Friday, October 26, 2012


"In France, it is not only the ancien regime that produced the revolution, but in some respect the revolution produced the ancien regime, giving it a shape, a sense of closure and a gilded aura."

" about the repetition of the unrepeatable, materialization of the immaterial."

"The word nostalgia comes from two Greek words, yet it did not originate in ancient Greece.  Nostalgia is only pseudo-Greek, or nostalgically Greek."

"In nineteenth-century America it was believed that the main reasons for homesickness were idleness and a slow and inefficient use of time conducive to daydreaming, erotomania and onanism."

"A contemporary Russian saying claims that the past has become much more unpredictable than the future."

"Nostalgia is to memory what kitsch is to art."  Charles Maier (Cited by Svetlana Boym.)

"We long to prolong our time, to make it free, to daydream, against all odds resisting external pressures and flickering computer screens." 

"Conspiracy theories, like nostalgic explosions in general, flourish after revolutions."

"Dinosaurs are the ideal animals for the nostalgia industry because nobody remembers them."

"Displacement is cured by a return home, preferably a collective one.  Never mind if it's not your home;  by the time you reach it you will have already forgotten the difference."

"A modern nostalgic can be homesick and sick of home, at once."

"One remembers best what is colored by emotion."

Svetlana Boym's book, The Future of Nostalgia, is, ironically, a history of nostalgia.  It's a brilliant but haphazard tour de horizon of the literature of nostalgia (which she firmly tethers to the literature modernity) and, as such, The Future of Nostalgia wrestles with a variety of theorists of modernity, including Karl Marx, Walter Benjamin, Marcel Proust, Henri Bergson, Sigmund Freud, Pierre Nora, Marshall Berman, Eric Hobsbawm, and Charles Baudelaire. The book's main thesis is that nostalgia--the natural byproduct of capitalism, technological change, clock-time, and modernity in general--is a politically promiscuous and socially disruptive phenomenon which bears some scrutiny by anyone trying to understand the tragedies of the twentieth century.  Although we commonly understand nostalgia to be a solitary and victimless activity, more a matter of innocence and self-indulgence than political division and social unrest, Boym maintains that men and women use nostalgia to exclude social groups from their vision of the future.  Of course, Boym doesn't have any easy fixes for nostalgia.  Nostalgia is the process by which we misremember the past, and yet nostalgia seems to be part and parcel of the experience of living in the modern world.  

In a second irony, reading Boym's book about nostalgia makes me nostalgic for that time in graduate school many years ago when I studied nostalgia myself.  Although I never really had a command of the subject, I became fascinated with the idea of analyzing my own fascination with the past.  Indeed, I took a graduate seminar in nostalgia, and quickly decided that my doctoral dissertation (which was never really begun in earnest) should diagnose this general topic.  I even remember reading Svetlana Boym's earlier book, Common Places, which dissected the concept of banality in 1930s Russia.  Thus reading this second Boym book, The Future of Nostalgia, takes me back in time, the academic equivalent to the "Proustian madeleine pastry" which once upon a time unleashed thousands of pages of recollections.  But what time does it take me to?  Boym would suggest that we can't really return to our real pasts, that nostalgia is more about escaping the present to fantasize about a misremembered personal idyll than it is about recovering what actually happened.  

I've also been obsessed with the past.  This blog, for instance, takes dozens of detours away from Soviet history toward my own memories of childhood and early adulthood.  Sometimes I rationalize this fact by telling myself that I would like my son to grow up to read this blog in order to know me more fully.  The blog dwells on my mother, or rather on my nostalgic memory of my mother, but it may be more about my son, and for my son, than anything else, a love letter to him in fact.  Looking through what my mother left me, I once encountered a college notebook filled with her theology lecture scribbles.  I wondered then how it is that somebody could have lived 45 years, and held such an importance place in my heart and mind, yet leave so little by way of a direct testimony?  I had to do better.  I had to write more, leave my son more.  If I could, I would have saved every scrap of paper my mother ever wrote.  Or so I think.  How odd, even horrible, would it be to be privy to a dead family's member's exhaustive email records today?

I shouldn't have been surprised by the limited records my mother left behind.  Many people have lived and died without leaving behind any writing at all.  And yet nostalgia, as Boym reminds us, is a form of obsession, so it's not so strange to long for any and all manifestations of a lost mother.  When nostalgia was first diagnosed in the 18th century, people thought of this form of remembering as a medical disease:  the patient wanted to return home (space, rather than time, was the nostalgic's first Eden) and became increasingly incapacitated by this inordinate desire.  Rather than serve productively in the military, for instance, a nostalgic dreamed, fantasized, and lamented away his time, remembering even the most mundane details of his homeland, including songs, smells, and textures.  

Loss in general is interesting to me.  I lose my keys on a perpetual basis.  Is there any significance to this form of loss?  A psychoanalyst might say that this form of forgetting is linked to some broader sense of loss.  What have I really lost?  What does my id gain from this perpetual quest for something that's missing?  I once theorized that my lost keys might be discovered in the least amount of time if I would adhere to a rigidly logical, strictly empirical, map of discovery.  That is to say that instead of allowing my subconscious mind to thwart all attempts at recovery, I should play the statistical odds.  Where once I would allow myself to skip over those areas of the house I had already ransacked in my feverish search for my lost keys, now I would calmly set aside all preconceptions and search (again) the most obvious places, such as my pockets and my bag.  When applied to an equivalent search for misplaced glasses, my statistical model of article recovery would force me to begin at the beginning, with my face.  

My brother suffers from the same affliction of forgetting all the time.  He loses keys and similar objects on a regular basis.  Observing the phenomenon of a desperate search for something that was almost impossible to lose (such as glasses) is disorienting.  How is it possible to lose the same thing so often?  Surely my brother is complicit in this process of systematically forgetting.  Once, while camping, my brother announced that he had lost his wallet somewhere.  The whole family spread out over the campsite to find the errant object but found nothing.  Giving up, I eventually encountered the wallet in the middle of the forrest, next to nothing at all.  Finding the wallet in such a random place is perhaps evidence that partially invalidates the statistical model for the discovery of lost artifacts.  For when I walked into the wallet I was walking without purpose through the forrest, not even following any discernible path.  When I saw the wallet, it seemed as if somebody must have deliberately placed in there, as a sort of religious sign or warning about the inescapable chaos of the world.  

I suppose there are three different ways to lose an object.  One either loses an object entirely by accident or happenstance (e.g., they are left out on the kitchen table but a squirrel breaks into the house and spirits them away to his nest);  one innocently forgets where one put them (e.g., I  always put my keys on the kitchen table but I forgot that I loaned my keys to my wife earlier in the day);  or one actively forgets (e.g., I would put my keys on the kitchen table if my subconscious wanted my to find them, but instead I put them under a pillow so that my subconscious can enjoy--in some way--the difficult search for them that will inevitably pursue).  

I think whole societies forget things using this last category of forgetting, the active one. These days, Russians actively forget what happened under Stalinism and what happened under Communism in general.  They seek to return to that place which never existed, a stable, prosperous, happy and unified Soviet past.  It takes some effort to conjure up this place in the mind's eye but Russians seem to be willing to put in the work to misremember their own history.  I suppose we all do that sort of thing on a personal level, although my own nostalgia is perverse, and I only seem to obsess over a tragic past. (Boym point out, by the way, argues people only have the luxury of obsessing over pain when they aren't in suffering very badly). When I remember the past, it hardly seems idyllic.  But perhaps I'm doing the opposite of what modern Russians are doing.  While Russians ignore the gulags, purges, and displacements, I ignore the love and fun I experienced as a child.  

The other day my son announced that he had a Dia De Los Muertos project.  He had to bring a photograph or object to school that recalled a diseased family member.  I found a penant that belonged to my grandmother and tried to explain something about her to my child.  I remembered her as a nice woman who let us play with cowboy and indian toys in the basement, watched us sometimes, gave us Coke to drink (a privilege at the time), and taught special education.  Although I had known the woman for many years, and she was always good to me, I couldn't seem to remember any of the details of her life or personality.  I stammered out that she had once visited Guatamala with her sister, but this hardly seemed to define her as a person.  How strange it is to forget so much.  But when one forgets so much, how easy it is to invent a recollection?  As Boym reminds us, "Only false memories can be totally recalled" anyway.

The other object I found for my son was a tiny penant with a picture of my original family on it, my father, mother, and two biological siblings.  How strange to be so removed from this family.  Who were they?  When did they live?  What were they like?  As Boym books tells us, there's a vast chasm between history and nostalgia.  I can easily recover the facts of my family history.  I can determine when my parents married, when my brothers were born, and when my mother died, but I can't do anything to view these people as anything other than strangers in a strange time, the past.  And yet the distance between me the boy in the picture doesn't prevent me from dwelling constantly on him.  Ah well, as Boym tells us, "As for the labor of grief, it could take a lifetime to complete."

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Great (Bed, Bath and) Beyond

I often wonder whether I should not attempt to write my way out of my present predicament.  I think that if I could stop thinking for a moment, and only write page after page of nonsensical prose something more meaningful might emerge from all of the dross.  I have a blog that nobody—except for you, gentle reader—notices.  And who can wonder why my blog doesn’t reach more readers?  I confess here that the purpose of my blog was never well formulated.  After several years of work on Soviet Roulette, I can scarcely explain its premise to friends or new acquaintances.  Why does Soviet Roulette exist?  For whom is it written?  What pretense of authority does it possess?  

I can answer none of these questions with any degree of certainty.  When a friend recently asked me what Soviet Roulette was about, I answered that it was an investigation of everything that connected my own life experience to the Bolshevik Revolution and the history of the Soviet Union.  His response—“but your life is not related to either of those topics in any way”—was not without merit. In many ways, my own life, filled with long stretches of stagnation and occasional trips to supermarket, is the antithesis of Soviet history, with its drama, upheaval, and bloodshed. In fact, I had no response to that criticism, that my life bears no resemblance to Russian reality, and I often notice that the two halves of my blog posts (the first half dealing with some memory of mine, and the second half analyzing some Russian history book I’ve recently read) are obviously, even crudely disjointed.  When I re-read a post, I cannot help but be jolted by the rough transition between personal reflection and public history; indeed, it’s as if the seems of each essay were sown together by a blind person.  

One or two readers (and there aren’t many more than that) have suggested that I try to solve the problem by dropping one part or the other of the blog’s general act.  While the blog might never be a huge success, if only I’d stop mentioning Russian history I might manage to say something interesting every now and again.  The comment reminds me of something Shock Jock Howard Stern used to say all the time to guests.  After listening to somebody for a period of time, he’d finally hear something that interested him, exclaiming with inexhaustible supply of condescension, “NOW you’ve said something,” as if nothing that had been said up until that point had been worth saying at all.  

The point of course is that this attempt to fit one’s personal narrative into a grander narrative about human beings in general is worth doing, even if one fails in the end to make the case.  At any rate, it’s how my mind functions.  I go to Bed, Bath, and Beyond to buy a waste basket, storage bins, and shelf dividers, but I think simultaneously about what I’ve read recently, what I may have read long ago, or what I’m currently reading, which in this case is Paul Froese’s The Plot to Kill God, about Russia’s great secularization campaigns of the previous century.  While I’m in Bed, Bath, and Beyond, I fall in love with the kitchen utensils, colorful shower curtains, clever closet organizers, and ingenious tie holders.  

(Sidebar…The genius of Bed, Bath, and Beyond’s tie holders reminds me my fiancee’s criticism of American ingenuity:  she says after decades of educational softness and mathematical decline, modern Americans now believe that adding a cup holder to a sectional sofa is received as a major invention. The episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which revolves around the idea of adding a periscope to cars in order to navigate around stalled traffic, and also includes Larry David’s idea for skies that travel more easily by screwing apart in the middle, mirrors my engineer-girlfriend’s point.  But I, unabashed, reply that I have my own plans for adding to the storehouse of global intelligence by unleashing virtual shopping experiences that combine Facebook-like social interactions with video game-like graphics.)  

But to return to Bed, Bath, and Beyond, when I shop I’m looking for the latest and greatest in home storage systems (my exasperated ex-wife once asked the condo association board members to forgive me for my rabid insistence that we purchase a dedicated file cabinet—“you’ll have to excuse my husband,” she said, “he believes that all of life’s problems can be solved by putting papers in filing cabinets”).  But while I look for paper sorters, spice racks, and key holders, I’m also thinking about the Soviets.  Why did they get so tired of religion?  Why did they exhaust so much energy attacking that institution when they assumed it would eventually die away under the pressure of education, science, and technology?  And why did religion survive the onslaught?  I assume the answer has something to do with Bed, Bath, and Beyond.  

When you live in the suburbs, you have certain advantages when it comes to analyzing spiritual crises.  You can spend your way out of a day or two of serious thinking, but sooner or later you’re obliged to look for some form of social and metaphysical meaning that’s greater, more urgent than unaltered consumerism.  As Paul Froese points out, even the Soviets soon realized that religion wasn’t just going to disappear under the weight of state-sponsored persecution.  Eventually they recognized why Emile Durkheim and other social theorists have argued, that ritualistic activity is an essential component of what it means to be human.  That is to say, God may not be necessary in the suburbs, but His church certainly is.  

People everywhere and in all historical circumstances seek to participate in something greater than their immediate surroundings.  They want to be reminded that they are part of something much grander and more intense than spending time with soccer coaches, real estate agents, contractors, mail carriers, and Bed, Bath, and Beyond store clerks.  They want ritual to make them feel that their lives have real significance.  So that’s why the Soviets didn’t merely undermine the Russian Orthodox Church and traditional Islamic courts.  Rather, they created what many have seen as a new, Marxist-Leninist religion.  

In what ways was this creed religious?  Paul Froese reminds us of the many parallels that can be drawn between the Soviet Union’s official creed of so-called “scientific atheism” and religious thinking.  The obvious place to begin is the Soviet Union’s sacred texts, written by Marx, Engels, Lenin, and eventually Stalin.  These texts, like religious texts, could be interpreted but never critiqued.  Beyond, the texts, Lenin, Stalin, and other state-sanctioned leaders were treated like religious prophets.  With more deliberateness than often credited, the portraits were nearly ubiquitous, but found with special frequency in the corner of peasant homes that had traditionally been reserved for Orthodox saints.  Marxist-Leninism displaced Christianity as a religion in many other respects.  The Communist leadership created a new calendar of semi-sacred worker holidays, new rituals of initiation and status, new atheist songs and catechisms, and new atheist organizations.  

The Communist effort to create a new form of collective worship met with mixed success.  Traditional Soviet religiosity, measured by church attendance, certainly declined precipitously.  And Froese is quick to remind us that all fifteen of the Soviet successor states have, up until now at any rate, avoided any overt conflation of church and state.  On the other hand, the Soviets did not quash the religious instinct in their citizens.  While Russians and other Soviet peoples largely (but not entirely) stopped attending churches, synagogues, and mosques, until the 1980s, they did participate in many forms of ritualistic if Communistic worship.  And when Communism collapsed, they quickly turned back to the old forms of religious practice, with new Protestant and Islamic sects outpacing even these impressive gains.  In the end, the Soviet experiment with secularization proved what suburbanites instinctively know:  sometimes one needs Church to make life in the suburbs (or life on the Steppe) bearable.  `

Godless Communists

When you're not religious, it's sometimes very hard to understand all the fuss people make over God.  Although I'm sure religious people have the same problem understanding my atheism, I cannot help but think of Christianity and other forms of monotheism as childish fantasies or absurd tall tales.  I know that's not very broad-minded or tolerant of me, and I know plenty of extraordinarily intelligent men and women have readily accepted the reality of God's presence in the world.  These wise men and women believe in the God, and embrace the biblical explanations of his myriad interventions on planet Earth.  While I reject the idea of God, I acknowledge that God must have a strong if personally unfathomable appeal to good and intelligent people.

My initial disbelief in the Godhead may have been influenced by some form of immature, teen rebellion against the suburban social norms.  But almost three decades later, the disbelief remains, undiluted.  My certainty that God does not exist is seemingly as unshakable as any Christian's faith that He does in fact occupy a celestial throne.  If anything, I'm more devout than a Christian:  after all, a Christian risks nothing by believing in the promise of an everlasting life in heaven, while an atheist risks everything by disbelieving in that same premise.  Although I'm a fervent freethinker, I remain perplexed by faith.  It troubles me.  How is that so many people--the vast majority of my countrymen--are so convinced that a deity exists and directly intervenes in our lives?  I see no evidence of the deity, let alone his or her interest in my neighbors' daily lives, and yet almost everybody else in this nation believes the opposite.  

For my religious leaders, allow me to explain my perplexity by way of a parallel myth.  Imagine you wake up one morning and everybody you know is telling you that the Easter Bunny really exists, and not only exists, but has a special plan for their entire lives that makes all other of life's considerations pale in comparison.  Over time, you might start to go crazy:  as much as you may want to bear witness to this miracle, you don't see that Wonderful Rabbit, and all logic, feeling, and experience preclude the possibility of his existence.  It's not that you don't want the Magical Animal to be real, it's just that He never seems to be around when you're awake.  

The metaphor would need to be dramatically extended to help religious folks understand the true scope of the problem this Rabbit poses for you in your everyday life.  In fact, the Easter Bunny would eventually need to start acting malevolently to give you the full picture.  Just as most religious texts are filled with immorality disguised as God's instructions to humankind, so too would the Easter Bunny need to receive praise from your friends and family while committing acts of prejudice, bigotry, and even violence, to give you the full sense of confusion religious inspiration can cause the unwitting atheist.

This then helps to explain why I have some sympathy with the Bolshevik Revolutions attempt to do away with religion altogether.  To Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and the rest of the gang, the religious impulse simply made no sense.  Worse than that, religion helped to fortify class exploitation and undergird political absolutism in Russia.  Worse than the Easter Bunny, whose principal activity of was helping children overcome a potential fear of the dentists, Christ was wondering around Russia confusing people about the real source of their poverty, illiteracy, and general backwardness and subservience.  Ally of corrupt tsar, the atavistic aristocracy, and greedy bourgeoisie, the Russian Christ worked assiduously against the interests of ordinary workers and peasants.  Paul Froese's book, The Plot to Kill God, explains the Bolshevik theory of religion, which shares some of the same assumptions of modern atheists, but takes them to their natural, or unnatural, extremes.

It's impossible to overstate the viciousness of the Bolshevik beef with religion.  In the end, the Soviet response to the problem of religion was worse than the sickness, even by an atheist's standards.  It depended on brutal force, assiduous propaganda, and totalitarian surveillance and terror.  It cruelly assumed that people could no longer even be given the option to believe in Easter Bunnies.