Two writers, two Jews, two intellectuals with glasses thrown into the midst of unspeakable horror and violence – but such different writers!
I have heard of Isaac Babel for years, but never knew anything about him. He was always associated in my mind with Jewish literature – but then why is he also linked with the Soviet political elite and its destruction in the Great Purges of the 1930s?
Nadezhda Mandelshtam talks about him in her overwhelming memoir, Hope Against Hope. Her husband, Osip, considered to be one of the great poets of Russian in the 20th century, despite his small output (he died in the Gulag) regarded people with power as dangerous individuals to be avoided as you would a live power line. He asked Babel why was he so fascinated by violence; why did he socialize with high-level members of the security organs, the ‘distributors of death?’ Did he want to rub his fingers in their bloody mayhem? “No,” Babel replied, “I just want to sniff it, to see how it smells.” He got his wish. He was arrested on ridiculous charges of counter-revolution and shot in the usual prison basement.
I have been reading Babel’s stories, Red Cavalry. They tell of the fighting in the Russian-Polish War of 1920, when both the new Republic and the USSR were fighting to extend their borders. He is the narrator, or is spoken for by one, who travels with a Cossack fighting unit. They make fun of his education, deriding his eyeglasses. Like a teenage boy desperately wanting to fit in with some tough guys, he tries to win their approval even if it means acting brutally to an old peasant woman and scaring her into making him a fine dinner. The stories are short, filled with cruelty, and quite starkly beautiful at times – clearly the work of a serious artist. The cossacks are portrayed with an intensity that seems to me almost homoerotic, though Lionel Trilling, in a 1955 essay from the appendix, is quick to dismiss that notion. When Babel describes the gigantic figure of a Cossack with knee-high boots that caress his legs like clinging young girls, what is one to think? A four-eyed Jew riding with Cossacks [often the agent of Tsarist or popular violent repression of Jews] – how ironic can you get?
The stories are fascinating and disturbing. Babel seems to worship the Cossacks the way some weak-minded intellectuals worship “men of action,” the type of intellectual who got misty-eyed about generalissimo Stalin or Adolf Hitler. But…he’s clever, not simple, so he pulls back from that brink: but it makes for queasy reading.
Vassily Grossman, on the other hand, also an enthusiastic revolutionary, at least to begin with, is an enormous contrast. His works are filled with a profound sense of the tragedy of violence. He shows it, but he is never intrigued, seduced, or mesmerized by it. Puzzled by the mystery of human evil and cruelty, but not drawn to it. He writes of small instances of love that seem to redeem the world in the midst of misery. (I am reading the new publication by NYRB of stories and nonfiction in The Road.) He writes of the Sistine Madonna by Raphael, and how it evokes in his mind the story of Christ, the love of mothers for their doomed sons, and the suffering of the Russian peasant. And he writes, an historical first, an analysis of the Nazi death camps that he visited.
Grossman was known by many as lucky Grossman. A grenade landed at his feet, but failed to explode. As a front-line war correspondent, he had many such lucky escapes. Perhaps his greatest was evading Stalin’s purge of Jews after WWII: he was on the list most likely, but Stalin died before the thugs brought him in.
I was reminded of another four-eyed Jew, no artist, no intellectual, while reading Babel’s stories: David Brooks. Specifically, I thought of this column (discussed in this earlier post of mine) in which he goes to mush over the declarations of ‘muscular Christianity’ by a bigoted evangelical.
When you read Stott, you encounter first a tone of voice. Tom Wolfe once noticed that at a certain moment all airline pilots came to speak like Chuck Yeager. The parallel is inexact, but over the years I’ve heard hundreds of evangelicals who sound like Stott.
It is a voice that is friendly, courteous and natural. It is humble and self-critical, but also confident, joyful and optimistic. . .
Stott is so embracing it’s always a bit of a shock – especially if you’re a Jew like me – when you come across something on which he will not compromise. [Such as, that Jews are damned to hell, I wonder?] It’s like being in “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” except he has a backbone of steel. He does not accept homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle, and of course he believes in evangelizing among non believers. He is pro-life and pro-death penalty, even though he is not a political conservative on most issues.
Brooks loves that “spine of steel,” that unwillingness, or is it inability? to compromise. He loves the black and white nature of the view. And he even loves the tribalism, the with us or against us attitude. I guess Isaac Babel found it shocking how Cossacks looked at Jews like him too, and then fell in love with them when he got close enough to sniff…