Sunday, November 12, 2017

Modern Jewish Literature - Jews Under Soviet Rule - Beginning Vastly Expanded

I'm going to start by reading to you an abridged bit of something that's by Saul Bellow, who is not just not a Soviet writer, but in many ways the opposite of a Soviet writer. But there is always power in opposites. The tale side of a coin is still the object closest to its head. So here is Saul Bellow at the beginning of The Dean's December, a novel of the early 80's which he began by describing a trip by Albert Corde - like nearly all his protagonists a Bellow surrogate, with his Rumanian wife - who shared her nationality with Bellow's then wife - to her native country to visit her dying mother. We won't get to it when we discuss American-Jewish fiction, but this is a novel that needs to be rediscovered, and it won't be any time soon:

Here everyone was kind--family and friends, warmhearted people--he liked them very much, to him they were "old Europe." But they had their own intense business. This was no ordinary visit. His wife's mother was dying. Corde had come to give support, but there was little he could do for Minna. Language was a problem. People spoke little French, less English. 
Corde's mother-in-law, who had had first a heart attack and then a stroke, was in the hospital. Only the Party hospital had the machines to keep her alive, but the rules were rigid there. She was in intensive care, and visits were forbidden. Corde and Minna had flown a day and a night to be with her but in five days had seen her only twice--the first time by special dispensation, the second without official permission. The hospital superintendent, a colonel in the secret police, was greatly offended because his rules had been broken. He was a tough bureaucrat. The staff lived in terror of him. Minna and her aunt Gigi had decided (Corde took part in their discussions) that it would be polite to ask for an appointment: "Let's try to have a sensible talk with him."
On the telephone the Colonel had said, "Yes, come."
Minna, when she went to see him brought her husband along--perhaps an American, a dean from Chicago, not quite elderly but getting there, would temper the Colonel's anger. No such thing happened. The Colonel was a lean, hollow-templed, tight-wrapped, braided whip sort of man. Clearly, he wasn't going to give any satisfaction. An institution must keep its rules. 
There had been an impropriety. Under no circumstances could the administration tolerate that. Outraged, Minna was silent. What else could she be? Here only the Colonel had the right to be outraged. His high feeling--and he allowed it to go very high--was moderated in expression only by the depth of his voice. The Colonel's sparse hair was slicked straight back, military style; Corde's baldness was more random, a broad bay, a straggling growth of black hair. From this enlarged face, the brown gaze of an intricate mind of an absent, probably dreamy tendency followed their conversation. You could not expect a Communist secret police colonel to take such a person seriously. He was only an America, a dean of students from somewhere in the middle of the country. Of these two visitors, Minna was by far the more distinguished. This beautiful woman, as the Colonel was sure to know, was a professor of astronomy, had an international reputation. A "hard" scientist. It was important for the Colonel to establish that he was not moved by such considerations. He was in as hard a field as she. Harder.Minna spoke emotionally about her mother. She was an only child. The hearing the Colonel gave her was perfectly correct. A daughter who had come such a distance; a mother in intensive care, half paralyzed. Without knowing the language, Corde could understand all this easily enough, and interpreted the Colonel's position: where you had hospitals, you had dying people, naturally. Because of the special circumstances an exception had been made for the doamma and her husband on their arrival. But there had been a second visit (here the incensed emphasis again), without permission.
Minna, in terse asides, translated for her husband. It wasn't really necessary. He loosely sat there in wrinkled woolen trousers and a sports jacket, the image of the inappropriate American--in all circumstances inappropriate, incapable of learning the lessons of the twentieth century; spared, or scorned, by the forces of history or fate or whatever a European might want to call them. Corde was perfectly aware of this.
Valeria, the old woman, was not a Party member now, hadn't been one since, as Minister of Health, she fell in disgrace. That had happened thirty years ago. She was then denounced publicly by press and radio, expelled, threatened with prison, with death too. Before he could come to trial, one of her colleagues who fell in the same shake-up had his head hacked off in his cell. This old militant who had survived Antonescu (the Romanian fascist dictator whose antisemitism in that era was second only to Hitler's - ET) and also the Nazis was butchered with an ax or a meat cleaver. Dr. Valeria somehow came through. Dr. Valeria herself had founded this very hospital, the Party hospital. 
The Colonel, towards the last of the interview, put on a long, judicious look--cunning, twisting the knife--and said that Valeria was removed from the intensive care unit, Minna might come as often as she liked. Unhooked from the machines, the old woman would die in fifteen minutes. This of course he did not spell out. But there was your choice, madam. This was the man's idea of a joke. you delivered it at the point of a knife.
If this scene were written in 2017, it would probably be set in an American hospital. The feeling of well-being and prosperity that we had in the mid-20th century is gone now, because we have nothing to compare it to. No doubt Americans were too blind to the realities of our country's flaws in 1982, but statistically, the economic inequalities that existed then still exist now, just more permanently.

Even today, Rumania is not a particularly prosperous place, but few readers know that. There aren't many American readers of literary fiction today who'd find it plausible that things might be worse in a small European nation than they are here. If the writer of this scene's contemporary update were influenced by Margaret Atwood, we'd get a very stark sense of how the Colonel was using his position as a man to assert his power through gender - but this being by Saul Bellow, the most self-consciously un-woke author in American history, he makes clear that the Colonel is intimidated by Minna's stature, and not by her husband's. If the writer were influenced by David Foster Wallace, we'd probably get lots of digressions about the state of American healthcare, of the exact bureaucratic channels through which Corde and Minna had been thwarted. But even being from my grandparents' generation, Saul Bellow was from a very different, less scientific era than ours when the precise circumstances did not matter as much as the flavor. Bellow is a writer from an era when culture and fiction were still much more dominated by Europe. He was a writer, perhaps the last writer, who was still finding an American voice out of the tools that Europe provided us - and particularly out of the few tools which Russia provided him and his family. Either way, from Atwood or Wallace, we'd get a very different kind of high feeling than this Rumanian Colonel's. The high feeling would not be from  an oppressor in a distant place we don't understand, it would be the high feeling of oppressors whom we know how they oppress us all too well. Bellow was born in 1916, and he still lived in an America defined by the world,  but we all live in a world defined by America.

And yet, even in 2017, when we in America think of the Soviet Union, we are all still Albert Corde. What you've just heard is a portrait of the Soviet bloc from the point of view of an American - from the one country truly shielded from the Twentieth Century as most of the world had experienced it. Even in the 20th century we had our share of problems that could kill us all, problems that show no signs lately of getting anything but more dangerous, but in the 20th century, our problems were unique to us. Our problems were the problems of the one world power that always knew we would have enough to go around, and that the only question that mattered was how to distribute what we have.

Everywhere else in the world, even the most prosperous people in the country knew what it meant to be so cold, and so hungry, that their children would cry all day and all night, and at times the only potential relief for their suffering seemed to be to pray for their death. Every other major world power - Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Russia, China - every single one, knew this suffering at some point; from the bottom of society to the very top. It's one thing to live in a societal pyramid where a top still exists: there, at least, there is hope that you can reach prosperity. If that hope is never fulfilled, that can drive a society insane in a completely different way. But then there are the societies for which there is no top at all - that creates a very different different kind of insanity. In a society where the hopes for the prosperity of millions are too long delayed, people can become very soft. In such a society, the biggest faux pas among anybody who even has a small amount of prosperity is a lack of empathy for those who don't. But then there are the societies in which there's no hope at all, and in these societies, people become very hard, because the greatest faux pas among people with a small amount of prosperity is to have any empathy at all. In a society without hope, empathy is synonymous with weakness. And even if a temptation exists in many of us to hate some Americans for not being nearly empathetic enough, it's important to remember that there is still a country on the other side of the world, just as large and consequential as ours, who hates even the least empathetic of us, for having the empathy which they lacked, and using our empathy to defeat them.

It's perfectly legitimate to have any feeling you like about the results of the 2016 election. It is not legitimate, however, to believe at this point that Russia was not involved in the election. People are entitled to their own opinions, not to their own facts, and while we're not going to get into any analysis of news or statistics, to ever say that Russia was not involved in the 2016 election in late 2017 is not just a state of denial, it is a lie.

After the 20th century, America was hated by the Soviet Union not because we were strong but because we were so weak, and the fact that the Soviet Union lost the Cold War to this Empire ruled by spoiled children whom they still think never knew a moment's suffering is to them the ultimate injustice.

What's especially terrifying about this is that they have a point. Roughly 405,000 Americans died in World War II. That's roughly 1 in 395 American citizens of the time. But twenty-seven million Soviet citizens died in World War II, one in six! War is hell, war is murder, and to many people in Russia, still, it's still clear that the USA never fought in World War II, and swooped in to steal all their spoils.

A society like ours, where you can achieve greater strength by displaying your vulnerabilities, is a society where there's still real hope of life getting better. It's brutal enough when such a hard society exists less than a just a few blocks away from where we currently sit; but imagine for a moment that West Baltimore were 8.65 million square miles, one-sixth of the world's landmass, stretched ten time zones, and included nearly 300 million people. And this in no way includes the rest of the Soviet bloc satellites and all the billions elsewhere who lived the vast majority of their lives under Communist control.

Some people in here, particularly younger people, might have a nagging voice in your head saying that surely, life in the Soviet Union can't have been quite as bad as that. Nothing so big could have been so monolithic. And surely it wasn't. In ways we can only talk about tonight very briefly, the Soviet Union was an extraordinarily diverse place in ways that dwarfed even America's diversity, but its leadership did everything it could to make the Soviet Union as monolithic as possible. And in the cases of the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin, the USSR succeeded in making a monolith of suffering beyond what any American can yet imagine.

No comments:

Post a Comment