Monday, November 23, 2009

The Immoralist in Moscow

Andre Gide

It seems self-evident that gay men produce the best European and American fiction. Witness the literary supremacy of Proust, Burroughs, Capote, Baldwin, Wilde, Vidal, Mann, James, and Gide. And who can forget the first time one read Gide’s best book, The Immoralist? But Gide prostituted his literary talent and became an apologist for Stalinist Russia.

This wasn’t unusual during the 1930s. In France, the ideological alternatives, of course, included Catholic anti-modernist movements that seemed to sympathize with German and Italian fascism. In the mid-1930s, Gide spoke up publicly in support of Stalinist Russia. Three years later, he visited the country on the occasion of Gorky’s funeral and published his assessment of the country in a widely read little book entitled, Return from the U.S.S.R.

Gide’s observations are somewhat mixed, but his eagerness to be enthusiastic about the possibilities of Soviet Russia had not yet dimmed. Communist Russia remained an “unprecedented experiment” about the future of the whole of humanity. If Europe seemed awash in economic and political turmoil, if the German NAZI party seemed particularly odious, a glorious future was struggling to be born in socialist Russia. In 1937, Gide spoke without irony or sarcasm about a “chosen land,” a new society “for all people,” and a society in which “utopia was becoming a reality.”

Having recently written about the evils of European colonialism, Gide was not entirely unaware of his host’s attempts to showcase what was best about Soviet society for their esteemed visitor. However, Gide believed he had cracked the code of the Russian state and could report back on the essence of the Russian experience as it was lived by ordinary people. And what did Soviet Russia look like? It was filled with sincere efforts to improve society and “engineer men’s souls” for the better. Even in a relatively poor country, the Russian Government had created rest homes for the elderly, camps for children, and culture parks where ordinary people played games, danced, sang, played chess, participated in sports, watched movies, listened to edifying lectures, and even went to the theatre. The state was all pervasive, but in an avuncular rather than overtly repressive sense. It organized the people into pioneer clubs for children, komsomol organizations for earnest young men and women, and other associations for adults.

More than anything, Gide was curious to know what this state “could do with man.” And, this being the case, it was natural that Soviet officials should show up a model kolkholz. In one, he saw fruit trees, flower gardens, and other scenic amenities. According to these officials, the kolkolz was so efficient that its workers were able to double their salaries, since they all allegedly shared in the success of the experiment in communal work. Gide was ambivalent about the impersonal dormitory atmosphere of the sleeping quarters, and slightly saddened to note that everybody had the same portraits of Stalin on the walls, as well as the same ugly furniture. For these people, their home was—to quote the modernist architect LeCourbousier—“a machine for living” and nothing more. More radically, these kolkholz workers had almost no personal effects. Having overthrown the tyranny of capitalism individualism, they apparently had no need for trinkets and baubles.

During his visit, Gide came to believe that the U.S.S.R. had made some trade-offs in its quest to do great things for its citizens. It had built ugly buildings, created some consumer shortages, and deemphasized creativity and individuality. It had also produced a gauche attitude toward foreign and a culture of superiority: Russians seemed anxious only to tell the world how superior their way of life had become, but were extremely ill-informed about the outside world. Gide even recognized that conformism and an authoritarian spirit had undermined the original spark of revolutionary liberty and fraternity.

On the other hand, Gide believed Russians were experiencing a precious moment in human history: a classless society, where nobody was any richer or poorer than his or her neighbor and everybody worked for the greater good of society as opposed to the prosperity of the individual. Gide’s real concern was that revolutionary momentum might decrease rather than increase. While recognizing that Russia was trying to consolidate the gains of the revolution in order to shore up its ability to defend itself against the growing power of Germany, Gide claimed to be disappointed that Russia was giving some ground and reestablishing the authority of the family, suppressing any hint of Trotskyism, and dampening criticism wherever it appeared. It’s interesting to speculate further along those lines. It’s customary to say that Russia would have been better off without the Revolution, but perhaps Russia would also have been better with more Revolution?

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