Saturday, March 03, 2018

`What Satanic Arrogance'

I’ve come to think of Nadezhda Mandelstam’s volumes of memoir – Hope Against Hope (1970) and Hope Abandoned (1974), both translated by Max Hayward – as the twentieth century’s foundational texts. To use a reviewer’s cliché, they are “essential reading,” unlike any English-language volumes from the same period I can think of, except perhaps Whitttaker Chambers’ Witness. By recounting in detail her life and her husband’s in their present and recent past, she foretells much of the future, our present.

In “Soviet Fate, Russian Hope,” published in the March issue of The New Criterion, Jacob Howland describes Hope Against Hope, as “an invaluable account of the collapse of intellectual life and the terror and bleakness of everyday existence at the height of ideological tyranny.” Howland isn’t shy about drawing parallels:

“How did things come to such a pass? [Mandelstam] sheds light on the matter in Hope Against Hope, and especially in the more expansive and desultory reflections of Hope Abandoned. `The basic error of our times,’ she writes, was the replacement of `the idea of popular education . . . by the political concept of indoctrination.’ (`What do the people need to be indoctrinated for? What satanic arrogance you need to impose your own views like this!’) The `accumulated riches’ of culture and tradition were deliberately spurned and forgotten, and the `religion’ of `progressive’ ideology—`the idea . . . that people can foresee the future, change the course of history and make it rational’—was speciously elevated to the rank of science.”

Sound familiar? Howland, however, carefully refuses to devise a one-to-one correspondence between the U.S. in 2018 and the USSR in, say, 1938 (the year Mandelstam’s husband, Osip, was murdered): “Although we do not live in anything like the USSR, all of this has begun to feel weirdly and depressingly familiar. In the United States, public schools and the media, as well as the wider spheres of culture and commerce, have become theaters for the contentious enactment of identity politics, which crudely subsumes individuals into broad and largely arbitrary categories.”

In Hope Abandoned, Mandelstam abominates any naively rosy understanding of human nature: “Everything we have been through here was the result of succumbing to the temptations of our era—to which no one is immune who has still to be struck down by the disease of putting his faith in force and retribution. Vengeance and envy are the prime motives of human behavior.”

Mandelstam may be the most bitterly ironic writer (and she is a writer, not merely a documentarian) since Swift. Her narrative is unrelenting, and she leaves us—her oh-so-fortunate Western readers -- feeling like callow teenagers: “No one should lightly dismiss our experience, as complacent foreigners do, cherishing the hope that within them—who are so clever and cultured—things will be different.” No human, she reminds us, is immune to the seductions of evil. Read the final paragraph of Chap. 41, “The Years of Silence,” in full:

“This book, which I have now nearly finished, may never see the light of day. There is nothing easier than to destroy a book, unless it already circulates in samizdat or has found it ways into print (as used to happen to books in the Gutenberg period of Russian history). But even if it is destroyed, it may, perhaps, not have been entirely in vain. Before being consigned to the flames, it will be read by those whose expert task it is to destroy books, to eradicate words, to stamp out thought. They will understand none of it, but perhaps somewhere in the recesses of their strange minds the idea will stick that this crazy old woman fears nothing and despises force. It will be something if they understand that much. The thought of it will be like a little pinch of salt to sprinkle on their privileged rations, or a garnishing to whet their appetite for that other literature designed to edify and instruct people of their kind, functionaries to whom nothing matters, neither life, nor man, nor the earth, nor anything—dimmed by their breath—that lights our way. Heaven help them. But will they really succeed in their task of universal destruction?”

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