Friday, November 9, 2012

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.

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