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Daniil Kharms’ Blank Message

By Kris Bartkus.

Daniil Kharms, A Failed Performance, translated by C Dylan Bassett and Emma Winsor Wood (Plays Inverse Press, 2018)

When I stare too long at the biography of Daniil Kharms, the Russian pioneer of absurdist literature, I think what Julie Hecht’s narrator thought upon visiting the sad two-story rambler where Anne Sexton lived: “How could you write a poem in such a house? How could you do anything but go crazy? I felt I was going to go crazy just looking at it.”

Consider: born amid the 1905 Revolution that nearly toppled the Tsar, Kharms was nine when Russia entered World War I. The fighting didn’t stop until the end of the Russian Civil War, by which time Kharms’ hometown of Leningrad had lost two-thirds of its population. Peace arrived hand-in-hand with Stalin, and the next twenty years, during which Kharms was diagnosed with schizophrenia, were marked by state-induced famine (which hit Kharms especially hard) and increasing repression, which culminated in the Great Purge, during which the NKVD drove around hunger-stricken cities, gassing people in the backs of vans disguised as bread trucks. The coda to these two decades was World War II, which began when Kharms was thirty-five, Dante’s “midway on our life’s journey”. The next winter, imprisoned in a mental hospital, he was among the quarter-million Leningraders who died of starvation. He had been arrested for spreading a “defeatist mood”.

He was not, however, so defeatist as to stop writing, a miracle that’s hard to account for. His bizarre, funny vignettes, like the one about a diner who struggles to order a “boeuf-buoy” from a procession of bemused waiters, were not a form of political resistance, but nor did Kharms have any hope of them passing Soviet censors. He would have had to live twice as long to see his works in print. Like many of his characters, who show no interest in tempering the endless flow of words that gushes from their mouths, perhaps he simply couldn’t help himself.

In the West, Kharms’ publication history has been appropriately chaotic. There is no definitive English-language volume of his works. Instead, it seems that every few years a new independent press visits the rusty storm drain beneath which I imagine his collected works are kept and ladles out a new assortment of prose, plays and poetry to translate. Kharms, like many humourists and poets, benefits from the constant renewal, and the forthcoming A Failed Performance (Plays Inverse), a free-wheeling translation by poets C Dylan Bassett and Emma Winsor Wood, with its focus on sounds, rhythms and wordplay, is the richest and funniest to date.

The collection, which focuses on his dramatic works, takes its name from a typically Kharmsian vignette. The curtain is raised. Petrakov-Gurbonov comes on stage. He hiccups. Then he vomits. Then he runs away. Another man comes out, begins to offer an apology, but then vomits, and runs away. The same thing happens to a third person, then a fourth, then a fifth, until finally a little girl comes out and says: “Daddy wanted me to tell you that the theater is closed. Everyone is sick!”

Maybe they’re sick in the head. The translation maintains the productive ambiguity (lost in the popular Today I Wrote Nothing, which has, “All of us are getting sick!”). When Kharms’ characters do manage to speak, what they produce is not so much verbalized thoughts as acid reflux from the brain. A baroness opens her mouth and out comes: “That’s nice, but Christopher Columbus shoved his bike into our cook.” A man cries out, apropos of nothing, “Help me, help me right away, I’m covered in salad and mud.” A professor admonishes two policemen, saying, “If you think my ear’s been bitten off, then you are sorely mistaken. As you can see, I have two undamaged ears. One, it’s true, on my cheek, but such was my wish.” One of the officers replies that his cousin has eyebrows growing under his nose.

Kharms is called an absurdist, but the uncanny power of his sentences stems as much from their physicality, from Kharms’ attention to bodies, sounds, smells and textures, as it does from their illogic. At their best, these sentences straddle the widest possible gap between the rationally incomprehensible and the physically plausible. Columbus parking his bike in the cook doesn’t make sense, but there it is, caught in the folds of her skirt as she writes letters to her village. Or take to this passage:

His wife was kneeling before him, sewing his ear back on with pink silk thread. The professor held scissors in his hands. He was cutting a hole in the center of his wife’s dress. When his wife’s naked stomach appeared, the professor rubbed it with his palm and looked into it as if into a mirror.

What characterizes these lines is the sensation that they fully consume themselves in the process of being read. Like a fire that leaves neither ash nor excess fuel, his most distinctive sentences leave no excess symbolism, no lingering questions, no narrative expectation. The bright flame of the image comes and then is gone, replaced by a physical sensation of standstill. Sometimes, Kharms achieves this effect in subtler ways, as is the brief ‘Anything Meaningful on Earth’:

ME: Is there anything meaningful on earth which could change the course of history, not only in this world, but in other worlds, too?
TEACHER: There is!
ME: Well… what is it?
ME: I’m waiting…
ME: I’m patiently waiting…
ME: I’m patiently waiting and standing still…
TEACHER: Ho-la-la!
ME: We’re both standing still!
TEACHER: Ho-le-le!
ME: Yes, yes, we’re both being quiet and standing still!

Kharms stretches the phrase “I’m waiting” to its breaking point, from a colloquial annoyance to an objective descriptor to the strange giddiness of “We’re both standing still!” and to the final self-refuting line. It’s a simple execution, but reaching the last exclamation mark I feel that disassociation that sometimes comes over me when struggling to speak with someone and think, yes, yes, here we are, two humans of the regular variety, wearing clothes, engaged in perfectly normal and natural human activity.

Kharms’ plays would be reminiscent of koans if his characters were at all laconic. For all the nonsense they speak, they have a real exuberance for throwing words at one another. Of a man in a coffin, “green with death”, it’s said that “to seem alive, he talks all the time.” Specifically, he talks about how to make soup: “When the water boils throw a carrot into the water…No you must put a carriage in the water. Although that’s not exactly true.”

With Kharms’ focus on physicality, it begins to seem as if the act of speaking itself is a purely physical one, as if words were spores that we begin to produce in the agitating presence of another person. Many of the plays are premised on characters who refuse to stop talking, like the opening to ‘The Hunters’:

GOATSON: Want a smoke?
GOATSON: (pointing) Want me to bring you that thing over there?
GOATSON: Maybe you want me to tell you a joke?
GOATSON: How about a drink? I have here some tea with cognac.
WINDOWSON: If you don’t shut up, I’m gonna smack you upside the head with this rock and cut off your leg.

And that’s exactly what he does. Violence, whether threatened or committed, is the only reliable way to short-circuit the spiralling dialogues, and there’s plenty of it: ears and legs are ripped off, mothers are strangled, soup and birds are thrown in people’s faces. Inexplicable violence is the hot sauce of absurdist writing (predictable, goes with everything), but Kharms generally uses it to good effect. Even a generic moment like Pyotr randomly ripping off his friend’s arm to open a scene leads to some fine trash talk:

PYOTR PAVLOVICH: Yes, it’s your arm! Now what’ll you wave with?
PYOTR PAVLOVICH: Not bad, not bad. Well then, there’s nothing else to say. But put one hand in your pocket, and you won’t be able to scratch your head.

Even stronger are the moments that convey a genuinely bestial cruelty. In ‘Ratsby’s Victory’, the neighbours argue over what to do with Ratsby, the man who lives in the hallway and gets in the way of them “walking forwards and backwards”. Finally, one of them says, “Why are we still talking about this? Someone call the police!” The police officer arrives but only manages to keep repeating “That’s not good enough” while he shakes his head. Amid the explanations, the superintendent slips in, “They tried to light him on fire yesterday.” This line’s comedic timing is perfect, coming after you believe that calling the police is the escalation and on the heels of a particularly asinine complaint (“He lets things fall out of his pockets, too. It’s impossible to walk forwards and backwards barefoot…”). After the officer departs, the play ends with the neighbours’ lament:

SELIZNEVA: Now he’ll never get up!
KALUGIN: (angrily) Never.

At first, I laughed at these three bozos melodramatically echoing Lear over an intransigent neighbour, enjoyed how the scene made talking seem like a pointless physical emanation that could never produce enough joules to raise Ratsby from the floor. But on second read, I heard a gradient in the three never’s, from exasperation to rage to grim determination. Suddenly it didn’t seem so bad that we no longer know our neighbours; was Ratsby never going to get up because they were finally going to light him on fire?

A play like ‘Ratsby’s Victory’ comes “uncomfortably close”, as translator Alex Cigale puts it, “to describing the actual horror, to bearing witness.” Whether or not Kharms intended to say something with his art is a bit of gristle that almost every essay on him ends up unhappily chewing. On the one hand, he was avowedly apolitical, and is more fun to read that way. On the other, it feels unreasonable to treat the poverty, hunger and censorship he lived through as window-dressing. Further complicating matters is his esoteric faith. Like his anarchist-turned-ascetic father, Kharms was a committed pacifist, a mystic, and a reader of scripture, and it’s hard to square his image as a nose-thumbing rascal with the man who visited his father’s grave during wartime hoping for a prophecy that would save his wife, or the man who wrote lines like these in his journal:

I have not a prayer for the Lord, let His will be done, whatever He intends for me, be it death or be it life—whatever He intends. Into Thine hands, oh, Lord, Jesus Christ, I commit my spirit. Keep me from harm, have mercy on me, and grant me eternal life.[1]

There’s a definite mystical essence in Kharms’ writing, but one that’s oblique, diffuse and heavily ironized. Angels and other messengers, for instance, appear regularly, but either they’re mute or they want to talk about axles. In “Untitled (The Student)” Fakirov says he yearns for wisdom, but then claims he has it because he made a “complex machine” out of barley. Unlike many of the Russian writers who preceded him, Kharms does not present spirituality as a way to escape from the constant pressing in of the world. In “Makarov and Petersen #3” the two examine a book that, like Ecclesiastes, promises to teach the vanity of desire. One of them, on hearing the book’s name, loses his physical body and enters a plane of perfect spheres, only for his frightened, disembodied voice to start shouting, “Let go of me!”

Given his circumstances, Kharms’ scepticism of spiritual escape is unsurprising. In the Soviet Union, monks hammered the same rocks as libertines, and anyone who hadn’t learned about the vanity of desire from the Bible was quickly taught that lesson by the state, to no spiritual benefit. But I don’t think it was just the difficulties that he saw and experienced that fed his doubts. Kharms divined, and was perhaps even drawn to, something about our species’ impatient and insatiable sociability. He saw that wisdom, like quietly standing still, is too excruciating for us. We can only take so much of it before we wander off to make machines out of barley, shouting, “Ho-la-la! Ho-le-le!” If Kharms imagined a heaven, I doubt it would have been a quiet monastery in the sky. It would have been a place where people could rant, bicker, and smack their lips, harangue and laugh at each other, make faces and scream with joy, but only as bodiless projections, so that no matter how furious the orgy of chatter became no arms could be ripped off and no neighbours could be lit on fire. It sounds—eerily, if not disconcertingly —like social media.

[1] Cigale, Alexander. Russian Absurd: Daniil Kharms, Selected Writings (Northwestern World Classics, 2017): http://www.nupress.northwestern.edu/content/russian-absurd.


Kris Bartkus is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Tweets forthcoming in 2020 at @kbartkus.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 27th, 2018.