Alla Gorbunova.

Every week Lev Oborin posts a roundup of recent literary news, and I read them faithfully; this week’s brought to my attention the Petersburg poet Alla Gorbunova (Russian Wikipedia), who’s written a couple of books of prose — the brand-new one, «Конец света, моя любовь» [The end of the world, my love], sounded so good (Galina Yuzefovich in her review said it might be the book of the year) that I promptly bought an electronic copy and loved the title story (the first in the collection), in which the narrator describes her childish fear that the world would end and says that when she got older she realized the worst thing is that everything stays the same: мир обманул меня и оказался твердым, совсем твердым…. счастье — ето ожидание конца света [the world deceived me and turned out to be solid, completely solid…. happiness is waiting for the end of the world].

Her first book of prose, Вещи и ущи, a collection of very short pieces, came out in 2017; I’ll translate the title “Things and mings,” which will be explained by my translation of the title piece (you can read the original here, near the bottom of the page):


Things made from mind are distinguished from things made from matter by their history. The history of things made from matter is the history of material and master, machine and shelf. The history of things made from mind is the history of imagination. These two histories flow in parallel, but sometimes come together. For convenience we will call things made from matter “things,” and things made from mind “mings” [ущи, a combination of вещи ‘things’ and ум ‘mind’]. In each thing there is always some ming, even if only a little. The history of matter always includes the history of imagination. Most people have never seen pure mings, but I have. I love the history of things, but it may be that one day we will be living in a world consisting of mings. Sometimes I can’t tell immediately whether what’s before me is a thing or a ming, because at first glance they look identical. Then I begin to investigate the history of the object, and right away it becomes clear whether it’s a thing or a ming. But here too it’s possible to make a mistake and attribute the history of a thing to a ming or vice versa. There are people who interact perfectly well with things but on the plane of mings are completely helpless, and there are great masters of mings who are like little children when it comes to things. There’s no doubt that I have a certain talent for mings; in the first place, I can see them, and in the second place, I can perform various actions with them and even create them at will. As for things, the more ming there is in them, the easier it is for me to deal with them. Some things have very little ming in them. They say there is a dark sea in which mings cannot be born, and I fear that one day I will drown in it.

I have a weakness for the prose of poets, and I like that kind of thing a lot.


  1. I must say that after shuttling back and forth between the 1890s and 1960s, it’s exciting to read a book hot off the (e-)presses!

  2. Husserl said that the world was essentially completely populated by functions—those mings. Only in breakdown situations does the factiticy (or thing-ness) of something come into play, when its authentic function is called into question, and we are pushed back to looking at it at a (more) physical level.

  3. Denis Akhapkin says:

    Did you read Крошечные эссе by Elena Schwartz? I think this was a model for Gorbunova but Shwartz is much, much better

  4. Thanks for the tip — I haven’t, but I will!

  5. Here are some of her “little essays”; I like ГРИФЕЛЬНАЯ ДОСКА НА ВОДЕ (Slate on the water), which references Derzhavin’s wonderful «Река времен».

  6. Denis Akhapkin says:

    And essays I’ve mentioned were published in the same book:

  7. Very enjoyable!

  8. If you love Shvarts (I do), nothing in the world compares to her. But Gorbunova is still worth reading.

  9. John Cowan says:

    These mings are what Dawkins (and following him Michael D.C. Drout) called memes before it became impossible to use the word in its original generalized sense.

  10. A pleasing assonance (or, if you prefer, consonance)!

  11. I just finished “Под мостом” and man, it’s so good — a sort of Russian Elena Ferrante novel boiled down to a few pages. I think Gorbunova will eventually be much better known.

  12. There’s another echo of Dennett, namely his stances. We can look at a thing from any of three stances to predict its future behavior.

    In the physical stance, we see it as a physico-chemical object obeying the laws of nature: we can predict that a cannonball fired with a given force from a cannon pointing in a given direction will land in a specific place.

    In the design stance, we see it as an engineered or evolved object and predict its actions based on what it is for: when we see a bird, we predict that if it flaps its wings it will fly, because wings are for flying. We may, however, have a penguin, in which case we must switch to the physical stance to see why it can’t fly. Overall, the design stance is easier to use than the physical stance. We don’t need to know exactly how a horse runs at the level of atoms and molecules: the level of muscles and bones is plenty. Only when the horse runs over a cliff does the physical stance take over.

    Finally, we have the intentional stance, which is how we look at software and minds: we assign beliefs and desires to them. A bird will fly away if a cat approaches because it doesn’t want to to be eaten. A person who is hungry, we predict, will fix food, ask someone else to fix it, go to a restaurant, or order delivery, because they want to eat and they believe doing one of these things will satisfy the hunger. And a thermostat and its associated heating or cooling mechanisms believe the temperature should be such-and-such and want to make it so.

    This last example is the point that really outrages all sorts of philosophical people: as Searle said, do you really believe that that hunk of metal on the wall has beliefs in exactly the same sense that you or I do? But we move into the intentional stance because it’s the most useful for predicting the behavior of very complex systems. If the software is buggy or the mind is disordered, we must switch to the design stance, and sometimes to the physical stance, to see where the problem is coming from.

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