The Thunderstorm

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December 29, 2017 by AK

I’ve seen a dozen and a half theater performances in Moscow and St. Petersburg this year. Some turned out first-rate, as I expected from their creators – Yuri Butusov, Mikhail Bychkov, Dmitry Krymov, Evgeny Marcelli, Andrey Moguchy, Rimas Tuminas. Andriy Zholdak’s production of The Three Sisters was a disappointment: so much talent and imagination gone to waste.

One of these first-rate productions stands out in my mental landscape, theatrically and literally. It is the staging of Alexander Ostrovsky’s The Storm by director Andrey Moguchy, set designer Vera Martynov, and composer Alexander Manotskov, at the Bolshoy Drama Theater in St. Petersburg. I saw it there last February. The more I read about Ostrovsky, his work and his perception by critics, writers and artists, the more I appreciate that production.

I won’t be exaggerating much if I say The Storm (or, more precisely perhaps, The Thunderstorm) is well known, much hated and little understood in Russia. As I’ve tried to explain in a comment to Himadri Chatterjee’s post on Turgenev’s A Month in the Country,

it’s force-fed to kids as part of the high school curriculum and the approved approach to the play goes back to [Nikolai] Dobrolyubov’s article, A Ray of Light in the Realm of Darkness. I only realized the greatness of Act 3 (the tryst in the dell” by the Volga) when I saw Andrey Moguchy’s production in St. Petersburg last February… Apollon Grigoriev praised that scene effusively in a[n] 1860 article (subtitled “from [the] letters to Ivan S. Turgenev”) but I was ignorant [until recently] of his criticism, as opposed to Dobrolyubov’s positivist angle.

One of the reasons why The Storm isn’t well understood is that basic questions don’t get asked about the milieu where the action happens, despite the many clues in the text. The setting is a provincial town and the central characters are merchants, quite a different world from the oasis of Turgenev’s country squires. Pavel Melnikov-Pechersky, an expert on Old Believers, was certain that Kabanikha was a staunch Old-Rite Christian. Moreover, he argued that it was common among the Old Believers for unmarried girls and young men to enjoy virtually unlimited sexual freedom, while married life – in contrast – was governed by an ultraconservative, antiquated code.

Whether or not Melnikov-Pechersky, both a chronicler and critic of the Old Faith community, was correct in his assessment, his remarks shed a new light on the words of one of the characters addressed to another young man:

So you fell in love with someone?… It’s all right. We have freedom in this respect. Girls can hang out as they wish – the parents don’t care. It’s only married women that sit locked in.

Then there’s the sense of nature and its power – a summer thunderstorm by a mighty river. If it was drilled in you as a child that The Storm is mostly a work of social criticism, it’s harder to open your eyes to all the play’s facets, but productions like this help shed such blinkers. The posters alone are works of art. The curtain – “The Life of Katerina” (as in “lives of saints”) by Svetlana Korolenko, a master of Palekh minature – is a masterpiece by itself, apart from its vital role in the set design.

Not that it’s a perfect production – nothing is. Katerina’s artificial accent is suspicious, for one. Also, I watched the performance from the last row up there so I had a perfect view of the whole stage but missed out on some of the details. The front seats probably offered a different experience. The female characters’ outfits reminded me somewhat of the choir in the Kupfer-Sykora production of Der Fliegende Holländer from the 1980s (with Lisbeth Balslev). But that’s just one detail. The visual complexity and richness of this work is striking. I’m not commenting on Manotskov’s score – also essential to the staging – not being qualified for that: I simply felt the music was right for the drama.


“Help me, sister”

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December 28, 2017 by AK

The BBC’s Russian service has run the story of a young man from Kostroma, an old Russian city 185 miles northeast of Moscow, who was charged with insulting a government official for calling Putin a “thief” and a “miserable crook” at a public rally in 2012. He fled to the Netherlands and was granted political asylum.

Unfortunately, his troubles did not stop there: he’s been charged with a number of speech crimes, as it were, in the Hague. His antics, harmless as they seem to me, must have gone beyond the Dutch pale of political correctness. Moreover, the BBC reveals that in March 2017, the activist fell ill with flu-like symptoms, which grew worse, included loss of consciousness, and peaked in late June. In July, the doctors finally realized that he had gone through the acute phase of the Lyme disease.

In working with a number of patients with Lyme/tick-borne diseases it is apparent to many clinicians these conditions can cause reduced frustration tolerance, irritability, depression, cognitive impairments and mood swings, but more significantly, in a few patients, suicidal and aggressive tendencies.

Now, here’s the little detail that struck me the most in Ruslan Lebusov’s story:

He was accepted to the school of law [of the Free University of Amsterdam]: he passed the English and Dutch exams himself but copied his math exam from an Iranian [girl or woman], saying: “Help me, sister, I don’t understand sh-t about it.”

I’ve read that Iranian women are doing their best to get a good education, especially in the hard science and technical disciplines, which are both in demand and unpolluted by ayatollic excrement. I also know that the only female Fields medalist to date was of Iranian origin. But it’s still stereotype-shattering when a Russian guy asks an Iranian girl for help with a math exam.

 

 


Pataphysica Borealis

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December 27, 2017 by AK

What’s the principal connection between this song, which Juliette Gréco recorded in 1952 and sang at concerts for decades afterwards, and this 1984 number by the semi-underground Soviet-Russian band called Strange Games (Strannye Igry; here’s the same song performed live at a brief reunion in the mid-1990s)?

(Musical groups that failed to get or didn’t seek a stamp of approval from the Soviet “culture” bureaucracy were denied access to major concert venues and recording studios, which were all state-owned at the time. However, they were able to perform before small audiences and even record albums courtesy of sympathetic sound engineers such as Andrei Tropillo. Their legal status was precarious. I call them “semi-underground.”)

The connection is Raymond Queneau’s poem Si tu t’imagines (published in 1948), which serves as the lyrics to both songs – the original for Gréco and a Russian translation for Strange Games. One can clearly hear chto tak, chto tak, chto tak (pronounced shtuh tAHk, more or less) in place of xa va, xa va, xa va (that is, “qu’ça va”).

The band from St. Petersburg (then Leningrad, obviously) had an unusual approach to lyrics. Most unofficial groups were famous for their original poetry – some of the those songs remain popular to this day – but Strange Games turned to translations of post-WW2 French poets and songwriters. (The Soviet Union only joined the Universal Copyright Convention in 1973.)

Out of the eight songs on their 1984 album, Metamorphoses, three are based on poems by Queneau – Si tu t’imagines, Égocentrisme II & I – translated by Mikhail Kudinov (Shostakovich used his translations of Apollinaire in the 14th Symphony). Plus, one finds Air de ronde and Solipsisme by Maurice Fombeur and Métamorphoses by Jean Tardieu there, also translated by Kudinov. In addition, the album includes two complete remakes, where only the lyrics, translated, remain of the original song: La mauvaise réputation by Georges Brassens (my favorite, #6) and Il nous faut regarder by Jacques Brel.

Most Russian sources say Strange Games were the first Russian ska band. The group’s musical and stage style has been compared to Madness – reportedly, they used to do the Madness duck walk when getting onto the stage. This comparison amuses me greatly, placing Suggs next to Ray Q as it does, implicitly but inevitably. However, one of the band’s founders, Victor Sologub, painted a more nuanced picture of their influences:

I bought my first disc in 1972, in the eight grade. It was T. Rex, Tanks. I already knew and loved them and had been hunting for [their records]. Later, in the ninth grade probably, at a party somewhere, I heard Led Zeppelin on tape…

Strange as it may be, we all loved Led Zeppelin. Then there was this interesting Belgian group, Honeymoon Killers [Les Tueurs de la Lune de Miel]. By the way, we got familiar with UB40 before Madness… we first saw Madness in a video around 1983. We had been already listening to Depeche Mode then; I loved Joy Division very much. My brother [Grigory Sologub, the singer on Si tu t’imagines] was listening to Sex Pistols a whole lot. Speaking of ska and reggae, I – for one – only found out about Skatalites in the 1990s, about these granddads. For us, only Bob Marley and UB40 had existed before then. As for Madness, they seemed a tad “poppy” to us. My brother and I liked Stranglers much more… Our second album ended up more under the influence from the Neue Deutsche Welle, bands such as Trio.

For the interested and the tenacious, I would suggest the segments (1, 2) on Strange Games and its successor groups from Alexander Lipnitsky’s documentary The Pinewood Submarine.


“Oddly overlooked aesthetic connections”

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December 25, 2017 by AK

As I’ve said, James Panero’s recent piece on the painter Andrew Wyeth does not seem particularly well-reasoned to me. Nevertheless, it does a service to the reading public as it points out that painters can be influenced by filmmakers, not only the other way round.

There are plenty of examples of directors and cameramen drawing on the work of painters, as a quick Google search reveals. Tarkovsky and Bruegel et al. (1, 2, 3), Vidor and Burchfield et al. (1, 2), Wenders et al. and Hopper – this is only a small random selection out of dozens of dozens of connections.

However, the observed influence seems to mostly run from canvas to celluloid. What about the opposite direction? In 1978-80, King Vidor made a “short documentary about painting,” The Metaphor, largely based on his conversations with Andrew Wyeth and his wife Betsy Wyeth. It seems that the enlightened public paid little attention to that piece until the 21st century. In my previous post, I linked to Tag Gallagher‘s excellent 2007 article, How to Share a Hill:

In Metaphor, Vidor and Wyeth and Wyeth’s wife Betsy discuss specific affinities linking The Big Parade to famous Wyeth depictions of a hill (e.g., “Winter 1946”; “Snow Flurries”); a sharpshooter medal (“Portrait of Ralph Kline”); a tree branch (“Afternoon Flight of a Boy up a Tree”). From another Vidor movie, Wild Oranges (1924), a vacant rocking chair swaying in the wind made its way into Wyeth’s “Due Back” (1963).

A few days after reading this for the first time, I ran across this 2006 blog post by the late Lloyd Fonvielle, a novelist and screenwriter, who remarked:

N. C. Wyeth kept the “cinematic” narrative-based academic style alive in his book illustrations (as did Norman Rockwell in his magazine illustrations) and N. C.’s son Andrew has been almost alone in keeping elements of this style alive within the circles of modern “high art”, by making the narrative element more ambiguous and blending the dramatic representation of space (which is crucial to his work) with a more pronounced abstraction of design.

In Andrew Wyeth’s obsession with The Big Parade we have a concrete example of the transmission of these oddly overlooked aesthetic connections.

Overlooked, perhaps, as far as painting and graphic artistry are concerned. Cinematic motives in literature – even of the highest order, such as Nabokov’s prose – are hardly an esoteric subject.


“The idioms of one medium through the materials of another”?

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December 20, 2017 by AK

James Panero of The New Criterion has produced a puzzling review of “the traveling exhibition, ‘Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect’.”

Wyeth manipulated his compositions much like a silent film director… In his lack of authenticity and his chilly sentiment, Wyeth was decidedly unmodern. His artifice might be considered postmodern, even contemporary, as he processed the idioms of one medium through the materials of another…

At the same time, the approach was far from superficial for Wyeth. His compositions largely emerged from personal, psycho-cinematic places. His figures and locations all conveyed a personal if sublimated feeling.

Panero writes about Wyeth’s lifelong fascination with King Vidor’s silent film The Big Parade (1925) and an affinity between the two masters’ vision: “Vidor’s cinematic innovations were Wyeth’s great artistic inheritance…”. However, this somehow contributed, in Panero’s eyes, to Wyeth’s work being un-modern and inauthentic. It’s not too difficult to define modernity and authenticity in a way that would exclude Wyeth (and Vidor for good measure) but I don’t see much value in the exercise.

This said, James Panero’s piece opened up a new field for me, for which I am grateful. I soon found this article by Tag Gallager, an American film historian and critic. It is in a class of its own and deserves at least one separate post.


Mmes. de L. and R.

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December 17, 2017 by AK

On a slightly lighter note, Dmitry Bykov, “one of Russia’s most colorful, versatile, and recognizable public intellectuals” and currently a visiting professor at UCLA, occasionally suffers from a condition typical of preternaturally productive speakers and writers: getting facts wrong in an entertaining way.

Last month, Bykov gave a short talk on Maximilian Voloshin on the Ekho Moskvy (Moscow’s Echo) radio station. Voloshin was a major Russian poet of the so-called Silver Age, largely remembered today for his long poems on the Civil War. During the first Russian revolution, in 1905-6, Voloshin wrote The Head of Madame de Lamballe, a poem about the execution, or rather lynching, of Marie Thérèse of Savoy, Princess de Lamballe, in 1792. Speaking of Voloshin on the radio, Dmitry Bykov said, literally: “You remember his famous verses about Madame Récamier,” and quoted the first two lines from The Head of Madame de Lamballe.

It takes some bad luck to confuse Princess de Lamballe (1749-1792), the highborn superintendent of Marie-Antoinette’s household, with Julie, or Juliette, Récamier (1777-1849), the great Paris hostess of the first half of the 19th century, from the Consulate through the end of the July Monarchy. The famous depictions of Madame Récamier by David and Gérard are so obviously post-Revolutionary.


Another trial in Moscow

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December 17, 2017 by AK

Shaun Walker reports from Moscow for The Guardian:

A Moscow court has sentenced a former Russian economy minister to eight years in a high-security prison for corruption, in a verdict that is likely to send chills through the Russian elite…

The trial was a rare case of the vicious infighting between government clans spilling out into the open.

I’m not an expert on undercarpet bulldog fights and have little interest in the souls and bodies involved. The trial, in contrast to the infighting, was mostly open to the public and the press. Anyone with a knowledge of Russian and a minimum understanding of the Russian criminal procedure (broadly Continental) can draw one’s own conclusions from the publicly available reports of the proceedings. It’s more or less obvious that the judge’s summary of the verdict, as read out in the courtroom this past Friday, was irrelevant to the facts of the case as found during the trial. This is typical of politically motivated Prozesse in Russia, such as the Navalny and Bolotnaya Square trials. Some well-informed observers say this is typical of the Russian criminal justice system more generally.

The prosecution’s number one witness failed to appear, and number two mostly produced hearsay on the stand. Another major witness, a relatively low-ranking FSB operative, was also unavailable. This would have killed the prosecution’s case in an American or British court, if not an Italian one, admittedly. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), if the case makes it so far, will probably point out that relying on a key witness’ pre-trial interview without questioning him in court (he was neither dead nor hiding) is a major failure making the verdict unsound.

There is also the troubling issue of president Putin publicly commenting on the case twice – the second time on the day before the verdict, which could have been interpreted by the judge as an implicit instruction to convict. Both times, Putin communicated his belief in the minister’s guilt based on nothing but the FSB investigation, to the blanket exclusion of facts and circumstances that would be or had been found during the trial. His comments seemed to break with his customary legalism. On the other hand, if no law prohibits such comments by a senior member of the executive branch, the speaker must have felt he was not breaking any written rules.


Navalny as Saakashvili

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December 15, 2017 by AK

At the annual presidential Q&A session yesterday, a pseudo-opposition quasi-politician asked the Russian president why genuine opposition politicians, including the de-facto opposition leader, had been effectively barred from running in the upcoming 2018 election:

Ksenia Sobchak, a socialite-turned-journalist who wants to run for president… asked Putin why Navalny was not allowed to run.

“Are the authorities really scared of honest competition?” she said.

In response, Putin compared Navalny to the former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, who is accused of trying to foment unrest in Ukraine, though he refused to refer to Navalny by name.

According to the official transcript, he spoke of “the personnages you have just mentioned.” It’s an old, familiar manner of speech, not limited to senior Russian officials.

“Those who you’ve named are the same as Saakashvili, only the Russian version. And you want these Saakashvilis to destabilise the situation in the country? Do you want attempted coups? We’ve lived through all that. Do you really want to go back to all that? I am sure that the overwhelming majority of Russian citizens do not want this,” he said.

Putin is not arguing here that Navalny is technically ineligible to run because he has been re-convicted in the Kirovles case. (Navalny’s initial conviction was annulled by the Russian top court following a ECHR ruling. The ECHR is currently reviewing his Kirovles re-conviction.) Putin is clearly saying that Navalny is a threat to the exisiting political order.

He’s apparently comparing Navalny to Saakashvili the controversial Ukrainian politician trying to dislodge Petro Poroshenko’s regime. But, inevitably, he must also be alluding to Saakashvili the two-term president of Georgia, the man credited with doing the impossible: cutting down corruption in Georgia to levels close to Eastern and Southern Europe rather than Russia and Ukraine.

The year before Saakashvili was elected president, 2003, Georgia was ranked 124th on the Corruption Perception Index by Transparency International, while Russia was 86th. The year after Saakashvili left office, 2014, Georgia was ranked 52nd and Russia, 136th. Georgia was placed just below Hungary and just above the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In the 2016 CPI, Georgia’s rating rose to 44, just below Spain and above Latvia.

Considering that the primary focus of Navalny’s movement is fighting corruption, it’s a most flattering comparison – a paean, virtually.


The tax state and entrepreneurial profit

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December 12, 2017 by AK

Corey Robin, the author of The Reactionary Mind, wrote on Crooked Timber:

Schumpeter famously said that taxes are the “thunder of world history.”

In The Guardian, he put it this way:

Taxes are the “thunder of world history,” wrote Joseph Schumpeter. “The spirit of a people … is written in its fiscal history.”

Schumpeter’s 1918 essay, Die Krise des Steuerstaats (The Crisis of the Tax State), is available at archive.org free of charge, but in the original German. One can also find an English translation at scribd.com. The sentence concerning the “thunder of history” can be found on page 7 of the original article:

Wer ihre Botschaft zu hören versteht, der hört da deutlicher als irgendwo den Donner der Weltgeschichte.

“Ihre” refers to “die Finanzgeschichte,” commonly translated as “fiscal history.” If I understand him correctly, Schumpeter is saying this: If you have the ears for the message of fiscal history, you should be able to hear the thunder of world history the most clearly.

This 1918 article is an investigation into the emergence of the fiscal state and the limits of the taxman’s reach. However, it also includes a reference to what would become one Schumpeter’s central ideas.

Entrepreneurial profit proper… arises in the capitalist economy wherever a new method of production, a new commercial combination, or a new form or organization is successfully introduced. It is the premium which capitalism attaches to innovation. As it arises continuously so it disappears continuously through the effect of competition… Even if taxation merely reduced this profit substantially, industrial development would progress considerably more slowly…

However, Schumpeter does not yet recognize it as a special case of the monopolistic profit:

The monopoly profit of a cartel, for instance, that is the difference between the net return and the sum which is necessary to pay for the means of production employed (including interest) may be almost completely taxed away without any unfavorable repercussions. So can pure ground rent…

The Economist ran a good summary of this work in this article, published in 1983 to mark Schumpeter’s centenary. The review makes for much more satisfying reading than Schumpeter columns in The Economist nowadays – such as this one, where the author attributes Schumpeter’s ideas to Ayn Rand.


The sleeper-waker

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December 9, 2017 by AK

“If one uncouples the last car from a train, the train will have no last car.” This pseudo-paradox is supposed to illustrate a certain property of natural languages. “Russia’s next president will be Vladimir Putin” is based on a similar, if inverted, logic, but few Russians experience it as a paradox. A case of bad infinity, rather – not in Hegel’s sense, not even in Dostoevsky’s, but in the simplest, most literal sense: it’s bad and feels like forever.

Dmitry Bykov is an extremely prolific Moscow-based writer, poet and all-round pundit. He used to produce excellent poetry and prose. His literary erudition is beyond belief. On the other hand – to put it uncharitably – he reads a lot, writes a lot, talks a lot but understands relatively little, although in view of the humongous amounts of textual fodder he consumes, “relatively little” could be quite a lot in absolute terms. At his best, he’s a grandmaster of inspired nonsense. At his absolute best though, he can get me to agree with him – up to a point:

Putin guarantees a relatively comfortable decomposition to the country, and the country is ready to pay dearly to prolong this comfort. Strictly speaking, it has nothing to pay with already. It would have to exert too great an effort to break this trend. Its current priorities are degradation, pushing out (not physically destroying, thank God) dissidents, and slow decomposition. It regards all other options as too bloody and bothersome to boot.

A while ago I wrote about a parallel between the country in its present state and Mr. Voldemar from Edgar Poe’s short story The Facts in the Case of Mr Valdemar.

Monsieur Valdemar, actually: M., not Mr. I read that story, in translation, at 12 or 13. Around that time, my best friend admitted that the tale gave him the creeps, being frightening and disgusting at once. It failed to raise my hackles then but it’s a high-quality horror story by most accounts:

The narrator of the story is a hypnotist who believes that mesmerism will preserve a dying person on a plane of consciousness and “the encroachments of death might be arrested by the process”. He decides to test the technique on a dying patient…

It works, in a way: the patient is put into a coma or a similar state. As Poe’s narrator explains:

It was evident that, so far, death (or what is usually termed death) had been arrested by the mesmeric process. It seemed clear to us all that to awaken M. Valdemar would be merely to insure his instant, or at least his speedy dissolution.

Seven months later, they try to awaken Valdemar despite this deadly certainty. The “speedy dissolution” that follows is worse than anything the experimenters expected. “…[H]is whole frame at once… absolutely rotted away beneath my hands. Upon the bed… there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome—of detestable putridity.”

I can’t argue with Bykov on this: Russia’s frame – its social compact, economy, and governing bureaucracy – might, after years of lifeless existence, decompose at some unexpected point, “within the space of a single minute, or even less.” On the other hand, the Russian society is larger and more varied than Bykov’s native segment, or mine to that matter, and its apparent unresponsiveness to political and economic stimuli, mostly negative of late, could be a sign of wintertime hibernation, not deathbed catatonia.


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