Friday, September 28, 2012

Westerman's Engineers of the Soul

“Our tanks are worthless if the souls who must steer them are made of glass. This is why I say:  the production of souls is more important than that of tanks.”  J. Stalin.

There is an Andrei Tarkovsky film about a few forlorn humans who make their living by trying to navigate mysterious, unintelligible, alien-crafted zones. In these zones, the normal laws of physics do not apply. Nothing is predictable.  

These zones, utterly bereft of our ordinary understanding of cause and effect, reminded me of something a former colleague once told me about an old employer of mine.  He said:  "Derek, take everything you've learned over the years;  take your three graduate degrees, years of college teaching experience, and decade of administrative experience--take all that you have learned from mentors of the years, and...set all of this aside. These experiences are of no value to you here."  He meant that trying to be good in a truly bad place didn't work, and in fact might make both my life and the place itself worse than it had been.  Ia bad place, even good intentions can be mistaken for cynical ploys and interpreted as aggressive overtures.  

I think sometimes of what Afghanistan must be like, 1960s Vietnam, or Iraq.  Without, I hope, descending into xenophobic, cultural short-sightedness, I think it's safe to say that from time to time a place lapses into prehistoric, moral anarchy.  In such situations, it's impossible, or almost impossible, to tell right from wrong.  Does one side with a criminally corrupt central government, a reprehensible rebel group, a vicious warlord, a distorted religious creed, a foreign colonizer of incalculable power, or one's own backward and bloodthirsty clan?  

In such a moral vacuum, isn't any decision to side with one group against another bound to be a bad one?  And what if the landscape of alliances changes from one year to the next?  What then?  What is right this year might very well prove to be wrong next year. And even if, like Demosthenes, I've managed to encounter  a good man with whom to ally, if that good man in turn is allied to criminals, is my alliance a worthy one or not?  The answer isn't easy to discover, even if one is, against all self-interest, inclined to honesty.

I've worked in such conditions here in America, even though American civilization isn't, as a rule, bereft of morality, or at least moral checks and balances.  We have, after all, an active press, free elections, an independent judiciary, separation of church and state, a written Constitution and Bill of Rights, and a reasonably healthy tradition of civil rights.  So, having worked in places where moral decisions are seldom made, I wonder how much worse things were in places like the U.S.S.R., where no leader was bound by anything other than the fear of Party hierarchy or state authority.  

Reading Frank Westerman's book, Engineers of the Soul:  In the Footsteps of Stalin's Writers, I wonder how sensitive souls navigated even the most pleasant years of the Soviet regime, the period of the so-called Thaw.  Westerman's book reminds us that most Soviet writers were obligated to celebrate Soviet civilization, which more often than not meant praising its most conspicuous hydraulic engineering projects, namely its many canals.  Even Maxim Gorky--who almost always tried to wed his tremendous writing talent to moral causes--wound up writing a paean to a canal, and one that had been built by slave labor.  Paustovsky also wrote about a massive engineering project.  And if Plotonov failed to get much work related to these Stalinist engineering feats, it wasn’t for lack of trying.  Of course, the best Soviet authors found a variety of ways to remain more or less connected to their own understanding of objective (as opposed to Socialist Realist) truth, their own dignity, and the dignity of literature in general.  Some, like Pasternak, avoided poetry and focused on the ideologically safer work of translation, although he famously also took the approach of writing clandestinely.  Some, like Paustovsky, wrote different types of books, some directly pleasing to the apprachniks, others more personal.  But all Soviet writers, with the possible exceptions of Solzhenitsyn a few others, made significant moral and of course aesthetic compromises.  The Ghetto Boys famously rapped that “the world is a ghetto.”  For Soviet authors, the world they knew was “a gulag.”  And it’s a prison or prison camp that most clearly conjures up the perfect collapse of a morally intelligible universe. 

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