Saturday, August 05, 2017

`When You Don't See the Corpses'

The most valuable service a reader can perform after reading a good book is to share its existence with another likely reader. That’s what Boris Dralyuk does in his Aug. 2 post on the recent death of Igor Golomstock, a writer new to me. Boris describes Golomstock as “one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met.” Go here to read two chapters from his Memoirs of an Old Pessimist (2011) translated by Boris from the Russian. Born in 1929 in Tver, then known as Kalinin, Golomstock lived for four years in Kolyma, the Arctic region in far northeastern Russia used by Stalin for his Gulag labor camps.

With Andrei Sinyavsky, Golomstock co-authored the first book on Picasso to be published in the Soviet Union. He immigrated to England in 1972 and is best known for Totalitarian Art: In the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, Fascist Italy and the People’s Republic of China (Collins Harvill, 1990). Translated into English by Robert Chandler, it serves as a nonfiction complement to Vasily Grossman’s great novel Life and Fate (also translated by Chandler), which details the moral and political parity between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. I’m reading Totalitarian Art. The thesis is familiar – tyrants think alike, regardless of ideology -- but Golomstock’s documentation is bold and detailed, with none of the academic gibberish we’ve come to expect from art historians. He makes plain the systematic imposition of high-minded, propagandistic poshlust, to use the Russian word popularized by Nabokov. In the chapter titled “From Word to Action,” Golomstock writes:

“Who knows how many great artists, together with their creations, perished under Stalin without any legal enactments, ratified lists or public spectacles? And on what scales can one compare the burden of crimes of the different hues of totalitarianism? Nadezhda Iakovlevna Mandelstam – the widow of Osip Mandelstam, the great poet who died in one of the camps – passed through many circles of the Soviet Hell and summarized her experience as follows: `One has to live our life in order to learn one truth: while corpses are lying about on the streets and main roads, one can go on living. What is most terrible of all is when you don’t see the corpses.’ It is very possible that inhabitants of Germany who survived Nazism would not agree with this Russian aphorism.”

The Mandelstam passage is drawn from the second volume of her memoirs, Hope Abandoned (trans. Max Hayward, 1973). In Donald Rayfield’s edition of The Garnett Book of Russian Verse: A Treasury of Russian Poets from 1730 to 1996 (2000), he includes a prose translation of an untitled 1931 poem by Mandelstam (who is notoriously difficult, I’m told, to translate):

“Preserve my speech for its aftertaste of unhappiness and smoke, for the pitch of collective patience, for the conscientious tar of labour. Thus water in Novgorod wells has to be black and sweetened so that by Christmas a star’s seven fins are reflected in it.

“And for that, my father, my friend and rough helper, I, an unrecognised brother, a black sheep in the people’s family, promise to make such rough-wood well-timbers for the Tatars to lower princes down them in a bucket.

“As long as these frozen executioner’s blocks loved me – as, aiming to kill, they knock down skittles in an alley, -- for that I’ll spend all my life even in an iron shirt and will find a big axe in the forests for a Petrine execution.”

1 comment:

Denkof Zwemmen said...

Apropos the parity between the USSR and Nazi Germany:
I relieve the boredom of long drives by listening to podcasts by Slavoj Zizek (probably not your cup of tea). In the podcast I listened to just yesterday, Zizek pointed out at least one difference between the two: In the gulags, on Stalin’s birthday, all the inmates were gathered together to listen to, and applaud, a congratulatory telegram from themselves to their great leader. The idea of the same thing occurring in Nazi concentration camps on Hitler’s birthday is absurd.
Zizek was making a point about the importance, in fascist states, of keeping up appearances. He didn’t elaborate further, but I will. Marxism, Communism, is an ostensibly benign, humane ideology. The ideology behind Nazism is Nietzscheism which regards the weak as sub-human.