Thursday, August 10, 2017

`The Extraordinary Fragility of Human Nature'

“All human emotions – love, friendship, envy, concern for one’s fellow man, compassion, longing for fame, honesty – had left us with the flesh that had melted from our bodies during their long fasts.”

So writes Varlam Shalamov in his story “Dry Rations” (Kolyma Tales, trans. John Glad, 1994). He describes the moral and emotional state of men and women enduring Stalin’s Gulag, where he spent seventeen years. If the words sound familiar, perhaps it’s because Shalamov (1907-1982) is distilling the lessons of the twentieth century and its various horrors. An English-language website devoted to Shalamov and his work has posted an extraordinary document, “What I Saw and Learned in the Kolyma Camps” (trans. Dmitry Subbotin and Robert Denis). The piece is dated 1961, ten years after his release from Kolyma. No other context is provided, but believers in man’s innate goodness, beware. Shalamov methodically lists forty-six lessons and observations drawn from his years in the Gulag, beginning with No. 1: “The extraordinary fragility of human nature, of civilization. A human being would turn into a beast after three weeks of hard work, cold, starvation and beatings.”

That, it seems, is the fundamental, unignorable conclusion to be drawn from the century of Stalin, Hitler, Mao and their cronies and acolytes. Under optimal conditions, the mundane decencies and civilities we take for granted can be lopped off like the title character’s finger in Tolstoy’s “Father Sergius.” The animal within is effortlessly un-domesticated. Shalamov substantiates the point in No. 4: “I learned that spite is the last human emotion to survive. A starving man has only enough flesh to feel spite — he is indifferent to everything else.” Consider the abundance of spite among the well-fed. I have often thought the world was run by cowards, and in No. 31, Shalamov agrees: “I learned that [the] world should be divided not into good and bad people but into cowards and non-cowards. 95% of cowards are capable of any meanness, lethal meanness, after light threatening.” Only in No. 46 does Shalamov directly address his vocation, writing: “That a writer must be a stranger — in the subjects he describes. And if he knows the matter well — he will write in such a way that no one would understand him.”

Shalamov’s irony, like Swift’s, is always nuanced, never a matter of glib contrariness. (Perhaps apropos of nothing, both writers suffered from Ménière's disease.) That he was a fatally damaged man is unquestionable. The more I read his stories and poems, the more unlikely and almost miraculous his gift seems. In “Dry Rations,” Shalamov has Savelev, one of four zeks in a labor-camp crew clearing a forest, observe:

“We’ll survive, leave for the mainland, and quickly become sick old men. We’ll have heart pains and rheumatism, and all the sleepless nights, the hunger, and long hard work of our youth will leave their mark on us even if we remain alive. We’ll be sick without knowing why, groan and drag ourselves from one dispensary to another. This unbearable work will leave us with wounds that can’t be healed, and all our later years will lead to lives of physical and psychological pain. And that pain will be endless and assume many different forms. But even among those terrible future days there will be good ones when we’ll be almost healthy and we won’t think about our sufferings. And the number of those days will be exactly equal to the number of days each of us has been able to loaf in camp.”

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