What Is to Be Done?

November 28, 2011

What are we to think of What Is to Be Done?  I posted about it earlier, when I was partway through, commenting on its stilted dialog, its place in Russian history, and its lack of literary worth.  Having finished it, I can say that it is a weird book, a fascinating book, and yes, a novel without literary merit.  None at all – zilch.  But since it is such an incredibly important book in the history of Russian literature, ideas, and revolutionary politics, it is nevertheless a fascinating read! If  its only claims on our attention were that it stimulated Dostoyevsky to respond with his great anti-nihilist novel, Demons and his short novel, Notes from Underground, wouldn’t that be enough to make it worth our time?  And add to that the inspiration it gave to generations of radical revolutionaries, who finally overthrew the Russian old order, and you have a book that is hard to resist.  Why did I wait until now to read it!

Nikolai Chernyshevsky published the novel in 1863, and wrote it while in the Peter-Paul fortress, where he had been imprisoned on trumped-up charges.  The rest of his life, nearly twenty years, were spent in unproductive exile in Siberia. He was a revolutionary, although not one who actively involved himself in plots.  His appeal to the radical intellectuals of his day and afterwards was in his thorough rejection of the existing social order, his advocacy of complete and radical revolution, his scorn for reformist politics, and the mixture of traditional Russian cultural and religious themes with utopian socialist ideas from the West which form the material of What Is to Be Done?

Why did he ask that question?  Why were all the intelligentsy asking it? Because they were a vanishingly small class of educated and modern people living in a society that was more or less a holdover from the feudal age.  A society dominated by church, the Tsar, and landowners with serfs, who were more or less slaves.  The situation must have driven a thinking, secular, progressive person around the bend!  Not for nothing does Chernyshevsky reference Uncle Tom’s Cabin at several points in the narrative:  That book, a far superior literary work, also grew out of a maddeningly unjust social order against which it argued.

What Chernyshevsky’s novel offered to the radicals of his day, if not a literary model, was an inspiring character model:  the ‘New Ones,’ who would lead Russia into a revolutionary new social order.  The men and women, free, independent, liberated from oppressive social mores, feminists and atheistic materialists all, who, with a noble dedication to bringing about the greatest good for all, would steadfastedly direct their efforts, guided by Reason, to The Revolution.  They would educate and lead the masses to take what is theirs by right.

If it sounds a tad too good to be true, we need only look at the history of the USSR to see what came of it, and say, “Yes, too good to be true.”  The New Ones can easily become a vanguard of the masses that oppresses the masses.  And these characters, who all speak like disciples of Ayn Rand (I would love to know what she thought of it!) even when they are discussing love and marriage, seem a wee bit on the nutty side.  They are guided by a philosophy of Rational Egoism (not all that different from Rand’s ideas), but are convinced that pursuing their own interests will invariably benefit all the most.  Ah, but the rub is defining one’s interests properly, and that’s not as simply logical as they would have it.

Reading this book, and keeping in mind the insanity that passes for Reason in revolutionary politics at its worst, makes some things very clear.  The weird, incestuous and fanatical nature of the Bolsheviks, so well described by Sebag-Montefiore and Nadezhda MandelshtamThe incredible and ruthless violence against civilians, political opponents, and their own cadres of which they were capable…once the arguments had conclusively demonstrated the necessity of liquidating them.  The style of argument, again Ayn Rand comes to mind, that uses Reason and Logic as a brick with which to hit you in the face.  The characters in this book all speak with gentle affection, or controlled disdain, but…this is a novel.  People inspired by it are apt to take with it the parts that appeal to their own personalities, and then…who knows?

There really isn’t too much discussion of politics in this book:  the Tsar’s censors would not permit it.  There is a lengthy discussion of a sewing cooperative that goes swimmingly, of course, and is presented as a model of socialistic, un-alienated work, but much is presented only allegorically, or hinted at very obliquely.  There are several long dream narratives presented as set pieces, introduced by the author-narrator, that comment on the plot or present utopian futures.  In one of them, The Crystal Palace appears as the symbol of the utopian order to come.

I must now go and read again Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, a book that many see as a parodistic response to Chernyshevsky’s story.  We have the Crystal Palace to throw stones at, and passages like this one exhorting us to follow in the footsteps of the Noble Ones:

Superior natures, which you, my pitiful friends, and I cannot keep up with, aren’t like this at all.  I showed you a faint outline of the profile of one of them:  there you see very different features.  But you can become an equal to the people described here in full, if only you wish to work a bit on your own development.  Anyone who is beneath them is very low indeed.  Come up out of your godforsaken underworld, my friends, come up.  It’s not so difficult.  Come out into the light of day…

To which Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man answers:

I am a sick man.  I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.

And I am with you, Fyodor!


The Revolution Will Be Drained

November 16, 2011

Nostalgic Realist School

Once again, I find myself reading a book that I have heard of for ages, but never got to:  Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?  What indeed?  It was so influential that both Tolstoy and Lenin wrote pieces by the same name.  The introduction to my translation says that Notes from Underground is a sustained parody of the book and its ideas.  Basically, everyone was talking about it, and responding to it.  As the Dostoyevsky scholar, Joseph Frank, puts it:

If one were to ask for the title of the nineteenth-century Russian novel that has had the greatest influence on Russian society, …a non-Russian would choose among….Fathers and Sons, War and Peace, Crime and Punishment…No, the novel that can claim this honor with the most justice… What Is to Be Done?…  No work in modern literature, with the possible exception of Uncle’s Tom’s Cabin, can compete.

Unlike that American novel, another that took me time to get around to reading, and which I found to my surprise to be a stunningly powerful work, What Is to Be Done?  is simply awful as literature.  There’s no getting around it.  It’s clunky, talky, the characters are allegorical and speak in the most stilted way imaginable, and in addition, the author had to use ‘code’ to get by the censors of the Tsar.  The plot is a soap opera about idealistic young people who are, we gradually realize, members of a revolutionary movement, yet politics is not the focus of the book, but the liberation, legally and sexually, of women is.  Strange to think that this is the book that set the Bolsheviks in motion, but Lenin himself, besides his homage to the book’s title, energetically defended the novel against critics.

The book is also quite strange:  Chernyshevsky frequently indulges in meta-literary interludes, addressing the ‘dear reader,’ hinting at what’s to come, congratulating us for already knowing what’s to come, psychologizing his characters, and generally managing the action like a vaudeville impresario.  Yet, this was the book that led to the October Revolution!

The nihilistic revolutionaries of the story are pretty nice, wholesome, energetic, idealistic guys and gals, for the most part.  They just happen to be atheists and thoroughgoing materialists.  Chernyshevsky uses the story to espouse his theories of ‘rational egoism,’ which is a radical distillation of English utilitarianism:  all people act for advantage; there is no morality, there is only calculation of what one’s advantage is.  The same old rubbishman is motivated by two things: the desire for pleasure and the desire to avoid pain…  But because of the importance of the book, and, oddly, because it is chock-full of ideas, even if they are expressed in a wacky manner, it is, honestly, fascinating!

But, but, what’s this I find on page 216?  Something that lifts my spirits into the heavenly realm of drainage!  Here is the main character discoursing to his young wife on ‘agriculture’ and how to improve swampy wastelands:

Until very recently no one knew how to restore such fields to health; but now a method has been discovered.  It’s called ‘drainage’.  Excess water is channeled off into ditches, leaving only the required amount.

 The editor makes clear the real meaning of this ‘Aesopian’ language:

Russian radicals referred to mechanical processes such as drainage to indicate revolutionary means of change, and chemical processes to signify evolutionary change. Thus Chernyshevsky’s emphasis on drainage rather than on chemical improvement indicates his advocacy of revolution

I always knew that Drainage would serve The Revolution.  I will post more when I finish it.

Narbonne: Power and the People

September 6, 2011

Narbonne is a provincial city in southwest France, right on the Mediterranean, and close to Spain.  It was a big power center in the time of the Roman Empire, and a pretty big deal during the Middle Ages, but fell on hard times along with the rest of the Languedoc during the early modern period.  Much of the region is still quite poor relative to the rest of France.

On the wall of the City Hall in the main square and elsewhere, there are these two plaques with the heading:  1907 – It’s our history.  The pictures show some sort of an insurrection.  The text tells about an intransigent mayor who refused to surrender to the police authorities, demonstrations and riots in his support, and Clemenceau’s decision to draft troops from other regions of France (as Deng did in China during the Tiananmen activities) to go and suppress the disturbances.  Some shots were fired at crowds, some people died, order was restored.

I had to dig a bit to find out just what the ruckus was all about.  It’s known as La Revolte de Vigne, the Revolt of the Vinyards, and it was triggered by a terrible slump in prices for wine, caused in part by overproduction, wine being, then  and now, the economic engine of the region.  The mayor was a socialist, and the protesters were calling for some sort of popular relief.  Not too different from farmers in the Populist Movement of the USA.  In Kansas, do they have placards about agricultural actions that say, “It’s Our History?” I wonder?

Across the square from the plaques is an excavation to the original Roman road, Via Domitia, that ran from Barcelona through Provence.  For the Roman Empire, roads were as important as military posts for establishing and maintaining control.  Major Roman roads continued to be used throughout the medieval period as trade routes, long after the Empire ceased to exist except as an idea that would not die.

As for the people, the female half of them has a special place in French culture – we all know that.  Of course, I’m not talking about love, romance, and adultery:  I’m talking about shopping.  On the same town square, there is a 19th century building that used to be a large department store, emblazoned with the words, Aux dames de France (to the ladies of France) across its frieze.  It’s not Paris, but it could have as easily said ‘Ladies Delight!‘ the title of Zola’s great novel about a large department store.  Not too far away, Les halles, again, not the great Parisian market structure of Zola’s The Belly of Paris, but a wonderful place to fill one’s gut nonetheless, and right on Rue Emile Zola too!

I like Narbonne a lot:  it’s not exciting, but it’s open, informal, and has that pleasing architectural jumble that was wiped out in Paris by the facelift it got from Napoleon III and Hausmann in the 1850s and ’60s.   I also like indulging in cafe culture in the main square, something that just doesn’t exist at home.  Old people, housewives, young people, professionals at work, all sorts, sitting in the square, reading, eating, or just chatting for as long as they like, even if they buy nothing more than a coffee or a single beer.  And watching the people walking by or sharing their cafe space – the sunny weather makes it perfect!

What do French workers want?

October 20, 2010

With all the coverage of the conflict in France between the unions and the government, I have heard little about what the real issues are.  Yes, the unions don’t want their members to be forced to wait until the age of 62 to get full retirement – now they retire at 60.  And yes, that would still be the lowest retirement age in Europe, so, aren’t they just damn lazy?  Surely, they must have a position to counter Sarkozy’s insistence that the state just can’t afford this anymore…

Well, apparently they do.  I found this interesting article about the conflict, and I have excerpted most of it here:

… many workers say they’re prepared to stay the course, in spite of perceptions that they are simply too lazy to accept what would still be the lowest retirement age in Europe.  Two years too many, workers say Jean-Pierre Lesouef, an electronics manager at the transportation giant Thalys, says he has already worked for 37 years and is too tired to work into his 60s.

“I’ve had enough,” he says. “When you’re at my age and you’ve worked as long as I have, you see if you want to work another two years.”

Some experts say complaints like Mr. Lesouef’s go a long way toward explaining why the proposal to add an extra two years to French working life has caused so much upset.  Annual studies for the European Commission looking at attitudes toward work show the French, along with the Italians and the Spanish, are among the unhappiest workers on the continent.

Henri Sterdyniak, an economist at the Paris-based Centre for Economic Research, blames a hierarchical work structure within French companies that rarely allows room for professional development or promotions. Performance reviews are rare and negotiations on working conditions or career paths practically are scarce.

“The French model dictates that if you have a certain diploma you will have a certain career, and if you don’t you will never climb the ladder,” he says. “The worker at the bottom feels like he is constantly squeezed and never consulted. By the end of his career he is exhausted and uninterested, so it’s no wonder he wants to leave.”

Worker satisfaction has also dropped since the 37-hour workweek was introduced, because most people are forced to do the same tasks but in less time, Mr. Sterdyniak says.

Workers like Daniel Quittot, an air conditioning technician, say they’re concerned they will be forced out of their jobs and unable to find new work well before they turn 62. “I’m afraid that if the retirement age goes up, I’ll have two extra years on unemployment and in the end I won’t have worked long enough to collect my full pension,” he says.

Sterdyniak says Mr. Quittot has legitimate fears. Surveys show that unemployment among French workers over 55 rose dramatically when the retirement age was reduced to 60 from 65 in 1983 and is now among the highest in Europe. Although many want to work up to age 60, French employees are on average forced out of their jobs at 58.

“There is a real problem of age discrimination right now in France,” says Sterdyniak. “Unless that changes with the pension reform, we are going to create a whole new problem of unemployment.”

Enron and the dung heap…

January 20, 2010

After finishing Zola’s novel, Money (L’Argent), one name comes to mind – Enron.  It’s the same story!  Saccard, the infatuated market manipulator is Ken Lay, or maybe his more intelligent cronys who did the real work.  The hysterical run up of the market to fantastic stock prices, the fraud, the cooked books, the government winking and looking the other way, the grand infrastructure projects, and the inevitable crash that brings the house of cards to a pile of paper, and reduces thousands of people, many of them ordinary workers, to penniless, shell-shocked victims.

The book contains a few scenes in which Sigisimond, a fanatical Marxist, dying of consumption, and racing to commit to paper his world-saving vision for the New Society, converses with Saccard, the rapcious capitalist, and other characters.  He is clearly delusional and religious in his socialist faith – Zola was a liberal, but no revolutionary utopian – a sort of cockeyed, would-be Christ besotted with the Enlightenment.  Saccard just can’t get a purchase on his ideas – they seem to be speaking in different tongues.  The book ends, however, with this Sigisimond dying after relating his celestial vision to a more sympathetic figure, Madame Caroline.

Caroline’s brother was Saccard’s chief engineer, and truly believed in the mission of his Universal Bank.  Brother and sister deplored the financial chicanery, but eventually went along.  They sold early, before the crash, but gave away their profits out of guilt.  The brother is convicted along with Saccard in the post-crash scandal, although he was actually not culpable. 

Caroline is a voice of conscience throughout the novel, but she loves Saccard!  Their affair is broken off when he moves onto more glamorous and richer women, but he retains feelings for her.  Why does she love this shark, this brigand, this fraud, this man who will ruin so many?  Because…he is passionate, he does truly believe in his schemes, he is a life force. 

At the end, Caroline meditates on money, that filthy stuff that corrupts and destroys, and which drives Saccard and others to do prodigious things.  Saccard understands her misgivings, but he has an answer:  money is like the dung heap, and from that manure springs…LIFE.  It’s like sex, you see, it may be dirty, but without it, there is no love, and no life.  What an interesting combination of ideas!

Et Mme Caroline était gaie malgré tout avec son visage toujours jeune, sous sa couronne de cheveux blancs, comme si elle se fût rajeunie à chaque avril, dans la vieillesse de la terre. Et, au souvenir de honte que lui causait sa liaison avec Saccard, elle songeait à l’effroyable ordure dont on a également sali l’amour. Pourquoi donc faire porter à l’argent la peine des saletés et des crimes dont il est la cause? L’amour est-il moins souillé, lui qui crée la vie?  [conclusion of L’Argent]

My very inexpert translation:

Madame Caroline was gay despite herself, her face was looking young beneath her crown of white hair, and she was rejevenated as each April brings life to the old earth.  And, recalling the shame she felt about her affair with Scaccard, she thought of the awful dung heap that is like the soiled elements of love.  Why should one put all the blame and dark crimes on money?  Love, is it any less sullied? Love, that creates life?

Fiasco II – The horror, the horror…

October 31, 2009

The Commune - a familiar scene these days too...

I finished Zola’s novel The Debacle, and I feel as if I barely survived.  The book is absolutely harrowing in its depiction of the horror, gore, and sheer terror of war.  The graphic detail – heads blown off, entrails flying, hideous and ghoulish atrocities – are the sort of thing we expect in movies and books about war today, but in the 1890s?  I wonder if this marked a first.

Zola, of course, was known for doing his research, and he visited locations, interviewed scores of participants, and reviewed the literature.  In many ways, the book reads as an historical chronicle as much as a novel.  But it soars, or descends, into great, infernal poetry in scenes such as the days immediately after the disastrous defeats, when Jean and Maurice, solid peasant and educated bourgeois, fight for life in the great charnel house and prison that the countryside has become inside the Prussian encriclement.  The apocalypse seems to have arrived – corpses exploding and stinking, the river choked with dead men and animals, and wild herds of lost and starving cavalry horses charging madly about, destroying everything in their path in a frenzy of hunger and madness.

The deadly bitterness of occupation and civil strife are depicted as well. The murderous fury of the French against the collaborators recalls scenes I dimly remember from Marcel Ophul’s film, The Sorrow and the Pity.  (I went to see that with my parents as a kid – hardly understood any of it – but boy, did it make an impression!)  The bloodlust rises to epic stature as one woman conspires to murder the father of her child, watching as the guerillas truss him up, slit his throat, and bleed him dead like a great pig.

At the end, Maurice, now a crazed and fanatical communard, and Jean, fighting with the forces of reaction, simply because he wants everything to be gotten back in order so he can return to the land, meet again in a Paris that is recapitulating the Fall of Babylon.  An orgy of destruction, madness, and atrocious murderous rage is burning itself out.  Zola was a liberal who detested left-wing revolutionaries.  He tries to fathom in Maurice how an educated man could throw his lot in with such people as a result of the deep humiliation of the war, the frantic desire to destroy everything in the hope that something better will replace it, and the end-game of months of war, besiegement, hunger, and isolation:

Just previous to the 31st of October Maurice was more than usually a victim to this malady of distrust and barren speculation. He listened now approvingly to crude fancies that would formerly have brought a smile of contempt to his lips. Why should he not? Were not imbecility and crime abroad in the land? Was it unreasonable to look for the miraculous when his world was falling in ruins about him?

And so Maurice went on leading an idle, vagabondish sort of life, in a state of constant feverish agitation. He had ceased to be tormented by hunger; he devoured the first white bread he got with infinite gusto; but the city was a prison still: German guards were posted at the gates, and no one was allowed to pass them until he had been made to give an account of himself. There had been no resumption of social life as yet; industry and trade were at a standstill; the people lived from day to day, watching to see what would happen next, doing nothing, simply vegetating in the bright sunshine of the spring that was now coming on apace. During the siege there had been the military service to occupy men’s minds and tire their limbs, while now the entire population, isolated from all the world, had suddenly been reduced to a state of utter stagnation, mental as well as physical. He did as others did, loitering his time away from morning till night, living in an atmosphere that for months had been vitiated by the germs arising from the half-crazed mob. He read the newspapers and was an assiduous frequenter of public meetings, where he would often smile and shrug his shoulders at the rant and fustian of the speakers, but nevertheless would go away with the most ultra notions teeming in his brain, ready to engage in any desperate undertaking in the defense of what he considered truth and justice. And sitting by the window in his little bedroom, and looking out over the city, he would still beguile himself with dreams of victory; would tell himself that France and the Republic might yet be saved, so long as the treaty of peace remained unsigned.

from the Project Gutenberg text:  The Downfall

Karl Marx, and revolutionaries everywhere, revered the Commune, but the picture that Zola paints of it is of a disorganized, opportunistic, delusional, and fanatical group of die-hards who reduced the city of Paris to ashes.  Not that he thinks well of the forces of reaction either.  Ultimately, they serve the masters who brought on the entire debacle, by starting the war with Prussia.

In the end, France will have to be rebuilt, born anew, as in his great novel Germinal, through the simple and unstoppable drive to live and flourish in peace that Jean, the simple peasant, represents.


October 26, 2009

Napoleon III - Emperor of the French

File this under incompetent leaders of great states, right next to George W. Bush: 

The Paris of today that everyone dreams about was given to us in the 1860s and 70s by this man, Napoleon III, and his civil servant, Baron Haussmann.  His reign began in liberal democratic enthusiasm, progressed to despotism by way of coup d’état, and ended in dismal, utter, spectacular, and mind bogglingly stupid failure. 

He was manipulated into provoking a war with Prussia, convinced he would win in a walkover.  Bismarck, Prussia’s leader, couldn’t have asked for a more pliable victim.  The military catastrophe is chronicled in the first part of Zola’s book, The Debacle.  thousands of desparately hungry, exhausted soldiers marching to and fro over the French landscape, despondent and demoralized as they realize that they are being led by a gang of complete idiots. 

Think of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 without the wild hilarity, and you’ll have a notion of what I’m reading now.  In the film, The Life of Émile Zola, there is a scene early on in which the general staff is incensed at Zola about this book – they are out to get him. 

After the disaster came the Paris Commune, with its murder, insurrection, and brutal suppression.  Then, as time heals all wounds, socialist, communist, and liberal came together across their political differences to slake their thirst for revenge (la revanche!)  against Germany.  Much to the consternation of some leftists, dreaming of international solidarity, the worker’s parties supported France’s lunge into WWI – the time to regain lost territory had come at last.  More lambs to the slaughter.