Friday, July 30, 2010


One of my favorite short stories is entitled, Bliss. It's the story of a woman who arrives home in a state of heightened sensuality. She notices every smell, texture, and sound around her; she appreciates the beauty and magic of everyday domestic life. It's as if she has never before noticed the safety and comfort of her ordinary surroundings. The air is somehow alive: there's a crackle in the air, even as she does absolutely nothing other than unload groceries (as I recall--it's been years since I read the story) and prepare for a dinner party. The story ends when the wife catches her husband and one of the guests looking briefly but inappropriately at one another. In an instant the wife presumably realizes that at least in some sense, ignorance is bliss, to cite the story's title. However, somewhat paradoxically, the wife wasn't truly ignorant: the heightened appreciation for her environment would only have been possible if she had, on some unconscious level, already understood that her husband was having an affair that would soon shatter her domestic idyll.

This short story reminds me of the spy thriller, Gorky Park, which was written before the Soviet Union collapsed, in 1981. Martin Cruz Smith's famous spy thriller works as a detective novel, but its power is enhanced by prophecy. In 1981, few if any Soviet experts predicted the complete collapse of one of the world's two superpowers. However, Smith's Gorky Park shows a society that knew, however unconsciously, that its days were numbered. As the chief investigator goes about the business of solving a triple murder in one of Moscow's most famous parks, he encounters dozens if not hundreds of Soviet illnesses, including alcoholism, ideological blindness, economic inefficiency, rampant corruption, consumer shortages, housing shortages, class stratification, anti-semitism, haunting memories of Stalinism, police state surveillance, KGB arrogance, runaway bureacratism, a war in Afghanistan, and party cynicism. So, like the heroine of the short story, Bliss, it seems that on some level perhaps both Soviet citizens and foreign novelists understood that the end of socialism was at hand, even though this knowledge was sublimated to the level of the unconscious. (Of course, it's possible that if America collapsed tomorrow, historians might use our own noir detective fiction to explain that this collapse was inevitable, the result of capitalism's own illnesses.)

One of the best things about reading a thriller about crime in the Soviet Union is that socialist ideology had proclaimed the end of crime. In a capitalist society, crime made a lot of sense--it was the natural byproduct of alienation and exploitation. In a socialist society, there really was no reason for people to move aggressively and illegally against their neighbors. People worked for one another; the state and property in general was merely a reflection of the socialist citizen. If crime exists, Smith reminds us, Soviet forensics experts could only turn to psychology for answers. Mental illness was the only valid explanation. The real irony about Soviet crime was that it seemed impossible to ignore the criminality of the Russian state itself, though perhaps this is true for any modern state to some degree or another. Is it more telling to examine America's criminals or to look at the state's interest in locking up such an enormous percentage of the population at all times?

No comments:

Post a Comment