Winter Notes on Summer Impressions

In 1862, D. took his first trip to Europe.  He had, however, dreamed of this day for many years, apparently since childhood, when he was enthralled with British and French novels, especially the Gothic tales of Anne Radcliffe.  He had apparently planned and planned for this opportunity, probably to such an extent than his actual experiences were bound to be eclipsed by the weight of expectation.  Winter Notes on Summer Impressions is ostensibly a travel diary, but, much like D’s earlier feuilletons, the present book does as much to subvert the genre to which it formally belongs as it does to actually serve the official purpose of introducing his readers to Germany, England and France.  Published in the pages of Time (the D brothers’ Petersburg 19th century media outlet), Winter Notes reads as a remarkably antisocial, grumpy, but gloriously creative and brutal, intermittently narrative diatribe about Europe, where the latter is presented as a symbol of enlightenment decadence and shallowness as about those countries themselves.  But there’s still a plethora of specific detail which somehow validates all the negativity and bile.  In short – it was a delightful tract of misanthropic bombast, the sort of thing I’d write if I had the talent.

Before D gets anywhere, he lets us know about his thoughts in the train car en route from Russia to points west .  This is presented as a digression he’s officially supposed to be ending, but of course, it doesn’t end until two chapters later.  His thoughts wander towards self-hatred, both ethnically and personally – this is the first place I remember encountering something that many of D’s later characters repeat:  “we have merely exchanged one set of prejudices and abominations for other, still great prejudices and abominations… why, oh why, stand over the people like such a fop, hands at our sides and ready to spit!” A condemnation of pseudo-radicalism that is contemptuous about the very people in whose name it’s supposed to be speaking.  As I often do when travelling, he seems to be reminded of his own frustrations with his own culture.

But then, soon enough, D’s ire focuses on fellow tourists, and then later on the people of the various countries he visits.  Regarding his fellow Russian tourists:

They gape at a side of beef by Rubens and believe that it is the Three Graces because that is what the guidebook has ordered them to believe; they dash to the Sistine Madonna and stand before her in blank expectation: something will happen any second, someone will slip out from under the floor and dispel their meaningless melancholy and weariness.  And they leave amazed that nothing happened (26).

And then, the English:

This is not the self-satisfied and completely mechanical curiosity of the English tourists who look more at their guidebooks than at the curiosities, expecting nothing new or amazing and verifying only whether the object is mentioned in the guidebook, how many feet high it is, and how many pounds it weighs (26).

Setting aside all the implied politics – I definitely just had a sense of fellow feeling here.  When I travel, I often find myself angry and frustrated lots of the time – at myself for not fitting in; at other Americans for looking so much like other Americans, and at other foreigners for being even worse than us!  But I also love this passage for the implied politics – another thing I find myself doing when I travel is reaching absurd but also intuitively true theses which feel as though they are of world-historical import.  Somehow the Korean man walking through the Louvre with a video camera that never leaves his eye, even as he approaches the Mona Lisa, is at once both just annoying and also indicative of some sort of profound problem with the contemporary world.

D’s journey finally begins in Germany, which, he is sort of disturbed to discover, is actually pretty similar to his native Petersburg.  He stops in Cologne and fails to be overwhelmed by the cathedral or just about anything else, except for the persistent salespeople peddling the eponymous eau d’cologne.  D confesses finally to have purchased a bottle, seemingly just to avoid further pestering (I’m reminded of a Friends episode on which Joey is hired to distribute samples of “Hombre”, and ends in people ducking for cover as he moves the nozzle towards them).

Second in the firing line is England – as Frank notes, D’s observations are surprisingly similar to Engels’.  At least Frank says that “surprising” – I myself wasn’t all that surprised.  It’s still not clear to me that D wasn’t a socialist at heart the entire time.  His socialism is interestingly Christian, and not “materialist,” but nonetheless, I’ve yet to see any evidence that he was the sort of “reactionary conservative.”  D dwells at length on the horror of the various street scenes he comes across, including milieus involving “thousands” of prostitutes, tramps and tourists.  If anything, D seems refreshed by the honesty that street life in London seems to represent.  The decaying structure of the individualistic society that’s come about in Western Europe finds its material counterpart in London’s chaotic amoral avenues.

By far D’s greatest scorn is reserved for the French.  In fact, he introduces France in a chapter with perhaps the least subtly allusive title ever – “Baal.”  Chief among D’s accusations is of the inherent hypocrisy French bourgeois life embodies.  Its practitioners are at once totally amoral, but on the other hand obsessed with the display of virtue, aesthetic sensibility, and eloquence.  Each of these comes in from quite a drubbing – you get the sense D could barely disguise his anger.  To wit:

[in Paris…] you are allowed amazing things, if only you have money.  Poor Socrates is merely a stupid, harmful phrasemonger and is respected only on the stage.  A strange person, this bourgeois: he openly proclaims that money is the highest virtue and human obligation, but at the same time he passionately loves to playact, especially as one of the higher nobility (45).

In fact, the figure of Socrates is perhaps not accidentally brought up – D seems particularly offended by the value Parisians place on eloquence, and the relationship its false ascension has to the broken society he sees – here D describes a tour guide who’s showing him around some the tomb in Paris’s pantheon, telling stories about the figures buried there.  The tour guide, it seems, has no actual knowledge or appreciation of the names he’s rattling off:

‘Here too is a tomb; well, they are… quelques senateurs he added indifferently, carelessly nodding his head towards several other tombs situated nearby.  All of his eloquence had been spent on Voltaire, Jean-Jacques, and Marshal Lannes.  This was truly a first-hand example, so to speak, of the people’s love for eloquence.  Can it be that all those orators’ speeches in the National Assembly, the Convention, and the clubs, in which the people take part almost directly and through which they have been reeducated, have left a trace of only one thing in them—a love of eloquence for the sake of eloquence?” (63).

Each chapter is written with such open contempt, such fierce condemnation that it practically sings.  The work closes with a satirical illustration of a play, written by and for such empty hypocritical bourgeoisie – there’s a dizzying array of ideological targets.  I think I could really only comprehend a fraction of them.

D also introduces an image – I’m not sure whether it’s his – but it’s a devastating example of the remarkable feeling of resignation D establishes in this work, when characterizing the aims of socialism, and also their seeming parallel with what he sees on the streets of London, “that an ant, a dumb, insignificant ant, is more intelligent than he is, because in the anthill everything runs so well, everything is so regulated, all are well-fed and happy, each knows his business, in a word: man is still a long way from the anthill” (51).

Frank sees Winter Notes on Summer Impressions as a preparatory text for Notes from Underground, and though I haven’t read that text in a while, that sounds right.  Of course, this is non-fiction, and so, it’s all much more real than the “underground man” – but the vitriol comes through all the same.

A closing thought – D makes a point here that I’ve always thought every Russian believed I’ve met several Russians in my life, and they almost all carry themselves as though it were true:

Generally, foreigners—this was quite striking to me—are almost all incomparably more naïve than Russians.  It is difficult to explain this in more specific terms; you have to see if for yourself” (69).

What a lesson to learn from a trip abroad.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *