Overweening Generalist

Monday, December 12, 2011

On Obscure, Coded and Alchemical Texts: Part 5

When rifling through certain histories, it appeared a stark glum fact that I could blog every day for five years just on the Russians and this topic. I'll confine my remarks to just this one "Part 5."

The Romanovs
ruled Russia
from 1613 to 1917 --
Some were sane &
some were bonkers

Alexander I, the tsar from '01-'25
was the son of Mad Tsar Paul I
who was murdered
with Alexander's "connivance"
according to the
              Penguin Dictionary of Modern History
-Chekhov, by Ed Sanders, p.26

There's a 1976 essay by George Steiner, "Text and Context," in which he attempts to describe what texts "mean" in culture. He has some fascinating ideas about readers and writers, and as a slight digression I'll quote this sentence, "To read essentially is to entertain with the writer's text a relationship at once recreative and rival. It is a supremely active, collaborative yet also agonistic affinity whose logical, if not actual, fulfillment is an 'answering text.'"

I personally knew a few of you, and I feel this sort of relationship with you, not all of the time I'm writing, but a lot of it. And I find this really exciting and mysterious and just a total intellectual-semi-enlightened hedonistic blast. So: thanks. Some of you I've never met but who I feel this same way nonetheless: how odd this seems. My nervous system, writing. You: decoding, being with me and yet "recreative and rival." Now I will try to link this emotional involvement with some writers and readers to history, simply via juxtaposition: 

Steiner points out how deep the textuality of Russian culture has been, due to political repression by Tsars, the Orthodox church, the Bolsheviks and Stalin. With Marxism/Leninism the "bookishness" of the culture was something we in Unistat have never seen. With hard-core intellectual ideology as a (supposed, at least) function of the State, we get a populace of readers intensely bookish, concerned with canonicity and exclusion or validation, origins, authority..."It is the tradition of reading these texts --exegetic, Talmudic, disputative to an almost pathological degree of semantic scruple and interpretive nicety -- which constitutes the presiding dynamic in Marxist education and in the attempts, inherently ambiguous as are all attempts to 'move forward' from sacred texts, to make of Marxism an unfolding, predictive reality-principle." (see "Texts and Contexts" in Steiner's On Difficulty and Other Essays, p. 5)

[NB: "Talmudic, disputative to an almost pathological degree" plus coded texts and information-dense texts seems to equal a level of High Weirdness our species can't seem to do without.]

What concerns me here, for our purposes, was that there was such a long history of fascination with deep reading in Russia before the Bolshevik revolution. And under the mystical tsars, much radical, oppositional writing had to be done embedded in thick dense works, encoded, or simply as samizdat. Indeed, when Steiner discusses Loren R. Graham's "seminal" (I have not read it - OG) Science and Philosophy in the Soviet Union, Steiner writes that this bookishness is the medium of power and and official discourse and this attitude towards texts lies "in the very fabric of suppression which defines Russian history as a whole [...] But whatever the source, the effect is clear: the subversive poem, novel, satirical comedy, underground ballad has always been, is, will always be, the primary act of insurgence. Even when it has reached the public surface, through the censor's oversight, from abroad, or in brief spells of bureaucratic condescension, Russian literature, from Pushkin and Turgenev to Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, has always been samizdat." (p.6)

O! That books and reading could mean that much!

I just now recalled a trip my wife and I took to Prague, around 2002. As always, I crashed beforehand on Czech history, memorized about fifty common phrases from an idiot's phrase-book, and read something on the history of Czech literature. (I remember the first night we got to our hotel-room, and we quickly walked back out to go find a place to dine: we had to cut through an old churchyard, and there was a statue of Karel Capek, the early science fiction author and anti-fascist, on the church grounds.) And I was reading on the Czechs under Soviet rule, 1960s-70s (their Velvet Revolution happened in late 1989), and was taken aback by, if I recall correctly, Josef Skvorecky, one of the great Czech writers of the second half of the 20th century, when he said he sorta missed the samizdat years, when everyone was fearful their revolutionary writings would be found out, and they'd be captured, and imprisoned. Why? Because he thought the secrecy lent an intense gravity to the writing! 

I can see this, I can imagine living in that system, but give me an open society without all the drama, please! But it is an interesting idea: that repression fuels intense reading and writing. Back to the Russians, or rather, a Russian.

Thought by many lit critics as at least as important to the Russians as Twain is to Unistatians or Goethe to the Germans, Pushkin was steeped in Romantic revolutionary fervor, heavily influenced by Byron, living in the mood of the French Revolution's Liberty/Equality/Fraternity. Born in 1799, he took advantage of a brief opening after Waterloo, as Sanders writes, to "seize freedoms underused." He wrote on subjects that would be unthinkable later in the 19th century: a poem called "Epistle to the Censor." Pushkin attacked the system of serfdom. He ridiculed the Tsar in an 1818 poem, "Noel." He ridiculed the Minister of War! Pushkin wrote an "Ode to Liberty" in 1817 as samizdat, and many soldiers memorized it by heart. ("Tremble, O tyrants of the world/And you, o fallen slaves, arise!") He was named as the author and fled for a few years to self-imposed exile. But secret police followed him and kept him under surveillance. His writing began to soften under the pressure, it became "more objective" and his revolutionary writings became more coded in his narratives. As possibly the Main Guy for nine out of ten potential revolutionaries in Russia, Pushkin was being deflated. No more openness for Pushkin. 
                                                          Pushkin: proto-Decembrist

 Let me back up a bit on early 19th century Russia, and I hope I'm not boring those who've studied this period.

Pushkin was involved with some offshoots of Freemasonic secret societies in Russia. When Russian troops marched, in 1814, into Paris during what is commonly called in Unistat the Napoleonic Wars they had had their minds blown: look at what a relatively open society brings!  A similar thing happened to Unistat troops who grew up on little farms and then went into what is commonly referred to as World War I: they saw Paris, Berlin, Florence: they could never be the same when they came home, if they were lucky enough to come home alive and intact. Some of the Russian soldiers, exposed to France and revolutionary ideas of the West, young and relatively educated, formed secret societies called the Green Lamp, a sort of free-love and freethinking group - always conducive to wild partying - which may have been a branch of another secret society, the Union of Welfare. Pushkin has friends in the secret Union of Salvation. All of these groups seem to be precursors to the Decembrists. 

Think about it: these Russian troops, having defeated Napoleon, go back to such a repressive environment that the only way they thought they could enact change towards more openness and constitutionality was via underground secret societies. Most of the sources I've seen think Pushkin was seen as a too-mad "poet," and while he was welcomed in the secret societies, the brain-trust military revolutionaries didn't want to risk letting a "poet" in on the secrets of possible insurrection. 

[On second thought about secret societies: maybe this is some sort of default mode in history, at least since the rise of Rome? Why are secret societies mostly asterisked and seemingly snorted and laffed at in college textbooks on history? I ask this rhetorically.]

Anyway, here's what happened to the Decembrists: on December 1st, 1825, Tsar Alexander I either died or disappeared in order to become a religious hermit. Tsar Nicholas I took over. The Decembrists - roughly thirty military officers, almost all fairly well-educated from the upper crust and led by Paul Pestel, backed by 3000 soldiers - mostly illiterate - tried to prevent the senate from taking an oath to the new Tsar. A true do-or-die moment, an attempt at radical freedom and a break with entrenched repression. They hoped more of the garrison would rush to their side, but they didn't. Many turned and fired at the Decembrists and their backers. A dozen were killed and Pestel and all others rounded up and hanged. (December 14th is coming up as I write this. Think of them?)

With the calamitous collapse of the Decembrists, Pushkin rushed to burn his incriminating papers.

Nicholas was one of the worst tyrants in history. He summoned Pushkin to Moscow and told him he would personally be Pushkin's censor, and that Pushkin was to be under constant surveillance by the chief of secret police Benckendorff, and also that Pushkin would be forced to wear the uniform of "Gentlemen of the Chamber." Pushkin died in 1837 at 37, "shot in the stomach."

If you didn't know this story, you know it now. And you must never forget it.

A Too-Long Addenda: Bakhtin, Shostakovich and Stalin
I had no idea, but when reading David Foster Wallace's essay on Joseph Frank's writings on Dostoevsky from Consider the Lobster, it seems that Mikhail Bakhtin was forced to write about Feodor in a coded, tricky way, due to official Soviet ideology about Dostoevsky. If you've read Bakhtin on semiotics and you've read Dostoevsky's history as a radical almost shot, then as a intensely religious freak whose moods are so dark in his novels I find certain young people I know and think, "Jeez, I hope (s)he never gets around to Dostoevsky...it could send 'em over..." and then consider that Bakhtin had to code his writing about FD...my mind reels. It just seems another dire symptom of humanity when you take it all in...and of course the stunningly brilliant mind of David Foster Wallace couldn't hack "all this" anymore and he hanged himself in his garage in Claremont, California...Whew! I need to start meditating more, or score some Xanax. 

This all seems to relate to what Steiner was saying about Russian culture, since, I guess, at least 1613.

March 25th, 1949, the Waldorf Astoria in New York: a huge gathering of Soviet intellectuals and artists met with a CIA-backed consortium of non-communist artists and intellectuals. Hard to believe, but read Frances Stonor Saunders's The Cultural Cold War: the CIA and the World of Arts and Letters. What an amazing book! Anway: Nicolas Nabokov - first cousin to the author of Lolita and a good pal of Isaiah Berlin's - made his way into a panel where Dmitri Shoskakovich was expected to speak. Nabokov's aristocratic family had fled Russia soon after the 1917 rev and he became a composer, taught in Unistat universities, etc. 

Apparently the panel discussion was dull until Nabokov took the floor. I'll quote from Saunders's book:

Nabokov said, "On such-and-such a date in No. X of Pravda appeared an unsigned article that had all the looks of an editorial. It concerned three western composers: Paul Hindemith, Arnold Schoenberg, and Igor Stravinsky. In this article, they were branded, all three of them, as 'obscurantists', 'decadent bourgeois formalists' and 'lackeys of imperial capitalism.' The performance of their music should 'therefore be prohibited in the U.S.S.R.' Does Mr. Shostakovich personally agree with this official view as printed in Pravda?" 

Immediately, the Soviet contingent cried "Provocation!" A KGB "nurse" whispered instructions in Shostakovich's ear, and then Shostakovich, rose, his face ashen and hung low, looking at the floorboards, he quasi-mumbled, "I fully agree with the statements made in Pravda." (p.50, Saunders)

Shostakovich had been made to attend this meeting in NY by Stalin himself. (This was around the time, in the USSR, that sculptors were told to enter a competition to honor Pushkin, and the winner produced a sculpture showing Stalin reading Pushkin.)

In 1979 a book titled Testimony, by a Russian musicologist named Solomon Volkov, appeared. It immediately became controversial because it purported to be the memoirs of Shoskakovich, who had a lot of nasty things to say about life under Stalin. Furthermore, Shostakovich says he embedded his views on the totalitarian regime in his music! Many accused Volkov of embroidery, even outright forgery.

There is plenty of evidence that official censors in the 19th century went over composer's music to see if they could catch hidden codes that could be considered subversive. How this was done specifically is another story...

Flash forward to a few years ago and an interesting book, Music For Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets, by Wendy Lesser. HERE is a review by Ed Rothstein of the NYT. (If it's not there when you read it, please tell me in the comments; the NYT withdraws links every now and then, for their own reasons. Thanks. - the Mgt)

I leave it to the Reader/Listener to decide for herself.


Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

Great blog. I didn't know Ed Sanders had written a book on Chekhov. I read a bunch of Chekhov about six years ago.

Your commments about the process of reading remind me of something the composer Elliott Carter said in an interview with Charles Rosen about how people's minds wander while listening to music.

michael said...

Thanks, Eric.

Sanders has been incredibly prolific. He has another book written in investigative poetry-style on Ginsberg's life.

And then there's the delightful, sprawling Tales of Beatnik Glory.

I'm a big fan of Sanders.

Interesting quote on Elliot Carter. These ideas about what really gos on between writers and readers and composers and listeners is ceaselessly innaresting to me. I often talk to intelligent people who read mystery novels and they say they enjoy them but remember almost nothing about them a month later.

I often wonder about the nexus of style and my lasting apprehension of the text: I may be enjoying in a very involved way some text, but perhaps something in the nexus of style + my nervous system and ability to "file" some of the ideas...the reading needs to be revisited. Other writers I get immersed in, totally involved, time passing w/o notice, and they stick with me. The thing is: I still want to return to them, too.

It seems obvious lots of listeners and readers interact with the text and are not equal to the intent of the artist, or are not close to the Ideal Reader, maybe more the Typical Reader?

I know my mind wanders when I listen to long, "difficult" pieces of music, but it wanders into non-ordinary territories.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I tend to like the Shostakovich pieces that got him into trouble. The Fifth Symphony, which got him back into Stalin's good graces, sounds bombastic to me and I don't listen to it often.

There was a whole group of Russian composers in the 1920s and early to mid 30s who wrote really interesting music and then were forced to write in a more conservative style. Gavriil Popov's Chamber Symphony and first symphony are really good.

I love the anecdote about the Pravda article, although it made me feel bad I haven't listened to much Hindemith.

michael said...

I don't know Popov's Chamber Symphony or his 1st. I listen to Shostakovich's 15th Symphony every now and then. I like picking out the quotes, and the collage-like aspect of so much of it.