Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Going Native


Lord Byron in Albanian dress

The exotic setting of A Hero of Our Time seems especially significant in the characterization of Lermontov’s Byronic protagonist Grigori Pechorin.  In the first place, his deployment to the Caucasus Mountains physically sets him apart from the pomp and politics of Moscow and St. Petersburg.  More importantly, it thrusts him into contact with peoples and cultures radically different from his own—cultures he seems to feel a particular affinity for. 

Like Lawrence of Arabia and Byron before him, Pechorin takes great pleasure in going native.  According to him, “I have, in fact, been told that when riding on horseback, in my Circassian costume, I resemble a Kabardian more than many a Kabardian himself…I have long studied the mountaineer seat on horseback, and in no way is it possible to flatter my vanity so much as by acknowledging my skill in horsemanship in the Cossack mode” (Hero, 113-4). Though an officer of questionable caliber, Pechorin styles himself as a nomad and native par excellenceHe is infatuated with the culture, customs, and in Bela’s case, curvaciousness of the Circassians, Ossetians, and Chechens around him.  Moreover, while of good breeding and adept at navigating high society Pechorin instead prefers the simple pursuits of  hunting, exploring,and riding solo; bored by aristocratic convention, he confides that “One expedient only is left to me—travel” (41).  As such, his geographic exploration parallels his own self-exploration.  His desire for some identity other than that of the superfluous aristocrat leads him to adopt the garb and mannerisms of the “barbarians” around him and is, perhaps, what leads Lermontov to characterize him as a hero of his time. 

Ultimately, Pechorin’s own identity synthesizes his aristocrat heritage and his perceptions of the foreigners among whom he lives.  While he finds some peace of mind in this synthetic identity, he is at the same time left straddling two worlds.   This perpetual sense of dislocation is perhaps the source of his fickle and often contradictory behavior.  All the same, though superfluous in his own society and an outsider among others, Pechorin does seem to find some peace of mind, and perhaps even meaning, in his adopted guise of the Noble Savage. 

3 comments:

  1. My knee-jerk reaction to Pechorin's description of himself as resembling a "Kabardian more than many a Kabardian himself" because he can ride like them and wear their clothing is that it reminds me of white people playing "Cowboys and Indians" and adopting Native American symbols and garb while completely disregarding the heritage of the people whose culture they're commodifying. Pechorin may ride like a Kabardian but I don't remember him doing anything that would indicate he respected the native people around him as people. I know he made disparaging remarks about Bela's father and his religion, but I can't really remember what other viewpoints he expressed.

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    1. I definitely agree with Shannon and how she characterized Pechorin. He seems to be a bored aristocrat looking to find some purpose in life. It would be very different if he came with nothing but an idealistic vision, and tried to understand and to live the life of a true Circassian, Ossetian, or a Chechen; but that would be, probably, a bit too inconvenient for a character such as himself.

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  2. I think Shannon is right--Pechroin is definitely guilty of convenient cultural appropriation. He is essentially engaging in cultural tourism as an attempt to escape his own bored existence. It seems he equates cultural others with some form of excitement or deeper meaning. I wonder how much he really merges his identity with the "natives" if he seems capable of simply buying himself out of nearly any situation, either with actual money or a vaguer sense of social capital.

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