Tuesday 18 September 2012

Lermontov, Pushkin and Byron – The Original Superfluous Men

A youthful looking Mikhail Lermontov
The superfluous man is one of the lasting legacies of Russian literature in the 19th century. The phrase – referring to a peculiar individual, undoubtedly gifted but tortured and existing outside the practical bounds of society – was coined by Ivan Turgenev in the title of his 1850 novella “The Diary of a Superfluous Man”, but the roots of the concept stretch further back in time.

The origins of the concept of the superfluous man are so fitting that they are almost predictable. The formation of its constituent parts began in the mind of – you guessed it – Lord Byron; in many ways the archetypal superfluous man himself. Byron’s narrative poem, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” was published over 30 years before Turgenev’s famous work and is widely credited with sowing the seeds of the superfluous man character in the Russian literary consciousness.

It was Alexander Pushkin who first took the idea of the superfluous man back to Russia, using Byron’s work as the inspiration for his own famous narrative poem, Eugene Onegin. Onegin is a suitably Byronesque dandy from Saint Petersburg, who cobbles together his own ‘individual’ personality from various literary tropes and ideals.

If Pushkin and Byron laid the groundwork for the character of the superfluous man, it was Mikhail Lermontov who cemented its place in the Russian literary canon. Born in 1814 to an aristocratic family, Lermontov was an artistic prodigy, producing poetry, stunning landscape paintings and prose while barely in his 20s.

It was in 1839, when aged only 24, that Lermontov completed the work that would crystallize the character of the superfluous man, “A Hero of Our Time,” a novel which elucidates the life of its central character, Pechorin, through the eyes of a number of witnesses to his deeds.

Apart from both being prime exponents of one of Russian literature’s most enduring devices, the parallels between the lives, careers and deaths of Pushkin and Lermontov are eerily apparent. Both “Eugene Onegin” and “A Hero of Our Time” describe a duel between the protagonist and another character; both Pushkin and Lermontov came to untimely ends while participating in a duel.

On July 25th 1841 the dashing, swashbuckling army officer Mikhail Lermontov engaged in a duel with another officer, Nikolai Martynov, whom he had offended. Martynov shot Lermontov dead; the writer was  26 years old.

In many ways, Mikhail Lermontov, Lord Byron and Alexander Pushkin represent the archetypes that have made the idea of a superfluous man so enduring throughout the development of modern culture. The live-fast-die-young-leave-a-beautiful corpse attitude has pervaded into some of the most famous and evocative cultural iconography of the 20th and 21st centuries.

James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Kurt Cobain are all more modern examples of the superfluous man – and woman – concept made flesh, of people whose disorders made them brilliant but crucially incompatible with real life.

Criticised by some as symptomatic of arrogance and an inability to “pull yourself together”, but embraced by others as a fascinating critique of social convention, the superfluous man concept will continue to be relevant as long as society continues to impose its restrictive framework onto ordinary lives.

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