Thursday, February 16, 2012

Lenin on Tolstoy

I've been reading Anna Karenina—I'm about halfway through it—and it's piqued my curiosity about Leo Tolstoy. So I did some quick little surface-skimming online research about him. The trajectory of his philosophical/political/moral development is interesting. Coming from the landed gentry, Tolstoy in the course of his long life that spanned most of the 19th century and on through the first decade of the 20th became more and more a foe of the Russian status quo. He was in many ways quite radical, ultimately opposing the czarist state, the military, the feudal system, even the church. He ended up embracing a mishmosh of ideas characterized as Christian anarchism. For his rejection of the established church he was excommunicated. For his anti-stateism he was embraced by many of the leading Russian anarchists of the late 19th century, and he in turn helped them in various ways including editing and publishing some of their works. However, Tolstoy was also a pacifist. He did not think the oppressed and exploited masses should rise up and fight to overturn their oppressors. He did not support revolutionary struggle, whether of anarchist or communist or even bourgeois-democratic ilk. In fact he was not for actually doing anything. Instead, he espoused an individualistic pacific hermetic existence—not that he ever managed to actually pull such off himself, not until a last-ditch flail during his final days—just the sort of irrelevant, counterproductive, clueless nostrum that had and still has no meaning, nothing to offer, for the workers and oppressed people. Turn the other cheek, live on bread and water—this sort of thing sometimes has a nearly exotic appeal for those who've lived lives of privilege, who find themselves alienated and rebellious, who know the whole lousy system stinks, but who can only contemplate retreat as their own personal response and shrink away from any mass organized revolutionary action.

There are, I think, present-day counterparts to Tolstoy among the current crop of writers. Not necessarily alike in literary greatness, but in attitude, this alienation, this rejection, this recognition of the awfulness of life under late-stage capitalism—alienation, rejection, recognition that yet result in nothing but anomie, that are not harnessed toward any good use, that is, toward action or even support and encouragement of action. It's not hard to find novels or plays that include social critique, that hark to the hard truths about this harsh place and time. Sadly, most of them fairly reek of hopelessness. They've nothing to offer. No news, for who doesn't already know this shit stinks? And no ideas about a way forward, no direction toward how to make positive change. I've been used to thinking of this as the literature of cynicism. Having just read two commentaries on Tolstoy by V.I. Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik Revolution, I realize that I've been wrong. Not all, maybe not even most, of these writers are cynics. Many of them are politically progressive in one way or another. It's just that they're trapped by the limits of their own perspective, constricted by the bourgeois consciousness that prevents them from breaking through and following their own knowledge and observation all the way toward the logical end, which is revolution. Art for revolution. Revolutionary art. And so, variously conscious as they may be, good-hearted, well-meaning, they and their words end up turned inward, serving nothing but their own need for artistic expression and readers' own hunger for good writing. Cynical, maybe not. But never rising to the heights they might.

I find Lenin's comments about Tolstoy striking among other reasons because he has no qualms about calling him a great artist. With all Tolstoy's political shortcomings and errors Lenin lists, he never denies him his due or says we shouldn't read him. He just clarifies, from the perspective of the class struggle, what Tolstoy did and didn't see, what he got right and what he got wrong. This analysis, first in a September 1908 piece, bears the fascinating title "Leo Tolstoy as the Mirror of the Russian Revolution."

Then he wrote a second piece, published in November 1910 on the occasion of the great novelist's death. Here's an excerpt.
Tolstoy’s works express both the strength and the weakness, the might and the limitations, precisely of the peasant mass movement. His heated, passionate, and often ruthlessly sharp protest against the state and the official church that was in alliance with the police conveys the sentiments of the primitive peasant democratic masses, among whom centuries of serfdom, of official tyranny and robbery, and of church Jesuitism, deception and chicanery had piled up mountains of anger and hatred. His unbending opposition to private property in land conveys the psychology of the peasant masses during that historical period in which the old, medieval landownership, both in the form of landed estates and in the form of state “allotments” definitely became an intolerable obstacle to the further development of the country, and when this old landownership was inevitably bound to be destroyed most summarily and ruthlessly. His unremitting accusations against capitalism—accusations permeated with most profound emotion and most ardent indignation—convey all the horror felt by the patriarchal peasant at the advent of the new, invisible, incomprehensible enemy … all the calamities attending the, “epoch of primitive accumulation,” aggravated a hundredfold by the transplantation into Russian soil of the most modern methods of plunder elaborated by the all powerful Monsieur Coupon.

But the vehement protestant, the passionate accuser, the great critic at the same time manifested in his works a failure to understand the causes of the crisis threatening Russia, and the means of escape from it … . His struggle against the feudal police state, against the monarchy, turned into a repudiation of politics, led to the doctrine of “non-resistance to evil,” and to complete aloofness from the revolutionary struggle of the masses in 1905–07. The fight against the official church was combined with the preaching of a new, purified religion, that is to say, of a new, refined, subtle poison for the oppressed masses. The opposition to private property in land did not lead to concentrating the struggle against the real enemy—landlordism and its political instrument of power, i.e., the monarchy—but led to dreamy, diffuse and impotent lamentations. The exposure of capitalism and of the calamities it inflicts on the masses was combined with a wholly apathetic attitude to the world-wide struggle for emancipation waged by the international socialist proletariat.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Happy Bday CD, or oops I did it again

Since the day it opened five months ago, I've been meaning to get to the Morgan Library and Museum to see its exhibit Charles Dickens at 200. It was on our itinerary when my best friend visited in November, but as always happens with these trips we couldn't do everything and Dickens got tossed. It's been on my calendar ever since but have I gone? No I have not. Now the days are few--Saturday is the exhibit's last--and given my schedule this week I see no way that I'll get there. So today, the 200th anniversary of the writer's birth, I rue my screwing this thing up.

There's some consolation, however, in the fact that a good portion of the special exhibition is in fact part of the Morgan's permanent collection. So I may yet have the opportunity to take a gander at some of the writer's letters and original manuscripts. Meanwhile, next up: Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft at the New York Public Library. This exhibit will last four months. If I don't make it to this one I--no, I must, I'll get there, I will!

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Barbarian Nurseries

Last week I read a great book. The Barbarian Nurseries by H├ęctor Tobar. I can't recommend it enthusiastically enough.

This fine novel has everything that turns me on as a reader. Beautiful, complex writing. Multidimensional, surprising characters who are anything but pat. A deeply involving story—I'm telling you, I was on the edge of my seat through the middle 200 pages, and not in a shallow cinematic-car-chase sense, oh no, what is at stake in Tobar's plot is ever so much more meaningful and important than anything any thriller writer ever conceived. Class consciousness, to the max. And most of all, social engagement, for this is a profoundly relevant and timely novel. Relevant, that is, to some of the most compelling issues facing our class here and now.

Primary among these issues is immigration, specifically the struggles of undocumented workers and the racist war being waged against them. It's not for me to say, but I suspect this just might be the novel of Los Angeles and southern California. The novel that tells the truth.

Necessarily the reader is drawn immediately and throughout to take sides. From start to finish we are on the side of the main character, a Mexican immigrant, undocumented, who works in the household of a well-off suburban couple. Tobar is a largehearted writer, allowing every character her/his humanity even when objectively they don't deserve our sympathy, sketching no one as a stick figure or stereotype. Still, his great achievement is his protagonist, Araceli Ramirez. An artist who finds herself stuck cooking and cleaning in someone else's house, ultimately stuck taking care of someone else's kids when she never wanted to, smart, prickly, resentful and full of contradictions—that is, fully human, as many-layered as every human being is—Tobar's Araceli is never less than fascinating. I can't remember the last time I cared so much about a fictional character, was so invested in where her story would lead.

There's too much juice here to suck it dry by giving more specific details about the story itself. Readers should come at it clean. Let it sweep you along. I will note that I was a bit puzzled at the end, at Tobar's treatment of a certain southwestern state as the story winds down. It almost left me wondering whether there's a sequel in the works. That would be splendid.