Thursday, June 22, 2017

`A Yearning for World Culture'

From Jörg Baberowski’s Scorched Earth: Stalin’s Reign of Terror (Yale University Press, 2016):

“Maxim Gorky, writer of the proletarian revolution and despiser of rural Russia, had been dreaming of reeducating the man of old long before the revolution. He shared Lenin’s belief that peasants and workers were a malleable mass that could be shaped by the hands of enlightened educators. But how, they both asked, could communism be built with a `mass of human material’ that had been `tainted by slavery, serfdom and capitalism’ for centuries? Their answer, which left no room for ambiguity, was that if barbarians were to become New Men then their environment needed to be turned into a disciplinary machine.”

Gorky was not the first writer who longed to transcend mere literature and impose his schemes for betterment on the world, and his successors are still with us, scolding and biding their time. As early as Oct. 22, 1901, Chekhov, in a letter to Alexi Peshkov (Gorky’s given name), suggested that the younger writer avoid stereotyping the “wavering, high-strung intellectuals” among the characters in his play The Philistines. On the other hand, Gorky romanticizes Nil, his single-minded revolutionary hero. Chekhov argues that all the characters are “equally valuable human beings." In his note to the letter in The Letters of Anton Chekhov (1973), Simon Karlinsky writes: “But this idea was quite foreign to Gorky.” One of his intellectual characters in The Philistines, Tatyana, attempts suicide when her romantic longing for Nil is not reciprocated. Her unhappiness should not arouse pity or sympathy, Gorky replied to Chekhov, “but something else, much less attractive.” Karlinsky writes:

“Gorky’s anti-intellectualism became more pronounced in subsequent years. One of its ugliest manifestations is described in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope, in which we find Gorky using his august position in the post-revolutionary literary life to deprive the freezing and starved poet Osip Mandelstam of the pair of trousers he needed to survive through the winter. `The trousers themselves were a small matter,’ wrote Mandelstam’s widow, `but they spoke eloquently of Gorky’s hostility to a literary trend that was foreign to him.”

Elsewhere in Hope Against Hope, Nadezhda Mandelstam reports that when informed of the poet Nikolay Gumilyov’s pending execution, Gorky did nothing. With Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, Gumilyov was founder of the poetic movement called Acmeism. In his 1913 essay “The Morning of Acmeism”, Mandelstam defines it as “a yearning for world culture.” On Aug. 26, 1921, as Guy Davenport puts it in “The Man without Contemporaries” (The Geography of the Imagination, 1981), Gumilyov “crumbled under the volleys of a Soviet firing squad, clutching a Bible and a Homer to his heart.” Sixty others died with him. His crime: membership in the nonexistent Tagantsev conspiracy, an entrapment scheme devised by Feliks Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka. In 1932, Gorky was decorated with the Order of Lenin, as were, later, Fidel Castro, Erich Honecker, Tito, Nelson Mandela and Stalin. Baberowski writes:

“The rhetoric the regime used to justify its misdeeds spoke of cold calculation but also of pure and simple hatred. The hatred was for the `wretched, stubborn reality,’ as Maxim Gorky, the wordsmith of Communism, had described the peasant world. This was a world, he wrote, that should be torn out at the roots `from the memory of the human soul’ and made to disappear forever.”    

No comments: