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."


  1. Months late, I come across this interesting post, my friend! -- Perhaps you are familiar with this poem by Kay Ryan (http://readalittlepoetry.wordpress.com/2010/12/24/things-shouldnt-be-so-hard-by-kay-ryan/), but it is all about the desire for some remnant of a lost life to remain.

  2. Thanks for reading the post and thanks for poem recommendation...