Reading Ivan Bunin’s “A Merry Courtyard” Through the Lens of Marshall Sahlins’s Thoughts on Kinship

I was thoroughly pleased to read Marshall Sahlins’s two-part piece in JRAI entitled “What Kinship Is,” as it conjured up some the themes of my own book “The Phenomenon of Kinship” published in Russian in 2001. Basically, Sahlins argues for the need to think of kinship as an ontological problem transcending the nature-culture, natal-postnatal, real-fictive dichotomies politicized and perpetuated by the Schneiderian downturn in kinship studies. Sahlins amassed an impressive array of ethnographic examples that show that human kinship is fundamentally about the “mutuality of being,” as expressed through the dense networks of shared biological, material and mental substances that spring from the same ontological ground. Kinship involves fellow humans participating in each other’s existence, and, conversely, humanity is engendered, from an evolutionary standpoint, by the capacity for sharing psychological states with others, which is missing from the populations of big apes.

Sahlins refused to “drag the discussion of kinship into dark philosophical waters” – the risk I readily took in “The Phenomenon of Kinship.” When it came to the task of going beyond the pesky existential dichotomies in the study of kinship, it was too tempting for me not to attempt to read the anthropological turn in philosophical ontology that began with Martin Heidegger against anthropology, especially since anthropology is apochryphally defined as “empirical philosophy.” Sahlins latched on Descrates’s cogito ergo sum to exemplify the solipsistic orientation of Western philosophy, whereas I went a step further in trying to express the new kinship-like ontology as cogito ergo progigno (I think therefore I procreate). At the same time, Sahlins imports the generic concept of “ontology” into the anthropology of kinship by referring to the domains of kinship, nationalism, religion (in Schneider), magic and gift (in Viveiros de Castro) as ontologically (rather than “culturally,” as Schneider had it) similar. He sides with Viveiros de Castro in an anti-Schneiderian move to elevate kinship to the status of a cosmic totality instead of taking it off the table as a research subject. (I did the same thing in “The Phenomenon of Kinship” by coining the term “kinship cosmos.”) Sahlins follows Viveiros de Castro in inviting indigenous epistemologies to determine the exact way in which kinship acquires the status of a cosmic totality but at the same time he remains blind to the non-anthropological traditions of research into some of those ontologically kinship-like domains. Sahlins gives only a passing nod to linguistics, while mechanically cataloging the connections of his anthropological “mutuality of being” to such linguistic phenomena as personal pronouns, possessive predication and naming. “‘I think therefore I am’, said Descartes. ‘I also think. Therefore, I’m Descartes’.” Sahlins drops this Cartesian bon mot into an endnote without attempting to analyze the deictic and metapragmatic constituents of this philosophical paradox. Again, I chose to engage with linguistics on a much deeper level sensing the fundamental relevance of anthropological accounts of the social role of kinship terms, on the one hand, to linguistic approaches to “shifters” and speech act pragmatics and philosophical (as in Saul Kripke) approaches to naming reference, on the other. I arrive at a definition of kinship that emphasizes the interpenetration of the symbolic and the material, the cultural and the biological: kinship involves thinking with entities of your own kind, kinship is about treating fellow humans as signs of one another, a kinship system is a system of reproduction of unique human selves. Articulated in this way, kinship is renewed as a central object of anthropology, while putting anthropology in the center of linguistic, philosophical and other inquiries.

It’s rewarding to see Sahlins include death into his discussion of the “mutuality of being.” He borrows from Janet Carsten a catchy phrase “kinsmen are people who live each other’s lives and die each other’s deaths.”Most common,” writes Sahlins (pp. 231-232), “are mourning practices that signify a mutual death: that is, dying with one’s kinsmen by self-mutilation, tearing one’s clothing, going unwashed, not working, and other such forms of withdrawal from normal sociality.” I, too, both in “The Phenomenon of Kinship” (2001) and “The Genius of Kinship” (2007) integrated death into the definition of kinship and drew on Heidegger’s use of death as the way to give ontology a human, Da-Sein dimension. My interest in death from a kinship perspective originally stemmed from pure logic: if kinship is about birth and every birth is followed by death, then kinship must be equally about death and about birth. Sahlins’s examples (that can be further expanded, see “The Genius of Kinship”) demonstrate that, indeed, non-Western cultures treat death as much a kinship-constituting event as we treat birth. Among Inuits and !San, for example, it’s the reincarnation of a deceased person in a new born or the patterns of name inheritance that determine what kin relations are going to be and how kin terms are going to apply. This creates an impression of fluidity and arbitrariness of kinship relations but this is only because the exact paths of reincarnation and name inheritance are not as well understood as relations established through birth and marriage.

From a cross-cultural perspective, there’s something very limiting and artificial (in a curious contradiction to the notion of “fictive kinship”) in the folk Western and pre-constructivist anthropological focus on birth as the key constituent of what we call “kinship.” It’s not a matter to giving preference to biology vs. culture, as death is just as biological as birth. It’s a matter of cutting lived experience into arbitrary chunks. And Schneider, although he ostensibly revolted against the arbitrary labels, didn’t care about restoring the unity of lived experience, which is still longing for the “lost relatives” to re-unite.

In the context of the pronounced separation of kinship and death in Western cultures, it’s all the more intriguing to find an instance of the pairing of death and kinship in the Western literary tradition. The theme of kinship and death is explored by the Russian writer, Ivan Bunin, in “A Merry Courtyard” (Veselyi dvor) published in 1911 as part of a cycle of short stories about the Russian peasant countryside. They stand out as a departure from the more traditional 19th century depictions of Russian village life, such as Ivan Turgeven’s, centered on the estate of a landowner (dvorianskoe gnezdo, lit. “gentry’s nest”). Bunin’s writings tend to be uncompromising, illusion-free, critical, persnickety, often somber inquiries into the true nature of the Russian peasant condition. I’ve already blogged about Bunin here, here and here. This new gem goes to the heart of the issues raised by Sahlins for anthropological kinship studies.

The title of the story is sarcastic – villagers so dubbed one impoverished, unlucky, abusive household. It was run by a widow Anisya Minaeva, a woman so skinny from malnutrition that neighbors nicknamed her Ukhvat (Pan Handle). She was hard-working, humble, self-effacing and quiet. She lived there with her son, Yegor Minaev, who was a spitting image of his father – a foul-mouthed, ne’er do well who smoked like a chimney. They were different in only one way – Yegor was nicer and not abusive. Neighbors were okay with him and considered him a good stoveman, but despised him for being incapable of accruing wealth and building a life of his own. In every inner and outward respect, Yegor looked and acted the opposite from his mother, so that it was hard to believe they were parent and child. He was blondish, broad-boned, had a nasty habit of never taking off his shoes, always sick, sometimes cowardly, sometimes unabashed, always partying with other people away from home just to let another day pass by quicker. She was dark, skinny, dried-out “like a mummy,” even-tempered, humble and quiet, never sick, always barefoot, always lonely with an empty stomach, suffering from gripping sadness. Her other kids died, her husband froze to death, and her household soon after began to deteriorate. After a cock pecked her eye out, Anisya couldn’t find anymore work. The garden that she had – Yegor sold it. Every now and then she had to beg for food and money, but never did she remind her neighbors that there were times when she was helping them. “The earth has forgotten me, the sinful one,” Anisya used to say. Her sole purpose of existence was to save the house for Yegor when he gets married. But Yegor saw no reason to get married: “I never gonna marry. These days I’m free as a Cossack but once I marry I’ll have to care for my wife.” Yegor “didn’t care for family, property or motherland.”

One day Yegor was hired by a wealthy landowner to guard his woods, and he moved 15 miles away from his mother. His wages were paid in food with very little cash, so, once he moved out, he entirely stopped helping his mother. But he would use his elderly and sick mother as a pretext to ask his employer for advance wages, which he then would fritter away on booze with his buddy, a blacksmith. Sucking on the last morsel of bread, Anisya collected herself to go visit him hoping to live with him over the summer and partake of his food. “Even a defected child is beautiful in his mother’s eye,” she thought. “A son won’t refuse food to his mother,” a neighbor encouraged her. After a sleepless night, with her legs burned by bedbugs and stung by flies, she set out on her journey thanking God for the happiness of starting a new life, enjoying a new day and loving her son. But Anisya was too weak to handle the trip, and when she didn’t find Yegor in his roofless guardian’s dwelling, she lay down on a bench and passed away. Yegor, in the meantime was drinking vodka with his blacksmith buddy in another village close by talking about whether one can become a saint by eating only radish and whether tempering one’s body with ice-cold water will make it withstand putrefaction after death. When he returned home, he found her body and bellowed with his coarse voice scaring his dog out of her hideout in the bushes. Later, at the funeral Yegor drank so much that he almost passed away. “He danced right there at the grave for everybody’s entertainment oddly twisting his feet dressed in bast sandals, throwing his cap on the ground and giggling.” He felt a mix of emptiness and freedom. He aged quickly, within a month after his mother’s death. While she was alive, he felt younger – now nobody would call him “Anisya’s son,” just Yegor. “And the earth, the whole earth, just got empty.” Soon, when he was on a night watch with a group of teenagers and slept near railroad tracks, he suddenly woke up at dawn. The boys realized that something was wrong but Yegor calmed them down by smiling and saying he saw an apparition of sorts. They stayed awake and Yegor began telling them a story, while smoking, coughing and cursing after every word. As he heard a train approaching, he abruptly got on his feet, ran up the slope to the tracks and threw himself under the train.

As the drama was coming to an end, Bunin shifted from highlighting the differences between Anisya and Yegor to making some stark moral contrasts (the pointless procrastination of Yegor taking place at the time when his mother was dying in a forlorn guardian dwelling) and unearthing some critical similarities (“Yegor has been feeling lately what Anisya was feeling: physical frailty, diffused anxiety and disorderly thoughts”). Although far from being old, Yegor shared with his elderly mother the strange forebodings of death. His sight weakened, the darkness of the forest began assuming demonic shapes, and his guardian’s house started giving him nightmares. Anisya’s death came upon her through neglect by others, including Yegor. And Yegor himself kept having suicidal thoughts. Eventually, these suicidal thoughts came to fruition, thus laying bare the invisible ties of kinship that connected Yegor and his mother.

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