Slipping Toward Nothingness

Watercolour from a 1950s poster discouraging drinking and smoking. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, an early Twentieth Century Russian writer, has become famous for his invisibility — as far as such a thing is possible. The scholar who pulled his writing from obscurity, Vadim Perelmuter, came across a scribbled line in the poet Gueorgui Chengueli’s notebook: “Today, the 28 December 1950, has died Sigizmund Dominikovich Krzhizhanovsky, author of fantastic literature and neglected genius. Not a line of his was published in his lifetime.” Chengueli ordinarily held scathing opinions of his contemporaries, so this uncharacteristic praise sparked Perelmuter’s interest. A lifelong project of tracking down Krzhizhanovsky’s work and having it published was the result.

Krzhizhanovsky’s invisibility was not limited to a lack of appreciation for his writing while he was alive. The label “neglected genius” has, if anything, lost its significance through overuse across the arts. What makes Krzhizhanovsky interesting is the role of invisibility, broadly understood, in his texts through notions such as nothingness and absence. The noted philologist Vladimir Toporov teased out a variety of forms in his study, The Negative Space of Krzhizhanovsky.

One form of nothingness Toporov did not touch on was Krzhizhanovsky’s cowriter, vodka. While vodka was mainly a behind-the-scenes collaborator, it did make an appearance, playing itself, in the largely autobiographical short story, Involuntary Street. This essay delves into the idea of vodka as negative space. Jean-Paul Sartre’s aptly titled 1943 ontological work, Being and Nothingness, frames the exploration.

Another Crack in the Wall

Before taking on the hard case of vodka, some typical examples of nothingness will familiarise us with Krzhizhanovsky’s literary world. In the short story, The Assembler of Fissures, a hermit was approached by God and offered anything he desired. He replied that he himself was without need. “However, Lord, give me power over all fissures, great and small, infissured in things. I will teach them, them too, the truth.” God granted him this power and he gathered all the cracks and crevasses of the world together nightly to preach to them. His efforts started out well enough, but ended up having unintended and ultimately disastrous consequences.

The novella, The Letter Killers Club, followed a poor writer who held a certain reverence for the four shelves of books making up his library. When his mother passed away, he had to sell all the tomes to cover her burial costs.

The same evening, the shelves were empty and I stuffed in my pocket the library transformed into three or four banknotes. […] It was only on my return that the effect produced by the empty shelves penetrated my mind. After taking off my coat and sitting down at the table, I turned my eyes toward the emptiness suspended from the four black boards. Despite being delivered from the weight of the books, the boards had kept their curvature, as if bowed under the load of the emptiness. I very much tried looking elsewhere, but, as I already said, there wasn’t anything in the room but the shelves and the bed. I undressed and laid down in hope that sleep would chase away the depression. Ah no, after a short respite, the same sensation woke me up. I had laid with my face turned toward the shelves and I saw the reflection of the moon jump along the bare boards, as if a barely perceptible life was being born — with timid touches — there, in the absence of books. Of course, all that was but the stroke of a bow across my over-tensed nerves, and when the day had relaxed them, I tranquilly examined the yawning gap between the boards bathed in sunlight and I installed myself at my desk in order to continue my ordinary task. I had need of information and my left hand, with a quasi-habitual movement, went toward the rows of books only to encounter emptiness. And then once more, and again. Irritated, I examined the non-library invaded by a swarm of sun-illuminated dust, and tried to recall from memory the page and line needed. But the imaginary letters contained in the imaginary cover bounded in every sense, and instead of the line I was looking for, I found a colourful fluttering of words, lines breaking and reforming in multiple new combinations. I chose one of them and cautiously inserted it into my text.

So began a revolt, the titular club, against the material fixity of the written word. The revolt was unable to surmount, and so in the end succumbed to, the tension between enjoying and preserving the “colourful fluttering” of possible forms, a sort of unbearable lightness of non-being.

Krzhizhanovsky played with emptiness associated with briefcases, trains, cities and all manners of other things, in all sorts of imaginary and almost uniformly pessimistic ways. He also took advantage of the fluidity between space and time, using the emptiness between measured moments, for instance, to drive his time travel novel, Memories of the Future.

Toporov described the process: “Space is dematerialised, empties itself, is emptied, becomes a nothingness, and this negative space swallows man.” For the philologist, “it is that the central theme of the stories of Krzhizhanovsky, a theme that encompasses everything from the bottom of the unconscious to the summits of metaphysical reflection.”

The hermit with his fissures and the writer with his non-library began by being in control of the nothingness, but ended up falling victim to it. Toporov interpreted the relationship as one where “man is tragically a prisoner, condemned to suffer this deformed space of non-liberty.” Sartre would likely agree with everything but the “non-liberty.” He followed the opposing line, that we are in fact condemned to be free.

Nothingness, for Sartre, is central to freedom. More specifically, the constant passing into nothingness of a person (in-self) is freedom. That means, first, that a person is able to differentiate between the world as phenomena perceived and the perceiver who is not-phenomena-perceived. Second, the person is able to perceive, or reflect on, themself. Third, the person can differentiate between basically undifferentiated stuff, making distinctions such as between table and not-table.

Temporally, nothingness takes on the characteristics of not-yet and not-anymore. Descartes’ famous “I think therefore I am” should really be “I think therefore I was,” as the thought is constantly slipping away. The table is not only differentiated by the stuff around it that is not-table, but by its lifespan.

Coming back to Krzhizhanovsky, a crack in the wall, as a fissure that came to hear the hermit preach, only “exists” because we can distinguish wall from not-wall, with all the qualities inherent in both. A wall is generally an unbroken vertical surface. As such, we can determine that there is something missing from the wall, though not enough for it to stop being a wall. The nothingness of the crack can then be established. The nothingness is not absolute — in this example, there is still air — , but the wall material is not there.

The empty shelves were only empty in the particular way Krzhizhanovsky used in his story because they had contained books and that was no longer the case. The board curvature would have given an indication of past use; the wood was not just boards but shelves. It would not have sufficed to conclude that the object beside the bed was a non-library. Time is not an abstract concept, though it can be and has been abstracted after the fact. It is, rather, an aspect of perceived change. Perceived change is only possible if objects are differentiated. Undifferentiated stuff just is. And, differentiated objects depend on the nothingness a person brings to the world as an object in the world.

One more point before turning our attention to vodka. Much of the above might seem like a subjective perspective. It is, after all, the perceiving subject that brings nothingness with them. Space and time are results of this nothingness interacting with the undifferentiated stuff of the world.

Sartre had a narrower notion of subjectivity. The person (in-self) is an object in the world, subordinate to the world’s rules. A person’s perspective, for instance, is governed by the laws of perspective. They cannot see through a crackless wall because of the nature of the objects involved. Even secondary characteristics, such as colour, are objective insofar as they are a result of how the person-in-the-world functions as an object in the world.

A person becomes a subject through transcending the world. Transcendence is not a material or metaphysical change so much as a property of the “not-yet” (or the equivalent not-anymore: I have not yet been released from prison, I will no longer be in prison.) The future is open to myriad possibilities. None of them are part of the stuff of the world until the present and, for the observer, the past.

Basically, not-yet offers a person a sense for what they are doing, turning movements into actions. A person walks to the kitchen, does a hundred things to prepare a meal and then eats the food. All those movements are linked and given value by a goal to be reached in the future. The goal is fluid and never really attained — the meal prepared is not exactly what was aimed for, the steps walking to the kitchen are approximations, etc. —, so it provides sense without determining action.

Toporov’s tragic prisoner is only a prisoner as a free subject. The subjective quality of their cell is as an obstacle to that freedom. If the person in the cell has no goals they are unable to move toward as a result of being in the cell, they would not be much of a prisoner. They would just be, as an object in the world. To be clear, goals are, for Sartre, possibilities. Obstacles may in the end be insurmountable, but they are not clear impossibilities. There needs to be a plausible, if far from certain, route from where a person is to their goal.

The subjective quality contrary to obstacle is useful. This is how Krzhizhanovsky’s stories often started, with a negative space useful to realizing the protagonist’s goal. The fissures were useful for the hermit to spread the Good Word and ultimately make the world a better place. The non-library was useful to the writer as a means to grasp the fluttering colours of words not fixed to a page. As the stories progressed, either the subjective quality shifted to being an obstacle or the use of the space had an objective impact on the world. One can imagine the consequences of all the cracks and crevasses abandoning their usual places in the world to gather around the hermit. As the characters had committed themselves to a certain path to reach their goal, the shift or impact had tragic results.

Happy is the person who does not drink. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Drunken Consciousness

What makes Krzhizhanovsky’s cowriter vodka fascinating is its direct connection to the not-yet, the nothingness of the future. The fissures and the non-library were only associated with the future because the protagonist had goals that used their nothingness. The nothingness itself was already part of human reality, only with the transcendental — possible and subjective — quality of being useful.

Involuntary Street is a series of seven letters sent to perfect strangers by an isolated drunken Muscovite with too many stamps on his hands. The government liquor stores had run out of change, so they gave stamps instead. While our hero promptly drained the bottles of vodka he bought, the stamps built up at the end of his table. One day, in a drunken state, he decided to give a stamp some “pleasure” by using it. This impulse was just the beginning: “With my coauthor, vodka, we were little by little taken by the passion of the epistolary thing.”

Though vodka is an external object in the world, Krzhizhanovsky used it as the narrator’s internal partner. They had a shared past, were part of the self that was acting (writing) and projected common goals into the future. At first blush, vodka appears to be what Sartre would call bad faith. The nothingness a person brings as an object in the world not only allows them to pull out objects and not-objects from all the undifferentiated stuff out there, but also to reflect on themself. “I think therefore I was” is possible because consciousness’s constant slipping toward nothingness provides a sort of internal negative space to, in a manner of speaking, step back and study oneself. The reflected self of this reflection (for-self, in Sartre’s words) is our fixed past understood in the light of our future possibilities.

This internal negative space has an emotional facet: anxiety. There is something missing. We do not know exactly who we are, or exactly where we are going, or exactly how to move forward. So, a person is liable to lie to themself to assuage this troubled feeling. In this case, the narrator seems to have filled the emptiness with alcohol. He was not fully responsible for sending letters to random people, let alone the passion that drove it. He knew who he was because the booze defined him.

This interpretation is at odds with three contrasting roles for vodka described in the letters. Starting with the last, from the fifth letter, “I distanced myself from men and got closer to the bottle. I drink.” These words hint at another emotional state of consciousness: shame.

Sartre argued that a person is not just characterized by their own reflection on their life lived in light of their future possibilities. That would only be the case if they were the sole subject in the world. Instead, they are looked at by other people (self-for-others) with other future possibilities. Both their physical object in the world — primarily their body — and their goals and actions toward those goals are judged by others as being useful or as obstacles. The internal sense of this look usually takes the form of shame and pride, though can also be fear and a recognition of being enslaved.

The narrator used vodka as a shield against other people’s looks and judgments, and against what I take to be the shame felt because of that gaze. The relationship was not straightforward, however, as the letters invited other people’s attention. The motivation for sending them made it clear this attention was, at least in part, welcome: “Deep down, it’s all I need. To be heard.” In the sixth letter, addressed to whoever was behind a window always lit through the night — a person the sender took to be a writer — , writing cues were offered to try to be useful. The alcohol reduced but did not eliminate this conflicted relationship.

The second role is from the third letter:

As the level of ink gets lower — drop after drop — in the inkwell, in the writer — glass after glass — the level of vodka rises.

My thoughts are drunk, they stumble. And the inkwell has fallen on the floor. The inkwell. I can’t manage to grab it. And my pen grft-

The shadows of the past overshadow our present. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Vodka was a state of consciousness in itself, a state that slowly but surely deprived the narrator of the ability to act. Prior to incapacitation, this state offers a better-aligned reading for vodka as coauthor. The narrator only used the imagery to underline the importance of the influence of alcohol on his letter-writing project. The influence superseded anxiety, shame and other states, but was not fundamentally different. It was still his consciousness — his internal nothingness — that was producing his thoughts. He was not really passing vodka off as an independent entity to feel complete or avoid responsibility.

As far as the narrator was, encompassing both object and conscious subject in the world, he was the action toward a goal, which is to say the writer of letters. He was also the possessor of letters, with the power to give them away. Being human, for Sartre, boils down to doing and having. The final goal is to be fulfilled; an absurd aim as we are condemned to be free, to live with our internal nothingness.

Krzhizhanovsky’s vodka, once it replaced the ink, was the nothingness of inaction. With every glass, future possibilities faded. Actions were drained of sense and reverted to mere movements. When the inkwell was lost somewhere on the floor, it was as close as one might get to a negative space of non-liberty. It was not an obstacle in the world that prematurely ended the letter, but a state of consciousness unable to envision goals or move toward them. The state was fleeting, though; a barely conscious stupor teetering into unconsciousness.

The last role, from the first letter, is the most direct:

I drink. For what reason? you ask me. A too sober gaze on reality. I am old — I have flaxen hair and yellow teeth — and life is young, so it’s necessary to wash me, like a stain, erase me with vodka. That’s all.

Erasing with vodka was an action in itself, with a fairly clear goal. The narrator was drinking himself to death. As he put it, “I am an aspiring corpse.” Sartre discussed death at length, as it is often taken as a sort of fulfillment. It is the end of the individual as a subject in the world, they are simply their life lived. This position is mistaken as death is beyond life, not included in it. A dead body may symbolize a life lived, but that life is gone. What is left is just another bit of stuff in the world.

For our purposes, stuff in the world is not very interesting. What is, is when “he sometimes lowered the wick of his consciousness, but never did he put it out.” It is the drunken stupor, not being passed out. Slipping toward this sort of nothingness brought into relief the two main facets of the narrator’s — and humanity’s — character. Drinking was an action that revealed the dismal prospects of all those “living on the Involuntary Street of history” as a result, in this particular case, of the October Revolution. His future possibilities were bleak enough to make alcoholism a reasonable and attractive choice.

Yet his reasoning pointed to another facet. It started with his sober gaze as a subject looking out on the objects in the world. Then it turned to the external gaze on him as an object, with his flaxen hair and yellow teeth. “Erase me with vodka” spoke more to becoming invisible to others and to how he felt others saw him.

Krzhizhanovsky’s negative spaces tended to play off how a person perceived the world. The diversity of his work is impressive and Toporov’s study does do it justice. The negative space of vodka simply went beyond the others. It laid bare how we exist — both as subjects and objects — and the oddities that result from negating the very beings that bring nothingness into the world. Consciousness is already nothingness, merely a reflection of who we have been in light of future possibilities. Drunken consciousness dims the light of the not-yet, suppressing anxiety and shame in the process, and occasionally contradicts itself by writing a letter.

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Writer of eclectic curiosities. Novels: Our New Neolithic Age (‘21), Simulated Hysteria (‘20), Death Train of Provincetown (‘19), The Amoeba-Ox Continuum (‘17).

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Trent Portigal

Trent Portigal

Writer of eclectic curiosities. Novels: Our New Neolithic Age (‘21), Simulated Hysteria (‘20), Death Train of Provincetown (‘19), The Amoeba-Ox Continuum (‘17).

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