Monthly Archives: November 2013

On the dangers of Juan Rodolfo Wilcock’s humour.

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Juan Rodolfo Wilcock

I guess I have a little secret to confess. Every now and then I end up adding comments to newspaper articles. For me it’s something between a need to correct the patent misrepresentations that articles promote on subjects I have some inkling about (usually Russia and film) or, I must admit, an attempt to ‘promote’ new blogs and posts on my blog (while making sure that these posts are relevant to the article in question). I want people to read what I’m writing and because I only occasionally write for publications other than my blog a point or two with a link to my latest blog post might earn me a few more readers.

However, yesterday I discovered that I had been put in pre-moderation. A kind of purgatory for those who write unwanted posts (for spammers or trolls, or those who write offensive posts). Yet my “pre-moderation” penalty from the Guardian came about after having added two savagely hilarious translations of Juan Rodolfo Wilcock descriptions. One was his uproarious little piece on how literary awards could be bettered. Here it is:

The authors are each placed on their bed, on a slightly hard mattress with their head lightly raised and a small pillow under their pelvis, their legs akimbo and half bent, their shirts stretched down from their breastbone with the legs half-covered. The authors must breathe calmly, relax their muscles and let things happen while keeping their peace of mind. A bowl will be held between their legs.

After a break for a consultation the jury will take the well-oiled literary award and suddenly insert it in one of the writers, gently pushing it forward. The prize will usually move forward for about 10 to 12 centimetres without any difficulty. If it encounters any resistance then it should be withdrawn a little, be lightly shaken and then pushed back in delicately, applying to the writer a few rotatory movements until he has been totally awarded.
The other writers can in the meantime get dressed again. After the operation the literary prize will be washed with care, dried and put back on the shelf ready for further adventures.

The other was for his practical advice for eliminating literary critics (I altered it slightly to write about food writers):

One should carefully grease one’s body with hot tar before going to bed, making sure that one carries out the same procedure on member’s of one’s family (wife, sons and in-laws if they are still alive). Thus oiled the entire family- tenants or proprietors of the house- should roam the rooms, toilets and stairs of said home, preferably barefoot and in their underpants, chanting psalms, pounding saucepans and generally making as much noise as possible until all the food critics in the house come out of their hideaways and proceed to head to the kitchen. The stunned reviewers can then easily be caught with fine nylon nets expressly placed in a large bottle with at the bottom some very fine erucic acid for the journalists. Another system involves introducing a kilogram of small frogs set at a regular distance from each other in a long thread of resistant hemp, previously immersed in softened and marinated tar. The greedy critics will precipitate on the frogs attracted by the scent and will find themselves transfixed with a notable saving of time and of tar.

These two comments were enough to cause the wrath of Guardian moderators and place me in pre-moderation. It’s a good lesson for me because it is a genuine waste of time to comment on newspaper articles. Though as I said it does bring the odd reader to my blogs now and again. Yet it’s curious as to why the humour of a writer- a friend of (and highly rated by) Jorges Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Silvina Ocampo, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Roberto Bolaño, Vittorio Gassman, Roberto Calasso among many, many others – should be non grata for the Guardian. I’d better keep my translations of Saltykov-Shchedrin for my blogs alone.

By the way for more in the way of Wilcock, please read my blog on him: http://juanrodolfowilcock.blogspot.com/

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My Juan Rodolfo Wilcock Blog.

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Juan Rodolfo Wilcock

For those of you who have been reading my Juan Rodolfo Wilcock posts I’d like to let you know that they are being transferred to a new blog http://juanrodolfowilcock.blogspot.com

On that blog I shall gradually be putting up both the occasional translations found on this blog, further translations as well as a whole host of commentaries on the author by other writers, reviews of both his books and books about him, translations of articles on him by other writers (as well as the one by Roberto Bolaño found here and much else beside. Including the tale of his speaking cat. So please visit that new site too.

By the way, there is also my Luther Blissett Food and Drink Blog as well as my more established blog on Russian and Soviet film

Review of Boris Groys’s The Total Art of Stalinism.

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Here I am reprinting my review of Boris Groys’s The Total Art of Stalinism which was printed in the Marx & Philosophy Review of Books this October. Here’s the link: http://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviewofbooks/reviews/2013/844

Boris Groys


Verso’s edition of the Charles Rougle 1992 translation of Boris Groys’s The Total Art of Stalinism (originally published in German in 1988 as Gesamtkuntswerk Stalin) is a welcome reprint of one of the very few books that bucked the trend by tackling the subject of Stalinist culture in the heyday of glasnost and perestroika. In fact, very few scholars at that time inside or outside of Russia saw Stalinist culture as a worthy subject. Literature under Stalin was catered for by Katerina Clark’s The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual while architecture was dissected by Vladimir Paperny’s Culture 2 (written in the early eighties). Art under Stalin would have two contenders: Igor Golomstock’s book on Totalitarian Art was the volume arguably most fitted to the weltanschauung and research interests of western academia, bolstering the strategy of ring-fencing so central to the liberal discourse around civilization and totalitarianism. However, it was Boris Groys’s short tract on Soviet art, much more problematic for many at that time and attacked on many fronts, which would undermine most attempts to categorise it and yet prove to be one of those texts both long resistant to classification and still fresh a quarter of a century later. Groys, by paradoxically challenging the articles of faith of so many perspectives (whether liberal, social democratic or even Trotskyist) and highlighting the similarities between the Russian avant-garde and Stalinist Socialist Realism as well as debunking the myth of innocence of the early revolutionary avant-garde, takes the reader on a dizzying tour – led on by Groys’s delight in paradox – derobing them of their every previous certainty. What makes Groys’s account stand out is his attempt to provide an account which highlights continuities rather than breaks in the Soviet experiment. In fact while the title invokes Stalin, Groys clearly has set out to describe the space of art in the entire Soviet period. No conventional account of this subject it, at times, seems to mimic the gnomic excesses of Stalin’s Short Course in order to capture central features of the early Modernist avant-garde, Socialist Realism and Post-Utopian art trends from Moscow-based Conceptualism to the Sots-Art of Komar and Melamid.

In many ways Groys can’t be located as a ‘pure’ researcher in this field. Trained as a mathematician and linguist, Groys was actively and directly involved in the unofficial art scene of the Brezhnev period, striking up friendships with many of the artists whose work he describes in the final section of his tract. Not simply discordant with accepted academic or political perspectives of the time, it achieved something quite novel by breaking out in its entirety from Cold War geographical realities and separate western and Soviet styles of discourse, opening up radically new perspectives by turning its glance away from the established tropes about Socialist Realism. Explaining his choices, Groys clearly avoids the martyrological approach and what he calls the ‘body count literature’ (in vogue amongst both western academics and Soviet dissidents), arguing that if it is ‘morally permissible to write about aspects of Christian theology without mentioning the number of victims of the Inquisition or the Crusades, or to write about democracy and human rights without quantifying the number of citizens who lost their heads to the guillotine in the name of these values, then it must also be possible to write about the Soviet Communist project while leaving readers who are interested in the Communist body count to satisfy their curiosity by turning to the numerous books devoted to precisely such grisly calculations.’ (126)

In the place of body count literature and hagiographical accounts of early Soviet martyrs, Groys gives the reader a history not of the Soviet reality but ‘a history of the Soviet imagination’. (126) In this way instead of offering a history of twentieth century Russian or Soviet art he offers more an account of how society was reorganized aesthetically. He also briefly explains why and in what way Russian society had been ‘aesthetically far better prepared for revolution than the West … far more willing to organize all life in new, as yet unseen forms, and to that end allow itself to be subjected to an artistic experiment of unprecedented scale’ (5). Groys then goes on to find the common thread between the modernist avant-garde who welcomed the revolution precisely through their enthusiasm for remodelling the world according to their own whims and the new Stalinist Socialist Realism which transcended and discarded the lessons and the ethos of the avant-garde but remodelled the world by using certain aspects of the avant-garde vision. Groys wants to destroy the myth of an innocent avant-garde and doesn’t accept the idea of Socialist Realism as a return to traditionalism seeing in it instead as a kind of foretaste of post-modernism. While modernism in the West had been defeated in its project to restructure the context of everyday life, this “was accomplished in reality by Stalin” and whereas Western post-modernism had arisen through the defeat of the modernist avant-garde, the Soviet post-apocalyptic version had arisen from this belated victory of the avant-garde and the restructuring of the whole life environment under its own impulse. (109) As well as his attempt to describe the movement from modernism to Socialist Realism, in the third chapter, Groys turns his gaze towards the movement from Socialist Realism to the post-utopian artistic paradigm of the 1960s to the 1980s. Not only does he try to ‘describe successive paradigms but also the mechanism of their succession’ (13).

In fact, the section almost ignored in Groys’s tract when the book first appeared in the late eighties and early nineties is the one devoted to Post Utopian Art. This silence was one of the reasons why Groys’s small work had been so misinterpreted and why a reprint has been so necessary (but, to my mind, not sufficient). In many ways one’s vision of the early avant-garde period and the Socialist Realism period are clearer still if observed from the perspective of the Brezhnev period: in artistic currents at this time there emerged a space still much misunderstood (or simply ignored) by western art critics. Unfortunately, at that time Groys was still only able to offer an impressionistic view of this period. Groys subsequent writings accompanied the Russian version of this book (Groys 2003) but have sadly failed to be included in Verso’s reprint. Groys’s preface to the Russian edition gives us some further clues as to how he contextualises art paradigms from a more straightforward Marxist perspective (rather lacking in the 1988 edition) stating that “Both on the ideological as on a practical level the unofficial culture of the Brezhnev period can be evaluated in such a way as above all the formation of post-industrial, consumerist capitalism in Russia”. (Groys 2003, 17)

Groys’s major work can still remain almost as frustrating and irritating as it must have done over two decades ago when first printed in German as Gesamstkuntswerk Stalin in 1988 (a Wagnerian allusion missing in the English title). The central image that Groys had in mind (and which has since been adapted by scholars like Evgeny Dobrenko (2007) who sees Socialist Realism as a means to produce reality) was of Soviet reality being a ‘unified multimedia staging … a total work of art able to fully swallow and integrate within itself its spectator’ (Groys 2003, 10). In turning established views on their head, in delighting in resolving by paradox certain nagging doubts we have reading his text which lead us to suspect that he is simply taking us on a journey as surreal as he asserts Socialist Realism to be, in unnerving our every steadfastly held perception, we are left dazzled rather than clear-headed. Yet these defects in the work are also their greatest advantage because Groys manages to keep what Schwabsky (2009) called a “Sphinx-like neutrality” to Stalin. Groys himself makes this his own claim for superiority of his account to those of Paperny and Clark, saying that they mistakenly assume ‘that Stalinist culture somehow falls outside the historical process … this assumption suggests that, though these scholars may be critical of Stalinist culture on the conscious level, subconsciously they have been transfixed by its claim to have transcended history.’ (64) He returns to this theme in his criticism of militant anti-Stalinist art and literature (for example the village prose writers) favouring instead contemporary post-utopian art because the ‘latter uses the lesson it has learned to make this defeat (of Stalinism) obvious and final, overcoming the Stalin period by mythologizing and aestheticizing it … the art that continues actively and virulently to polemicize with and demythologize Stalinism fails, for it shares with Stalinism the inadequately articulated utopian impulse’ (114-15). Our failure to understand Groys’s exact relation to Stalinism is given another twist in his scattered but rather insistent comparisons of the new Soviet reality with the beginnings of Christianity. Here, for example, he speaks of Stalinism as a kind of established Church ‘sanctifying’ the original ascetic revolutionary forces:

The relationship between Stalinist culture and the avant-garde is similar to that between the established Church and the first ascetic sects: in both cases the blessings of the old world were first renounced after the victory, exploited and “sanctified” in the new age. (42)

All in all Verso are to be commended for offering this historically seminal text which demonstrates the aesthetic ramifications of the political as well as the dependence of the political on the aesthetic during the Soviet century. The break with nature that, for Groys, made the Russian Revolution far more radical than previous revolutions (including the French) building ‘the new society as a completely artificial construction’ (121), contextualises the need for such a text even though it seems to be written from a position strangely devoid of explicit Marxist concepts. In many ways, though, Groys’s paradoxical work deserves to be read in conjunction with a number of other authors. One of these is Mikhail Ryklin’s liberal yet suggestive tract Communism as Religion: Intellectuals and the October Revolution. It is Ryklin, the liberal, who depicts a more forceful historical distance between Lenin and Stalin which is surely more relevant once again in the present context (in 2009 he stated that ‘Lenin has been blackened, made a scapegoat. Stalin has been scrubbed clean’ (Ryklin 2009)). Moreover, the works of Mikhail Lifshitz now being reprinted once again in Russia offer another voice – one of those many marginalised Marxists (another example being the philosopher Evald Ilyenkov) – whose writings are only being rediscovered after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Voices which, like Groys’s, were dissonant then and are still dissonant now. Reading Groys in such company permits us to imagine alternative narratives while rescuing some of the debris from the historical storm that was the Russian revolution and its aftermath.

2 October 2013

References
Dobrenko, E (2007) Political Economy of Socialist Realism (New Haven: Yale University Press)
Groys, B (2003) Iskusstvo Utopii (The Art of Utopia) (Moscow)
Ryklin, M (2009) `On the trail of the red pilgrims’ (http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2009-03-10-ryklin-en.html)
Schwabsky, B (2009) `Post-Communist Aethetics?’ New Left Review 56

The Mirrors – More Juan Rodolfo Wilcock.

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THE MIRRORS

Confined to bed by an illness, Lorbio has put up two large, parallel mirrors in the hospital ward: one covers the left wall and the other the right wall. In this way the convalescent sees himself mirrored from head to toe from one part of the room to the other and so can delude himself that he is in a ward for three patients, rather with many more beds, in the company of other patients who moreover bear a striking resemblance to himself. Lorbio has named his neighbours Lefty and Righty: Righty seems slightly younger than him and Lefty is the elder of the three. Otherwise all three carry out the same tasks, or almost, at the same time with the same movements. In this sense one can say that no-one has ever seen three warders reach such perfect harmony. And what’s more they are very discrete: if Lorbio speaks with Righty, Lefty turns his head the other way; and Righty does the same as soon as his fellow warder addresses Lefty. When Lorbio gets up to show Lefty the new Tarzan novel that his female cousin brought him and he offers it to him to compare it with the other one that Lefty received just a little earlier from his cousin, Righty quietly gets up and turning his shoulders towards them both also shows his own Tarzan novel to the other neighbour. And it is not a case of him alone because in the enormous hall, as far as the eye can see, all the convalescents have risen at the same time to compare their Tarzan novels. But Lorbio takes no notice of those further in the distance, first of all because he has bad eyesight and then he doesn’t even know who they are nor what their names are.

Sometimes when the sister arrives Lorbio, to play around a bit with her, pretends not to see her, greeting the sister of Righty instead who at that very moment has entered through the other door: Righty has immediately understood the joke and instead of greeting his nurse says hello to Lorbio’s. And so as not to fail his comrades, Lefty turns to the other side and greets another sister who has entered by yet another door. Lorbio rather enjoys this greeting joke, especially when the nurses, perhaps because they are jealous beings and are not very happy when their patients pretend to ignore them, all shake their heads together and the entire hospital ward seems to tremble under the wings of a limitless flock of linen albatrosses.

A few times Lorbio, from the same bed has tried to teach Lefty the game of morra, but without any luck as after their leprosy left both of them without any ears they are both deaf, and so for that matter is Righty. So in spite of them moving in unison, in reality each one of them is constrained to live, as it were closed within themselves. At night, though, it is as though they were all together. Lorbio has a candle: when the pain doesn’t allow him to sleep he lights his candle and in the festive light of all those candles lighted at the same time, astride the bed, he hitches up his nightgown and dances in a daredevil manner, a dance imitated by all the other patients of the hall, also standing on their beds: they call it the dance of the candles.

The Graves. Another Juan Rodolfo Wilcock portrait.

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Caprifolis can dance wildly around the fountains at the most elegant garden parties with a telephone book from A to L in front and another from M to Z behind as her only dress, but for Demic she is dead. Lerio can continue to have his articles, which appear to have been written with a broom, published in the nations most prestigious journals but for Demic he has already breathed his last. Caprifolis and Lerio weren’t friends of his, just acquaintances, but Demic at one fell swoop liberated himself from all his friends and acquaintances. To each one of them he assigned a grave in the cemetery under a false name which he keeps jotted down in an exercise book, besides the number and exact position of the grave. Almost every Sunday he pays them a visit with a large bunch of white carnations and he leaves one flower above each tombstone. To this end he has chosen those graves with a photograph, dull enamel images full of life that don’t even coincide with the gender of the person actually buried underneath, so that nothing should disturb the falsity of these pious ceremonies. So, for example, it is often the case that in front of the tomb of his fiancé, now working as cashier in a large cinema in the city centre, he stares fixedly, not without commotion and regret, at the oval and shiny effigy of an airman with a moustache and rather threatening glasses. On the same row lies his brother below the photograph of a woman in her tranquil nineties. A little further on, his landlord rests in eternity underneath a bizarre memorial stone which itself is located beneath the marble head of a horse.

Since he has eliminated his friends and relatives, Demic lives in peace not concerning himself with the remaining three billion and so inhabitants of the globe who besides, like him, all have something to occupy themselves with and so are unaware of his existence. Even the fact that he has all his dear ones reunited together in the same cemetery gratifies his essentially social and sedentary character. The boredom that arose from them, they simply never changed, appears in large part mitigated by their new capacity of transformation. As soon as the ex-school friend begins to reemerge with the features of the nun or those of the model widow, it is enough to transfer him to the grave of the cross-eyed baby, take down his new address in the exercise book: row, sector and number and the dialogue will be re-established in some other way or will not be re-established at all and his ex-school friend will vanish into thin air. In fact it seems certain that after three or four metamorphoses of this kind the departed one will be deceased for ever.

At times, but very rarely, it happens that Demic bumps into one of the deceased, in their primitive version, still living and still rather insolent. To bump into a dead person is always a very pleasant experience, but Demic knows that if one gets carried away for a single moment and treats him as though he were still alive then the dead person will start up a long conversation, displaying all their charm, make an appointment, write letters, phone, send presents and Christmas Cards, or a bottle of Hungarian wine for the Day of the Armed Forces and in the end we’ll find him just like he always was- how else could a dead man act? – when in reality his place is down there in the cemetery, under a pumice stone angel with wide-open arms and on its heart the photo of an income tax inspector. Therefore he prefers to ignore them.

Fooling Dangerous Minds or Se non e’ vero, e’ ben trovato!

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Some pages from Merkurov’s erotic ABC

Interesting how jokes and rumours travel. Some months ago I posted (or rather re-posted) an ‘Erotic ABC’ by, apparently, the Lenin Prize winning sculptor, Sergei Merkurov. The original poster of the album on Facebook- at least on the thread which eventually found its way into ‘Dangerous Minds’ for the record, was Oksana Timofeeva). Reading the original Live Journal post from where it came  I read the following Интересно, для кого она предназначалась? Видимо для ликвидации безграмотности у взрослого населения… (Interesting who was this album for? Seemingly for the liquidation of adult illiteracy). So I posted an additional remark stating something like “The campaign against illiteracy during early Stalinism” adding exclamation marks because the idea seemed absurd. Pulled up by the Russian art critic Ekaterina Degot for stating a patent absurdity, I had to admit that my facebook comment was tongue in cheek. Maybe a poor joke (Merkurov surely would have been fearful that this album could have been discovered in a search during the Great Terror of 1937) but one that was then repeated by Arya Moghadam and then Ross Wolfe and would turn up months later in the Dangerous Minds site. With its half a million likes on Facebook the extent of this Facebook joke seems to have escalated a little. It’s not as though Dangerous Minds (and Ross Wolfe who presumably(?) wrote the text) are hedging their bets. Here is their commentary:

Sergey Merkurov is best known as a USSR People’s Artist, sculptor of Soviet icons and the master of Soviet “death masks”- Merkurov even made a mold of the late Lenin, himself! Merkurov also produced this delightfully dirty alphabet, complete with orgies, flying dicks, and paranormal partners.

The 1931 book that bore these bare bodies was actually intended to encourage literacy, and likely a part of Likbez, the gigantically ambitious Soviet adult literacy campaign of the 20s and 30s. Around the turn of the century, only about 24% of the Russian population could read, but by the 1950s, the Soviet Union had achieved a 100% literacy rate. With such inspiring teaching tools, one need not wonder how!

Unfortunately, the alphabet below is in Cyrillic, so you probably can’t spell your name out in Soviet porn. Sorry typography pervs!

I rather ‘like’ the idea that someone took this further. In many ways it is rather easy to be ‘taken in’ with some of this. My initial attitude on reading the Live Journal blog was that given history is full of absurdity astounding one with its refusal to fit into neat schemas and given that Stalinism’s repression of private life and sexuality was a rather complex historical process and even the history of Stalinism, in its own strange way, could be read as a series of frosts and thaws who knows whether this material could have crept in somewhere, somehow). Perhaps one should have let this story run and see if it will turn up in some book on Soviet history which tries to state that Stalin’s Soviet Union is, for example, the precursor of 1960s Western counter culture.

History is replete with irony and absurdity and to separate fact from fantasy is a rather complex task. I also think, for example, that the history of Stalinism is more complicated than we commonly think, that Slavoj Zizek has a point in comparing Stalinism to contemporary capitalism. Going from here to stating as undisputed fact that Merkurov’s Erotic ABC was in public use in the campaign against adult illiteracy seems one step too far. Nonetheless, as an exercise in the gullibility of certain websites and in how history gets retold and deformed (and let’s be clear western liberal historians from Orlando Figes to Robert Service are not adverse to skewing certain realities to suit their own narrations), this retelling is rather farcical and hilarious but also, in its own way, suggestive.

No wonder Arthur Cravan could convince  the New York Times that Oscar Wilde was still alive in 1913 (so much so that they printed it on their front page).

Anyway as they say se non e’ vero, e’ ben trovato and historical fantasy is often much more interesting than historical truth and this ‘well discovered’ piece by Dangerous Minds is, surely, worthy of gaining prominence as long as it isn’t used for legitimizing Stalinism.