Monday, June 22, 2015

Aleksander Wat

I take a somewhat absurd and small-minded, if not downright xenophobic, approach to the study of Russian history and literature. Aside from a few random books ingested on CD during my morning commute, I generally read Russian history and Russian literature and little else.  I tell myself that I need to avoid non-Russian materials to spend more time on a vast and growing subject.  However, my parochial reading list makes it appear as if Russia has always existed in a vacuum, cut off from the rest of the world.  Fortunately, from time to time I pick up a book by a non-Russian author, but only if I can randomly flip through the unread pages but still encounter a number of Russian names and places.  And so it was that Aleksander Wat's brilliant book, My Century, survived the Procrustean bed of my reading regimen.  For Russian connections and allusions and ideas litter almost every page of the long book.  And why shouldn't this be so?  For better or worse (and most Poles would say the answer is clearly, "for worse"), Poland's history is interwoven with Russia's, especially in the catastrophic twentieth century.

Wat's story, like Poland's itself, is in many ways a Russian story. Wat grew to intellectual maturity on a steady diet of lef-wing and Marxist readings.  Like so many other Polish intellectuals and proletarians, Wat, generally a fellow-traveller rather than an outright communist, was also thrilled by the adventure of the Bolshevik Revolution.  The Russian Revolution seemed to promise a brand new, and much improved world. Everything could and would be reinvented.  The Soviet Union was remaking economics, politics, art, culture, gender relations, and indeed everyday life. Eventually, Wat's romance with both the Soviet Union and communism in general came to an end, and Wat even came to reside in the Soviet Union's notorious Lubianka, and then later suffered under Poland's post-World War II communist dictatorship.  Wat's book, My Century, is largely a prolonged apology for his own part in Europe's great experiment with communism.  This informal series of interviews returns again and again to one of modernity's greatest crimes:  It's willingness to sacrifce human rights, and freedom itself, at the alter of an super-rationalist faith in the radical progress of humanity.

A few quotes from Wat's My Century:

"No one knew what communism would be like.  For the time we thought of it as a great nihilism."

"The dark sectarian layers, Russia inundated by sectarianism--all this was very attractive to us in our esthetic, literary revolution."

"Hempel was the first apparatchnik I had ever known."

"[Jansienski] had come as a young man from Russia, very full of himself yet at the same time terribly cynical, and that cannot be called communism.  In any case that's was communism, that was bolshevism, and it certainly wasn't Marxism."

"By analogy with what is happening in physics, just as the atom has ceased to be the simplest unit, subject to no further reduction, so has the event, the fact, become incredibly complex."

"We see a social system dominated by genuine idiots, capitalists.  That is the most fertile ground for laughter and for revolution."

"Doctors can't cure  me, but a good exorcist probably could.  Because my main demon is communism..."

"But from Rousseau on we again see history confused with autobiography.  And isn't that one of the signs of our illness?  The muddying of history with biography.  Isn't that a sin?"

"The Literary Monthly is the corpus delicti of my degradation, the history of my degradation in communism, by communism."

"Now they're turning spies into heroes, but I [Broniewsky] was in Lubyanka and nobody's making a hero out of me."

"Bourgeouis decadence.  And I was afraid of causing infection.  Just as they're afraid to send satellites to Mars so as not to cause any virtal infection there."

"As if it were still possible to write tragedies in the twentieth century..."

"There was only one alternative, only one global answer to negation."

"It was a very simple matter, a matter of mathematics.  There were too much of everything. Too many people, too many ideas, too many books, too many systems.  Too much of everything...absolutely awful multiplicity.  It has become so vast that a refined intellect was unable to deal with it."

"How pure and great must be the cause for which so much blood is spilled, innocent blood."

"Besides, experts in religion know that when great religions are dying, warped religions--sects--emerge."

"Kireevsky, a post-romantic and one of the Slovophiles, wrote that politics was such a crime and a disgrace that it was better for one person to take all that disgrace upon himself."

"It boils down to the Soviet astronaut who said that he had been in heaven and hadn't seen God.  Voila!  That's communism's rationalism in full flower."

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