La politique noir

November 30, 2011

From film noir to la politique noir, and I don’t mean ‘black politics’, as in Black Power.   My reading and viewing have converged at what Philip Pomper, in his biography of Sergei Nechaev, calls, “[the] striking lesson in the disastrous possibilities of revolutionary politics.”  Extreme disturbed personalities, fantastic rhetoric, and violence.  Patty Hearst, Dostoyevsky’s Demons, Ed Begley as a lunatic Texan Cold Warrior, and Nechaev, fact and fiction.  Let’s start with Ms. Hearst.

Patty Hearst, a film from 1988, directed by Paul Schrader, with Natasha Richardson in the lead, is hard to find, but you can get it on DVD.  It doesn’t seem to be an official release, whatever that means, but it is a very fine dramatization of this crazy episode in revolutionary fringe politics.  Schrader is sympathetic to, but not sentimental about Hearst:  a young, sheltered girl who thought she knew a thing or two about the world is kidnapped and kept in a closet for weeks, blindfolded and gagged, treated like a dog, and raped (made a sperm receptacle) by her captors, male, and it seems female as well.  We would all like to think that we would come through this okay, and escape at the first opportunity, rather than imploding and joining the gang, so, as she tells us at the end, her survival, ‘rescue’, and trial were mightily inconvenient for the mass audience following every sordid minute of the tale.

I’ve written about the Symbionese Liberation Front and their rhetoric before, and the film does a great job of dramatizing it.  Ving Rhames (Marsellus in Pulp Fiction) uses that deep voice of his to convey the  incantatory and delusional charisma of Field Marshal Cinque.   The thing is, that as I’m watching it, I’m thinking of Dostoyevsky’s novel, Demons.  After Patty has joined The Cause, and is helping plan a bank job, she asks, “Will the rest of The Army help us with it?”  Everyone chuckles, and Cinque replies, “It’s just us, there is no army.”  Did Pyotr Verkhovensky really have a network of cells communicating with him?  Some characters wondered.  The similarities multiply.

The members of Hearst’s cell are all white, except for their leader, Cinque, and they all have a major case of white radical guilt.  When Hearst complains that she is hungry, they tell her “This is how black people in our country live every day!  You don’t know!”   Every word Cinque utters is considered brilliant.  At one point, a cell member responds to a rather inept and non-sequitur comment with, “Brilliant, that’s brilliant!  Goddamn it , goddamn I wish I was black!”  Later, he is shown in blackface makeup, the usual disguise they use, attempting to strike a streetwise pose.  This corrosive guilt and lack of self-esteem it brings to political thinking was not new in the 60’s:  Nechaev was very successful in exploiting it in his recruitment of middle-class and upper-class Russians of his own time.

It is well-known the Demons draws heavily on the trial record of Sergei Nechaev, who had a brief period of power within the chaotic Russian revolutionary movement.  He was a manipulator, a liar, a thief, and totally – that’s actually an understatement – unprincipled.  When he started his own journal, it was called The People’s Revenge.   He bilked Herzen and his daughter out of thousands, tried to seduce her after the old socialist’s death, played Bakunin like a fiddle, and committed so many frauds – he was always claiming to have legions of followers at his beck and call – that Bakunin’s association with him gave Marx the leverage to get Bakunin kicked out of the International, that pesky, infantile, anarchist!  (In fact, I have discovered, there is a scholarly literature on the Russophobia of Karl Marx.  He thought they, the Russian revolutionaries, were a bit nuts – how’s that for communist irony!)

What I found  surprising regarding Demons, is how closely some parts of the novel are modeled on Nechaev’s life.  The central murder of the book, in fact, conforms almost exactly to the facts of the case – the botched disposal of the corpse in a pond; luring the victim with a story of a buried press; and the almost comic disorganization of the killers.  We must recall, after all, that Dostoyevsky originally was planning a comic burlesque of nihilist politics when he began his story.  The Wise Serpent of Demons, combines many of Nechaev’s personality traits with a cunning and slyness that the real-life figure lacked.  Nechaev moved with clumsy and ill-concealed cynicism towards his goals, eventually disgusting most of those he worked with in the revolutionary underground.  Still, he was committed to the cause, fanatically, so they cut him a lot of slack.

Pomper dissects his life with a lens tinted with psychoanalytic hues, but not intrusively so:  the Oedipal, infantile anti-authoritarian, and perverse sexual mental contortions of his thinking are quite plain in his writings.  One of his favorite propaganda tropes was to depict the orgiastic and revolting sexual activities of the Tsar, the nobles, or of whomever he was attacking.  Obviously, this sort of rhetoric has a long history – often turned against Jews – and it had a grand future, being part of the revolutionary stock in trade right up to 1917.  His language makes use of religious themes as well, particularly martyrdom, for which he planned, and is in this way curiously linked to the imagery of What Is to Be Done?

I originally bought Pomper’s  biography hoping to find more writings of Nechaev’s, but apart from some letters, and excerpts from articles he wrote, and, of course, the full text of his Catechism, there was not much.  I was particularly disappointed by the absence of a translation of his Foundations for a Future Social Order, the document in which he lays out his plans for society after the revolutionary transformation.  From the bits I have read of and about it, it is a grim vision of a militantly regimented society that seems drawn from the history of ancient Sparta and Fourier’s utopian plans.  What particularly upset some (according to Nechaev) were his notions of communal dining.  This led to Marx’s famous contemptuous dismissal of his ideas as “barracks communism.”  In his world, Pechorin would be less than superfluous:  he would be a pest to be exterminated.

Was Nechaev on his mind when Italo Calvino wrote Beheading the Heads?  In this short story, a tourist happens upon a land where the leaders are ritually executed periodically (as were some kings in ancient times, if The Golden Bough is to be believed).  The action then jumps back in time to show us the nihilist cells planning for The Revolution, after which there will be no leaders other than those who agree to die, and so prevent tyranny.  One man questions whether they should not ritually execute the leaders of their cells since that is what they plan for society.  Are they not hypocrites if they do not?  Naturally, there is some hesitation on this point amongst the revolutionary heads.  They hit upon a compromise:  they will ritually mutilate the leaders at suitable intervals, leaving the post-revolutionary society to fully implement their plan.  It concludes with descriptions of revolutionary activity led by men with no fingers, missing ears, sometimes a wooden leg, each vanished appendage a testament to their zeal for the New World Order.

Finally, we have Ken Russell’s film, Billion Dollar Brain (1967), with the always enjoyable Michael Caine.  It’s basically, a mediocre spy film that followed Caine’s work as Harry Palmer in The Ipcress File.  The film is enlivened by Karl Malden playing an utter sleaze of an ex-agent gone ‘entrepreneur’  working for ‘General’ Midwinter (Ed Begley), a fanatical anti-communist zillionaire from Texas.  Midwinter is angry at the world, at the government (the password between his men is always, “now is the Winter of our discontent“) and most of all at the commies.  He has a secret plan to use germ warfare against the Russians while his private army of rebels in Latvia begin the dissolution of the Evil Empire.   He mixes Christian fundamentalism with anti-Russian hellfire to work up enthusiasm among his ’employees’, while his plans are being completely undermined by Malden’s diversion of the mercenaries payroll into his own pocket.  The Russians are onto him too, and they efficiently dispose of his army in an air attack on the frozen Baltic that brings to mind Alexander Nevksy’s victory at Novogorod.  Perhaps it takes a Brit to penetrate to the center of the American Texas phenomenon.  In this case, Russell’s exaggeration was no exaggeration.

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Demons I: Fanatical and Fatuous

October 27, 2011

I am 3/4 through Dostoyevsky’s Demons, in the recent P&V translation, and the action has certainly picked up!  At first, the book was tough going with its large cast of characters, the nicknames, the relationships between them that are hidden, and the strange mix, typical of Dostoyevsky, of parody, satire, melodrama, and biting criticism.  (I agree completely with Frank’s remark in the introduction that Dostoyevsky’s qualities as a satirist and humorist are vastly underrated.)  I had to make a crib sheet to keep the people straight, and it was often difficult to understand what was happening on a page, even though I read carefully.  Sort of like reading an old and decorous novel about sexual seduction and moving over the ‘good part’ without realizing that the characters actually are having sex…but this isn’t about sex, for the most part.

Readers of this blog will know that I have a soft spot for extreme rhetoric (see links below), from the religious or political standpoint, and crackpot intellectual systems.  The section in Part II, With Our People, an ironic ‘our’, describes a meeting of  local poseurs, provocateurs, agitators, and intellectual wannabees spouting political rhetoric.  There is a heated discussion of whether or not it will be necessary to chop off the heads of one million souls, and whose heads will go flying.  And there are hilarious and idiotic exchanges among students whose heads are filled with slogans and left-wing catch phrases.  At one point, a stuffy respectable gentleman remonstrates with a young student-girl hothead, saying:

But I’m your uncle!  I used to tote you around in my arms when you were still an infant!

The Generation Gap in miniscule.  She replies:

What do I care what you used to tote around.  I didn’t ask you to tote me around, which means, mister impolite officer, that you got pleasure from it.

I sense a delicious parody here of the intellectual obsession with Utilitarian theories, which Dostoyevsky loathed:  people are motivated to avoid pain and seek pleasure, simple as that.  No sense in pointing out your former selfless and dutiful familial activities:  you did it for your own pleasure!

The chilling talk of mass murder might have seemed simply absurd in the 1860s, before Stalin, Lenin, and Hitler, not to mention Pol Pot.  And speaking of Pol Pot, the modern master of barracks communism, as Marx derisively characterized the ravings of the great nihilist,  Nechaev, the trial transcript of Pot’s Russian ancestor was grist for Dostoyevsky’s mill.  (Dostoyevsky was writing in the realist tradition, after all!)  I’ve found very little about Mr. (Nilhil) Nechaev in English, other than the catechism (see link), from which I offer these tidbits:

  • The revolutionary despises all doctrines and refuses to accept the mundane sciences, leaving them for future generations. He knows only one science: the science of destruction. For this reason, but only for this reason, he will study mechanics, physics, chemistry, and perhaps medicine. But all day and all night he studies the vital science of human beings, their characteristics and circumstances, and all the phenomena of the present social order. The object is perpetually the same: the surest and quickest way of destroying the whole filthy order.
  • Tyrannical toward himself, he must be tyrannical toward others. All the gentle and enervating sentiments of kinship, love, friendship, gratitude, and even honor, must be suppressed in him and give place to the cold and single-minded passion for revolution. For him, there exists only one pleasure, on consolation, one reward, one satisfaction – the success of the revolution. Night and day he must have but one thought, one aim – merciless destruction. Striving cold-bloodedly and indefatigably toward this end, he must be prepared to destroy himself and to destroy with his own hands everything that stands in the path of the revolution.
  • The nature of the true revolutionary excludes all sentimentality, romanticism, infatuation, and exaltation. All private hatred and revenge must also be excluded. Revolutionary passion, practiced at every moment of the day until it becomes a habit, is to be employed with cold calculation. At all times, and in all places, the revolutionary must obey not his personal impulses, but only those which serve the cause of the revolution.

And then, at the fete, there is the fatuous Mr. Karmazinov, a lampoon of Ivan Turgenev, the Euro-centered literary master with whom Dostoyevsky had a difficult, and largely hostile relationship.  (Ivan and Flaubert were great friends.) His speech bidding farewell to his readers, none of which is in the audience, is a scornful burlesque of intellectual self-satisfaction and pompousness.  Perhaps it is unfair to Turgenev, but it would not be so funny if it weren’t.  No doubt, he would love it if his fans would beg him, on their knees of course, not to leave Russia for retirement in Germany.  So much for westward-leaning intellectuals who see Russia’s future in Europe.

After his final words, and merci, Karmazinov is called back on stage to loud applause, and the governor’s radical-chic wife hands him a bouquet of roses.

“Laurels!” Karmazinov said with a subtle and somewhat caustic grin.  “I am moved, of course, and accept this wreath, prepared beforehand but as yet unwithered, with lively emotion:  but I assure you, mesdames, I have suddenly become so much of a realist that I consider laurels in our age rather more fitting in the hands of skillful cook than in mine…”

Shouts from the crowd reply:

“Except that cooks are more useful!”  and
“I’ll add three more roubles for a cook”
“So would I.”
“So would I.”
“But do they really have no buffet here…?”

He, he! Oh, that Fyodor, he’s a card!

Some links to over the top talk:


Flagellants, Ranters, Chiliasts, and such…

August 28, 2007


Italian Medieval Flagellant Procession

The historian, Norman Cohn (b. 1915) died yesterday. He is the author of one my favorite books, one that inspired and confirmed me in my love of over-the-top rhetoric, The Pursuit of the Millennium.

What a cast of characters: The English Civil War Ranters, advocates of a radical theory of political and economic equality; the flagellants – travelling about the countryside, mortifying their flesh, seeking to expiate sin and hasten the coming of The End; Chiliasts, echatological fiddlers, frauds, and psychopaths galore! Anarchist Millennarian peasant uprisings seeking to establish apostolic communism in Reformation Europe – all brutally crushed; the Cathars and Waldensians, against whom a war of extermination was fought in southern France in the 12th century. Ah yes, the days when religion had its proper sway in the affairs of western society! Oh wait, then why are we so angry with our Muslim co-habitants of the planet?!

Cohn, trained as a linguist, read all the available texts, and sought to explain the social context, the human brew that gave vent to these outrageous religio-politico vaporings. He felt that the Nazis and Communists were deeply indebted to these ancient movements, and that they sometimes conciously, sometimes not, employed their logic and rhetoric: The New World is coming! Kill the dissenting cockroaches! All values are gone – only the declarations of the great charismatic annointed leader, the one who has heard the prophecy, are to be obeyed! Trust not your parents, your teachers, put all faith in Herr Hitler, Comarade Stalin, Chairman Mao… whoever.

Yes, and let’s not forget that movement that really was true to the spirit of Norman’s subjects, albeit in a small way, the Symbionese Liberation Army, led by Field Marshall Cinque. The newsman always pronounced it as Sin-Cue, but I wonder, was he actually a francophile devotee of the radical left, Monsieur Cinque?

Here’s a snippet from Cohn’s book, quoted on of all places, a Situationist website devoted to the French (millennarian?) Raoul Vaneigem:

It was in the crowded Italian towns that organised flagellant processions appeared for the first time. The movement was launched in 1260 by a hermit of Perugia and spread southwards to Rome and northwards to the Lombard cities with such rapidity that to contemporaries it appeared a sudden epidemic of remorse. Led usually by priests, masses of men, youths and boys marched day and night, with banners and burning candles, from town to town. And each time they came to a town they would arrange themselves in groups before the church and flog themselves for hours on end. The impact which this public penance made upon the general population was great. Criminals confessed, robbers returned their loot and usurers the interest on their loans, enemies were reconciled and feuds forgotten. …Whole towns became involved in the movement … As the processions moved along they constantly increased in size, until they were many thousand strong. But if at times people of all classes would join in, it was the poor who persevered; so that in the latter stages of the movement they alone remained.

The circumstances under which this first outbreak of mass self-flaggellation occurred are significant. Even by medieval standards, conditions in Italy at that moment were exceptionally hard. … A chronicler remarked that during the flagellant processions people behaved as though they feared that as a punishment for their sins God was about to destroy them all by earthquake and by fire from on high. It was in a world which seemed poised on the brink of the abyss that these penitents cried out, as they beat themselves and threw themselves upon their faces: ‘Holy Virgin take pity on us! Beg Jesus Christ to spare us!’ and ‘Mercy, mercy! Peace, peace!’ — calling ceaselessly, we are told, until the fields and mountains seemed to echo with their prayers and musical instruments fell silent and love-songs died away.