The fulcrum around which Dr. Zhivago turns occurs about 3/4 of the way through the novel. Yurii Zhivago is holed up in Varykino, a rural Ural estate where his family has onetime lived. He is on the run from the Bolsheviks, who are seeking to kill him, and hiding out in the Ural mountains with a woman who is not his wife and a girl who is not his daughter, though he loves them as if they were. There, in the dark cold fastness of the mountains sharing one room weatherproofed against the winter and listening to the wolves howling, Zhivago has his epiphany. His moment of lucidity on life and love and beauty. On writing.
Then it is gone. That moment of amber clarity frozen in time even as the suffering returns; the perfection of that vision lending meaning to all that came before and all that was to come after.
Russians revel in suffering. They even have a name for it, Passionarity, coined by Lev Gumilev son of Anna Akhmatova a Soviet poet who was a friend of Boris Pasternak, who wrote Zhivago. Passionarity is literally the Russian people’s ability to endure suffering and the understanding that their role in world civilization and the preservation of order comes through their tremendous capacity for suffering. A suffering that purifies, like a smelter burning out the impurities in the iron making it unbreakable.
This is why all their great writers’ stories are full of hardship and depravation. Does life imitate art or does art imitate life or is it more complicated than that, one feeding off the other reinforcing tendencies and philosophies and highlighting that which already is resonant in the souls of men? That’s what I think.
Boris Pasternak was Russia’s greatest novelist. Dr. Zhivago, the singular work of his talent, is a book of such power that the Soviets banned it from publication. Pasternak had to smuggle it abroad, to Europe, to have it first published. It was not published in Russia in his lifetime. In 1958 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for this signature achievement, an honor which the Soviet Union Writers Union pressured him to reject (but which he was awarded anyways). Pasternak died in 1960.
Dr. Zhivago is a story with a story. Suffering superimposed upon a story of suffering. It is a unique contribution to the world of man, and for that we are grateful. It is also by far the greatest Russian novel written.
Yesterday I had coffee with a new friend, who is himself Catholic, and in a wide-ranging conversation you have when you are surprised by stumbling upon a kindred spirit, I recalled this article I wrote about the Catholic Church in Venezuela.
It remains truer now than it was even then, 5 years ago when first written:
“When the state becomes predatory, the defenders of the faith are called upon to point people in the right direction, away from the violence of the authorities and back to God. Reminding the people he is still there; he is still looking; he is still caring.”
It’s difficult to be a writer in America in 2022. Of course, it’s always been difficult to be a writer. Anywhere. It requires a measure of sacrifice; a Sisyphean sense of the futile; and an overinflated perception of self. Writers in the former USSR had it very tough. I lived in Armenia for a season, engaging with their literature – an amazing ‘Armenian Boom’ happening simultaneously in Los Angeles and Moscow and pointed at Yerevan, where a nucleus of great writers draped in the snowy winters of that South Caucasus town debated the timelessness of their land and produced in their arcane but beautiful language some extraordinary literature. Naturally, it was difficult to be a writer in Armenia in the 1930s – many of them executed or sent to Siberia. This made their writing more meaningful – each book is not only a story in itself, but has its own story. That is what makes amazing writing; stories superimposed upon stories. Almost as if their tears, their suffering imbue their books with greater meaning than that which they possess on their own.
Put another way: facile writers produce flaccid writing.
Which brings me back to America. Our new stories have no stories (I’m not referring here to DH Lawrence or Edgar Allen Poe, from the days when Americans had to struggle and fight). Our massive publishing industry churns out books by celebrities or by writers they know will sell. Oprah or Tom Clancy. Famous people famous for being famous and more famous because their books are always on the shelves. Do the books have stories? Sure, everybody has a story – but ‘How I became a billionaire’ is not that compelling a tale, except for others who want to be billionaires and read the books in expectation of finding somewhere between the covers the key that will unlock the door to their own success. “How to have rock-hard abs in 10 minutes”.
Perhaps it’s the difficulty that causes greatness. Scarcity, after all, does drive up the value. What if, during the Armenian boom, there had been millions of titles released? A glut. Would Gurgen Mahari’s extraordinary tale of the life of Armenians in pre-genocide Van have been noticed – without being accompanied by Mahari’s own escape, first from the genocide to an orphanage in Dilijan, and again from Stalin’s Siberian gulag after 17 years of exile? Would it have been noticed, without his last failed escape attempt, from the mobs of angry Armenians burning his novel on the streets of Yerevan, accusing him of being sympathetic to the Turks? Would it have been noticed, had he not died of a broken heart a year later? I certainly would not have noticed it. Each page drips blood, the blood of his family, of his loved ones – and in the end his own blood. I even hunted down an original copy, in Armenian, that survived the bonfires – bought for $3 in a used bookstore – placing it proudly on my shelf, ready to tell its own story.
Which brings me to myself. As I said above, part of our curse is an over-inflated sense of self. This morning I read a few chapters of my 4th novel “I, Charles, From the Camps” on the metro. I was taking it as a gift for somebody, and was killing time. This book, self-published and in which I spent significant effort and editing, also sweats blood. It’s a novel about Africa; about the camps; about the injustice of life for a young African man, lack of choices and opportunity – frustration. It comes from my ten years, living on the continent and working in five different civil wars; disease and violence and injury and loss, all of which I also lived personally. It is a story which also has its own story. The challenge is, in America, that is not something that matters much. Every tweeter with their twitter considers themselves a publisher; every blogger with an idea is a writer – and if everybody is one, nobody is one.
There is no solution for this problem; I do not wish more violence upon myself or my fellow Americans and I certainly do not yearn for the gulag. But I do yearn to be read – for those 10 years of disease and violence and death to not have been lived in vain, beyond the simple few who I was able to touch; I want others to learn from them.
My stories; imbued by my stories. Because after the ticker tape parades, which never materialized, they are all I’m left with.
“Everybody is writing their Turkey books” Rose Macaulay once wrote in her lovely travel book Towers of Trebizond. This one is Kim Fortuny’s. Kim, it seems, is a professor of American Literature at a university in Istanbul.
I love Istanbul – who doesn’t, right? Topkapi and St. Sophia, ancient crossroads of empire which was itself an empire. Turkey is ‘Asia Minor’ as it was called in the Bible, the most important country in Christendom then. Hosting the council of Nicea – Turkey is even the place where St. Nicholas (Santa Clause) is from. It is old, with places dating deep into prehistory like Gobleki Tepe. In the east, “Western Armenia” (though if I called it that in Istanbul I would likely be jailed), the ancient seat of Urartu (RRT, they didn’t use vowels back then. Or maybe Ararat – there are no vowels in Hebrew either? Noah’s kingdom?) A kingdom every bit as grand, and older, than the Parthians or the Medes. Great Armenia once reaching from the Caspian to the Mediterranean. Full of conflict, as Robert Kaplan writes “every country imagining their greatness in the territorial possession of their moment of most national expanse” of course coming into conflict with every other country at their moments of national expanse as empires ebb and flow.
I was hoping Fortuny’s book would read like “A Moveable Feast” or “The Warmest Country”; a book about wonder and writing and inspiration. Instead, it was dry. In the intro, which was almost unreadable, I found the reason. And it started wrong – because the whole book seems to be focused on criticizing American writers for their own ‘prejudices’ (read observations or opinions) which Fortuny found “hegemonic”. Now, anybody who uses the word “hegemony” must be taken with a grain of salt. That is leftist trope. It’s meaningless, the point I suppose being it proves the author is cool enough to realize that all prejudices are acceptable, in fact sort of fun, as long as they are not American. Because Americans are powerful, America is powerful, and that is the one unforgivable sin.
Some of this book was interesting. I found the reflections on Hemingway thoughtful, because I really am not a huge fan of his writing. In the section on Dos Passos I discovered a book of his I am going to buy, so that was good. Seems Dos Passos was consumed with the “Armenian question”, I find writers to understand Armenia to be the best ones – maybe because I’m a writer who understands Armenia. I found the reflections on Twain tiresome. But the whole thing basically read like a Masters Thesis by a woke grad student. They really are a tiresome, cheerless lot – those who use the word hegemony. Cynicism is the opposite of wonder, and wonder is the founding philosophy of our civilization. Wonder is what made us great.
“Neo-Eurasianism utilizes the methodology of Vilfredo Pareto’s school, moves within the logic of the rehabilitation of the notion of organic hierarchy, picks up some Nietzschean motives, and develops the doctrine of the ontology of power, or of the Christian Orthodox concept of power as katechon. The idea of an elite leads us to the themes of the European traditionalists, who authored studies of the caste system in ancient society and of their ontology and sociology, including Guernon, Julius Evola, Georges Dumezil, and Louis Dumont. Gumilev’s theory of ‘passionarity’ also lies at the roots of the concept of the ‘new Eurasian elite.”
Lots to unpack in that description, from “Eurasian Mission” by Aleksandr Dugin who has become famous since Russia pulled the trigger on ‘new Eurasianism’ with its invasion of Ukraine. Dugin is a self-described National Bolshevik. He, among others, is the intellectual architect of Putin’s imperialism.
Pareto’s school is one of the study of inequality and specifically elites. Dugin emphasizes the importance of elites in his work, although differentiates between the caste elites he is advocating for in his Eurasia and the income elites in the West; with the basic difference being caste elites are cultural elites – nobles. There is much of feudalism in Dugin’s thinking. His work bleeds with the yearning for the days of peasants, nobles and the clergy. Even suggesting cities should be emptied and the fields repopulated.
Dugin has been described as a Fascist, but this is probably in the Italian sense not the German. At least not in the German racial sense – instead in the sense of the communal taking preference over the individual. He rejects all ideas of individual rights, instead bestowing rights upon collectivities as do other socialists – whether national or international.
The roots of his philosophy, however, do smell of the ancient forests of Siberia and the old legends and myths of prehistory. There is a neo-paganism in Dugin’s work; Julius Evola was an Italian student of paganism and the occult who permeated Hitler’s Germany as well with their occultic beliefs in Kali-Yuga and all that. Dugin believes that the katechon – orthodox theologians believe the katechon from Thessolonians is the Holy Spirit but Dugin presents the idea as a physical being who is both good and bad – restraining the Antichrist but at the same time preventing the end of days, which all good Christians yearn for – that the katechon these days is Russia, having been Rome before, and the Holy Roman Empire as well.
Passionarity is a term from Lev Gumilev, son of Anna Akhmatova the famous poet. It is, literally, the Russian ability to endure suffering and hardship and how that ennobles and glorifies the Russians as their special, unique contribution to the preservation of world order. Eurasianism seeks a multi-polar world, which is not a new idea. Four poles, one in Eurasia supervised by Russia; one in the Western hemisphere supervised by the US; one in Europe and Africa supervised by EU and one in Asia supervised by Japan. With no universalities of any kind to link them.
This was a fascinating read, except the end which was basically an Anti-American rant which is tiresome and without nuance. It shines a light into the mind of Putin and his group of Eurasianists and what they are up to. And that is helpful.
This is the novel that Vasily Grossman saw “arrested”. After he submitted it to the censors, and they realized the parallels in the novel between Nazi Germany and the USSR, they seized the copy. Having learned their mistake from Pasternak, they also sent NKVD to Grossman’s house to find every last scrap of notes and carbon paper related to the work, not wanting to risk the document seeing the light of day. They did however let Grossman go, he had performed service to the Soviet and was shuttled off to Armenia where he wrote an extraordinary book which is his best.
Life and Fate is like Dostoevsky, or perhaps like Solzhenitsyn. Epic and sweeping – the plot pace of a tortoise, it moves like molasses on a winter’s Russian day. Russian novelists insistence upon writing 800 page novels is something to also be thought about. It’s almost as if it should be as hard to read them as the experiences portrayed on the pages are to live through.
Lev Gumilev, Ana Akhmatova’s son, wrote about the concept of ‘passionarity‘ – which summed up is the idea of Russian people’s ability to withstand great tribulation; that this tribulation is not failure but instead a demonstration of their tremendous stoicism and if they hold out long enough they will win out in the end. Gold, purified by fire. These novels all resonate, reverberate with passionarity. Does life imitate art, or does art imitate life? This has been an American idea. I think maybe its the wrong question – perhaps… Does art reinforce that which people understand as the meaning of life? If so, Putin’s war seen through the lens of Grossman and Turgenev and Sholokhov should not surprise us.
This should have been marketed and sold as a booklet. Essay selections rarely work in book form, few writers can pull this off and Bernard Henri Levy is no exception. I would have been disappointed, except Levy began the book with a 50 page “introduction” of French intellectualism from the Dreyfus affair until the fall of the Soviet Union.
That booklet was worth the purchase of the book. It should have been marketed alone, pulled from the following articles and one-page reflections on this or that intellectual and sold cheaply to those who care about liberal intellectualism (liberal in its correct form – I always have to say that, alas). Beginning from the Dreyfus affair, which is when Levy suggests French liberal intellectuals first organized to defend an innocent man, it then walks the reader through the following 100 years of flirtations with both Communism (and the USSR) and Fascism. Sarte and Camus and so many others who couldn’t resist the alure of socialism, and how they realized their mistakes – usually too late – and why the left has such a soft spot for Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and Karl Marx.
French, Parisian intellectualism is something we writers love to think about. We walk down the Seine on our way to Shakespeare and Company and marvel at the grandeur of Paris in Spring. If Berlin is Europe’s engine, London is its pocketbook, Paris is its brain and its soul. There’s no place (that I know of) in the US that rivals the feeling of being somewhere that Paris has; especially for an intellectual. The United States doesn’t give place to intellectuals like France does; if you say you are a writer to your fellow passenger on the Metro they will look at you with a yawn and pull their Iphone closer to their nose.
But not in Paris.
The only other places I’ve felt similar in the world are Buenos Aires, for the Spanish speaking world and Yerevan for Eurasia. Places where I, somehow, have felt free.
‘I weep for you,’ the Walrus said: I deeply sympathize.’ With sobs and tears he sorted out Those of the largest size
I read a lot of Russian literature, I have for many years. Writers who care naturally gravitate to Pushkin and Grossman and Mandelstam and Pasternak. You eventually get to an age when reading Clive Cussler or Dan Brown does to your brain what a frozen burrito does to your gut. I arrived there sometime during my season in Nigeria.
Which is why I was surprised that I was surprised by Putin’s war. Russia is still, even in 2022, like “A Road to Calvary” by Aleksey Tolstoy. We think things change, we believe our own “end of history” hype, we like to find comfort in our weird, anti-natural post-civilizational malaise that has settled around us; a world where great struggles never really occur and we can recline into our plastic animal-less environments and complain about perceived slights until somebody presents us a utopia of somebody else’s making.
Russians define themselves by their great privations, if their novels are to be believed. The tremendous suffering of people resisting the Tsar; the terrible ordeals of the Gulag and Siberia; bread lines and famine and war. The Black Sea basin is haunted by these privations; the wreckage of ships pile up one upon the other in the depths of the darkness while above rages a freak summer storm, an Ivan Aivazovsky painting come to life but this time its not the Black Sea Flower but the Moskva headed to its oxygenless grave.
I have never been to Russia, but I did live in the former Soviet Union for several years. One thing that I have cherished since are the wellsprings of reserve; the joy found in simple things like a barbeque with good meat on a Sunday afternoon beside a high-mountain lake or the walk down a leafy Eurasian city in the fall. The quiet, though not through a lack of bustle; something like a historical quiet, a civilizational silence of the spirit that somehow doesn’t chafe like we do in the west at missed opportunity of advancement or significance or a perfect utopia of prosperity always just over the horizon. Russian literature captures this well. “And Quiet Flows the Don”, “Resurrection” – village literature like Grant Matevosyan’s “Orange Herd”: stories about war and hard work and sacrifice that ennoble.
We have this idea of government in America. That government“…is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community” as George Mason wrote in his own “Declaration of Independence” and from which Jefferson cribbed. Government for the people; the mighty power of the state wielded to improve the lives of citizens; the tremendous imperial armies at the service of the protection of butchers and bakers. These are not historic ideas of power. Power, imperial power, has never been concerned with the lives of citizens and peoples. Conquest, that has always been the main task of an emperor. Seizing pieces of land from others, subjugating them and placing them at one’s service. Feats of construction that tell tales of greatness: Peter the Great building the city that still bears his name through the toil of 500,000 serfs (read slaves) over 18 years – 100,000 of them buried under the walls of the “City of Bones”.
And “public administration” over which we judge our own emperors? Keeping the power running; making sure the supermarkets don’t want for milk; that there are no holes in the roads? The role of book-keepers and bean-counters; of modern “administrators”, our new managerial bureaucracy seeking to justify their place as new aristocracy not through obeisance to the Tsar but through the anonymous organization of a life become increasingly complicated. But more than ever I think that this is only for us, here in the Empire Wilderness.
Because there’s something ancient and timeless in Putin’s war – a reminder that America’s re-definition of what government means was never really accepted by Moscow or Constantinople or Karakorum. Of imperial wars; peasant suffering; and the ennobling work of the novelists. I have no doubt great novels will come from Putin’s tragic war, after the dust and horror settle. The dissidents who dare write about the new mad emperor will soon join the ghosts of Solzhenitsyn and Akhmatova; their long tomes gracing the next generation of bookshelves as a permanent reminder that things really don’t change very much, and we must look to art and literature to understand them. Lest future generations too forget, and are again caught unawares.
Nihilism took center stage in a debate between Aleksandr Dugin and Bernard-Henri Levy. “For me, the embodiment of nihilism today is you (Dugin), and your friends, and the Eurasian current and this morbid atmosphere which fills your books and the way in which you dissolve the very idea of human rights, of personal freedoms, of singularities in some big blocks of community, big faith, sacred origins and so on… In Moscow there is a morbid atmosphere of nihilism, (…) for this great Russian civilization today there is a bad, dark wind of nihilism in its proper sense, which is the Nazi and Fascist sense which is blowing on this great Russia.”
The answer to this came not from Dugin to Levy, who is a tremendous thinker and probably committed to the ideas of liberty he champions, but instead during a debate between Dugin and Frances Fukuyama – Fukuyama of course being a stalwart defender of American nihilism.
After listening to Dugin’s exposition of the importance of culture, Fukuyama in is normal facile way – hiding a simplicity of mind, but not well – responded, “It seems the thing you’re opposed to is gay marriage” and followed up with “don’t worry, Russia will get there too.”
Get where? And to channel Dugin (God forbid) – “Well, yes.” Fukuyama’s liberalism is the pseudo-intellectual defense of nihilistic ‘progress’ for its own sake and against any arguments to the contrary. It’s the defense of the Godlessness we see in the west that so many Americans also protest; the destruction of the family; the cheapening of that sacred holy bond between a man and a woman that is a reflection of the natural order into which we as humans were placed by our creator. The ‘Hunger Games’ world of the capital where bent people exist at the expense of thirteen enslaved districts – districts where they don’t have time for aesthetic operations and bizarre benders because they have to work and save and collect and try to build a place for themselves against starvation. And who doesn’t love Katniss?
And what about Russia? Russia, today, is suffering from a profound nihilism. “The problem that must be faced is that Russia’s ambitions for the geopolitical carcass of the former USSR without socialist ideas have turned the malign imperialist aspects of the Soviet Union into the most toxic variant of nationalist imperialism.” That carcass has been breathed to life by resuscitating ancient mythologies lost in unknowing by small groups of men weaned on Heidegger. They are mourning the humiliating loss of empire by reaching back into the mists of time; the mystical role of the Orthodox Church, the ancient spirituality, suffering and hardship that for Russians ennobles and purifies. But beneath the pens of Dugin and Mamleev this mythology smells too much of blood and hair. An earthy naturalism has become a rank nationalism.
The problem too is none of these nihilisms are real. Mamleev and Dugin argue for Slavic a-morality where the only thing that matters is the great Eurasian project out of which will emerge mother Russia the matron of nations; but only after rivers of blood. Fukuyama eschews morality altogether, effectively denying natural law in favor of positive law and a society of miserable people who know no hardship, living as they do at the expense of the future and upon the borrowed resources of their children (who they are no longer having). Out of this desperation, they have endeavored to satisfy any deranged desire in their search for fulfillment. Or in other words “Everybody did what was right in their own eyes”. Yes, I believe I read that somewhere (Judges 21:25 – for the progressives, that’s in the Bible).
But which is right? To extinguish myself under the tank treads at the service of Novorossiya or scamper around in a vapid search for meaning beyond the next fad or craze or aberration?
A fool’s choice. But a scary one. What happens when two nihilistic societies try and cancel each other out? That’s how a black hole is formed.
I once did a book review of Patrick Deneen’s book “Why Liberalism Failed”. “Liberalism in its original intent was about freedom, freedom from outward constraint to be sure but also freedom from our own ungovernable human urges. Self-control, restraint, discipline.” Liberalism, as it has been re-interpreted by progressive America (and the West, plenty of cocaine-sniffing liberals in Frankfurt too) is about removal of all restraints. To do what you want, when you want. “You do you” is the mantra.
“Deneen’s main contention is that our liberal project, at least how we have recently come to define it, has been taking us down a very dark, self-destructive path. We have focused the efforts of our civilizational struggles on the need to free us from each other, from any bonds that might be interpreted by anybody as restrictive – oppressive. An entirely external locus of attention – ignoring the important role of ‘liberty’ in self-governance as we cast our nets ever-further afield, searching vigilantly for oppression in all its forms and fables.”
But culture does matter. Our ties to each other and the land upon which we have grown up is important. Our desire to build in community a society where all of our children want to live. Our willingness to give up our most base desires and predilections because we know that they are not conducive to a life more abundant. That actions have consequences; and that ideas do indeed matter.
These two nihilisms are now facing off, and they both have the bomb.
The way it was – last time we faced off against the Russians it was the lovers of liberty against the evil empire. But this time it’s murkier. Because so much of what Russia says it objects to is not wrong – a plastic world where family, propriety, dignity, anatomy, environment, faith – all these are simply tools of oppression to be overcome by means of the totalitarianism of a powerful state and then glossed over by the market – through consumption. No, you can’t have your statue of Robert E. Lee, but here’s a fast-food burger with a plastic toy. And so much of what the ‘liberals’ object to is not wrong either – because Vlad does not represent all of the Russian people; tyranny is violent mostly against the poor; and the tremendous corruption of the Russian regime has led to an unjust war in Ukraine in which Russia is committing war crimes.
But it’s not too late. Deneen offers us the way it could have been. A reminder. That we arrived here from our culture. Not culture that demands I lie down in front of a tank at the service of a corrupted despot in a bunker. But also not “pop-culture”; instead that idea of culture that comes from the word cultivate – to carefully prepare the earth for the seed, to fertilize it, protect the plant as we watch it grow and mature; prune it and keep the predators away and nurture it, for we need it to produce a bountiful harvest of golden fruit not only once, eschewing a tomorrow as we satiate our immediate pangs of hunger but also again and again and yet again. For ourselves and our children and our children’s children.
That is a world that both God-fearing Russians and freedom-loving Americans I think can agree upon.
Aleksandr Dugin has been called Putin’s Rasputin. He is a philosopher who cut his teeth in the underground Iuzhinskii Circles in Moscow during the days of the USSR. His ideas were not mainstream Soviet ideas; full of nationalism and metaphysics and the occult. The Kali Yuga. None of this was kosher in the Communist party, consumed by atheistic international revolution.
Dugin’s main thesis upon which he finally arrived is Eurasianism. The idea of the Eurasian continent as the antithesis of the West; of the seat of illiberalism. Of a civilizational response to the West’s monoculture that comes from the land and the Orthodox Church and the historic ancient struggles of the Slavic people against the demonic forces of the west. The idea of communal rights juxtaposed against individual rights; that the Eurasian continent with a savior will finally balance a world through blood and assume its rightful place to lead the community of nations.
I will write about this more, but for now, I found an extraordinary debate between Aleksandr Dugin and Bernard Henri Levi which for me revealed so much about the Ukraine war. It, however, did not leave me more at ease, but less so. Because it would seem that Putin sees it as his role to bring about Dugin’s Eurasian empire through blood and violence. And this means we are at the start of a long and dangerous conflict; because a utopia is impossible to achieve.
I highly recommend you watch this debate.
Bernard Henri Levi:“For me, the embodiment of nihilism today is you (Dugin), and your friends, and the Eurasian current and this morbid atmosphere which fills your books and the way in which you dissolve the very idea of human rights, of personal freedoms, of singularities in some big blocks of community, big faith, sacred origins and so on… In Moscow there is a morbid atmosphere of nihilism, (…) for this great Russian civilization today there is a bad, dark wind of nihilism in its proper sense, which is the Nazi and Fascist sense which is blowing on this great Russia.”