The Unbitten Elbow

by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, recommended by the Pen Literary Awards


“Your elbow is near,” say the Russians, “but you can’t bite it.” They say this about something that seems attainable, but isn’t. (So near and yet so far.) The naïve and nameless hero of this strange tale is a man bent on biting his own elbow. Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, too, was naïve. A modernist master of hallucinatory stories and self-incriminating novels who lived in Soviet Russia, he was bent on being published. By 1939, when a literary journal finally ran “The Unbitten Elbow,” a rare success, Krzhizhanovsky had been writing — and fighting for — his phantasmagorical fiction for two decades. And not a book to show for it.

He had produced this “odd gem of anatomic fixation” (Los Angeles Review of Books) a dozen years before, in 1927. While Moscow fêted the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik coup and the coming of communism, Krzhizhanovsky sat cloistered in a viewless room no larger than a larder. He was considering, in his blackly humorous way, what can happen when a nutty idea takes hold of the masses. (Ideas become a material force, said Lenin, when they “take hold of the masses.”) Krzhizhanovsky’s “elbow-eater,” with his one maniacal idea, becomes the dupe of a government-backed bankers’ trust out to trick gullible investors. In 1941, by repackaging this satire as a “story about the West,” a well-connected friend of a friend in publishing managed to shepherd it past the censor. “The Unbitten Elbow” was being typeset, part of a collection that would have marked Krzhizhanovsky’s long-deferred debut in book form, when war broke out — and put a stop to it. For half a century. So near and yet so far.

Joanne Turnbull
Translator, Autobiography of a Corpse
Winner of the 2014 PEN Translation Prize

The Unbitten Elbow

“The Unbitten Elbow”
by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated by Joanne Turnbull

This whole story would have remained hidden under the starched cuff and sleeve of a jacket, if not for the Weekly Review. The Weekly Review came up with a questionnaire (Your favorite writer? Your average weekly earnings? Your goal in life?) and sent it out to all subscribers. Among the thousands of completed forms (the Review had a huge circulation), the sorters found one, Form No. 11111, which, wander as it would from sorter to sorter, could not be sorted: On Form No. 11111, opposite “Average Earnings,” the respondent had written “0,” and opposite “Goal in Life,” in clear round letters, “To bite my elbow.”

The form was forwarded for clarification to the secretary; from the secretary it went before the round, black-rimmed spectacles of the editor. The editor jabbed his call button, a messenger scurried in then scurried out — and a minute later the form, folded in four, had slipped into the pocket of a reporter who had also received these verbal instructions: “Talk to him in a slightly playful tone and try to get to the bottom of this. What is it, a symbol or romantic irony? Well, anyway, you know what to do…”

The reporter assumed a knowing expression and promptly set off to the address written on the bottom of the form.

A tram took him as far as the last suburban stop; then the zigzags of a narrow staircase led him at length up to an attic; finally, he knocked on a door and waited for an answer. None came. Another knock, more waiting — and the reporter gave the door a push. It swung open and before his eyes there appeared a penurious room, walls crawling with bedbugs, a table, and a wooden stove bench. On the table lay an unfastened cuff; on the stove bench lay a man, his arm bared and his mouth edging past the crook of his elbow.

Buried in his task, the man had not heard the knocks on the door or the steps on the stairs; only the intruder’s loud voice made him raise his head. The reporter noticed several scratches and bite marks on No. 11111’s arm, a few inches from the sharp elbow now pointed at him. Unable to bear the sight of blood, he turned away saying, “You seem to be in earnest. That is, I mean to say, there’s no symbolism here, is there?”


“And I suppose romantic irony has nothing to do with it either.”

“Pure anachronism,” the elbow-eater muttered, and again pressed his mouth to the scratches and scars.

“Stop! Please stop!” the reporter cried, shutting his eyes. “When I’ve gone, you can go right ahead. But for now won’t you allow your mouth to give me a short interview? Tell me, when did you begin…?” And his pencil began scratching in his notebook.

When he had finished, the reporter went out the door only to come straight back in.

“Now listen,” he said, “trying to bite your own elbow’s all very well, but you know it can’t be done. No one has ever succeeded; every attempt has ended in a fiasco. Have you thought about that, you strange man?”

In reply, two glazed eyes glowering beneath knitted brows and a curt “Lo posible es para los tontos.

The clapped-shut notebook sprang open.

“Forgive me, I’m not a linguist. Would you mind…” But No. 11111, evidently unable to bear the separation any longer, had already reapplied his mouth to his badly bitten arm. Tearing his eyes and whole body away, the reporter sprinted down the zigzag stairs, hailed a taxi, and raced back to the office. The next issue of the Weekly Review ran an item with the headline: LO POSIBLE ES PARA LOS TONTOS.

Adopting a slightly playful tone, the piece described a naïve crackpot whose naïveté bordered on… On what, the Review did not say, ending instead with the pithy dictum of a forgotten Portuguese philosopher, intended to chasten and check all the sociopathic dreamers and fanatics searching in our realistic and sober century for the impossible and impracticable. This mysterious dictum, which doubled as the headline, was followed by a brief “Sapienti sat.

Random readers of the Weekly Review expressed interest in this bizarre story, two or three magazines reprinted it — but it would soon have been forgotten in memories and archives if not for the attack on the Weekly Review by the weightier Monthly Review. The next issue of that organ ran this item: WITHOUT A LEG TO STAND ON. The caustic author quoted the Weekly Review then went on to explain that the Portuguese dictum was in fact a Spanish proverb meaning: “The attainable is for fools.” To this the author appended a terse “et insapienti sat,” and to that short “sat” a bracketed “sic.”

After that the Weekly Review had no choice but to point out — in a very long article in the very next issue, fighting “sat” with “sat” — that not everyone is blessed with a sense of irony: Deserving of our pity was not this naïve attempt to do the undoable (all genius, after all, is naïve), not this fanatic of his own elbow, but that mercenary hireling, that creature in blinkers from the Monthly Review who, because he dealt solely with letters, understood everything literally.

Naturally, the Monthly Review was not going to take that lying down. Nor would the Weekly Review let its rival have the last word. In the bitter debate that ensued, the elbow fanatic came across as a cretin and a genius by turns, as a candidate now for a free bed in an insane asylum, now for a fortieth seat in the Academy of Sciences.

As a result, several hundred thousand readers of both reviews learned of No. 11111 and his attitude toward his elbow, but this debate did not excite much interest among a broader audience, especially given other, more compelling events at the time: Two earthquakes and one chess match — every day two rather stupid fellows sat down to sixty-four squares (one looked like a butcher, the other like a clerk in a chic shop) and somehow fellows and squares became the focus of all intellectual interests, needs, and expectations. Meanwhile, in his small square room, not unlike a chessboard square, with his elbow pulled up to his teeth, No. 11111 waited, wooden and inert like a dead chessman, to be put in play.

The first person to make the elbow-eater a serious offer was the manager of a suburban circus in search of new acts to enliven the show. He was an enterprising sort, and an old issue of the Review that happened to catch his eye decided the elbow-eater’s immediate fate. The poor devil refused at first, but when the showman pointed out that this was the only way for him to live by his elbow, and that a living wage would allow him to refine his method and improve his technique, the downcast crackpot mumbled something like “uh-huh.”

This act — billed as ELBOW vs. MAN! WILL HE OR WON’T HE BITE IT ? THREE TWO-MINUTE ROUNDS. REFEREE BELKS — was the finale. It followed the Lady with the Python, the Roman Gladiators, and the Flying Leap from Under the Dome. It went like this: With the orchestra playing a march, the man would stride into the ring with one arm bared, his face rouged, and the scars around his funny bone carefully powdered white. The orchestra would stop playing — and the contest would begin; the man’s teeth would sink into his forearm and begin edging toward his elbow, inch by inch, closer and closer.

“Bluffer, you won’t bite it!”

“Look! Look! I think he bit it.”

“No, he didn’t. So near and yet…”

The champion’s neck, veins bulging, would continue to strain and stretch, his bloodshot eyes would bore into his elbow as blood dripped from his bites onto the sand; the spectators, armed with binoculars, would turn frantic, jumping out of their seats, stamping their feet, climbing over barriers, hooting, whistling, and screaming:

“Grab it with your teeth!”

“Go on, get that elbow!”

“Come on, elbow, come on! Don’t give in!”

“No fair! They’re in cahoots!”

After three rounds, the referee would declare the elbow the winner. And no one suspected — not the referee, not the impresario, not the departing crowd — that the man with his elbow bared would soon trade this circus stage for the world stage, that instead of a sandy circle some twenty yards in diameter, he would have at his feet the earth’s entire orbital plane.

It began like this: The fashionable speaker Eustace Kint, who rose to fame through the ears of elderly but wealthy ladies, was taken by friends after a birthday lunch — by chance, on a lark — to the circus. A professional philosopher, Kint caught the elbow-eater’s metaphysical meaning right off the bat. The very next morning he sat down to write an article on “The Principles of Unbitability.”

Kint, who only a few years before had trumped the tired motto “Back to Kant” with his new and now wildly popular “Forward to Kint,” wrote with elegant ease and rhetorical flourishes. (He once remarked, to thunderous applause, that “philosophers, when speaking to people about the world, see the world, but they do not see that their listeners, located in that same world, five steps away from them, are bored to tears.”) After a vivid description of the man-versus-elbow contest, Kint generalized the fact and, hypostatizing it, dubbed this act “metaphysics in action.”

The philosopher’s thinking went like this: Any concept (Begriff, in the language of the great German metaphysicians) comes lexically and logically from greifen (to grasp, grip, bite). But any Begriff, when thought through to the end, turns into a Grenzbegriff, or boundary concept, that eludes comprehension and cannot be grasped by the mind, just as one’s elbow cannot be grasped by one’s teeth. “Furthermore,” Kint’s article continued, “in objectifying the unbitable outside, we arrive at the idea of the transcendent: Kant understood this too, but he did not understand that the transcendent is also immanent (manus — ‘hand,’ hence, also ‘elbow’); the immanent-transcendent is always in the ‘here,’ extremely close to the comprehending and almost part of the apperceiving apparatus, just as one’s elbow is almost within reach of one’s grasping jaws. But the elbow is ‘so near and yet so far,’ and the ‘thing-in-itself’ is in every self, yet ungraspable. Here we have an impassable almost,” Kint concluded, “an ‘almost’ personified by the man in the sideshow trying very hard to bite his own elbow. Alas, each new round inevitably ends in victory for the elbow: The man is defeated — the transcendent triumphs. Again and again — to bellows and whistles from the boorish crowd — we are treated to a crude but vividly modeled version of the age-old gnoseological drama. Go one, go all, hurry to the tragic sideshow and consider this most remarkable phenomenon; for a few coins you can have what cost the flower of humanity their lives.”

Kint’s tiny black type proved stronger than the huge red letters on circus posters. Crowds flocked to see the dirt-cheap metaphysical wonder. The elbow-eater’s act had to be moved from its suburban tent to a theater in the center of the city, where No. 11111 also began performing at universities. Kintists took to quoting and discussing the ideas of their teacher, who now expanded his article into a book: Elbowism: Premises and Conclusions. In its first year, it went through forty-three editions.

The number of elbowists was mushrooming. True, skeptics and anti-elbowists had also cropped up; an elderly professor tried to prove the antisocial nature of the elbowist movement, a throwback, he claimed, to Stirnerism, which would logically lead to solipsism, that is, to a philosophical dead end.

The movement also had more serious detractors. As a columnist named Tnik, speaking at a conference on problems of elbowism, put it: Even if the elbow-eater should finally manage to bite his own elbow, what difference would that make?

Tnik was hissed and hustled off the podium before he could finish. The poor wretch did not ask for the floor again.

Then there were the copycats and wannabes. One such self-promoter announced in print that on such-and-such a date at such-and-such a time he had succeeded in biting his elbow. A Verification Commission was immediately dispatched and the imposter exposed. Dogged by contempt and outrage, he soon committed suicide.

This incident only increased the renown of No. 11111; students at the universities where he performed followed him around, especially the girls. One of the loveliest — with the sad, shy eyes of a gazelle — obtained a private meeting with him so as to offer up her half-bared arms: “If you must, bite mine: It’s easier.”

But her eyes met two turbid blots hiding beneath black brows. In reply she heard: “Do not gore what is not yours.”

Whereupon the gloomy fanatic of his own elbow turned away, giving the girl to understand that the audience was over.

Nevertheless, No. 11111 remained the rage. A well-known wag construed the number 11111 to mean “the one-and-only five times over.” Men’s clothing stores began selling jackets with detachable elbow patches. Now a man might try to bite his elbow whenever and wherever, without removing his jacket. Many elbowist converts gave up drinking and smoking. Fashionable ladies began wearing high-necked, long-sleeved dresses with round cutouts at the elbows; they decorated their funny bones with elegant red appliqués imitating fresh bites and scratches. A venerable Hebraist, who had spent forty years studying the veritable dimensions of Solomon’s temple, now rejected his former conclusions: He said that the length of sixty cubits stated in the Bible should be understood as a symbol of the sixtyfold incomprehensibility of what is hidden behind the veil. A member of parliament in search of popularity drafted a bill to abolish the metric system in favor of that ancient, elbow-conscious measure: The cubit. And although the bill was ultimately defeated, while still under review it provoked brawls in the press and the corridors of power, not to mention two duels.

Embraced by the masses, elbowism became vulgarized and lost the strict philosophical aspect that Eustace Kint had attempted to give it. Scandal sheets, misinterpreting elbowist teachings, took to promoting it with slogans like ELBOW YOUR WAY TO THE TOP and RELY ON YOUR ELBOWS AND YOUR ELBOWS ALONE.

Soon this new way of thinking had become so widespread that the State, which counted No. 11111 a citizen, decided to use the elbow-eater for its own fiscal purposes. The opportunity promptly arose. Certain sporting publications had already begun printing daily bulletins on the half inches and quarter inches still separating the elbow-eater’s teeth from his elbow. Now a semiofficial government newspaper followed suit, running its bulletins on the next-to-last page with the trotting-race results, soccer scores, and stock market reports. Some time later, this same semiofficial paper ran a piece by a famous academician, a proponent of neo-Lamarckism. Proceeding from the assumption that the organs of a living organism evolve by means of practice, he concluded that the elbow was, in theory, bitable. Given a gradual stretching of the neck’s transversely striate muscular matter, this authority wrote, a systematic twisting of the forearm, etc… But then the logically impeccable Kint struck back with a blow for unbitability. The argument that ensued recalled Spencer’s with the dead Kant. The time was now ripe: A bankers’ trust (everyone knew its shareholders included government bigwigs and the country’s richest capitalists) sent out fliers announcing a Grand BTE (Bite That Elbow) Lottery to be held every Sunday. The trust promised to pay every ticket holder 11,111 monetary units to one (one!) as soon as the elbow-eater’s elbow was bitten.

The lottery was launched with much fanfare — jazz bands and iridescent Chinese lanterns. The wheels of fortune began spinning. The ticket ladies — their white teeth grinning in welcome as their bare, red-flecked elbows dove down into glass globes full of tickets — toiled from midday to midnight.

But ticket sales were slow at first. The idea of unbitability was too firmly ingrained in people’s minds. The ancient Lamarckist called on Kint, but Kint continued to find fault.

“The Lord God himself,” he said, “cannot arrange things so that two and two do not equal four, so that a man can bite his own elbow, and thought can go beyond the bounds of the boundary concept.”

The number of so-called bitableists who supported the lottery was, compared to that of unbitableists, insignificant and shrinking every day; lottery bonds were tumbling, depreciating to almost nothing. The voices of Kint and company — demanding that the names of the masterminds behind this swindle be revealed, that the cabinet resign, that reforms be instituted — sounded louder and louder. But then one night, Kint’s apartment was searched. In his desk investigators found a fat stack of lottery tickets. The warrant for his arrest was instantly revoked, the discovery made public, and by next day the stock price for tickets had begun to climb.

An avalanche, they say, may begin like this: A raven, perched high on a mountain peak, beats its wing against the snow, a clump of which goes sliding down the slope, gathering more and more snow as it goes; rocks and earth go crashing after it — debris and more debris — until the avalanche, goring and gouging the mountainside, has engulfed and flattened everything in its path. So then, a raven first beats its wing against the snow then turns its hunched back on the consequences, pulls the scales over its eyes, and goes to sleep; the avalanche’s roar wakes the bird; it pulls the scales from its eyes, straightens its back, and beats the other wing against the snow. The bitableists took the place of the unbitableists, and the river of events reversed itself, flowing from mouth to source. Jackets with detachable elbow patches were now to be seen only in rag-and-bone shops. Meanwhile No. 11111, that lottery-ticket wonder, that living guarantee of capital investment, went on public view. Thousands of people filed past the glass cage in which he labored day and night over his elbow. This buoyed hopes and increased ticket sales. As did the semiofficial bulletins, now on the front page in large type; every time they shaved off another fraction of an inch, tens of thousands more tickets were snapped up.

The elbow-eater’s determination — inspiring a universal belief in the attainability of the unattainable and swelling the ranks of bitableists — rattled even the stock market. Briefly. One day the fractions of an inch separating mouth from elbow so diminished (triggering yet another surge in ticket sales) that at a secret government meeting the ministers began to fret: What if the impossible were to happen and the elbow were to be bitten? To redeem even a tenth of all the tickets at the advertised rate of 11,111 to one, the finance minister warned, would leave the treasury in tatters. The bank trust president put it this way: “A tooth in his elbow would be a knife in our throat, revolution in the streets. But short of a miracle, that won’t happen. Remain calm.”

And indeed, starting the next day the fractions of an inch began to increase. The elbow-eater seemed to be losing ground to his triumphant elbow. Then something unexpected happened: The elbow-eater’s mouth, like a leech that has sucked its fill, let go the bloodied arm, and for an entire week the man in the glass cage, his glazed eyes fixed on the ground, did not renew his struggle.

The metal turnstiles by the cage turned faster and faster, thousands of anxious eyes streamed past the dephenomenoned phenomenon, the grumbling grew louder every day. Ticket sales stopped. Fearing unrest, the government increased police squads tenfold, while the banker’s trust increased the return on subscription tickets.

Special keepers assigned to No. 11111 tried to sic him on his own elbow (the way tamers encourage reluctant lions with steel prods), but he only snarled and turned sullenly away from the food he had grown to hate. The stiller the man in the glass cage became, the greater the commotion around him. And no one knows where it might all have led, if not for this: One day before dawn, when the guards and keepers, despairing of ever Getting elbow and man to fight again, took their eyes off No. 11111, he suddenly fell on his enemy. Behind his glazed gaze, some sort of thought process had evidently occurred over the past week, prompting a change in tactics. Now the elbow-eater, attacking his elbow from the rear, rushed straight for it — through the flesh in the crook of his arm. Hacking through the layers with his hooklike jaw, forcing his face deeper and deeper into the blood, he had nearly reached the inside of his elbow. But before that bony junction, as we know, comes the confluence of three arteries: Brachialis, radialis, and ulnaris. From this severed arterial knot, blood now began to gush and fountain, leaving the elbow-eater limp and lifeless. His teeth — so near his goal — unclenched, his arm unbent, and his hand dropped to the floor, followed by his whole body.

The keepers heard the noise and raced to the cage only to find their charge sprawled in a spreading pool of blood, stone-dead.

Insofar as the earth and the rotary presses continued to turn on their axes, the story of the man who wanted to bite his elbow does not end here. The story, but not the fairy tale: Here the two — Fairy Tale and Story — part ways. The Story steps — not for the first time — over the body and goes on, but the Fairy Tale is a superstitious old woman and afraid of bad omens. Please don’t blame her, don’t take it amiss.

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