A Matter of (Dis)course: Metafiction in the Works of Daniil Kharms



Although Daniil Kharms spent most of his adult life writing independently of any artistic alliance or creed, his name is usually mentioned in connection with the literary group the ‘Oberiu’ (a distorted acronym of ‘Obedinenie realnogo iskusstva’, or ‘The Association of Real Art’).1 This group, whose official members were Kharms, Igor’ Bakhterev, Boria Levin, Konstantin Vaginov, Aleksandr Vvedenskii and Nikolai Zabolotskii, was particularly vociferous in its rejection of literary convention. One of their central claims was that literature in Russia should reflect the significant changes brought about by the October Revolution, principally by reflecting the aesthetic tastes of the growing proletariat. As the group put it in their ‘manifesto’:

The momentous revolutionary changes in culture and in life in general, so characteristic of our era, are being held up in the arts by a number of abnormal phenomena. We have not yet fully understood the irrefutable truth that as far as art is concerned the proletariat cannot be satisfied by the ways of the old schools, for their artistic principles go much deeper and undermine the very roots of the old art.

(Kharms, 1974, p. 287)2


Language Game Russian Literature Textual Meaning Textual Strategy Aesthetic Taste 
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  1. 1.
    The ‘Oberiu’ literary manifesto is published in R. Milner-Gulland, ‘“Left Art” in Leningrad: The OBERIU Declaration’, in Oxford Slavonic Papers, New Series, 3 (1970), pp. 65–75Google Scholar
  2. also in D. Kharms, Izbrannoe, ed. G. Gibian (Würzburg, 1974), pp. 287–98.Google Scholar
  3. For a summary of the manifesto’s main points, see D. Goldstein, D. Zabolotskii and D. Filonov: The Science of Composition’, Slavic Review, 33 (1989), pp. 579–91 (particularly pp. 579–81). For many years, the 1974 Jzbrannoe was the fullest collection of Kharms’s works in Russian. The official Soviet policy of glasnost’ led in 1988 to the publication for the first time of a substantial amount of Kharms’s ‘adult’ literature in the Soviet Union: Polet v nebesa (Moscow, 1988), edited by A. Aleksandrov. Where possible, subsequent references to works by Kharms will be to this collection and will be indicated in the text as ‘Kharms, 1988’ with the page reference. (References to works not available in this anthology, but included in Gibian’s collection, will be indicated in the text as ‘Kharms, 1974’, followed by the page reference). Mikhail Meilakh and V. Erl’ are currently editing a ten-volume set, to be published in Bremen, and which, it is planned, will contain the complete works. Four volumes from this collection have so far appeared, containine mostly poetry.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    Such a charge was explicitly levelled at the ‘Oberiu’ group in a fiercely critical article which appeared in the journal Smena in April 1930. An indication of the by-now extremely hostile attitude of the Soviet government to artistic experimentation of any kind, this article led directly, and virtually immediately, to the dissolution of the ‘Oberiu’. For the full text, see Aleksandr Vvedenskii, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, ed M. Meilakh, Vol. 2 (Michigan, 1984), pp. 247–9Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    It will, I hope, become clear in the course of this chapter that I interpret the term ‘metafiction’ as referring to a phenomenon which is both textual and social in its ramifications. In other words, I define ‘metafiction’ as literary-fictional discourse which not only, to quote Patricia Waugh in a recent book, ‘ lays bare its condition of artifice and thereby explores the problematical relationship between life and fiction’, but which also — and this is particularly relevant to Kharms — analyses the dialectical tension between on the one hand the writer, as producer of a certain type of discourse, and on the other his/her society, as the site within which that discourse interrelates with other discourses. See P. Waugh, Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction (London, 1984), p. 5.Google Scholar
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    The writer of the ‘letter’ thus breaks a number of laws governing successful communication. For a discussion of these laws and of their flouting in experimental literature, see O.G. Revzina and I. I. Revzin, ‘Semioticheskii eksperiment na stsene (Narushenie postulata normal’nogo obshcheniia kak dramaturgicheskii priem)’, Trudy po znakovym sistemam, 5, (1971), pp. 232–54. Ann Shukman has used the Revzins’ axioms as a means of approaching Kharms’s prose work: ‘Toward a Poetics of the Absurd: The Prose Writings of Daniil Kharms’ in Discontinuous Discourses in Modern Russian Literature, ed. C. Kelly, M. Makin and D. Shepherd (Basingstoke and London, 1989) pp. 60–72. More and more Kharms scholars, so it would seem, are beginning to examine Kharms’s work from the point of view of communication.Google Scholar
  7. See J-P Jaccard, ‘Daniil Kharms: teatr absurda — real’nyi teatr. Prochtenie p’esy Elizaveta Bam’, Russian Literature, 27 (1990), pp. 21–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    This summary of Foucault’s attitude towards the ‘author’ is taken from M. Rose, Parody/Metafiction: An Analysis of Parody as a Critical Mirror to the Writing and Reception of Fiction (London, 1979), p. 44. See also Foucault’s most famous essay on this subject, published in English as ‘What is an Author?’ in Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Poststructuralist Criticism, ed. J. Harari (London, 1979), pp. 141–60.Google Scholar
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  14. 22.
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  15. 23.
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  16. 26.
    D. S. Likhachev and A. M. Panchenko, Smekhovoi mir drevnei Rusi (Leningrad, 1976), p. 5.Google Scholar
  17. 28.
    The term ‘diegese’ refers to the spatio-temporal context in which the ‘story’ is said to take place. ‘Intradiegetic’ thus signifies the ‘world’ in which the characters of a text are given as existing, while ‘extradiegetic’ is used to describe the ontological level on which the act of narration occurs. For a fuller account of these terms see G. Genette, Figures III (Paris, 1972), pp. 238–9; partial English translation, Narrative Discourse (Oxford, 1980). For the sake of simplicity in this paper, I am extending the ‘extradiegetic’ realm to include the ‘real’ world, in which a text is produced and received, although Genette is careful to omit this world from his discussion.Google Scholar
  18. 31.
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  19. The English translation is taken from B. Tomashevskii, ‘Thematics’, in Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, ed. and trans. L. Lemon and M. Reis (Lincoln, 1965), pp. 61–95 (p. 90).Google Scholar
  20. 34.
    V. Shklovskii, ‘Iskusstvo kak prier’, in O teorii prozy (Moscow, 1984), p. 15.Google Scholar
  21. The English translation is taken from V. Shklovsky, ‘Art as Technique’ in Lemon and Reis (eds), 1965, pp. 3–24 (p. 12). The exact nature of the Oberiu — Opoyaz relationship has yet to be explored. The extent to which Kharms was consciously putting Shklovsky’s — and the other Formalists’ — literary theories into practice is, of course, impossible to ascertain (not to say largely irrelevant, given the Formalists’ views on the role of the author in the literary process). Kharms and Shklovsky certainly knew of each other’s existence; Shklovsky apparently attended an ‘Oberiu’ evening, while Kharms twice made plans for Shklovsky (along with, on the first occasion, Tynyanov and Eikhenbaum) to collaborate with the ‘Oberiuty’ on avant-garde literary reviews (although these were never published). For details of these projectsGoogle Scholar
  22. see A. Vvedenskii, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, Vol. 1 (Michigan, 1980), pp. xviii and xxiii; and Vol. 2 (Michigan, 1984), pp. 236–7. Shklovsky played a role (albeit a relatively minor one) in the ‘rediscovery’ of Kharms and his work by the Soviet public: ‘O tsvetnykh snakh’, Literaturnaia gazeta 22 November 1967. p. 16.Google Scholar
  23. 35.
    R. Jakobson, ‘Čo je poesie?’, in Volne Smery, 30 (1933–34), pp. 229–39Google Scholar
  24. quoted in V. Erlich, Russian Formalism: History, Doctrine (New Haven and London, 1981), p. 181.Google Scholar
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    Iu. Tynianov, ‘O literaturnoi evoliutsii’, in Arkhaisty i novatory (Leningrad, 1929), pp. 30–47.Google Scholar
  26. The English translation is taken from Iu. Tynyanov, ‘On Literary Evolution’, in Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views, ed. L. Matejka and K. Pomorska (Michigan, 1978), pp. 66–78 (p. 72).Google Scholar
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    My discussion of Wittgenstein’s linguistic philosophy is partly inspired by Allen Thiher’s comments in Words in Reflection: Modern Language Theory and Postmodern Fiction (Chicago, 1984) and in particular Chapter 1.Google Scholar
  28. Surprisingly, virtually no one has yet linked the names of Kharms and Wittgenstein. The only critic to have done so is Robin Milner-Gulland: see his review of A. Stone-Nakhimovsky, Laughter in the Void: An Introduction to the Writings of Daniil Kharms and Aleksandr Vvedenskii (Vienna, 1982), published as ‘“Kovarnye stikhi”: Notes on Daniil Kharms and Aleksandr Vvedensky’, Essays in Poetics, 9 (1984), pp. 16–37, and particularly p. 33. Interestingly, Wittgenstein’s views on language are in some ways close to the linguistic theories espoused by a close associate of the Oberiu, L. S. Lipavskii. He held that the ‘world’ in which each individual existed was constituted primarily by his/her language. For details of Lipavskii, his philosophy and his influence on the ‘Oberiuty’, see Ia. S. Druskin, 1989, pp. 113–15. During the 1930s, Lipavskii held regular meetings, which were frequently attended by Kharms and the other members of the group, at which discussions of a general intellectual nature took place, Druskin notes (p. 115) that, of all the Oberiuty, Kharms expressed the most interest in Lipavskii’s views on language. In particular, Lipavskii’s concept of the ‘vestnik’, meaning a messenger from the world of divine logos, appears in Kharms’s prose text O tom, kak menya posetili vestniki (‘A Tale About How I was Visited by Messengers’, Kharms, 1988, pp. 503–4).Google Scholar
  29. 39.
    R. Jakobson, ‘The Dominant’, translated from the Czech by H. Eagle, in Readings in Russian Poetics, ed. L. Matejka and K. Pomorska (Michigan, 1978), pp. 82–7 (p. 85).Google Scholar
  30. 41.
    For a (brief) discussion of this element of the folkloric tradition in Kharms’s work see V. Sazhin, ‘Literaturnye i fol’klornye traditsii v tvorchestve Daniila Kharmsa’ in Literaturnyi protsess: razvitie russkoi kul’tury XVIII–XX vekov (Tallinn, 1985), pp. 57–61.Google Scholar
  31. 43.
    The integration of circus elements into theatrical performances was widespread in the Soviet Union of the 1920s, and particularly in the agitprop spectacles of troupes such as the ‘Siniaia Bluza’. For information on this group, see F. Deak, ‘Sinyaya Bluza’, The Drama Review (Russian Issue), 17 (1) (1973), pp. 36–46.Google Scholar
  32. 44.
    H. Maxton, ‘Kharms and Myles: An afterword’, in D. Kharms, The Plummeting Old Women, ed. and trans. N. Cornwell (Dublin, 1989), pp. 93–100 (p.96).Google Scholar
  33. 46.
    T. Eagleton, ‘Wittgenstein’s Friends’, New Left Review, 135 (1982), pp. 64–90 (p. 79).Google Scholar
  34. 48.
    A. Jefferson, ‘Bodymatters: Self and Other in Bakhtin, Sartre and Barthes’, in Bakhtin and Cultural Theory, ed. K. Hirschkop and D. Shepherd (Manchester. 1989), p. 166.Google Scholar
  35. 50.
    These terms are taken from S. Stewart, Nonsense: Aspects of lntertextuality in Folklore and Literature (London, 1979), p. 19.Google Scholar

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© International Council for Soviet and East European Studies, and Sheelagh Duffin Graham 1992

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