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The Rational and the Mytho-poetic in Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago: 1/2
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2007-08-19 09:47:49
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Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago is a sterling example of characters who incarnate via imagination logos without the poetical (Stralnikov), leading to what Vico calls “the barbarism of the intellect,” and mythos without logos (Komarovsky), leading to the “barbarism of the senses.” Yura (Dr. Zhivago) incarnates a harmonious balance between these two extremes leading to the preservation of one’s humanity and integrity and avoiding nihilism. Much more than mere historical fiction, the novel is a powerful myth rooted in “fantasia.”

As a sort of postscript to the piece on C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, I’d like to examine here Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago some fifty years after its appearance. This novel is paradigmatic of the harmonization of reason (the logos) and the poetical (the mythos), of literature and philosophy; something sorely lacking in our rationalistic, positivistic, technocratic civilization (Vico’s third era “of men”) thirsting for the imaginative and the poetical.

It is intriguing that Dr. Zhivago happens to be the only novel Pasternak ever wrote. It was finished in 1956 and promptly rejected by most Soviet publishers. The novel is partly autobiographical as one may gather by reading Pasternak’s short story I Remember: Sketch for an Autobiography, written in 1957. Previous to the novel, Pasternak’s reputation rested on his poetry: his first collection, Twin in the Clouds, appeared in 1914 when he was barely 24, followed by Above the Barriers in 1917, My Sister, Life in 1922, and Second Birth in 1932. These collections of poems reveal, to an unusual degree, the association of images to a philosophical view of nature and history. The famed American Trappist monk Thomas Merton was so impressed by this characteristic of Pasternak's poetic that he initiated a serious correspondence with him lasting several years.

As is well known, the novel had to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union and was published in Italian in 1957, winning immediate international acclaim. It was that novel which tipped the scales and netted Pasternak his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. By that time it had been translated in English but I personally did not read it till 1966, the year I met my future wife while still in college. I vividly remember that on my first date with her we went to view the movie Doctor Zhivago. The theme song at our wedding two years later was from the same movie.

The college I was attending at the time was St. Francis College, Brooklyn, where I majored in philosophy. The inspiration to read and ponder the novel did not come from a literature professor but from a philosophy professor who, in my view, is the best I have ever encountered in the field, even when compared with some of the eminent professors I later met at Yale University.

I refer to Dr. Gerard Farley. After my graduation we struck a friendship; he honored me by accepting an invitation to be the best man at my wedding. Subsequently we have had an ongoing correspondence going back some forty years. He is now semi-retired but is still teaching philosophy part-time at St. Francis College and Fordham University. I consider him one of my intellectual heroes. The reason for that is that, aside from the great influence he had on my own forma mentis, he has an admirable and consummate ability to bring philosophy down to earth from its Olympian abstractions utilizing concrete existential examples from literary masterpieces.

To my mind, demystification is the attribute of all master teachers; they can teach well both beginners and initiates and are always ready to demonstrate the relevancy of the subject they teach to everyday living while placing it in a holistic framework of knowledge. They are also able to light up their students’ imagination; afterwards the student can intellectually fend for himself. This is in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas who was teaching at the Sorbonne by the time he was 18 but in the preface to this Summa he mentions that it was written not for the experts but for beginners in philosophy. Aquinas was a simple humble man and a saintly figure. Indeed, many authentic scholars are such.

So is Dr. Farley. He became a guide and mentor of sort for me. It is now close to forty years since I sat in one of Dr. Farley’s masterful classes but I still owe a debt of gratitude to him for showing me, and many other students, the way to harmonize philosophy with literature. From him I learned, among other things, that philosophy was never meant to be some an esoteric elitist subject for the initiates into its mysteries by which to distance oneself from ordinary people. Fundamentally philosophy begins with an act of wonder, not one of cogitation and as such it can never be elitist. Dr. Farley encouraged his students to read Doctor Zhivago as a novel where life and knowledge come together motivating us to reflect on the character of Dr. Zhivago as a man who keeps his humanity intact by balancing the two extremes represented by Stralnikov and Komarovsky.

I will attempt here to explain those extremes in the light of Vico’s insight that “fantasia” is an integral part of reason. Indeed, there are things learned in school that stay with us all our lives and they are usually taught by good teachers at good schools. One is fortunate to meet one or two such teachers in a lifetime in academia. They remain an inspiration throughout one’s life and career, independent of worldly benchmarks of success.

But let us return to Doctor Zhivago. The above-mentioned association of logos (philosophy) with mythos (literature, the poetical) is immediately evident in the novel, just as it is in the poems of Pasternak. It is incarnated in Yura, the protagonist (Dr. Zhivago), who happens to be a family man and a good medical doctor competently performing his duties as a doctor but also thinking deeply on the root causes for the upheavals occurring in his country, and at the same time writing poetry. The poetry, dedicated to Lara, is incorporated at the end of the novel. Philosophy, literature and science (medicine) seem tightly linked in this novel suggesting that more than historical fiction, what is at work is a myth of sort rooted in some archetype of the human psyche.

Indeed, the novel does not fit the mold of the conventional pattern of socialist realism. Which begs the question: what exactly did the Soviet authorities perceive so menacing in this novel that they needed to forbid its publication and even threaten to exile its author if he dared accept the Nobel Prize awarded to him in 1958? I believe that a partial answer to this question can be obtained by examining in some detail the three male characters in the novel: Yura (Dr. Zhivago), Komarovsky, and Stralnikov, and how they relate to Larisa Foedorovna (Lara). Komarovsky and Stralnikov represent the two extremes.

At one end we have Komarovsky as a man of the world, a debonair, an elitist, a sensualist, in short a pompous ass, in today’s parlance a celebrity moving in the higher spheres of a shallow society heading for its doom, dedicated to pleasure and ostentation but soon to reap the whirlwind. In short Komarovsky represents the worst features of Russian aristocracy. He uses people for his own ends. He turns up side down the Kantian moral imperative never to use people as means but as ends in themselves. A man like him can easily seduce a naïve inexperienced young girl like Lara and he does so.

In philosophical Vichian categories Komarovsky incarnates what Vico dubs “the barbarism of the senses,” a sensuality given free rain, undisciplined, impulsive, Dionysian and divorced from reason and ending in a confusing riot of images. That is to say, he represents mythos divorced from logos. A dangerous phenomenon wherein people create myths for themselves and put them to work for nefarious ends. The Nazis come to mind, listening to Wagnerian music expressing the Neibelung myths of the super-race. This man brings havoc to Lara’s life. When Lara realizes that she has been duped and defiled, she is besides herself and attempts to kill him, but the attempt is unsuccessful. At one point Yura asks him: what does a man like you do with a girl such as Lara when he is finished with her?


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LL2007-08-18 11:51:30
romantic. Even the name Lara.

Thanos2007-08-18 12:07:00
Amazing how some professors have change the way we look at things. I have a similar friendship has lasted so many decades and after one point he became more of a family member than a professor.

And yes I just picked from my bookcase Dr. Zhivago and I think it will keep me company this weekend. :)

Paparella2007-08-18 12:20:16
Indeed, it can easily be so interpreted and in fact some critics in the former Soviet Union dubbed the novel protoromantic with a romantic character (Dr. Zhivago), a poet. a sort of Don Quixote with his head in the clouds, who fails to grasp smd support the ideals of the Russian Revolution. However what they convenently failed to mention was that Dr. Z. was also a scientist, a medical doctor and a good one at that, with his feet firmly on the ground. The very title of the novel should have intimated that much to them.

Paparella2007-08-18 12:31:32
The movie too does justice to the novel, which is not always the case, with that incomparable performance of Omar Sharif as Dr. Zhivago.

Jack2007-08-18 18:28:52
Agreed! The movie's casting director did an outstanding job...(casting is just as important as directing, no?)as if it came straight from the novel. Indeed, few times does the movie come close to the original novel...Dr. Z does.

Paparella2007-08-19 00:28:14
Indeed, Jack. A picture sometimes is worth a thousand words but that is because it is conveying meaning faster and deeper than a thousand words. More stupendous still is conveing meaning via a a few words as poetry does poetry does intimatiing the Word that says it all amd creates all: "In the beginning was the Word..." says John intimating that the Universe is God's poem and the reason the scientist can even begin to do science is that he has a rock bottom faith in the power of reason to get to the meaning of that poem.

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