Friday, October 25, 2013

Viktor Shklovsky and the Sound of the Cicadas

One of my favorite Soviet writers is Viktor Shklovsky, dean of soviet literary theorists.  I've reviewed many of his books on this blog, or at least celebrated them.  Shklovsky's most important contributions to literary theory may well be over my head.  Even so, you never read one of his book without appreciating dozens if not hundreds of bon mots.  Rarely is Shklovsky anything other than poetic. Bowstring is filled with witticisms and poetic throwaway lines.  If he had been a television writer, he would have had no trouble writing the final line of every single episode of television's most prolific series, Law and Order, as well as its numerous and long-running spin-offs.  Here are a few scattered lines from Bowstring that seemed to call for careful consideration.

"When one is old, one likes to reread.  Old age will come to an end."

"A grateful crawfish or a frightened devil won't bring back the golden rings, tossed into the water by the imprudence of youth."

"Nightingales sang below my window, or maybe they weren't nightingales at all.  They don't care that they have been in exhausted in poetry;  they don't know that they've been refuted."

"I was born in 1893, before the Revolution of 1905, but was awoken by the first revolution and anticipation of the new...In our poems, we tried to guess the date of its arrival."

"The Drosophila flies are not sent into space for a vacation.  They enable the study of how the cosmos affects living organisms."

"There are names of people in my old phone book that I can't call anymore."

"[Boris Mikhailovich Eichenbaum] was poor, but he wasn't burdened by poverty."

"He was passionate about music and kept his violin, despite passionately hating it."

"He was a man of politely extreme convictions."

"The empire was coming to an end."

"He was headed toward a bright future.  I ruined his life by engaging him in an argument."

"[Osip Brik]  Not quite a soldier, not quite a futurist."

"..a moldering displeasure was quietly brewing inside.."

"I witnessed everything from the very beginning, I began to understand things much later."

"Uplifted by the wave of the revolution, without really comprehending it, we were immersed in it, and we were in love with it as a young people can be in love."

"During those years he passed his library through fire.."

"The dejected, grotesque Russia of Nicholas I stretches outside its windows.  The wind of the empire bursts into the novella's structure."

"It is possible to live without the life-sensation of one's existence."

"We were in love, we experienced death, we saw our children die, and we saw our own history unfold."

"The sound of the cicadas is not art (yet), but it has potential."

"Barefooted, Socrates rested under the plane tree, listening to the cicadas, turning its pages anew."

"Going over Tolstoy's diaries, you get a sense of looking at the blueprints of an experimental shop in a huge factory."

"The whole world was moving.  The Soviet Union was pulling the world and it was changing slowly--from our perspective, and quickly--from the historical point of view."

"Our generation of people who were sent in the wrong direction by a casual passerby because they were lost.."

"Death replaces the rows of people; it is preparing a new edition, restoring life."

"Eugene Onegin is a river, the shores of which have been described, but which hasn't been fully explored yet."

"The young Tolstoy noted that there wouldn't be enough ink or paper in the world had he recorded everything a person goes through in a single day."

"But then Socrates says how beauty can be found in the way that shoes are lined up or coats are sorted."

"We still use religious terms to say something antireligious."

Hope Abandoned

It’s been about fifteen years since I took my last graduate course in the University of Illinois’ History Department.  I’m dwelling on my graduate student experience today.  It didn’t turn me into a successful historian, but it did help me to become a more serious reader of European history, someone capable of maintaining a passionately informed “tribute band” blog about Soviet Studies.  

I hated being in Urbana.  I hated the smallness of the place, hated its deep familiarity.  But how can I forget what Urbana taught me? Three and a half years in the place worked miracles on my knowledge of the past and forever altered my relationship to the world in general.  Years after my last course in Urbana, I walked into Gregory Hall and realized with awe how fortunate I had been to have received an education, however unfinished it remains, from so many first-rate historians.  As it turns out, I won’t be going back there.  But I don’t think I regret my time there, as depressing, isolating, and difficult as full-fledged scholarly work turned out to be. 

Let me illustrate my point by talking about zombies.  Last night I watched another episode of the television show, The Walking Dead.  Seeing that show, and loving that show, I somehow realized that my enjoyment of the script, and of countless other popular as well as literary or historical artifacts, is fully predicated on the serious effort I made to learn more about the world in graduate school.  As I thought about the show, I realized that its claim to greatness rests not only upon its stunning cinematography and Shakespearean plots, but also upon its relationship to history, literature, and culture.  It’s the creator’s awareness of context that makes the show truly great. 

Zombies are always fascinating.  In one sense, we like them because they are, all things considered, among the safest horrors of human invention.  The living dead are gruesome, but they move slowly and awkwardly, and apply absolutely no mental aptitude to the project of human extermination.  In The Walking Dead, we experience a strange sense of joy even in the midst of the apocalypse when we realize that not even 1,000 or zombies can murder a former police officer with even a dash of ingenuity and pluck. 

But this television series offers an even richer source of pleasure when it comes to zombies.  In the Walking Dead, the zombies offer up the viewer a series of fast-shifting metaphors.   By turns, the zombies represent natural disaster, disease, genocidal victimhood, the natural dignity of animals, the status of immigrant or foreigner, and, with one zombie loping gracefully and peacefully across an open field at sunset, sometimes even the beauty of the natural world.

Analyzing the Walking Dead, I know that I wouldn’t be half the culture fan I am today without some exposure to the great thinkers I encountered at the University of Illinois.  So that’s what this blog post comes down to, a recognition that sometimes it’s enough to work very hard to become the kind of audience that great historians deserve.  When I look at my library of Soviet history books, I am sometimes struck by the absurdity of my voracious habit of collection.  What am I doing with all these books?   If I don’t speak or read Russian, why bother with Russian history?  If I’m not getting a doctorate in history, why keep this up?  If I’m not planning on publishing anything, what’s the point of it all?  I think Nadezhda Mandelstam’s second memoir, Hope Abandoned, asks and answers an analogous argument.  Although Nadezhda turned out to be a great author in her own right, it’s clear from her memoirs that her success as a witness to the life of a great poet would have made her life worthwhile even if she had never herself written a word.  She makes this point when discussing the value of even the most untalented of poets:  “…there was also the whole of world poetry, which knew no bounds of time and space.  It does not matter what place a poet has in it, however small it may be.  The very smallest place—just a couple of successful lines, one good poem, a single well-said word—entitles him to enter the fellowship of poets, to be one of ‘us,’ to partake of the feast.”  This then is the point of my blog, to someday utter a single, well-said word, in order to “partake of the feast” of Soviet scholarship. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Mikhail Bulgakov's Moscow

I've been woefully amiss in posting lately but I never leave off my exploration of Soviet history and so I'll at least try to post a few nuggets of Russian or Soviet wisdom in the coming weeks.  A couple of months ago, I was reading Mikhail Bulgakov's letters and diary entries, entitled Manuscripts Don't Burn. I can't say that the book was particularly illuminating but the book does give one a sense of Moscow intellectual life, and Moscow life in general, in the 1920s.  Bulgakov's genius isn't readily apparent in his diaries and letters. Clearly, he saved his best work for his plays and novels.  However, the reader does come to understand that Bulgakov was unflaggingly hard-working, dedicated to his vocation as a writer, unflappable, and prolific. By the standards of his age, he was also brave, even writing directly to Stalin (and not in inordinately craven language) asking for permission to emigrate.  Below are a few quotations from the book.

"And the country will be liberated.  For there is no such thing as a country with no heroes, and it would be criminal to think that the motherland has died."

"I wish you a happy New Year, and with all my heart I wish this new year should not resemble the old one.."

"I have begun to develop a strong suspicion that my 2,000 rubles are going to be engulfed in the ocean of the Russian Revolution."

"I saw crowds smashing the windows of trains, and saw people being beaten.  I saw ruined and burnt-out houses in Moscow...I saw hungry queues outside the shops, hunted and pitiful officers, and I saw news-sheets where in effect they write about only one thing:  about the blood that is flowing in the south, in the west and in the east...The new year is coming.  I send you a big kiss."

"Until I have my own apartment I will not be a human being, but half of one."

"This was my first appearance in the boggy cesspit of specifically Soviet journals."

"A pamphlet is not a lampoon, and the Chief Repertory Committee is not the Revolution."

"Those dreadful traits of my people, which, long before the Revolution, caused the most profound pain to my teacher M. Ye. Saltykov-Shchedrin."


"The Crimea is just as nasty a part of the world as ever."

"There is no such thing as a writer who falls silent.  If he falls silent, he was never a true writer."

"How am I to sing of my country, the USSR?"

"I am writing all this with the aim of showing you in what conditions I have had to realize my idee fixe.  And that consists in re-establishing the norm within three years--an apartment, clothes, food and books."

"But maybe we'll survive!"

"...the whole of Moscow is still naked and barefoot and is trading ephemerally."

"In Moscow they count only in hundreds of thousands or in millions."

" is impossible to go on living just with one job.."