Thursday, January 30, 2020

Sergei Eisenstein's Beyond the Stars

The first part of Sergei Eisenstein's memoir, Beyond the Stars:  The Boy from Riga, succeeds as both historical testimony and creative non-fiction.  It's stylistically rich, attacking biography thematically rather than chronologically, with a long series of short meditations on a number of different topics.  Some of Eisenstein's themes emerge from nostalgia, others from film history, and still others from encounters with figures of importance to modern Russian, European, or world history.  Eisenstein's memoirs read like a cross between Montaigne's Essays and Shklovsky's works of literary criticism.  In each chapter the cosmopolitan intellectual meditates on some peculiar problem or idea, and somehow the juxtaposition of random aspects of his life seem particularly enlightening. The reader can't help but notice how often theory and life intersect and reinforce or contradict one another.  What is more, the effect can't help remind one of Eistenstein's theories of film montage. 

Overall, the first part of Eisenstein's memoir reveals a man of piercing intellect, and abiding wanderlust.  Eisenstein knew Russian, German, French, and English, and must have also learned a great deal of Spanish while working in Mexico.  He was steeped in the literary heritage of Europe, but also seemed to be searching out cultural information about Latin America and various non-European civilizations.  If the memoirs are honest, he was dedicated to communism.  However, the memoirs show him to have been a man who supported communism like an ordinary American supports the New York Yankees.  Certainly, he never makes any arguments about communism, or devotes much energy to economic or political discussions in general.  Instead, he invests most of his energy to art, cinema, literature, etc.  He's also very interested in people, and revels in the most arresting stories about them. 

Just a couple of quotes from the book:

I passed through a staggering age.
But I do not want to write about this age at all.
What I want to set down is how an average person can pass through a momentous time as a completely unexpected counterpart.
How someone can "fail to notice" a historical date as he blithely passes it.

Someone shyly (but not unctuously) said:  "Don't talk about montage, or pictures, or directing.  Tell us how to become an Eisenstein.  

"Napoleon did everything that he did, not because he was talented or a genius;  he became talented so that he could do everything he did..."

Every normal child does three things:  he breaks things;  he gets inside dolls or watches to see what is there;  and he torments animals....That is what normal children do.  Good ones. 
I was a bad child.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Maurice Valency's The Breaking String: The Plays of Anton Chekhov

Maurice Valency's book, The Breaking String: The Plays of Anton Chekhov, provides a brilliant analysis of Chekhov's overall place in Russian and European theater in general.  In early chapters, Valency outlines the entire history of Russian theater.  He notes that Russian drama is relatively new, and relatively indebted to French theater, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries.  He notes that Russian theater took a backseat to Russian novels and short-stories until the end of the 19th century.  Further, he explains that a few major authors, including Pushkin, Lermontov, Griboyedov, Gogol, Ostrovsky, Turgenev, and Tolstoy, created plays of lasting value to European culture until the advent of Chekhov, and perhaps Gorky. 

Valency's main argument about Chekhov is that he slowly developed a theater that was, paradoxically, anti-theatrical.  As Valancy asserts, "In life we see people;  we do not see stories, and we do not hear thoughts. In the world, what is ordinarily played before our eyes is not a story, but a scene."  According to Valency, Chekhov took up where Ibsen and Strindberg left off by downplaying the importance of speeches, plot devices, entrances and exits, scenes of "high high climax," and other tools of traditional theater.  Not all at once, but over time, Chekhov moved from the relatively traditional theater of Ivanov and Platonov to the strikingly modern aesthetic of the Seagull, the Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, and the Cherry Orchard.

The strengths of Valency's treatment of Chekhov are many.  First, he acknowledges the long and complicated creative trajectory of Chekhov's aesthetic evolution in order to emphasize the radical nature of his creative breakthroughs.  Second, he uses letters and short-stories, as well as the plays themselves, to diagnose Chekhov's changing art.  Third, he contextualizes Chekhov's new theater by comparing it to French, German, English, and Swedish theater, in addition to earlier Russian models. 

How does Valency characterize the mature Chekhov?  He argues that Chekhov was ruthlessly objective, allowing us to sympathize with all of his characters, rather than just some of them.  He believes Chekhov created characters who had no dominate trait, but were, like all humans, complex tapestries of differing moods, ideas, strengths, and weaknesses.  He maintains that Chekhov maintained a delicate but realistic balance between pessimism and optimism, tragedy and comedy.  He declares that Chekhov was elliptical and ever assigned a single meaning to any literary symbol.  Indeed, he preferred to allow his audiences to assign their own meanings to these symbols.  He writes that Chekhov wrote about the exterior life of people, asking audiences to judge his characters by their often contradictory, and always shifting, actions, words, and exterior properties. 

Favorite quotes

Theater history

The Russian stage of the 1860s was not yet ready for subtlety. 

Nobody illustrates better than he the disintegration of the system which Ibsen inherited from Scribe, and Scribe from Corneille, and Corneille from Aristotle.

In fact, he did not know, and never learned, how to write a long narrative.

His plays, beginning with The Sea Gull, consist also of a sequence of scenes, arranged in a meaningful way, but conspicuously lacking in the formal development which was in that day considered essential to drama.

Speculation bored him. 

For Chekhov whatever was clear, decided, and certain was not in the province of art. 


The squalor of life in Russia filled both of them with disgust, and Chekhov was more squeamish than Gorky.

The Wood Demon is a play about waste.  In Russia, it is said, everything is wasted, forests, people, lives, intellect.

It was obviously Chekhov's intention to suggest that it is in the nature of man--at least in Russia--to destroy whatever is beautiful, so that the presence of anything lovely and feminine would affect the Russian character as a red rag, a bull. 

Chekhov quotes:

Only fools and charlatans know everything and understanding everything.

There is not or, at least, there is scarcely a single landed Russian gentleman or university man who at one time or another had not boasted of his past.  Why?  Because Russian enthusiasm possesses one specific quality--it is quickly followed by fatigue. 

We all have just enough brains and just enough feeling to ruin our own lives and the lives of others...

Friday, January 17, 2020

Mikhail Bulgakov's The Days of the Turbins

Although Mikhail Bulgakov's reputation in twentieth century Russian letters is almost unparalleled, I have yet to fully connect with any of his works.  His Days of the Turbins is no exception.  To be sure, it's fascinating to read the play (based on the novella) that moved so many Russian communists to tears.  Bulgakov depicts history's losers, a family of White officers, as a group of largely brave bourgeois men and women who are almost trapped in an apartment in the midst of literal and metaphorical storms.  While the play lacks an compelling plot and convincing character development, it probably resonated communist audiences who felt guilt on some level about the fact that their Revolution, as necessary as it may have been, quashed so many of the values their countrymen had once cherished.  For although at least one of Bulgakov's characters turns out to be coward, most are chivalrous, witty, stoical, educated people, who surely represent something worth preserving.  So the play leaves no room for doubt that its romantic heroes are doomed, it does show them in a very positive light.  It also makes clear that the communists, and everything associated with the revolutionary movement, had much to regret.  The protagonists point out that their enemies, "the people," were capable of almost atrocity. They had rewarded Alexander II, the Great Reformer, with assassination.  The symbol of the counter-revolution might be Lariosik, who traveled with only one shirt, which served to wrap the collected works of Chekhov, the biographer of a dying class.  Overall, the play may not be great theater.  However, it is the perfect testimony to the anxiety associated with the end of an era, anxiety that both victors and vanquished must have shared, at least on some level.  What had happened to Russia?   What would happen?  As Nikolka asked:  "I wonder what the Bolsheviks look like?"

A few of my favorite quotations from the play are below:  

Elena:  But why isn't he here yet?
Alexei:  Well, obviously, they have had to wait at every station stop.
Nikolka:  Revolutionary travelling, Lenoshka.   You go an hour, you stop for two.  

Alexei: I don't understand, why did they send you off to the Inn?
Myshlaevsky:  Why the peasants are there at the Inn.  Those same damned God-bearers out of the works of Mr. Dostoyevsky.

Lariosik:  But I think I have one shirt here. I wrapped the collected works of Chekhov in it.

Nikolka: The whole division will be bivouacking with the angels.

 Shervinsky: As  Karl Marx said, money exists to be spent.

Shervisnky:  I'm so happy to see you!  It's been so long since I've seen you!
Elena:  If my memory doe not deceive me, you were here yesterday.
Shervisnky:  Ah, Elena Vasilievna, what is "yesterday" in times like these!

Elena:  The only good thing about you is your voice, and your vocation to be an opera singer.

Myshlaevsky:  Your glass.
Lariosik:  I...basically, I don't drink vodka.
Myshlaevsky:  Well of course--I don't either.  But one glass.   How can you eat herring without vodka?  I simply can't understand it. 

Lariosik:  Gentlemen, the cream-colored curtains...behind them you can rest  your soul...You forget about all the horrors of the Civil War. 

Alexei: We lost the war. Now we have something more terrifying than the war, than the Germans, than generally anything on earth--we have the Bolsheviks,

Alexei:  But now it's too late, now our officers have turned into cafe sitters.  A cafe army!

Shervinsky:  Gentlemen!  The news of His Imperial Majesty's death...
Myshlaevsky:  Is somewhat exaggerated.

Myshlaevsky:  Aloysha, can they be the people!  Why they're bandits.  A professional union of regicides. 

Shratt:  When there is a catastrophe, everyone becomes very nimble.

Myshlaevsky:  Enough!  I've been fighting since 1914. For what?  For the fatherland?  

Myshlaevsky:  I'm for the Bolsheviks, only against the Communists.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Frank Dikotter's Mao's Great Famine

Frank Dikotter has provided the Chinese analog to Robert Conquest's classic treatment of the Soviet Famine of the 1930s, Harvest of Sorrow. Less sprawling than his equally insightful Cultural Revolution, Dikotter's Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958- 1962, provides readers with a well-researched analysis of one of the twentieth century's greatest disasters.  While Dikotter provides readers with a rich descriptions of the human costs of the famine, he also explains how the Chinese Communist Party, and Mao in particular, brought the tragedy about, or least severely deepened its impact on the Chinese peasantry. 

For students of Russian history, Dikotter begins his book with a careful political history of Mao's rupture with Soviet leaders, and Khrushchev in particular. In fact, Dikotter argues that Mao's refusal to play second fiddle to Khrushchev on the international stage contributed to China's ever worsening food crisis.  By insisting that his country could export grain to fellow socialist countries, and eventually forgo aid from Russia, Mao doomed China's peasants to unendurable levels of food scarcity.  The fact that Mao required starving peasants to help industrialize their country in the midst of agricultural chaos made matters worse. Of course, Dikotter's explanation of the causes of the famine is complex.  He argues that Mao made a series of tragic leadership mistakes, but also explains that collectivization was inherently flawed and deprived peasants of any incentive to produce food.  Overall, Dikotter's thesis seems to be twofold:  first, that Mao's philosophy of government was deeply immortal, and placed absolutely no value on even the minimum health requirements of the vast majority of China's citizens;  and second, that Communism in general produced an absurdly undemocratic and centralized system of government that provided ordinary men and women no opportunity to help themselves. 

To conclude, Dikotter's Mao's Great Famine can also be usefully compared with a new book on Communism's first famine, Douglas Smith's The Russian Job: The Forgotten Story of How America Saved the Soviet Union from Ruin.  Although Smith documents Lenin's repeated cynicism about the food security of his political opponents, one is struck by the fact that Russian Communists had not gone out of their way to starve large segments of their citizenry. In fact, this early famine was at least partly the result of a Civil War rather than misguided or criminal agricultural policies alone.  For Lenin did ultimately make a series of compromises that allowed Hoover and the American Relief Administration to feed millions of Russians.  By contrast, Stalin and Mao never considered even acknowledging the dimensions of the tragedy they had done so much to create.