Thursday, May 22, 2008

On not doing.

For a character who is best known for spending nearly all his time in bed, the titular protagonist of Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov (1859) doesn't actually spend that much time in bed. Oh, he's probably in or around bed for nearly half the book--but that still leaves more than two hundred pages wherein he (admittedly under pressure from an energetic German friend) attends dinners, reads the daily papers, visits friends, and even falls in love with a woman who nearly pulls him out of his lethargy for good.

Nonetheless, the heart of the book is Oblomov's apathy, his Bartleby-style refusal to cope with any of the complexities of the world--a trait that Goncharov convincingly portrays as a sort of bone-deep innocence and harmlessness. Oblomov himself names his tendency to subside into reverie oblomovschina, a capacious term that encompasses a hereditary laziness, a fundamental lack of concern for any aspect of one's well-being beyond immediate peace, and a preference for wispy dreams over active plans. The world is the way it is, unlikely to be changed by one's efforts, so why should one not lie in one's tattered dressing gown and contemplate the ceiling cracks until sleep descends?

Oblomov's is a worldview that I can't endorse outside of fiction; hell, I'm not even good at sleeping in. (Example: today, home from work with an ugly head cold, I was up by 7:20.) So long as I'm in Goncharov's grip, however I teeter, understanding both the frustration of Oblomov's friends and the siren call of restful oblivion. Oblomov is so utterly blameless in his lethargy that it's hard not to take his side in the many arguments he has about activity; his friends' positions, though eminently sensible, all come burdened with the crash and rush and potential calamity of positive action. If one acts, one will eventually meet failure. Inaction, on the other hand, is attractive precisely because it guarantees a sort of success: a lazy surrender to the fates makes their judgments feel less like judgments and more like agreed-upon outcomes.

One of the best examples of the seductive nature of Oblomov's point of view comes early in the book, when he is attempting to write to his landlord, who is threatening to evict him. Having dislodged a spider from the inkwell and dug a pen from under a cushion, Oblomov starts writing . . . but he quickly encounters difficulties that will be familiar to any writer:
He thought for a while and began to write.

"The apartment on the second floor, which I rent and in which you are proposing to undertake some renovation is entirely suitable to my style of life and the routine I have developed over the many years I have lived here. On learning from my man, Zakhar Trofimov, that you had required him to convey to me that the apartment I rent . . " Oblomov stopped writing and read what he had written.

"It reads awkwardly," he said. "I've written 'that' twice in a row and I've put 'which' twice too."

Whispering to himself, he tried rearranging the words, but it was no good because the first 'which' went with 'the floor,' and not 'the apartment,' it still did not hang together. He tried to improve it and racked his brains in an effort to avoid the doubling of 'that.' He tried crossing out one word and replacing it with another.

He put 'that' in three different places and only succeeded in either making nonsense of the sentence or ending up with the three 'thats' too close together again.

"Just can't get rid of this damned second 'that,'" he said in exasperation. "Well to hell with it--and the damned letter too--breaking my head over such niggling details! I've lost the knack of writing business letters-and it's almost three o'clock!"

"Are you satisfied now, Zakhar?" He tore the letter in four and flung the pieces on the floor.
What writer could blame Oblomov for returning to bed after that fiasco? Yet here I am, writing and editing and rewriting this piece, rather than just hitting Post and being done with it.


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