ТЕОРІЯ ЛІТЕРАТУРИ - Соломія Павличко 2002


In 1798, the first three parts of The Aeneid, a parody of Virgil, appeared in St.Petersburg. Its author, Ivan Kotliarevskyi, Marshall of the Poltava assembly of the nobility, never intended to publish his poem, which he’d written for the amusement of a small circle of friends. The Aeneid was, in fact, the first literary piece written in modern Ukrainian and became the starting point of the so-called new Ukrainian literature, opening a literary era only now coming to an end.

Over these 200 years, the main traditions of modern Ukrainian literature were formed. It was through literature that, gradually, the idea of a notional project came into being. Nationalism went hand in hand with romanticism. Writers became the key spokesmen for national ideas. Ukrainian writers from that time on often focused on what seemed a distant goal: the glorious moment when Ukraine would gain independence and statehood. Under brutal pressure from the colonizing power (at first Russia, and then the USSR) literatures task was to enlighten the nation. Writers were invariably called on to perform numerous non-literary roles — as politicians and economists, articulating alternative models of social development, lawyers, arguing for the rights of individuals and nations, and as scholars, defending Ukrainian claims in historical, ethnographic and other research.

Efforts to fight against populist ideas, to modernize the culture, and to enlarge the limits of the national project became central themes of debate within the culture. The struggle became especially dramatic between 1880 and 1920. Around 1929 the debates stopped, and all intellectual discussions receded deep into the subsurface. Today, Ukrainian scholarship is only beginning to reevaluate and reinterpret its national cultural heritage.

All Ukrainian writers faced at least two crucial choices. First, one had to decide what language to write in: Russian or Ukrainian. Secondly, a writer had to choose between the populist notion that art was only a vehicle for the communication of the national idea and, its competing claim, that art needed to be free of any social ideology. Whatever they decided on this second matter, the personal fate of the writer was the same·. Ukrainian writers — those who wrote in Ukrainian—were expunged, exiled or executed by a hostile state.

After their deaths, these martyrs assumed their place in the national mythology and became fragments of the country’s iconostasis. They were worshipped as national heroes. Books such as Shevchenko’s Kobzar became gospels of the independence movement. The list of such sacred texts is long. These books were treated as great codes, which clearly carried symbolic meaning. Their encoded message was much more significant than their literary aesthetic content. And the best of the texts about these texts also became a form of secret writing. Practically all writing about Ukrainian culture always presumed the existence of another layer of meaning, even if the author deliberately avoided any hint of a national project.

There is a saying that “a poet in Russia is more than just a poet,” but in totally russified Ukraine at the beginning of the 1980s, writers remain the only bearers of the written Ukrainian language, national culture, and literary tradition. In this sense even the most faithful socialist realists presented some political danger to the colonizing power because they relied on the suspect, half-prohibited language.

This epoch—from Kotliarevskyi to the 1980s — has exhausted its meaning. In the case of such exemplary stylists as (Oles’ Honchar, whose works could be the model for a handbook of good grammar, we can say the epoch has even degenerated. However, today, a life pledged to Ukrainian literature is no longer tantamount to a recitation of the Nicene creed. The future — the main goal of the national project — has been implemented. A dream came true. And only the present remains. There is nothing to put on a pedestal, the Utopian vision of the future has been corrected by the brutal reality of a post-colonial economic crisis. A void has replaced former dreams, illusions and principles. All genres of literature and criticism are now in crisis. The shift of ideological parameters, styles, and rhetoric is painful. It is aggravated by a problem in the publishing industry and a generational conflict among members of the Writers’ Union. Many acknowledged celebrities of the recent past, whose books are no longer published or read, declare that Ukrainian literature is dying. The “angry young men,” on the other hand, express contempt toward the generation of “fathers” despite the latter’s contribution to the national project, and their contribution to the liberation movement. These rebels are most acutely resentful of their former mentors.

While there is no future any more, the present is banal and disappointing. As a result, the past has become the focus of intellectual attention. And there are two standard approaches toward it. The first approach is idealization. At times the past takes on the role once played by the future. New Utopias are created of cossackdom, Kyivan Rus, pre-Christian times, women’s high status under the Hetmanate, even a Ukrainian matriarchy, an ideal peasant community, a national church, etc. The other approach proposes a critical stance in which icons are defaced and former gods unmasked.

The abolition of censorship and the long-awaited tearing down of iron curtains nevertheless came as a shock. Ukrainian culture is discovering for itself that twentieth century so long forbidden it: Г. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, Samuel Beckett and Jean-Paul Sartre, with modernist experimentation, pessimism, negation of traditional humanistic values and post-modern satiation, along with all other attendant philosophies and personal experiments. Ukrainian authors are trying to find their place in world culture. Symptoms of post-modern awareness are obvious in the youngest generation of Ukrainian writers, although on the whole the development looks paradoxical, taking into consideration the fact that Ukrainian literature has not managed to produce a mature modernist tradition. However, similar situations already occurred before. Ukrainian romanticism also never challenged the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment as, for obvious historical reasons, these never took place in Ukraine.


In the final years of the Brezhnev era, when the General secretary of the Communist Party was granted membership ticket number one in the All-Soviet Writers Union, the language used by Ukrainian writers became totally contrived. Poems and novels were written in a beautiful, stylistically perfect but unreal idiom good only as material for lexicographers. Reams of attention were devoted to increasingly trivial subjects. In reality, the work was composed in a language spoken neither by the writers themselves nor even by the professors of literature. The party elite used only Russian, with the famous strong Ukrainian accent of Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachov and many others noticeable and annoying

to native Russians. On the street, slang was spoken, a barbaric Russian-Ukrainian mixture, blistered with profanities. Only in Western Ukrainian cities did an urban Ukrainian milieu exist with a more or less developed spoken Ukrainian urban dialect. But it never found its way into literature. Nor was real life an object of Ukrainian writing. Short stories by Hryhir Tiutiunnyk, who committed suicide in 1980, may be the single exception. Heroes of Ukrainian novels never made love, they never mentioned the existence of ever-present KGB and informers who infiltrated the whole society; never pointed out the banality of party rituals; they never listened to “enemy radio voices” at night, never told dirty stories. They were, in fact, pathetic, loyal, and totally unreal.

Prose was doomed to be a secondary genre in the Ukrainian literary hierarchy. A realistic urban novel in Ukrainian could not have been written. There was barely enough substance for a short story. “Village prose” was central, not because of primitive popu·, lism and the patriarchal spirit of its authors, but because its lan-guage had something to point to. The village had not been Russified. Under the Soviets, historical novels flourished. They; were even quite popular, although they were heavily censored, and were supposed to reflect the official version of national history.

The new generation of prose writers who emerged in the mid 1980s bring to literature an urban drive and a deliberately shocking naturalism. The biggest concern of the new generation is to; appropriate new layers of the language, never used in written, texts. Sex, for instance, which appeared on the pages of literary texts for the first time several years ago, is often there merely to give the artist an excuse for exercising new vocabulary. The generation born in the 50s and 60s tries to describe situations which have never been written about before.


Until recently poetry dominated the literary landscape. Romanticism, which came to life in the 1830s and flourished in Shevchenko’s works, never really ended. Recently it seemed that 2 out of 3 writers were poets, and prose suffered from a debilitating tendency to poeticize.

The younger generation of poets came on the scene deter-mined to bury “the sweet Ukrainian style” as well as to put an end to the poetry of populist slogans and pathos. Yu· Andrukhovych, Oleksander Irvanets, and Victor Neborak — three-poets from Western Ukraine (which is also not accidental) — founded in the mid 1980s a group called Bu-Ba-Bu (standing for Burlesque, Bunk, Buffoonery). In contrast to their predecessors, their poetry relied heavily on language games, where words, which had never before found their way into poetry, suddenly took on primary importance. The three poets are extremely sarcastic. They parody literary traditions, and, especially, all aspects of the poetic embodiment of the national project.

Their even younger followers and successors — members of numerous avant-garde (as they all call themselves) groups, took further steps toward wiping away the poetic vocabulary. For example, it appears that the aesthetic purpose of another group of poets called Propala Hramota (The Lost Certificate) is to shock the listener or reader with swear words and narratives describing the most unpoetic of situations.

Volodymyr Tsybul’ko, a poet from Kyiv, goes his own way. His work subverts grammar, spelling, orthography. His poetry challenges not only the rules of rhetoric but also of syntax, and the written word itself. It is essentially nonsense verse. The inner crisis of culture, disharmony and the confusion of the soul, growing out of profound psychological and social change, cannot be expressed through a harmonious current of masterly rhymed metaphors. His sabotage of the language is creative: his language games compensate for what may be seen as a universal sense of displacement.

The three members of the Bu-Ba-Bu group and their followers declared that the age of poetry has passed forever. The very notion of poetry suggested a provincialism and moral hypocrisy. They practically suggest it is shameful to write poetry of any kind. Yfet they are themselves poets. Their own writing, however, has become part of a psychological hang-up. In a recent interview, Yuri Andrukhovych, on the occasion of his 33rd birthday, said he rejects the conventional view which regards poetry as being there lo serve some social function. For him, poetry has only one duty and that is its obligation before the language. In this he finds support in the well known ideas of T. S. Eliot. Performing this function, he simultaneously fulfills his task before the people, the state, and humanity. But it isn’t his job to think about this. Then lie offers his recipe on the subject of what a poet must and must not do: "... A poet must protest, must be unsatisfied with society, must insult it, etc., but he should be treated as a necessary evil.” The statement suggests that its author, like most members of the younger generation, does not yet have a clear purpose. His claim contradicts the myth of a disengaged literature.

Andrukhovych confidently issues directives and recipes for literature. He knows exactly what the art of the future will look like. And in this he does not differ greatly from many generations of his predecessors.

Three times during this century the future of Ukrainian literature was passionately debated: in the 1920s, the 1940s in the emigre literary community, and again at the end of the 1980s. Every time the same rhetoric and arguments were used, and the result was always the same: reality overruled all grand plans and predictions.

The latest Ukrainian poetry approaches words and emotions ih a spirit of play. Becoming more and more philological and playful, it often substitutes verbal gaming for philosophical purpose. Some poets escape from life into hermetic, esoteric, abstract imagery. Those who are brave enough to propose spiritual solutions for the problems of modern life are on the margins of the literary world. Any hint of poetic support for state building is laughed at. The poet, working hand in glove with the politician, is vigorously derided.


Prose is the liveliest game in town. Here the new cultural discourse is being forged. Here the contradictory nature of modern times, its growing sense of unease, is most strikingly reflected The loss of the future, and the lack of a meaningful present, are the coordinates of the current spiritual crisis. The most absurd fantasies of Beckett or Ionesco lag behind the reality of socialism. The turn toward absurdity in East European literatures, including Ukrainian, is natural, even inevitable.

The new generation of novelists consists of people of different ages and background. For example, Yuri Vynnychuk, Bohdan Zholdak, Volodymyr Dibrova are in their 40s. Today they are publishing pieces often written some 15 years ago and read at underground literary gatherings since the end of the 1970s. They suffered both from not being able to publish as well as from being forced by political circumstances into leading a double life. Mykola Vorobyov, for example, a poet who after his publications of the 1960s was not published again for 18 years (1968-1985) worked during this period as a fireman. Most suffocated in the oppressive atmosphere of the 1970s. Those who withstood the test consider themselves a lost generation and feel that their artistic growth was seriously damaged.

Their much younger colleagues — 'Vbvhen Pashkovskyi and Yuri Andrukhovych, who started their literary careers in the mid 1980s, were accepted and published despite the terrible problems of the publishing industry.

The five authors mentioned above, whose styles differ radically, nevertheless have much in common. They share a vision bereft of optimism, pathos, lightness. Life is seen in Hobbesian terms: nasty, brutish, and short. The new fiction is characterized by black humor, a wallowing in the seamy side of life, and surreal absurdity. It mocks everything: the national project, sacred symbols of the past and present, the sacred role of a Poet, who, as already mentioned, was more than a poet. Its authors label themselves avant-garde. However, nobody really cares about the true meaning of these definitions. The writers need above all to mock all types of socialist realism and use every chance to express their contempt for the bureaucracy of the official Writers’ Union, although they are themselves all members.

Yevhen Pashkovskyi, by general agreement, is the new star of the most recent Ukrainian literature. The world of his novel The Abyss (Bezodnia), published in the literary journal Suchasnist in 1992 (N 5, 6), is overwhelmingly bleak. His hero, a road-builder, nearly a tramp, roams around Ukraine looking for work. What little money he earns he quickly squanders on booze. The village, where his mother lives, is marked by terrible poverty. The city is hostile, alien. He has no home, not only in the real, but in the spiritual sense. As an anti-intellectual type from the lower depths, he speaks little and he does not think too much. He merely sees and feels and his chaotic feelings are reflected using stream of consciousness. Actually, his novel is one long phrase: a howl cry of pain and despair.

People brutalized by the former socialist society do not have any social consciousness or much internal resistance. The language of this, as well as Pashkovskyi’s other novels, echoes the vocabularies of those who never studied at universities or participated in any political actions. This is a language of those who never speak out, who have no voice at all, who do not have the right to have a voice in literature. This language is fantastic in its realism and variety.

The dark worlds of Yuri Andrukhovych are absolutely different. They are funny, grotesque, phantasmagoric, almost unreal. His style is bookish and playfully allusive, riddled with paraphrases and quotations. Most of the action in his books takes place within the distorted consciousness of his protagonists. The heroes of his novels, Recreations, 1992, and Moskoviada, 1993, are both poets and are both always drunk.

Moskoviada, subtitled “a horror story1’, is set in Moscow. The Ukrainian poet Otto von F. is a student of the notorious Gorky Literary Institute. He roams around Moscow for one day, like Stephen Dedalus in Dublin. Like Dedalus, he does not come to any philosophical or spiritual decisions. So Otto von F. wanders through Moscow without any visible aim, visiting dingy bars, lovers, Russian nationalist gatherings, secret tunnels of the Moscow subway where giant rats trained by the KGB to sabotage antigovernment rallies and gala meetings of “political corpses” (Lenin and Anatoli Ivanovich — the latter, no doubt, one of the organizers of the August 1991 coup — among them) are held. Moscow is real (its mud and greyness are real) and Moscow is also a symbolic embodiment of his hatred towards the Empire. Hatred, however, is spiritually paralyzing. It is a part of a terrible inferiority complex and a fear of his own inner emptiness. At the end, in his own imaginary literary world, he is killed; in the meantime, in real life, sick and drunk, Otto von F. takes the train for Kyiv. When the conductor asks him for his ticket, Otto offers him the totem he’s been carrying with him all day: a catfish.

The cultural discourse was never so complicated and polyphonic as it has now become. The above-mentioned writers stand in the literary center. However, there are some other points worth mentioning by way of providing some background on the new setting for Ukrainian literature.

Mass culture, which never existed in Ukraine, but which is quickly growing, is an interesting social phenomenon. There are at least two kinds — the first, populist, originally Ukrainian; and the other, cosmopolitan, which is formed along Western, mostly American, lines.

The paradigm of populist mass literature consists of an idealization of the past, the village and the peasant community, the mother and religion as the foundation of morality. Stylistically, this involves imitations of different forms of folk art, folk songs, tales, legends, and the Bible. It imposes its system of restrictions and norms of social and gender behavior. Everything inside the system, everything local, “ours” is seen as positive; everything outside the system, foreign, not Ukrainian, is bad. The idea of national authenticity and spirituality is at its center. Evil came from outside; Ukrainians themselves are innocent.

This second kind of mass culture, based on Western models, promoting sex and violence, has an enormous audience in the former Soviet countries, since it offers a primitive outlet for the destructive energy, the anger, brutality and violence of everyday life.

Ukrainian literature is experiencing critical changes. The emergence of black humor inevitably suggests a crisis of values. On the other hand, linguistic and stylistic experiment signals considerable aesthetic development. Inevitably, the culture will tire of negation for the sake of negation, experimentation for its own sake, and literature for the sake of language. And then, literature will begin. It is difficult to predict what this new period will be like, but one thing is certain: we are witnessing a radical transformation, characterized by a complete upheaval of categories, a blurring of all boundaries. At this moment, we can’t discern progress from crisis, the beautiful from the ugly, the moral from the immoral. Where we stop, no one knows.

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