What I am…. a лишний человек

лишний человек….. that is what I am and it took me half my life to find out. But better late than never. A Greek aphorism says “Know Thyself”….. it took me a lot of research and reading but I found that I am a лишний человек (ok ok, a Lishniy Chilavek for all you linguistically challenged out there).

Usually translated as “superflous man” in English, the term was popularised by Ivan Turgenev’s novella The Diary of a Superfluous Man (1850) and was thereafter retroactively applied to characters from novels of the earlier part of the nineteenth-century.

The character type possibly originates out of Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which is said to have inspired Alexander Pushkin to write his verse novel Eugene Onegin (1833), the story of a Byronic youth who wastes his life, allows the girl who loves him to marry another, and lets himself be drawn into a duel …well I guess you get the idea.

What is a “superflous man”? Its a character type whose frequent recurrence in 19th-century Russian literature is sufficiently striking to make him a national archetype. He is usually an aristocrat, intelligent, well-educated, and informed by idealism and goodwill but incapable, for reasons as complex as Hamlet’s, of engaging in effective action. Although he is aware of the stupidity and injustice surrounding him, he remains a bystander.

Many of Pushkin’s short stories characterise superfluous men, notably The Queen of Spades, but it was  Mikhail Lermontov’s Герой нашего времени…. I mean A Hero of Our Time also scores trumps in its depiction…. but I will return to it in a while.

Vasily Ivanovich Bazarov, one of the main characters of Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons (1862) is also considered a superfluous man, as is the titular character of Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov (1859) . An idle, daydreaming noble who lives on the income of an estate he never visits, Oblomov spends all his time lying in bed thinking about what he will do when (and if) he gets up. It is a gem of a book in which the protagoist never gets out of his bed for the the first 150 pages of the work….. hmmm.

But to return to Lermontov’s work.

A Hero of his Time is, as the title indicates, an account of the life and character of a man who is typical of his age, continuing the tradition of personal studies, initiated in Russia by Eugene Onegin but with antecedents in Western European literature.

A common feature of Pechorin (its ‘hero’ ) and other “superflous men” is that they are misfits, men who are aware that they are above the mediocrity of their society and aspire to something better. They fail – the ‘something’ they aspire too vague to become a practical goal, conditions of the day provide no scope for them to realise their potnetial, and as a rule, the are anyway too feeble of will to achieve anything. A necessary qualification for the role of superflous man is consciousness of one’s superflousness – self-obsession and self-questioning are standard features.

Pechorin only partly fits this pattern. He is cast more in the mould of the Byronic hero, the superior individual at odds with the world. He is proud, energetic, strong-willed, self-assured, but finding that life does not measure up to his expectations, he has become embittered, cynical and bored.

So there you have it. I am Pechorin (or if not specifically, definitely of his ilk!!!!)


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