Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Feng Dong reviews Countries That Don’t Exist: Selected Nonfiction

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. Countries That Don’t Exist: Selected Nonfiction, ed. Jacob Emery and Alexander Spektor. New York: Columbia University Press, 2022. 328 pp.

Reviewed by Feng Dong

6 July 2022

The present book by Krzhizhanovsky invites overreading simply because it is so condensed and theoretically crystalized as to possess hundreds of sharply delineated and thus cutting facets. This selection of atypical essays—from the first unmethodical piece, “Love as a Method of Cognition,” composed in 1912, to the last collection of biting epigrams titled “Writer’s Notebooks” culled from various stages before the author’s death in 1950—may be taken as a belated memento of one of the most eccentric, original, and “infrathin”[1] minds in Russian literature, to whom Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Andrei Platonov are but remotely similar. Krzhizhanovsky “stands out as the twentieth century’s outstanding thinker of potentiality,” according to the book’s co-editors (p. xxv). The book gives a fair sampling of Krzhizhanovsky’s unique approach to literature, which is fractional, hyperbolic, and dramatically metaphysical.

In Krzhizhanovsky’s reflections and observations, the mind (the “I”), instead of passively registering the daily shock of Soviet modernity (the “not-I”), has to form a protective layer to mediate the outside world, and moreover, to find a formula to explain the irrational to the rational. “Revolution is the acceleration of facts, too fast for thought to catch up” (p. 230). Hence Krzhizhanovsky’s early effort to insert the word, that is, literature, into reality: so that the mind will not be paralyzed by facts but march along with them in its own conceptions. In two interlinked essays from the 1910s, “Idea and Word” and “Argo and Ergo,” he tries to formulate a particular type of literati, “metaphysician in the poet,” whose métier lies in his movement from the near to the far, from “this” (what my eyes can see and hands can touch) to “that” (what I can only believe: truth, love, essence) (p. 19). Generally, poets constitute “this-into-Thaters,” and scientists, “That-into-thisers,” since the latter want to explain the mysterious and invisible by way of rationalization (p. 32). The “metaphysician in the poet” discerns how the idea first gets born or “squeezed” out of the poet’s mind and then moves in meter and rhyme (as in a sonnet), but as soon as it has completed materialization, the idea begins to return to itself—“that is, the partial removal or lightening of form; the concessions that the Idea made to sound are taken back” (p. 27). Going back to infinitude, the idea gradually dissolves the form within itself. The metaphysician in the poet is thus not a metaphysical poet who is satisfied with conceits but someone who “knows about this ebb-tide of the idea” and “looks upon his stanzas as upon a vague trace of the truth, barely touching words, only to withdraw at once” (p. 27). He becomes, as one of Krzhizhanovsky’s novellas is titled, a letter killer.[2] Such a decisive retreat of the idea from phenomena to noumena bespeaks Krzhizhanovsky’s anxious desire to escape the overproduction of sounds, images, and visions in a revolutionary era. Yet more importantly, it offers a binary ground on which Krzhizhanovsky, through many of his stories and novellas, could stage his fort-da play of reality and phantasmagoria, a play that simultaneously creates and bridges the infinite distance between “this” and “that.”

The central question in life and literature, for Krzhizhanovsky, could thus be defined as the difference between Kant and Shakespeare. In “A Philosopheme of the Theater” written in 1923, Krzhizhanovsky seriously considers the similarity between the terminologies of Critique of Pure Reason (1781) and of the playwright: both take the subject or actor to be existing in a world of phenomena or acts; Shakespeare’s stage is nothing other than Kant’s empirical world. Crucially, behind Kant’s phenomena, “one still feels the things affecting them,” while behind Shakespeare’s scenes, “things don’t exist: they have been ripped from things” (p. 45). The leap from life to literature is a leap of faith, a leap into nonbeing or nothingness, but it is exactly such a leap, Krzhizhanovsky comments, that elevates us from Kant’s “dull causality” to the level of “fate” as unfolded in Shakespeare’s plays (p. 45). To kill the pain of being trapped in appearances, Krzhizhanovsky advises abandoning ourselves to pure, that is, completely manmade, appearances. We can’t miss the bitter irony of this prescription when Soviet propaganda was running at full speed in the 1920s and 1930s to cover up serious famines and the Great Purge. To approximate reality, Krzhizhanovsky differentiates the stage scene into infinite degrees of phenomenality: “Once it has begun, the process of illusorization cannot be stopped: alongside the noumenon there appears—the phenomenon; alongside the phenomenon there appears—the phenomenon of the phenomenon” (p. 53), so the subject or actor will eventually lose the distinction between life and theatre and live on an endless series of as-ifs.

Besides these philosophical reflections that puncture the dense social fabric of the USSR, the book also contains Krzhizhanovsky’s tour de force, “The Poetics of Titles,” which was published in 1925 in a book form to secure his Moscow residency. Together with “A History of Unwritten Literature: A Prospectus” (1936), these two pieces explore what could have been written had the writer world enough, and time. What worried Krzhizhanovsky becomes true for us: we have entered an age when the book is gradually being replaced by its title, hence the battle of titles instead of the battle of books. The other essays in this book widely touch on Edgar Allan Poe, George Bernard Shaw, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Richard Wagner, Anton Chekhov, Auguste Rodin, James Whistler, and Arthur Schopenhauer. They exhibit an intelligence rarely seen in the history of Russian literature, as Krzhizhanovsky seems to be addressing the future generation rather than his Soviet contemporaries. We’re lucky to have intercepted this signal one hundred years later. 


[1] Adam Thirlwell, Introduction to Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Autobiography of a Corpse, trans. Joanne Turnbull and Nikolai Formozov (New York, 2013), p. xiv.

[2] See Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, The Letter Killers Club, trans. Turnbull and Formozov (New York, 2012).