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The Tale of the Good Life and Merrymaking

 

The Utopian ideal of the “world inside out” had nothing in common with the Kingdom of Christ on earth or in Heaven. It was a dream of an imaginary land of plenty which is free for all. This paradise of gluttons and drunkards is described in The Tale of the Good Life and Merrymaking (it has survived in a single, rather late manuscript): “And there is a lake, not a very big one, full of strong vodka. And anyone who likes can drink without fear, two mugs at a time. And nearby is a pond of mead. And anyone who comes can drink his fill, with a ladle or a bowl, on his knees or with his hands. And nearby is a whole marsh of beer. And anyone who comes can drink from it, pour it over his head and wash himself and his horse in it, and no one will reproach him or say a word.”     *

Seen against a West European background this group of works appears as a Russian version of the satirical culture of the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque, which includes such classics as Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, Erasmus of Rotterdam’s In Praise of Folly and Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus. The Tale of the Good Life and Merrymaking shows the existence of connecting links between the West European and Russian traditions. The Tale contains an “absurd” route “to that merrymaking” (that land).

This route winds through Lesser and Greater Poland, Sweden and Livland, and many Ukrainian towns, but does not go into Russia. It begins in Cracow. Evidently it was there that the original Tale arose, for the Russian text contains several polonisms, “birth­marks” of the original. This is no accident for Cracow, and Lesser Poland in general, was the focal point of Polish satirical literature in the seventeenth century; it was both written and printed there. Among the Polish and Ukrainian works of this period we find many similar to The Tale of the Good Life and Merrymaking, satirical “anti-utopias” that portray a country of “roast pigeons”, a land of gluttons and drunkards.

The characters in Russian satirical literature of the seventeenth century are akin to .the German Eulenspiegel, the Polish Sowizdzal and the Czech Franta, but also very different from them. The European tradition followed the rule: “it is funny, so it is not frightening”. In Russian culture laughter is indissolubly linked with tears, “it is funny, so it is frightening”.45 This is bitter laughter. The Russian characters are pessimists who have lost all hope of happiness. Such is the collective hero, the nameless youth, who expresses his attitude to the world most fully and precisely in The ABC of a Poor and Naked Man.

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