Thursday, May 26, 2011

Yury Olesha on History's Darlings

"We weren't born yesterday. We too have been history's darlings."

"Oh, if only they'd kicked his kidneys in soccer..."

"And so I wander, the last dreamer on earth, on the edge of a cesspool, like a wounded bat..."

When I was in high school, my sister and I were obsessed with a soap opera called Santa Barbara. On winter break we seldom missed an episode. More particularly, we liked to watch the show’s graying patriarch, C.C. Capwell, boil over in anger at everyone around him. Capwell was interesting because he only had one emotional tone or trope, and that was anger. Capwell could brood or sulk or rave, but he was always angry about something or someone. He only had one note on the piano of his feelings, one channel on the television of his emotional range, and that was uncontrollable fury.

Even when Capwell was in love, he seemed to be visibly upset at the object of his affection, and irritated by the unbalanced, uncertain state of romantic arousal. In some ways, Capwell was an emotional cripple. He couldn’t feel what others felt; he was never truly worried, joyful, envious, sad, or hopeful—whatever was going on at the time, Capwell just felt pissed about it. On the other hand, I wondered whether Capwell had developed a special relationship to his pet sentiment, anger. After all, isn’t it true that almost every situation calls for some level of anger if examined closely enough? Perhaps it takes a savant like Capwell, someone specially attuned to rage as a bloodhound is specially attuned to fox or raccoon smells, to register the annoyance that lurks in every human interaction or encounter with the physical universe.

At first glance, one might expect that some human experiences lie entirely outside of the purview of rage. Not so! How exactly did Capwell’s special sensitivity to anger work? Here’s a hypothetical example. A woman, perhaps even Capwell’s daughter, announces that she’s graduating from college. Ordinarily, you’d expect a father to be filled with pride over the achievement of his progeny. Not C.C. Capwell. He’d focus on the negative. Shouldn’t his daughter have gone to a better school? Shouldn’t she have achieved a higher G.P.A.? Shouldn’t others—her aunt for example—have attended this once-in-a-lifetime ceremony? The possibilities for anger, if we are truly open to the emotional experience, are everywhere.

C.C. Capwell has nothing on Nikolai Kavalerov, the drunken, intellectual antihero of Yuri Olesha’s masterful 1927 Soviet novella, Envy. But whereas Capwell was a maestro of irritation, Kavalerov is a virtuoso of another kind of resentment, envy. The ostensible target of Kavalerov’s spite is Andrei Babichev, his benefactor and a successful Soviet bureaucrat to boot. The broader target of Kavalerov’s envy is the entire Soviet order ushered in by the Revolution. Although on the face of things, Kavlerov seems to accept the claims of the champions of the Soviet system--that Soviet cultural life is orderly, modern, and efficient—his venomous envy deconstructs the myth of the new regime. Even as despicable antihero, Kavalerov’s mockery undermines the rhetoric of revolution and defends that which preceded it. If there is a new Soviet man, Homo Sovieticus, should we not mourn the death of the old man? If the new system is more rational than the old one, or more technologically progressive, should we not continue to value the beautifully irrational or delightfully human elements of the old system? Kavalerov, for all of his unenviable qualities, lays out a ridiculous but nevertheless persuasive case that the Revolution, for all its glory, has jettisoned some of the most sublime aspects of the human experience.

Kavalerov's chief complaint is that revolutionary logic has overthrown the reign of human emotions. "The buttercup of pity, the lizard of ambition, the snake of jealousy--these flora and fauna must be driven out of the new man's heart." Kavalerov laments this extinction. As Kavalerov melodramatically complains, "I have been given the honor of conducting the last parade of old-fashioned human passions..."Emotions apparently have something to offer men and women, though he doesn't quite say what. Perhaps they make life more beautiful, perhaps they simply make life more varied and interesting.

It's interesting to note that Kavlerov mourns the defeat of human emotions but seems to hold out the possibility that they will take their revenge on the new order of things. Is it possible to vanquish that which makes us truly human, no matter how reasonable the cause? In 1927 Russia communism must have felt fragile indeed. The Revolution was only a decade old; the Civil War less than that; and Lenin was dead and gone. Notwithstanding the optimism and certainty of the Bolsheviks, many Russians still remembered pre-revolutionary Russia. Conspiracies and revolts were not out of the question. Olesha, although a revolutionary writer, seems to suggest that a backlash might still succeed in overturning the Bolshevik regime. "...I want to gather a multitude around me. So that I have a choice and can choose the best, the most vivid of them, to form a shock troop, sort of a...shock troop of emotions." "Yes, this is a conspiracy of emotions, a peaceful uprising. A peaceful demonstration of emotions."

In the end, Envy isn't really about Kavalerov's envy of Babichev. Rather, it's about the envy of one whole generation of Russians, or one historical epoch even, for another. Even as new Soviet citizens recognized that the absurdly atavistic Old Regime had been flung, in Trotsky's words, onto the "ash heap of history," these same Soviet citizens knew that something valuable had inevitably been lost in that ash heap. Wasn't there a part of every ethnically Russian Soviet citizen--the Russian part perhaps--that envied the future itself? Kavalerov's speech sums up this ambivalent feeling about Bolshevik progress: "Everything flows from this, the new era, everything is drawn to it, it will get the best gifts and exclamations. I love it, this world that's coming toward me, more than life, I worship it and hate it with every fiber of my being! I sob, tears gush from my eyes, but I want to poke my fingers in its clothes and rip. Don't outshine me! Don't take away what might have belonged to me!"

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Anxiety, Khrushchev, and the 1950s

My anxiety is almost always related to money. Since my father had a stable job and my parents never worried about how they’d pay the mortgage, I don’t know how or why I came to worry so much about money. Perhaps my fear of poverty can be linked on some level to my mother’s cancer. As she grew sicker, did I conflate the existential fear of being left alone with the more mundane fear of facing economic destitution? However unrealistic that fear of poverty might have been, it was would have been easier to confront that then the approaching death of my mother.

At age 16 I got my first job as a waiter. I remember spreading out the tip money on the bed, tangible reminder that I was, at least on one level, safe and sound. As I grew older, I developed a neurotic attachment to money. I joked that I could sniff out the net worth of anybody, and I developed a theory of economic valuation and labeled it the “kidnapping theorem.” If you want to know how much somebody is truly worth, you have to calculate how much money friends and family would part with in order to get them back.

Chekhov divided his life into two parts: in the first part, he was beaten; in the second part, he wasn’t. Similarly, I divide my life into two parts: in the first part, I had a problem with economic production; in the second part, I had a problem with economic consumption. At first, my jobs as a waiter, production assistant in Hollywood, graduate assistant and adjunct professor, could barely sustain my membership in the middle class. This was a problem with economic production.

Eventually, I emerged from the long shadow of graduate school and gained my first full-time professional jobs. At last, I made a reasonable salary and had access to healthcare and other benefits. Even so, I felt like an East German at the fall of the Berlin Wall. I had access to the labor market, but I also had years of pent up consumer demand. All at once, I felt like I needed to placate what Zizek once called a “plague” of previously dormant consumerist fantasies. More than that, I needed to shoulder the burdens of a bourgeois citizen, so I took lower-paid colleagues out to lunch, bought wedding gifts for friends, and started a family. Whether in the production or consumption phase of my life, I remained anxious about money.

There are essentially two types of people in the world, savers and spenders, by passing through the two phases of my life, I now identify with both. When I earned almost no money, I hoarded what I did make, and felt an almost sensual satisfaction in seeing my modest bank account grow. Although a gentle breeze of misfortunate would have erased my savings from the face of the Earth, I took pride in the account, only fretting that it wouldn’t be enough to ward of ill fortune. Now, taught by others, I realize that I am also a consumer, someone who makes money but derives little satisfaction from anything other than spending. Is it better to be a saver than a spender? I’m not sure. I suspect that they are both the products of a different kind of anxiety. We either decide to try to ward off death by accumulating cash, or we make a play for eternity by buying our way into the existential insulation that things seem to provide.

I am thinking about the nature of anxiety because I’ve just read Peter Carlson’s book, K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude, Starring Nikita Khrushche, America’s Most Unlikely Tourist. K Blows His Top takes us into the heart of America in the 1950s, when, perhaps ironically, America suffered from terrific existential anxiety in the midst of unparalleled economic prosperity and technological progress. Of course, America really was on the edge of a potential nuclear abyss. So there was real rather than neurotic cause for concern. Be this as it may, America has almost always been on the verge of some sort of millennial or eschatological collapse, and we’ve always had enemies who seemed to threaten our existence on at least a political or ideological level.

The 1950s were a unique age, and might have been even without the invention and proliferation of nuclear weapons. We had triumphed spectacularly over the Germans and Japanese, but we still seemed to be powerless in the face of socialist revolution and decolonization. Ignoring our suburban paradises, the world seemed to be appalled by us. Khrushchev, in his three visits to the United States during this period, encapsulated the Janis face of 1950s America. The witty, mercurial dictator pointed to Sputnik, beat his show at the U.N., and promised to bury us. We responded truculently, but the truculence of ordinary Americans who hated Communism masked a deep vein of insecurity. We worried about Khrushchev’s countless quips about the size and range of his missile armada. We also worried that he might have a point when he said that “we”—and he meant white America--weren’t that popular in China, Cuba, the Congo, Harlem, or the Deep South.

It is a truism to say that Khrushchev was motivated by profound insecurity. He was a peasant from a still-developing country who had personally assented to heinous crimes against his own people. He had much to be embarrassed about. But Khrushchev, neurotic genius that he was, was no more neurotic than the country he was visiting. We were, after all, the home of puritan farmers as well as Hollywood decadence; the land of segregation as well as liberty.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Falseness of Happy Endings

"People often die. We all do. I am warning you. This fact surfaced in literature."

You're sitting alone on a park bench on a perfect day thinking that the world is extraordinarily simple. There's the sky, the grass, and you. But you lay your head down to look at the sky and notice a plane passing overhead. Why is that plane there? Where is it going? How many passengers are on board and where are they each, separately, headed? You avert your gaze but notice a tree between you and the airplane. How old is the tree? Is it younger or older than the park? How long will it continue to live? There's a bug on your arm. Does it know it's on your arm? Is it happy there? There's a bag stuck in the tree. Who lost that bag? What did the bag hold? You put these questions--all of them--aside but are immediately confronted by the sound of a dog barking and the happy screams of children who are playing in the park nearby. Does the dog have a story? Do the children? You can't answer those questions; you haven't got the time. For two flaneurs meander past you, discussing something extraordinarily complex and meaningful. One of them is corpulent. Why can't he get his weight under control? Perhaps he's got a medical condition; perhaps he's greedy. To whom or what should you address yourself? The park is alive with colors, smells, sounds, signs, words, objects, movements, and meanings.

Even in its simplest form, the world is complex. It's plot, and only plot, that pins it down and holds it together. We therefore owe a lot to our storytellers and myth-makers, the writers and novelists who help us to make sense of the chaotic world. We owe almost as much to the literary theorists who help us to make sense of the plot-makers. Thank Viktor Shklovsky, the Soviet novelist and literary theorist who penned The Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot in his final years. Shlovsky's treatise on the relationship between plot and creative genius isn't always easy to follow. But it does point the way toward a clearer understanding of the genius of Tolstoy, Chekhov, Cervantes, Pushkin, Boccaccio and others in the Russian and Western Canon.

What, specifically, does Shklovsky have to say about plot? I'm not sure I'm equipped to say. What fascinates me is the way in which Shklovsky sets out to describe creative genius by demonstrating it, exemplifying it. It's as if he wants to tell us that authors such as Tolstoy, the greatest "commander-in-chief of plot," pick up the old but strangely invisible threads of plot and begin to improvise, jazz-like, on the old themes. Tolstoy understands his literary inheritance on a very deep level, but this understanding somehow allows him to transcend it. The result is new avenues to truth, new doors of perception.

Shklovsky explains all this by showing rather than telling his readers that art, even literary criticism, is open-ended, unexpected, lively, and recursive. Shlovsky's writing, like the writing he describes, is brilliant, complex, contradictory, highly original, and intent on the search for meaning rather than its polished presentation.

Here are just a few of his epigrams:

Crossing the sea that is Lev Tolstoy is not an experience that can be explained in brief.

He said that everybody is guilty and then it turned out that nobody was at fault.

Heaven, as Mark Twain guessed, was a boring place. It was overcrowded.

She lived in the land of the happy.

In Hadji Murad, in the Caucacus, the Chechen says: The rope should be long, the speech--short.

He wrote Hadji Murad all his life. He wrote it better each time. More poetically.

Theirs was a compassionate generation. They felt the falseness of happy endings.

But it helped them as much as a funeral service helps a dead man.

Humankind in the multiplicity of its fate is typecast in contradictory ways, that's the chief method of developing a character. The blacksmith in Pushkin (in Dubrovsky) locks the door of a burning house; then the same blacksmith risks his life to save a cat on the roof.

Sancho Panzo used to say how he preferred to hear the answer first and then the riddle.

Russian literature, great literature, doesn't have endings.

According to rumors, even geniuses, more than others, depend on the very traditions they're violating, they depend on the choice of words, the choice of denouements.

There are as many morals as there are stars in the sky.

The infant has no memory. The infant, Tolstoy said, "is used to the eternity."

The history of literature is the history of the search for heroes.

[Tolstoy] points out that the death of one hero transfers are interest to other heroes.

Tolstoy teaches us that events exist before they are discovered.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Trotsky in Mexico

The case of Trotsky decline and fall has been told many times, and why not? The story is one of the most compelling ones of modern history. Leon Trotsky, one of the most gifted and talented men of the twentieth century, was one of the most influential men of both the 1905 and the 1917 revolutions, to say nothing of the Russian Civil War, which he personally helped to bring to a close as Commissar of War and military chieftain of the Red Army. Although a Menshevik before the October Revolution, Trotsky quickly became the most visible Bolshevik leader during the 1917 insurrection, the principle lieutenant of Lenin.

Trotsky’s career as an agitator, revolutionary hero, and finally Politburo member has been well documented by Isaac Duetcher and others. It’s a tragic story insofar as Trotsky’s dynamism, personal courage, revolutionary fame, intellectual prowess, and oratorical gifts, were ultimately no match for Stalin’s political gifts and bloodthirsty tenacity. However, as Bertrand Patenaude, author of Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary, makes clear: Trotsky never really had a chance. Notwithstanding his public grandeur and ability to perform heroic feats in a revolutionary context, Lenin’s right hand man had severe limitations when it came to factional struggle. He could be vain, haughty, inflexible, and unfriendly—utterly incapable of forming political groups or even maintaining many close friendships. His past as a European revolutionary won him few friends among the Party’s rank and file, most of whom—and especially those promoted by Stalin--had never left Russia. Neither Trotsky’s Jewish ethnicity nor his fetish for Party unity helped him either. Patenaude ascribes this fetish—which prevented him from trying to make any overt bids for personal power--to Trotsky’s attempt to overcome his well-known past as a Menshevik.

Trotsky’s defeat at the hands of Stalin may therefore have been foreordained. What’s perhaps more interesting is the way he operated in exile. Banished from Russia, Trotsky did some things extremely well, and failed at others. Until his death at the hands of Stalin’s assassin in 1940, Trotsky maintained an extraordinarily vigorous schedule as a professional revolutionary and intellectual. His historical and autobiographical writing were inspired. His political analysis was sometimes trenchant (he predicted that Nazi Germany and Communist Russia would become temporary allies), sometimes convoluted--twisted by the strange imperative of defending the Soviet Union as a proletarian state while attacking Stalinism, the historical manifestation of bureaucratic degeneration. His attempts to form a new political order—a Fourth International—hampered by his uneven interpersonal skills and limited organizational capacities as well as by his political isolation in exile.

Nothing about Trotsky’s years in exile are as interesting as his time in Mexico. In Mexico, Trotsky learned of the disappearance of a beloved son, held an affair with Frida Kahlo right under the nose of his benefactor, Kahlo’s husband, Diego Rivera, and contested Stalin’s Show Trials by means of the Dewey Commission and a relentless series of articles, speeches, and press releases. His time in Mexico revealed all of the celebrity’s strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, Trotsky managed the affairs of the Fourth International ineptly, alienating many of his American followers by ideological blindness and interpersonal insensitivity. On the other hand, Trotsky continued to fight Stalinism and Nazism (but also liberal democracy of course) even as he was forced to live a highly regimented and restricted life due to the constant threat of political assassination at the hands of the GPU or even the Mexican Communist Party and its allies.

The threat to Trotsky’s personal safety, as well as that of his wife and grandson, was always very real, if not always believed by his myriad political traducers. Near the end of his life, Trotsky almost fell victim to a paramilitary assault led by the famous muralist Siquieros. In retrospect, it seems almost incredible that Trotsky’s fairly unprofessional security regime could have protected him for so long. One wonders why Stalin didn’t kill him earlier, although Patenaude seems at one point in the text to allow for the possibility that at some point Stalin may have tolerated a living Trotsky to act as scapegoat for everything that went wrong in Communist Russia or abroad.

In the end, Trotsky died courageously, true to his reputation as a man of courage and action. Struck in the head with an icepick by his alleged friend, Jacson, Trotsky cried out and did battle with his assailant. Sadly, the attacker outlived his time in a Mexican jail and eventually found his way to the Soviet Union, where he was rewarded in secrecy for his treachery. The talented Siquieros too outlived his act of cowardice, even today known to the world as a revolutionary artist of the highest order.

Of course, Trotsky is no innocent martyr. He took the sins of October to his grave. As Patenaude remarks, in his last days he protested against the American government for presuming to meddle in his personal affairs, appalled at the thought that a mighty state might take an intrusive interest in the personal affairs of a private individual. One of the leading architects of the Soviet police state saw no irony in his protest. Trotsky’s legacy was at least partially redeemed by his wife, who outlived him by twenty years. Over time, and despite Trotsky’s defense of the Soviet Union—even in its attack on Finland—Natalia, Trotsky’s great love, defected from Trotskyism, denouncing the Soviet Union and its many client states in Eastern Europe in the process.

Everyday Stalinism

Every ordinary office environment is a window into Soviet political despotism and tyranny. Historians spend an inordinate amount of time asking why radical political ideas associated with liberty and egalitarianism degenerated into political violence and Stalinist terror. But this misses the point: human nature is the natural ally of unmitigated despotism.

Not all men and women are necessarily potential tyrants in the making; but, if given the chance to be political leaders in an undemocratic government, surely one out of every ten office bosses—the despotic tenth to misquote DuBois—has the capacity to set up show trials, launch political purges, and exile or assassinate enemies. Think of that greatest of all office movies, Glenngary Glenn Ross. As Alec Baldwin arrives from “downtown” he strides into the office to terrorize and humiliate his subordinates, and demands that the seasoned salesman played by Jack Lemon put his coffee down, because coffee is reserved “for closers.” Lemon and the rest of the sales staff are incredulous, yet Baldwin proceeds to berate them. “You think I am fucking with you? I am not fucking with you.” In fact, Baldwin tells his hard-working crew of flim-flam men that they’re all fired, but have one week to try to sell enough bogus properties to redeem to regain their jobs.

The film is filled with similar scenes of unbridled masculinity and sadistic insults. Al Pacino’s brazen attack on his weakened supervisor his typical: “Who ever told you that you could work with men?” Kevin Spacey, chastened by his star salesman, has no reply whatsoever. He’s utterly defeated. His only recourse will be to eventually take pleasure in the fact that another salesman, Jack Lemmon, is weaker than he is, made vulnerable despite years of experience, by falling sales figures and a sick daughter who requires care and financial support.

The office, everywhere and at all times, is a playground for the powerful. Why did Bolshevism degenerate into Stalinism? Why did Stalin overcome his rivals? Why was he allowed to create ever more outlandish schemes for disciplining his party and the nation as a whole? Did Stalin suffer from some form of degenerative mental condition that led him to kills friends as well as enemies on a hitherto unimagined scale? These questions are beside the point. To intentionally misquote what a movie producer told a screenwriter in the movie, Barton Fink, we might say the following: “You think you’re the only Stalin around here? I have twenty Stalins on staff.”

Indeed, every office space houses a plethora of hidden dictators, waiting only for the opportunity to thwart conspiracies or anything that even smacks of public opinion or democratic sentiment. More than this, every office houses dozens of potential Molotovs, sycophants ready to praise and support the worst tyrannical tendencies of the newly powerful. If it seems hard to imagine that you’ve overlooked a potential dictator in your own tranquil office of Dilbert cartoons and cat calendars, consider this: not even Stalin was Stalin at first. In fact, if it seems hard to believe that Lenin, Zinoviev, Kamanev and the others overlooked Stalin’s worst tendencies, take comfort in the fact that they weren’t really there. While Lenin’s last testament shows that he was alert to Stalin’s political power and propensity to rudeness, Stalin was generally seen to be a capable and even moderate “team player,” often the most reasonable person in the room. It’s just that over time Stalin gained more power, and came to realize that there were no longer any checks to his own ability to reorder the political world to suit his own neuroses, no matter how fanciful.

Of course, many office leaders terrorize those around them, but even so, they’re brutality is usually tempered by fear: fear of potential lawsuits, whistle-blowers, or governmental or corporate scrutiny. It’s nice to eliminate rivals without cause, but why risk one’s own job security or retirement benefits if there’s a shadow of a chance that the victim will be able to retaliate? But, given the chance that Stalin had, to mete out extreme punishments without any fear of negative consequences, what petty office dictator wouldn’t launch a bloody purge or two?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Shkolvsky on Authentic Love

"Life tailors us for a certain person and laughs when we are drawn to a person unable to love us."

"My fate was completely predetermined. But everything might have been different."

Heidegger and the existentialists have something to teach us about love. Love is linked to authenticity. At first, we fall in love, but in a superficial, inauthentic way. We don't realize how random the process of linking our lives to the lives of others can be. We are attracted to someone and make ourselves believe that we could never have loved anyone else. But this isn't true. We might just as easily have fallen for the charms of a thousand other people. Over time, if we're honest and brave enough to deal with this existential fact, we admit that love is not blind but, worse than that, arbitrary. At first, this knowledge terrifies us: am I really in love with this person in front of me, or did I fall into this state by happenstance? In the end, if we're courageous enough, we accept or even embrace the fact that we can love a woman passionately even in the knowledge that there are fifty-seven other women on E-Harmony who fit our search criteria equally well.

The whole delusion of love reminds one of Heidegger's theory that most of us have never examined the lives we live and therefore live inauthentically. A small subset of the human race eventually awakes to the fact that our truest selves have been artificially constructed, the product of chance rather than choice. Notwithstanding our most cherished desires, we realize upon examination that we inherit our lives rather than make them. In response to this realization of the "given" nature of our personal existential dilemma, we make some effort to outrun or escape fate. We move to other states, adopt artificial music tastes, renounce familial political or religious affiliations, and throw ourselves into relationships that seem, at least initially, to be unwise or surprising--the lifestyle equivalent of wildly waiving one's arms in the air to prove that nothing has been foretold, nothing is preordained. Eventually, the attempt to escape from the arms of fate fails. And we recognize this failure. However, we don't merely return to our original, unexamined lives. We now live these lives bravely and honestly, with the sometimes awkward knowledge that our lives are not purely the product of our own heroic freedom.

Vicktor Shklovsky's epistolary novel, Zoo, or Letters Not About Love, touches upon the artificial nature of love. Shlovsky, one of the Soviet Union's best literary theorists, wrote Zoo as testimony to an unrequited love. The book is filled with aphorisms by this master stylist.

I have wound my whole life around you.

I need you you; you know how to bring me out of myself.

Your love may be great, but it's far from joyful.

Foxes have their holes, the prisoner is given a cot, the knife sleeps in the scabbard, but you had nowhere to lay your head.

The Roman soldiers who pierced the hands of Christ are no more guilty than the nails. All the same, the crucified feel much pain.

Sick birds don't like to be watched.

And it is easy to be cruel--one need only not love.

The stag uses its antlers in combat, the nightingale does not sing in vain, but our books avail us nothing. This wound will not heal.

Moving diagonally like a knight, I have intersected your life.

When I was not yet thirty and did not yet know loneliness..

I thought Grzhebin cruel for having gulped down so much Russian literature. a rejected suitor who ruins himself buying flowers to turn the room of his unresponsive beloved into a flower shop and who admires this absurdity.

Don't be surprised, Alya, we are all capable of raving--those of us who really live.

There is no harm in loving.

Love Alya, but not your love of her.

When you've wanted a certain dress for a long time, it doesn't pay to buy it--you've memorized it to tatters.

Naturally a thing has only itself to blame if it doesn't know how to become loved.

Here I sit, as much in love as any telegraph operator.

I sit here with my malady; I think about you, about automobiles. (The combination helps.)

We were in a hurry to get life in our clutches. But we lacked the necessary words; we thought you could grasp a woman like a thing--by the handle.

It's better to live all of life to the sound of a guitar.

I just don't care. I know one thing: You won't even put my letter in the basket on the right side of your bed.

For me, Berlin is encircled by your name.

Don't be surprised when I cry out--even when you're not hurting me.

We talked to each other about many things, all of them bitter.

Life is hard for every man who loves a woman or his trade.

She has a porcelain face, with eyelashes so big that they drag down her lids. She can slam them shut, like the doors of safes.

I was bound to be broken while abroad and I found myself a love to do the job.

I lay at your feet like a rug, Alya!

You write about me--for yourself; I write about myself--for you.

This book is being written for you, Alya; writing it is physically painful.

Set my words free, Alya, so they can come to you like dogs to their master and curl up at your feet.

She is the only island for you in your life. From her there is no turning back for you. Only around her does the sea have color.

I want to break into pieces and scatter throughout the city the fact that I love you. If only I knew how!

To live in any real way is painful.

Quit writing about "how, how, how much you love me," because at the third "how much" I think about something else.

And yet, at this moment, an enormous, almost authentic moon is peering into my window.

The past is no more. The circles, rings of love, have receded, moving toward the shore.

If I had owned an extra suit, I would never have come to grief.

The stud (Anatol Kuragin) is not destined for unsuccessful love affairs. His path is strewn with roses; only utter exhaustion can terminate his romances.

I am very sentimental, Alya. That's because I take life seriously.

It seemed to me that, of the two of us, probably only one was human.

It's all a question of "how much." All my letters are about "how much" I love you.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Tunisian Deserter

The Russian Revolution was of course a unique historical event but all revolutions have something in common, if only a certain demonic energy or a natural rhythm or etiology of revolt. Recently a North African friend told me about her indirect experience with contemporary revolution. She said that the Tunisian Revolution signified the overthrow of boredom as much as it signified the triumph of a new type of politics or economics. Under a dictator who rules for decades, one no longer expects that one day will be different than the next. The experience, I imagine, is like living in Phoenix, Arizona: you may well be comfortable with sun and heat, but you can't be anything other than bored when you wake up on a Saturday morning and stroll outside to see a perfectly blue sky. For better or worse, one day is exactly like the next.

So, among other things, revolution represents an end to boredom. Of course, when my Tunisian friend expresses her confidence in the future, and joy about the birth of a new, democratic order in her homeland, I cannot help but to think about how happy almost everybody seemed to be when the Provisional Government first took power in Russia, or indeed how happy almost all Iranians were when the Shah first fled the country. The point, it would seem, is that revolutions are unpredictable, or worse than that: they inevitably degenerate into violence and radicalism. Or do they? We do well to remember that we were all revolutionaries at some point. The British, the French, the Americans, the Latin Americans---what people doesn't owe its allegiance to a revolutionary moment of some sort?

Today I thought about the Tunisian Revolution when watching the 1933 sound film, Deserter. Deserter, set in Hamburg amidst one of the worst strikes in Wiemar Germany's tragic history, attempts to document just how truly international the Bolshevik Revolution was meant to be. In its early sequences we see a poor German worker attempting to steal a prime cut of meat from a bourgeois restaurant table. Caught in the act, he flees the scene, hounded by angry bourgeois citizens and policemen. Faced with either the crowd's justice, or his own bleak plight as a proletarian, he chooses to commit suicide by throwing himself into a busy street. Soon he's nothing more than a bloody stain on the street, an inconvenience to the rich who are forced to pause momentarily in their open-air cars to allow for the clean-up.

The man's act of desperation symbolizes the revolutionary moment in Germany, just as a poor Tunisian man's self-immolation in the face of adversity and corruption symbolized the revolutionary moment there just a few months ago. Like Gladwell's immensely overrated work, The Tipping Point, one struggles to understand just what it is that turns the slings and arrows of everyday dictatorship into something so intolerable that self-immolation begins to seem like a rational act as opposed to the bizarre act of a madman.

Deserter, originally designed to be a product of collaboration between Bolshevik Russia and Social Democrats in Germany, is about a long and grueling German strike at the shipyards. It's the usual story of strike breakers, fat capitalists, and brutal policemen engaged in a conspiracy to keep hard-working proletarians from enjoying the fruit of their own labor. Opposed to the forces of reaction are the customary heroes of labor, including a feisty and beautiful woman who passes out copies of the Red Courier in spite of police harassment. The twist is that one man, the film's hero, "deserts" the cause of the strikers. Underwhelmed by the logic of class struggle or unconvinced that he bears personal responsibility for the victory of the strikers, one man, Karl Renn, abandons the strikers to their fate at the hands of armed police and at least one tank. Ashamed of his failure to do his duty, the strike council decides to send him (as three other workers who are unable to physically help the cause) on a journey to the Soviet Union to accompany a ship the German workers have constructed.

Once in the Soviet Union, Karl quickly realizes that he hasn't fully understand the world in which he lives. In Russia, Karl and the other German workers see an enthusiastic, healthy, and happy Russian citizenry celebrating a Red Army parade and welcoming them to the country. Scenes of Russian industrial power and mechanized processes imply that Karl is caught up with the romance of Russian economic dynamism. In any case, Karl begins to take note of the international nature of the class struggle. Sensing that he has much to learn from the one nation on earth where the proletariat have taken charge of the mechanisms of power, Karl volunteers his technical expertise to work in a Russian factory. Once there, he makes a name for himself by working hard to help his comrades to achieve their difficult production quotas.

It's unnerving to see just how accurately the film propaganda mirrors what actually took place in the Stalin era. Although Karl is ultimately successful in helping his Russian colleagues to increase production by a factor of 350 percent in 30 days, the film seems to suggest just how insane this production goal or similar goals must have been. The diesel factory montage shows pistons moving feverishly, workers scuttling from one section of the factory to another sweat pouring down their faces, and pressure gauge arrows moving excitedly.

The film also features workers who engaged in self-criticism over the pace of work. Capitalist bosses are not necessary in Communist Russia: when the fate of a proletarian nation is at stake, the production quota simply must be met. We know from history, the five year plans were a recipe for industrial confusion and human disaster. If one looks closely at the factory scenes in this film, one can almost sense the tragedy of industrialization under Stalin. In Communist Russia, work was the equivalent of warfare. It mattered not how many people suffered or died to meet the nation's industrial objectives. And if failure occurred--and how could it not in such a frenetic rush?--then saboteurs must be to blame.

Notwithstanding the madness of Russian-style industrialization, Karl is impressed by what he sees. A portrait of Lenin watches over his deliberations about his future and he ultimately returns to Germany as an enthusiastic supporter of the international class struggle with few doubts about the righteousness of his cause or the inevitability of ultimate victory. Karl has seen the future--the Soviet Union--and it works.

Filming the Myth of October

Vsevolod Pudovkin's 1927 silent film, The End of St. Petersburg, is a masterful telling of the central myth of the October Revolution. It begins, where Russia begins, amidst the foil of the new revolutionary order: the dirty, squalid peasant countryside. Here we see poverty, lethargy, a dust storm, a dying mother, field laborers, and a baby who will grow up poor and someday need to move to the city in order to survive.

After getting a glimpse of the sickle, Pudovkin takes us to see the hammer: the factories of St. Peterburg. In the city, we see smoke, hard working, sweating proletarians, and the symbols of late Tsarism, including monumental architecture, the statue of the Bronze Horseman, slum housing for the working class, a bustling stock market, and wealthy and corpulent shareholders.

In old Russia, capitalists are fat and idle, and their markets dynamic but inhuman, methodical, greedy, and impersonal. In contrast, St. Petersburg's workers are strong, hard-working, muscular, and action-oriented. Yet the personal lives of the lives of workers are also circumscribed by poverty, wage slavery, and political oppression. In the tenements, clothes are perpetually drying on the clotheslines, tenement rooms are persistently crowded, dark,[ and windowless, and strike breakers are always at hand to quash labor unrest.

When the rural boy, now turned man, arrives in St. Petersburg looking for work, he's taken in by folk from his village who have migrated to the city previously. Gradually, the naive young man figures out that the system is stacked against ordinary men like him, and that the police, factory owners and bosses, members of the legal caste, and scabs collude to keep working men in brutal circumstances.

The director next takes his audience on a tour de horizon of the First World War, contrasting the enthusiasm of the governing classes with the spectacular suffering of ordinary soldiers. Following Lenin's reasoning, war in general is the product of vampiric capitalist machinations, designed to increase profits while distracting workers from their own class interests.

Eventually, the war leads to the first phase of the Revolution, but the director is completely unsympathetic to the Provisional Government, which maintains the war effort for the benefit of the propertied classes. Scenes of war dead in the flooded trenches are interspersed with scenes of happy bourgeois toasting the fall of the tsar and the rise of the bourgeois phase of the revolution. And Kerensky, leader of the coalition government, is portrayed, not without historical evidence, as something of a clown. He's isolated, attempting to use dramatic rhetoric alone--theater essentially-- to convince soldiers to overrule their own interests to quash the Bolshevik insurrection. They resist the temptation to fire on their brothers and instead march on the Winter Palace.

The movie concludes with the triumph of the revolutionaries, as one woman (apparently the same woman who starred in Pudovkin's Mother) marches through the cold, majestic Winter Palace to find her husband, a worker, soldier, and loyal Communist. The Revolution has transformed this woman who, while originally only immersed in a private struggle to help protect her immediate family, has recently begun to help comrades engaged in revolutionary struggle. And of course the Revolution has transformed ath city itself, which has been reborn as Leningrad. Brief but real historical of Lenin's oratory helps to reinforce his presence in this film which was, according to a writer for the Sense of Cinema, commissioned by the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Radicalism: It's a Good Thing

Do we get closer or farther from the truth over time? Does time give us the benefit of perspective or the handicap of distance? Revolution in Russia, As Reported by the New York Tribuine and the New York Herald, 1894- 1921, suggests that historiography is overrated. In truth, contemporary American reporters, for all of their ideological and national bias, seem to have gotten the Revolution right on most counts. The American press understood the importance of the Revolution, and also seemed to had a reasonable good grasp of its component parts as they unfolded in real time.

Of course, not until the Civil War came to an end did foreign observers know whether or not the Bolsheviks would ultimately triumph over their diverse opponents, who included socialists, anarchists, tsarists, liberals, Germans, Poles, Japanese, Ukrainian nationalists, and so many others. Even so, they knew who Lenin and Trotsky were, and how they came to power. As Edward Pearlstein's edited volume of New York reporting on the Revolution makes clear, Americans knew that the Bolsheviks were not, as modern historians often suggest, the unlikely beneficiaries of a chaotic and unpredictable situation. Instead, they were the actors who were best suited to the extraordinary times in which Russians found themselves. Although they represented a tiny part of the Russian political spectrum, they had some tremendous political advantages. They were disciplined, organized, well-lead, ruthless, geographically concentrated, and closely allied with the ordinary soldiers and workers who had the power to determine the fate of the Revolution. Or, to put matters differently, in an unrelentingly radical situation, only a radical party could hope to survive.

So, although Lenin's decision to collaborate with the German government in order to arrive in St. Petersburg would ordinarily have severely compromised his political reputation, in turbulent, miserable, war-weary Russia, it was Lenin's ability to articulate a totally novel future for the country that mattered most. Whatever disadvantages Bolsheviks labored under, they wanted nothing whatsoever to do with the past. Most concretely, this meant that Bolsheviks advocated radical land reform and an immediate end to the war. But more generically, this meant that the Bolsheviks could say to the country that they alone understood just how completely the ancien regime had failed. Better to start over with a new and alien political party and economic philosophy, than to adopt any part of the old way of doing business.