Thursday, April 6, 2017

Ilya Erenburg: The Thaw (Novyi mir Spring 1954)

Extract from Leszek Kołakowski; Modernity on endless trial; (1990); Chapter 20. Why an Ideology Is Always Right: Thus the virtue of ideology is not only that it produces verbal hybrids that mix up facts, commandments, and assertions about the "essence," but also that it makes it possible to infer facts from commandments, to deduce what is from what ought to be, and that, if efficient, it produces people capable of performing precisely the miraculous transubstantiation involved in seeing facts as prescribed by norms. Certainly we have now left behind the period when this ideology worked efficiently, and when people actually acquired this talent of believing a doctrine which each day was unmistakably and glaringly disproved in all its details by all the common facts of daily life. That ideology was able to achieve this perfection—even for a certain historical period—gives testimony to its independent power in social life.

Ilya Erenburg's The Thaw depicts a discussion meeting where people criticize a certain Soviet novel. One of the characters objects to the untruth of an extramarital love story in the novel, and seems to believe sincerely that the book is false in the sense of portraying un-Soviet conduct (a Soviet man does not have extramarital affairs) until, a moment later, after the meeting, he suddenly realises that he himself is in exactly the same situation in his real life. This is precisely the moment of "thaw," the melting of the ideology. Once people become aware that the ideology they have been professing is contrary to obvious facts, it ceases to be an ideology. Rather, it is converted simply into a lie. While still repeated, taught, and obeyed under coercion, nevertheless an ideology that is perceived and known as mendacious has lost its natural ability to produce double consciousness. 

Leninist-Stalinist Marxism expressly justified, at least to a certain extent, the curious epistemology of this apparently impossible phenomenon - sincere mendaciousness. Lukacs, among others, was its codifier. The relevant part of his theory states that truth can be seen only from the particular standpoint of the progressive class, the proletariat; that the proletariat's superior wisdom is stored in the Communist party (and not, of course, in what any empirical proletariat thinks or believes); and that this wisdom emerges in acts of practical commitment rather than in "contemplative" investigation. Thus what produces truth is the political action of the Communist party. In other words, by definition, the party is never wrong, since it is the only mechanism generating the criteria of cognitive validity. (Extract ends)

Ehrenburg describes two very different sorts of painter in Soviet Russia, the successful careerist and the honest but neglected artist. Original Source: Novyi mir (Spring 1954).

The evening of the readers’ meeting was also to be memorable in the family of the old schoolmaster, Andrei Pukhov, though none of them went to the club. His daughter Sonya had meant to go, but it was Andrei’s birthday (he was 64) and his wife, Nadezhda, said that whatever happened, they must give a party. For three days Andrei listened to Nadezhda’s lamentations; flour was scarce, there was not a turkey or a goose in any shop in town, and as though on purpose, eggs were unobtainable as well.

Andrei chuckled: that’s what she was like, to hear her talk you’d think there would be nothing, yet the guests would eat so much that they could hardly get up from the table.

Nadezhda wanted to invite her cousin and her husband, a contemporary of Andrei, the former headmaster now pensioned off, but Andrei said: ‘Let’s ask Sonya’s and Volodya’s friends, let them have a good time; you and I will enjoy ourselves looking at them.’

Andrei was sociable, he liked Brainin and the former headmaster and sat for hours listening to his wife’s cousin talking about her rheumatism, her mud baths and her new bee-venom treatment. He often visited the widower Egorov who lived nearby and comforted him in his recent loss; they discussed machines, or Eisenhower’s latest speech or Egorov’s daughter who taught music. But he was never happier than among young people; it may have been that he had kept a youthful fervor, or perhaps that he had taught for over thirty years and really knew the young-there was nothing he couldn’t understand about the terrors of examinations or the tragedies of first love or youthful dreams of fame.

Only in his own family he at times felt lonely.

He had lived happily with his wife for thirty years. In her youth she, too, had been a teacher-she had taught in an adult school. Their first child, Volodya, was born in 1920, the famine year. When Nadezhda took him to the headquarters to show Andrei, the sentry stopped her: ‘Look out, little one, don’t drop him’-small and thin, with her short-cropped hair, she looked a child herself. A year later she had a daughter who died within a month; Nadezhda was dangerously ill and had two operations. When Andrei went back to school teaching she devoted herself to the duties of a wife and mother. By the time Sonya was born she had long forgotten the dreams she had had as a girl, the diary she had kept then, the books that she had read; she had grown fat and soft. On the rare occasions when she recalled her youth she was amazed: it seemed to her that it must have been another woman who had addressed those soldiers’ meetings, galloped, while she was pregnant, across the steppe or helped her husband to print leaflets. How long ago it was! Her world had closed in round her and grown compact.

When Andrei fell sick Nadezhda felt that she must save his life. She complained to everyone of his not following the doctors’ orders, of his behaving like a child unconscious of its danger. In reality Andrei knew he had not long to live and just because of this refused to be an invalid-he felt the moment he surrendered the engine would stop... read more:

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