Monday, January 2, 2012

The Soviet Shining

I just recently watched my favorite horror movie, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Stephen King's invented term, the shining, indicates a predilection for telepathy as well as a supernatural ability to detect traces of previous events, especially violent crimes. In King's horrific tale, a little boy feels the reverberating presence of a triple murder that occurred in the 1920s even as he witnesses the effect this historical tragedy appears to be having on his own father's menacing behavior. I think the shining is a useful metaphor for the relevance of history as an academic discipline or mode of inquiry. The intermingling of past and present lies at the heart of human existence.

King's story--or at least Kubrick's interpretation of that story--includes more than a healthy dose of psychoanalytic theory. Before ever setting out to manage an isolated hotel, Jack Nicholson's son meets with a psychoanalyst. As it turns out, the boy has developed an alternate personality, an invisible friend who lives inside the boy's mouth and speaks through his finger. Tellingly, this invisible friend only arrived on the scene when his angry father dislocated his shoulder. To my mind, the point is that "the shining," or rather the generic connection between past and present, is more psychoanalytic than supernatural. The past matters to us. I relearn this lesson each December 7th, the anniversary of my mother's death. Each year, as the date approaches, I feel vaguely uneasy, vaguely depressed. In fact, this date seems more potent the less I consciously remember its existential significance.

Revolutions are related to this concept of "shining." The past, and in particular the criminal past, bubbles forth. It only takes a little revolutionary telepathy to conjure up the blood of the martyrs to inspire fresh slaughter. In the movie, the Shining, historical pain is the agent of activity and plot in general. Marx famously said that revolutions are the engine of historical change. They come about as a result of past trauma, or a sensitivity to past trauma.

I'll close by making one more strained, tenuous connection between The Shining and Bolshevik Revolution. Take the movie's most important line, delivered by Jack Nicholson. In response to a terrified Shelley Duvall's desperate request to be given the chance to retreat in order to "think things over," Nicholson replies thus: “You’ve had your whole fucking life to think things over, what good’s a few minutes more gonna do you now?” The line is powerful because it's not just menacing sarcasm. It's true on a philosophical level. It's offered as Flannery O'Connell wisdom. Here's the translation: You've lived for years with a violent, sarcastic, and generally evil man, and yet you've never been honest or courageous enough to admit this fact and save yourself or even your defenseless son from me. Why start to live authentically now?

Nicholson's devastating truth reminds me of Andrey Platonov's novel, The Foundation Pit. In The Foundation Pit, communist true believers have long ago surrendered the ability to live honestly or authentically. They are busily constructing an enormous hole which will serve as the base of an enormous workers' housing structure, symbol of the proletarian future. Their lives are empty and boring, filled with parades, propaganda, empty ideology, coercion and violence, and meaningless motion and random activity. Platonov's portrayal of Stalinist Russia seems absurdist, but the cruelty and spiritual emptiness of Platonov's invented world is a close parallel of the real political entity he knew. And somehow the citizens of Platonov's commune, who are so ready to destroy kulaks in order to serve a "future" they cannot know, seem in need of a Flannery O'Connell-style epiphany. Or perhaps the reverse is true? Perhaps they see themselves in the role of Jack Nicholson, using extreme violence to help show the kulaks how empty or useless their lives have been? I remember another Flannery O'Connell line. It goes something like this: "She would have been a good woman...If someone had been there to shoot her every minute of her life." Maybe this is what Stalin, and Platonov's Stalinists were really all about. Maybe they believed that Russians could only be good if someone was there to shoot them every minute of their lives...

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