurred whenever they set to any kind of work. At any attempt to take a step into the future, the rock hounds wound up in the past. Time stopped; the white nights passed over the camp like the shadows of light clouds. (209)

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Once the pair is immersed in the mountains, they are in the midst of ‘the world as made up of relational processes, events of encounter, acts of experience and nothing else,’ as OOO scholar Adrian Ivakhiv points out. We are invited to join OOO scholar Timothy Morton in the move toward ‘a more capacious and stranger sentience.’ (2010, The Ecological Thought, 78) Morton and Harman’s view of objects emphasizes Ivakhiv’s mirror image: they are non-relational, so that all objects in the world are also in retreat from each other, always withdrawing, and ‘every possible relation between any two objects is always also an object.’ (Joy, 166) This means that the boundaries of objects (and remember, transparency counts as an object) are no longer so blurred so that everything fades into everything else. Instead, not only are they sharply delineated, they are already and always themselves, with some part of the whole always kept to themselves.
So to say objects exist means to say they are withdrawn from each other. Hence the truth of the confusing statement, ‘we can’t find it, because it exists.’

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Morton paraphrases Harman: ‘objects are ontologically prior to their relations, relations that include their appearance for other objects.’ And if this is so, this appearance is crucial, and, Morton argues, means that causality is ontologically ‘in front’ of objects.

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Jerome Cohen’s work on geophilia, love of stone, can assist us in foundational ways to understand Slavnikova’s work in this novel. According to Cohen (speaking at a March 2014 seminar at the University of Washington, and as explicated in ‘Stories of Stone,’ in postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies, Vol. 1, ½, 56-63):

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‘’Geophilia’ maps the liveliness, agency, and spur to story offered by our most mundane matter, stone. Stone has too long served as an unexamined metaphor for the ‘really real’: blunt factuality, inert givenness, nature’s curt rebuke. Medieval writers knew that stones drop with fire from the sky, emerge through the subterranean lovemaking of the elements, tumble along river beds from Eden, travel the world in the holds of ships, companion the masons who build with them, exert magnetic pull, cure diseased bodies, pulse with astral energies. This motion is an ecological enmeshment, a mineral life that borders on the creaturely.’ (Cohen. Seminar on Geophilia, 3-13-2014)

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Cohen’s statement referring to stone’s ‘dense agency… a mineral life that borders on the creaturely’, Slavnikova applies to water: ‘The water, heavy and swollen, was now aggressive, there was no doubt of that.’ (210) Cohen notes that ‘meeting with rock can destabilize a human-centric narrative of existence and give way to different, creative rethinking of ecologies, landscapes, texts, and art.’ Transparency is the way in which Slavnikova sees the moment of this destabilization.

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This also explodes most of our notions of sole human ‘agency’ out of our orbit: they must be radically reworked. The human as itself nonhuman: given our general sense of self importance, there is something refreshing about this manner of viewing our place in this world.

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The idea of reconciling transparency with constant change usefully complicates our understanding of many passages in the novel. Even transparency itself is reversible. In the novel, when Krylov’s gem-finding and gem-grinding mentor Professor Anfilogov is tending to the body of his dead assistant Kolyan in the mountains, he witnesses a process he had heard about but had not witnessed, as Kolyan’s body is reclaimed by the rocks:

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First the dead man’s violet mouth was covered with a gloss and started melting away inside like a springtime icicle, then the transparent became solid and soon under his mustache a mayflower bell formed out of a fibrous charoite through which his steel teeth gleamed like cleavage fissures in a crystal matrix. Observing this well-known metamorphosis for the first time, Anfilogov couldn’t help but stare at it. (my emphasis, 213)

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Death makes transparency disappear, or turns translucence into transparency. Without being able to ‘see through’, what really do we have, after all? In the novel, Anfilogov’s final, dreamlike gem expedition, the mountains play with his, and our, notions of time:

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‘At first, time moved normally but then suddenly it vanished, like a river going underground, leaving the shining world in blissful stillness, in the distinctness of each and every being …both the days and the nights became amazingly transparent: the ordinary mechanisms of oblivion ceased to function and everything that happened, happened today.’ (278)

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The oblivion which ceases to function means a demolition of memory, and a complete immersion in the present, similar to a spiritual awakening (or, one must add, some psychotic states). Slavnikova restores the parity of things and people in a narrative that moves along smoothly like a conveyor belt. As time vanishes, everything becomes transparent. In this sense, transparency is achieved as space gains dominion over time: when that happens, each object is separate from each and every other thing.

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As we have seen, a quest for what is real and for transparency leads Krylov to the destruction of his aunt’s vase, which causes the bankruptcy of his family and the geographical move, thus changing the course of his life. One has to have a ‘feel for stone’ in order to release the hidden gem in the laboratory. One approaches the real by finding it inside the inauthentic! The light is an object too. For the young Krylov, the greatest intensity appears as transparency, and it plays a key role in his development. Since everything that is takes place, we think of the self as a process, a verb, and therefore without inherent existence.

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What has Krylov learned by means of his intense curiosity? In Jerome Cohen’s words, ‘[that]… the meeting with rock can destabilize a human-centric narrative of existence and give way to different, creative rethinking of ecologies, landscapes, texts, and art.’ In order to understand transparency, Krylov begins with a process that looks like destruction. Following the destruction of the vase, prior to the family’s move, there follows a period of severe disorientation for the boy and for many other humans around him, for no articulated reason. This is described as affecting everyone on the street, not just Krylov, and not just the family.

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Young Krylov still didn’t have the words for it, but he did have a visceral sense of the disorientation of things: he noticed ‘that many people on the street now seemed off’(58) (58, Slavnikova’s italics) — literally ‘acting not themselves.’

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The family moves north, and Krylov’s life comes to life. We know that the nonhuman landscape, the stones and gems, as well as his Riphean peers, ‘wait for him,’ because they will all participate in his development as a human being in constant motion, as is everything around him. He waits for his life to start. In the time period before the family’s move, he feels disenchantment, which is described in his mind as ‘a mixed sensation, like acute orphanhood while your parents are still alive’(59). Now unmoored from his parents, he is ripe for new influences: the future Krylov lies inside him, as the perfected gem lies inside the rough rock, waiting: ‘the picturesqueness of the Riphean mountains seems intentional’(27) (76) There it is: ‘intentional!’

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To those who say ‘humans are bad because, alone in all the universe, they shape things to their ends,’ Morton replies: ‘Not at all, responds OOO: everything else is doing the same thing.’ (2012, 207) Gerard Manley Hopkins makes a version of this point in his poem ‘Kingfishers Catch Fire’ (1880): ‘Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells; / Crying What I do is me: for that I came.’ (poet’s italics) (I am grateful to Charles LaPorte for pointing out this remarkable similarity.)

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We and all other objects are constantly translating things into our own terms. Objects exist prior to their relations with each other and so cannot be reduced to anything whatsoever. 2017 brings home this point to us, just as it anticipates Morton’s concept of ‘everything as a weird entity withdrawn from access, yet somehow manifest’. (208) This ‘anarchic plenitude’ of objects exists in which there is no hierarchy, no ‘top object’ which gives meaning and reality to the others (209).

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In 2017 there is a tremendous amount of withdrawnness in the objects, but also a lot of influencing going on, a lot of relating. Slavnikova says very early on: ‘The Riphean range is in one of those enigmatic regions where the landscape directly affects people’s minds.’ (29)

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Morton now notes that ‘the object withdraws even from itself. There is a sharp rift between essence and appearance’ (2012, 209). There are no exceptions: even humans are part of the nonhuman world. And in one final tour de force: ‘Wherever we look for essence, we won’t find it — because it exists. ‘Exist’ just means ‘withdrawn from access.’’(210) Intuitively this is the way Slavnikova thinks of the world of the Ripheans: shifting, constantly in motion, alternating shape and size, becoming darker or lighter, changing chemical substance. Morton: ‘Objects are therefore contradictions, themselves (withdrawal) and not themselves (appearance) at the very same time.’ (210)

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The real meat of Slavnikova’s book is a set of understandings about the world and the diffuse, widespread distribution of energetic agentic forces. In the chaos of an incipient societal breakdown which forms the social background to 2017, the clear lack of human agency seems both long-standing and also ego-syntonic to the characters. Against this background the rocks can be seen for themselves, with Morton’s term ‘itselfpomorphizing beginning to come into focus.

  Coda

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As I was preparing to write this paper (spring, 2014), steeped in both the novel and OOO theory, my brother was slowly dying at University Hospital of a failed liver transplant. He had been there for four months following the initial surgery. I had been seeing him every day, and one day he decided to tell the transplant team that he wanted to be taken off the waiting list for a second liver. We all knew, of course, that this made his death imminent.

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As soon as he announced this, nursing staff and physicians could not stay away from him. He was gloriously, fully present and clear. His room now was always crowded. They needed to be near this phenomenon, whatever it was. He, a powerfully aggressive person focused on his own agency during his lifetime, was suddenly transparent, transcendent, steadily and magnificently receptive. He had lost everything that had made transparency impossible for him. One way to think about what happened is to quote Grant Maxwell’s comments at a recent nonhuman turn conference:

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it seems to me that the only way to really know the nonhuman is to learn to consciously surrender thought to shift the locus of one’s attention from verbally mediated intellect to the nonverbal, affective felt presence of immediate experience…

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That was it! In these terms, in that hospital room, we had all felt, then, a surrender to immediate, unmediated experience. And this, too, was a more powerful version of the experience I had many times while reading 2017: slipping into another reality. This was my reference at the beginning of this paper about a Zen transmission. Somehow through her words Slavnikova communicates something utterly wordless about the world, and I was ready to receive it.

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I was also pretty sure that holding this novel in my psyche helped me, paradoxically, to stop seeing the inner world of the psyche as all-important in life. In that hospital room, perhaps we all came to see ourselves in perspective, as part of the nonhuman.

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Now perhaps you can see why I felt that Slavnikova’s novel was meant to be seen from the framework of object oriented ontology — and that they were both meant for me in these recent months, as a message in a bottle in the ocean is meant for its recipient alone, whoever that may be. I had found a new way of seeing the world, and a new lens through which to view it.

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scheingold-lee

Lee Scheingold earned her B.A. at Duke University in Russian language and literature, her M.A. in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin, and a Master’s degree in Clinical Social Work from the University of Washington. She completed a two-year training course at the Seattle Psychoanalytic Institute. She is the co-author of Sound Sex and the Aging Heart (1974), One Silken Thread: Poetry’s Presence in Grief (Quid Pro Books, 2013) and twenty professional articles in medical and psychoanalytic journals. Lee worked for thirty years as a medical and psychiatric social worker and teacher of family practice physicians about psychological aspects of their patient care.

Lee’s family is from eastern Canada, and she grew up in rural Wisconsin and later in a suburb of New York City. Lee and her husband Stuart, a political scientist, were married for forty-two years. Lee and Stuart lived in Seattle, where Stuart taught political science and wrote prolifically about law and social justice until his death in 2010. He completed his final book, The Political Novel (2010), following his diagnosis and a seven-year course of chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

Since Stuart’s death, Lee’s life has centered around poetry, in both Russian and English.

 

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