Unknown Parabolas
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Unknown Parabolas
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Jonathan Flatley 
Occupation: Professor, English Department
Affiliation: Wayne State University
Address: United States, Detroit

This essay describes the powerful effects of my encounter with Valery Podoroga, emphasizing not only Podoroga’s interest in mimesis, but also his own capacity for mimetic openness. It begins autobiographically, recounting Podoroga’s lecture on Andrei Platonov’s “Eunuch of the Soul” at a conference at Duke University in 1990.  I discuss Podoroga’s description of the “unknown parabolas” that characterize the experience of reading Platonov.  In this understanding, reading pulls us through a parabola away from and then back to ourselves according to a path created by the form of the text itself. Hearing Podoroga speak that day alerted me to a shared interest in the affective power of reading, but it also described my own experience of hearing Podoroga: I was taken out of myself and returned through an “unknown parabola” to a different self, set on a new trajectory, one that happily brought me into the orbit of his sector at the Institute of Philosophy in Moscow.  

The second half of the essay shifts to a consideration of Podoroga’s reading of Varlam Shalamov (who Podoroga turns to in his remarkable book about the Gulag and Auschwitz, The Time After (Время после. Освенцим и ГУЛАГ: мыслить абсолютное зло).  For Shalamov (what Podoroga calls) “catastrophic space” produces a specific, somewhat surprising desire to be like trees. The life and death of trees become reference points, a way of being that brings Shalamov into another world, an alternative to the camps. In writing about this desire to be like trees after the fact, Shalamov gives readers a figure for apprehending the weird, inapprehensible, catastrophic space of the camps. In his persistent fascination with tree existence, Shalamov takes his place in a long arboreal counter-tradition preoccupied with being or becoming like trees. This relation to trees is not interested in categorizing or mastery. Instead, it is animistic, an imaginative mimetic understanding traveling along the paths of similarity and which, even in its apparent impossibility, itself creates unknown parabolas for him and for us.

Valery Podoroga, Andrei Platonov, Varlam Shalamov, trees, Kolyma
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1 I met Valery Podoroga in March 1990. He was giving a talk on Andrei Platonov at a conference at Duke University, where I was visiting as a prospective graduate student. His lecture, which I mostly apprehended through the voice of Lena Petrovsky, who was translating for him, spoke to me and my concerns so directly that it came as something of a shock. He was talking about the «eunuch of the soul»> (a figure from Platonov’s Chevengur). Most immediately, his talk reminded me of things I had worked on in college about writing (and reading) as self-negation and I remember talking to Valery afterwards in my halting Russian about Derrida.1 But it was not only what Valery was arguing that so interested me, it was his whole way of thinking, its movement, patterns and intensities. Listening to his talk, I somehow understood that Valery and I shared a way of feeling about reading, that we had been similarly disturbed, stimulated and transformed by our reading experiences.
1. I had been preoccupied with Jacques Derrida’s “ ...That Dangerous Supplement ...” and Paul De Man’s “Autobiography as De-facement.” It so happened that Derrida visited Moscow around this time.
2 Valery spoke with a powerful conviction about the ways that reading could change one’s sense of the world. Platonov’s texts, he argued, solicited a strange reading experience that hovered between two “affective-emotional distances.” One, which he calls tragic, draws us in closer. The other, a comic line, removes us from what is depicted. However, he observed, “we are dealing with one and the same distance, which, while making us independent of what is being read, even its judges, suddenly returns us almost instantaneously to ourselves, through some unknown parabola, though now to a ‘different ourselves,’ transforming us from autonomous subjects into objects of provocation, revulsion, and melancholy. In removing ourselves, we suddenly draw nearer: one distance hides in the other» [9, p. 360].
3 The reader of Platonov will recognize this odd movement from the comic (when we gently smile at the Don Quixote-like revolutionaries and goofy peasants) to the tragic (as we read of the horrors of war or starvation). But Valery captured here a particular readerly relation not only present in Platonov’s works, one where the reader is both drawn in and also pushed away, not only from the text but — by way of the text — from our “selves,” which have, for a moment gotten lost in the act of reading itself. The moment of being-affected in reading does not happen to “me” but to some object I become by way of the text’s own internal logic and form. Rereading this now, I hear the echoes of Theodor Adorno, and even Plato, who was so preoccupied in The Republic with the transformative effects of reading on the reader. For Plato, to read something such as Achilles’s grief-filled speech in The Iliad requires that one “act like” (homoia poiein) Achilles in grief. This mimetic process is not just a temporary step away from our everyday selves into an autonomous sphere, but one that reshapes our very “being.” Reading is affecting because it involves actually becoming someone else. And because acting like someone is how we get to be who we are, aesthetic experience is a powerful social and political force shaping subjectivity as such. And if a given political order requires its subjects to feel a particular way just as much as it needs them to think and believe something, then poetry has the power to threaten this politico-affective order. Poetry, and, by extension reading itself, must therefore be carefully policed.
4 In Valery’s case — as in Adorno’s — it is not just the characters in a story but something like the form of the text itself, its internal aesthetic logic, that transforms us.2 We experience ourselves in or even as this text when we read. Reading pulls us through a parabola, away and then back to ourselves according to a path created by the form of the text itself. Thus, it is not only that we are another subject or person (as for Plato) but that we are, for a moment, not a person at all. This escape from and return to subjectivity constitutes the event of reading.
2. I am thinking, for instance, of this moment in Minima Moralia, «Anyone who, drawing on the strength of his precise reaction to a work of art, has ever subjected himself in earnest to its discipline, to its immanent formal law, the compulsion of its structure, will find that objections to the merely subjective quality of his experience vanish like a pitiful illusion» [2, p. 69–70]. See also passages such as this one in Aesthetic Theory: «As a musical composition compresses time, and as a painting folds spaces into one another, so the possibility is concretized that the world could be other than it is. Space, time, and causality are maintained, their power is not denied, but they are divested of their compulsiveness» [1, p. 138]. I am thinking of Adorno here, too, since Valery wrote a dissertation on Adorno.
5 As Valery presented it, critical analysis, by contrast with the moment of being affected as a reader, involved a kind of «self-defamiliarization» (which he would later describe in Anthropogram, and which bore a similarity to the self-alienating, non-participatory observation of the «eunuch of the soul»), where one observed one’s own affective-emotional experience in order to map it out.3 He does not discuss it at length, except (almost as an afterthought) as a fourth mimesis to add to the three already discussed in his Mimesis, as «the preconscious, purely mimetic response, without which I cannot exist as a reader»4 This initial moment of being affected, of being mimetically moved or touched in the experience of reading is an essential condition of possibility for critical reflection.5 That is, if writing about a text involves getting a kind of critical distance on the way the text affects you as a reader, the way the text has provided lines of approach, hiding places, or zones of attraction where a reader to be drawn in and changed, this requires a certain mimetic openness to being affected in the first place. Even though he himself under-emphasized this in his writings, I think Valery was unusually open to being affected and altered by aesthetic objects. In fact, I believe this was one of his greatest talents, or at least the one I most admired.
3. Only now do I realize how much my argument in my first book [6] about «affective mapping» is an effort to work out my understanding of Valery’s project.

4. The passage continues: «We carry out this natural reflexive action not realizing that without it we have no corporeal competence. This is mimesis 4, which anticipates everything that is consciously imitated, and close to the meaning that Kant attributed to the “ability of the imagination”, and that P. Valéry attributed to the “fourth Body”» [8, p. 343].

5. Oleg Aronson describes Podoroga’s project in terms of touch (in ways that recall Plato’s suggestion that, in reading, the text imprint itself on us): Podoroga «does not hold the division between physics and metaphysics, but tries to show how what we consider to be the philosophical or metaphysical characteristics of the text are generated by the internal physics of a world as a set of particular types of forces, and this is what produces that strange sensation of being touched by thinking. And the word “touch” here expresses the corporeal origin of thought, and simultaneously its fragility and instability. It is too vague compared with the world of ideas, which do not touch, but intrude, and intruding do not provoke, but normalize. Touch merely leaves an imprint. This imprint is the subject of Podoroga’s investigation» [3, p. 258].
6 Valery’s description of his affective-emotional experience with Platonov’s text also described my experience with Valery’s text as he read it. That day, listening to Valery’s talk, I was taken out of myself and was returned through an “unknown parabola” to a different self. That encounter changed me, it changed my thinking and just as consequentially it changed how I felt about thinking. Just as Valery was himself attracted to descriptions of the strange experience of reading, I was drawn in by Valery’s descriptions of them, which I received as an invitation to get lost in his text and join him in his project. I was thereby not only newly affected, with new capacities, I felt, for being affected, but I had been set on a new trajectory, a line of becoming that had not, earlier, even been apparent to me.
7 This encounter — hearing Valery’s lecture and talking to him, meeting Lena Petrovsky and talking to her — opened up a new world. It initiated my contact with the sphere that had formed around Valery at the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, where Valery and Lena were part of an exciting department or “sector” (on “Post-Classical Philosophy”). Susan Buck-Morss had met this group a few years earlier and was already collaborating with them (which she beautifully describes in her Dreamworld and Catastrophe [4]). Fredric Jameson (then the relatively new Director of the Program in Literature at Duke, who would become my dissertation adviser) was now also working with this group, and he proposed integrating a semester or two at the Institute into my graduate coursework. I had not yet decided that I would even go to Duke, but now that pursuing my Ph.D. at Duke was thus also a way to get to Moscow to work with Valery, Lena and the other members of the sector, it became an obvious choice.
8 The particular affective power of this event for me had something to do with the now-difficult-to-reconstruct mood of that historical moment. Of course, it was also a personal turning point, and I was myself ready, even eager, to be changed by my intellectual encounters. But meeting Valery and Lena was also powerful, it should be admitted, because they came from the Soviet Union, which still felt very far away, so that any kind of real contact – never mind the kind of intense intellectual engagement I felt with Valery almost instantly — felt thrillingly novel, uncharted, even transgressive. In 1990, the Soviet Union, declared the «Evil Empire» only a few years earlier (1983) by Ronald Reagan, was still on the other side of the Cold War. George Bush was president. Although Reagan and Gorbachev had signed an arms deal, and perestroika and glasnost were underway, it was not clear how this would all turn out (and none of suspected how it did). It was still difficult to travel to the Soviet Union for US citizens, and even more difficult for Soviet citizens to travel to the US. (I had been to Moscow for a summer course in 1988.) To me, at the time, Slavic departments in the US seemed (with some exceptions) hopelessly conservative, both intellectually and politically, opposed to (what we then just called) theory, and at best unlikely homes for the kinds of things I was interested in. As is well known, the Cold War structured Slavic studies in fundamental ways (not least financially), and being interested in Marxist theory, never mind being a Marxist or an actual communist, in a Slavic department, seemed basically impossible. There were very few, if any, professors in Slavic departments in the U.S. whose work excited me as Valery’s did. The idea of studying at the Institute of Philosophy in Moscow was not something I was even aware of as a possibility. It was a revelation.
9 After my first semester at Duke, I made a short trip to Moscow in early 1991 for a conference (described by Buck-Morss in Dreamworld and Catastrophe [4]) where I met Oleg Aronson, Sasha Ivanov, Misha Ryklin and Susan Buck-Morss. With this group I participated in a huge protest march to denounce the use of deadly violence against peaceful protestors in Lithuania. And then, through the 1990s, I spent various semesters and summer in Moscow, and with the group that had gathered at the Institute. It quickly became, and has remained, a crucial intellectual center of gravity for me. The group that had gathered around Valery had a rare, animating intellectual energy and sense of shared purpose. I do not know exactly what constitutes such atmospheres, each of which creates its own habitus. These are atmospheres that seem, somehow, to energize all involved. There was a dense web of friendships, the layering of multiple intense conversations and debates, sometimes over tea, other times while getting drunk. A sense of project and possibility produced a kind of openness to collaboration and future-oriented projects. Wit and laughter punctuated the formation. Such groups are rarer than one wishes (though I was lucky enough to find one at Duke around the same time), and the story of the rest of the 1990s is, in part, the story of the dissolution and transformation of this environment, as certain friendships ended, as people moved into different careers or to different countries, as the new post-Soviet reality restructured everyday life.
10 This is not the place to tell the story of the 1990s or the subsequent years, except to say that even though the 1990s were an exciting time, intellectually, they were also brutal for everyone I knew at the Institute.6 What had previously been reasonable salaries had become, once post-Soviet “shock therapy” and hyperinflation were underway, almost worthless. There was, as Lena Petrovsky observed at the time, “something humiliating about the fact that the best intellectuals can hardly make ends meet.”7 Anxieties about money affected everything. Those who could got fellowships or grants. It was during this time that Valery came to the United States, to Durham, where I was in graduate school, for a year on a fellowship at the National Humanities Center.
6. I tried to give a partial account of my experience of the 1990s in my «Moscow and Melancholia» [7], and (in Russian) [13].

7. Personal communication, quoted by Susan Buck-Morss [4, p. 262].
11 Even as the intensity of that early formation was altered, new formations came into being, and Valery was drawing excellent graduate students from around the country, like the now quite accomplished Alexei Penzin and Oxana Timofeeva. Lena Petrovsky and Oleg Aronson became formidable philosophers in their own right, and, as I went through my own weird journey in academia and life, Valery, Lena, Oleg and the other members of the sector remained a constant reference point, a locus of collaboration, and a reliable testing ground for ideas and projects. Valery was an anchor. It is unmooring to imagine the world without his presence in it. I am adrift.
12 I have spoken so far of «Valery» since the imprint of Valery’s thought on me is inseparable from my relation to Valery as a friend and mentor. I want now to turn, briefly, from the biographical person to the author and philosopher «Podoroga» looking to his work for help on a new project about arboreal being and the history of the desire to be like trees.
13 ***
14 In his essay on Platonov, as throughout his work, Podoroga is drawn to figures who see and describe without trying to understand. This mode is a response to catastrophe, to spaces or environments that are overwhelmingly hostile to human life. This world cannot really be understood, or even really felt, or at least not felt by a “me” (even if the body itself retains and records the encounter with this world). “The eunuch of the soul is the witness and the chronicler of catastrophe” [9, p. 385]. If the catastrophe cannot be experienced by a subject, it can be survived and described, a double task that literature is uniquely capable of performing.
15 This descriptive mode has a strange, defamiliarizing effect on the body. As Podoroga writes, under this gaze we do not see «human bodies, but motions and material processes, a kind of assemblage that loses completely all bodily dimensionality, values, history, to become nature itself» [ibid., p. 395]. The human body loses its separateness, and is instead integrated into the natural world surrounding it, becoming thereby difficult to distinguish from earth, animals, insects, wind or plants. This makes reading Platonov sometimes shocking, as I noted above, because at first we do not realize that this person is having an orgasm, or dying of starvation, or being murdered; we have to piece it together from the somewhat abstract, material processes being described. At times, the characters themselves seem to feel, too, this basic kinship with everything else, as they make friends with a cockroach or are comforted by sensing their similarity with untended grasses. There is something to be gained, we glean, from this mimetic openness to the natural world, and perhaps not only in catastrophic space.
16 In the case of Varlam Shalamov, who Podoroga turns to in his remarkable book [12] about the Gulag and Auschwitz, The Time After (Время после. Освенцим и ГУЛАГ: мыслить абсолютное зло), catastrophic space produces a specific, somewhat surprising desire to be like trees, as part of a more general identification with nature as such. Podoroga writes: «The force of the disintegration of personal identity in the camp is such that any attempt to preserve it runs into insurmountable obstacles. There is only one exit — an imaginary identification with Nature, only it gives hope for survival. Therefore, animals, and plants, and stones, and waterfalls, and berries and mushrooms become his models: you need to follow their instincts, learn their attitude to ‘life and death,’ their indifference and peace».8 In the camps, the trees did not give Shalamov a way to understand his experience, so much as they gave him a way to be attached to the project of survival. If the dwarf pine (стланик) and larch (лиственница) could survive, then survival was a thing that could happen.
8. «Сила распада личностной идентичности в лагере такова, что всякая попытка ее сохранить наталкивается на непреодолимые препятствия. Выход только один – воображаемая идентификация с Природой, только она дает надежду на выживание. Поэтому и звери, и растения, и камни, и водопады, и ягоды и грибы становятся его образцами: нужно следовать их инстинктам, учиться их отношению к «жизни и смерти», их безразличию и покою» [12, с. 152].
17 But then, later, as a writer, the trees become for Shalamov what Podoroga calls an «anthropogram» literature’s internal system or logic for making «sense» of the world, or rather, at least in the case of Shalamov (and Platonov) making sense of their previous inability to make sense of the world. What appears to be a representation of the world in Shalamov’s stories, the world of the GULAG, is also the creation of a world, a literary world, one in which people are like trees. By recounting his fascination with trees, the apparently unavoidable impulse to feel oneself «like trees». Shalamov can retroactively come to make sense — or maybe it is more like of a covering over — his own experience in the GULAG. It is thus his own mode of mimetic self-defamiliarization, of making his own incomprehensible experience available for observation and reflection. This is not to say that he quite manages to distance himself from the GULAG. As Podoroga observes, the incomprehensible experience of the GULAG is one that he must constantly rework and revise, in a process that will never resolve, but which writing — and in particular the symbol of the tree — manages to cover, cushion or at least mediate.
18 For instance, Shalamov wrote about how he admired the «extraordinary sensitivity» of the dwarf pine (чувствительность его необычайна), which had the barometer-like capacity to sense the coming of winter and spring before it was apparent to people. It gets ready before the season’s first snowfall. «Then the dwarf pine bends. It bends lower and lower, as if under an immense, ever-increasing weight. Its crown scratches the rock and huddles against the ground as it stretches out its emerald paws. It is making its bed. It’s like an octopus dressed in green feathers. Once it has lain down, it waits a day or two, and now the white sky delivers a shower of snow, like powder, and the dwarf pine sinks into hibernation, like a bear. Enormous snowy blisters swell up on the white mountain: the dwarf pine bushes in their winter sleep» [10, p. 167]9 This tree has senses which humans lack. «In any case humans have only their five senses, which are not enough to foretell or intuit anything. Nature’s feelings are more subtle» [10, с. 168]10. These senses indicate the possibility of another way of being-in-the world, one which has actually adapted to the harsh conditions in Kolyma. In the tree’s way of existence (as with art, music and literature), the possibility is concretized that the world could be other than it is.
9. «А стланик гнется. Гнется все ниже, как бы под безмерной, все растущей тяжестью. Он царапает своей вершиной камень и прижимается к земле, растягивая свои изумрудные лапы. Он стелется. Он похож на спрута, одетого в зеленые перья. Лежа, он ждет день, другой, и вот уже с белого неба сыплется, как порошок, снег, и стланик погружается в зимнюю спячку, как медведь. На белой горе взбухают огромные снежные волдыри — это кусты стланика легли зимовать» [16, с. 179].

10. «К счастью, ощущения человека слишком грубы, восприятия слишком просты, да и чувств у него немного, всего пять — этого недостаточно для предсказаний и угадываний.       Природа тоньше человека в своих ощущениях» [там же, с. 180].
19 The life and death of trees become reference points, a way of being that brings with it another world, one that is an alternative to the camps. If, as Kafka said, there is hope, infinite hope, just not for us» then Shalamov’s response to this fact is to try to inhabit another world, the world of trees, where there is hope. “No, it is not just a predictor of the weather. The dwarf pine is a tree of hope, the only evergreen tree in the Far North. Against the radiant white snow, its matt-green coniferous paws speak of the south, of warmth, of life” [ibid.].11
11. «Нет, он не только предсказатель погоды. Стланик—дерево надежд, единственное на Крайнем Севере вечнозеленое дерево. Среди белого блеска снега матово-зеленые хвойные его лапы говорят о юге, о тепле, о жизни» [там же].
20 Metaphorical language surrounds the dwarf pine: it makes its bed; it is like an octopus; it has paws like a bear. It dwells in a world of Baudelairean «correspondences» that Shalamov may not enter, but which his close observation of the dwarf pine allows him to imagine. Indeed, by way of imaginative identification with the more subtle feelings of the trees, Shalamov can imagine having feelings again. After all, as he notes elsewhere, «any human feelings —love, friendship, envy, charity, mercy, ambition, decency, — had vanished along with the flesh we had lost during our prolonged starvation. The miniscule layer of flesh . . . had only enough room for resentful anger, the most long lasting of human feelings» [10, p. 38]12. The sensitivity and openness to the environment that Shalamov sees in the trees, their capacity to be at home, to make a bed — these are compelling to the precise extent that his own body feels like it can no longer experience such feelings.
12. «Все человеческие чувства — любовь, дружба, зависть, человеколюбие, милосердие, жажда славы, честность — ушли от нас с тем мясом, которого мы лишились за время своего продолжительного голодания. В том незначительном мышечном слое, что еще оставался на наших костях, что еще давал нам возможность есть, двигаться, и дышать, и даже пилить бревна, и насыпать лопатой камень и песок в тачки, и даже возить тачки по нескончаемому деревянному трапу в золотом забое, по узкой деревянной дороге на промывочный прибор, в этом мышечном слое размещалась только злоба – самое долговечное человеческое чувство» [17, с. 75].
21 Later, as a writer, he can almost achieve a tree-like sensitivity; or, at least this is his aim, as if he promised himself to do his best to live like a tree, and this guided how he thought about writing. In any case, the figure of the tree, and the description of Shalamov’s attachment to trees, allows Shalamov to represent the inhumanity of the GULAG by way of an object of perception that is familiar to all of us. We may not know the reality of the GULAG. But, who, after all, has not relaxed under a tree, admired a tree’s beauty, or thought in wonder of the fruit that trees bear? Under what conditions, we can think, in reading Shalamov, would tree existence start to seem like a positive model? What would make me wish I were a tree?
22 The «Resurrection of the Larch» is the story that most clearly dramatizes what Podoroga calls the “temporal rift» created by Shalamov’s difficult relation to his past. In that story, a larch branch is sent from a man in Kolyma to Moscow, to the wife of a poet who has died. The branch is dead. But, in Moscow, in a tin can on the counter, sitting in the chlorinated water, it comes back to life. “Secret forces are woken in the branch” [11, p. 324].13 And then, by way of its turpentine-like smell — “the smell of life” — it transforms the atmosphere of the apartment. The larch makes an environment, establishes an atmosphere. This is what trees do. «The larch tree exuded — exuded is the right word — its smell, like sap. The smell merged with the color, and there was no boundary between them» [11, p. 326].14 Again, we are in the world of Baudelairean correspondences, the tree modelling a capacity for mimetic translation between the senses that humans lack, but which is a model for poetry.
13. «В ветке разбужены иные, тайные силы» [15, с. 277].

14. «Лиственница источала, именно источала запах, как сок. Запах переходил в цвет, и не было между ними границы» [там же, с. 278].
23 «The persistent faint smell was the voice of the dead» [ibid.].15 The tree speaks for the dead, in the language that trees speak. If Shalamov imagined himself a tree while he was in the camps, here he imagines that the larch tree has somehow absorbed all this mimetic energy directed towards it, a kind of silent witness that can then «speak» to us of all those desperate people who looked to the trees for a sign that things could be somehow different than they were. That is, the larch tree here a symbol of Shalamov’s writing itself, which is, after all, also the voice of the dead. The tree is capable of repairing the temporal rupture created by the catastrophic space of the camp. It reminds us of the unforgettable and speaks to us of what (as Podoroga says) «cannot be grasped by individual consciousness, that is, it does not lend itself to individual processing and appropriation».16
15. «Слабый настойчивый запах — это был голос мертвых» [там же].

16. «Подобная память не может быть схвачена индивидуальным сознанием, т. е. не поддается индивидуальной обработке и присвоению» [12, с. 173].
24 Trees do not only display an unusual sensitivity, they also have a completely distinct sense of time. The larch, after all, “is mature at three hundred years” and may live to six hundred years. «The larch tree displaced all scales of time and ashamed human memory by reminding it of the unforgettable» [11, p. 325].17 Tree time is nearly godlike, practically immortal. Literary time, as Shalamov presents it, aspires to this larch-like time. It is a time machine, speaking to us from a distant past of lives lost and events that could not be grasped by human consciousness, but which are nonetheless unforgettable, and which literature can record, and does.
17. «Лиственница сместила масштабы времени, пристыдила человеческую память, напомнила незабываемое» [15, с. 278].
25 I want to conclude this brief reflection on Podoroga’s reading of the tree symbol in Shalamov by pointing out that Shalamov’s trees are not the trees that Deleuze and Guattari oppose to the rhizomatic at the beginning of a A Thousand Plateaus. They do not «plot a point» or «fix and order» [5, p. 7]. In his writing, trees do not represent «hierarchical systems with centers of significance and subjectification» [ibid., p. 16]. They are not a model for rational, organizing thought. But neither, for Shalamov, are trees under human “dominion” that which must be cleared or controlled for human society to exist. They are not there “for” people. (That is the logic of the Stalinism and of the camps, guided by an indifference to all life, human, non-human animals, and plants alike.) Instead, Shalamov is an animist. As in many indigenous traditions around the world (including those of Siberia), trees for Shalamov have retained their guardian spirits. In his persistent fascination with tree existence, Shalamov takes his place in a long arboreal counter-tradition preoccupied with being or becoming like trees. (The stories in Ovid’s Metamorphosis would be the locus classicus of this impulse; there too, as in Shalamov, mortal danger is an occasion for becoming a tree.)
26 «Through the larch shoots» Shalamov writes in one of his poems, «I have been given a sign:» trees as medium, trees as text, stimulating the mimetic impulse. «I will pretend to be a plant now / So that I myself can / Understand all the authenticity of flowering».18 In the camps, understanding the ongoing catastrophe was not a project. Animals, plants, trees, on the other hand, were an object of understanding. This relation to trees is not the understanding of mapping out, of categorizing, of mastery. It is an imaginative mimetic understanding, one that travels along the paths of similarity and which, even in its apparent impossibility, creates an unknown parabola that changes its subject. To understand the authenticity of flowering — itself a mode of becoming that humans do not and cannot know — I will pretend to be a plant. What would it be like to flower? Plant life, then, accessible only through this imaginative («pretend») imitation becomes, as Podoroga writes, “the basis of Shalamov’s Gulag ethics, which he will follow for the rest of his life”.19 The trees, we might say, are more human than the people in Kolyma.
18. Опять сквозь лиственницы поросль       Мне подан знак:       Родных полей глухая горесть –       Полынь и мак.             Я притворюсь сейчас растеньем,       Чтоб самому       Понять всю подлинность цветенья.       И я — пойму [14, с. 155–156].

19. «Правила “естественной” жизни позднее лягут у В. Ш[аламова] в основу его гулаговской этики, которой он будет следовать оставшиеся годы жизни» [12, с. 152].
27 In Podoroga’s attention to Shalamov’s mimetic relation to the trees around him, I find echoes of Podoroga’s own ongoing and indefatigable mimetic relation to the aesthetic objects he was constantly preoccupied with. I saw Podoroga’s mimetic openness as, in turn, its own ethical practice, and an ongoing invitation to his own readers and listeners to be open to getting lost in unknown parabolas with him, an invitation I was happy and lucky to have accepted.


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