Thursday, September 17, 2020
Thursday, September 3, 2020
Friday, August 28, 2020
It's difficult to discover or "contract trace" the origins of an obsession. So it's hard to really know how or why I became interested in Russian history or the history of the Russian Revolution. But I sometimes suspect that my interest in revolutionary Russia can be traced back to my interest in my grandfather's politics. Although I never knew my grandfather, I grew up hearing about grandfather's single minded pursuit of Leftist economic and social upheaval. Be this as it may, my grandfather wasn't a communist, and he never preached overt revolution. Rather, he was a collectivist or devotee of cooperatism. He might also fit under the broad category of Christian Socialist. In any event, I believe my grandfather learned about collectivism in the shadow of the First World War at Harvard University around 1915. In any event, he never let go of the idea after leaving Harvard. Although experiencing several farming failures, my grandfather served as a postmaster general and small town newspaper editor for about 40 years. He also helped to found a couple of small cooperative ventures.
Knowing that my grandfather talked about nothing else, I have often wanted to know more about collectivism, and especially how it relates, if it did relate at all, to communism. For this reason, I was especially happy to find a novel by Upton Sinclair entitled, Co-op: A Novel of Living Together. Of course, the idea of turning a dry economic or political idea into a novel seemed odd, but as it turns out, the novel reads relatively well, and gives one a wonderful picture of the "romance" of cooperatism, such as it was.
In general, the novel suggests that cooperatism was a response to the economic dislocation that followed World War I and eventually reasserted itself in the Great Depression. According to Sinclair, cooperatism was an extremely rational response to poverty, unemployment, overabundance, and currency scarcity. In his novel, the unemployed gather together to barter outside of the cash economy. The coop was a nexus or alternative market for workers who lacked both cash and commercial employment. Its internal politics were fundamentally democratic, and many of its adherents professed to believe in some form of Socialism or communism. However, the coop movement sidestepped traditional politics in order to avoid being quashed by the U.S. government and Big Business.
Sinclair's novel is a paen to the virtues of cooperative living, which he suggests are a perfect mixture of realism and idealism. To the modern eye, the economic system seems inherently unproductive, with coops avoiding monetary incentives and sharing bartered tools and goods whenever possible. However, one can readily imagine how many Americans were ready to try something midway between Capitalism and Bolshevism in the 1930s.
And what was the relationship between the American cooperative movement and the Russian Revolution? According to Sinclair, the American bourgeoisie was always terrified by the prospect of Bolshevik Revolution, Civil War, expropriations, and economic chaos. One of his wealthy characters does business with the coop precisely because he wants to make friends with Leftists in the event that there is a Russian-style revolution. Better to do business with the coop than to be "shot in the cellar" later on.
Upton Sinclair claims in his novel that California had over 200 coops in the 1930s, and that thousands of people worked for one of these coops in one way or the other. Politically, coops were propped up by former Wobblies, radicals, liberals, syndicalists, reform-minded Christians, socialists, and communists. Economically, they were fueled by people who found themselves excluded from the cash economy.
Tuesday, June 23, 2020
Everlastingly short of cash, and everlastingly in raptures over something, Rostislav Bambaev wandered, aimless but exclamatory, over the face of our long-suffering mother-earth.
"What is his work about?" inquired Litvinov.
"About everything, my dear boy, after the style of Buckle, you know...but more profound..more profound...Everything will be made clear."
"I never read novels now," was Madame Suhantchikov's dry and sharp reply.
"Because I have not the time now; I have no thoughts now but for one thing, sewing-machines."
I did not finish Fyodor Sologub's Bad Dreams so I won't write very much about the book. I only write to try to record a few fleeting impressions of his tone or style. The tone or style are particularly important insofar as the book contains descriptions and dialogue but little action, and few plot points. Sologub was a turn-of-the-century writer, a product (or producer) of the Silver Age, and a Symbolist par excellence. Today, at least in the English language, he seems primarily remembered as the author of The Petty Demon. At any rate, the tone of Bad Dreams might be described as gloomy, melancholy, or depressive, if not also alienated and estranged. The characters speak to one another, but don't seem overly hopeful that they will be understood by one another. Individuals are isolated. Login, the protagonist, "was enveloped in longstanding melancholy, the coldness of a life that was self-centered and dominated by chance.." The author's style is mysterious, or elliptical. Indeed, Solugub reminds me of Platonov, although Platonov was not a part of the same literary school. Solugub seems peculiarly modern insofar as he makes little effort to explain his meaning, or the meaning of his characters' conversations. If the prose can be described as symbolist, it is because the author probably believes a conversation has a symbolic rather than purely logical or rational meaning. The entire atmosphere might be characterized as dreamlike, or magical, and filled with "prophetic dreams, bells, candles, house-sprites, the evil eye..." The goal of life, if there is any goal, is to appreciate this magic. In Login's dream a woman tell him this: "Dear one," answered another voice," from the horrors of life there is one salvation--our love. Do you hear? The stars are laughing. Do you see? The blue waves are breaking on the silver starts. The waves are my heart, the stars are your eyes." The mystical nature of wisdom in Bad Dreams is beautiful, but also morbid. As one character says: "It would be sweet to die. I have no no need of happiness. Love, death--it's all one and the same. To melt away quietly blissfully, to forget the phantoms of life--that is the heartfelt rapture of dying!"
Quotations From Fydor Sologub's Bad Dreams
Life seemed menacing; premonitions oppressed him; misfortunes lay in wait for him.
The housekeeper's sullen face, cratered with pock-marks, increased his melancholy.
"Tell me," Login spoke up again after a brief silence, "what color does life seem to you, and how does it taste?"
"But why is life frightening?"
"It's too dead! We don't live as much as we play at living."
The ancient elms bent down their branches as though they wanted to eavesdrop on this strange conversation. But they were not listening and did not hear. They had their own affairs.
"People, as they always were, are ready to gobble up each other. But all of them are personally as flexible as willow switches. Their man at least dares to be openly cruel."
"I looked intently into myself, and within I found the same ardent but impotent audacity of all human beings, and that same dreary question about the fate of our country..."
"Speaking frankly, old friend, our society still, thank God, is not ready for such things. We have no use for communism and anarchy."
Andozersky waxed candid: "You know, old friend, I'm getting married soon."
Login felt curious: "To whom?"
"Right now, you see, it's still hard to say to whom exactly."
"In this nervous age no one has the strength to accomplish anything. With the temperament of a disillusioned frog, how can we go in for adventures?"
"After all, I don't live between the covers of a book: I've got a real flesh-and-blood body; I'm young, high-spirited, nimble."
"..disipline is the first thing in life. Our people couldn't get along without it."
Although the Markov asserts that the new theater could assimilate the best of nineteenth century traditions, he believed that the new theater was endowed more serious, even didactic, purposes. The day of the private entrepreneur was over. The Revolution was creating new plays, with new and better heroes (i.e., shocker workers, Young Communists, scientists, collective farmers), and a more active audience. Now, Revolutionary playwrights wrote about the following: "The life of the Soviet intelligentsia, the revolutionized village, scientific institutions and factories, collective farms and administrative offices," etc. Indeed, the Revolution even interpreted class plays in new ways, highlighting economic or political "contradictions" whenever necessary. In fact, the new theater was organically linked to the proletariat and peasantry, since factory workers and collective farmers now regularly attended the theater, and actors now regularly toured factories and collective farms in the remotest corners of the Soviet Union. The close connection between theatrical workers and the proletariat and collective farmer economy meant that the playwrights adopted better theatrical forms too, including vaudeville, propaganda poster plays, and musical comedies.
The Revolution ensured that theater now had a higher calling than it ever had before. It was, Markov maintained, a link a "chain of production" that was creating a stronger, more modern country. Echoing Stalin, the new playwrights were engineers of the soul, and were no longer permitted to serve the whims of rich individuals or indeed wealthy classes. Of course, Markov also approved of state censorship or aesthetic direction. As he explained, the Commissariat of Enlightenment "does not permit the performance of plays, which are socially insignificant or harmful, and it insists the theaters in the correct interpretation of a play."
To conclude, Markov's book defends a highly politicized theatrical movement in the Soviet Union. On the other hand, even Markov's commitment to the Revolution, and to Stalinism, doesn't prevent him from attempting to argue that the new theater could still accommodate diversity, including Meyerhold, the Moscow Art Theater, and Tolstoy.
familiar life" rather than the "familiar stage." Nemirovich-Dantechenko also supported literary genius and the dignity of the stage. He and Stanislavsky also opposed the idea that the audience rather than the producer were the proper masters of the aesthetic experience. For instance, the director and producer no longer permitted theatergoers to enter the play after it had begun. He also describes his enthusiasm for Chekhov, who recognized the importance of the quotidian context of his characters, avoided the deus ex machina and external effects in general, and created truthful depictions of human struggles with mortality and meaning.
Grigorovitch: "He is not worthy of kissing the trail of the flea which has bitten Chekhov!"
Another Coryphaeaus of Russian literature, Boborikin, said that he gave himself the pleasure of reading every day, without fail, a tale of Chekhov's.
A certain writer said: "Talent is necessary for the writing of a play, but genius for its production."