Points of Light
April 5, 2011 § Leave a comment
Now reading: The White Guard, by Mikhail Bulgakov.
Half an hour later everything in the room with the falcon had been turned upside down. A trunk stood on the floor, its padded inner lid wide open. Elena, looking drawn and serious, wrinkles at the corners of her mouth, was silently packing the trunk with shirts, underclothes and towels. Kneeling down, Talberg was fumbling with his keys at the bottom drawer of the chest-of-drawers. Soon the room had the desolate look that comes from the chaos of packing up to go away and, worse, from removing the shade from the lamp. Never, never take the shade off a lamp. A lampshade is something sacred. Scuttle away like a rat from danger and into the unknown. Read or doze beside your lampshade; let the storm howl outside and wait until they come for you.
That’s early on in The White Guard, before things get really bad, but it’s one of those knockout passages that Bulgakov uncorks every now and then, topping it off with one of his enigmatic, double-edged epigrams. I was startled to realize, as I kept reading, that it was a very important passage. Light — lamps — especially electric lights — kept popping up. More than a motif, a kind of presence. A metaphor, a character. The Lights of Kiev.
Light bulbs, candles, wood-burning stoves, and electric street lights fight a kind of shadow-war in the novel. It’s a book, famously, about the irrevocable loss of a certain kind of world, a kind of system of being, to another, new system: the tsarists giving way to the socialists, the Ukrainian nationalists, inevitably the Bolsheviks, amid the swirling confusion of a World War. And there are these lights, everywhere: these bulbs being turned on and off, and Bulgakov taking the time to mention these things, associate them with certain kinds of actions, certain ways of being.
Wires “snake” from outlets to lamps. As our young cadet-officer, Nikolka Turbin, struggles to make his way home through the war-ravaged city, “the electric street lamp on the corner was turned on and began to burn with a very faint hiss.” In a marvelous, grotesque chapter, the syphilitic avant-gardist Rusakov shows his compatriot how to “thrust [his] way upwards to the top” by “Clasping the lamppost” and “wind[ing] his way up it” like a “grass-snake.”
You see what I’m getting at here, though I’m really only scratching the surface (and only highlighting one aspect of the representations of light in the novel). We’re not so far from The Master and Margarita after all. I am astonished to find myself believing that Bulgakov’s marvelous encoding of the giant all-seeing eye of Stalin as the sun in that novel did not begin there; no, he built that image out of its beginnings in The White Guard, where light bulbs, especially the unshaded ones, are Satanic. They change night to day. The little light bulbs here, at the beginnings of the Soviet Union’s formation, represent the beginnings of the spy-state. Eventually, adding all of the light bulbs together leads to a spy apparatus the size and scope of the sun: overwhelming, nearly inescapable. A lampshade is sacred because it represents the individual’s freedom from oppression by the spy-state. Maybe this is all common knowledge, but it was a revelation to me.
Bulgakov also uses light bulbs as part of a broader thread of images of machinery and technology: field telephones also function as a sort of character. Things are anthropomorphized (guns, the Turbins’ tiled stove), and people become things (clocks, especially). But the focus on electric light made me realize how Bulgakov prefigured later use of the bulb as an important symbol, motif, and character. Two legendary American examples:
-The prologue of Invisible Man: the 1,369 lights in the invisible man’s “hole in the basement,” the electricity stolen from the grid of Monopolated Light & Power “for taking so much of my money before I learned to protect myself,” and to allow him to feel his “vital aliveness.”
-“The Story of Byron the Bulb,” in Gravity’s Rainbow. As with everything in the book, it’s dense, clotted with meaning, both perverse and hilarious. The story of an immortal bulb, and the “international light-bulb cartel” that monitors his activities. Surveillance. Power. The individual against the oppressive state. It’s all happening again…