Potential Space

By Shlomit Gorin, MA, Impulse Managing Editor


Ambivalence abounds in the literary world of Yuri Olesha’s novel Envy (1927) and is invoked in several ways, including shift in narrative voice, blurring of boundaries between reality and fantasy, and absence of a chronological or causal anchor.  Olesha’s creation of this ambivalence plays a dual role. By creating a destabilized literary world for both his characters and readers, he highlights subjectivity’s role in shaping perception.  By emphasizing the role of subjectivity, Olesha both brings forth fluidity as the fundamental status of reality and demonstrates how imagination, which is a subjective faculty, fosters the ability for more creative and deeper experiences of that reality.
Envy has been interpreted by scholars as a novel expressing the socio-political limitations of both the old and new orders of Olesha’s time.  It may be the case, however, that Olesha’s ambivalence towards both the old and new has more to do with his belief in the limitations of everyday, banal existence than with the reality of specific socio-political conditions.  Thus, Olesha emphasizes the use of imagination, which has the ability to remain untouched by external conditions of reality. Imagination is viewed as freedom, as a human capacity that is resistant to stifling conditions imposed by external forces.  It is furthermore described as a tool to break the rigidity and boredom of daily reality - to transform the everyday, the mundane, into creativeexpression.
The protagonist, Ivan Babichev, grows obsessed with his “invention,” which he names Ophelia and which remains a curious “machine” throughout the novel. Ophelia may be understood as a representation of the life of imagination, as both a product and source of imagination; she is Ivan’s imaginary creation, and her image further stimulates his imagination. What seems to rise to the surface in this cyclical play is this dynamic’s constant movement. In the imaginative realm, one thing leads to another, oftentimes more by free association than by causal relations. In other words, the products of our imagination often feed our imagination in a constantly reinforcing, dynamic manner.
Envy may be read as an homage to the life of the imagination and its influencing power on consciousness. This constantly moving, non-linear narrative reflects and highlights the way imagination is oftentimes irrational and not concerned with, motivated by, or determined by a clear goal.  Ambivalence resulting from immersion into and emphasis on subjective perception within the novel thus serves to praise and reinforce imagination’s role in helping us see past the banality of a patterned, daily existence in order to experience life more fully, deeply, and creatively.