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.


  1. Great book review! Definitely want to read this now...

  2. I wonder if the long sordid history of intellectuals' fascination with violence doesn't have something to do with the shift from patronage to the marketplace. Ideas exposed to competition in the marketplace tend toward extremes. They have to jostle for attention, which inclines them to radicalism. Which is really the same principle at work on the internet.

    I'm sure there are other factors too--the logic of nationalism (the exclusion of others), gender/sexuality issues.

  3. Terror appears first as a means to liberty, as when 19th-century radicals embarked upon campaigns of bombing and other public, spectacular acts of violence targeting agents of political oppression. But there is an inherent pattern to terror that undercuts its ability to serve liberty – terror is not just an amorphous phenomena of widespread fear and instability and chaos, a shapeless atmosphere of fear which can be adapted to any purpose, perhaps even liberty and freedom. Terror in its interpersonal dynamics works against liberty, if we consider it in its basic sense of one person terrorizing another. In the simplest case it is one person exerting force and violence upon another to inspire fear, it is an agent imposing his or her designs upon the world by inflicting fear upon passive subjects. We tend to think of terror just in terms of the end result, the fact of people being afraid. But there is no terror without a terrorizer. There are variations on the theme, of course. The terrorizer who inspires fear may only be imagined. Or the terrorizer may limit our liberty by calling up images of third-party terrorism and then offering to free us from fear by exercising state control of media, speech, communication, etc.
    Thanks for the renewed posting - in the immortal words of Tim McGraw, "I like, I love it, I want some more of it..."