"Revolution of Clocks: Time and Future in the Work of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky"

Johnson, Reed, Slavic Languages and Literatures - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Connolly, Julian, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, University of Virginia

This dissertation explores different conceptions and constructions of time and future in the work of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, a Soviet-era writer of Polish descent active in Moscow’s literary and theatrical scenes in the 1920s and 30s. In analyzing Krzhizhanovsky’s writing from the 1920s, I trace how his work both reflected and responded critically to the future-tensed rhetoric of Soviet utopianism. In this period, official discourse shifted between separate sets of temporal beliefs and practices, which I have categorized into four types of approaches—apocalyptic, charismatic, rational, and charismatic-rational—using typologies from scholars Frank Kermode and Stephen Hanson. These conceptions are related to Krzhizhanovsky’s fiction and essays from the 1920s to show the fraught relationship between the Soviet experiment and Krzhizhanovsky’s own literary experiments.

In my analysis of apocalyptic time in Chapter One, I discuss Krzhizhanovsky’s short-story collection Fairy Tales for Wunderkinder, which treats the revolution and civil war as a cosmic catastrophe through various estranging frames. Chapter Two looks at charismatic time in an episode from the 1924 novella Odyssey of the Odd, one in which the hero shrinks himself to microscopic size and journeys into the center of a ticking timepiece in order to halt the mechanism. Chapter Three, by contrast, examines the clock’s ascendancy over the human in the dark satire of rational time found in an embedded tale from Krzhizhanovsky’s 1926 novel The Letter Killers Club. This mise-en-abîme narrative imagines a future in which the government uses radio-waves to corral all human movement into a lockstep of synchronized labor. Finally, in Chapter Four, the human again attempts dominate the clock in Memories of the Future, a novel about an inventor constructing a machine to defeat time—not through brute force or heroic struggle, but through science and reason, thus providing a fictional example of the charismatic-rational time that emerged during Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan.

For all of these stances, I discuss how the concepts structuring time and future fall short, in Krzhizhanovsky’s estimation, before the actual experience of lived time. In attempting to derive Krzhizhanovsky’s own metaphysics of time from his writing, I show how his set of beliefs and suppositions drew on the philosophers and scientists of his day—Henri Bergson, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Einstein, Hermann Minkowski and others—to pose broader questions about the nature of time: Is existence a form of being or becoming? Is the passage of time a physical or psychological process? What is the ontological status of future events?

These questions are never resolved unambiguously in Krzhizhanovsky’s work, but the worldview that emerges from his fiction shows a philosophy of time that stands in sharp contrast to reigning orthodoxies of dialectical materialism and Marxist-Leninist teleology. Krzhizhanovsky is critical of what he terms the Soviet “culture of tempos,” and the way the regime’s focus on the future and temporal acceleration only manages to hollow out the present moment and turn humans into ghosts of themselves. As Maximillian Shterer, inventor of the time machine in Memories of the Future, notes upon arriving in (his) future year of 1928: “… my sense of the people surrounding me is that they are people without a now, people whose present has been left behind, people with projected wills, with words resembling the ticking of clocks wound long before, with lives as faint as the impression under the tenth sheet of carbon.”

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
time, Soviet Union, Modernism, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
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