Thursday, November 22, 2012

Steinberg and Applebees

I left my doctoral program in modern British history many years ago.  My decision to leave this program was a long and painful one.  I had logical reasons to quit, but just as many logical reasons to stay.  On the one hand, I was unhappy, profoundly unhappy, with life in Urbana, Illinois.  I hated living in Central Illinois, and doubted whether I had the capacity to conduct substantive research over a long period of time.  On the other hand, I had a master's degree in history already, and was poised to pass my preliminary exams, get my thesis proposal excepted, and get on with the business of overcoming the last real hurdle to earning my doctorate.  What should I do?

In the end, a friend helped me to make the decision by using a peculiar argument:  once I had passed my preliminary exams and gotten my proposal accepted by my doctoral committee, why shouldn't I move to Chicago to begin the process of research?  After all, if moving to Chicago distracted me from my goal of writing my dissertation, then I wouldn't have ended up finishing my dissertation anyhow, not even if I had stayed in Urbana.  I accepted the argument.  Truly, I was living in an intolerable state of indecision and couldn't handle Urbana any longer.  I needed to clear my mind and get to civilization as quickly as possible.

I sometimes suspect that my dread of Central Illinois stems from my profound and therefore unsettling familiarity with the place.  Although I hated to admit the fact, living in Urbana felt like home on some primordial level.  I had lived in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Montreal, but as a young boy, I was taught to love the heartland by both of my parents, each of who had spent plenty of time among farmers.  As a boy, I remember hearing my mom extoll the virtues of the smell of cow manure whenever we drove through open farmlands.  My dad too loved, and still loves, the farmlands.  When I asked him whether he wouldn't have preferred to live someplace with mountains or at least hills, he said matter of factly:  "Not at all.  I've always felt that this is the way land out to be.  Flat."

The realization that I was home came to me once when a friend and I walked into an Urbana diner and some stranger, guttural greeting unconsciously escaped my lips, something akin to what "howdy" must be like in the South.  My California friend turned to me and said:  "You're one of them.  You belong here."  And so I did. My ability to blend in with my Central Illinois surroundings did nothing to make me want to stay in town.  Even now, well over a decade later, I find myself unsettled by my Indiana surroundings, and unsettled precisely because I feel that I know my neighbors too well.  If I don't prick myself to keep from lapsing into a Midwest stupor, I could be content to spend every Friday night for the next forty years hanging out at the local Applebees.  These are my people.

But let me return to the narrative of leaving my doctoral program.  In a sense, I made the right decision.  Although I may never be able to explain the fact that I don't have a doctorate, I know I needed to leave Urbana in 1999.  Life in graduate school was too enfantalizing, and I was probably right to fear that graduation might well lead me to take a job in Nebraska in order to keep my frail academic career afloat in a difficult job market.  What's strange about my decision to end six years of graduate study with no terminal degree, is that I've never, ever been able to finalize the decision.

The year after I left my doctoral program, I hadn't quite made up my mind that I wasn't about to write my dissertation.  Two years after that, I was still pretending to be on the verge of returning to the dissertation in order to secure jobs from employers who wanted to hear that from prospective adjunct professors.  But even ten years later I bump into employers who want to hear about the dissertation I never wrote.  "What was the dissertation about?  Do you think you can go back to finish it?  Will you go back to finish it?"

These questions pop up over and over again.  In my last interview, I answered truthfully that my dissertation was supposed to be about the connection between British politics and literature in the Interwar period, especially with respect to the way the two discourses understood the way time works.  When the audience expressed an interest in the topic, I quickly explained that if I had had a better grasp of the topic, or could it explain it more clearly, than certainly I would have finished the project.  The audience didn't seem to mind the self-defeating sarcasm:  I got the job.

I got the job, but getting the job by talking about a dissertation that was now ten or more years old, made me think about how traumatized I was by graduate school.  Like my mother, perhaps, my dissertation never dies.  It's everywhere, even in this blog, which is of course some kind of retroactive attempt to right a wrong and write something wonderful that would warrant a doctorate, though the distance between this blog and doctoral level thesis research may be apparent to all of my readers.

In recent months, I'm thinking about this undead dissertation more than ever.  I've actually gone on to University of Illinois' website to explore the possibility of returning to the scene of the crime to complete my doctorate.  The idea sounds good at first, inexpensive and imminently logical.  And then a sick feeling sets in, and I can't think of anything more ludicrous than trying, once more, to make the same bad decision I made so many years ago.  Yet still I ponder the return of the prodigal son, the historian manque redeemed.

I am watching Mark Steinberg's lectures about Russian history this week. I never met Professor Steinberg when I was in Urbana, where he continues to teach.  I think he arrived only shortly before I left, and in any event I wasn't then a student of Russian history.  His lectures are excellent, part of the Teaching Company's scholarly lecture series.  I'm hearing the professor's takes on World War I.  The crisis obviously made some radical solution to Russia's problems extremely likely:  misery has a breaking point, and after that, workers, soldiers, and peasants are likely to listen to brutal proposals such as those of Lenin and Trotsky.

Steinberg's take on the Revolution puts the emphasis on ordinary people, which is where it should be.  Yes, Lenin was a brilliant theoretician and tactician.  But it's ordinary Russians, not Bolshevik captains, who really made radical alternatives to autocracy plausible.  Soldiers hated officers;  workers hated capitalists;  peasants hated landlords.  Steinberg places the emphasis on ordinary people again when it comes to Stalin's triumph in the mid-1920s.  Rank and file communists came to distrust the arrogance of Trotsky while favoring the gentle style of Bukharin and the non-flashy competence of Stalin.  And, with the temporary excesses of NEP, rank and file communists eventually accepted Stalin's radical solutions for the economy, borrowed from the Left Opposition, including rapid industrialization and collectivization.

In the end, Steinberg helps us to notice that ordinary people got what they wanted out of both the Revolution and Stalinism.  Although many suffered and died as a result of Soviet brutality, common people had asked for a government of action, mobility, class solidarity, severity toward the "exploiting classes," and power.  Steinberg is at pains to mention that Party members and others had many important choices to make in the 1920s.  This was, after all, a time of social, cultural, economic, and political experimentation.  On the other hand, Steinberg's narrative reinforces the notion that nothing good could come out of the Bolshevik Party's failure to incorporate any of the tenants of liberalism into its ethos.  Neither Trotsky nor Lenin nor Stalin had any reservations about using coercion, power, dictatorship, militarism, discipline, and indeed the methodologies of the Great War as well as the Civil War, to bring Russian out of its perceived backwardness.

It's hard to say how I will ever be able to wrap up my unresolved grief over leaving graduate school.  I can't help but think about returning to write a dissertation, or applying to some similar program to do the whole experience all over again, only this time with more discipline.  But when I think this way, I soon realize that it was graduate school that killed my life-long love of history.  This blog may be a substitute for real historical research, but it's also a tribute to a real love of history, which is, for me at least, undermined by making history into a career.

I'm getting married in two days.  And I can't help by notice that irony that I'm marrying an academic, and one who slaves away each night on some new grant proposal or academic paper.  It's funny that I am not pursuing this career myself.  I have lived under the shadow of the University of Chicago's campus, and am marrying a professor, but somehow I resist the notion that I am as at home in academia as I am at Applebees.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Russian Poems


"And in a drunken stupor, shameless and uncontrite, I embrace a little birch, like someone else's bride."

"He who has loved cannot love again, consumed by flames, he cannot be relit."

"Yet nothing in my past regret
Neither the years of futile waste,
Nor my soul's high lilac-time."

"I'm as tender as before..."

"In life it's been my lot to suffer
Loss too early and weariness."

"And don't teach me to pray.  What need?
There is no going back to then."

"They lay me in a Russian shirt
To die beneath an icon's face."

"I'd have been a thief and a cheat
If I'd not turned out a poet."

"Ashamed I once believed in God,
I'm bitter I no longer do."

"Here on earth I wished to marry
The white rose and the black toad."

"If devils roosted in my soul
It means that angels live there too."

"I do not regret, complain, or weep,
All passes, like smoke off the white apple trees.
Autumn's gold has me in its withering grip.
I shall never be young again."

My Soul's High-Lilac Time

I'm getting re-married in several days.  My family, and the family of the bride, is coming in from out of town.  The link to Russia isn't so great:  my brother, having just moved to Georgia, is travelling directly from the territory of the former U.S.S.R. to be here with me on this special day.  I've asked him to bring a Georgian poem for the ceremony.

And it was in Russia that my fiancee and I became serious about one another.  And how can one not be serious, when one is travelling on the Neva, staring at Falconet's Bronze Horseman?  If my lovely, wife could compete with Russia of her share of my attention, wasn't that the essence of love?

My in-laws are coming to town too, all the way from Tunisia.  I've never met them before, and we have no common language:  I can only wonder whether this fact will help or hurt our relationship.

Tomorrow, the madness of entertaining guests begins.  I'm happy.  I've never loved someone so much as I love my wife to-be.  She's lovely, intelligent, and supremely wise.

The wedding is basically planned. Today, I am sitting silently, writing wedding vows, rifling through a stack of Russian poetry books, and trying to listen to the silence around me.  That silence is hard to hear.  Most days, the kids, the television, and daily errands make the silence impossible to hear, which is unfortunate, because silence is the matrix of cosmic living and the stuff of poetry. However, it's easy to see why people avoid silence.  Silence can be enlightening, but it can also be terrifying, overpowering, and awful.  When are we truly ready to face life, existence, the gods, or even ourselves?

Mandelstam wrote:

"Nobody knows what silence is.
Silence is words and music.
It's the thing that links all things alive,
the link that lasts forever.

Let me open my mouth and let nothing come out,
Silent as an unborn baby.
Let me be a perfect crystal note
that lasts forever!

Do nothing, love, don't ever change.
Change only words to music.
And let my heart of hearts grow still
as a life I can barely remember!"

Two days ago, I began preparing for the union with my fiancee in earnest by seeking approval for the marriage from my departed mother.  With a conference in Rockford, Illinois, I remembered that my mom's surrogate mother lived there too.  I hadn't seen her in years but called her up and, at the age of 92 (her husband was no less than 96), she opened wide the doors of her house to me.  I felt as if the grave had opened up to me, or that, like Orpheus, I had been allowed to walk down to Hades to bring back my dear, departed mother, if only for a half an hour.

We talked at length about my "great aunt's" daughter, son, and grandchildren, and about her seventieth wedding anniversary celebration, to which she wore her original wedding dress.

We also talked, of course, about my mother.  Her memories are happy ones, but they become tinged with my tragic framework as soon as I hear them.  Grace's "play mother" recalled how she lost her own mother at age three, but that she "did remember her."  What kind of memory a three year old could have is impossible to tell.  Certainly she never told me a thing about her mother, except for a few stray details she had learned from family members.

When Grace was eight, she lived with her father, her younger brother (born only weeks or perhaps a few months before his mother's death from cancer), and family friend and caretaker.  Unfortunately, my mother didn't get along with that caretaker:  my mother's "Aunt" told me that Grace soon asked if Grace could come to live with her.  It's hard to imagine how a father could part with his daughter but it happened, if only briefly.

Following Sergei Yesenin's poem, Letter to My Mother:

"Ah, old lady, are you still alive?  I am, and I give you welcome.  May this unearthly evening light Flood down on the old home."

Grace's "aunt" shared other memories with me, including a family vacation with Grace that involved raine and a bad case of lice, a trip to see Grace's graduation from Radcliff, a conversation about Grace's love affair (with my dad), and, her attendance at Grace's funeral and visitation.  She could still recall, twenty-five years later, what she was doing when she got the bad news:  she was moving.

The memory that struck me most was that Grace's "uncle" had also married her.  It struck me dumb to think that it might still be possible for him to marry me all these years later.  At the age of 96, Grace's "uncle" had already, it seemed, sanctified my marriage the following week.

On the way home to Indiana my nostalgia must have overwhelmed me, because I found my car veering off the interstate highway toward LaGrange, to the site of the home I had lived in as a teenager, no more than two years after my mother's death.  This house was now on sale, for the first time since my father and stepmother had sold it over a decade previously.  Being on sale, I could review the photos online.  The house was smaller than I remembered, and the new owners and uncovered some wood floors, built a deck, knocked out a kitchen wall, and refinished at least part of the basement.  All in all, it wasn't the home I remembered.  I wondered at whether the new owners understood that I still lived there in some way, and always would.

Driving through LaGrange, I think about how my age now, on the even my second marriage, so closely resembles that of my mother on the eve of her death at age 45.  This town, and its sister town--the place of my mother's last words, LaGrange Park, isn't so different from the way it was when she died.  There's a Chipotle now, a Trader Joe's, and a Pier one:  but the main drag, LaGrange Road, isn't a stranger.  The train is still there.  The local "hobby shop" too.  As Alexander Blok once wrote:  "Live five, ten, fifteen years more--Nothing will change. There's no way out.  Die, you only start all over, and it's all the same as before;  Night, ice in the dark gutter, the street, the street light, the store."

Grace's uncle told me he remembered one of the last things she said to him in November 1984, a month before she died.  "I would be okay," she said, "if this pain in my back would just go away."

The wedding is in six days.  I've written the vows.  I have ruminated on the past.  I will prepare for the future.  But it's this silence that unites everything, and diminishes the distance between past, present, and future.  And it's Russian poetry that gets me in touch with this unity.

Some random snippets from an afternoon of reading and contemplation:

Vladimir Maykovsky

"Let Time tear past
like rockets shells
blazing in the ar!"

"Our planet was poorly designed
for happiness
We must snatch delight from days to come."

"I want the silver of years made very clear.
I hope, I believe, I will never attain
the same of common sense."

"Look at the heavens!
A night-time shakedown
and the sky pays off in stars.
The whole wide world is still.
It's times like these you want to talk
to Time, to History, and to the Universe.."

Marina Tsvetaeva

"Seryhozha dear...dear boy...
Let's light the fuse
that will blow up Paradise!"

Friday, November 9, 2012

CliffsNotes on Kennan

It's not easy to remember the details of an audio-book:  you listen intently to every twist and turn of a good novel but soon you're distracted by memories from a day of unparalleled cynicism and next you're thinking about what ingredients you'll need to make truly exceptional fajitas when you finally arrive home.  This is what happened to be me while reading John Lewis Gaddis' epic biography of the foreign service bureaucrat, historian, and diplomatic theorist, George Kennan.  Be that as it may, I'll recount what I do remember in case you, dear reader, are setting out with a stack of Kennan CDs.

Let these bullet points be the CliffsNotes you need to retain something meaningful from your experience.  Here are the salient points to remember:   1)  Kennan was born in Milwaukee, grew up without his mother, spent some family vacations in Germany where he learned the language, never got to know his famous namesake, retained traces of antisemitism, and went to Princeton, before entering the Foreign Service (which helped him to weather the Great Depression originally);  2)  Kennan spent some time in Germany and was interned there briefly when Germany declared war on America;  3) Kennan learned the Russian language well, mastered Russian history and culture, and used this knowledge to make himself invaluable to the State Department;  4)  Kennan criticized amateur diplomats such as Davies and often took risks by sometimes overriding instructions from Washington;  5)  Kennan was a truculent opponent of Bolshevism; 6)  Kennan conducted speaking tours and tried to override America's World War II-bred sympathy for Communist Russia;  7)  Kennan's analyses helped to shape some of the key American policies of the Cold War, including Containment,  the Truman Doctrine, and the Marshall Plan; 8) Kennan criticized some of the very policies with which he became associated, advocating for a nuanced, flexible response to Soviet power; 9)  Kennan was a prolific writer and one of the best academic lecturers of his age;  10) Kennan lived to be 101 and died in 2005.  There it all is, all that I can remember after listening to about twenty CDs.  Sad, really.

Commuting with Catherine

There's no easy way to measure the soul-destroying, planet-enervating effects of a long commute.  Like many Americans, I've spent much of my adult, working life driving to and from my job.  One of the worst elements of a long daily drive is that one has lots and lots of time to think about the negative impact of the drive on one's life, and on the life of one's loved ones.  I've had long commutes in many different cities, including Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, three of the worst offenders on the list of horrible places to drive.  In Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., I listened to Howard Stern, who somehow seemed to help me forget the drudgery on hand.  I can still recall how much I preferred driving to work, when Howard Stern ruled the radio, to driving home, when the terrible monotony of N.P.R. nearly forced me to fall asleep at the wheel.  But while I was in Chicago, Howard Stern made the fateful decision to leave commercial radio in favor of subscription radio, and I've been left to fend for myself ever since.

The worst commuting experience I've ever had involved driving, on average, about two or two and half hours a day, each way, from the South Side of Chicago to one of Chicago's northernmost suburb.  The grueling travel was almost unbearable, and eventually I rented an extra house to avoid the burden of adding five hours a day to earn my daily bread.  Indeed, a snowstorm or presidential motorcade or grisly accident could mean that I was sitting on the road up to six hours in a single day, or more if my work routine involved inter-campus travel during the midday, as it often did.  What does one do with all of that time in the car?  Truth be told, I resorted to almost any device to kill time, including flossing, listening to podcasts, eating fast food meals, jotting down blog ideas, calling friends and coworkers with alarming regularity, and dreaming of a future that involved teleportation or helicopters that took people right to the doorsteps of their offices whenever traffic seemed problematic.

In my previous job, I was on the road so frequently I managed to drive both a car and a marriage right into the ground.  One of the signs of my road-weariness appeared when I realized how quickly I managed to finish exceptionally long audio-books.  Even today, with a more manageable commute,    I sometimes glance down to the floor of the passenger seat and notice a pile of completed or nearly completed audio-books, some nearly thirty CDs long.  Currently, I'm finishing a twenty-volume biography of Catherine the Great.  It's not quite revolutionary history, but one takes Russian audio history where one can find it, and Catherine certainly participated in a general debate about whether Russia was going to become a modern society or not.

On the one hand, the author, Robert Massie, reminds us that the German-born Catherine the Great spoke beautiful French, corresponded with Voltaire, Becaria, and Diderot, put important breaks on the use of torture to elicit information from suspects, and theoretically condemned the idea of serfdom.  Like Peter the Great, Catherine wanted to move her subjects in the direction of Western philosophy and economic modernity.  And of course in her day, many philosophes believes that Enlightened Despotism was not out of alignment with modernization.   If anybody was putting a roadblock on the path to modernity, it was the priesthood and local nobility, and certainly not the autocrat, who represented centralization, rationalization, and perhaps even secularization, more than anything. Not even Catherine's aggressive attempts to expand her empire at the expense of the Ottomans could undermine this sentiment, although her Polish annexations were viewed less charitably.

On the other hand, Catherine the Great's interest in French Enlightenment thinking didn't preclude her from upholding serfdom and relying on the nobility to brutally suppress the Pugachev Rebellion.  In the end, Catherine the Great even discarded the implementation of her Nakaz, or "Instruction," in which she personally outlined many of the legal principles of the Enlightenment.  Although Catherine was genuinely interested in Enlightenment ideals, and never stopped patronizing the arts, she eventually came to the realization--whether right or wrong--that Russian society was simply too backward and unformed to be transformed by rational government in the 18th century.  Russia might well benefit from reason, but only when society had been prepared for it by education.

On a personal level, Massie's portrait of Catherine is generally very sympathetic.  Surviving years of court intrigue, uneven treatment at the hands of the Empress Elizabeth, and neglect and mistreatment by her husband, Peter III, Catherine used her courage, intelligence, tact, good judgement, and fidelity to friends, to exploit the weaknesses of her enemies and overthrow her husband, who, however, died under mysterious circumstances within days of the coup.  Catherine was also extremely generous, and seems to have avoided revenge even when her heart was broken by philandering favorites, as it repeatedly was.