Classic Russian Writers: For teh Internets
As a freelance writer and editor, KA Semënova spends a lot of time on the Internet. She doesn’t hate it like Franzen does, but she’s often irritated by the solipsism and ahistoricism of the average Facebook feed. To test her theory that human nature is neither analog or digital—and to put her college minor in Russian to use, finally—she updates classics of Russian literature with modern technologies to see if the insights of those writers hold up today.
BY KA SEMëNOVA
Nikolai Gogol’s short story, “Nevsky Prospekt” takes its name from St. Petersburg’s main thoroughfare. Writing in 1835, Gogol described the feverish activity of this street, in the Russian empire’s new capital city. Home to palaces, cathedrals, and shops, Nevsky Prospekt was used by all the social classes. My revision of the story (in part) began with a simple search-and-replace: “the Internet” for “Nevsky Prospekt,” which was followed by modern substitutions for technologies, social types, and replacing sights with (web) sites.
THERE is nothing finer than the Internet, not today at any rate. For today it is everything. And, indeed, is there anything more gay, more brilliant, more resplendent than this beautiful information highway? I am sure that not one of her anemic inhabitants, not one of her innumerable government workers, would exchange the Internet for all the treasures in the world. Not only the young man of twenty-five, the young gallant with the beautiful moustache and the immaculate leather jacket, but the man with white hair sprouting on his chin and a head as smooth as a billiard ball, yes, even he is enthralled with the Internet. And the ladies… Oh, for the ladies the Internet is a thing of even greater delight! But is there anyone who does not feel thrilled and delighted with it? The lovely web sites, the handsome profile pics, the beautiful women—all lend it a carnival air, an air that you can almost inhale the moment you set log on to the Internet! Even if you have some very important business, you are quite certain to forget all about it as soon as you are there. This is the place where you meet people who are not there on business, people who have not been driven there either by necessity or by their passion for making money, which seems to have the whole of the world in its grip. It really does seem that the man you meet on the Internet is less of an egoist than the man you meet on the street, where want and greed and avarice can be read on the faces of all who walk or drive by. The Internet is the main communication center of the whole of the world. Anyone living who has not seen a friend from college or and old colleague for years can be sure to meet him on the Internet. No phone book or alumni directory will supply such correct information as the Internet. The all-powerful Internet! The only place in the world where a poor man can combine surfing with entertainment. How spotlessly clean are its websites kept and, good gracious, how many blogs leave their marks on our bookmarks. Here is the bookmark for the clumsy, dirty blog of an ex-army private, under whose weight the very screen seems to crack; and here is one left by the miniature, light as a feather, little look book of shoes by the delightful young creature who turns her pretty head towards the glittering shop-window as the sunflower turns to the sun; and here are the sharp words left by the rattling sabre of some ambitious lieutenant—everything leaves its imprint of great power or great weakness upon it. What a rapid phantasmagoria passes over it in a single day! What changes does it not undergo in only twenty-four hours!
Let us begin with the early morning when all the homes are filled with the smell of hot, freshly brewed coffee and creativity.com brings the crowd sounds; perusing kickstarter.com shows people besieging and appealing to compassionate passers-by. At this time Internet traffic is light: the stout shopkeepers and their assistants are still asleep in their t-shirts, or are lathering their noble cheeks, or drinking coffee. Beggars gather on the streams of Twitter and Facebook, where viral marketing campaigns begin, and not yet dressed for the day, fling some links and giveaways at the crowd. Workers are trudging through the streets, phone in hand: occasionally the Internet is logged onto by day laborers, hurrying to their work in boots soiled with dirt that not all the water of the Panama Canal, famous for its cleanness, could wash off. The sites they visit aren’t much attended by women, for the workers and day laborers love to express themselves in vigorous language that is not heard on TV. Sometimes a sleepy government worker will walk along with a briefcase under his arm, using the Internet with his other hand. It can indeed be stated without fear of contradiction that at this time, that is to say, until twelve o’clock, the Internet does not serve as a goal for anyone, but is merely a means to an end: it is gradually filled with people who have their own occupations, their own worries, their own disappointments, and who are not thinking about it at all. The day laborer is talking about the few dollars he earns; old men and women wave their hands about or talk to themselves, sometimes with picturesque gestures, but no one comments on their posts or even laughs at them except perhaps their grandkids who streak along the Internet, pinning and tweeting. At this time, you can please yourself about your clothes. You can wear a worker’s cap instead of a hat, and even if you’re in your pajamas, no one would see it.
At twelve o’clock the Internet is invaded by tutors and teachers on lunch break and their charges use their phones too. In class, English Johnsons and French Coques go online with the young gentlemen entrusted to their parental care and explain to them with an air of grave decorum that the icons on the home screen are the only sites they can use. Classroom aides, teaching assistants, and student teachers walk behind slender and fidgety young girls, telling them to stick to the lessons or to get their homework done. In short, at this time the Internet is a pedagogic. But the nearer it gets to two o’clock in the afternoon, the fewer in number are the teachers, pedagogues, and children: they are finally supplanted by their loving progenitors, who come to share with their bright, multicolored online friends. Gradually their company is joined by all those who have finished their rather important work, to wit: posting about the weather, recommending a doctor, asking for advice about a little pimple that has popped out on the nose, informing themselves about their health on Web MD, and the online activity of their children, who incidentally show great promise; reading an advertisement in their inbox, and an important article on a news web site, and finally drinking a cup of coffee or tea; and these are joined by those on whom an enviable fate has bestowed the blessed title of thought leader. And these are joined by those who serve in the tech industry and are distinguished by the nobility of their occupations and habits. God how beautiful some posts and jobs are! How they improve and delight the soul of man! But, alas, I am not in the tech industry myself and so I am deprived of the pleasure of appreciating the exquisite accomplishments of my superiors. Many on the Internet present themselves as a paragon of respectability: the gentlemen with long LinkedIn profiles; the ladies with pink, white, and pale blue mommy blogs. Yon can meet here, by using Google images, a most wonderful assortment of side-whiskers, a unique pair of whiskers, tucked with astonishing and extraordinary art under the tie, velvety whiskers, satiny whiskers, and whiskers black as sable or coal soul patches, the latter, alas, the exclusive property of the hipsters. Providence has denied soul patches to those serving in military action; the Taliban beards are the envy of none who behold them. On Pinterest, you find thousands of different sorts of hats, dresses, multicolored kerchiefs, light as gossamer, to which their owners sometimes remain faithful for two whole days, and dazzle every eye on the Internet. It looks as if a sea of butterflies have risen from flower stalks and are fluttering in a scintillating cloud above the black beetles, of the male sex. Here, you meet waists such as you have never seen in your dreams: slender, narrow waists, waists no thicker than the neck of a bottle, waists which make you have low self-esteem; yet you fear the injury they are doing to themselves, your heart is seized with apprehension and terror lest these most delightful products of art and nature should find themselves on pro-ana sites. And the ladies’ sleeves you see on the fashion blogs! Oh, what lovely sleeves! They remind you a little of two balloons, and it really seems, as though the lady might suddenly rise in the air were she not held down by the gentleman walking beside her; for it is as delightfully easy to lift a lady in the air as it is to lift a glass of champagne to the lips. Nowhere do people exchange as much information when they meet as on the Internet. Here you will meet that singular smiling profile pic, the height of art, which may sometimes cause you to melt with pleasure, sometimes make you bow your head with shame and feel lower than the grass, and sometimes make you hold up your head high and feel higher than the Empire State Building. Here you, meet people who talk about the weather or a concert with an air that is the acme of good breeding and with a dignity that is full of the sense of their own importance. Here you meet a thousand of the oddest characters and witness a thousand of the oddest incidents. Oh dear, the strange characters one meets on the Internet! There are, for instance, many people who when they meet you will be quite sure to stare at your profile pics and, then stalk you on FB. I have not discovered the reason for it yet. At first, it occurred to me that they must be crazy or lazy, but I was wrong, of course: they are for the most normal people with jobs, many of whom are very able, they are people who spend time taking walks or reading in cafes; they are, in fact, highly respectable people. In this thrice-blessed hour between two and three o’clock in the afternoon when the entire world seems to be surfing on the Internet, it becomes the greatest exhibition of the best productions of man. One displays a smart overcoat by a famous designer, another a nose of exquisite Grecian beauty carved by a plastic surgeon, a third most excellent whiskers, a fourth a pair of most ravishing eyes and a perfectly marvelous hat, a fifth a signet ring on a most charming little finger, a sixth a foot in a delightful little shoe, a seventh selfie with a duck face that arouses your admiration, an eighth a handbag that takes your breath away. But soon the exhibition closes and the crowds begin to dwindle. At three o’clock there is a fresh change. Spring suddenly descends on the Internet: it is covered with government workers finishing up reports for the day. Businessmen and women surf as fast as they can, and secretaries do their best to finish updating things; the Internet now has a dignified air that seems to belie the fact users have been sitting in an office for six solid hours. But the working parents work along quickly with bowed heads: they cannot spare the time to gaze at their FB feed; they have not yet completely torn themselves away from their office worries; their thoughts are still in a terrible jumble; their heads are full of whole archives of business begun and still unfinished; instead of someecards or Zynga games they see the fat face of the head of their department.
From four o’clock the Internet is empty-and you will scarcely meet a businessperson there. Some waitresses may be on the Internet, or some unfortunate victim of a cold or the flu, or some eccentric freelancer to whom all hours are alike; or some tall, thin English teacher who is making a lesson plan with also a book in her hand; or some day laborer, in a jean jacket, with a very narrow beard, who lives from hand to mouth all his life and has no work today, or a man of tremendous marketing energy, his arms working away as he sells himself deferentially on Twitter, or sometimes a humble artisan—but you will meet nо one else on the Internet at that time.
But once let dusk fall upon the houses and streets, and the street lamps on, and illicit chats which do not venture to show themselves in daylight appear, and the Internet comes to life again and everything begins to stir; it is then that the mysterious time comes when the street lamps invest everything with an alluring, magic light. You now meet a great many young men, for the most part bachelors, on vine and FB and Twitter. There, is a certain purposefulness or something that resembles some purpose in the air at this time. It is something that is very difficult to account for everybody seems to be talking much faster, everybody seems to be strangely excited. Long shadows flit over the walls and the road, their heads almost touching their screens. Young government workers, and secretaries surf up and down the Internet for a long time; Instagramming their lives, but the elderly types mostly stay off then, either because they are with their families, or because they are cooking. Though you might meet here the same elderly gentlemen who at two o’clock in the afternoon was surfing the Internet with such admirable decorum and dignity but now he is vying with the young businessmen in stalking some lady because of her pic; a lady whose full lips and cheeks plastered with rouge many of the surfers find so irresistibly attractive, especially shop managers, handicraftsmen, and merchants who though not arm in arm are on the same sites.
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