Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Life’s a Birch and Then You Die

Reading Daniel Rancour-Laferriere’s The Slave Soul of Russia: Moral Masochism and the Cult of Suffering sounds like an inherently masochistic act: Can one slim book make a scholarly psychoanalysis of an entire nation and its history and culture? The short answer is Yes. Diagnosis: moral masochism.

Fear not, tender readers. This scholarly book is entertaining, enlightening, and fully accessible to readers without degrees in Freudian analysis or Russian studies. It can also be frustrating, but take off that hair shirt, toss out the hemlock, and settle into a comfortable chair. Rancour-Laferriere’s monograph has lots of relevance to literature, and he includes evidence from folk tales, religion, novels, philosophy, and history to show how and why Russians find ways to abuse themselves, physically and emotionally.

That The Slave Soul of Russia reads easily is its best and worst trait because, at times, the book’s logic is surprisingly thin (see below). I began reading as a convert to Rancour-Laferriere’s thesis that Russians are masochistic. Actually, I think most human beings are masochistic in their own ways, as evidenced by the popularity of expressions like “life’s a bitch and then you die.” Then again, “Life Is Good” has become a popular brand, so it seems the key to happiness involves balancing knowledge of unavoidable realities – e.g. paying taxes and dying – with enough healthy denial to enjoy a book, a glass of wine, and a good night’s sleep. But enough advice.

Who might enjoy Rancour-Laferriere’s book? Readers of Russian literature should like chapters mentioning masochists in Russian books, including Pasternak’s Lara, Pushkin’s Tatiana, and Dostoevsky’s Dmitrii Karamazov. Anthropologists may relish analysis of old Russian sayings and the symbolism of the Russian banya, or bathhouse. Chapters on mothers and male-female relationships should be of interest to gender studiers. And so on… Rancour-Laferriere scours Russian cultural history and finds masochism everywhere, from birth to death.

The range of sources is so broad that it’s inevitable no reader will agree with everything Rancour-Laferriere writes. But it’s tough for me to disagree with his thesis, given the wealth of analogous situations and reasoning I’ve heard expressed in conversations or through contemporary and classic literature, movies, and TV shows.

Still, banya history is one thing, but I’m not sure all Rancour-Laferriere’s evidence trickles down to the modern-day banya. In my experience, sitting, having a day off with friends, and drinking something, be it tea or vodka, is more important than being hit on the back with a birch switch. Not that I ever found the extreme heat or switching painful, though maybe my friends lacked sadistic tendencies or went easy on me because I was a foreigner.

In other spots, Rancour-Laferriere’s lines of reasoning feel incomplete or reductive. I’ve always thought swaddling babies sounded cruel so was glad he covered that topic, but his reason for including a quotation from Tolstoy, writing as if he were a swaddled baby, was weak for a scholarly book: Tolstoy’s tremendous characterizations of adults do not mean we can assume he can accurately describe an infant’s feelings.

I also think Rancour-Laferriere takes his analysis of birches a bit too far. Yes, the birch is called “mother,” but he provides no direct evidence – songs, sayings, or otherwise -- for speculation that certain rituals among maidens that involve chopping or burning birch are sadistic toward the mother or masochistic toward themselves. That said, he admits the meanings of the birch rituals are not always clear and makes sure to use words like “seems” and “possibly.”

So, did I enjoy the book or was it a masochistic experience? I recommend it. There should be something to pique the interest and curiosity -- or ire -- of most readers, and that’s a good thing, given the importance and broadness of the topic. Keep in mind, too, that The Slave Soul of Russia was written in the ‘90s and is a monograph with inherently limited scope. It never purports to explain Russian history or make a broad-reaching definition of the elusive “Russian soul,” only to provide evidence of masochistic tendencies within Russian culture.

Rancour-Laferriere includes personal thoughts on Russian masochism in his conclusion. Mentioning Berdiaev’s writing on Dostoevsky, Rancour-Laferriere confesses he finds it “exhilarating” to observe -- from afar -- Russian hunger for self-destruction and the danger of intoxication with ruin. He follows this admission with one more paragraph:

For me, masochism is part of the very attractiveness and beauty of Russian culture. Where would Tatiana Larina or Dmitrii Karamazov or Anna Karenina be without their masochism? To “cure” them of their masochism would detract considerably from their aesthetic appeal. The beauty of masochism, however, like all beauty, resides in the mind of the beholder.

Finally, I should add that Rancour-Laferriere cites Russian opinion about masochistic tendencies, which I think lends strength to his ideas. I found a recent example of Russian ideas on masochism just last week, in a roundtable discussion from the November 2007 issue of Искусство кино. It contains some very strong statements about Russian attitudes toward Stalin’s Great Terror.

Participant Denis Dragunskii goes so far as to say that some victims of Stalinism may have, subconsciously or mentally, wanted to die. Though he adds that people did not think of themselves as one “megavictim,” they wanted violence for themselves, and he concludes that some people are masochists and that the Russian people (in the singular, as “народ”) can be called a masochist.


  1. Hello Lisa,

    I am not sure that Lara was really a masochist, although she certainly had masochistic tendencies. She punished herself greatly for her affair with Komarovsky - perhaps to the extent of marrying Pasha. However, she did love him. Her affair with Zhivago caused her much suffering and guilt, but it was such a wonderful love story that it can be argued that it may even have been more masochistic for her not to have lived with him!

    She is an incredibly complicated character and is proof that someone can be inclined to deliberate suffering and yet very strong.


  2. Thanks for your comment, Lisa!

    I completely agree with you that Lara's various choices each contained elements of masochism. In many ways, I think compromise itself has an element of masochism because it involves rejecting the option that provides the likeliest path to happiness. Those balances can be interesting!

    It's interesting, too, that you mention the combination of deliberate suffering and strength. Lara may be a creation of Pasternak, but I've met many real people -- of many nationalities! -- who seem to carry the same contradictions.