Monthly Archives: October 2012

Mary Whitehouse as seen from Russia: Moral Re-Armament’s lethal legacy.

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Sitting in a one-room flat in the suburbs outside Moscow in this late October 2012 I’ve been reading a review of letters from the Mary Whitehouse Archive in the Guardian Guardian review of Whitehouse letters. It seems rather appropriate. This week some self-styled association of Cossacks from St. Petersburg were the latest to fire some shots in Russia’s culture war. They attacked the locally-based but internationally known film director, Aleksandr Sokurov stating that he promoted sodomy and homosexuality and seem to have scored a victory in the cancellation of a theatrical performance of Lolita Cancellation of Lolita as well as an exhibition promoted by Marat Guelman entitled Icons. There seems to be some uncertainty about the identity of this group of ‘Cossacks’ but this is simply one of a number of blows in the culture wars that have been going on for some years but seem to have flared up in recent months since the Pussy Riot affair. Another interview with a self-styled moralizer, a certain Tatiana Borikova in an interview with Взглядseems to have taken the taken the rhetoric one step further by referring to a number of unnamed theatre directors popular in Europe are ‘tramps and paedophiles’, continually using the word извращенцы (perverts) for named directors including Kirill Serebrennikov and even Oleg Tabakov. She suggests at one point that they should perform their plays elsewhere – somewhere in Kaliningrad, or “on the moon”. Vzgliad interview 

To explain the long list of actions in this culture war between art and religion here in Russia is not the main aim of this post. I have written briefly about the case of Anna Alchuk previously and the history surrounding the Beware Religion exhibition at the Sakharov Centre in Moscow almost a decade ago has been written about even if not as extensively as its significance may warrant. It seems almost too petty to mention the name of Mary Whitehouse who had more the reputation of an irritant than as a significant force in cultural history in the UK. Yet it would be instructive to remember some of the roots of Whitehouse’s thinking as well as some of the cases that she involved herself in (as well as to bring some scepticism to the idea that she was, at worst, harmless or even had some positive contributions to make as Mary Kenny argued not too long ago Mary Kenny’s defence of Mary Whitehouse. ) One article in the Guardian four years ago called her a rottweiler in a twin set and this is, arguably, not a bad characterization. She associated herself with a group of extremely right-wing personalities such as Jane Birdwood who were anti-immigrant, anti-semitic and ultra fascist (Birdwood published a pamphlet denying the Holocaust and was sentenced to a three months suspended sentence for stirring up racial hatred in 1994) as well as having her roots in the so-called Moral Re-Armament Movement of Frank Buchman (formerly known as the Oxford Group). Reinhold Niebuhr had this to say about Buchman:

a Nazi social philosophy has been a covert presumption of the whole Oxford group enterprise from the very beginning. We may be grateful to the leader for revealing so clearly what has been slightly hidden. Now we can see how unbelievably naïve this movement is in its efforts to save the world. If it would content itself with preaching repentance to drunkards and adulterers one might be willing to respect it as a religious revival method which knows how to confront the sinner with God. But when it runs to Geneva, the seat of the League of Nations, or to Prince Starhemberg or Hitler, or to any seat of power, always with the idea that it is on the verge of saving the world by bringing the people who control the world under God-control, it is difficult to restrain the contempt which one feels for this dangerous childishness.

Buchman was also on record as stating in an interview that “I thank heaven for a man like Adolf Hitler, who built a front line of defense against the anti-Christ of Communism.” These then were the ‘intellectual and moral roots’ of Whitehouse. It is worth looking too at her and her victories or near victories- Stanley Kubrick was to withdraw his film Clockwork Orange from Britain after her campaign against it and she also managed to secure a victory in a case of blasphemy against Gay News for publishing James Kirkup’s poem The Love That Dares to Speak its Name and although she finally lost the case against Michael Bogdanov in the case over the the play The Romans in Britain she scored a legal victory in making theatre subject to the Sexual Offences Act. The extraordinary story of this case is recounted here The Romans in Britain   What seems extraordinary is that she seemed so near to winning this case too and even though she lost it, Howard Brenton has argued quite rightly that “notoriety is destructive in the arts. The work disappears in the strobe-light barrage of scandal, moral hysteria and media frenzy”. In the case of The Romans in Britain the whole meaning of the play was ignored (it was probably one of the few plays which had something serious to say about British colonialism in Northern Ireland and the crimes of war so the moral frenzy and hysteria was also a kind of smokescreen to silence this deeply uncomfortable subject from being aired.

So in effect the image of Mary Whitehouse as being an irritant figure of fun who was the laughing stock of British society doesn’t quite explain the fact that her campaigns were much more effective than people actually thought. In 2008 the BBC itself produced a drama about the Whitehouse Story which actually portrayed her in much more sympathetic terms than her nemesis at the BBC, Hugh Greene. Yet she was prepared to use the law to impose her own ‘moral agenda’ in response to what she once told an interlocutor was a ‘liberal conspiracy designed to destroy Britain’s leading role in civilization’.

It is strange to think that her obsessions and paranoid way of thinking could have a whole army of followers & that her virulent legacy lives on. Yet sitting here in the Moscow Region the liberal conspiracy theory, the moral frenzy, the attacks on theatre directors and on art per se’ has seriously stepped up a few gears. The suspended and cancelled plays and exhibitions are already becoming a regular occurrence. The homophobic Whitehouse and her friend Baronness Birdwood will surely be dancing in their graves at what the deputy in the St Petersburg legislative assembly and co-author of a law forbidding the promotion of homosexuality in the city had to say when a Moscow gay bar was attacked by fascist thugs that is:

it was the ”result of the obnoxious, crude and permissive behavior of the gay community. …What other reaction could there be when, in response to democratic actions, they run around like jackals at consulates, beg for another grant and write letters demanding that the authorities be punished? This is a warning to the gay community so that they don’t forget that they live in the Russian Federation, a country with a healthy historical and cultural legacy.

The obsessions of these ‘moral guardians’ are the same the world over- the time scales may differ, the degrees of success, but the language is the same (purity, spirituality, moral rectitude and the obsession with filth and uncleanliness). The ghost of Mary Whitehouse is alive and well and playing havoc with the cultural agenda in contemporary Russia. Her legacy was never really buried in her own country but here, in Russia, the legacy of Moral Re-Armament seems to have acquired a definite and poisonous virulence.

Anastasia Baburova. On a film and a film festival dedicated to her.

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In my father’s village in Italy there is a plaque upon which the words ‘Andrea Mainieri: fallen in the cause of freedom’. Even in this colourful, touristic village of the Cinque Terre, fascism sowed its deathly plague of terror and murder. In many ways the plaque is a kind of white lie. Immediately after the war another plaque hung in that place with different words- the following: Andrea Mainieri: Cowardly Murdered by the Fascists of Riomaggiore. The narrative changed and fratricidal or internal conflicts became cloaked in a different myth which suited the post-war Christian Democrats and centrist allies- anti-fascism became a fight for a nebulous liberty that could be associated with a dubious but not exceedingly oppressive status quo (rather than for a liberation from particularly vile agents of a virulent form of age-old oppression). On January 19th, 2009 something happened in the centre of Moscow which reminded me of the murder of Andrea Mainieri and the near fatal wounding of another anti-fascist, Benedetto Mori (a friend of my grandfathers). Russian Neo-Nazis murdered two anti-fascists: Stanislav Markelov  and Anastasia Baburova (this was not the first time that Nazis murdered their opponents but it was, perhaps, the first time that they had dared murder them in broad daylight in the centre of the capital). Stas Markelov had managed to accomplish a certain amount in his lifetime leaving behind enough writings to fill a volume called Никто кроме меня (No-one Apart from Me). Nastya, nine years younger, only managed to write a full articles for Новая Газета and the occasional commentary on her blog. Her blog described the moment everything changed for her- the reason why she had become active. On a metro car she witnessed two Nazis beating a Korean and then leaving with a Nazi salute and a chant of Sieg Heil. She wrote reflecting on how she could look this Korean in the eye after this. The last person she looked in the eye was her Nazi killer who had just shot Stas Markelov dead and who she then confronted and who cowardly murdered her. There are no plaques to either Stas Markelov or Nastya Baburova up in Moscow and no streets named after them, no statues. How can there be when, according to yesterday’s reports, the father confessor of Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church has just blessed a Russian Neo-Nazi and his part in the fascist Russian March which takes place every November 4th. Nazis, it seems, have penetrated into the very heart of the Russian establishment and it is the anti-fascists who are increasingly the marginalized and the outsiders in contemporary Russia.

Anastasia Baburova, before her untimely death, managed to leave one phrase which however should remain on the lips of all who are serious in the fight against fascism. In Russian it goes like this Мое отечество – все человечество (My country is the whole of humanity). In a recent interview, Russia’s foremost film scholar, Naum Kleiman, remarked that there is no contemporary  Russian cinema precisely because filmmakers in Russian have never had the courage to deal with the real problems and scourges of contemporary Russian society – nationalism, racism and much of society’s obsession with ‘Holy Russia’. There is, however, one film which was made by a filmmaker who knew that his film would never be shown in the main cinema’s of Russia or elsewhere but who spent his own money on bearing witness to one anti-fascist whose memory one day will be honoured along with those Italian, Spanish and German anti-fascists (of the 1920s and 1930s) or the anti-fascists who fought Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the East End of London in the 1930s as well as those who volunteered to fight fascism in Spain (along with a whole generation of Soviet people who paid the heaviest price of all in the defeat of fascism). The film is by Valery Balayan and entitled Любите меня, пожалуйста (Love me, please) and is available with English subtitles on youtube:

Valery Balayan’s film on Anastasia Balayan

Her native town of Sevastopol in the Crimea this April decided to set up an Anti-Fascist Film Festival in her name http://sevline.com/фестивали/фестиваль-антифашистского-кино.html – recent signs like the blessing of Neo-Nazis by religious hierarchs make these gestures of solidarity and memory of the name of Anastasia Baburova ever more important.

Вечная ей память!

Bobi Bazlen- the writer of footnotes.

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There are few more fascinating portraits of the silence of writers than Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby and Company. Cases like those of Rimbaud, Rulfo and Salinger- of writers who abandoned their vocation abound as are cases of those who are authors of only one book. Yet he talks briefly of another- of one who was the author of nothing other than an abandoned half novel, a few collections of ‘notes without a text’ as well as a few dozen letters to publishers and two dozen letters to the Nobel Prize winning writer Eugenio Montale. Unlike Sigismund Krzhizhanovsky who published nothing in his lifetime but whose texts add up to five rather thick volumes when published posthumously, the Triestine Jew Bobi Bazlen defied all the expectations of those who believed that he had hidden a great work to be published posthumously. He really was sincere when he stated that “I don’t write books. Nearly all books are footnotes that have been swollen into volumes. I only write footnotes.”

Yet this writer of footnotes deserves more than a footnote himself when talking about the history of literature in the twentieth century. Bazlen was a man of prodigious culture: another Triestine writer, Guido Voghera, said of him “Bobi Bazlen scorns intelligence because he has too much”. This philosopher of absence and negation has obsessed and fascinated a number of writers but still remains far too unknown.

Claudio Magris and Angelo Ara in their history of Trieste say of Bazlen: “Sower of labyritnhs and confusion, Bazlen is a mentality (thought process) living near a vacuum, near an absence. Bazlen is a kind of Musil who felt no urgency in writing The Man Without Qualities”.  Moni Ovadia went on to describe the particularly Jewish nature of Bazlen’s thought  in the way that Jewish thought is found in the spaces left open by writing , in its pneumatic vacuums and in the shadows of its elusivity in the sense that one could, like the works of Bazlen, call the Talmud “a monument to footnotes”.

The figure of Bazlen and his refusal to write obsessed Daniele del Giudice so much that he wrote a novel Wimbledon Stadium (Lo Stadio di Wimbledon) in which he tried to ask the question as to why Bazlen didn’t write. This was a writer manque’ who could write so well, introduced the works of many into Italy (Vila Matas mentions Freud, Musil and Kafka), and was a friend of Svevo, Saba, Montale and Proust. As Vila-Matas states, the book of Del Giudice is about the narrator’s decision to write (and presumably that of Del Giudice himself) and their justification for writing against the “terrorism of negativity” (the term is of Patrizia Lombardo) and so, in many ways, a book against the position of Bazlen. Del Giudice’s position (according to Vila Matas) is that while a text is based on nothingness there is a kind of morality of form which justifies writing. Yet Bazlen’s challenge remained and was solved by Bazlen in another manner. His very absence of a work, this negation, became in a way Bazlen’s major work.

Roberto Calasso in his introduction to the publication of Bazlen’s ‘Writings’ (his letters to people at the Einaudi publishing house, to Montale, his various footnotes or notes without a text as they are called in the book and the odd introduction or preface as well as his half abandoned novel (these last two being written in German) stated that Bazlen’s presence constrained others to think and that he intervened in this way in the lives of others. For Calasso the ‘triestinity’ of Bazlen is a false argument (it is uncertain how Calasso reacts to Ovadia’s idea of the Jewishness of Bazlen’s thought) and that Bazlen was a ‘post-historic’ man from which no cultural or environmental background can do justice to his contribution. For Calasso, Bazlen is, ultimately, Taoist rather than a Platonian or Aristotelian thinker, for Bazlen refused to obey all the essential incompatibilities which dictated the choices of all those who actually wrote. Bazlen’s own evasion or flight from writing was, in fact, one of his greatest discoveries. What was Bazlen’s greatest work, then? Calasso finds it in one of Bazlen’s footnotes where he states “Before one was born alive and one then slowly died. Now one is born dead – and some are able to slowly come alive”. For Calasso this gradual opening towards life itself was Bazlen’s great achievement. By not supporting oneself on any foundation, Bazlen was in continual movement without either an end or a direction- this process of self-transformation could not be uttered or transformed into writing.

Perhaps this radical choice of footnotes versus works as well as interventions in life, letters to his acquaintances and friends in publishing houses would provide those spaces where others would think could be seen as another form. If Adorno’sreflections in Minima Moralia or Benjamin’s obsessive cataloguing in his Arcades Project represent some of the forms of grandeur outside of the swollen work, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake could be seen as another form of grandeur then, perhaps, Bobi Bazlen’s footnotes and letters offer us another form (to me the Baroque disquisitions of Angelo Maria Ripellino’s works on Russian culture offer yet another of these surprising novelties). Bazlen offered a way of measuring, of taking stock of our vacuum, the empty place, from which works may emerge.

Reading through the ‘footnotes’ from Bazlen’s four notebooks one finds aphorisms, reflections and sometimes mere two or three word descriptions. The one notebook that is divided into themes has as its subjects, for example, the following : England, Death, the Italians, the Germans, Cinema, Present Day problems, Art, Literature and so on. For example, under the title Christ here is one of the reflections of Bazlen:

Christ was crucified after having said ‘Father why have you forsaken me’. Christians have themselves crucified in order not to be forsaken by Christ. It’s easy and lacks fantasy.

Or another thought under the same subject:

One drinks one’s own blood or the blood of the dragon. The blood of the Crucifix is the liqueur of being without destiny.

Under the title England, Bazlen writes down as his first entry simply the term ‘Robinson Complex’ or he notes later on (about the English) ‘Only intelligent the pedantry of nonsense (the word is in English). Or he simply quotes something that, presumably, he has heard ‘Don’t sit there doing nothing. In a moment you will start thinking’ or sometimes he simply gives a one-word definition or encapsulation of a phenomenon. So, for example, the angry young men– they bark. Sometimes we are fortunate to have an added commentary by someone who knew Bazlen. So, for example, the Robinson Complex was something Bazlen thought was found in many English people – walking around at night in London he discovered that many people were busy painting their rooms – he told a friend “each in his own small island like Robinson Crusoe, busy in building their own hut with all the conveniences”. Beyond this was a whole historical theory of how the English since the seventeenth century sacrificed everything in themselves for the development of homo faber. For Bazlen the English were incapable of leading an integral life- like Robinson Crusoe who, having found the native Friday on his desert island would make of him a rather bland and banal servant. This reflection would, in turn, indicate some of Bazlen’s literary tastes, for example, his interest in Christian science fiction (Charles Williams, C.S.Lewis), for the aficionado of the macabre (T.L.Baddoes) or for Wilkie Collins- the inventor of the psychological thriller etc. Having heard of Virginia Woolf’s comment about Joyce “When you can have the cooked flesh, why have the raw?”, Bazlen found in this very comment the great defect of Woolf’s prose- ie that in her work everything was cooked arguing that if she ‘cooked’ less she would have written greater things.

Therefore in each of Bazlen’s short phrases and judgements one can glimpse a hidden world view, a universe and a genealogy might be gathered from a given habitual gesture or overheard phrase such that could rarely be found lurking in any given structured text- for surely the time required in cooking them would surely destroy at least half their flavour.

Apart from these footnotes there are letters to publishers (or friends of his who worked in publishing houses). These letters have something very colloquial about them. Bazlen often adds a description of his circumstances while reading the books that he writes about (for example while Hedayat’s The Blind Owl the first time he had a temperature, another book he tells his interlocutor he read on a train travelling through Switzerland and only reached page 54 by the time he got to Amsterdam) and yet this materiality isn’t necessarily purely superfluous. There are no real theoretical disquisitions in his letters (but these like from his footnotes can be ferreted out in a sentence or two which are often so dense with pregnant meanings that one could substitute entire paragraphs). Moreover they include rather fascinating fantastic ideas – one book is compared, for example, to the Bible rewritten by Cocteau. How Bazlen avoids or, rather, condenses, intricately woven series of thoughts into the lightning judgement, seems to be characteristic only of the very rare writer.

It is in these footnotes and letters of Bazlen that a new voice, a voice of one who intervened in the history of twentieth century literature and thought yet refused to make life fit into art. Through silence and the condensed thought rather he made art a part of life; through negation of the external shell Bazlen found a way of discovering some pure crystals in the raw sentence. The uncooked Bazlen if one were to force, to mine one’s way through his laconic judgements would be worth many polished writers who had never plumbed the depths of negation as had Bazlen.