Real Fiction

Exploring the nexus of reading and writing

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Political Correctness and the “Cult of Personality”

museum-politically-correct-small-50012The phrase “politically correct,” or “PC,” didn’t begin in the 1960s in the USA. It was first publicly used by a British Ministry of Information official during the First World War. It later appeared in Mao Zedung’s “Little Red Book” in the early 1960s and was adopted, originally tongue-in-cheek, by the radical left in the USA. In Marxist–Leninist and Trotskyist vocabulary, “correct” was the common term denoting the “appropriate party line” and the ideologically “correct line.” [Source]

What brings me to discuss this today is my current reading of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward:

Solzhenitsyn’s novels are autobiographical, presenting a vivid account of a man maintaining his freedom against the vicious repressions of an authoritarian regime. Clearly a novelist in the 19th-century tradition, he is often considered Russia’s greatest 20th-century novelist.

Aleksandr_Solzhenitsyn_Russian_USSR_Writer_Historian_DissenterHis difficulties with the authorities began on Feb. 8, 1945, when he was arrested for having written critical remarks about Joseph Stalin in a letter to a friend that was intercepted by the censors. Sentenced without a trial to 8 years of hard labor, he remained until 1953 in a number of labor camps, one of which was a research institute where he worked as a mathematician. In 1952 he contracted cancer of the skin, and was treated in a hospital in Tashkent (the setting for Cancer Ward). Pronounced cured, he completed his sentence a year later and, although still in exile, was able to teach mathematics and to begin writing. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970 “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.” [Source]

There are many reviews of Cancer Ward on the Internet, so it would be superfluous to offer my own review here, except to talk about one of the characters who exemplified the totalitarian state that was the USSR:

Bureaucracy and the nature of power in Stalin’s state is represented by Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov, a “personnel officer.” The corrupt power of Stalin’s regime is shown through his dual desires to be a “worker” but also achieve a “special pension.” At the end, Rusanov’s wife drops rubbish from her car window, symbolising the carelessness with which the regime treated the country. [Source]

I pause here to give some background for the ensuing comments on political correctness. It is important to know the period in which the action of Cancer Ward takes place. Here are the leaders of the USSR, in date order:

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, 26 Oct 1917 – 21 Jan 1924
Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin, 3 Apr 1922 – 5 Mar 1953
Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, 7 Sep 1953 – 14 Oct 1964
Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, 14 Oct 1964 – 10 Nov 1982
Yuriy Vladimirovich Andropov, 12 Nov 1982 – 9 Feb 1984
Konstantin Ustinovich Chernenko, 13 Feb 1984 – 10 Mar 1985
Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, 11 Mar 1985 – 24 Aug 1991

Nikita Khrushchev

Nikita Khrushchev

Please note the hiatus of top leadership between March and September, 1953. After Stalin died there was a political struggle among several pretenders to Stalin’s throne. Stalin held the top post in several functions and, after his death, there was a dispersion of these duties to several people so no one could claim to be Stalin’s sole heir, until Khrushchev finally gained the support necessary.

Khrushchev began a gradual change in the legacy of Stalin and, suddenly, in a 1956 speech “On the Personality Cult and its Consequences” to the closed session of the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party, he denounced Stalin’s dictatorial rule and cult of personality. He also attacked the crimes committed by Stalin’s closest associates.

This speech destroyed the legitimacy of Khrushchev’s remaining Stalinist rivals, solidifying his domestic power. He began to ease many restrictions, and freed millions of political prisoners from the “Gulag”–penal labor camps spread across the Soviet Union. (Read Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago).

508f6b8429This “thaw” in the political, cultural and economic life of the Soviet Union included some openness and contact with other nations and new social and economic policies, helping living standards to rise and promoting a higher level of economic growth. Censorship was also relaxed. Some subtle criticism of Soviet society was tolerated, and artists were allowed to produce some works that didn’t have government-approved political content–but there were still limits an artist or writer could not go beyond without reprisal.

The novel Cancer Ward is set in a hospital in Soviet Uzbekistan in 1955, before and during the period when the changes to Stalin’s policies and apparatus were culminating. One of the patients in the cancer ward was Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov, as mentioned above. While in the hospital he learns from a newspaper, and from his visiting wife and daughter, that the Soviet regime is changing: prisoners are being released from the Gulag, having been officially “rehabilitated.”

570One of these prisoners, Rusanov fears, is a man, a former friend and compatriot, whom he falsely denounced to achieve some advantage in the factory where they both worked. Here are some excerpts to show the disorientation and fear the new rules of political correctness engendered in him:

Now times had changed, things were bewildering, unhealthy, the finest civic actions of earlier days were now shameful. Would he now have to fear for his own skin?

[Rusanov mentally reviewing the past] The nature of Rusanov’s work had been…that of personnel records administrator. It was a job that went by different names…but the substance of it was always the same. Only ignoramuses and uninformed outsiders were unaware what subtle, meticulous work it was, what talent it required. It was a form of poetry not yet mastered by the poets themselves. As every man goes through life he fills in a number of forms for the record, each containing a number of questions. A man’s answer to a question on one form becomes a little thread, permanently connecting him to the local centre of personnel records administration. There are thus hundreds of little threads radiating from from every man, millions of threads in all…They are not visible, they are not material, but every man is constantly aware of their existence. The point is that a so-called completely clean record was almost unattainable, an ideal, like absolute truth. Something negative or suspicious can always be noted down against any man alive. Everyone is guilty of something or has something to conceal. All one has to do is look hard enough to find out what it is.

565…The poetic side of [Rusanov’s] work lay in holding a man in the hollow of [his] hand without even starting to pile on the pressure. (Emphasis added)

[Later, Rusanov talking with his daughter, Alla, a well-placed writer who has recently visited Moscow and who is visiting him in the hospital] ‘Listen,’ her father said quietly, do you remember. I asked you to find something out? That strange expression–you come across it sometimes in speeches or articles–“the cult of personality”–are those words an illusion to…?’ [He means Stalin]

‘I’m afraid they are, Father…I’m afraid they are. At the Writers’ Congress, for example, the phrase was used several times. And the trouble is, nobody explains what it means, though everyone puts on a face as if they understand.’

‘But it’s pure blasphemy! How dare they, eh?’

568[Alla] ‘…Generally speaking, you have to be flexible, you have to be responsive to the demand of the times. This may annoy you Father, but whether we like it or not we have to attune ourselves to each new period as it comes! I saw a lot in Moscow. I spent quite a lot of time in literary circles–do you imagine it’s easy for writers to readjust their attitudes over the last two years? Ve-ry complicated! But what an experienced crowd they are! What tact! You can learn a lot from them!’

Well, this is enough, I hope, to elicit your interest in the book, and to provide some food for thought about the potential power of government to shape our lives.

Will Rusanov be cured of his neck tumor? Will his old “friend,” released from the Gulag, visit him? Will Oleg (the main character) find love and happiness with one of the two hospital workers he is romancing? Will Oleg be returned to the Gulag after he is cured (if he is cured)?

Don’t ask me… read the book!

Addendum: If you have an interest in the current debate regarding how to finance and array medical care in the USA, you should certainly read at least Part Two, Chapter 9, “The Old Doctor” in this book. Take your time with it; it is poetically written (and, apparently, faithfully translated)

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…(A)n ineffable quality…great refinement underlying commonplace appearances.

Thus, on page 74 of my paperback copy of the book Shibumi, does the author, Trevanian (1931-2003), through the character General Kishikawa Takashi, begin to describe to young Nicholai Alexandrovitch Hel the nature of this ‘quality.’

It is a statement so correct that it does not have to be bold, so poignant it does not have to be pretty, so true it does not have to be real. Shibumi is understanding, rather than knowledge. Eloquent silence. In demeanor, it is modesty without pudency [prudishness]. In art where the spirit of shibumi takes the form of sabi [celebration of that which is old and faded], it is elegant simplicity, articulate brevity. In philosophy, where shibumi emerges as wabi [cultivated simplicity and poverty], it is spiritual tranquility that is not passive; it is being without the angst of becoming. And in the personality of man it is…how does one say it? Authority without domination? Something like that.

I have read this book at least a half-dozen times since its publication 30 years ago, and have given many copies away to friends and relatives. I feel now, after having just again read it, that I should memorialize it here so that it may not be necessary to read it again.

One cannot successfully characterize a book with so many historical references, vivid characters and deliberate stereotypes of nationalities, among its other, including ‘ineffable,’ facets and qualities. The author is man of strong opinions and may offend some who read the book, but one cannot be bored with it.

Trevanian dedicated the book to the four characters who helped shape the main player in this story, Nicholai Alexandrovitch Hel. The four are based on real people with, presumably, different names and identities:

  • General Kishikawa Takashi, trapped by culture, custom and circumstance into becoming the Governor of Japanese occupied Shanghai just prior to World War Two. Kishikawa-san becomes foster father to Nicholai Hel.
  • Otake-san, Seventh Dan Gô Master, mentor to Nicholas Hel in the board game of Gô, of which life is its shadow. As part of Otake-san’s instruction in life he tells Nicholas: “Do not fall into the error of the artisan who boasts of twenty years experience in his craft while in fact he has had only one year of experience—twenty times.”
  • Maurice de Lhandes, “The Gnome,” an invaluable ally, and friend, to Nicholas in his years as a professional assassin. De Lhandes has access to the darkest secrets of governments which he sells to those whom he can trust not to reveal his identity and location.
  • Le Cagot, a Falstaffian character, a Basque, who is Nicholas’s companion and fellow spelunker, or caver, after retirement from his former profession. Le Cagot is, among other attributes, a hero of the Basque resistance to the Spanish government.The ‘retired’ Nicholas Hel has a female companion, as well, who is a gently compelling character.In the spirit of shibumi I will say little more here.I will now put away my old friend, having drunk from his pages sufficiently, and, without yearning, anticipate the day when it will seem as natural as the rain to deliver it into the hands of a young visitor to my home.kareeda ni
    karasu no tomari keri
    aki no kure

    [on dead branches
    crows remain perched
    at autumn’s end]

    —Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694)

    Shibumi is published by Ballantine Books, New York. Copyright © 1979 by Trevanian. ISBN 0-345-31180-9

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“Buddenbrooks”, Thomas Mann’s First Published Novel

One can easily find a summary and analysis of the book on the Internet, such as this from “BookRags.” I have a different, but not contrary, view of the book which I offer below.

The edition I bought was published in 1952 when Thomas Mann was 77, three years before his death. It seems almost shameless for Pocket Books, Inc. to engage in such hyperbole in their presentation of this admittedly highly regarded novel, Mann’s first published novel at age 26. Mann’s being granted the Nobel Prize for literature was due at least as much for his later and more mature book, The Magic Mountain. In my view, Buddenbrooks is a wonderful and well-told story, but not as timeless as The Magic Mountain.

To offer more perspective for my comment, here are some of the other important living men (and women) of letters in Mann’s generation:

Robert Frost (1874-1963)
Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)
Upton Sinclair (1878-1968)
Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)
Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1879-1957)
Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956)
Helen Keller (1880-1968)
George Jean Nathan (1882-1958)
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)
Frances Parkinson Keyes (1885-1970)
Ezra Pound (1885-1972)
Edna Ferber (1887-1968)
Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953)
Raymond Chandler (1888-1959)
Christopher Morley (1890-1957)
Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980)
Henry Miller (1891-1980)
Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)
Pearl Buck (1892-1973)
Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982)
Joseph Wood Krutch (1893-1970)
James Thurber (1894-1961)
Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961)
Ben Hecht (1894-1964)

And, these are only the American men and women of letters during Mann’s lifetime.

Nonetheless, there is a great deal in Buddenbrooks making it commendable to your reading, if you can get past the initial tedium of necessarily learning about the family members and getting used to the social manners and ways of speaking at the time and place of the story (the nascent German state, around 1840-1880).

The full title of the original volume was (translated from the German) Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family.

Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck, Count of Bismarck-Schönhausen, Duke of Lauenburg, Prince of Bismarck (1815 – 1898)

Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck, Count of Bismarck-Schönhausen, Duke of Lauenburg, Prince of Bismarck (1815 – 1898)

My initial impression was that I was about to be immersed in a 19th century German soap opera about the middle and higher classes. I was determined not to let this deter me, and I was glad of this resolve not too shortly thereafter. The backdrop of this drama includes wars between various European entities including France, Prussia, some German city-states and Austria–all culminating in the unifying of the modern German state in 1871 under Otto von Bismarck.

The soulful underpinnings of this story, however, involve the clash of values between those represented by the Protestant church and those of the rising of mercantilist middle class. Additionally, there are the yearnings of the lower classes to be free of the ignominy of being, essentially, serfs to the noble classes and those of the middle classes attempting to emulate the nobility.

The fortunes of family Buddenbrooks are based on the family business, grain brokering for the most part. The business passes down the male line and ends with the death of the last of the male Buddenbooks who wished only to be a musician. This, of course, is a very simplified summary. There are many characters, related by blood, marriage, commerce and politics, carefully and fully drawn and with whom the reader can identify closely–with distaste or sympathy.

I was particularly moved by the religiously-oriented elder matriarch and the musically-oriented youth who ended the story. The two central characters are brother and sister, children of the matriarch and the last of those who were connected with the family business. The sister had the burden of marrying men (she divorced twice) whose positions seemed useful, at the time, to the family business or family fortune.

It seems a cautionary tale for those who are on a path to abandon soulful values for the lure of fortune and influence. Additionally, it shows what perhaps is the inevitable path of any family in its cycles of rising and falling and possibly, as in this case, disappearing.

I don’t read German so I can’t remark on the original prose. The translation seems to capture well the linguistic subtleties and regional differences (e.g., Hamburg vs. Bavaria).

An unexpected element of the story is how much the French language and some French manners were part of the family’s atmospherics. One male ancestor married a French woman whom we see briefly in the beginning of the book.

Having now read Buddenbrooks I feel I have done myself a favor. As a writer-in-training, I saw how the author cleverly structured the beginning of the novel to introduce the characters, and how he used a family diary to help us understand the history of the family. Such devices are invaluable in providing the detail necessary to understand the nature and trajectory of the novel’s characters and actions.

Aside from how it was instructive to me, I enjoyed the story and how it was told. In addition, I kept in mind my recent reading of Mann’s much later Novel, The Magic Mountain and could discern the author’s philosophical and literary trajectory thereby.

I suppose I should now read his Death in Venice which I have waiting for me in my bookcase.

So many books, so little time …