Saturday, November 2, 2013

Stalin's Quip

"The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks...and therefore I raise my glass to you, writers, the engineers of the human soul."

Stalin, to Maxim Gorky, 1932*

Josef Skvorecky, The Engineer of Human Souls


That's Maxim Gorky, Stalin's favorite writer. though there is a reasonably good chance that Stalin had Gorky killed, despite the writer's (late) support of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the Gulag, and of Stalin himself.  Being killed by Stalin was by no means an unusual fate for a close comrade, and Gorky was fortunate in his years of preferment and his rescue from the relative artistic obscurity that preceded the 1917 Revolution.

Of course, writers and intellectuals can be co-opted to serve inhumane causes--think of Heidegger in his service to the Reich as Party member (from 1933 to the bitter end) and as Rector of the University of Freiburg; the tainted associations of Celine with the Occupation in France; the traitorous pro-Nazi statements of Knut Hamsun, the 1920 Nobel Laureate in Literature (his racism was deep-seated and makes disturbing reading still); or of Ezra Pound's stint as an apologist for Italian fascism, an episode  glossed over by the poet's admirers.  The human soul can be engineered in many ways, and it seems to me that Stalin's quip, with its odd juxtaposition of the mechanical and the metaphysical, states the simple truth--great writing reconfigures "souls," that is, persons as entities doomed to act out powerful ideologies, or, in a less deterministic way, "souls" as "selves," as unique and autonomous beings.  Stalin wasn't much interested in the latter, and Gorky's "socialist realism" was the opposite of art--it was kitsch suborned by power, the thinnest surface of an unreal world offered as homage to a madman.  Nor has art subordinated to power disappeared with the passage of its most notorious proponents--far from it.

Josef Skvorecky was born in Bohemia, in what was then Czechoslovakia, in 1924.  He was a contemporary, colleague, and friend of Vaclav Havel, Milan Kundera, Jaroslav Seifert, Milos Forman, and Bohumil Hrabal--playwrights, poets, novelists, and a filmmaker, all of whom labored under both German and Stalinist occupations, men whose "country was the Czech language," as Skvorecky put it.  Skvorecky left Czechoslovakia in 1968, after the crushing of the Prague Spring by Soviet tanks, and began to teach at the University of Toronto.  He resided in Canada for the remainder of his life, publishing over thirty books and establishing, with his wife, the emigre press "68" in order to bring to light Czech literature banned during the dictatorship.  He died in January 2012, just a week after Vaclav Havel.

So how does one respond to oppression--to the terror of fascists or of self-proclaimed communists?  Does one commit suicide in despair at the death of civilization as Stefan Zweig and his wife elected to do? ("I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth")? Does one fight back, with words and moral righteousness, in the manner of Alexander Solzhenitsyn ("So perhaps that ancient trinity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty is not simply an empty, faded formula as we thought in the days of our self-confident, materialistic youth")?  Weapons are, of course, out of the question--the ideologues are too well armed. Another option in times of crisis--political or existential--is to deploy wit and irony, undermining the oppressor by pointing out his absurdity.  Kundera took this path rather directly, and Hrabal took it with great subtlety.  This is also the course taken by Josef Skvorecky in his major (in length, in capaciousness) novel The Engineer of Human Souls.  A serious tenor sax player, Skvorecky riffs effortlessly in Engineer among three settings--contemporary Toronto, where Danny Smiricky (Skvorecky's perennial alter ego) teaches American literature to mostly disinterested students; 1940's, Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, where Danny and his girlfriend Nadia work in a Messerschmidt plant and attempt, amateurishly, to sabotage the German war effort; and, finally, in the Czech emigre community in Canada, a viper's nest of spies and apparatchiks, of artists and writers, prostitutes and gamblers, all of whom assume that their life in Canada can be made to imitate life in their home country if they duplicate the intrigues with which they have always lived. The novel alternates scenes and themes and character focus and styles; hell, it violates every precept of MFA workshopping you could imagine--there's telling instead of showing, characters who aren't "rounded," flat patches that should have been edited out but which carry the theme of totalitarian absurdity in subtle ways, and no question that if Engineer had been submitted to a commercial American publisher it would have been rejected.  For all of these reasons I found it refreshing; it forced me to think yet again about how fiction prepares us to live with absurdity, especially political absurdity. Even in as mundane a setting as one's place of employment there are often reasons to retreat to the kind of belly-warming irony (like a meal of comfort food, saurerbraten and dumplings) Skvorecky serves up in his astute re-creations of our collective past, present, and future. 

That's the interior of City Lights Books in San Francisco, the very room, in fact, where I picked up my Dalkey Archive edition of The Engineer of Human Souls this past summer.  If you're reading this blog and ever get to America's most beautiful city, be sure to stop by City Lights.  There's an entire floor dedicated to poetry! But the best investment on that day in early August seemed to me to be a novel about how we ordinary folk can keep our sanity in the shadow of political systems that see the human soul as a problem in engineering rather than as the fragile repository of memory and dreams and desires it is. "Truth lies in the nuances," as Anatole France puts case, and, as we all know, the purveyors of systems--political, moral, educational--are nothing if not enemies of nuance.  Indeed, we have the misfortune of living in an age bereft of all that is subtle; ours is the "age of extremes" as Eric Hobsbawm put it, a sad time in which wit and feeling have given way to demagoguery--the age of Cruz and the Pauls and Boehner--those would-be engineers of our souls.

God help us.

"Come now let us consider the generations of man,
Compund of dust and clay, strengthless,
Tentative, passing away as leaves in autumn
Pass, shadows, wingless, forlorn, 
Phantoms deathbound, a dream.

(Aristophanes: Skvorecky's epigram)

A Dalkey Archive book, translated from the Czech by the wonderful Paul Wilson, to whom we owe many great works of Czech literature. A writer and a Canadian, a close colleague of Havel and Skvorecky and dozens of other Czech intellectuals, he is the author recently of Bohemian Rhapsodies.

George Ovitt (11/2/13)

*It is likely that Stalin stole this quip from Yuri Olesha. 


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