Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Victor Serge and the Television Show Hoarders

"Parfenov, you are right to believe in the future. It is the new God, the reincarnation of the oldest divinities, which makes the present bearable."

"So many harsh, terrible tasks must be done."

Like many Americans I am fascinated with the television show, Hoarders. In the show, a psychologist and a team of waste disposal experts confront people with severe psychological disorders. The moment of crisis is often precipitated by a government order related to the condemnation of a property or the threat of removal of minors from unsafe circumstances. Although a great many Americans find it difficult to throw things out, these hoarders are particularly hard cases: their homes are repositories of accumulated trash, junk, rotten food, and hazardous waste. The show is a train wreck of unimaginable filth and physical chaos, but my fascination doesn't really stem from the outlandish nature of the hoarders' obscene living conditions. After all, we all externalize sources of mental stress. Who hasn't found it difficult to part with useless objects that trigger some sort of hidden memory or a general feeling of loss or even mortality? The logic is this: If I throw something out, am I acknowledging my own transitory status on planet Earth?

Although I don't hoard, I do sympathize with hoarders. They don't want to let go. Although hoarders can't stave off death, they can hold on to an enormous amount of physical evidence that attests to the fact that they have lived. I know what it's like to try to hold on to that which is ultimately fleeting. This blog is about Soviet history. But I analyze Soviet history in the light of my own personal history. And, although I apologize for the perpetuation of a tiresome cliche, that personal history is almost all about my mother. When she was sick with cancer, I believe I would have done anything to keep her in this world. Somehow I didn't fully grasp that death and dying were a normal part of life. To this day, I think about how I sometimes behave as absurdly as the hoarder who thinks that by saving enough obsolete objects on the front lawn he or she can somehow trick time or hide from death.

The logic of revolution flies in the face of the logic of hoarding. While men and women often search for order and stability, even when confronted with social and technological change, they seldom throw up their hands and rush headlong into social turbulence and political upheaval. This is what is so extraordinary about the revolutionary moment. It's a unique and almost by definition heroic societal act of bravery. Victor Serge's novel, Conquered City, captures the essence of revolutionary freedom. Serge's novel is critical of revolutionary excesses: in revolution, people starve, lose their property, and get murdered. Yet Serge's description of revolution, or at least the vertiginous moment following the fall of the ancien regime, shows why not even starvation, disorder, and brutal violence, can entirely discredit the work of revolutionaries.

In the end revolution is elemental. When people finally look up from their dreary, routine lives, and throw out everything they have ever known, they are almost above judgement. The revolutionary act is somehow always a noble one. Although nobody--least of all Victor Serge--would doubt that the material conditions of Russia following October 1917 dramatically worsened, neither can they doubt that the people had entered a new and dramatic period of freedom. What happens when people embrace freedom? The old neuroses are rendered obsolete overnight. No doubt they will be replaced by new ones. But for the moment, men and women are capable of envisioning new and different possibilities for themselves. This is why revolutions are largely about dialogue. When the king is murdered, his erstwhile subjects all become kings--if only for a few days or months. And kings--no matter how many of them there are--all have to be heard. Thus the streets are filled with conversations, quarrels, monologues, speeches, debates, and every possible form of discourse imaginable. Things do settle down, disappointments set in--but for a brief window of time people choose freedom over certainty. They throw things out.

The relief of these rare moments in history must be overwhelming, akin, perhaps, to the moment in Hoarders when the previously ill individual sees that the waste disposal team have cleaned her house, leaving clean floors and empty spaces where once there was only clutter and garbage. The garbage will come back. Societies will again seek order, and often at a tremendous human cost. The hoarder, and the hoarding society, remain. But this cleansing moment, or the possibility of future cleansing moments, is one of the best parts of the human condition. We may not be capable of living freely for long periods of time, but we are capable of dreaming of freedom and even of grasping that freedom, if only for a time.

Below are a few quotes taken from Serge's masterful novel. When read together, they seem to show that Serge believed that the promise and terror of revolution are inextricably linked together.

"Plow up the old earth, tear down the old structure. Recreate life anew. And in all likelihood perish yourself."

"You can't see the Revolution is a flame, and the flame will burn us..."

"...with revolting words on her lips and criminal theories under her high forehead."

"You love things too much and men too little." "You love men too much, men and things, and Man too little."

"I'm serving my country. A government, even one composed of madmen and bandits, nonetheless represents the country; and the people who live under it only get what they deserve."

"How sad life is without flying carpets!"

"what an enthusiast! Lytaev smiled in the darkness at the myths that drive men throughout history."

"No commodity is more common and more depreciated than man. Is even worth the weight of his flesh?"

"Man. The thinking reed! They taught him to stop thinking years ago. Today they dry him out, soften him up, and weave baskets out of him for every use, my friend, including the least appetizing. Pascal didn't think of that."

"Well, I'll be glad to lose my soul. Who cares? It would be a strange luxury to worry about it today."

"Simple truths, sure, hard as granite, formulated with algebraic clarity; that is what we need."

"Revolution is a job that must be done without weakness. We are but the instruments of a necessity which carries us along , drags us forward, lifts us up, and which will doubtless pass over our dead bodies."

The Miserable Golovlyovs

In my last post, I briefly speculated about the nature of a Russian novel. The Russian novel is, quite clearly, the best variety of novel. There will never be anything as good as War and Peace or Crime and Punishment in any other language. In fact, one can confidently begin any classic Russian novel secure in the knowledge that one is unlikely to meet up with dull, naive, or optimistic romanticism.

Take Mikhail Saltykov's (aka Schedrin) The Golovlyov Family. As previously stated, most Russian novels are rooted in guilt. This is true of the Saltykov's masterpiece, which seems to be composed of equal parts of satire and tragedy. For the Golovlyov family saga takes place in the context of serfdom. The family's wealth is grounded in serf labor. In some slave societies, the existence of unfree labor is rationalized by the presence of an allegedly productive or useful aristocratic class. We see the mythology in refracted form even today. If America has radical inequality, we should at least acknowledge that billionaires are our best citizens. The nation's greatness is contingent on the energy, innovation, and entrepreneurialism of its leading businessmen.

Using a similar argument, in nineteenth century, the Russian landowning class was often seen as its saviors: if the laboring masses were ignorant and uneducated, its aristocrats were moral, aesthetic, and political leaders. But the Golovlyov's were anything but saviors. They were not involved in the economic life of the countryside, except insofar as family's matron, Arina Petrovna, consolidated property and then skimmed as much wealth from her properties as possible, and had almost no moral or cultural ambitions.

Although wealthy, the Golovlyovs' lives were as brutal and narrow as that of the oppressed workers they so completely ignored. Before or after the legal emancipation of the serfs, the Golovlyovs lived privileged lives of absolutely no utility to anybody but themselves. In fact, Saltykov's vision of rural, landowning life is an example of reductio ad absurdum. For the Golovlyov's take as little interest in one another as they do in their servants or field workers. Their lack of concern with one another is by turns comical and tragic.

And Arina's son and successor, Porphyry, is the embodiment of a shallow, purposeless, miserly, and soulless existence. He's religious, but only in a hypocritical way. For Porphyry, God created the world in all its patent unfairness, so it's practically blasphemous to question his own good fortune. If God had wanted others to be happy, He would have arranged life differently. Porphyry's pathetic, amoral life is made worse by the fact that he constantly lectures those around him. With nothing to say, his endless prattle is pure torture to his unhappy family. One son commits suicide; another winds up in a Siberian prison; two nieces lives a life of alcoholism, lewd acting, and quasi-prostitution; his brother and mother die hating him.

Ironically, the one thing Porphyry never feels is guilt. It's the absence of guilt that comes as the biggest shock to the reader. In this tale of "unmitigated tragedy," the author has created a set of characters who should by all rights feel nothing but guilt for squandering riches and privileges in the service of absolutely nothing, and yet none of them--and least of all the "bloodsucker" Porphyry--feel anything of the sort. This--the absence of guilt in a situation crying out for atonement--is then Salykov's greatest indictment of Russian life.

Guilt and the Russian Novel

One of the minor tragedies of recent years is the collapse of the Borders bookstore franchise. Where can one sit and work now? Obviously, Borders' business model of selling people a cup of coffee in return for a quiet place to read and write didn't work out. People stayed too long, and destroyed too many magazines without buying them, for anybody to turn a profit. The fact that Borders sold untold amount of random, plastic crap (toys, cheap sunglasses, rulers, etc.) apparently didn't remove the fundamental flaw in Border's business model. Yet there are always opportunities in the midst of tragedy. And so I scavenged among the shelves of more than one store looking for Russian-themed memoirs and novels offered at a seventy-percent discount.

Now, when I read one of these bargains, I feel a sense of guilt. How could I kick Borders when it was down after all of those days I've spent there without buying much of anything? Nothing new there. I feel guilt about everything, primordial guilt. I feel guilt for things I've done, for things I haven't done, for things I've thought about doing, and for things I believe I may do one day. My guilt level seems inordinately high, but I always feel that someday I will do something really terrible and all of the guilt I've felt over these past decades will make sense, all at once, at a snap.

At any rate, one has to hope one will do something terrible or otherwise all of this guilt will seem senseless. I know there are those who believe in previous lives. I'm reminded of the Rodgers and Hammerstein song from the Sound of Music: "Somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good." Perhaps seemingly unwarranted guilt flows from something bad one has done in a previous life. Where did all my guilt come from? Have I suppressed a memory of a salacious criminal life? (I'm watching the First 48 as I write this, so the criminal life is on my mind. And it's interesting, even hardened murderers on the show often display enormous, enfantilizing amounts of guilt notwithstanding their bloody actions--it's as if a guilty ten year old resides inside us all, no matter how brutal and inhuman and experienced the murderer.)

But in my own life, the most guilty action I remember is not helping my mother as she got sick from cancer. Of course, I don't feel objectively guilty about not helping my mother. What can anybody do--but especially a very young teen--in the face of cancer? But they say that kids often feel guilty for emotional events they can't understand or control. Like a newborn baby who doesn't know where his own body begins and ends, a kid may well believe he is responsible for the suffering of others.

I have a couple of isolated memories of guilt related to my mother's illness, though who can tell if I've invented the memory to create a rational explanation for my present day guilt? I remember playing with a friend on a summer afternoon, having fun, staying so late that the sun began to set. And I remember thinking: I should be at home, where my mother is. What if she needs me? What if she's lonely without me? That's all I remember, but it seems logical to assume that I might have also wondered, more generically, and over the four or five long years of my mother's illness, why it was fair for me to be enjoying free time with my friends while my mother was in the slow (but not agonizing) process of dying?

And I did know she was dying. And actually, I'm amazed to remember how guilt is linked even to my first memory of cancer. When my mother came to tell me she had cancer, she told me that the doctors said she would likely have five more years to live. She meant this to be a sanguinary message, but it devastated me. Reacting to my shocked expression, my mother asked me if I wanted to go with her to see the doctor that day for an early treatment. I felt that she wanted me to comfort her, but I said no (probably feeling this trip to the doctor's would make the cancer seem closer, realer) and went to school. At school I felt terrible--guilty--as I still do today when I remember my decision. I suppose cancer and guilt are natural acquaintances.

I also remember being on a trip to Europe, my mother's last treat to herself before she was no longer able to travel or experience life. On the trip, my brothers and I did what we always did, and fought with one another in the backseat of the car. My mother asked my dad to pull over and we did. She sat on a tree branch and cried, telling us that we were ruining her special trip to Europe. I felt terrible, as I still do today, knowing that this really was her last hurrah.

How does all this guilt relate to Russian history? I cannot say. I digressed. I began this blog post intending to comment on the brilliantly titled memoir, My Life as a Russian Novel, by the Frenchman, Emmannuelle Carrerre, which I guiltily discovered at Borders fire sale. The book is Carrerre's attempt to analyze his own crippled love life in the context of a Russian expedition and a Georgian-Russian ethnic and cultural heritage. The book is well-written and honest, but amazingly egotistical and therefore uninteresting: after all, how rare are egotists in one's everyday life?

Disliking the book, I remain impressed with its title. Clearly, Carrerre's life isn't a Russian novel. The life is not intellectual, philosophical, political, or, most importantly, guilt-ridden. It's dark--it opens with the author tracking a Hungarian soldier who stopped speaking and lived anonymously in a Russian mental ward for five decades, and it ends with a double murder and suicide (of the author's documentary film subject and her young son, and the author's cousin, respectively), but it's not really about guilt.

The true Life as Russian Novel is all about guilt. Members of the Russian intelligentsia were obsessed with guilt. They understood that their privileged lives, and the very structure of their state and society, was founded on inequality, oppression, serfdom, the legacy of unfree labor, or indeed on what Marx and his followers would come to call "wage slavery." They dreamed of expiation and redemption, both political and personal. Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, the ultimate Russian novel, is all about a Russian intellectual's attempt to overcome the very condition of guilt by killing an old woman and learning to live without guilt in the wake of this brutal crime. The novel's Christian ending of forgiveness and absolution is nothing like Carrere's decidedly unphilosophical look at love, insecurity, and jealousy. But so too are almost all other Russian novels. One wonders how damaging guilt can be. Would Lenin have been possible if the nation hadn't read so many guilt-infused novels?