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M. Finke. Repetition and Pil’niak’s Poetics of Trauma: “Moist Mother Earth”

Among major avant-garde Soviet authors of the twenties and thirties, Boris Pil’niak has received disproportionately little critical attention in his afterlife, and one wonders why. Did he indeed “miss greatness,” as wrote the American scholar Robert Maguire? According to Maguire, Pil’niak “lacked a real gift for fiction” as well as “originality” [1. P. 101]. But we might ask how well, if at all, scholars have understood the most notorious formal qualities of Pil’niak’s narratives; in particular, what sense have they made of his repetitiveness (to take the inverse of “originality”)? On the one hand, Pil’niak’s repetition of material from work to work can indeed make his narratives appear “like a pastiche of self-plagiarisms” [Ibid. P. 119];[1] on the other, repetitions within the bounds of one text can make Pil’niak seem to teeter on the brink between innovation and fossilization. Was there justice in transforming his family name into a term of invective, “pil’niakovitis” (пильняковщина)?

Some of that invective was famously hurled by Viktor Shklovskii, who objected to Pil’niak’s fragmentary narrative form and considered unsuccessful the devices Pil’niak relied upon to establish aesthetic unity.

With him plot is replaced by the parts being connected through repetition of the same pieces, which become continuously occurring images.

These connections are very approximate and rather signal the unity of the work instead of endowing it with unity [4. P. 126].[2]

In discussing how Pil’niak explores the limits of formal continuity, Shklovskii drew an analogy between reading Pil’niak and the mental processes involved in viewing a film:

The way individual frames (shots) seen on the contemporary cinema screen merge together is not a physiological fact, but a psychological one. We have to make a certain effort in order to merge individual pictures, our consciousness presents an alternation of objects as the gradual change of one and the same object.

It converts an interrupted series into a continuous one. If one were to steadily increase the intervals between individual frames and make them more and more distinct from one another, then we would still see a continuous moving object, but we would begin to feel nausea and dizziness.

This could lead to a fainting spell.

Pil’niak does something close to this [Ibid. P. 128].


What is more, to the extent that Pil’niak’s narratives are held together by a dominant idea, reflected in them formally through meaningful repetition or “parallels,” this unifying principle appears to be something of an afterthought, and the content of that thought is both facile and politically incorrect:

“One can even say that Pil’niak canonized the accidental manner of his first work, The Naked Year [Голый год], composing the work from obviously randomly scattered pieces. To connect the parts Pil’niak makes wide use of parallelism; these parallels rely on a very primitive ideology — on the assertion that Russia = Asia, and revolution = peasant revolt” [Ibid. P. 127].

Such criticisms are echoed by Aleksandr Voronskii. Although Voronskii expresses greater appreciation than Shklovskii for Pil’niak’s style — he calls it “above all very clever and original” [6. P. 429], and he sees positive development in Pil’niak over the course of the 1920s, in part as the result of Pil’niak’s travels [Ibid. P. 442—445] — Voronskii nevertheless writes that “Pil’niak took the October Revolution above all not as a burst into the steel future, but as a kind of rebelliousness (по-бунтарскому)” [Ibid. P. 408].

The parallels Shklovskii mentions — or very tightly related variants of them — have caught the attention of other readers since. For instance, they underwrite Eric Naiman’s summarizing treatment of Naked Year“Like Pil’niak’s other fiction of the 1920s, it portrays the Revolution as an exhilarating destructive force that strips away centuries of civilization, leaving man in the clutches of paganism, violence, and sexuality” [7. P. 60]. But as Naiman’s larger discussion demonstrates, the “primitive ideology” of Shklovskii’s formulation by no means makes adequate sense of what is going on in Pil’niak’s difficult texts. In “Moist Mother Earth” — which is very much about “peasant revolt” — an entirely different “ideology” may be encoded in the story’s system of parallelism, one that was extremely prominent in the cultural context in which Pil’niak was writing: I have in mind Freudian thought[3].

There is a pervasive pattern of imagery in “Moist Mother Earth” that appears to fuse the symbolic codes of Freudian theory with Russian folk beliefs and traditions connected with Mother Earth. I turn to this now with acute awareness of the risk of critical banality. If there is any justice in Shklovskii’s criticism of Pil’niak, such risk may indeed be inherent to reading and writing about Pil’niak; it certainly pertains to applying the most static, formulaic dimensions of Freud’s thought. And yet, there are risks worth running.


Let us begin with certain quite obviously “Freudian” features of Pil’niak’s style and, in Shklovskii’s phrasing, “ideology”.

First, there is the relentless dualism of Pil’niak’s vision of human nature, which pairs civilization with its discontents, and progress with atavism, highlighting an ever-present animal instinct at the core of human beings. As Voronskii put it: “Pil’niak is a ‘physiological’ writer. In his works people are wild animals, and wild animals are like people”; “Pil’niak is drawn to nature as though to the primordial mother, to the prototype of the animal nature of life (к первообразу звериной правды жизни)” [6. P. 403, 404]. Most famous and illustrative in this regard is the remark from “Ivan-and-Marya” (“Иван-да-Марья”), “I feel that the whole revolution — the whole revolution! — smells of sexual organs”[4]. If one were to rephrase Shklovskii’s parallel (“Russia = Asia, and revolution = peasant revolt”), casting it in a Freudian idiom, one might well refer to revolution as, rather, desublimation[5]. And it is not hard to see where one might go from there. It is certainly intellectually narrow and unfair to reduce Freud’s thought to the kind of pan-sexualism encoded into Pil’niak’s infamous — though embedded in fiction — remark about the Revolution, but such has always been one common understanding and criticism of Freud.

Second, Pil’niak appears to owe much to Freud in how he conceives the creative process. Regardless of whether or not direct influence can be demonstrated, Pil’niak’s contribution to the 1930 volume, How We Write (Как мы пишем [10]), clearly echoes the understanding laid out in Freud’s 1908 “The Relation of the Poet to Day-Dreaming” [11. P. 34—43]. Pil’niak ascribes his creativity to habits or procedures by which he accesses the primary processes of his unconscious. He writes first thing in the morning, while still on the boundary between sleep and wakefulness, always regretting that he cannot get it all down: “I’m loath to halt my thoughts with paper (не хочется остановить свои мысли бумагою)” [10. P. 125]. He takes special measures to remain in contact with the world of sleep and dreams: “I write in the mornings, immediately on waking up, and to the point, on those days I ask that I not be awakened; I write for no more than two hours a day. I write almost without making corrections” [Ibid. P. 126]. Moreover, Pil’niak describes his creative process as involving precisely the kind of regression to childhood fantasy on which Freud models the creative process. Thus, “Childhood” (“Детство”) is the very first word of Pil’niak’s piece — indeed, the very first (one-word) sentence. Pil’niak proceeds to talk about his fantasizing and fibbing (“вранье”) from his early years, and he goes so far as to claim, “My very best stories, tales and novels were written, of course, in childhood, because it was then, and with greatest force, that I felt the creative instincts: those novels perished, wafted away from my memory” [Ibid. P. 125]. The mature Pil’niak’s writing regime appears designed to facilitate a regression to his child self: abstaining from coffee, tea, and alcohol, he goes so far as to put himself on an infant’s milk diet. Perhaps his taste for dairy foods when writing should be viewed as symptomatic, rather than causal, of the regression involved in writing, since he writes, “On work days I am drawn to a milk diet” [Ibid. P. 126]; either way, it is the notion of regression that matters.  Quite remarkable, too, is what Pil’niak says of his production novel, The Volga Falls into the Caspian Sea (Волга впадает в Каспийское море): notwithstanding the fact that he read something like thirty hydrotechnical books while working on that novel, he asserts, “I saw that novel in my dreams” [Ibid. P. 129], thereby assigning a primary creative role in the novel’s creation to his unconscious; and let us not forget that this pertains to the work with which he ostensibly sought to meet the demands of the Socialist Realist novel, the generic laws of which most certainly demand an apotheosis of consciousness[6]. Finally, Pil’niak’s solipsistic image of the writer-to-be as a child sitting before a mirror, telling stories to himself, reflects the egocentrism or narcissism of dream life discussed by Freud in his short article.

In sum, Pil’niak clearly locates the roots of his creativity as an author precisely where Freud posited its source; never mind that the aesthetically conservative Freud would probably have criticized Pil’niak’s art for remaining too close to those roots (and, I cannot help speculating, not much cared for it as verbal art).


These Freudian elements of Pil’niak’s art, and the prospect of Freud’s influence on Pil’niak, remain worth exploring further as a matter of literary history. And to be sure, one should also take into account influential sources of such ideas about the creative process in the romantic and neo-romantic (symbolist) literary heritage. But where Freud is perhaps most alive in critical theory these days may also be relevant. I have in mind trauma studies, a field that — not unlike mythopoetic approaches — takes the metaphoric leap from individual psychological processes to those of history and culture. For a particularly crude example of such leaps, see the article from a decade ago in the New York Times on “ornate, over the top bathrooms” in upscale restaurants, cafes and clubs in Moscow, where the practicing psychoanalyst Yelena Bazhenova, “who consulted in the design of Cafe Freud,” is quoted as saying: “‘In accordance to psychosexual development, our country is now in the anal stage’ <…> ‘Restaurants have gone through the oral stage. All cuisines are now represented. Now it’s the anal stage. They’ve started to design their toilets’”. And: “‘It’s very important the toilet be beautiful, that this stage is reflected. If a child suffers trauma, then he will have adult neuroses’” [13. Section A. P. 4]. We may take this interpretation of interior design — hopefully, tongue-in-cheek—as a warning of how psychoanalytic criticism itself can go into the toilet! And yet, I am convinced that trauma theory has much to offer in understanding Pil’niak.

I’ll illustrate what I mean in a discussion of two systems of parallels that figure heavily in the story “Moist Mother Earth.”

One embraces the story’s first, striking passage, a kind of overture that is repeated very near its center and echoed in its ending:

“The peasant Stepan Klimkov, of the small village of Kadom, went into forest at Willow Spring to steal bark, climbed an oak, lost his footing, fell, and, caught by the bindings of his bast shoes, was left hanging head downward in the branches; both his eyes burst from the rush of blood to his head” [14. P. 17; 15. P. 1][7].

These bursting eyes of a “caught” or trapped and mutilated individual recur in the even more shocking image at the story’s end — though not the very end — of the Bolshevik tanner Irina Sergeevna who, after suffering gang-rape through the night by Cossacks, has been impaled on a stake in the tannery yard.

“She was bare naked. The stake was driven between her legs; her feet were tied to the stake. Her face — a beauty’s — was hideous with horror, the eyes popping out of their sockets. She died toward evening. The whole of that day no one went into the tannery yard” [14. P. 74; 15. P. 61].

These images participate, as bookends of sorts, in an elaborate leitmotif involving eyes, vision, blindness, light and dark. Here is a selection of other relevant images from the story: the ailing calf that is blinded by the “blind” folk treatments administered to it [14. P. 60; 15. P. 47]; Nekul’ev’s amazement that Tsypin can find his way “in this damp and odorous darkness, where nothing was visible, even if you popped your eyes out looking (хоть глаз выткни)” [14. P. 24; 15. P. 9]; later, as they ride to intercept forest thieves, he complains, “Oh, hell! All the trails are overgrown! You could poke your eyes out! (глаз еще выхлестнешь!)” [14. P. 35; 15. P. 21]; the peasant rumor about the Bolshevik forester as a sorcerer, who has been spied upon lighting a bonfire on the hill: he “lies down beside it, props his head up with his hands—and looks and looks into the fire; his eyes are terrible to see, and those glasses on his nose glow like coals” [14. P. 46; 15. P. 32]; Nekul’ev’s first meeting with the tanner Irina Arsen’evna, when he “noticed that in the green light the blood vessels in the whites of Arina’s eyes turned blue, while the pupils deepened to an abyss—and suddenly it seemed to him that from her eyes came the smell of tanned hide” [14. P. 30; 15. P. 14]; in love, Nekul’ev “was blinded with happiness” each time Arina came into the room” [14. P. 68; 15. P. 55]; and there are many more. But the textual positions of the hanging bast thief and the impaled Arina also set them apart from the rest of this series. The introductory passage about the forest thief’s blinding, which will be repeated at a contextually appropriate moment in the story, appears — epigraph-like — as a sign standing over the whole of the text, and over the forest, too[8]. Both the Bolshevik forester Nekul’ev and the reader of Pil’niak’s narrative must grapple with this repeating sign’s meaning.

Nekul’ev, who has come to take the place of two previous authorities — the last Bolshevik forester, who was murdered by the peasants, and the pre-revolutionary master of the house and lands around it, who was also murdered — is supposed to represent an enlightening law that punishes forest thieves and illuminates this heart of darkness. He finds instead that “For them I’m just the master [барин] and nothing else” [14. P. 61; 15. P. 48]. If it offends him that the peasants don’t see the difference between him and their pre-Revolutionary masters, it is nonetheless the case that Nekul’ev utterly fails as an authority in the new, supposedly more beneficent order. His educational words are unpersuasive, and he never wields the power to punish — even unto death — that his position ought to entail. The leather jacket just does not fit him. If he could kill, perhaps he would not be so terrified of being killed.


Meanwhile, the blinding / punishment of this forest thief suggests the operation of some other, larger, darker, inscrutable law, tied in with the notion of Mother Earth. “That’ll learn you to steal bark,” the thief is told by Kuzia, who is utterly at ease in speaking for this law [14. P. 49; 15. P. 34]. For Nekul’ev, the obscure locus of this law, which he cannot comprehend, let alone enforce in his capacity as forester, is more than unsettling: in preemptively punishing the forest thief, it has trumped the rule that Nekul’ev is supposed to implement, rendering it trivial, irrelevant. Mother Earth’s demands are a castrating shock to the intelligent and party man. At night the forest intrudes on the very space of rooms in the manor house where Nekul’ev lives, and he is terrified, watching a five-minute hourglass, listening for the sound of his killers, revolver close at hand and an escape route through the cellar well planned. And he flees them none too soon.

The kind of sacrifice Nekul’ev avoids had been made by the forester before him, as the watchman (лесник) Tsypin tells him: Nekul’ev’s predecessor was disemboweled, bound with his own gut, stuffed — though not quite — into a grand piano (metonymy of gentry culture: he too was apparently viewed as a “master”) and dumped with it into the very ravine to which a secret underground passage, on which Nekul’ev is relying for escape, proceeds from the manor’s cellar[9]. In the same breath, Tsypin says — in what appears to be a non sequitur — ”the hunting in these parts is fit for a king (охота в этих местах царская)” [14. P. 21; 15. P. 6].

Perhaps, though, the good hunting may be read as not entirely a non sequitur, but in some deeper sense a consequence of the offering made to Mother Earth. Also offered, then, is Irina, whose gruesome death is linked with the autumnal moment in the cycle of nature by the paragraph describing it, which begins: “…In fall the steppe fades all at once, enveloped suddenly in a vast, gray sadness” [14. P. 74; 15. P. 61]. Indeed, death is also of Mother Earth: “The peasants swear by Mother Earth as they do by love and death” [14. P. 64; 15. P. 51]. The Cossacks literally fix Irina into the earth.

Irina’s relations with Nekul’ev, too, had been associated with Mother Earth: “And one brisk, sunny day the urgings of Mother Earth rose within her, choking her, and she fell in love <…>” [14. P. 68; 15. P. 55][10]. But before she could be about birth — the closest she got was her failed adoption of the wolf pup — she is about death. She mounts the stake, her cross, in fall, not spring. Indeed, Irina had always had the smell of death on her, though Nekul’ev couldn’t quite identify the unsettling scent until he caught sight of her, spattered with blood, slaughtering a horse, at which point he fled both from her and from death.

If there is something not quite right — indeed, an offense to Mother Earth — in a thirty-year-old virgin, then there is something correspondingly appropriate about Irina’s death. There is a kind of cosmic justice in how the broken-down, “обезножившие” Red Army horses Irina had been slaughtering are avenged by counterrevolutionary “mounted Cossacks” [14. P. 74; 15. P. 61]. Indeed, it hardly seems necessary to have described the Cossack unit as “horse-mounted” (конный казачий отряд), except to underline another of the parallels that so irritated Shklovskii.  But why is Irina staked in her tanning vat? Her rape and impaling at the end appear also as a kind of retribution for her industrialized approach to death, an approach that is quite cut off from Mother Earth: she runs a factory for death and production rather than re-production. She, like Nekul’ev, had been sent to take the place of a previous master, her own father, in his rendering and tanning operation. Unlike Nekul’ev, however, this woman, who has suppressed her femininity for “thirty springs” and dies in her thirtieth autumn, assumed the position of the father with abundant authority and confidence. But the law of the father, with which is associated Bolshevik power in this story, is displaced by that of Mother Earth, and in the end Irina’s hubristic rule, too, is trumped, in a kind of resacralization of death.


The second parallel I wanted to explore, briefly, is the one between the wolf-pup and the folk or peasantry. Irina has adopted a wolf pup, on which she showers love, but which she never succeeds in domesticating. The text suggests an analogy between the wolf and the ignorant, tradition-bound and violent folk; the analogy’s underlying ideological theme might be expressed by the two poles of an argument running something like: “We can make the wolf into a useful, loyal dog,” versus “You can never take the beast out of the wolf.” Irina’s capitulation in her project of domesticating the wolf coincides with the failure of both her and Nekul’ev’s party missions.

In the wolf / folk analogy, Pil’niak invokes a venerable tradition in Russian culture, one that is perhaps most brilliantly encoded in Dostoevskii’s prison memoir Notes from the House of the Dead (Записки из мертвого дома) and, especially, “Peasant Marei”  (“Мужик Марей”). It is perhaps worth a short digression to indicate these links. 

In “Peasant Marei,” an anecdotal allegory about the relationship between the folk and the intelligentsia, embedded in a larger essayistic treatment of the relationship between intelligent and narod in Diary of a Writer [Дневник писателя] in 1876, Dostoevskii recalls how, during his Siberian prison days, he was upset by the holiday revelry (“разгул”) of peasant convicts. Once, during Easter, he could no longer stand to remain in the barracks while the common folk were running wild, so to speak, in their drunkenness. A spiteful hatred arises in his soul (“Наконец в сердце моем загорелась злоба”). He leaves the barracks and the folk, but returns after encountering a Polish political prisoner with whom he is even less inclined to associate. Back in his bunk, eyes closed, and immersed in soothing recollections, he finds reconciliation with the folk around him now by recalling how, when he was a child, one of his father’s peasants, Marei, comforted him when he was playing outside and became terrified by an apparent auditory hallucination: the wolf is running wild (“волк бежит!”). It is no accident that the child suffers the hallucination while engaged in the not-so-innocent activity of fashioning a walnut whip, with which to lash frogs! What is the meaning of this child's play, the fantasy behind his occupation? Dostoevskii describes the child Dostoevskii as preparing himself to handle the tool by which the gentry class dominates its enserfed peasants.

Dostoevskii’s tale sets up an equivalence between the child’s anxiety on hearing “волк бежит!” and the adult’s revulsion at the drunken, rampaging folk. It also establishes an interlingual pun between German “Volk” (folk, народ) and Russian “волк” (wolf) — an association whose overcoming or dissolution will be the point of the story. And overcome it is: just as Dostoevskii the child was assured that there was no wolf to fear and calmed by the peasant Marei, recalling the motherly Marei’s kindness allows the later convict Dostoevsky to see Marei in the rampaging peasant convicts of his barrack. It allows him to overcome the separation he had felt from the folk, and be with them, rather than with the truly hateful others — the Poles (with whom Dostoevskii shares another European language, French [16. P. 46—50]).

The theme of the relationship between intelligent and narod is central, too, in Dostoevskii’s earlier and more comprehensive Notes from the House of the Dead. But there is a possibility that Pil’niak’s treatment of it in this story alludes to Dostoevskii’s semi-fictionalized memoir in much more specific ways, too. For instance, the comic anecdote about Annushka, the priests, and her husband, told by Kuzia — and holding a very distinctive place in the structure of Pil’niak’s story, to which we will return — seems to be a variant of one of the plays that Dostoevskii’s peasant convicts stage during their Christmas theatricals, wherein a series of would-be lovers of a miller’s wife hide when the miller returns home are routed in the end [17. P. 128—129]. Indeed, the very device of the intelligent’s foreboding-filled reception of peasant narratives — the place of stories of the folk in Pil’niak’s larger narrative — is one of the most interesting features of Dostoevskii’s Notes from the House of the Dead, which reaches a kind of dreadful low point in the embedded tale entitled “Akulka’s Husband” (“Акулькин муж”). Certainly, the very title of Pil’niak’s story — ”Moist Mother Earth” (“Мать сыра земля”) — invokes the figure of Dostoevskii, who more than any other high literary figure of the nineteenth century worked with this venerated folk notion, referring to it in his essayistic writings (not least in regard to “pochvennichestvo”) and embedding it in key moments of such masterpieces as Crime and Punishment (Преступление и наказание) and Brothers Karamazov (Братья Карамазовы)[11].

To return to Irina’s failure at domesticating the wolf: her cruel lesson is the last we see of her before her impalement, and it serves as a kind of denouement to her relations with both the pup and Nekul’ev. She is bitten by the unwilling pet.

“And Irina wept bitterly: it was not the pain, not the blood flowing from her hand; she wept from loneliness, hurt, and helplessness; love a wolf pup as you may, it still looks to the forest; Irina was powerless before instinct — before the little, stinking, fluffy bundle of forest and animal instincts now entrenched behind the bed, powerless before those instincts which were alive within her and ruled her, and which had driven her out into the rain, into the steppe, to weep on the hill where she had given herself to Nekul’ev”  [14. P. 73; 15. P. 60].

And it is also about the intractability of instinct in her self.


And yet, the bemused ending of “Moist Mother Earth” complicates this binary between education and instinct, progress and returns of the past, and the facile regressive ideology, in Shklovskii’s view, behind it. Nekul’ev’s assistant, Kuzia, discovers the wolf when he attempts to deliver Nekul’ev’s letter to Irina. The wolf, we learn from this sly one — a trickster playing both sides — was actually a fox. No wonder he could not be tamed![12] In a large sense, Irina’s conclusion that “you can never take the beast out of the wolf” has lost its basis, and the parallelism between the folk and the wolf, has been invalidated.  Indeed, Pil’niak’s later The Volga Falls into the Caspian Sea, “Wolf” is the loyal pet — though only half wolf — of one of the engineers and his unhappy wife.

The very last lines of the story unlock yet another parallelism; this, however, is a metapoetic one (to which, we might have thought, Shklovskii would be particularly attuned). At the end, “Kuzia killed the fox, skinned it, and from the pelt made himself a cap with earflaps” [14. P. 75; 15. P. 62]. But before Kuzia kills the fox, he makes another use of it, in his storytelling:

“he told the story many times to Egor, Mariasha, and Katiasha: ‘And they said it was a wolf pup — what strange people! — whereas it was a fox!  <…> Of course, how should the gentry know about that? Not every hunter can tell the difference, but I know!” [14. P. 75; 15. P. 62].

Kuzia knows nature, he is the single character most at home in every setting of “Moist Mother Earth.” But Kuzia also knows how to tell stories: “People really like the way I tell stories,” he boasts [14. P. 25; 15. P. 10]. The “primitive ideology” tugging at the reader through the story is also the primitive form of narrative, the oral storytelling tradition that Kuzia embodies. It’s not for nothing that embedded in the narrative of “Moist Mother Earth” is another tale, a framed tale, interrupted, but eventually told to the end by Kuzia right at the center of “Moist Mother Earth” — just as peasant stories and, especially, the peasant convict theatricals were a centerpiece of Notes from the House of the Dead. Kuzia’s tale is the comic anecdote about Annushka, the priests, her husband’s revenge, and his ingenious solution in disposing of the three priests’ bodies. Interestingly enough, Kuzia’s story, the fundamental device of which is repetition — and there is a great deal of lexical repetition, too, in its skaz-y telling — is not itself repeated in Pilniak’s narrative (in the same way as is, by contrast, the blinding of the forest thief). That is to say, Kuzia is portrayed as telling the story three different times, but each time Pil’niak’s narrative resumes the story precisely where, previously, it had interrupted Kuzia’s telling. Kuzia does not repeat himself; and yet, the story itself is all about repetition.

You’ll recall that the angry husband pours water on the corpses, encasing them in ice, then stands one in his yard. He seeks out the village drunkard, whom he plies with spirits while explaining his problem: a drowned priest has come to his yard and needs to be dropped through a hole in the ice into the river whence he came. For a reward of further drink, Vaniusha hauls the corpse off. The husband then stands a second frozen corpse in the yard and tells Vaniusha that the priest has returned; Vaniusha takes him away. And once again, the same story. This is a repetitive story about getting over on the authorities, but it is also a story about repetition and its role in the rites of storytelling, one that hints at the most profound narratological and psychological functions of repetition. In transforming three dead priests into one dead priest who returns, this story casts the theme of repetition, which so unnerves Nekul’ev, into an exquisitely Freudian idiom: in the most literal sense, this tale is about the return of the dead, even as it pokes fun at the gullible Vaniusha’s acceptance of the very idea of the return of the dead. We find this theme of the return of the dead elsewhere in Pil’niak, of course: in “Ivan Moskva,” for example, the 3000-year-old mummy enfleshes, as it were, the idea of a repetition compulsion, and together with inherited syphilis and biological degeneration sets up a powerful counterpoint to the themes of progress associated with aviation and atomic energy in the story[13].


Indeed, Pil’niak’s works read well as parables of the key ideas in such masterpieces by Freud as “The Uncanny” (1919) and Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). More recent work in the area of trauma studies, too, makes visible what might be called a poetics of trauma structuring this story; a poetics that offers to help make sense of just those formal and ideological features of Pil’niak’s art that so irritated Shklovskii. Thus, “Moist Mother Earth” appears exemplary of what Dominick LaCapra calls “forms of narrative that do not unproblematically instantiate the conventional beginning-middle-end plot, which seeks resonant closure or uplift and tends to conflate absence with loss or lack. In fact there are forms that both contest it and suggest other modes of narration that raise in probing and problematic ways the question of the nature of the losses and absences, anxieties and traumas, that called them into existence” [20. P. 704—705].

So, let us reconsider some of Shklovskii’s criticisms of Pil’niak.

The best of Pil’niak’s writings work, he says, because they deal with fragments of daily life from 1918—1920 — an unbelievable time that cannot fail to fascinate. In Shklovskii’s words, “The material helps out the writer” [4. P. 127]. There is something undigested about this material, it is not properly subordinated to an artistic plan. Rather than being about history, history repeats itself in these works. Moreover, the reader of Pil’niak’s texts finds it hard to adopt the proper position in their regard — he or she is denied a comfortable external position. Writes Shklovskii, “Andrei Belyi once told me that Pil’niak’s works produce on him an impression like that of paintings when you can’t figure out at what distance to look at them” [4. P. 128]. Further, Pil’niak can’t seem to leave anything behind, Shklovskii says; material repeats from work to work, the past is never closed off from the present, but repeats itself in it:

“Pil’niak is a monotonous person (человек не разнообразный), from work to work he repeats not only himself, but even his citations”; “live citations (живые цитаты) strangely entered his works, nearly whole tales of Bunin and Vsevolod Ivanov. In the component parts of the ‘story’ there’s either no structure (конструкции нет), or else it’s there in a banal and outlived form” [4. P. 133, 136].

Finally, one can’t learn from Pil’niak’s writing, Shklovskii complains; one becomes possessed by it.  His superficial style is particularly dangerous for young writers: “Pil’niak’s modernism of form is purely superficial, and very convenient for copying; he himself is not a dense writer, saturated [with meaning]”; “the elementary nature of his fundamental device makes Pil’niak easily copied, which probably explains his infectiousness for young writers” [4. P. 128]. There’s something about Pil’niak’s texts that leads to a kind of hysterical imitation — hence the notion of pil’niakovitis (пильняковщина). Shklovskii attributes the proliferation of Pil’niak epigones to the superficial and simple nature of his key devices. But I think that most readers of Pil’niak’s difficult texts will conclude that if they were “infectious,” this wasn’t because of their simplicity.

Now let us consider what such theorists as LaCapra and Cathy Caruth have to say about traumatic repetition. Caruth speaks of the

surprising literality and non-symbolic nature of traumatic dreams and flashbacks, which resist cure to the extent that they remain, precisely, literal. It is this literality and its insistent delay or incompletion in knowing, or even in seeing, an overwhelming occurrence that then remains in its insistent return, absolutely true to the event. It <…> is not a pathology <…> of falsehood or displacement of meaning, but of history itself <…> not so much a symptom of the unconscious, as it is a symptom of history. The traumatized, we might say, carry an impossible history within them, or they become themselves the symptom of a history that they cannot entirely possess” [21. P. 194].

Traumatic repetition is a “literal,” verbatim repetition that fractures the temporal or experiential integrity of the present, imbuing it with returns of the past. What returns is undigested, “unclaimed” experience; it is not your experience — it possesses you. And there is no possibility of distancing oneself from it, no perspective from which this experience can be rendered coherent, precisely as in Belyi’s metaphor.

Pil’niak certainly had his share of traumatic experiences during the Civil War period, but it would be facile and — so  far as I can tell, having only partial, superficial command of his biography — flat out incorrect to view his narratives as symptomatic in an autobiographical sense. Then about whose trauma are we talking? A rather glib answer is that trauma, by definition, defies the possessive modifier — it possesses you rather than the other way around. But that truism does not satisfy.

Still, Pil’niak’s narratives seem to manifest a carefully constructed and historically appropriate poetics of trauma, a kind of deliberate acting out that is a profound artistic reaction to the times, a brilliant formal means of conveying crisis time and, more to the point, its continuation in the here and now of the traumatized, “its endless impact on life,” to cite Caruth [22. P. 7]. It’s not what is repeated, necessarily, in Pil’niak’s texts — though some of that material is shocking enough — but the very fact and literality of the repetition that evokes the mechanisms of trauma.

It is instructive to draw a rough contrast with Isaac Babel’s graphic, violent stories set in the same period. These works certainly disturb, but both their shocking material — which probably outdoes Pil’niak’s — and its narration, are nevertheless more circumscribed by the time of the events they describe. Babel’s stories are exquisitely finished — the author is in utter control of his material — and we might ask if this doesn’t facilitate closing the door on painful experience for the reader as well. Pil’niak’s works, by contrast, are never finished — hence his propensity for self-repetition — and having just scratched the surface, I find dealing with him as a scholar unsettling. If LaCapra can speak of “postmemory,” that is, “the acquired memory of those not directly experiencing an event such as the Holocaust or slavery” [23. P. 108], and of “surrogate victimage” and “empathic unsettlement or even muted trauma” experienced by historians of the Holocaust [20. P. 717], something similar might be said of the reader response to Pil’niak described by Shklovskii.  Pil’niak’s poetics is not just a means of expressing trauma; it is a mechanism for passing trauma on.


Returning to “Moist Mother Earth” suggests some distinctions that must be made in thinking through this topic. There is the trauma depicted by Pil’niak’s narrative: Nekul’ev’s near lynching and panic attacks, his reaction to witnessing the violent primal scene in which Irina plays the role of executioner; and above all, the image of the impaled and dying — and therefore not yet beyond trauma — Irina. There is the effect this material has on the reader, for whom Nekul’ev’s escape is a kind of comic relief, but in whose mind involuntarily lingers the phantasmic image of Irina’s violation and suffering. And then there is the narratological function of repetition in Pil’niak’s narrative. 

But Pil’niak also, and most interestingly, offers a kind of metapsychological parable for how it all works. At the end of “Moist Mother Earth,” the storyteller Kuzia arrives at Irina’s pillaged home to deliver an unfinished letter — Nekul’ev’s letter closing off his affair with Irina. He takes this letter from one abandoned house to another, from a man who has already fled — he wasn’t anticipating an answer anyhow — to a woman who is already dead. This arrival of the dead letter, this unconscious, unwilled, and belated action, signifies, rather than closure —remember, the letter was to have ended the affair — the very mechanism of traumatic repetition. It has become detached even from the personages to whom it pertains (Nekul’ev, Irina), while the storyteller and son of Mother Earth, Kuzia, serves as its cheerful agent.

However much this story disturbs, it nevertheless appears unfair to think of it, along Shklovskii’s lines, as fundamentally pathological. In framing trauma by the idea of Moist Mother Earth (mat’ syra zemlia) Pil’niak invokes, in LaCapra’s words, a sacralization of trauma, even if, from the position of the intelligent (Nekul’ev, Irina), this means being traumatized by a sacred in which one can only participate as sacrificial victim.  To be sure, these are the characters from whose point of view much of the narrative is given, and with whom readers will tend to identify. But the story does also offer the reader access to the positions of Annushka’s husband, or rather, that of Kuzia, the storyteller — who makes his hat, makes his story, is at home in the forest and comfortable with knife, gun and death: utterly unflappable, immune to trauma[14].



1.     Maguire, R.A. Red Virgin Soil : Soviet Literature in the 1920’s. — Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987; rept. 1968.

2.     Jensen, P.A. Nature as Code : The Achievement of Boris Pilnjak: 1915—1924. — Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1979.

3.     Mills, J.M. Narrative Technique in Pil’nyak’s “Mother Earth” // Journal of Russian Studies. — 1974. — No. 29. — P. 13—21.

4.     Shklovskii, V. O Pil’niake // LEF. — 1925. — No. 3 (7). — P. 126—136.

5.     Nicholas, M.A. Formalist Theory Revisited: On Šklovskij “On Pil’njak” // Slavic and East European Journal. — 1992. — Vol. 36. — No. 1. — P. 68—83.

6.     Voronskii, A. Literaturnye portrety. — Moscow: Federatsiia, 1928. — Vol. 1.

7.     Naiman, E. Sex in Public : The Incarnation of Early Soviet Ideology. — Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.

8.     Miller, M.A. Freud and the Bolsheviks: Psychoanalysis in Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. — New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

9.     Etkind, A. Eros nevozmozhnogo : istoriia psikhoanaliza v Rossii. — St. Petersburg: MEDUZA, 1993.

10.                       Pil’niak, B. [Bez nazvania] / Kak my pishem. — Leningrad: Izd-vo pisatelei v Leningrade, 1930. — P. 124—129.

11.                       Freud, S. The Relation of the Poet to Day-Dreaming / trans. I.F. Grant Duff // Freud S. Character and Culture / ed. P. Rieff. — New York: Collier Books, 1963. P. 34—43.

12.                       Bostrom, K.N. The Enigma of Pil’njak’s The Volga Falls to the Caspian Sea // The Slavic and East European Journal. — 1974, Autumn. — Vol. 18. — No. 3. — P. 271—298.

13.                       Kishkovsky, S. For Russia’s Nouveaux Riches, Indoor Plumbing Deluxe // The New York Times. — 2005, Sept. 14. — Section A. — P. 4.

14.                       ПильнякБТысяча лет. Мать-мачеха = Pil’niak, B. Tausend Jahre. Mutter-Stiefmutter // Nachdruck der Bande 3 und 4 der Werkausgabe Moskau. — Leningrad, 1929. München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1970. P. 17—75. (Slavische Propyläen: Texte in Neu- und Nachdrucken. Band 78).

15.                       Pilnyak, B. Mother Earth and Other Stories / trans. and ed. V.T. Reck, M. Green. — Garden City (N.Y.): Anchor Books, 1968. — P. 1—62.

16.                       Dostoevskii, F.M. Muzhik Marei // Dostoevskii F.M. Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v 30 t. / ed. E.I. Kiiko, G.M. Fridlender. — Leningrad: Nauka, 1981. Vol. 22. — P. 46—50.

17.                       Dostoevskii, F.M. Zapiski iz mertvogo doma // Dostoevskii, F.M. Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v 30 t. / ed. F.Ia. Priima. — Leningrad: Nauka, 1972. Vol. 4. — P. 5—232.

18.                       Ratliff, E. Taming the Wild // National Geographic. — 2011, March.—  Vol. 219 — No. 3. — P. 34—59.

19.                       Finke, M. The Agit-Flights of Viktor Shklovskii and Boris Pil’niak / The Other Shore // Slavic and East European Culture Abroad, Past and Present. — 2010. — Vol. 1. — P. 19—32.

20.                       LaCapra, D. Trauma, Absence, Loss // Critical Inquiry. — 1999, Summer. — No. 25. — P. 696—727.

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22.                       Caruth, C. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. — Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

LaCapra, D. Trauma Studies: Its Critics and Vicissitudes / LaCapra, D. History in Transit: Experience, Identity, Critical Theory. — Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004. — P. 106—143.

[1] Among the few scholars who have attributed positive motivations to Pil’niak’s propensity to repeat himself, Peter Alberg Jensen discusses them under the rubric of “textual transfers” and reads lack of originality in Pil’niak not as a defect, but as an essential and purposeful feature of his modernist prose. Although he cites Pil’niak’s “Preface” of “Materialy k romanu,” in which Pil’niak attributes self-repetition to a poor imagination and says that he therefore “sacrifices” an old work if necessary when composing a new one, Jensen finds more compelling formal motivations for borrowings from self and others [see: 2. P. 271—344, esp. P. 273, 285] and calls it an “essential feature” of his work [Ibid. P. 322]. In her reading of “Moist Mother Earth,” Judith Mills asserts, “Chronology is unimportant but impact is indicated by repetition” [3. P. 16]. It might be interesting to consider Pil’niak together with another great modernist artist of the period who engaged in much self-quotation: Dmitrii Shostakovich.

[2] See the discussion of Shklovskii’s critique by M.A. Nicholas [5]. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations from Russian sources are mine.

[3] On Freud in late imperial Russia and the early Soviet Union, see M.A. Miller and A. Etkind [8, 9].

[4] See the discussion of this line [7. P. 61].

[5] Naiman’s brief discussion of Pil’niak puts it slightly differently; he writes that “the entire Revolution undergoes a process of sexualization in Pil’niak’s prose” [Ibid. P. 60—61], and he very productively embeds Pil’niak’s sexual thematics in the local (both spatially and temporally) discursive context.

[6] The common understanding of Pil’niak’s intentions regarding this novel is disputed by Bostrom [12. P. 271—272].

[7] Translations of this story are taken, with some modifications, from the volume by Reck and Green [15. P. 1—62]. Page references to the story show the page numbers from both sources, with the Russian first.

[8] In the Freudian scheme, with which Pil’niak had to be familiar, the blinding would be a sign of castration, as in Freud’s discussions of Oedipus and E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Sandman”.

[9] This passage is structured around another of the prominent binaries in the story, the opposition between inside and outside; but we cannot treat that here.

[10] The passage continues: “And in that same moonlit week, in the moonlit and dewy dark when Nekul’ev said, “I love you, I love you,” there were only the moon and Mother Earth; she gave herself to him — a woman of thirty and a virgin — yielding up everything she had garnered in those thirty springs”. “Arina gave herself to Nekul’ev with all the abandon of Mother Earth” [14. P. 69; 15. P. 56].

[11] In a brief discussion of allusions to Dostoevskii in Pil’niak, Kenneth Bostrom states, “Pil’njak’s use of Dostoevskian characters and situations from time to time is not so much an indication of influence as it is a kind of shorthand and a signal: the reader’s attention is directed to an extensive and familiar body of thought immediately relevant to Pil’njak’s own themes. When direct reference is made to Dostoevskij, his ideas always provide a key to the solution of Pil’njak’s riddles” [12. P. 297].

[12] It should be noted, however, that foxes have been successfully domesticated in a decades-long research project in Novosibirsk [see: 18. P. 34—59].

[13] See my treatment of “Ivan Moskva” [19. P. 29–32].

[14] See the discussion of Kuzia’s story by Mills, who reads it, rather, in parallel and opposition to Nekul’ev’s unfinished letter [3. P. 16—17].