Friday, October 25, 2013

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. 

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