Be infinitely devoted to your beloved owners

If we want to understand the Western world today, we have to start by understanding the Third Reich and the Soviet Union.

Comparing the modern New Deal state to National Socialism and Communism is like comparing a human to a chimp and a gorilla. Or like comparing a bank robber to a murderer and a rapist. It is easy to find both categorical similarities and categorical differences. It is also easy to abuse the analogy for polemical purposes, a trope I find utterly boring. But at its best—as in the work of Wolfgang Schivelbusch—it reminds us why we have history at all.

Fascism, Universalism, and Marxist-Leninism were the three movements that fought for global dominance in the 20th century. All three developed from the 19th-century tradition of nationalist democracy. All three would have struck almost any 18th-century writer as tyrannous and abominable. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have to choose between them.

Next to its enemies, Universalism clearly retained most of the classical European tradition. And it’s certainly my favorite of the three. I am grateful for its victory.

But the Third Reich and the Soviet Union were entire civilizations. They cannot be dismissed lightly. Serious, sincere, intelligent and well-intentioned men and women devoted their lives to these movements, which now strike us as perverse, absurd and doomed.

I have personal evidence of this, because my father’s parents were American Communists. Grandpa enlisted in the Army to fight Hitler, and his letters from Europe tend to close with phrases like “keep faith in the Party.” Well into the 1970s, these serious, sincere, intelligent and well-intentioned people used phrases like “party line” with zero ironic intent. I find it slightly difficult to imagine Gramps as a Great Neck apparatchik in some alternate history. But I don’t find it utterly impossible.

Serious, sincere, intelligent and well-intentioned men and women still devote their lives to Universalism—and to the Polygon that is our equivalent of the Party. Even on the Web, it is possible to live entirely within a Universalist bubble, in a world where the New York Times is always right, and there is nothing under heaven and earth which is not taught at Stanford. If you are reading UR, presumably you at least suspect that this, too, might pass.

By far and away the best primary commentator on National Socialism is Victor Klemperer. (Klemperer’s diaries and/or LTI, plus Michael Burleigh’s history, make a pretty good Nazi 101.) I have searched in vain for any readable pro-Nazi or at least neutral writer, but Speer’s memoir is interesting if self-serving, Ernst Jünger though an anti-Nazi is an unforgettable taste of German militarism, and Leon Degrelle is a little too rabid. I still need to check out Celine’s postwar memoirs. If anyone has any other pointers, please let me know.

Good writing about Communism is much easier to find. Presumably this is partly because the system lasted much longer. But it’s also partly because whereas the Nazis despised and exiled the intelligentsia, the Bolsheviks courted and employed them.

There are too many great chroniclers of Communism to count, but three of my favorites are Lev Navrozov, Vladimir Bukovsky, and… Victor Klemperer, whose East German diaries are perhaps his most interesting. Klemperer, no communist before the war, actually wound up in the East German parliament. If you think your grip on reality is so strong that you could never serve a criminal regime or choose a greater evil over a lesser one, perhaps you are a better man than Klemperer. But who dares such a claim should first read his books.

I thought I’d type in a bit of Bukovsky and Navrozov—first, by way of advertisement for these heroic and criminally underappreciated writers, whose notorious pitbull lawyers I however fear not at all; and second, to support some of the claims I’ve made about the Soviet system.

First, on the relationship between the Universalist press, the dissidents, and the Soviet regime: Bukovsky from To Build A Castle, p. 354. The setting is the late ’60s and early ’70s, when the dissident movement was getting off the ground:

How hard it had once been to get this kind of publicity! Foreign correspondents in Moscow, partly because they were afraid of being expelled and losing a good job, partly because they had been co-opted and misled, were extremely shy of informing their papers of the repressions that were taking place. It was much simpler and more advantageous for them to reprint the statements of TASS and the Soviet press. There were still difficulties now—the authorities expelled anyone who got too friendly with us—but there were far more of them ready to take their chances. Interest in our problems was growing in the outside world, and whereas before, an expelled correspondent might be regarded by his newspaper as unprofessional, expulsion was now seen as the norm and occasionally even as an honor.

Is it possible to speak of an absence of freedom of information in a country where tens of millions of people listen to Western radio, where samizdat exists and is regularly sent abroad, and everything said today will be public knowledge tomorrow? Of course, we had to pay a high price for making it public knowledge, but that was another matter.

An original radio game even came into being. People would come to Moscow from the farthest ends of the country in order to tell us about their troubles, then would hurry home in order to hear about them over the BBC, Radio Liberty, Deutsche Welle, etc. Raising their hands in astonishment, they would say to their neighbors: “How do you like that! How the hell do they find out about these things in London or Munich or Cologne?”

This had much more effect than sending complaints to Brezhnev. A Moscow woman once stopped me in a doorway and tried to persuade me to help her get her roof repaired. “Why don’t you get the BBC to criticize them, they’ll soon get their skates on then. Otherwise we won’t get anywhere for the next three years at least!”

Bukovsky is excellent on the practicalities of this strategy of fighting Communism with Western assistance. The entire goal of the dissident movement was to replace the official intelligentsia as the apex of intellectual fashion in the Soviet universe, and once this succeeded, it’s tempting (if historicist) to say that Communism had no chance. And the fact that the Western intelligentsia figured out that it should prefer Brodsky and Solzhenitsyn to Sholokhov and Svetlov was a crucial ingredient in this strategy.

As a writer, however, Lev Navrozov (whose son Andrei I pirated here) is simply in another class. On the jacket of his Education of Lev Navrozov, a genuine 20th-century classic, Robert Massie compares him to a combination of Proust and Orwell. I don’t find this at all hyperbolic. And Navrozov is simply unsurpassable on the world of the Soviet intelligentsia, which he knew intimately but managed to keep his distance from.

Here’s the entire first chapter of the Education:

“The West, the West,” my guest chimes, looking indolently on. “I was in the West.”

He likes our country house, and he is sitting leisurely, arm winglike over chair back, shedding words.

Oh, let us shed words As our garden sheds its amber.

“I was in the West. I talked with Ezra Pound just as I am talking with you—I dined with Sartre. Nothing special. You exaggerate, really.”

What he also likes is our almost extraterritorial seclusion. There, outside, beyond that fence that runs all around our estate, he is a writer, which is not what was once meant by the word here or is now meant in the West. It means that he is an official, or better say a ranker, attached to the department of literature in a definite rank: he is a member of the board of the union of writers. Everyone is attached to some department, because if he is not, he is a parasite, that is, a criminal, to be exiled to some remote area to work there as a serf peasant. I am not attached to any department, a circumstance I recall sometimes with the numbness of a criminal too long and too safely immersed in his crime, and sometimes with my father’s Russian slothful despair which has been provoking my mother’s high-pitched lament, addressed once to my father and now to myself: “But why didn’t you do it long ago? You are a psychopath, a real psychopath.” As a translator of literature (how metallic is the name of my profession) I could have become a member of the union of writers many years ago. But I did not. Horribly enough, I have not become even a trade union member at any departments for which I free-lance. Am I a parasite? Not far from my country house is the country house (with less acreage) of a member of the politburo or a candidate member of the politburo (I have never been interested which exactly). Surely parasites live in huts, not in country houses with more acreage than that of members (or even candidate members) of the politburo?

I am a psychopath, a real psychopath, or at any rate a statistical exception—a Poisson’s rare event, eluding the departmental mesh. No department can understand that I could become a member of some department (with all the advantages accruing) but would not. Each department assumes that I belong to another department, perhaps so very high that no one knows my rank.

I am the only strictly private person in the country, as my guest calls me, living on a kind of extraterritorial estate, and he likes to come and forget his rank for a while and simply be a temporary dweller of this island outside of time and space.

“And what is there?” he once asked, pointing at something looming between the trees beyond the invisible fence.

“Oh, there?” I peered. “Serfdom.”

Foreign correspondents stayed the night at my country house after a New Year’s party, and nothing happened. My son never joined any children’s organization, nor did he ever go to school.

“See?” my guest exults. “You are freer than you would have been in America.”

“Yes. Except that I can’t spare, say, one hundred billion dollars a year to defend my freedom. I merely exist in a crevice between departments. This, by the way, is why I get all the books from abroad and you don’t. The department of literature that watches over you will not watch over me, because I am not its responsibility.”

Our timeless serenity is actually only a few miles from an airport where foreign statesmen land, some score miles from Moscow. But as one rides from the airport, it is all forests, and we are lost in them. We are pleasantly invisible.

I like him for his genuine—that is, self-analytic—sincerity. It is so rare. He brings his newly published book. He knows I will not say a word about it, and he is grateful, but he can’t resist opening and admiring the page bearing his picture. Holding the open book in his outstretched hand, raised so that he has to look up to gaze at the portrait of an elderly man, obviously having a bad liver, he finally recites in a languishing whisper the famous line a Russian poetess once addressed to her aristocratic seducer: “How handsome you are, O devil.”

Then he asks me apprehensively if I expect anyone today.

“People are monsters,” he explains.Mon-sters. As a shy afterthought he adds: “I am a monster, too, of course, but at least I can abide myself.”

Today he is out of luck. Very carefully I break the news. Yes, it will be that man’s wife. But she will only drop in on her way somewhere—much too important to stay long.

My guest’s rank in literature is not the highest, and he shuns people either below his rank (because they may try to humiliate him if only to take revenge for their lowliness) or of the same rank (because they may be even more insolent, entitled as they are to regard themselves as his equal). But that man is younger than he—once his rank in literature was properly lower, and now it is higher!

“I know that the man is a kind of tumor inside my brain,” he says in one of those flashes of lucidity for which I like him so much. “I am like a clerk in the department of railroads who can talk only about another clerk promoted ahead of him. ‘Injustice,’ he cries out like Prometheus to the blind heavens. But he forgets that neither his listeners nor the blind heavens may belong to the department of railroads, and the immensity of injustice is lost on them.”

Unlike Prometheus in Aeschylus, my guest can enact his fate only in mute oppressive gloom throughout that man’s wife’s visit.

“I know this is stupid,” he says. “I picture myself very elegant and ironic. With a carnation in my lapel. Saying something really devastating about her husband, but in such a subtle, witty way that everyone is charmed. But it doesn’t work.”

Her husband. Well, on the one hand, he is a famous writer. Almost like Gogol, Chekhov, or Steinbeck. On the other hand, he is a serf of a high rank, much higher, indeed, than my guest’s, and as such he is allowed to go abroad quite often, while my guest went out once or twice in his life: this is what he means when he says that he was in the West.

In the early eighteenth century in Russia, under the tsar or rather serf owner Peter I, there were as yet no noblemen in the later-day sense. Noblemen too were serfs, only they were ranked. These ranked serfs were attached to various departments. Literally, the words serfdom and serf in the Russian language mean the right of attachment and the attached.

Her husband is attached to the department of literature.

Private, that is, small-scale serf owners in Russia before 1861 owned serf musicians, serf engineers, or serf actors who did not differ outwardly from musicians, engineers, or actors in the West. Some serf owners even had serf astronomers, serf composers and serf theologians. But serf writers—what are they for?

The answer involves a certain linguistic difficulty. Even the English language (not to mention the Russian) carries residual servile psychology. Is this surprising? Here is one of the numerous plaints that what the government had done was to transform “every man not merely into an inquisitor, but into a judge, a spy, an informer—to set father against father, brother against brother.” Russia after 1917? No, England shortly before, historically: the fathers of those Englishmen who lived in 1917 could well remember the time.

“You Russians have never known freedom,” a Britisher who had been in Britain a spy for the owners of Russia explained to me with Byronesque languor. Like a tone-deaf music-hating German explaining that only Germans can really create and understand music, for did not music flourish in Germany as nowhere else?

Actually, all mankind lived in the underworld of history for millennia, and even the English-speaking countries have emerged from the dark millennia of unfreedom “right now” by the scale of history (and have survived so far owing perhaps just to the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean). It is not, therefore, surprising at all that servile psychology is still built even in to the English language. Those who seize only a bank transport are in this language called private persons and hence bandits (especially if they come from the poor, did not go to college, and want money just to live better). But those who seize one-sixth of the inhabited globe with everything and everyone therein are called a state. Similarly, small serf owners are called private persons and hence serf owners, while very big serf owners can only be called a state, and their serfs subjects (or citizens).

About twenty-four centuries ago an Athenian said:

If you are caught committing any of these crimes on a small scale, you are punished and disgraced; they call it sacrilege, kidnapping, burglary, theft and brigandage. But if, besides taking their property, you turn all your countrymen into slaves, you will hear no more of these ugly names; your countrymen themselves will call you the happiest of men and bless your name…

He might have added: “and for the next twenty-four centuries even the languages of the freest countries will be so constructed as to call sufficiently big serf owners a state, and their serfs citizens.”

In the big serf ownership that post-1917 Russia is, the state does not exist even in the sense of Hobbes (characteristically, the Russian word translated into English as “state” actually means “lordship,” “masterdom,” and the word translated as “power” derives from the verb “to possess,” “to own”). In the autocratic State of Hobbes the subject had

the liberty to buy, and sell, and otherwise contact with each other; to choose their own abode, their own diet, their own trade of life, and institute their children as they themselves see fit; and the like.

None of these seven liberties of Hobbesian Absolutism, nor “the like,” exist today in the serf ownership once called Russia.

There is an obvious benefit for a serf ownership to play on the residual servile psychology and ignorance of the populace of democracies and simulate a state (or even the world’s only genuine democracy). In this way the serf owners are “recognized” by democracies still playing an important role in the world, and their serf ownership is thus “legalized” as a state. But, of course, only big serf ownerships can afford this state simulation, and the bigger they are the bigger and better state simulation they can afford, and the more serfs they can attach to activities like literature (what state can there be without literature?) and not only to theater or music, as small, private serf owners did in Russia before 1861.

What should this literature be like? On the one hand, it would be the best if it consisted of one sentence: “Be infinitely devoted to your beloved owners,” repeated as many times as is necessary to fill in each book of a required thickness. All the serfs in the serf ownership would read the sentence over and over again and would be infinitely devoted to their beloved owners.

But then those nosy intellectuals in the West would say: What sort of literature is that? The outside world remembers the Russia of the first half of the nineteenth century essentially owing to one man: Gogol. From the point of view of foreign prestige the department of literature should produce literature, not literature. But the trouble was that Gogol was not a serf: he was not attached. He did not write over and over again: “Be infinitely devoted to your beloved owners.” In fact at school we were taught: “Gogol exposed mercilessly the entire regime of Nicholas I.” Having done which, he would go back and forth between Italy and Russia, never molested or impeded.

The department of literature does not prescribe any uniform. A writer is to be dressed like Gogol or Chekhov or Steinbeck. This is his uniform. He should look like a writer. Many serfs look in fact as though they were in old Russia or in the West, in freedom. Partly the writer’s rank is explicit (member of the secretariat of the union of writers), but partly it is implicit yet decisive, just as it would have been at the eighteenth-century Russian court.

That man. That writer-writer. Her husband. Why can he be a writer and I cannot? I would become sick if I were to put on real tweeds and loll in a chair somewhere in Paris or New York. Like those two serf boys of the pre-1861 times playing at gentlemen in the drawing room when their owners were visiting somewhere. Smoking real cigars, too. The boys so believed they were gentlemen that when their owners came they attacked them as intruders in the agony of disillusionment, and one boy cut his throat with a razor.

He is better than I am. He is kind, tactful, generous, a better man really, and once he helped me without any prospect that I would ever be important enough to reciprocate. Whenever he meets me he quotes something from a short manuscript I gave him to read several years ago, and he says only what very considerate successful men say to failures.

How can he enjoy being a serf writer?

It is, perhaps, simply that he comes from a poor family, yes, perhaps of a long line of pre-1861 serfs. I am more finicky—more squeamish. I cannot eat if someone has spat into my plate. Is this connected with my getting carsick so easily? I cannot go to Paris or New York and play at being a writer. In him, the generations of hungry, miserable, humiliated people clamor for what a high serf rank may give him—they devour it all wolfishly even if serfdom has spat into his plate.

I first met him several years ago when the times were the most lenient in the last thirty or forty years, and he was very much like any writer who had succeeded in any country. In old Russia. In the West.

He was a success. Almost as in any other country. And I was a failure. Almost as in any other country. Of course, I could blame the society, but what failure doesn’t? At that time I still lived in what would have struck him as monstrous superslums compared with his new apartment with its vestibule of marble. I did not want to work for money more than two or three days a month, and under my suitcoat I wore my late uncle’s lilac shirt which he had bought in England in the twenties. The shirt had a huge stain, like a strange, dark, vast continent on a map, so good for navigation, with many coves. The continent was also lilac, only a darker hue, but a commission store would not accept the shirt for resale (though the stain was invisible under a suit, especially with a tie), and so I got it as a gift, but I had lost one of my copper cuff links and discreetly kept the parting cuff together. He was a success, almost as in any other country, and success is success. He traveled abroad and had all the latest books and magazines and records, and he said: “Salazar in his diary…,” and Salazar’s diary was just out.

In a closed serf territory, even those who once belonged to the country’s creative genius finally begin to write and say something musty—something smelling of old bookcases. That terrible, all-pervading musty smell. And here he said: “Salazar in his diary…,” and Salazar’s diary was just out.

I met him and his wife perhaps exactly as a failure meets a success anywhere. He had wanted or agreed to meet me, and that was important if I wanted to publish, and I did want. It was the best time in the last and perhaps the next thirty or forty years, but a failure forgets what he wants when he meets a success.

I do not know what started me off. Perhaps it was his words: “Salazar in his diary…”

Or perhaps it was his wife’s stockings. As I kissed her hand (I behaved like a derelict Russian gentleman), I looked at them, as from a bridge at a cityscape below, the stockings (God knows from what exclusive shop in what Western capital) were finely webbed in black like a cityscape of a French artist whose name I forgot.

I was not a nobody, a funny beggar, just a maniac most likely, holding together the cuff of his late uncle’s shirt. I was free, young, happy. I forgot about the cuff, and when I noticed it, I would not understand how I could be so conscious about the missing cuff link, and I almost flaunted the parting cuff. It even gave a new turn to my euphoria: it was a note in a keyed time, both spontaneous and contrived, for everything was unexpected and everything known in advance.

He listened, and said with genuine regret: “How you are wasting yourself. God, how you are wasting yourself.”

In hindsight I knew that this had been a good pretext for me to say something like: “But who will publish me?” with a broad hint that I knew he had pull, and if he helped me… But instead I did what a failure usually does. I said: “Wasting?”

The word was simply another note in the euphoria. “Wasting? Do you mean that what I am saying to you two is wasted? And if it is published—duplicated on an industrial scale for millions of strangers to buy—it will not be wasted?”

As a failure often does, I was making up prodigiously for years of humiliation—I was drinking in my transient glory, I wanted nothing else. I was waving my parting cuff, it was now my first violin, I was speaking with eternity.

To say something like: “But who will publish me?” was inconceivable.

The literary world of the West today, of course, is not at all unrecognizable in Navrozov’s rankers and members of the union of writers.

Not that the US has some petty department of literature. It vastly surpasses the Soviet Union in this statistic. It has two thousand departments of literature, one at each of its universities, which of course enjoy complete academic freedom. Despite this they somehow seem to all say the same things to the same people in the same ways. Perhaps this is because no further enlightenment is possible.

My girlfriend among her many talents is a playwright and screenwriter, and when we saw the excellent new film about East Germany, The Lives of Others, we both noticed something rather striking—which was that the East Berlin theater scene, circa 1970, and the San Francisco theater scene, circa 2007, didn’t seem too different at all.

Not that fat, ruthless NEA administrators force aspiring actresses to put out. But, in San Francisco in 2007, the members of the secretariat of the union of writers are really quite easy to identify. And the process by which one obtains such a rank? Exactly the same. “But who will publish me?”

In my opinion, there are two main differences between the old Soviet bloc and the present-day democratic West.

One is that the West’s civil-service apparatchiks are not as strong, not as politically secure, not as well-organized, and not as smug. This difference is slowly, but it seems inexorably, evaporating. The change has gone farthest in the EU—as Bukovsky himself points out.

Two is that the West has no West of its own. No 19th-century state survived the democratic avalanche. When I say that democracy is the opposite of liberty—a statement which would strike most Westerners today as nonsensical, just as it might strike a faithful Soviet serf as nonsensical to say that communism is the opposite of progress—I have no examples, even across some dog-fenced border, to point to. And this difference is not evaporating at all.

Or isn’t it? After all, I’m posting this on the Internet, a very accidental product of democracy. Certainly no one who developed the Internet thought of it as a blow against the state. No one thought he was programming the West’s West.

And yet, through the magic of Blogger, you can hear me say, democracy is the opposite of liberty. And while I may not be able to convince you, or anyone else, of this proposition, I can at least defend it. And I can point to you to other writers who say the same thing.

None of whom you will find, unless you are very, very lucky, at any democratic university. Or in any democratic newspaper or magazine. Or on any democratic TV or radio station.

Of course, I’m not actually serious about this. Ha! Democracy is great, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Be infinitely devoted to your beloved owners.