Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Inbound, from the Internet

If life is what happens in the meantime, I have had a week of living large. We arrived in Paris more than a month ago, but my first fortnight here was occupied mainly with preparing a lecture that I was obliged to give in Cleveland in the middle of October. Regular readers will know about that pleasant event, but they will know, too, that it took a full week counting travel and recuperation time. So in my mind's eye I didn't settle down to what you might call serious work until the beginning of last week. In this context "serious work" has a technical connotation that may not resonate with all readers. Strange to say, some folks just aren't into sixteenth-century Portuguese religious poetry. Serious work, you see, means the composition of a monograph about Sobolos rios que vão, an extraordinary poem by Luis de Camões.
What I Should Have Been Working On

Furthermore, this meant that, turning my back on my recent and exhilarating flirtation with trade publishing, I was returning to a level of scholarship so recondite as to make even my great work on asyndectic parataxis in the Lesser Ambigua of Maximus the Confessor seem vulgar and popularizing. A reputation for true obscurantism is easier to talk about that to achieve, and I refuse to give mine up without a struggle. I did make some progress, meaning I got some pages written; but I had not reckoned on the operation of the Michael Corleone Theorem: "Just when I think I am out, they pull you back in."

What I Was Actually Working On

Before I had left America, in fact a goodly time before I had left America, I had recorded a CSPAN interview about The Anti-Communist Manifestos. This was sort of fun, if somewhat ersatz. The recording took place in a small room in the mid-town high rise campus of Pace University. Around the room were light boxes hoked up with photographs as a fake Manhattan skyline. I hadn’t exactly forgotten about the interview, but I had long since given up expecting its imminent airing—which would in any event be rather academic to me here in Paris. Hence I was taken by surprise by its appearance. I don’t think I did too badly, considering the fact that nobody told me that if I wanted to make eye contact with my television audience I’d have to look at an imaginary spot about two feet above the head of the person I was actually talking to. You might like to see it. Your time will be only slightly more squandered than if you drove out to the mall to watch the Sears truck unload. You can see it here. Or if by any unhappy chance you have not been introduced to my son Richard’s wonderful blog “A Brooklynite on the Ice,” you can dispatch two nerds with one groan by watching it there. Rich has me sandwiched in between Michelle Obama’s sweet-potato and some unclaimed Hallowe’en sweets. You appreciate the unifying leitmotif: sweetness.

I learned about its appearance from a small avalanche of emails. The scholar may often be unsure of whether he in fact has any audience at all. You spend several years researching a learned book, and a couple more years writing it. Add two more years, if you are lucky, for the process of publication. Then maybe after two more a couple of people will write condescending reviews of a page or two, the gist of which is the following: “B+. What this guy should have said...what I would have said...”, etc. But almost anything posted on the Internet is likely to get nearly instantaneous response.

One group of messages is from former students. Any teacher is always thrilled to hear from a former student—even if the communication is a disguised request for a letter of recommendation. A professor of literature is going to be particularly thrilled to hear from former students who listen to or watch programs about literature—especially when (as was the circumstance here) they seem to be doing this in precious moments stolen from their day jobs running the world. I also heard from quite a few B+ types. “Didn’t you mean Germany one time when you said Russia?” Er, yes, sorry. “Did I hear you say that Hiss was convicted of treason? It was perjury.” Well, I don’t think that I said treason, but if I did that was a mistake, because it was perjury, though of course the perjury was a mere emblem of the espionage on which the statute of limitations had expired, and yadayada yad.

One guy (and this was more like D- than B+) went on the warpath about a passing remark made in the book—but certainly not in the interview—about Dalton Trumbo. Now, look. Dalton Trumbo wore very cool hats. Dalton Trumbo may have been a good screen-writer. Dalton Trumbo may have been screwed by HUAC. Dalton Trumbo may still be a Hollywood darling and the subject of a recent hagiographic offering by PBS. But I am here to tell you that Dalton Trumbo was also a Communist acolyte of Joseph Stalin, a denier of the gulag, and a maligner of truth-tellers like Koestler and Kravchenko. He was in short a useful idiot member of the American Communist Party. But I digress...

Among the most poignant messages I received were several from people, mostly of advancing years, for whom the content of my book had vivid associations, often through family members. A man about my age wrote to me from rural New England with an extraordinary story. He is of Finnish-American descent, and he has in his possession, and allowed me to see, three autobiographical essays by relatives or friends of his parents’ generation—American survivors of the gulag! Actually there are quite a few books by or about American “zeks”—the Russian slang acronym for political prisoners. Three of the ones that impressed me most are Alexander Dolgun’s Story, Walter Ciszek’s With God in Russia, and Robert Robinson’s Red on Black. This last touches on the multiply ironic histories of blacks who tried to escape American racism by going to the USSR.

One community that certainly needs its own historian—and I hope my correspondent might be he—is the large group of Finnish-Americans who, abandoning their little farms and the idling factories of the Midwest, took off for the Soviet Union in the early Depression years. Some were members of the Communist Party. Others were enthusiasts of the socialist vision. Still others were simply naïve members of a tight-knit ethic community that had been sold a bill of goods. By the thousands these idealistic immigrants—in common with non-Russians from a hundred nations, including a very large contingent from Finland itself—got caught up in the grinding machine that was Stalin’s gulag. That they were innocent of the crimes for which they were punished is perhaps too banal a point to make. One of the essayists (a woman) reports that her NKVD tormentors actually said to her, “If out of a hundred people we arrest, one is truly guilty, we are doing a good job!”

All three of the essays I have seen are written in a kind of rusty and faulty English miraculously remembered after fifty years of torment. The literary quality is that you would expect of someone with a few years' elementary education in a Michigan school house of the 1920s or 30s. But they are enough to make the very stones weep, and I hope they make it into print. The world is tired of bad news. We all want a respite from misery. In the Canterbury Tales the Monk’s contribution is a sad litany of de casibus tragedies beginning with Lucifer and Adam and coming down practically to the “present day” with Count Ugolino of Pisa, ever memorable from Dante’s Inferno. At last the Knight, tiring of the unceasing woe, interrupts the Monk and cuts him off:

“Hoo!” quod the Knyght, “good sire, namoore of this!.../ for litel hevynesse / Is right ynough to muche folk, I gesse.”

Yes, I guess so too. But as I told my correspondent, a world that is prepared to forget its Trails of Tears, its Armenian genocides, its Holomadors and its Holocausts, its Rwandan massacres—that is a world condemned to experience them again.


  1. Well, A+ for the best summation of Dalton Trumbo to be found on the Internet.

    And it hath pith, too. So much so I swiped it for my site's sidebar.

  2. One set of people I'll easily give a free pass to for Communist sympathies is American blacks.

    If you grew up in Jim Crow America, I'm not going to blame you if you go a little nuts, politically, and think that America's enemies are probably unfairly maligned.

    People like Dalton Trumbo -- not so much.

  3. Watching it now on C-SPAN2. Didn't know about "Out of the Night," so thanks for that.

    Anxiously awaiting the history of chess!