Monday Musing: The lost lessons of Russian literature

Not to feed this blog’s obsession with Hitchens, but the article that Abbas posted on and Josh responded to brought to mind the Soviet Union, in general, and Soviet literature, in particular. It wasn’t simply (or even primarily) the image and use of the word “gulag” by Amnesty International, or even the discussion of and apologia for Terrorism in the Grip of Justice, which seems like a descendant of Stalinist show-trials. It was rather the remarkable contortions of language which seem to increasingly accompany the discussions of the war, from all corners.

Much has been said of the current war as a new kind of war on a new kind of enemy under new conditions, and with different stakes and different psychologies. Yet, for all its newness and difference, the partisans of this war have “anxiously conjure[d] up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle slogans and costumes in order to present the new [or at least this] scene of world history in this time-honored disguise and this borrowed language.” This is no less true of their opponents.

It was precisely the “borrowed language” aspect of the war that reminded me of 20th century Russian literature. Nearly 15 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we can think of many things that happily came to an end with it. The prominence of Russian and East European literature is not one of them. Since the 1950s, there was always some Russian writer—Bebel, Pasternak, Bulgakov, Sinavsky, Solzhenitsyn, to take the most prominent witnesses of that experiment/nightmare—whose moral and political insights made him a justified teacher of the human condition. That fascination ended with the Soviet Union.

Perhaps it was a cultural disposition, but what came through in their writings was the use and abuse of language as part and parcel of the project, and the creative use of language as both a defense against the pretensions of the system as well as a tool for exposing it.  (I have learned this far better from the Russians than from Orwell.)

I regularly reread the books of my earlier education—I was a Russian language and literature student for years—but I was pleased to recently find a post on Andrei Platonov (over at normblog), whose The Foundation Pit happens to be one of my favorite short stories, though I hadn’t read it years. (Here’s a excerpt from “Dzhan”.) The post made me pick it up off of my shelf.

Platonov often wrote in inverted grammar and his surrealism was a counter-surrealism of language—the natural reaction to a system whose stranglehold on its subjects was mimicked in its stranglehold on their language. I would like to think that this literature, not simply Platonov, but writers like Daniil Kharms, Yvegeny Shwartz, and Joseph Brodsky, in addition to those I mentioned above, taught me something about the corruptions of language that accompany utopian projects that begin to feel like dead-ends. And it is when I think of this lesson that I become convinced that the loss of prominence of this literature and all that it taught us–about the dangers of clichéd promises of better worlds, the complexities of human psychology and madness, and about how to salvage decency in the face of easy and easing stories about ourselves and our enemies–has been tragic.