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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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Russian Revolution Quotes

Some great quotes from Orlando Figes’ history of the Russian Revolution (endorsed by Communist Eric Hobsbawm, no less!).

Oh, how [the Soviet leaders of the February 1917 revolution] feared the masses! As I watched our ‘socialists’ speaking to the crowds … I could feel their nauseating fear… I felt the inner trembling, and the effort of will it took not to lower their gaze before the trusting, wide-open eyes of the workers and soldiers crowded around them. As recently as yesterday it had been relatively easy to be ‘representatives and leaders’ of these working masses; peaceable parliamentary socialists could still utter the most bloodcurdling words ‘in the name of the proletariat’ without even blinking. It became a different story, however, when this theoretical proletariat suddenly appeared here, in the full power of exhausted flesh and mutinous blood. And when the truly elemental nature of this force, so capable of either creation or destruction, became tangible to even the most insensitive observer — then, almost involuntarily, the pale lips of the leaders’ began to utter words of peace and compromise in place of yesterday’s harangues. They were scared — and who could blame them?

Mstislavsky, Five Days

‘The countryside is falling into chaos, with robberies and arson every day, while you sit doing nothing in your comfortable Petersburg office,’ one Tambov squire wrote to him in April. ‘Your local committees are powerless to do anything, and even encourage the theft of property. The police are asleep while the peasants rob and burn. The old government knew better how to deal with this peasant scum which you call “the people”.

Tambov Squire to Prince Lvov, April 1917

The terrible thing in Lenin was that combination in one person of self-castigation, which is the essence of all real asceticism, with the castigation of other people as expressed in abstract social hatred and cold political cruelty.

Peter Struve, “My Contacts and Conflicts with Lenin”

Sweet Father and Mother,
It was already clear to me about a week ago that there was no way out. Without a doubt the country is heading for a general slaughter, famine, the collapse of the front, where half the soldiers will perish, and the ruin of the urban population. The cultural inheritance of the nation, its people and civilization, will be destroyed. Armies of migrants, then small groups, and then maybe no more than individual people, will roam around the country fighting each other with rifles and then no more than clubs. I will not live to see it, and, I hope, neither will you.

Prince Lvov on the eve of his resignation, July 1917

Lenin and Trotsky do not have the slightest idea of the meaning of freedom or the Rights of Man. They have already become poisoned with the filthy venom of power, and this is shown by their shameful attitude towards freedom of speech, the individual, and all those other civil liberties for which the democracy struggled.

Gorky, Untimely Thoughts, 7 November 1917

Psychologically, the Whites conducted themselves as if nothing had happened, whereas in reality the whole world around them had collapsed, and in order to vanquish the enemy they themselves had to undergo, in a certain sense, a rebirth . . . Nothing so harmed the ‘White’ movement as this very condition of psychologically staying put in previous circumstances, circumstances which had ceased to exist. . . Men with this ‘old regime’ psychology were immersed in the raging sea of revolutionary anarchy, and psychologically could not find their bearings in it… In the revolutionary storm that struck Russia in 1917, even out-and-out restorationists had to turn revolutionaries in the psychological sense: because in a revolution only revolutionaries can find their way.

Peter Struve, 1921

Nonsense, how can you make a revolution without firing squads? Do you expect to dispose of your enemies by disarming yourself? What other means of repression are there? Prisons? Who attaches significance to that during a civil war?

Lenin, October 1917

What is man? He is by no means a finished or harmonious being. No, he is still a highly awkward creature. Man, as an animal, has not evolved by plan but spontaneously, and has accumulated many contradictions. The question of how to educate and regulate, of how to improve and complete the physical and spiritual construction of man, is a colossal problem which can only be conceived on the basis of Socialism. We can construct a railway across the Sahara, we can build the Eiffel Tower and talk directly with New York, but we surely cannot improve man. No, we can! To produce a new, ‘improved version’ of man — that is the future task of Communism. And for that we first have to find out everything about man, his anatomy, his physiology and that part of his physiology which is called his psychology. Man must look at himself and see himself as a raw material, or at best as a semi-manufactured product, and say: ‘At last, my dear homo sapiens, I will work on you.’

Trotsky

Nagisa Oshima and Other Japanese New Wave Films

There have been two retrospectives of Oshima recently in New York, as well as a brief New Wave overview at the Japan Society. Most of these films aren’t readily available, and for Oshima at least, people’s opinions of him have been skewed by only watching his late work, particularly In the Realm of the Senses (which is really not my thing). So here are quick takes on what I’ve seen. First, three early Oshima films.

The Sun’s Burial (Oshima, 1960): Assorted gang members and other lowlifes in Osaka try to make money and kill each other. Even here, though, Oshima is not concerned with realism. The film is essentially a melodrama and the plot contrivances are designed to generate theatricality and brutality. Oshima is technically fluent, but the film’s construction pales next to Imamura’s contemporaneous Pigs and Battleships, which takes a more anthropological view toward its lower-class subjects.

Night and Fog in Japan (Oshima, 1960): At a wedding, students, professors, and activists argue over what happened during the student movement against the Japan-America security treaty ten years earlier. There’s a lot of political talk without much background, but the depiction of a dead-serious Communist student movement, complete with censure and autocracy, is compelling. The flashbacks and camera movements are vaguely dialectical (the camera has a habit of swinging horizontally backwards and forwards), and it’s clear that the political content is meant seriously, not satirically, even if Oshima is ultimately pessimistic about the movements and their hollow leaders. It’s a more literal version of what Godard did in La Chinoise.

Pleasures of the Flesh (Oshima, 1963): Based on a book apparently entitled Pleasures of the Coffin, this is another over-the-top melodrama. Our hero murders a man who raped the teenage object of his obsession/love/lust, then comes into a fortune through hard-to-figure circumstances. He spends a year spending money by hiring assorted women as prostitutes. Things go very badly. The material seems to be tongue-in-cheek, but the rampant misogyny (the women just want money, they betray him, they don’t have feelings, etc.) is still hard to take. Best example of such: our hero secretly watches a pimp rape his prostitute, but doesn’t intervene until the pimp is about to pour acid on her face. Yeah.

Otto Mühl

The life and times of Viennese Actionist Otto Mühl, short version.

In 1970 Otto Mühl founded a commune in Vienna. The experiment was an offshoot of the ‘Aktionismus’, a Viennese version of the happenings in New York, lead by meanwhile legendary artists such as Nitsch, Schwarzkogler, and Brus. The happenings – in German ‘Aktionen’ – were an effort to lift all kinds of taboo in art. Many an artist proceeded to complement the revolution in art with a revolution in life itself. Life as the ultimate work of art, so to speak.

Declared enemy of the commune was: monogamy. Private property of women was considered to be the condition of private property of the means of production. Furthermore, marriage was the place where social repression was deeply anchored in personality. By limiting oneself to only one partner, sexuality was severely muzzled. The mobilisation of a revolutionary potential thus had to begin with releasing sexuality from such fetters.

The ideal of life-long fidelity was replaced by the ideal of absolute promiscuity. It was forbidden to make love with the same partner more than once a week. And also the frequency had to be reconsidered accordingly. With ‘bourgeois couples’ the frequency of copulation, grown to daily drudge, dropped to an alarming 2,57 times a week, at least according to the then widely known statistics of Kinsey. In Friedrichshof one was supposed to make love as often as a Muslim bows to Mecca. Whoever would like quality to prevail over quantity was reminded of the fact that ‘sex’ had to be unlinked from mere bourgeois ‘love’: foreplay and similar ‘romantic nonsense’ were unacceptable. Ideally, the job had to be done in a few minutes. To protect the communards from the dangers of bourgeois inertia, a rather efficient measure was introduced: men were not allowed their own bed. So they had to look for a shelter every night. Thus, even a slowly moving wheel had to turn at least one round a day.

In the beginning, the prescription to look for ever new partners was supplemented with the concomitant prohibition to reject less desirable ones: the marital duty of the bourgeois couple is nothing compared to such compulsive sex. But precisely because the differences were so apparent and remained so because of the maintenance of the free market, and precisely because the happy few precisely therefore preferred the happy few, they were no longer prepared to descend to the lower regions of the pyramid. That is how emerged the so-called ‘inner circle’, where the chosen ones could occupy themselves with the chosen few. To the utter dissatisfaction of the wretched on the base, who so dearly wanted to gain access to the top of the pyramid. The call for collective property has always originated in the excluded ones. In 1985 the conflict was settled in that the privileged closed the ranks, so that the excluded ones had to rely upon themselves.

Unlike the countless mayflies of those times, Mühl’s commune was granted a long life. Long enough to live to see her children come of age. Which immediately raises the question as to whether the children would join the ranks of the veterans.

As it appears, the ‘aktions-analytische’ therapy was not efficient enough to warrant a smooth succession of the generations. Especially the young girls happened to adopt a rather reticent stance on the sexual behaviour of their parents. No problem: according to the theory these were merely the last remnants of patriarchy that should be shaken off. If necessary with a little help: just like their parents, the girls had to be taken in hands by Mühl. Meanwhile, they were forbidden any contact with the boys. And – you have guessed it – in 1987 Mühl is bestowed the feudal right of the first night! Question of having the younger generation initiated in the secrets of sex by the appropriate person. Another natural proclivity is countered here: the preference for one’s own generation. Mühl did not even consider the possibility that he might as well initiate his own children: the women of Friedrichshof preferred Mühl not only as a lover, but also as a begetter. After the collective property of the commune had been transformed into the harem of a monarch, the monarch himself turns out to be to the very embodiment of Freud’s primeval father, incestuously swallowing up the next generation.

Stefan Beyst

In 1991 he was sentenced to seven years in prison for “moral offences and violation of drug law.”

An Interview with Lisa Samuels on Laura Riding and Poetry (Part 3)

Lisa Samuels edited and wrote an extensive introduction for the University of California Press 2001 reprint of Laura Riding’s 1928 collection of essays and stories, Anarchism Is Not Enough. Lisa has also published three books of poetry, most recently The Invention of Culture (Shearsman Books, 2008), as well as several chapbooks. She teaches at The University of Auckland in New Zealand.

What influence did Schuyler Jackson have on Riding, and what was the nature of their working relationship?

LS: I think Schuyler Jackson was ‘bad’ for Riding – one might say they were ‘bad’ for each other, encouraging the most self-generating sense of How Things Ought To Be. But that judgment is from the perspective of the world that wants more writing, please, from talented and imaginatively liberated persons. I think Schuyler and Laura found in each other the freedom to articulate a perfect world of dialectic-toward-agreement kindness and prescriptive verbal accuracy. Riding had started writing what became Rational Meaning before they met, having a contract in the 1930s with an English publisher (I forget which one, probably Cape) for a unique sort of Dictionary. Schuyler became part of her project, and it is hard to say exactly what part he played in the details of that tome. Laura is careful to insist on his co-authorship in the Prefaces, but she would be careful, given her history with such matters (her own practical exclusion from co-authorship attribution for work she did with Graves, especially on A Survey of Modernist Poetry, which of course was the impetus for William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, as Empson noted in the first edition – leaving Riding off the list of authors of the Survey and then in the second edition eliding entirely his debt to Riding’s and Graves’s book).

Riding steadfastly resisted being categorized with any identity group. To what extent do you think her “outsider” status, rejected or not, influenced her writing?

LS: Riding’s father was a firebrand Socialist, and her New York upbringing would have been at times infused with issues of how language shapes people’s thinking. I certainly think her writing evinces clear ‘woman writer’ identities, even as Riding resisted being labeled a woman writer (and for good reason, given how overt sexism was allowed to be in those days, not least in intellectual communities and not least in the U.S.).

Being an outsider, as woman and Jew and daughter (and remember how overt anti-Semitism was also allowed to be back then) in such a heated political climate, no doubt contributed to her urge to investigate ordinary language. But one might say the same for many persons at the time, so we have to make room for an element of inborn linguistic obsessions that translated into her poetry. Her investigations of ordinary language in part led her to push against genre boundaries, and that pushing might be seen as a healthy aspect of Riding’s work to retain her ‘outsider’ status.

I see in your own poetry a mixture of the high and low, the particular and the general, the abstract and the concrete. Do you intend a dialectical approach?

LS: I don’t intend the poems to elicit dialectical responses, but others have also remarked on the mixed levels of code, word class, etc. Dialogic, perhaps. A kind of overarching catachretic metaphoricity. For my part, that happens when I close my eyes and write. And I think it’s a not uncommon phenomenon in contemporary urban experiments with poetry. I’ve been exposed to a number of countries and languages in my life, and it may be that the urban experience of globalization is leading many contemporary poets to mix different rhetorics together in close proximity.

Particularly in your latest book, The Invention of Culture, I noticed the frequent use of “you” in your poetry, not to address the reader but as a third person, sometimes an interlocutor and sometimes a listener, but usually a physical presence in the poem.

LR: I think you have spoken to the heart of the matter: ‘a physical presence in the poem.’ My compositional imaginaries are always spatial and repeatedly visited by relations to an other or a self-as-other, sometimes in the form of language as a pronominal being, sometimes in the form of composite, dream-like others that exhort or are exhorted.

What contemporary poets do you see as working within the verbal and philosophical tradition that Riding deeply ploughed?

LR: In the UK, Alan Halsey (he’s more overtly literary-historical about it), J H Prynne, Marianne Morris (she’s more cheerful about it), Keston Sutherland, and in the U.S. Leslie Scalapino, Stacy Doris, Barrett Watten, and Justin Katko come to mind, and from Canada Lisa Robertson, from Germany Ulf Stolterfoht (whom I read in translation). Not that there aren’t many other interesting writers, but I’m trying to think of poets who interrogate the word, and syntax, and power, and the acculturated body in relation to those.

In “Jocasta,” one of Riding’s critical works collected in Anarchism is Not Enough, she writes, partially by way of criticizing Oswald Spengler and Wyndham Lewis:

Man’s powers from for reconstructing reality are really a misuse of his powers for constructing himself out of the wreckage which is reality. The only true entity possible to man is an analytic entity: the synthetic entities of art are all parodies of self.

What is Riding prescribing here, for the artist and for the reader?

LR: If I were to paraphrase the two sentences, I might write this:

Normative mimetic works are an abuse of the possibility of works that keep us in accurate (constant, vibrating) relation to radical contingency. A resolved picture is a false image.

Psychological symbolism, in this view, is another form of normative mimesis (if you take at face value the kind of interiority portraits that Virginia Woolf and Henry James were going for).

I think Riding did want people to be ‘liberated’ into a ‘responsible’ relationship to art. That is prescriptive, but she couldn’t tell people how to be in this relationship exactly or they wouldn’t have access to the radical contingency her early writing self was transacted by (I think her later writing self was too; but it becomes much more complicated). The contradiction is inescapable, and I don’t try to resolve it.

My thanks to Lisa Samuels for agreeing to this interview and for taking the time to respond in depth to my questions.

RIP Thomas M. Disch

I first heard Disch‘s name when I was a pre-teen computer geek and his text adventure game Amnesia came out. I didn’t play it until years later, but I do remember reading about how the game had squeezed the whole of Manhattan onto a single 5 1/4″ disk as the game’s map, including subway and bus system. How? By making New York awfully empty. Most of the street intersections are completely barren, save for occasional Chock Full O’ Nuts and other food stores. These were important: Wikipedia quotes a review complaining that “the main character would collapse after an unrealistically short amount of time if he didn’t eat or sleep frequently.”

And yes, much of the game was wandering around this empty simulation of Manhattan as a homeless man, sleeping in an abandoned tenement, being persecuted by everyone from police to rats, and begging and washing windshields for enough money to keep yourself fed. The game made the gap between ten cents and ten dollars seem insurmountable and condemned you to a random and frustrating struggle merely to stay alive.

Later on I would realize exactly how representative this was of Disch’s worldview and would come to recognize Disch’s signature move of cutting down his characters right at their greatest moment of triumph. But it made Disch an ideal representative of the left-behind in America, both in the close-minded midwest and in decaying and broken cities. On Wings of Song presented the divide between the urban and rural parts of the US taken to a plausible extreme, well before it became a fashionable trope. 334 presents, with more sympathy than was usual for Disch, the failure of New York to provide for its indigenous people. And I still rate The MD as a very modern fable about technology and medicine, as well as one of the better allegories of AIDS. And his best short stories–“Descending,” “102 H-Bombs,” “Dangerous Flags,” “Slaves,” “The Asian Shore,” “Angouleme,” etc.–are some of the best in the genre and easily some of the best of the new wave.

Many right-wing sci-fi authors use cruelty to show the unstoppable forces of history, how the strong survive and the weak perish, and so on and so forth. Disch’s cruelty sometimes took similar forms, but he always treated its effects on the personal level and made sure that no one could walk away feeling good about those left aside on the road of “progress.” In this I do not know his better.

(Also see John Sladek’s piece on Disch. Disch and Sladek also collaborated on the odd, indescribable non-scifi novel Black Alice.)

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