RED SPECTRES 07: THE SLEEP OF REASON
Today’s story made me miss the cheap vulgar soap selling style that the American pulps had. There’s a value in being able to write snappy ad-copy and avoid the sweaty intense existential scrutiny Dostoevsky gives us when he introduces the Grand Inquisitor to the Brothers Karamazov. I know some people prefer the latter, but the truth lies in the tension between the two.
Here’s the link to Krzhizhanovsky’s wikipedia page in case you want to do the homework.
Also, here’s a content warning: this story involves an embalmed fetus being “born” and then trying to live out a life while rotting.
“The Phantom” by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (1926)
A student sleeps on an open book. The book details obstetric procedures. The student wakes and goes to his exam. This exam involves him delivering a baby from one of these delivery-training mannequins. The baby in question is an embalmed stillborn. During the course of the exam a distraction occurs (the revolution?) and our student, Two-Sklifsky, looses focus on the birth yet somehow the embalmed baby, Fifka, manages to be born. Later he goes to find out what happened to the baby, and he and the janitor see little embalming fluid footsteps going out the door.
Years pass. Sklifsky becomes a field surgeon and there’s no end to his work. He becomes an alcoholic. One night as a storm lashes his hovel, Fifka returns. The embalmed baby recounts what its life has been since Sklifsky brought it into the world. Needless to say it’s an abstruse conversation full of philosophical ideas well above this reader’s head. Eventually, Fifka says he’s been signing Sklifsky’s name everywhere he’s been, and that’s a bit too much for Sklifsky to stand so he promptly has a nervous breakdown. Then he dies in a sanatorium. The End.
OK. This story… there’s this riff on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that I love. Medical student creates life then abandons it only to have that life track him down for a final confrontation. And bits of Fifka’s life mirror Shelley’s Monster (although it’s less homicidal in its vengeance). And the fact that Krzhizhanovsky takes that story and uses it to critique the revolution, or at least that’s how it appears to me, is wicked* neat. Imagine it: student asleep on a book of theory gives birth to a materialist revolution that remains stunted and deformed because the student became distracted mid-revolution. Then that materialist revolution in its stunted form tracks down the revolutionaries that birthed it and confronts them with their failings. That’s certainly one reading of this story and one I wish it was. But to do that to my satisfaction would have required more soap-selling than Krzhizhanovsky wished to employ. Or more Grand Inquisitor than this reader could tolerate.
Next time, a grey motor car.
And for those of you brave enough, here’s a modern version of the sort of phantom Fifka is: obstetric phantom with fetal doll.
* If I have to watch hecking and hella enter common parlance then you all can deal with the exponentially superior New England “wicked.”