When the West was forced to drop its Cold War (CW) campaign (during WWII, and to some extent during the early 60s and mid-70s, due to the invigorated peace struggles of the time) there was a slight breathing space which gave hope to the possibility of detente, i.e., respect of each system for the other's right to exist. More precisely: respect by capitalism of the right to exist of a social system diametrically opposed to capitalism. As opposed to Thatcher's TINA (There Is No Alternative) -- There Was An Alternative (TWAA)! Fear of this ‘enemy’ quickly evaporated among intelligent mainstream people in the West. These brief respites were tactical retreats in the long-term fight by imperialism, biding its time. Imperialism was always ready to provoke a new CW crisis, and did so on many occasions. I was able to slip through the ideological door during the flowering of detente in the mid-70s.
Who was able to see through the bourgeois mist? I ‘saw the light’ while studying at Cambridge University. My studies were framed by the coup in Chile in September 1973 and the liberation of Saigon in the spring of 1975. The low point for US imperialism, the high point (the last, it turned out) for the SU. I studied with Marxists and suddenly saw the 20th c through new lenses. I immediately started to learn Russian. Upon my return to Toronto, I began to seek out fellow travelers. In desperation, I looked in the phone book under USSR, but there was not even a Soviet Consulate (though there was a Bulgarian, a Czech, even a Cuban one). I eventually stumbled across the Canada-USSR Friendship Society, a motley collection of primarily Slavic and east European immigrants, Jews, with a smattering of WASP peaceniks. A friendly if doctrinaire group, with no sign of any Philbies, Macleans and the like. In retrospect I see that the peacenik contingent was more conspicuous in their absence.
In the 1970s, I diligently studied Russian and finally managed to get to Moscow to study through the Friendship Society, a bizarre and highly memorable experience to say the least. I visited the SU several more times, both as a tourist, tour guide and delegate to the last World Youth Festival in 1985.
In the mid-80s, when the pretense of Soviet aggression could no longer be sustained, the Iron Curtain in Western progressives’ minds finally came down (see below) and it was actually possible to work with the more establishment peace movement to found Canadian-Soviet twin cities, in particular, to revive the WWII Toronto-Stalingrad twin cities, to promote conferences and exchanges...
Then I came to live in Moscow in 1989 during the crazy last few years of perestroika, and experienced many faces of Soviet reality. My sense of urgency in getting there ASAP was not ill-founded, as it turned out.
The brief respites were remarkable in retrospect. It is impossible to conceive of such an atmosphere today, when any attempt to challenge world capitalism’s total control of a country’s economy is directly sabotaged through IMF blackmail, currency runs, etc., and if that doesn’t work fast enough, direct political interference (as a random example, Jeb Bush’s full page ads in Nicaraguan papers during the presidential election there), even direct support of (often US-trained) elements in the military to engineer a coup (the most recent being in Venezuela), or, increasingly, direct invasion, as in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bush et al have vowed publicly never to let another country challenge the US militarily again. (How ironic, now that military superiority has lost all meaning in an age of dirty bombs and anthrax.)
Proust to the rescue
But I leave the hardcore political arguments to my friend's essay, which inspired this long postscript. Here I want to reflect on my own luck in being able to see the forest despite the trees.
Whether due to my authoritarian family upbringing and my subsequent rebellion, or my love of culture and intellectual pursuits, or, most likely, a combination of the above, my Proustian life adventure – my madeleine, so to speak, has been Soviet reality, which even more than Proust’s childhood, has been lost to time, as petty dictators throughout the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) do their best to erase all nostalgia for a system that bravely, however pigheadedly, dared to challenge capitalism. Thank God for Proust, who articulates much of what saddens me, and for whom where life immures, the intelligence cuts a way out. - In Search of Lost Time (ISLT) Time Regained
Why do I hang around here? Proust to the rescue: my living here under both systems has allowed me to first experience and then to recreate the feelings of that time through associations (smells, sights). When Proust gives up Elstir for Albertine, he muses: the objective value of the arts counts for little compared to our feelings, our passions, that is to say the passions and feelings of all mankind. (ISLT VI) Unfashionable homemade blue jeans were more fashionable to me than some anonymous Levi’s. No-name porridge in a paper bag is tastier than Quaker Oats (as long as moths don’t flutter out when I open the bag). Bootlegged Soviet underground rock is sexier that The Who (going back to my 70s experiences at Moscow State University). You get the idea.
I remember cursing bad quality goods, buses billowing thick blue clouds of exhaust, rude clerks, the usual. Now, memories of things Soviet, these included, can conjure not only my youth, but life lived in defiance of the march of capitalism. They provide a wonderful respite from the Orwellian psychic landscape of 2003. Experience actually interferes with the imagination, since you need memory to imagine, and physical reality supplants memory:
"I experienced disappointment with reality because when my sense perceived it, my imagination (my only organ for enjoyment of beauty) could not apply itself to it, in virtue of that ineluctable law which ordains that we can only imagine what is absent." (ISTL VI p440)
I curse myself now for having egotistically cursing the inanities of the system then, without a clear perspective, impatient for the frills of the West, with its seductive smorgasbord of goods, sensual and intellectual.
The famous Madeliene quote from Swann’s Way:
"An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had the effect, which love has, of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy?"
Now I drown here in Uzbekistan in a parody of Western society: monstrously incongruous ads with grossly lascivious sex symbols selling glossily-packaged, imported Nestles milk powder (one thing Uzbekistan does not lack is cows for fresh milk) or chewing gum which promises to get you laid; the ‘new Uzbeks/ Russians’ in their Mercedes, who formerly would either have been invisibly ensconced (with very modest privileges) in senior positions in the CPSU or at the other extreme, imprisoned as mafia, but who have, like vampire bats, used their fundamentally anti-social, aggressive egotism to muscle aside others and take control of the reins of the economy; self-declared ‘presidents’ with the trappings of bourgeois democracy, fomenting chauvinistic nationalism to buttress their thin claims to power, imprisoning, torturing, and killing far more innocents than in the worst days of Brezhnev’s stagnation.
The apparatchiks in former times trod much more lightly, as their meager luxuries could be taken away in a flash if they stepped out of line, since the privileges depended on their position in society, not on private property.
These altercations with ‘reality’ are painful, even nauseating, and obliterate the imagination. I see how bleak most people’s lives have become – their savings long ago wiped out, the desperate struggle to scrape together enough money to clothe and feed their children, let alone to ensure adequate medical attention. One night a year ago, the quiet, intelligent lady on the 3rd floor knocked on my door late at night. When I peered out, she broke into anguished tears, pleading for help to pay for an emergency operation to save her son, who had fallen on broken glass in the courtyard (few can afford summer camps as in Soviet times) and had a severe spinal injury. Such a scene would have been unthinkable in Soviet times.
A trip downtown is heart-rending at any time, passing dozens of destitute old people, begging or trying to salvage some self-respect by selling their pathetic possessions one by one. At the same time, I am constantly propositioned to teach business English or to lecture in business studies, as if as a Westerner, I possess some magical property, as if mere contact with me can transmit something that will help them achieve the lifestyle they have seen in so many trashy Hollywood films which have swamped them in recent times, the once thriving local film industry having collapsed with ‘independence.’
To escape this nightmare reality, I turn to old Soviet classic movies, especially from the 1950s to the 1980s (Stalin-era popular culture is rather boring in its political correctness, much like Hollywood today), which fortunately still play on Russian TV, curiously on Saturdays and Sundays during the daytime (the evenings are reserved for Hollywood and Western soap operas). Take "The First Trolleybus" (1964), a delightful film about first love, comradeship, and the generation gap, with a dash of social criticism and several beautiful songs, or "Sentimental Romance" (1977), a retro film set during NEP in the 1920s with an ascetic, idealistic hero falling in love with a ballerina. How accurate are they, you ask? That’s not the point.
"The returning memory causes us suddenly to breathe a new air, an air which is new [to the present] precisely because we have breathed it in the past, that purer air which the poets have vainly tried to situate in paradise and which could induce so profound a sensation of renewal only if it had been breathed before, since the true paradises are the paradises that we have lost… The past was made to encroach upon the present and I was made to doubt whether I was in the one or the other… extra-temporal impressions which appear only when, through an identification of the present with the past, they allow us to enjoy the essence of things in the only way possible: outside time. I gained the power to rediscover days that were long past, the Time that was Lost." (ISLT IV pp438-9)
Now we can look forward to long, excruciating years of violent, aggressive US imperialism, intimidating and destroying as the whim takes it. Are you old enough to remember the world maps showing the ‘creeping cancer of communism’? We are now beginning to realize this threat was a hoax. I can add it was a cover for the real cancer which has now metastasized around the world and needs no naming. Capitalism’s iron fist is revealed for all to see. And just as centuries of reaction followed the rise and collapse of the Roman empire, we can anticipate a similar apocalyptic future as the fury of an unfettered empire spends itself in wars too horrible to contemplate and environmental destruction which will leave the earth a devastated wasteland.
Yes, the SU produced its own environmental disasters, notably the death of the Aral Sea and the Chernobyl blow-out, but it matured to the point of admitting this and valiantly forged ahead with radical reforms, despite the US resolve to the end to drive a stake through its heart. The gulags and Stalinist repression, while awful, were grossly exaggerated to suit the needs of the West at the time. Colonialism and fascism killed far more innocent people, and both were aggressive, starting wars with other countries. The SU, like Franco Spain, was repressive towards its own people (and buffer zones after WWII and the renewal of the CW), but after a brief flirting with permanent revolution following WWI, it was not interested in expanding.
Yes, I must use my intelligence to cut a way out of this bleak Brave New World, for ...
"... if there exists no remedy for a love that is not shared, the awareness of a state of suffering is something from which we can extricate ourselves, if only by deducing the consequences which it entails. The intelligence knows nothing of those closed situations of life from which there is no escape." (ISTL IV p434)
I must keep plodding along as gadfly to the poisonous cancer spreading around the globe, looking for gentle, modest, ascetic like-minded critics. It’s just too bad that when we finally ‘inherit the earth’ it will probably be a smoking, radioactive dump.
Though Proust lived to witness the Russian revolution, he made only two brief mentions of it in ISLT. More real and immediate for Proust was the madness of WWI, which is the poisonous backdrop which inspired his brilliant final volume, unfinished at his death, Time Regained. It is there that I found the best explanation for my sympathy with the ‘Soviet experiment’ and Western society’s hatred of it, in the person of wildly eccentric, homosexual Baron de Charlus:
"Just as Charlus’s Germanophilia helped me free myself for a moment, if not from my Germanophobia, at least from my belief in the pure objectivity of this feeling, had helped to make me think that what applied to love applied also to hate, that France’s terrible judgment passed on Germany was an objectification of feelings as subjective as those which had caused Rachel and Albertine [former lovers] to appear so precious, the one to Saint-Loup and the other to me.
"Love, hate – it’s all subjective ultimately. And the objects of our love (our obsession with them) may look ridiculous or even treasonous to others. (How often I was ridiculed and denounced for supporting the SU in the peace movement!) We can find arguments to support or discard anything in our solipcistic world at will. We can only slightly overcome this lopsided subjectivism by ‘putting ourselves in the other’s shoes’, seeing ‘the mote in our eye’.
"Just as I as an individual have had successive loves and at the end of each one its object had appeared to me valueless, so I had already seen in my country successive hates which had, for example, at one time condemned as traitors those very Dreyfusards with whom today patriotic Frenchmen were collaborating against a race whose every member was of necessity a liar, a savage beast, a madman, excepting only those Germans who had embraced the French cause." (ISLT IV pp481-2)
Consider how the latest ‘war on terrorism’ is really just the new love/ hate object of the US. The SU is now discarded, dead and buried, but the void of hatred in the collective unconscious it left required filling. Voila, bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, whoever. And many ‘Dreyfusards’ (former critics or victims of US imperialism, not to mention most Jews themselves), are now collaborators with US imperialism, having been absorbed by it. Thank God I was able to see past the myth of the Soviet threat, that I have not been sucked into the latest Western love-hate scenario, though it’s a lonely place to be.
The difference with this political Madeleine
Proust describes how he outgrew his successive loves, which leads to the realization that he is in fact a series of difference Prousts. But my systemic Madeleine conjures an unsated love. How bittersweet, this Lost Time. It’s not just my LT, but the LT for tens of millions, for a whole social system. Just as Proust in retrospect feels a searing guilt for a cross remark to his grandmother not long before she died, I feel sadness for cursing so much about the SU that frustrated me at the time. The sadness that many Soviets feel for passively watching the system crumble or actively abetting it.
Proust’s epiphany in the library at the end of Time Regained,
"... neutralized, temporarily annulled the harsh law by which we can only imagine what is absent. This fusion of past and present had added to the dreams of the imagination the concept of “existence” which they usually lack, allowing me to experience a fragment of time in the pure state. The being reborn in me at that moment is nourished only by the essences of things. In the observation of the present (where the senses cannot feed it with this food) it languishes, as it does in the consideration of a past made arid by the intellect or in the anticipation of a future which the will constructs with fragments of a utilitarian present and the past." (p440)
Yes, the SU is my Madeleine, for better or worse. A sound or smell can liberate the habitually concealed essence of things, and my true self is awakened by this “celestial nourishment.” I feel it on a crowd trolley as a babushka breathes her fiery garlic breath at me, as I wait in line for a cheap meal in a sleazy canteen… Sure, my memories are subjective, colored by my nostalgia for days past, new impressions, adventures… and the rude tram conductor in the ‘utilitarian present’ is usually just that, eliciting no epiphany. But then the kind one who slows to let me on between stops reminds me that rules in that other system were often meant to be broken (within limits).
But was it nutritious, this latter-day Madeleine? What was its essence? How can we avoid having our ‘consideration of the past’ made ‘arid by the intellect’ or anticipating ‘a future which the will constructs with fragments of a utilitarian present and the past?’
For all its political flaws (gulags, the Baltics, east European fiat, excessive censorship, political rigidity), it showed the viability of a non-capitalist way of organizing technological urban society (flaws – inefficiency, sloppiness, low standards, ecological) vs pluses (simplicity of life – no employment problem, free public services, low material needs, road access to culture, security, less competitive more egalitarian lifestyle). And we are not entirely exempt (certainly as a society) from responsibility for those political horrors.
Yes, I can feel the loss via Proust. It hurts like the loss of a close relative. And it doesn’t fade over time, though I can find temporary relief in ‘drugs, sex and rock’n roll’. And reflection.
I am fascinated by the archive of movies from the 40s (cold, crude), 50s (full of relief, hope), 60s (critical, some brilliant, even avant-garde), 70s (many dreary, some truly worthy of the ‘muse of censorship’), 80s (troubled, searching), 90-91 (anarchic, surreal), eerie documentaries culled from previously closed archives.
Yes, this feeling is subjective, but I know it is true, because this same impression exists in millions of others here, unbeknownst to condescending Westerners, who measure value in plastic wrappers and fat profits. I know it from reading the news, the horrors of modern Orwellian fascism, the stink of which penetrates my life even here, far from the bright lights of New York and the starving masses in the 3rd world. (For all its faults, Uzbekistan has yet to totally dismantle the socialist legacy, though it’s trying hard to.)
However, warns Proust, it doesn’t really help to go back to the physical places.
"Lost Time was not to be found again on the piazza of St Mark’s. Travel merely dangled before me the illusion that these vanished impressions existed outside myself. Impressions vanish at the touch of a direct enjoyment intended to engender them. The only way to savor them more fully was to try to get to know them more completely in the medium in which they existed, that is to say within myself." (ISLT IV pp445)
The rude tram conductor is there in person as exactly that – a rude tram conductor! I can find true peace only through the intellect and imagination."
So the upshot for my life journey is to search for the truth within, as so many other writers and philosophers beside Proust have exhorted us to do.
"How much more worth living did life appear to me now, now that I seemed to see that this life that we live in half-darkness can be illumined, this life that at every moment we distort can be restored to its true pristine shape, that a life, in short, can be realized within the confines of a book!" (ISLT IV p620)
Proust asks us to live our lives with reflection, incorporating the past, understanding it, linking it with the present, to find a way forward which is richly sensual. That is how we don’t fear death, as we have died many times already, and felt emotions which could hardly be surpassed in intensity, even by physical death, so that we can feel the truth of our lives. How strange for me, that my life journey is linked so intimately with the great struggles of war and peace of our age. I am grateful for that, though it is a heavy burden to bear.
"Man is obliged – a task more and more enormous and in the end too great for his strength – to drag his years with him wherever he goes." (ISLT IV p602)
Notes: Quotes from ISLT are from the Everyman edition.