Bellic hysteria and slapstick pathos
I’ve been absent for some time from this blog. Some of my ‘Russia/Soviet’ posts I aim to add to what was my Russian film blog and now has become a blog on both film and other areas of visual culture in Russia and the former Soviet space. I’ve been tempted to write posts reflecting on 2014- but the grotesque bellic drama that overshadowed my thoughts in Moscow where I spent half the year (as well as ten days in Odessa) with national hysteria dimming reason at lightning speed was strangely shadowed by pathos-ridden hysteria in the UK symbolised by the poppy sculpture at the Tower of London- fake,trite and inward-looking as only one national commentator dared to call them. Reason was dimming in the UK too- the slapstick farce of UKIP capturing many people’s small minds with a steady line of nutters going consistently off-message rather than the swivelling madness of Russian TV presenters like pirouetting-star Dmitry Kiselev with his prime-time threats to turn the United States into radioactive ash or to incinerate the hearts of gays after their death.
Texts to keep sane in 2015
Maybe there is a need to compile a list of texts ‘to keep sane in 2015’.That was my first thought in the New Year. The first name which came into my head was Danilo Kiš- to my mind one of the sanest writers that Europe possessed in the 20th century. I remember a Croatian friend telling me how she rescued the collective works of Danilo Kis (pronounced Kish) from destruction in a Zagreb library because they were printed in cyrillic (ie Serbian) rather than in the latin alphabet (ie Croatian) and therefore suspicious literature. I can’t find a link to the full text of Kis’s On Nationalism but it is one of those texts like Stanislav Markelov’s Patriotism as Diagnosis which deserves to be read again and again. Almost everything written by Kis is of immense value- I think his unfinished piece ‘Debt’ is just as memorable as many of his perfected works. From Kis to a re-reading of Karlo Stajner’s ‘Seven Thousand Days in Siberia’ which Kis wrote an introduction to. Stajner’s account should have been the first major account of an experience of the Gulag but it remained unpublished for 14 years. The world discovered Solzhenitsyn (who revealed himself too much of an ideologically-driven character himself) instead of Stajner or Varlam Shalamov. Shalamov’s works should be on such a reading list.
A contemporary writer in Russian who helps to keep us sane is Mykahil Ryklin. One of the most powerful books I read in 2014 was his ‘The Quay of Dionysus’ in which he wrote about the story of his wife’s (Anna Alchuk) suicide after a long campaign of hatred and denigration by religious fanatics due to her part in the ‘Beware Religion’ exhibition- a campaign marking the start of a massive onslaught on culture lasting over decade in which conservative religious nationalism has done its very utmost to destroy everything that was original and valuable in Russian culture. Ryklin’s account brings us back to grasping the present nightmare from which we are still trying to escape.
I’d probably add a whole list of other writers- Juan Rodolfo Wilcock because of his ability to reach the heart of contemporary grostesquerie. I started to think of Wilcock after watching Putin’s New Year address on Russian television. Only Wilcock could have described Putin’s essence in one of his great portraits of monstrous beings- a kind of resentful, threatening slug like presence seem to have overtaken the television screen I caught myself ignoring the words and watching his slimy, reptilian body movements. But no, let’s not try to continue… only Wilock would get any description correct.
Charlie Hebdo as the first major event in 2015
Wilcock a kind of satirist would have been a good commentator on Charlie Hebdo but their styles were not quite the same. Wilcock? Demential yes but far more cerebral and versatile than CH. Nevertheless, after having got my head around many of the debates I still find it difficult to utter coherent thoughts. So many articles so that the task of rehashing all the main arguments is rather thankless. I’m no longer so interested in the polemics thrown up – racist or in the old French tradition of anti-clericalism, the questions of free speech, responsibility and limitations, censoring of free speech. Is a quote from Susan Sontag of any use? “by all means let us mourn together; but let’s not be stupid together“. Well, yes and no.
Russia is an interesting place to observe the debate. Well up to a point: the official discourse veers between suggesting that the cartoonists had it coming to them for being so blasphemous and arguing that what France needs is Marine le Pen to do away with European tolerance of Muslim immigrants. As one Izvestia journalist (who tried to square the two central ideas of Russian discourse on CH) was to put it “tolerance kills” Even parts of the intelligentsia have joined in with crazy ideas of destroying the homes of ‘terrorists’- this included even the respected writer Liudmila Ulitskaya.
Yet there were a few things written in Russia which stood out. Ilya Varlamov told Russians not to lie to themselves as they weren’t Charlie. “You’re not Charlie. I’m not Charlie. No one is Charlie, we are all just a forgotten East European ‘petrocratria’ where a two year prison sentence is given out for dancing in a church, and for the French cartoons they would have cut your head off accompanied by jubilant wails of the defenders of traditional values in accordance with the decisions of some council of five centuries ago”.
Otherwise it was Dmitry Zhvaniya in Sensus Novus who may have had the only original thing to say. Arguing that he was using the same right of blasphemy that the caricaturists had used he suggested that society had taken their deaths too seriously and it was necessary to find a comic side to the events. After all the caricaturists would have done so. In a way Zhvaniya is right- that’s how the cartoonists did work: nothing was sacred so neither would their deaths have been. After the killings I remembered a cartoon just after the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985 where 39 football fans (mainly Italian) lost their lives after pressure on a wall due to fighting between rival fans. The Italian satirical magazine Frigidaire had a small cartoon of some Bangladeshi’s (at least this is what the caption suggested) reading a headline about Heysel (Heysel Disaster: 39 Dead). Their comment was a simple, curt “Lucky them” I’m sure some similar Iraqi, Syrian characters could have been drawn reading a similar headline “Charlie Hebdo – 12 dead” – with the very same caption. It may have been more in the spirit of the tradition of Charlie Hebdo than what has been served up so far. And may have saved some from this pathos ridden atmosphere in Europe in early 2015. Instead cartoonists everywhere mourned their dead with self piety rather than ferocious self irony and so arguably what was termed the spirit of Charlie was destroyed by those very pencils elevated as the symbol of their profession just as the bodies of the cartoonists had fallen victim to bullets. One may be sceptical of Zhvaniya’s conclusion that “it’s funny when society reacts too seriously about the death of jesters” but at least he’s not offering yet another conspiracy theory about the killings.
One feels almost comforted that someone is not taking things too seriously. After all, the polemics in recent days seem to have been rather too full of sound and fury signifying very little indeed. Maybe though Zhvaniya’s call for blasphemous laughter over Charlie Hebdo can’t quite knock off a sense of doom about the intellectual debates. It’s too close to tragedy in the world today not to have the thoughts of a pessimist firmly wrapped up in one’s mind. W.H.Auden may have had something to say which we can still listen to and feel that it is being written about our own time:
In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.