This post was originally written in 2018
Some might argue that history constrains us. Certainly many teenagers keenly feel the question, “Why does it have to be this way? Why must the world work as it does?” The dynamism of youth and their imaginations certainly can do wonders for any society.
We may suppose that a world without historical awareness will create a glorious whole new world of possibilities. But . . . history rather pedantically suggests that the opposite of the case. Recall the French Revolution, for example. They remade everything, even their sense of time. But this confusion and disruption led to terrible tyranny and mass incarceration. The communist regimes of the 20th century show this same tendency. Only the most bold would call Soviet-era culture stimulating and full of possibilities. Their narrowness of vision–a narrowness made possible and even likely by their disrespect to history–created a terrible tyranny.
Many comedians have commented that they no longer wish to perform at many college campuses. Students in today’s climate seemingly cannot operate with dual levels of reality. They cannot make distinctions between jokes and real life, assuming a 1-1 correlation of all aspects of reality, a flat world. Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic wrote that,
Two of the most respected American comedians, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, have discussed the unique problems that comics face on college campuses. In November, Rock told Frank Rich in an interview for New York magazine that he no longer plays colleges, because they’re “too conservative.” He didn’t necessarily mean that the students were Republican; he meant that they were far too eager “not to offend anybody.” In college gigs, he said, “you can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.” Then, in June, Seinfeld reopened the debate—and set off a frenzied round of op-eds—when he said in a radio interview that comics warn him not to “go near colleges—they’re so PC.”
When I attended the convention [The National Association for Campus Activities] in Minneapolis in February, I saw ample evidence of the repressive atmosphere that Rock and Seinfeld described, as well as another, not unrelated factor: the infantilization of the American undergraduate, and this character’s evolving status in the world of higher learning—less a student than a consumer, someone whose whims and affectations (political, sexual, pseudo-intellectual) must be constantly supported and championed. To understand this change, it helps to think of college not as an institution of scholarly pursuit but as the all-inclusive resort that it has in recent years become—and then to think of the undergraduate who drops out or transfers as an early checkout. Keeping hold of that kid for all four years has become a central obsession of the higher-ed-industrial complex. How do you do it? In part, by importing enough jesters and bards to keep him from wandering away to someplace more entertaining, taking his Pell grant and his 529 plan and his student loans with him.
But which jesters, which bards? Ones who can handle the challenge. Because when you put all of these forces together—political correctness, coddling, and the need to keep kids at once amused and unoffended (not to mention the absence of a two-drink minimum and its crowd-lubricating effect)—the black-box theater of an obscure liberal-arts college deep in flyover territory may just be the toughest comedy room in the country.
In the same vein, Alex Tabborok recently commented that,
It has been said that we live in an increasingly divided media universe but on many issues I think we live in an increasingly uniform media universe. Social media is so ubiquitous and the same things sell so widely that I suspect the collective consciousness is less fragmentary than in the past.
I thought of this issue reading transcipt trials of two Soviet authors in the late 1960’s, Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky. The authors were not in trouble for any direct attacks against the state or against communist doctrine per se. Obviously no writer who valued his safety would write in this way. The problems with their work lay elsewhere. Among the issues raised:
- There are no clear good and bad characters in your stories. How then can the people understand the story (i.e., the story alienates the masses, which is de-facto anti-communist)?
- Which characters in the story definitively represent the author’s point of view? In other words, which character speaks for the author, and which characters serve as foils?
This particular attack assumes that 1) The relationship between characters in the story and the author is always strictly linear and 1-1, and 2) This relationship is necessary for clarity in the story, and 3) Without this clarity, how can we judge if you are a threat to the state or not?
Both authors seemed terribly confused by attacks made against them, pleading “not guilty,” an unusual move in trials of this sort. They tried to explain basic literary theory of story and character, but to no avail. Their judges simply couldn’t accept this mental construct. By definition character’s must express a direct relationship to the author. Character’s who criticize the state must reflect the author’s mind. The author’s tried to point out that some of these characters fare badly in the story, but the prosecutors shot back that not all who criticized the state “got their just desserts.” Here is a brief excerpt from Yuli Daniel’s trial, which begins with the prosecutor reading an excerpt from one of Daniel’s stories:
Prosecutor (reading): “I hate them [referring to those in power] so much I have spasms, I scream, I tremble.” Well, Daniel, what are we to make of this?
Daniel: That is an epigraph to the character’s thoughts (laughter in the courtroom, Daniel looks around nervously).
Prosecutor: Who is that you hate so? Who do you want to destroy?
Daniel: To whom are you talking? To me, or to my character, or to someone else?
Prosecutor: Who is your positive hero? Who expresses your point of view in the story?
Daniel: I have told you, the story has no entirely positive hero and there doesn’t have to be one.
Prosecutor: Who expresses the author’s credo?
Daniel: The characters do express the author’s thoughts, but only in part. No single character represents the author. Maybe [my story is] bad literature, but it is literature, and it doesn’t divide everything into black and white. . . . The indictment states that I express my ideas “through the mouths of my characters.” That is a naive accusation, to put it mildly.
Neither author had success discussing the nuance of how stories work. Both received labor camp sentences of 5-7 years.
In his Conversations with Stalin Milovan Djilas tells of his initial fascination with Stalin and the Soviet Union and his subsequent disenchantment in a few short years. Many other works give many more details about the horror and oppression in Stalinist Russia. What made Djilas’ account interesting was that he framed his account not so much in terms of how it all went wrong, but how it managed to work at all. That is, we know Stalin was bad, but if he was so bad, why did Soviet Russia prosper and gain power, at least in certain ways?
He explores this in different ways. For example, no one questions that the purges in the military during the 1930’s sacrificed thousands to Stalin’s paranoia, but Djilas had met many of the commanders put in place after the purges, and admitted that they were almost all quite adept, fearless, and devoted. Naturally, Stalin had his entourage that rarely, if ever, challenged him. As you would expect, one always had to constantly avoid saying the wrong thing by following keenly the bouncing ball of “official” opinion. But unlike most other autocrats throughout history, Stalin did actual work and remained very well informed. He could incisively size up personalities in the room and control it with ease.
What struck me most of all, however, was this comment of Djilas:
“The world in which the Soviet leaders lived–and that was my world too–was slowly taking on a new appearance: horrible, unceasing struggle on all sides. Everything was stripped bare and reduced to strife which only changed in form and in which only the stronger and more adroit survived. Full of admiration for Soviet leaders before this, I now succumbed to a heady enthusiasm for the inexhaustible will and awareness that never left them for a moment. That was a world in which there was no other choice other than victory or death.”
Perhaps unconsciously, Djilas reveals that Maxism has its roots not in economics, politics, or a new conception of proletarian culture, but in a new religious understanding of the world–a naked struggle for will and power. It is this elemental understanding of things that can give regimes who build on this faith a concentrated vitality, akin to the power of art in certain barbarian civilizations.* Perhaps Stalin understood this as well, to great and terrible effect.
Today most of us immediately understand the danger’s of the far-right, perhaps because the far-right has a crystal-clear idea of what they want and express it forcefully. Many on the far-left, on the other hand–quite prevalent on many campuses today–seem to think that their ideas will lead to a bright, sunlit land where everyone loves everyone else (the far-right has no such plan and no such delusion). But if you can’t take a joke, you will dramatically narrow your world, after which, you will have nothing to fall-back on other than the paganism of power and will.
*Though I would love to claim this insight about “barbarian art,” it belongs entirely to the inimitable Kenneth Clark. He argued that the concentrated narrowness of barbarian civilizations can give their art a certain vitality.