Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Terror in Jim Pinnel's Saturn's Daughters

"For her, revolution was a patchwork of half-understood ideas, seductive in its promise of unqualified freedom, unlimited horizons, and an escape from her dreary home."

"She's eighteen. A rebel by the sound of her.  But rebellion isn't revolution--she'll learn that one way or the other."
"What's the difference?"
"Discipline, Coalminer.  Discipline is the difference."

"Freedom was doubtless a principle of revolution, but in practice there was something unrevolutionary about the unrestricted exercise of personal liberty."

"Who's going to pay our wages when they are dead?  Don't think about that, do they?"
"I asked him that, and he says, come the revolution, they'll take women in the army."

"Strange, that new girl," Olga remarked, grateful for the help.  "Going off like that with the Hangman.  He gives me the creeps."
"Not so strange really," Anna replied.  "She's a normal, healthy young women--she likes violent men.  Killers, I should think, she finds irresistible."
"What's normal and healthy about that?"
"Well, of course, Popov isn't in uniform like most of our killers."

Thanks to Midas Public Relations for sending me a copy of Jim Pinnell's Saturn's Daughters, a work of historical fiction that examines the origins of modern Russian terrorism.  Pinnell's well-researched novel reminds us that Soviet totalitarianism had its roots in the dialectic of terrorism and tsarist authoritarianism.  Pinnell's account of three women who take up arms against a brutal regime is rich in detail.  Reading Pinnell helps one to understand the philosophical assumptions of the radical intelligentsia in the second half of the nineteenth century.  We get a glimpse of the radicals' reading list, which of course included Hegel, Bakunin, and Chernychevsky.  We also get a glimpse of the way in which an undemocratic government spawned a kind of mirror image of itself in an undemocratic underground opposition.  At first, both parties were, relatively speaking, amateur brutes.  The government was indifferent to the needs of its citizens, especially its workers and peasants, and the intelligentsia, in turn, felt little or no need to sympathize with the sovereign and his aristocratic and clerical supporters.  Over time, the game became much more dangerous, with each side adopting ever more sophisticated modes of surveillance and brutality.

Terry Eagleton examines the broader philosophical underpinnings of this double helix of violence in his treatise on the West's fascination with violence, entitled Holy Terror.  Eagleton offers a somewhat deeper explanation of Soviet totalitarianism than we offer encounter.  Sometimes historians seem to argue that Stalin, Trotsky, Lenin and other Soviet leaders developed dangerous habits as a result of their years of conspiracy, and these habits eventually became addictions when when the erstwhile criminals entered into government.  This may be partially true.  Certainly the Old Bolsheviks were hard men with little sympathy for liberalism or what they regarded as the fig leaves of parliamentary democracy and bourgeois civil rights.  Yet that explanation doesn't go far enough.   Eagleton helps us to understand that modern thinkers are attracted to the very essence of terror, an essence they come to crave.  If we acknowledge the unspeakable cruelty and terrifying dimensions of early Soviet brutality, we must also acknowledge that Stalinism was no accident.  Stalin was rather the right man for one of modernity's most important projects:  namely, terror.

Returning to Pinnell, we see three ladies who are enthralled with the whole notion of terror.  One of the three women is new to political violence, and so her awakening is properly compared to a sexual awakening.  In truth, terror isn't ever very far removed from sensuality and sexuality.  If one watches television at all, one understands that almost all modern tele-dramas depend on the intrinsic links between these two cosmic forces.  Pinnell's special contribution to our understanding of the modern cult of violence is to demonstrate that women are often just as attracted to terror as men are.  Pinnell's characters are victims of gender ideology in late nineteenth century Russia, but this doesn't make them immune from the attractions of violence.  One kicks a condemned man in the face, another learns the art of boxing, a third moves to exert power over her disciples.

Terry Eagelton's analysis of terror is far reaching.  He argues that the modern era's interest in terror is linked to its fascination with liberty.  Pairing liberty with terror is even now an uncomfortable proposition.  Why this pairing still seems unnatural is hard to say.  We know that the French Revolution articulated a rationale for unlimited freedom as well as a justification for unlimited violence.

After 1789, Western men and women never gave up on either liberty or terror.  The problem, Eagleton asserts, is that modern notions of liberty are grounded in nothing other than, well, liberty.  In the absence of God, secular philosophy grounds liberty in a philosophical void. Thus liberty is an unruly, immodest, and indeed dangerous proposition.  Indeed, liberty knows no limits.  The paradox of all paradoxes is, of course, that if you look hard enough you realize that a paradox isn't as ironic as it originally appears.  This is the case with liberty and terror.  One may wonder why the Soviet Union, that country which professed to be the freest country the world had ever known, attacked so many of its citizens, depriving them of almost every figment of freedom as we commonly understand the term.  But look again.  If we accept the idea that the Soviet Union was resistant to any constraints on the practice of liberty, we intuitively understand why it simultaneously adopted the practice of terror.  If terror could enforce liberty, who could gainsay it?  The two things weren't so different anyhow.  They were both pure expressions of will, which needed to be unfettered almost by definition.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Kirill Medvedev and the Students of God

Here are just a few snippets from Kirill Medvedev's poetry...

"they should be out catching butterflies"

"hereditary businessman"

"(we all live among losers)"

"children think that in the form they now exist
they will live forever"

"by the way, some, I think, are still having kids out of a sense of doom."

"of everyone who turned out to be a computer genius
of everyone who became an assistant
to editors-in-chief
or a designer
for major fashion magazines"

"of all the historians
the students of god,
those who didn't get into the Financial Academy"

"inside a crowd of human neuroses;
it was
a miasma of anxieties"

"with a group of talented failures"

"Kirill, you should change your method,
it's getting stale."

"hopelessly, feverishly prolific"

"my girlfriend Anissa recently asked me,
'why don't you read any good literature,
why is everything you read such crap?'"

"I've noticed that
many women
are completely unsatisfied with the intelligence of their husbands and lovers."

"we dance around others' misfortunes like mischievous wolves like
some sort of lascivious bats in a frenzy"

"everything happens because of food"

"I thought of how often in my confrontations
with the face
of the society of consumption
sentimentality replaces disgust."

"art is not, in any case, Verlaine and Rimbaud
in a bar in Belgium
most likely, art is a wife who does not share or partake in
your interets, its your young song
an insensitive idiot, cretin"

"sometimes the lack of human interaction can make a person
physically ill
but sometimes human interaction is even worse than that"

"and it wouldn't be the Russian language, which I do whatever
I want with
and which in turn does whatever it wants with me."

"goodness exists if it exists
in some mangled new form,
in awful places,
in cold hellish places,
in wandering, dreaming, unstable

"with the help of their bald fuhrer Lukashenko
is bringing Belarus back to approximately the 6th century
and inventing a language
and that from her eon out the entire nation
is supposed to speak,
the principal goal being to invent words that don't exist"

"the cocksucker mafia that runs America
is gradually conquering the entire world."

"the Chinese who are taking the world block by block"

"we are ourselves turning into a
a great temptation,
like two parted legs"

Budapest Ramblings

A few weeks ago I wrote to say that this blog was officially on hiatus while I waited to hear whether or not I had been readmitted to my old doctoral program in history.  As readers may recall, I have been on "hiatus" from that program for approximately thirteen years.  Needless to say, I was too undisciplined to stay away from Soviet Roulette altogether.  How can I not write something about revolution when I'm visited places like Tunisia and Hungary and France this summer?  Really, I'm addicted to the subject of revolution.  I see it everywhere.  

I'm reminded of one of the great authorities on addiction, Charles Bukowski.  I always liked the way the plots of his novels always revolved around alcohol.  Why does the protagonist get up?  He needs a drink.  Why does he befriend somebody?   He hopes they will have some money for a drink.  Why does he cross the street?  There's a bar there.  In fact, Bukowski's protagonists move through life as if they are being shot from a slingshot from one alcoholic beverage to another.  This is how I feel when it comes to the subject of revolution.  Flying to Tunisia, I'm thinking about the Arab Spring;  boarding a plane for Hungary, I'm wondering about the Hungarian Revolutions of 1956 and 1989;  landing in France, I'm contemplating 1789, 1830, 1848, 1870, and 1968.  

Another genius of addiction, Burroughs, also demonstrated how characters are pushed from one plot point to another by cravings.  In Queer, he sits across the table from his love object, and the force of his addiction for intimacy is so strong that, although physically timid, the protagonist's spectral arms are rising up to grasp and fondle the handsome young man in front of him.  Yes, it's neither reason nor chance, but craven addiction, that really explains how and why we move through our lives as we do. 

At any rate, I haven't heard anything at all from my old doctoral program, not even a peep.  I don't blame the faculty who are charged with deciding my fate.  How often are they asked to consider whether or not to readmit somebody who disappeared from their college for well over a decade?  They don't owe me a thing.  

On the other hand, there is a strange correspondence between my slow and subtle exit from the program and my current limbo.  When I left UIUC, I did so gradually, in stages, and without really informing anybody other than my advisor.  As I've said before, it took a year or so before people in the department decided that I no longer had any need for a departmental mailbox.  While I took up teaching jobs at Columbia College and Roosevelt University, I continued to earn my health care by serving as a teaching assistant, which meant driving back to Urbana once a week to teach four discussion sections of an American history class.  Long, horrid commutes have been my lot ever since.  

At any rate, this confused post is meant to update my readers with this simple statement:  I've not learned anything at all, not even after several months.   It's funny:  as a dean at a community college, I ask my faculty to check in with students if they miss even one or two classes.  My wife says the same:  as a professor of engineering, she's told that she should be concerned if any student fails to turn in an assignment.  The Obama Administration has a similar mantra:  make sure people graduate from college.   If you're an undergraduate, educators need to do everything possible to ensure that you'll graduate.  But a doctoral student is different.  When I was at Urbana, they told me that people took, on average, about eight years to graduate.   If this statistic is correct, and anecdotal evidence from friends suggests that it was, then many others took even longer to graduate.

To be honest, I bare almost all of the responsibility for not finishing my doctorate.  I was a well-educated adult who ought to have known better than leave something half-finished, especially in light of my interest in and, yes, talent for, history.  Even so, it's remarkable to think back at my retreat from graduate school.  After earning good grades, passing my preliminary exams, and successfully defending my dissertation proposal, I slid away from graduate school without so much as a conversation with anybody other than my own advisor.  Perhaps another professor or an advisor would have seen things differently?  I suppose my advisor and others had noticed that I had all the signs of burn-out and didn't want to stand in my way.  

I don't say that I made the wrong decision, or that any attempts to dissuade me from leaving would have been helpful to me.  I needed to go.  I needed to find something I couldn't find in the history department.  I'm not sure I can define that thing even now, but it was related to maturity and sexuality and sanity and, somehow, Heidegger, but don't ask me to explain the tie in.  

I sound as if I'm complaining about a school which didn't bother to say goodbye to me, and doesn't bother to welcome me back.  But I think I'm enjoying the silence this time around.  I think I like savoring this period of uncertainty.  You learn a lot from ambiguity.  I'm able to think about the past and future in new ways and I suspect that a "yes" or a "no" will ultimately be good for me if I'm brave enough this time around to embrace either answer.

But back to Russian history, and revolution in general.  Here in Budapest, I'm reading Kirill Medvedev's It's No Good.  Medvedev--no relation to the Russian political leader-is a poet and literary critic and activist.  Without going into the peculiarities of the book's production process, Medvedev argues that the only cure to Russia's present crisis is more Marxism.  It's an ironic prescription to be sure, but one probably worth looking at this far out from 1991.  What Medvedev is saying is that Russia  missed out on the evolution of Western Marxism as a result of the Soviet experience.  In fact, one of the worst things about the Soviet Union is that it killed the intelligentsia's ability to counteract some of the worst trends of modernity, including neoliberalism, postmodern cynicism, unrestrained capitalism, and neofascism.   

It's strange to see that we learn so much about the past by following the present.  Although Medvedev's critique of Russia's intelligentsia is oversimplified, he has a point.  Didn't the Russian intelligentsia fail to oppose the worst abuses of the Yeltsin and Putin regimes precisely because they were still fighting the Soviet Union?  Weren't they unable to evolve in their opposition to tyranny because Soviet communism had immured the country from all other forms of theoretical opposition to capitalism?  It's a complex question but it's no doubt the right time to attempt to answer it.  

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Les Miserables

This week I embarked on an overseas trip.  The trip takes me from Chicago to Montreal to Tunis to Budapest to Paris and home again.  It's funny how Russia and its revolution can follow me anywhere.  On the plane, I'm reading Zhivago's Children, about the post-Stalinist intelligentsia, but I also know that I'm landing in a place that only recently sparked the Arab Spring.  In fact, I began dating my current wife when the Tunisian Revolution had just gotten underway. I remember helping her with speech ideas after the fall of the government.  My wife talked about talking to her mother by Skype in code to avoid the prying ears of government officials or spies.

Now that I'm in Tunis, I stay off the subject of revolution, but it's obvious that some Tunisians worry about the aftermath of revolution.  Did revolution change anything?  Are things better or worse than before the revolution?  Did revolution unleash conservative forces that will overturn the progress of women in the country?  Will revolution overthrow all forms of secularism in the country?  The debate about revolution isn't always abstract.  My in-laws claim that the revolution has led to certain forms of social disorder, including random garbage dumps along the beach and "squatter" make-shift homes along the directly behind their home.  My wife says that the revolution engendered the religious prayers that now precede local electrical engineering conferences.

Clearly, Tunisia isn't the place to escape revolution.  Being here reminds me that revolution isn't something that happens every century or so.  In fact, people in all, or almost all countries, are thinking about revolution on some level.  Where there's no possibility of slow, democratic transformations, people are forced to dream about revolution.  You either accept the status quo, or you dream of sudden, dramatic change.

After Tunisia, we're off to Hungary, which of course recently overthrew a communist government, and famously failed to do so in 1956, courtesy of Russian tanks.  After Hungary, we'll stop in Paris, home of Europe's foundational revolution, on the way back to North America.  Paris, more than anywhere else, should remind one of the pervasiveness of revolution.  Or perhaps the Paris leg of my trip would have been more of a vacation from revolutionary themes if I hadn't watched Les Miserables on the plane trip to Tunis?