Isaac Babel is said to have paid prostitutes in Paris not for their conventional services but for the privilege of examining the contents of their purses. They must have thought him a fetishist but like many writers – at least those interested in the world beyond their cloistered selves -- Babel was a mostly benign species of voyeur. We see this impulse often in Red Cavalry, stories based on his experience as a war correspondent riding in 1920 with the Cossacks, and in 1920 Diary, the working notes Babel kept during the Polish campaign. The Cossacks’ savagery and anti-Semitism require Babel to mask his Jewishness in their presence, turning him into a fulltime spectator, vigilantly watching and listening. He sympathized with the Jews of Galicia when the Cossacks committed their outrages against them, but did little or nothing to help. This terrible tension energizes his books.
In “Two Ivans” from Red Cavalry, Babel’s narrator, Kiril Lyutov, stops to urinate in the dark. He feels a splash, lights his lantern and discovers he has urinated on the face of a dead Pole. Some men would freeze with horror at the inadvertent indecency. Others would walk away without a second thought. This is Lyutov’s reaction (in David McDuff’s translation):
“A notebook and fragments of the proclamations of Pilsudski lay beside the corpse. In the Pole’s notebook there were notes of minor expenses, the order of the shows at the Krakow Theatre and the birthday of a woman named Maria-Luiza. With one of the proclamations of Pilsudski, marshal and commander-in-chief, I wiped the stinking liquid from the skull of my unknown brother and walked away, bent under the weight of the saddle.”
The scene is remarkably dense with contradictory significance – the fastidious wiping of the dead man’s face, using a proclamation from the chief of state of the Second Polish Republic. More interesting is Lyutov’s apparently untroubled inspection of the dead Pole’s notebook. Lyutov opens the volume – not unlike Babel’s 1920 Diary – and glimpses not war secrets but the mundane details of civilian life. Lyutov reading the Pole’s jottings is Babel rifling a French whore’s purse.
As a newspaper reporter, that’s what I was paid to do for many years, and I was temperamentally suited for the job. Talking to strangers, asking impertinent questions while silently inspecting their homes or offices – all in a day’s nosy work, and often very satisfying. I was rereading Babel when Dave Lull sent me the latest essay by Anthony Daniels (aka Theodore Dalrymple), “Shelf Life,” in Standpoint. Daniels dissects the condescension implicit in intellectuals using grocery clerks as “a trope for the futility of existence at the lower end of the social spectrum.” Daniels defends them and those working the cash registers:
“The checkout staff are always pleasant too. Their job is far from uninteresting, contrary to what unimaginative intellectuals might suppose. Surely people's purchases, infinitely various in their combination, must tell you a lot about them. I don't think I would mind working on a supermarket checkout, at least for a few months.”
I’m an inveterate voyeur of the checkout line, self-righteously assessing the dubious purchases of others – beer, cigarettes and a six-pack of yogurt, that sort of thing. Of course nothing is more human and pleasurable than feeling superior to others – a perfectly harmless pastime so long as we keep it to ourselves. I do the same in traffic, reading decals and bumper stickers on the cars ahead of me, and speculating about the lives of the owners. If we possess a shred of sensitivity and imagination, we are, by nature, amateur psychologists. We want to know about the insides of others by reading their outsides – a useful if not foolproof strategy.
This is Babel’s method and recurrent theme – reading others, their horror and beauty, with cool dispatch. He records the urine dripping from a dead man’s mouth with the same neutrality as the theater schedule from Krakow. As critic Viktor Shklovsky put it:
“Babel’s principle device is to speak in the same tone of voice about the stars above and gonorrhea.”