Monday, January 23, 2012

`You Can Refute Culture Only With Culture'

Over Christmas I read Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar by the Soviet critic Viktor Borisovich Shklovsky (1893-1984), a great admirer of Laurence Sterne and of Sterne’s other great admirer, Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy. He relates an anecdote about his friend the Tolstoy scholar Boris Mikhailovich Eichenbaum (1886-1959). One winter morning during the 872-day siege of Leningrad, Eichenbaum walked to Radio House, the government broadcasting studio on Rakova Street near Nevsky Prospect, and asked if he could address the German army. Here is an excerpt from his broadcast:

“I am an old professor. My son Dmitri is at the front. My son-in-law was killed. I live with my wife, daughter, and grand-daughter in a single room and write a book about Tolstoy. You know him--he is the author of War and Peace. I know you are afraid of Tolstoy—you have read his book about victory after defeat.
“I left my desk with frozen ink to come here and tell you I despise you. You can refute culture only with culture. We have cannons too—you can’t prove anything with cannons. You can’t destroy our culture, you can’t break into our city.”
It’s an act of principled defiance from a man almost sixty years old. Eichenbaum was no conventional Soviet propagandist. The weapon he brandished was carefully chosen – Tolstoy’s account of Napoleon’s defeat by the Russian winter, the Russian people and his own hubris, one-hundred thirty years earlier. In a sense, Eichenbaum was wrong – you can prove a lot with cannons. What stuck in memory was his off-hand mention of frozen ink – if literal, a measure of the hardships Soviet civilians endured; if figurative, an emblem of the writer’s impotence before savagery. And yet, Eichenbaum never stopped writing. After the war, this champion of true Russian culture was hounded by the Soviet authorities for his “rootless cosmopolitanism” – that is, for being a Jew.
Eichenbaum’s frozen ink reminded me of a passage in A Voice from the Chorus, Andrei Sinyavsky’s account of the seven years he spent in a Soviet forced labor camp. Near the conclusion, he writes:
"I dreamed of the paper I am now writing on as of an open field or a forest: oh to be able to lose myself in it, to take off and run on breathlessly and, without reaching the end or even the middle, put down somewhere at the edge or in a corner just a few rapid lines. . ."
Unlike many lesser writers, Sinyavsky refused to let the blankness of the page intimidate him. Rather, it serves as a spur to his imagination, to the one thing that makes a writer a writer:

"You need paper to lose yourself in its whiteness. Writing means diving into a page and coming up with some idea or word. Blank paper invites you to dip down into its artless expanse. A writer is like a fisherman. He sits and waits for something to bite. Put a blank sheet of paper in front of me and, without even thinking, let alone understanding why, I am sure to be able to fish something out of it."

These paper-and-ink linkages came to me while reading a very un-Russian text, Thoreau’s journal, more than two-million words that ceased only when the writer could no longer lift his pen and dip it into the ink bottle. One-hundred fifty-five years ago today, on Jan. 23, 1857, Thoreau writes:

“The coldest day that I remember recording, clear and bright, but very high wind, blowing the snow. Ink froze.”
Shklovsky writes of Eichenbaum:
“Eichenbaum had a great ability to see anew each time he read something. He spent endless hours reading without rushing through, and after being persuaded by his discovery, he labored on it as though his work had just begun.
“His index cards never got stale.”

No comments: