Monday, November 13, 2017

`Among Other Minds'

Reading Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (Doubleday, 2017), Anne Applebaum’s study of the Holodomor (from the Ukrainian for hunger and extermination), one encounters scene after scene like the following. Anastasia is a child living in Kharkiv, now the second-largest city in Ukraine. She manages to buy a loaf of bread and is stopped by a peasant woman carrying a baby. The woman begs for a scrap of bread. Anastasia tells what happened:

“No sooner had I walked away than the unfortunate woman keeled over and died. Fear gripped my heart, for it seemed that her wide open eyes were accusing me of denying her bread. They came and took her baby away, which in death she continued to hold in a tight grip. The vision of this dead woman haunted me for a long time afterwards. I was unable to sleep at night, because I kept seeing her before me.”

Some perspective: At least 5 million people died of hunger in the Soviet Union between 1931 and 1934. Of them, more than 3.9 million were Ukrainians. The cause was not climate change or foreign meddling. Decisions made by Stalin and approved by the Politburo – including the demonization and eventual extermination of kulaks, wealthier peasants – resulted in intentional famine. At the same time, the Soviets launched an assault on the Ukrainian “intellectual and political elites.” In Applebaum’s words, these actions brought about the “Sovietization of Ukraine, the destruction of the Ukrainian national idea, and the neutering of any Ukrainian challenge to Soviet unity.”

What interests me is less the politics behind the scene with Anastasia than its human and moral content. There were millions like Anastasia, people of typical good-heartedness, burdened with a conscience. Reduced by hunger to thinking first of self and secondly of family, she refused to share her bread. Under pre-famine conditions, she might have torn her loaf in half and given it to the starving woman. Now, the instinct for survival displaces all other concerns – most obviously, compassion and generosity. Put yourself first in the starving woman’s place and then in Anastasia’s, without forgetting the ideologues and thugs who created the scene. Such imaginative projection is the essence of human decency.       

On the day I was reading Applebaum’s new book, I came upon a brief life of Guy Davenport written by Eric Allen Bean and recently published in the Harvard Magazine. Longtime readers of Davenport’s work will find little new information in Bean’s critical biography, but it’s useful to remind new and younger readers of his accomplishments. Without identifying the source, Bean writes, “. . . Davenport often declared that the purpose of imaginative reading was `precisely to suspend one’s mind in the workings of another sensibility.’” The quoted fragment of sentence is drawn from one of Davenport’s finest essays, “On Reading,” collected in The Hunter Gracchus: And Other Papers on Literature and Art (Counterpoint, 1996). Davenport has just described his dealing with an illiterate man in Kentucky and the “horror of his predicament.” He expresses gratitude for “being able, regularly, to get out of myself completely, to be somewhere else, among other minds, and return (by laying my book aside) renewed and refreshed.” Davenport adds, in a one-sentence paragraph:

“For the real use of imaginative reading is precisely to suspend one’s mind in the workings of another sensibility, quite literally to give oneself over to Henry James or Conrad or Ausonius, to Yuri Olyesha, Bashō, and Plutarch [and the peasant woman and her baby, Anastasia and Anne Applebaum].”

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