Mikhail Bulgakov transformed the fable of the New Man into a cautionary tale about the dangers of social engineering, in his 1925 short novel Heart of a Dog. When Professor Preobrazhensky (“Professor Transfiguration”) transplants human glands to a common mutt named Sharik, the result is a crude, sloganeering self-identified proletarian who starts making a career in the new Soviet bureaucracy. Bugakov attacks the ideology of the New Man on two fronts simultaneously: nature (what do you expect when your raw material is a dog?) and nurture (much of what the newly-renamed Sharikov says and does results from the unselfconscious adoptions of official discourse).
With the institution of the New Economic Policy after the Russian Civil War, the New Man was haunted by a disturbing rival, who was both a holdover from the old world and, potentially, a harbinger of something even more crass: the “NEPman,” who was preoccupied with creature comforts and status rather than proletarian virtues and the building of communism. It is telling that Vladimir Mayakovsky’s famous satirical play on the subject, The Bedbug (1929), not only explicitly compares Prisypkin, its protagonist, to a blood-sucking parasite after scenes in which his grotesque materialism have been explicitly highlighted, it jumps to the far future, when Prisypkin is on display in a zoo as “Philistinius vulgaris,” which is even worse than the bedbug found with him:
“There are two parasites, differing in size but the same in essence: the famous Bedbugus normalis and — and the Philistinius vulgaris. Both have their habitat in the moldy mattresses of time. Bedbugus normalis, when it has guzzled and gorged on the body of a single human being, falls under the bed. Philistinius vulgaris, when it has guzzled and gorged on the body of all mankind, falls on top of the bed. That’s the only difference!” (1)
Though the play’s critique of its own audience is devastating (Prisypkin looks out from the stage, and addresses his viewers as “My people! My own people!”), it provides an implicitly optimistic frame that simultaneously emphasizes what is at stake. We know from the final scene that the NEPman has died out, but we are also reminded that, as a phenomenon, he is of historic importance because of the revolutionary context: he is an atavism that must be wiped out if the new men of the future are to come into being.
The discourse of the age of NEP (essentially, the 1920s) made it continually clear that the character of the New World was still in formation, lending otherwise trivial questions the weight of history in the making. Moreover, the question of the New World’s character was rarely separate from concerns of the New Man who was to inhabit it. Just ten years into the post revolutionary era, this problem would provide the ideological underpinnings of an emotional family drama: Yuri Olesha’s Envy.
Next: New Men in Love
Mayakovsky, Vladimir. Plays. Translated by Guy Daniels, Northwestern University Press, 1968.