Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Lesley Blanch's Journey Into The Mind's Eye: Fragments of an Autiobiography

Lesley Blanch wrote the book I wanted to write:  Journey into the Mind's Eye:  Fragments of an Autobiography.  It's a description of her lifelong obsession with Russia and Russians.  It's an incredibly witty apologia for a lifetime spent in the pursuit of Russian language, culture, literature, religion, and history.  Blanch lived an extraordinarily adventurous life, and possessed a boundless talent for writing.  For this reason, the memoir is often insightful, and never dull.  On the other hand, Blanch's prose is a precarious balance between originality and cliche, creative insight and brash orientalism.  Blanch's book is definitely worth reading.  Its unapologetic  Romanticism is infectious, and any Russophile will be happy to see such detailed documentation this particular mania.  (Elif Batuman's more recent book, The Possessed:  Russian Books and the People Who Love Them, though excellent, doesn't offered the sustained intensity of Journey Into the Mind's Eye).  Indeed, this is a memoir with a thesis statement.  The author sees her life as something tethered to a single, overriding passion.  For Blanch, Russia can be found everywhere.  She reads Russian books, falls in love with a Russian man, practices Russian religious traditions, experiments with Russian cultural practices, fantasizes about Russian adventures, and so on.  In fact, when Branch visits Paris, she is primarily interested in the Russian refugees who live there, although she is willing to have her Russian lover show her places in Paris where Russian statesmen, czars, and writers once visited.

In Journey into the Mind's Eye, Blanch has produced a wonderful exploration of her own infatuation with the East, and with Russia in particular.  This exploration reveals the extent to which infatuation and passion and enthusiasm are co-mingled with exoticism, post-colonialism, and even racism.  After all, Branch's Russia is, inevitably, a place of soulfulness, mystery, cold, built-in nomadism, and "limitless horizons." Time and again, Blanch makes startling generalizations.  "Perhaps," she writes, " being Russians, or Asiatics, and sharing fundamental characteristics of nomadism, roots were of no account."  She goes on to say that this nomadic life also meant that Russians were insensitive to time itself.  In other place, she writes that "his voice had a curious, ardent note I had never heard before, as if he were in love with an abstraction--a Russian characteristic."

As we engage with new cultures, we inevitably encounter our own preconceptions as well as the mythologies that surround us.  If we're lucky, representatives of other cultures, great books, and our innate curiosity to learn more, help us to channel our infatuation into honest journeys of true discovery and self-discovery.  And somehow all honest journeys reveal that the "Other" is both profoundly different than we are, and strikingly familiar. In her defense, Branch is not unaware of her Russian mythologies, and becomes more aware of them as she grows up.  Early in her novel she writes, "At this time, my view of Russia was simple." It appeared to her as little more than snow, ice, and men wearing shubas.  Later, on her first visit to Russia,  she admits that she "moved in an imagined limbo-land, chasing souvenirs--memento-mori."  Over time, Branch uses many tropes about Russian to launch her into encounters with more complex facets of Russian history and culture.  She reads Turgenev, Gogol, Pushkin, Leskov, Herzen.  She meets more Russians.  She travels more.   Branch's romanticism remains in tact, but is tempered by a sense of humor about her own preconceptions about Russia.  It's also tempered by her interest in many of the subject peoples of the Russian and later Soviet Empire. 

Some Favorite Quotes from the Book

I must have been about four years old when Russia took hold of me with giant hands.  That grip has never lessened.

Pursuing my passion, all things were better Russified.

The Houses of Plantagent and Stuart were meaningless to me beside those of Rurik and Romanov.

"I suppose you'd rather be in a Mongolian yurt?  Or on the Trans-Siberian?"
Much rather.

"I didn't know you could dance."  I was enthralled by these violent leapings.
"All Russians can dance," he said curtly, and stopped as abruptly as he had begun.   I never saw him dance again.  He was entirely unpredictable.

I asked her once, why she had not gone to Russia--long ago, when she first knew the Traveler, and was grown up and free to go anywhere she liked.
"One is never really free," was her enigmatic reply.

So, steeped in Russia's past, I ignored its stupendous present, concerning myself little with history then in the making, with Raspin, the Ipatiev house at Ekaterinburg, the Cruiser Aurora, Admiral Kolchak's betrayal by the Czech and French commanders, famine, Five-Year Plans, Lenin's rule, or any other landmark of Russia's fall and rise.

"In Holy Russia we took Easter seriously.  Why, no one even made love to their own wives, let alone anyone else's, in Holy Week."

"One thing is absolutely certain.  I absolutely refuse to ruin you on a workman's train."

To be married in a Russian church, with all the splendors of Byzantine symbolism, had long represented the sum total of my romantic aspirations.

"Perhaps you'd better go back to finishing school after all.  You're not ready for the world.  You ought to have been at Smolny."

"If they miss the train I will disinherit them, bastards though they are."

"But I remember, it was only after we passed our final exams that the Mathematics Professor took us to a brothel to celebrate.  Things were really very well arranged then."

"The sort of furs most western women wear would not be used as bath-mats by Asiatics."

"I remember he wrote that that Khan had seven hundred wives--not all of them with him, of course.  I don't know why, but it made an impression on me, at the time," she said.

"...I believe he went and joined a scientific expedition to the Gobi, and got himself involved with some Kirghiz tribe...Kamran's mother was one of them--or was she a Bashkir?  Something savage, I remember.

"Grandmama was right.  It was the beginning of the end when the serfs were emancipated," sighed the Traveller, and the Countess agreed.

"What a troublesome lot they were.  They simply refused to be subdued!"

But beneath the facade of conventional interests I was groping eastward, flinging myself towards all things Russian.

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