The Aviator: How Memory, Love, and Art Transform the World
History, we often imagine, is made by great people, those who have a vision for how the world could be different and see it through. The popularity of 40 under 40 lists bears this out. Christendom too often valorizes those whose missionary zeal changed the world—Amy Carmichael or William Wilberforce. Yet while many of these people have done great work, are doing great work, the cultural emphasis on the value of changing the world is misplaced, as Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator shows.
Vodolazkin’s key idea is this: that we find real meaning in life not through purposeful, revolutionary acts meant to change the world, but through the embrace of particular people and places in which we dwell. Set (in part) against the backdrop of years immediately prior to and following the Russian Revolution, the novel nevertheless returns, again and again, to seemingly inconsequential moments as imbued with real significance.
This theme, perhaps, contrasts with how we tend to think of revolution, including (but not limited to) the Russian Revolution. Prior to starting Mike Duncan’s podcast on the Russian Revolution, I would have said that the Revolution of 1917 was engineered generally by the Bolsheviks and specifically by Lenin. Popular retellings of the Revolution picture the Bolsheviks invading the palace and personally driving the Romanov family out, though in reality, the royal family was kept under house arrest in the immediate aftermath of the February Revolution, and the Bolsheviks did not come to power until months afterwards. This approach to Russian social change is one of big brushes and broad strokes, history—and all that is worth remembering along with it—as a grand sweep of big ideas put into motion.
Marx himself preferred this approach. He wrote that philosophy for its own sake is unimportant; the point is not to understand the world, “the point is to change it.” Despite the primarily analytic nature of subsequent work such as Das Kapital, Marx’s energies, and those of his followers, were bent towards this end, crafting a framework that could bring change. When, more than seventy years later, Lenin returned from exile to a train station in Russian-occupied Finland, he too hoped to take charge of the ongoing chaos and change the world. In fact, his presence helped (re)direct the revolution from a populist workers’ uprising towards a movement more closely wedded to his particular version of socialist commitments.
So, this approach to history and especially revolution as being driven by ideologues intent on changing the world is not altogether inaccurate. Ideological commitments, a particular way of framing the world and its problems, and (often) a corresponding commitment to particular solutions, have driven much historical movement, not only in the case of the Russian Revolution but also in our own history; we often act to change the world out of a conviction about how we can make it better. This in itself is not a bad thing. Yet at some point, of course, the intention to change the world goes wrong, as anyone who has read up on the history of revolutions knows. That urge—to change the world, to make things better—runs deep in humanity, but history teaches how easily it goes astray. The peril of approaching historical events as driven by and indicative of enormous social shifts is that however great the sweep of change, it is effected by real human beings, who have both real flaws—and real virtues.
Vodolazkin sets out in his novel The Aviator (translated by Lisa Hayden) to redirect our attention away from history as a sequence of ideological movements and towards the individual actions of human beings, each imbued with eternity. Innokenty Petrovich Platonov (the novel’s main character, usually referred to as Innokenty) wakes up in a hospital bed in 1999 Russia, only to discover that all his memories are from early 1900s Russia: his grandmother reading Robinson Crusoe to him when he was ill; the dacha his family rented every summer in the forest; an early aviator performing acrobatic tricks above an anxious crowd; bread lines, crowded apartments, and icy conditions on the Solovetsky Island prison camp.
How the novel spans these two time periods is better left for The Aviator itself to unspool. What is possible to say here is that despite its setting during two periods of great change for Russia, both historical and contemporary, the novel shows little interest in describing either. The 1917 Revolution would go nearly unmarked in the novel, if not for the death of Innokenty’s father in July of that year at the hands of drunken sailors. Likewise, 1999 is colored in with small, human moments: Innokenty watching television, going on a drive, meeting (and having a child with) the 19-year-old granddaughter of his first love.
To the extent that Innokenty thinks about world events, discussing politics and philosophy at length with his physician and friend Geiger, he argues that the “primary horror” of “revolutions, wars, and the like” is not “the shooting. And not even [the] famine.” Rather, he suggests,
it is that the basest of human fervors are liberated. What is in a person that was previously suppressed by the law comes into the open. Because for many people only external laws exist. And they have no internal laws.
In other words, for Innokenty, what we think of as the big events of history do not matter, in and of themselves. What drives history is instead the individual, and whatever horrors (or not) they keep within. “A historical view,” Innokenty explains, “makes everyone into hostages of great societal events.” To reduce the Revolution, for instance, to Lenin’s push to bring socialism to Russia is to gloss over the many personal revolutions that precede and (partially) constitute the large event: women’s protests calling for bread and an end to autocracy, or soldiers’ protests refusing to be sent to the front lines of World War I. “Great events grow in each separate individual,” Innokenty notes. “Great upheavals in particular.” Vodolazkin himself has said publicly that rather than commit himself to general political or social views, he prefers “concrete cases and concrete people,” directing action through attention to the individual realities of other people and his responsibilities to them.
The Aviator’s greatest horrors are focused on the individual level. Innokenty spends time in a prison camp, and his sharpest memories of that period are personal: the guards raping a female prisoner, and his fellow inmate dying of frostbitten feet. Individual betrayals matter. Innokenty’s cousin Seva becomes a guard at the prison where Innokenty is held, a choice perhaps attributable to what Innokenty terms Seva’s “coward[ice]” or “timid[ity].” Years later, recalling his cousin as a child, Innokenty remembers fondly that “he [was] afraid of strangers, silhouettes in the window, bees, frogs, and grass snakes.” In adulthood, this lack of individual courage prompts Seva to become a prison guard, so that he may exercise (apparent) strength from a position of absolute authority.
Yet just as horror lies within individuals, so too does repentance and the possibility for change, specifically the exercise of memory which attends to the specifics of our realities and binds us to other people. This possibility is most apparent in the novel through a painting Innokenty, living in 1999, does of Zaretsky. A factory worker, Zaretsky is housed after the Revolution with Innokenty and his mother, and with Anastasia and her father Vorodin, a professor. At first, the household is peaceful, as Innokenty falls in love with the young and beautiful Anastasia, but then Zaretsky falsely denounces Vorodin as a counterrevolutionary. Later, Zaretsky is found murdered, the back of his head bashed in with a blunt object.
As Innokenty initially recalls Zaretsky, few of his memories are charitable. A weaselly churl, Zaretsky would steal sausages from the factory where he worked, smuggling them out in his trousers and washing them down with copious amounts of vodka. Zaretsky himself confesses he had no motive for turning Vorodin in; he just did it. Throughout much of the novel, Innokenty nurses a grudge towards Zaretsky, thinking of ways he wishes he had harmed Zaretsky, in vengeance for Anastasia’s family. But at last Innokenty, who has been struggling to recapture his artistic talent for the whole novel, creates a portrait of Zaretsky. As Geiger describes it, the portrait seems to characterize someone other than the Zaretsky we have come to know, somebody “immersed in” philosophical thoughts, someone unconcerned with his sausage except as an “austere… requirement for the body.” In portraying Zaretsky this way, the painting “liberates [him]. It delivers him from his horrendous role as a maggot.” Even Nastya, Anastasia’s granddaughter, finds in looking at the painting that she has (almost) forgiven Zaretsky.
This transformation gestures towards the power which the novel assigns to art, to bear witness to and preserve the multitudinous, fleeting details of which individual human life is composed. Innokenty writes throughout the novel (in fact, much of the text is his own journal entries); asked why, he replies, “I’m describing things, sensations. People. I write every day now, hoping to save them from oblivion.” By capturing the “small particle[s] of time” which make up the reality of people’s existence, even when the people themselves vanish, writing becomes an act of remembrance, and so, an act of love.
Writing invites us to attend to the small details of human experience, ensuring they are not swept away by time, and instead (re)shaping how we think of and encounter other people, even those who do us wrong. In this way, writing fosters mercy and reconciliation. As Innokenty works on the painting, he finds it transforms (at least in memory) his relationship with Zaretsky. “When you describe a person in a genuine way,” Innokenty notes,
you cannot help but love him. Even the very worst person becomes your composition: you accept him into yourself and begin feeling responsibility for him and his sins—yes, for his sins in some sense too.
The choice to describe the painting as genuine is an odd one, since it assigns to Zaretsky traits he did not have in real life: the capacity for and interest in philosophical thought, among other things. Innokenty seems to be remembering Zaretsky not as he was, in all his grubby ill humor, but as he could have been. The painting (re)writes the factory worker’s story in a more sympathetic key. The painting also binds Innokenty to Zaretsky, no longer for vengeance but for compassion and reconciliation. Working on Zaretsky’s portrait, Innokenty comes to feel “responsib[le] for him and his sins.” Put another way, by inviting us into the details of other people’s lives, art opens space for us to recognize our shared obligations to them. To attend to the individual (and not to ideological movements) as the locus of change is not to shrug off responsibility, but to acknowledge more fully how our own lives converge and interact with others’.
Indeed, the novel suggests that perhaps the world would be better off if more people shifted their energy from working to bring about particular ideological changes, to instead bearing witness to their fellow human beings. Had “Marx and his numerous followers drawn,” Innokenty thinks to himself, “there would have been less grief in the world. A drawing person is somehow loftier, gentler than a non-drawing person. Values the world in all its manifestations. Takes care of it.” Writing and art, which hinge on noticing otherwise insignificant details, not only about people but also about the surrounding world, are a more careful and surer road to transformation than ideologically-charged action. What would the world have been like if there were no Stalin—or, closer to home, no Manifest Destiny, no Andrew Jackson, or the Trail of Tears? What if people had instead busied themselves with their communities, their gardens, their own lives?
I want to be careful here, as there are people who act out of strong ideological commitments and who change the world in substantial and positive ways. A commitment to ideological change need not only be impatience with the slow-turning wheels of history, or an inattention to the lived realities of human beings. Indeed, the closer we pay attention to other people’s experiences, the stronger our own commitments may grow. Especially as we seek to follow Christ, not only as private citizens but also in our public roles (as teachers, government leaders, physicians, or business people) we may find that the details we attend to affirm and shape our beliefs and call us to work for change—sometimes substantive, historically-significant change.
What I take from The Aviator, then, is quite simply that our desire for change, and our work towards that end, is at its best when intertwined with—and rooted in—close attention to seemingly insignificant details. Bearing witness to the people in our communities, we acknowledge our shared responsibility for them and work to bring good, and not harm, to others. We seek also to notice the details of our own lives, cultivating not only external change in the world around us but inner change, a life in harmony with eternity.
In The Aviator, it is the tiny moments, smaller than a breath, that are more enduring and significant than the great ones. Innokenty reflects:
Paradise is the absence of time. If time stops, there will be no more events. Non-events will remain. The pine trees will remain, brown and gnarled below, smooth and amber at the top. The gooseberries by the fence will not go anywhere, either. The squeak of the gate, a child’s muffled crying at the next dacha, the first pounding of rain on the veranda roof… all the things that changes in government and the falls of empires do not wipe out. Whatever happens outside history is timeless, liberated.
In this, The Aviator (likely unintentionally) echoes conclusions that T.S. Eliot draws in the Four Quartets, written after his conversion and towards the end of his life. Acknowledging the limitations of whatever changes that previous British revolutionaries created, Eliot writes, “A people without history / Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern / Of timeless moments.” Like Vodolazkin, Eliot nods to the importance of purposeful, ideologically-charged action, yet he too finds his grounding outside of such action, in the “timeless moments” where he meets God: “while the light falls / On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel.”
This move, to pause in silent, eternity-laden spaces, is key to our own spiritual lives. As an educator, I spend a lot of time thinking about how my work may improve people’s lives. Nor do I think I am unique. Many of us have a teacher we can point to who transformed our lives. Other careers—physician, politician, church leader—are likewise perpetually engaged with the question of contributing to, and reshaping, the world around us. This is important work and should not be given up or ignored.
Yet as Vodolazkin reminds us, it is not the work. It is limited by humankind’s changeability and unpredictability, the tendency for things to go awry. Significance lies not in the grand arc of history but in the tiny, quiet spaces outside of history—for Eliot, a country chapel where he meets God; for Innokenty, the flora outside the gate of his family’s summer dacha.
On long runs, I am surprised by the beauty of tiny, eternal moments: the mist lying across the valley early one summer morning, or a white gull wheeling above a dark river. Such moments invite us to pause, to rest for a time outside of the big, event-making moments of history writ large. And in stepping outside history, even for a moment, we return to the real work, bearing witness to such fleeting, all-important details in our own lives and the lives of others. There, perhaps more than in engineering great change, we take care of the world, and the people who inhabit it with us.