Steam Instead of Soul.

I haven’t reported on my Russian reading in a while, which doesn’t mean it’s been uninteresting — I just haven’t had anything interesting to say about it. I read Ostrovsky’s Гроза [The Thunderstorm], which is just as great as they say (the 1933 film is surprisingly good despite the fact that it was heavily cut) and Turgenev’s Накануне [On the Eve] (not bad but not great — the Bulgarian hero is unconvincing) and Первая любовь [First Love] (just as great as they say). Now I’m on one of those books I wouldn’t have read except for my comprehensive reading program, Nikolai Pomyalovsky‘s Мещанское счастье [Bourgeois happiness — I don’t think it’s been translated]. Pomyalovsky is one of those “minor writers” nobody ever especially recommends (and the title is awful), but I’m enjoying it a great deal and already looking forward to the sequel, Молотов [Molotov — the protagonist of both is Egor Ivanych Molotov], and ruing the fact that the author died at 28 — I suspect he could have been one of the greats if he’d had a chance to mature.

But I’m not even halfway through, so I don’t want to comment on the story as a whole other than to say it has some very effective scenes; I just want to excerpt this self-contained section, which I found unexpected and striking (Russian after the cut):

Egor Ivanych walked onto the forest glade and on it saw two small graves. This caught his attention. “Who would be buried here?” he thought. “What a strange place — in a forest!” Looking around, he saw that he was completely surrounded by forest. After a moment’s thought, he climbed the highest tree and saw the road from there. He walked out onto the road and, hearing women’s voices, approached them. It turned out to be three peasant women; the oldest was nattering on about something. Molotov addressed himself to her.

“Auntie!” he called out.

The women looked around and made low bows, as simple peasant folk do when meeting someone dressed like a gentleman.

“What is it, sir?” she asked.

“Do you know whose graves those are, auntie?”

“What graves, sir?”

“Over there by the river, on the glade.”

“Ah!” cried the old woman. “There are graves, there are… That’s Miron’s little daughters… two of them died…”

“Why are they buried there?”

“The little girls? They died unbaptized.”

She raised her eyes to the heavens, sighed, said “Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy,” and dropped her eyes. But suddenly her face became enlivened, and she began to talk:

“Of course, if an unbaptized child dies, it’s just like a piece of wood… You can dig anywhere, it’s all the same… There’s no spirit in it, it’s a kind of person who… it’s born without a spirit… it’s got steam inside… You don’t baptize one like that, it up and dies… God won’t allow it, no.”

“Where did you get the idea that an unbaptized child doesn’t have a spirit?”

“But how can a Christian child die without being baptized? Is that possible? It’s not possible… Sometimes one is born completely dead… this one doesn’t have a spirit… An unbaptized child isn’t born a holy child.”

She spread her hands and was silent. Molotov was amazed at her peasant woman’s sense.

“Goodbye, auntie, and thanks,” he said.

“Goodbye, sir.”

Molotov was even more amazed at her peasant woman’s sense later on, when he learned that this belief about unbaptized children was purely personal, that nobody in the village knew about it. He had run into a peasant woman poet, a peasant woman mystic. It might be that until that moment it had never occurred to her to try to explain to herself the fate, incomprehensible to her, of certain children, and then as soon as the question of the children entered her head, not wanting to remain long in perplexity, she at once, with the help of her inspiration, went past all contradictions and created an instant myth. And it’s very possible that this myth will be passed down to her children and grandchildren, will creep into other families, to neighbors and acquaintances, and in thirty or forty years will become a new local folk belief, and then you won’t be able to guess where it arose. It’s not only ancient times that stored up prejudices, they’re created even now.

Me, I’d rather have characters musing about things like that than the pressing social issues of the day.

Update (July 4). Sigh… Just as with Netochka Nezvanova, no sooner do I write an enthusiastic post than the book falls off a cliff. Molotov meets the neighbor girl Lenochka and they have a sort-of-romance, complete with heaving bosoms, flaming cheeks, and tears falling like hail; he overhears a conversation between the Obrosimovs, a family of landed nobility for whom he’s working, and decides they have contempt for him, which leads to just the sort of endless chewing-over of social issues that I was congratulating Pomyalovsky for resisting. It all ends in drawn-out and repetitious cliché. I’ll read the sequel, but no longer with high hopes.


The original Russian:

Егор Иваныч вышел на лужайку и на ней увидел две небольшие могилки. Это заняло его. “Кто бы тут похоронен был? – думал он. – Как странно – в лесу!” Оглянувшись кругом, он увидел, что его отовсюду окружает лес. Недолго думая, он влез на самое большое дерево и отсюда рассмотрел дорогу. Он вышел на дорогу и, заслышав бабьи голоса, пошел на них. Показались три бабы. Старшая тараторила что-то. Молотов обратился к старшей.
– Тетушка! – крикнул он.
Бабы оглянулись, отвесили по низкому поклону, в полспины, как обыкновенно делают деревенские простолюдины, встречая всякого одетого по-барски.
– Чего тебе, батюшка? – спросила старшая.
– Не знаешь ли, тетушка, чьи там могилки?
– Где это, барин, могилки?
– Вот тут и есть, у реки, на лужайке.
– А! – вскрикнула баба. – Есть могилки, есть… это Мироновы детки… двое померло…
– Отчего же они там похоронены?
– Кто… детки-то? а некрещены померли.
Она подняла глаза к небу, вздохнула и, сказавши: “Господи помилуй, господи помилуй”, понурила голову. Но вдруг лицо ее оживилось, и она заговорила:
– Известно, некрещеное дитя да померло – это все одно что дерево… Где ни закопай, все равно… В нем и духу нет… это уж такой человек… без духу он родится… пар в нем… Этаконького и не окрестишь, так и помрет… бог не попустит, нет…
– Откуда ж ты взяла, что в некрещеном духу нет? – спросил Молотов.
– А чего ж христианское дитя да без крещения помирает? разве можно? – не можно… Иной и вовсе мертвенькой родится… у этого и пару нет… Некрещеное дитя, так, знать, и родится не святое дитя.
Баба развела руками и замолчала. Подивился Молотов бабьему смыслу.
– Прощай, тетушка, спасибо, – сказал он.
– Прощай, батюшка.
Еще более подивился Молотов бабьему смыслу, когда после оказалось, что поверье о некрещеных детях у бабы было чисто личное, что оно в деревне никому не известно. Ему попалась баба-поэт, баба-мистик. Может быть, ей самой до сих пор не приходилось объяснять себе непонятную для нее судьбу некоторых детей, и вот, лишь только пришел ей в голову вопрос о детях, она, не желая оставаться долго в недоумении, сразу при помощи своего вдохновения миновала все противоречия и мгновенно создала миф. И очень может быть, что этот миф перейдет к ее детям, внукам, переползет в другие семьи, к соседям и знакомым, и чрез тридцать – сорок лет явится новое местное поверье, и догадайтесь потом, откуда оно пошло. Не одна старина запасает предрассудки, они еще и ныне создаются.

Comments

  1. Bathrobe says:

    Happy Birthday, Hat. May Languagehat never run out of steamy, soulful topics!

  2. Thank you!

  3. SFReader says:

    “Steam instead of soul” is an old expression. Of Biblical origin, I assume, perhaps someone can enlighten us.

    Googling found the oldest mention of this phrase – by none other than Czar Ivan the Terrible in his correspondence with Prince Andrei Kurbsky.

    Prince Kurbsky, political emigre, wrote from Poland an angry letter to the czar, accusing him of various crimes and rhetorically exclaiming “Do you think you are immortal, have you erred into unique heresy that you are not afraid to appear before your Creator on Judgement Day?”

    And Ivan the Terrible retorts: “I don’t consider myself immortal, since death is the common fate of all people for the sin of Adam; even though I am a purple-bearer (ie, a king), I know that by nature I am as feeble as all people, unlike your heretic philosophizing that I am above the laws of nature. This is laughable, it’s like believing that humans are like cattle, if you believe this, then humans must have steam instead of soul; beware, this is a Saducee heresy!”

  4. David Marjanović says:

    a purple-bearer (ie, a king)

    Specifically an emperor, I’m sure!

  5. “Steam instead of soul” is an old expression.

    Very interesting, I had no idea!

  6. To have steam inside suggests some sort of pent-up energy or anger, which this use of пар does not imply. I think vapour would be a more accurate translation.

  7. Maybe, but it would sound odd in the mouth of a peasant woman.

  8. I hadn’t ever heard “steam instead of soul” as an expression, but it was a common folk belief across much of Europe that goblins, as well as evil folk who might or might not have sold their souls to the devil, were kept up and moving by being filled with steam, rather than divine breath. For example, Pope Alexander VI’s body was supposed to have spewed steam from all his orifices at the moment of his death.

  9. Fascinating! Anybody know of any research on this topic?

  10. SFReader says:

    Steam (‘пар’) might be translation of Ancient Greek ‘pneuma’.


    In Stoic philosophy, pneuma (Greek: πνεῦμα) is the concept of the “breath of life,” a mixture of the elements air (in motion) and fire (as warmth).[1] Originating among Greek medical writers who locate human vitality in the breath, pneuma for the Stoics is the active, generative principle that organizes both the individual and the cosmos.[2] In its highest form, the pneuma constitutes the human soul (psychê), which is a fragment of the pneuma that is the soul of God (Zeus). As a force that structures matter, it exists even in inanimate objects.[3]

    In the Stoic universe, everything is constituted of matter and pneuma. There are three grades or kinds of pneuma, depending on their proportion of fire and air.
    The pneuma of state or tension (tonos). This unifying and shaping pneuma provides stability or cohesion (hexis) to things; it is a force that exists even in objects such as a stone, log, or cup.
    The pneuma as life force. The vegetative pneuma enables growth (physis) and distinguishes a thing as alive.
    The pneuma as soul. The pneuma in its most rarefied and fiery form serves as the animal soul (psychê); it pervades the organism, governs its movements, and endows it with powers of perception and reproduction.

  11. Steam (‘пар’) might be translation of Ancient Greek ‘pneuma’.

    I doubt it. The Church Slavic form translates Greek ἀτμίς ‘vapor’; доухъ represents πνεῦμα.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    In Stoic philosophy

    The Christian/Pauline distinction between soul and spirit isn’t the Stoic one, but is a reaction to Epicureanism. Epicurus taught that the soul consists of the lightest, most volatile atoms, which disperse at death, so the soul can’t be reconstituted, and death is The End. Paul seems to have accepted this except for the conclusion, which is why he introduced the πνεῦμα, which is not composed of atoms, as a new concept distinct from the soul, puzzling Christians pretty much ever since.

    I’ll look for my source later, it’s out there.

  13. I forgot to mention in my grumpy update that Pomyalovsky for some reason decided to introduce a superfluous narrator who’s telling us the story, and for some reason decided to make him an old man: he’s always saying things like “we old men laugh at such silly ideas,” or “we old men are envious of the foolish carefree life of youth.” He was in his early twenties when he wrote it; somebody should have told him it was a bad idea to impersonate an elderly narrator.

  14. David Marjanović says:

    I’ll look for my source later, it’s out there.

    Ah, yeah.

  15. puzzling Christians pretty much ever since

    Pardon me if this is trodden ground in comparative mythology, but I have to wonder if this distinction between a mortal soul and an immortal spirit might have any connection to the same as drawn by ancient Egyptians.

    Or, going a bit further: the Egyptians made quite a few further distinctions as well. And some of these find interesting counterparts e.g. in Uralic mythologies often also including a separate shadow soul. Which is making me wonder if “polyspiritism” in general might have been more widespread earlier in the age of polytheism, with “monospiritism” only prevailing once monotheism likewise set in.

    (Another common “soul component” in Siberia more generally is a separate dream soul, but that finds no exact Egyptian counterpart; most likely due to its strong connection with shamanism.)

    The collapse of such a system can also leave interesting traces. Finnish retains about four inherited terms that may have earlier meant something like ‘soul, spirit’, but only one of them still has such a meaning (henki ‘breath, spirit’). And looping back to OP: interestingly one of these has developed the meaning ‘steam in sauna’ (löyly, cognate to Hungarian lélek ‘soul’). Maybe a reshuffling of this kind has happened elsewhere too?

  16. David Marjanović says:

    Very interesting!

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