poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

June 19, 2014

The Russian Bug, or, An exercise in gratuitously mixed metaphors.

Plus: Odds & Ends, and US-Russia relations as Gogol-esque pathos.

Once upon a time, zhili-byli, this was a proper Russia blog. Back when a pack of cigarettes cost six bucks and the only people who read Russia blogs were those battling PTSD (Post-Transition Sentimentality Disorder.) Now my bad habit puts me back double, every casual nightly news viewer is an armchair Kremlinologist and political blogs have been replaced by celebrity Instragrams. Returning to one’s defunct blog is the internet version of returning to one’s grandmother’s home in middle age. Smaller, emptier and humbler than memory serves. Could use a fresh coat of paint. And it smells weird … like pickles? But its continued existence provides an anchor to the past, and practical reasons for giving up this place – so much work, and no one ever visits anymore – are no match for the insufferable romantic disposition of the writer.

There is no grandmother here to make me soup, but let’s be honest, it’s the indulgence that makes one feel better. And what is more indulgent than one’s own blog? Here I’ve convalesced through feverish delirium brought on by The Russian Bug. “How was Russia?” “It was a living nightmare, poverty, desperation, nihilism, I knew a guy who was killed…” “I’m sorry you had to experience that.” “No, it was soul-achingly beautiful, and the people, the people… and there was just a more sane idea about personal priorities in general, you know? Best thing that ever happened to me probably.” “Oh God. You caught it.” “Caught what?” “The Russian Bug.” Thusly I was diagnosed by the head of a Slavic Department.

People have been known to recover from it, or at least go for long symptomless periods. But there is no cure, only dormancy. Triggers are infinite: melancholia, despair, too many shots of the clear stuff, winter Olympics, Cossacks fighting Nazis in goddamned 2014 and anything that reinforces a belief that nothing makes sense and everything is poetry. Like any addiction, by the time you realize you need help you are already in deep, up at 3am unearthing pre-perestroika Soviet rock from the bowels of the interwebs, re-watching Zvyagintsev’s films for the nth time, reading yet another dry analysis of the collapse of the USSR and practicing personal hygiene worthy of an Intro to Russian Lit protagonist. And as the alcoholic turns to drink to shake the delirium of his torment, the Russophile turns to writing about Russia. Just enough to clear the head and straighten the spine, not so much that one does something they’ll later regret, like start a novel. I can stop writing a Russia blog whenever I want. Lo, look at the sad history of this place – it’s absolutely true. But if I am honest with myself, sometimes all it takes is one bad day, and I’m back to obsessing about souls and international relations and hot Russian men. The first thing addiction steals from a person is shame.

So can I talk about the war?

Is it not a war? A president was forcibly ousted, land was annexed and people are killing each other without even truly being able to explain why. Seems like a war to me. It really pisses me off, war. So I have this thing I am overly earnest about. Everyone has something – usually their children or their art, usually vomit-inducing. For me, it is the load of axes the United States of America and Russia carry around, forever in need of a proper grinding (so they will be ready when the time arrives, and the grinding itself signals to the other that this time has arrived, and it is like the two Ivans, but if they had tanks and nukes.) Especially when those axes are carelessly dropped all over grandmothers and the houses their grandchildren won’t be able to visit again now, and all over the grandchildren too. Ukraine is no innocent victim, but the people who have and will suffer from the policies, military or economic, in play there, or worse, absent there, disproportionately are. These policies have been shaped in no small way by the military and economic axe-grinding of the United States and Russia. No, this is not simply or even primarily a proxy war between Russia and the US or the “West.” The people of Ukraine have their own dysfunctions, grievances, historical luggage, responsibilities, needs, desires, etc. But once you start funneling money, inciting nationalist hatred and outright annexing territory, you are implicated in the instability that follows and must abdicate your “innocent bystander” status. At best, neither the US nor Russia are doing anything to scale back their perceived and/or real involvement in escalating the tensions and violence now witnessed throughout Ukraine and its separatist territories. And the rhetoric from both sides makes me wretch, however legitimate or sincere concerns of the West and Russia may be – and they are. You want to support the development of democracy, be my guest: stop supporting coups, stoking the fires of extremism, ignoring discrimination and giving corrupt oligarchs a pass. You want the world to respect you and treat you as an equal, so do I: start by not engaging in behavior and propaganda that confirms the very worst stereotypes of your nation, that you are lawless barbarians who cannot be trusted.

I’m a peacenik. But I’m not a hippie. My opposition to going around killing our neighbors is a very practical one. When the war is over, after all the death, destruction and trauma, people still have to figure out how the hell to live with each other, and if national borders ensured that, my fair city of Chicago, USA would have neither its notorious murder rate, nor its remarkably peaceful coexistence of Jews, Russians, Poles, Indians, Pakistanis etc. If you need a fence to behave like a decent human being, realize the lack of a fence is not the underlying problem, and that fences can easily be torn down and rebuilt elsewhere. Humans don’t kill other humans because the fences are in the wrong places. They do it because they are angry, afraid and because there is a boatload of money in the military industrial sphere. No arms dealer ever got rich off of our better angels, regardless how often our better angles are invoked in the name of war.

And if I had a dime for every iteration of the “Great Game” explanation I’d be able to pay my rent next month. Sure, there is a great game. But it can’t be played without pawns, and that’s where people like you and I come in. World leaders, oligarchs and their shady intermediaries don’t fuck everything up in a vacuum; they fuck everything up in the petri dish of our anxieties, anger, cynicism and deficit of critical thinking abilities. They need us to be too tired and overworked to care, too impassioned to reason or too helpless to bother either way. Ignorance, apathy and anger are free artillery, charitable donations to the war effort. War is people telling you so sorry but they cannot possibly solve their personal disputes without accidentally killing someone’s mother.
If you think I’m a pedantic idealist when writing on the topic of war, it would blow your mind to hear what I have to say on the topic of US-Russian cooperation.

We are already as ignorant as we need to be, about ourselves and each other. Why go out of our way to cultivate ignorance? Why not … try to understand each other, try to live with each other, accept our differences and celebrate our shared humanity? I recently learned that the name of the original large landmass on Earth, before it broke apart into continents, is “Rodinia.” Alas, the planet is our Motherland, and when we kneel to the ground and kiss the earth in Dostoyesvskian humility, we belong to the same nation. Oh sure a few people would not profit from such an intrinsically spiritual yet astonishingly practical venture – but neither you nor I are among them. (Shout out to the NSA, thanks for reading, I mean you are among them, but you know what I mean.) Invoking the Great Game narrative only gives us a false sense of not being implicated in it. We are.

Look, I am not a beads-wearing, incense-lighting, Kumbaya-chanting happily oblivious stoned wacko. (Though if a pack of cigarettes goes up another dollar, I may begin looking for a dealer.) I don’t generally adore humanity. I’m depressed or angry 90% of the time. I have traumas that freak the fuck out of my acquaintances. I am an American. I am involved in American politics. The fact that you are no saint – this is my point – really is no excuse. The fact that you are a realist is no excuse. The fact that you are angry is no excuse. The problem is not that happy saintly idealists will not make an effort to hear each other out. It’s the bitter, broken, proud, jaded people of the world who need to figure out how to fucking coexist.

They also write the best poetry, you know…

Ok enough about my bilateral frustrations.

I’m only inconsolable because I love you all so much.

When I become inconsolable I behave badly. Sometimes I just lie in bed until noon contemplating the particular shade of blue sky on the other side of the window and wallowing in the lamentations of provincial gulls (Oh, Chekhov…,) sometimes I resolve to end it all and don’t, sometimes I drink cheap wine and watch Scandinavian murder mysteries all night. At this point I am just typically depressed. A dull depression, a stasis, a kind of interminable waiting room of the soul. Nothing is too terribly real. Nothing is too terribly beautiful. It’s canned soup existence, tasting of nothing, better than hunger. Sometimes, however, like an autoimmune disorder activated by a weakened immune system, the Russian Bug bites again. I’m not entirely comfortable classifying it as an illness. For all I know, it is the cure. Certainly it is the cure to canned soup existence. “The mania phase of classic bi-polar disorder,” you suggest, clinically-minded. Mozhet byt‘. No doctor has diagnosed me as such, but it seems as plausible as “the Russian soul, it’s like a vampire and once you are bitten you are doomed to live like a crazy person for all eternity” explanation. Are not both the Gothic monster novel and modern psychiatric classification but crude metaphors for our anxieties and desires?

Hark! Arisen from the crypt of the Poemless blog, cursed, undead, roaming the internet like feral animal and come in through the window to steal your precious innocence:

Odds & Ends: “You’ve read this far – I’ll make it quick” Editon.

Ukraine, Putin, and the West: Putin walks into a bar . . .
By the editors of n+1, a must-read, as in, if you only read one thing, but you are here reading this so if you only read two things about Ukraine, read this. You will be less ignorant for it and people will respect you more. And I’m not even charging you for that advice.

My Mind-Melting Week on the Battlefields of Ukraine Death and disappearance in the foggiest of wars.
By Julia Ioffe. I’m not her biggest fan, but this is a very good, unbiased, on-the-ground attempt to make sense of why people are killing one another in Eastern Ukraine. Spoiler alert: no one is completely sure, but they all have good reason to be afraid.

Who is the bully?
By Jack F. Matlock Jr. Well, you won’t get out of here without being subjected to my usual propaganda about how the US treats Russia like a gaslit mistress and is it any wonder then she acts so unhinged? But this time, it’s written by the former US Ambassador to the Soviet Union. Don’t take my commie word for it. I’m now reading his “Autopsy on and Empire: The American Ambassador’s Account of the Collapse of the Soviet Union.” 900 pages of sheer glorious foreign policy talk. I told you I was sick.

Why Washington must try harder to understand the Kremlin: The chill in US-Russia relations is not just down to conflicting interests on Ukraine – it stems from a deeper lack of expertise of the Kremlin’s logic and actions.
By Alexander Gabuyev. It’s all well and fine to spend ten years of your life online bemoaning the awful state of US Russia policy. Far better to understand why it is just so incredibly awful. This doesn’t explain everything (like why anyone with an average IQ understands Kremlin psychology better than White House advisors) – but it is an exquisite examination of the global cause and effect of Americans not studying Russian like they used to. Oh it is a dreary world, gentlemen! Send your kids to get Russian degrees for the love of all that is holy. The fate of the world is in their hands. Probably not a great idea to place the fate of the world in the hands of those who would rather read very long murder novels than get a decent paying job. I don’t make the rules.

FYI, I stumbled upon this piece via The Guardian’s New East Network: “inside the post-soviet world”, if you’re into kitsch. It’s all Lenin statues and cabbage over there. Go get yer Ostalgie on.

As I said earlier, I was up all night with nostalgia-induced insomnia and probably watched every Akvarium video on YouTube. Admitting you have a problem is the first step. A bit later this binge dove-tailed with an exchange I had with an acquaintance in Moscow about trains and the soul of the Rodina and whatnot, and I recalled a recent situation in which Boris Grebenshchikov (leader of Akvarium, kind of a genius) got rather pissed off that his song “Etot Poezd v Ogne (This train is on fire)” had been used for pro-war propaganda purposes. Unlike me, he really is a pot-smoking, beads-wearing anti-war hippie, and I’m far more surprised that the people who chose to co-opt the song were unfamiliar with his almost cringe-worthy peacnikery than that they were using this song to bang the drums of war. I am yet more surprised that The New York Times ran an article about it. An article which, quite beside the point, describes the existence as a Soviet artist as such:

“It was a shadow society,” Mr. Grebenshikov said. “But in Russia it had a peculiar form, in that you could live for months without really encountering that other world. The only places you needed to go were the wine shop and the book shop.”

Wait. THE ONLY PLACES YOU NEEDED TO GO WERE THE WINE SHOP AND THE BOOK SHOP? Well they sure as hell kept that bit of info from us American Cold War kids. Look, I am not calling for a full return to Soviet society, cough, but forgive me for not taking more pity on your persecuted soul, BG. Anyway, here’s the song: Аквариум – Поезд в огне.

“You said something about hot Russian men, poemless.”

There were some at the Social Security Administration office on Lawrence the other day, and I would like to personally thank them for making that trip worthwhile (and who even knew you still need the actual card?) But for the rest of you, how about a beautiful Russian song? Ok, and a sexy beast of peacenik!

The magical thing about visiting a grandmother is that she will feed you delicious candies while she lectures you, trying to pass on her hard-earned insights while you are distracted with gluttony. I’m no one’s grandmother, but I am so happy you stopped by.

As always, thank you for reading. Namaste, druzya.

February 28, 2013

February Notes: I was a Maoist intellectual (watching YouTube the whole time I almost died from consumption.)

Filed under: Odds & Ends — poemless @ 3:56 PM
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Do you know of Momus aka Nick Currie? The Scottish musician artist intellectual provocateur person who also is very hot and wears an eye patch? No worries, I’m several decades late to this game. (Despite being oft mistaken for one, I am in fact allergic to art school people. Which is odd, since my mother and brother both fall into that category, and exposed at an early age, you’d think… Anyway.) I am positively obsessed, and it has reached a pathological level. An acquaintance of mine has informed me that my obsession is following the typical progression of the disease. And that there is no cure. Because he runs a record store, I believe him. It seems I’m destined to live a life of google-stalking Nick Currie and fantasizing about piratey Scotsmen.

So, here’s something kind of perfect.

October 6, 2011

Odds & Ends: “Tomorrow we may die, so let’s get drunk and make love” Edition

I began to write an essay, an anti-hipster creed in defense of N. Clark Street, about how we are all part of the human comedy and can’t we just stop with the judgement and hatred already? Honestly, does everyone have to be as miserable and cultured as you all of the time?

I began to write another essay, a judgemental and hateful screed against the double standards against which society judges women who under eat v. those who over eat. Honestly, you know lying on the couch with a bag of Oreos isn’t any less criminal than skipping meals, right?

I began to write yet another essay, an admission that I genuinely don’t like how negative I’ve become in the past week or two, or three, or four, or more. Negativity is contagious, insidious. Honestly, we all have our annoyances, peeves and impossibly high standards, but let me tell you mister, it’s a real bore when that’s your primary mode of conversation. I would like to think that if every last lame ass person, place or thing in the world were to vanish tomorrow leaving me with nothing against which to exist, my identity and self-worth would remain largely in tact.

Well that didn’t make me feel better either. Also, that last one mysteriously disappeared into the ether after a failed attempt at multitasking. Karma.

So here are some things that I do like! Shallow enough to charm, indulgent enough to gratify, interesting enough to distract, a few odds and ends that I unapologetically adore at the moment.

I. Marlene Dietrich’s Temperamental Screen Test for The Blue Angel (1929)

I have always thought Marlene Dietrich absolutely divine, and I just can’t get enough of this. Her little transformation is particularly appealing to me.

From Open Culture (which you should all have bookmarked):

In 1929, Josef von Sternberg began assembling the cast for the first major German sound film – Der blaue Engel, otherwise known as The Blue Angel. (Watch the English version online here.) A classic of Weimar cinema, the film featured Marlene Dietrich playing Lola-Lola, a seductive singer in the local cabaret. Lola-Lola was, it has been said, a “liberated woman of the world who chose her men, earned her own living and viewed sex as a challenge.” The persona captivated audiences, and it made Dietrich an international star.

Dietrich’s screentest for “The Blue Angel.”

II. Catalogue of the Musee du Montparnasse exhibtion “Les Artistes Russes hors Frontière.”

One of the delights my work gives me in lieu of a proper salary is perusing through art catalogues. The vast majority are modern art, which … well, there’s that negativity again… Anyway, this one recently appeared on my desk and transported me to heaven.

From ArtInfo: “Russian Artists in Paris in the Roaring Twenties”:

PARIS— In connection with the designation of 2010 as “France-Russia Year,” the Montparnasse Museum is hosting a important exhibition of Russian artists who once converged on this storied Parisian neighborhood. Over 70 artists are represented, covering the period from 1915 to the early 1960s, with special focus on the 1920s. At that time, many Russian painters and sculptors left their country in order to freely express their artistic ambitions and to seek out new trends in art.

The museum itself is part of this history: in its building, the painter Marie Vassilieff had her famous studio — a gathering place for Matisse, Satie, and other seminal cultural figures — and her equally-famous canteen, which provided dirt-cheap meals during World War I to those who were literally starving artists.

Beginning during the political upheavals of the early 20th century, many Russian artists decide to move abroad, and many chose to settle in France. While some artists had supported Lenin and taken part in the revolution’s early stages, most became disillusioned when Stalin took power, preferring to leave rather than to accept ethical and artistic servitude. At the time, Social Realism greatly limited the range of painterly subjects. Still, important artists did remain in Russia, such as Rotchenko, who followed Constructivist principles by applying artistic creation to daily life and mass production. But many other influential talents chose refuge in Paris, the world’s artistic capital at the time.[...]

Drawing on their interest in figurative representation, the Russians developed a freely sensual style of painting. The show includes Serebriakova’s series of languid female nudes, where the artist uses a warm palette to bathe her models in a natural erotic glow. In similar fashion, Marie Vassilieff celebrates the female body with Cubist renderings that maintain bodily proportions and extreme colors that bring Italian Futurism to mind. In general, Russian artists depicted physical beauty without stylizing it. This emphasis on the body also found playful expression in Montparnasse nightlife. During the Union des Artistes Russes’s charity balls, guests freely stripped off their clothes or dressed in drag.

The Russian artists who chose to live in France stayed there, whether by preference or necessity. Erased from Soviet art history, many were forgotten until the end of their lives. It took years before significant pieces of this exiled cultural heritage were rediscovered — many of them in flea-markets. The works shown here all come from the same collection: Georges Khatsenkov gathered 300 paintings over 30 years of tireless pursuit. Since Perestroika, the Russians have rediscovered their legacy, and today these artists are featured in Moscow’s Russian Museum.

From the exhibition: Georges Annenkov’s “Nu Allongé”

Swoon…

III. Ken Burns’ “Prohibition.”
Booze! Chicago! Roaring 20′s! I’d been eagerly anticipating the airing of this PBS documentary all summer, and let’s say I wasn’t drawn to it for its educational appeal. The fact that I learned anything new from it was icing on the cake, or a garnish on the glass, as it were. Did you know that there used to be no federal income tax, that women not only led the fight for but also against Prohibition, that men discovered the clitoris in the 1920′s or that elephants can do the Charleston? Neither did I. Did you evah hear of Lois Long? Neither had I. Now that I have, I am in love.

From “Prohibition”:

Twenty-three-year-old, Vassar-educated daughter of a Congregational minister, Lois Long was assigned to cover the city’s nightlife for the New Yorker. She wrote about the speakeasy lifestyle with a liberated woman’s perspective under the pen name Lipstick. Long was the epitome of a flapper and chronicles of her nightly escapades of drinking and dancing in her column enchanted her readers.

“Lois Long’s columns were laced with a wicked sort of sexual sense of humor. She openly flouted sexual and social conventions. She was a favorite of Harold Ross who was the original editor of The New Yorker and who couldn’t have been more different from Long if he had tried. He was a staid and proper Midwesterner, and she was absolutely a wild woman. She would come into the office at four in the morning, usually inebriated, still in an evening dress and she would, having forgotten the key to her cubicle, she would normally prop herself up on a chair and try to, you know, in stocking feet, jump over the cubicle usually in a dress that was too immodest for Harold Ross’ liking. She was in every sense of the word, both in public and private, the embodiment of the 1920s flapper. And her readers really loved her. “

From Wikipedia:

Lois Long (also known under the pseudonym Lipstick) was a popular writer for The New Yorker during the 1920s and the epitome of a flapper.

She was born to a Congregationalist minister in Stamford, Connecticut and graduated from Vassar. Long had worked at Vogue and Vanity Fair before finding fame at The New Yorker. Harold Ross hired her to write a column on New York nightlife. Under the name of Lipstick, Lois Long chronicled her nightly escapades of drinking, dining, and dancing. She wrote of decadence of the decade with an air of aplomb, wit and satire, becoming quite a celebrity. Because her readers did not know who she was, Long often jested in her columns about being a “short squat maiden of forty” or a “kindly, old, bearded gentleman.” However, in her marriage announcement to The New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno, she revealed her true identity.

To summarize her lifestyle in her own words: “Tomorrow we may die, so let’s get drunk and make love.”

She remained with The New Yorker as a columnist until 1968. She died in 1974 [1]

I don’t really believe in reincarnation or any of that nonsense. But it’s a little eerie, don’t you think? ;) A toast to Lois Long!

IV. Salon: Why American novelists don’t deserve the Nobel Prize.

This article ignited the absolutely most tedious discussion on my facebook page, but I still like it, and after you read it, I will happily explain why.

An American hasn’t won in 20 years. The Academy finds our writers insular and self-involved — and they’re right
America wants a Nobel Prize in literature. America demands it! America doesn’t understand why those superannuated Swedes haven’t given one to an American since Toni Morrison in 1993. America wonders what they’re waiting for with Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon. America wonders how you say “clueless” in Swedish.

OK, enough. But the literature Nobel will be announced this Thursday and if an American doesn’t win yet again, there will be the usual entitled whining — the sound of which has been especially piercing since 2008, when Nobel Academy permanent secretary Horace Engdahl deemed American fiction “too isolated, too insular” and declared Europe “the centre of the literary world.”[...]

Four years after Morrison won the Nobel, David Foster Wallace predicted the current rut in which our literature finds itself in a New York Observer evisceration of John Updike’s “Toward the End of Time.” Though he took particular issue with Updike’s autumnal output, Wallace parceled blame to all of the Great Male Narcissists, with their hermetic concerns and insular little fictions. The following is Wallace’s estimation of Updike, but it could just as easily be said about anyone else in the postwar American pantheon: “The very world around them, as beautifully as they see and describe it, seems to exist for them only insofar as it evokes impressions and associations and emotions inside the self.”

Our great writers choose this self-enforced isolation. Worse yet, they have inculcated younger generations of American novelists with the write-what-you-know mantra through their direct and indirect influence on creative programs. Go small, writing students are urged, and stay interior. Avoid inhabiting the lives of those unlike you — never dream of doing what William Styron did in “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” putting himself inside the impregnable skin of a Southern slave. Avoid, too, making the kinds of vatic pronouncements about Truth and Beauty that enticed all those 19th-century blowhards.

As Bret Anthony Johnson, the director of the creative writing program at Harvard, noted in a recent Atlantic essay, our focus on the self will be our literary downfall, depriving literature of the oxygen on which it thrives: “Fiction brings with it an obligation to rise past the base level, to transcend the limitations of fact and history, and proceed skyward.” This sentiment is a sibling to Wallace’s anger — and both have a predecessor in T.S. Eliot’s 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” where he called art “a continual extinction of personality.”

The rising generation of writers behind Oates, Roth and DeLillo are dominated by Great Male Narcissists — even the writers who aren’t male (or white). Jhumpa Lahiri is a Great Male Narcissist whose characters tend to be upper-middle-class Indian-Americans living in the comfortable precincts of Boston or New York. Swap the identity to Chinese-American, move the story a couple of generations back on the immigrant’s well-trod saga, and you have Amy Tan. Colson Whitehead started promisingly with “The Intuitionist” and “John Henry Days” but his last novel, “Sag Harbor,” was little more than the bourgeoisie life made gently problematic by the issue of race. Jonathan Safran Foer is a narcissist disguised as a humanist. To his credit, Jonathan Franzen doesn’t even pretend.

That makes for a small literature, indeed. The following are words from citations for recent winners and runners-up of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, inarguably our most prominent commendation for a novelist: tender, warmth, heartbreaking, celebration, polished and sensuous. It’s all small-bore stuff, lack of imagination disguised as artistic humility.

Just look back to 2008, when the slight “Olive Kitteridge” won the Pulitzer, but the Irish-Turkish writer Joseph O’Neill told the story of America in “Netherland” with far more eloquence, insight and humor than an American writer had in more than a decade.

That’s not to say our literature is barren. Dave Eggers has written a novel about the Lost Boys of Sudan, “What Is the What,” and a fine “nonfiction novel” about Hurricane Katrina, “Zeitoun.” Best of all, his 826 reading centers have been a wholly selfless bid to get poor children reading and writing in eight cities. Then there is Aleksandar Hemon, son of Chicago and Sarajevo, who writes the kind of fiction that still seeks to span worlds. Johnston quotes him in the Atlantic: “I reserve the right to get engaged with any aspect of human experience, and so that means that I can — indeed I must — go beyond my experience to engage. That’s non-negotiable.”

Maybe it’s the same story as in politics and industry: America, once great, has been laid low. The difference is that great art needs no tariffs, no financial stimuli, no elections or military campaigns. It only requires courage — though a courage of a special kind — to see beyond oneself, to speak across both space and time via what Ralph Ellison once called “the lower frequencies.”

Indeed, compare the Pulitzer-winning descriptions with these words pulled from the citations of recent Nobel Prize-winners: Revolt, visionary, clash, oppression, subjugating, outsider, barbaric, suppressed. And lastly, the one word that seems most elusive to our writers today, so much so that I fear we’ve become afraid of it: universal.

Alexander Nazaryan, a member of the editorial board of the N.Y. Daily News, has written about culture for the New York Times, the New Republic and the Village Voice, among other publications.

Alexander Nazaryan is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn. He is writing a novel about Russian immigrants in New York.

Are you done giggling at the irony of that last little bit? I could not possibly care who wins what award for what. Anecdotal evidence and recent experience hints that such attention is often reward for a successful combination of kissing ass, having the “right” worldview, exemplifying cultural trends and, we pray, talent. Everyone who leaves home is talented in this postmodern world so I suppose all those other matters are the only way to weed out the worthy from those who must continue to suffer for their art.

Moreover, while I do think that there is a navel-gazing movement in American writing, my grief with the state of contemporary American lit is that it often strikes me as nihilism wrapped in a big bow of preciousness. I would even go so far as to extend this description to most of contemporary culture. However, none of the above would necessarily prevent one from writing well or exploring the human condition in one’s writing.

I appreciated the article because I do find American literature to be shamefully insular, and because I could once more recommend “Against Eternal Provincialism: An Interview with Aleksandar Hemon.”

V. Some music I like. Deal.

Several friends have advised that I, during such times of sadness and heartache as these, seek comfort in music.

I’m a bit burnt on music, having spent the past several months being told I know nothing about it. I’m no expert, it’s true, but my god I have spent the last 37 years listening to the stuff. What a perfectly ridiculous claim! Fortunately whatever breakup-induced illness had befallen me making me never ever want to listen to another song ever again was short lived, and the other night I found myself dancing around my apartment like a hysterical chorus girl to this:

Katherine Whalen singing “After you’ve gone.”

I’ll close with Ella singing Cole Porter. I may not know anything about music, but those two sure as hell did.

“Just one of those things.”

Should it be that these odds and ends do nothing much for you, it’s no deal-breaker. I’ll not interpret it as rejection and look for a corner in which to mope. I’ll celebrate your uniqueness and thank you, as always, for stopping by.

…and then I’ll begin another essay about how YOU ARE ALL WRONG!

:)

May 28, 2011

Odds & Ends: Diary of a High-Functioning Madman Edition

I fired, well, broke up with, well, kindly cancelled all future appointments with my therapist because she wanted to keep returning to the past, while I wanted to concentrate on the here and now, on my own maladaptive behavior, which I can change, not that of my parents, which I can’t. I don’t need to pay a shrink to know the mother and the father are to blame. The Oompa Loompas taught me that. I just need someone to say, “You’re lovely and bright and insightful and I just adore you but you need to practice doing x, y and z. Let me show you how.” I don’t know what’s so hard about that. What’s so hard about that? Why are professionals morosely obsessed with my failed, deceased mother? Heal thy fucking self indeed, sickos.

So shock horror that when I finally get around to writing a new Odds & Ends I immediately start thinking about past topics. OMG psychotherapy has wrecked my brain forever! Well, at least I’m digging up shit I actually like from my past, not my damned childhood. And I do it only in the interest of keeping readers, since these recurring themes are, uh, what my blog is about. People do not come here for optimism or football. Sure, some of the material I cover is disturbing, but frankly it’s therapeutic in its own way to talk about alienized children in Stalinist UFOs or literary criticism. No one ever talks about those things. Maybe they should. Because apparently talking about things solves all our problems. However, I am writing, not talking, and you are not charging $150/hr to read it. Which I’m sure violates a fundamental law of the therapeutic process rendering it DOA. So I’ll wallow, but with lowered expectations.

HIGH-FUNCTIONING

I. If you liked Lost in Translation, then you might enjoy:

Guardian: Translations lost in Booker International prize judging.

Yeah, there’s gotta be a foreigner who writes better than Philip Roth. If only because I’ll be forced to shoot myself in the brains if there isn’t. And I don’t want to make a mess. One day I’ll tell you how Philip Roth traumatized me.

Well, it’s over, and Philip Roth has won the Man Booker International prize for 2011. I was delighted about that. The judges have read with great zest and pleasure – surveying, in Dr. Johnson’s phrase, “from China to Peru” – a vast amount of fiction by contemporary writers. It would have been great to find, and to reward, a writer in translation, preferably one little known to Anglophone readers. But we have an “International” Prize here, which surely means that it is open to anyone – who either writes in English or is available in English translation.

[...]

“…one never knows what other people are fucking talking about… We were supposed to speak the same language but did we fuck…I forgot if I was talking, who I was talking to. I came in and out of perception like I was on dope.”

This piece of applied Wittgenstein suggests that shared perception is the problem. Is there any? Or are all languages private ones? Thus we encounter constantly, every day, the problem of translation. Not just from one language to another, but within the same tongue: from adult to child, man to woman, white to black, English to American, historical to contemporary. “Oh man, you don’t know where I’m coming from,” people used to say. All tongues are foreign tongues?

Not quite – if you ask the way to The Hermitage it helps to understand Russian. It helps even more if you wish to get the most out of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. But the great majority of us – and this is my second point – have grown up reading these authors, and dozens of others in translation, with enormous profit and respect. I prefer reading Dostoyevsky to reading George Eliot, any day. I may miss the nuances of the language, not to mention its funniness, but I still get the extraordinary emotional power, the memorable characters, the play of ideas, the thump of the narrative. I remember Crime and Punishment pretty accurately, though I have not read it for 30 years, but can hardly recall anything of The Mill on the Floss.

Unless you have the original language you cannot say with any precision how well an author writes. Yes, sometimes you can guess. I am told that Juan Goytisolo is very well translated, and Wang Anyi often is not. We encountered a number of writers who we rather suspected were of top quality, but whose work was dreadfully translated, often by local cooperatives, university presses or cack-handed professors (often American). I remember one translation of a Chinese novelist in which the father and mother of a family were called “Mom” and “Dad.” In another, a dreadfully sadistic guard at a prison is described as “really mean.”
What’s one to do?

He’s on to something; “Chto Delat’?” has far more punch, right?

Or was that not rhetorical? Uhm, hire judges who read a language besides English? Just a suggestion…

II. If you liked Daniel Kalder, then you might enjoy:

Transmissionsfromalonestar: Parallel Lives: Russian Literature At Home And Abroad.

The dude who wrote about the Vissarionites and BFE central Asia is now living in Texas? Why does that make perfect sense? Anyway, this was on his blog. And it just segued so elegantly…

For most of the 20th century for instance, there were two parallel Russian literatures. Since the USSR practiced censorship, most people in the West believed that only Solzhenitsyn and other anti-soviet authors could be worth reading, and even relatively obscure dissidents could secure book deals. Authors of the soviet establishment however, who enjoyed print runs in the millions at home, were barely read outside the Eastern bloc, even though the Moscow-based Progress publishing house tirelessly churned out translations for the Western market.

Some authors managed to straddle this East/West divide: Mikhail Sholokhov for instance. But he achieved fame when there were still large numbers of intellectuals favorably inclined to the USSR in the West. After Stalin’s depredations became undeniable, it wasn’t so easy for a soviet author to secure a wide readership in America or Europe. Indeed one of the most famous of all soviet novels, Ilf and Petrov’s The Twelve Chairs, is practically unknown in the West. It doesn’t help that The Twelve Chairs is a comedy either: Westerners like their Russian authors bearded and serious.

Since 1991, the situation has changed again. Dissident writers once banned in Russia are now widely read at home and forgotten in the West. Vasily Aksyonov, for years a professor at Georgetown University, couldn’t even find an American publisher for his last few novels. Eduard Limonov, the notorious leader of the National Bolshevik party now deemed illegal in Russia, hasn’t been published in English since 1990.

However it’s not just contemporary writers who suffer from this distorting effect. Even the classics are subject to it.

All educated readers in Britain and America know the names of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, even if they haven’t read them. Chekhov is almost regarded as an English writer, at least in terms of the influence he has had on the short story.

Step back a little farther in time, however, and things become murkier. It’s easy to get your hands on Gogol’s Dead Souls and Petersburg Tales but as for Taras Bulba, Dikanka or even some of his plays, well, not so much. And of course, most obscure of all is Alexander Pushkin. People might know the name, but hardly anyone has read him.

By pure coincidence Scowspi and Doom are on my facebook page at this very moment lamenting the former’s failure to read Taras Bulba. I myself have not, and, like Kalder’s unwashed masses, I am also not a huge Pushkin fan. Ok the one about the demons and the storm in the carriage, that was great stuff. But enough to base a national identity on? When you have Dostoevsky? Really? REALLY?

III. If you liked Russian Film 101, then you might enjoy:

MosFilm archives! On YouTube! Bezplatno!

IV. If you liked Top Thinkers, then you might enjoy:

Sincerity and Authenticity by Lionel Trilling.

It’s a book. I found it in the free books room at the library (yes). I really know nothing about Lionel Trilling, but from the moment I began to read it I felt guilt and shame for the pure exhilaration of it. I don’t often use the term, “intellectually masturbatory,” but I can think of no other purpose for this book to exist. I love it!

One reviewer called it “Self-help for the literary/philosophical set.” Do you know I am viscerally sickened by self-help books? I’m one of the few Chicagoans who believes the end of the Oprah Winfrey show is actually a step forward for civilization. I expect no help from this book, just mad validation of my disturbing lifestyle. Which, to think of it, is the same thing Oprah provided her audience, so I guess the reviewer isn’t so far off.

It’s full of great quotes. Actually, if there is some textual connective tissue for these quotes, I’m missing it. But they’re great quotes!

“Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!” ~Hawthorne.

“Of all ridiculous characters the one which the world pardons least is the one who is ridiculous because he is virtuous.”~Rousseau

“But then of course it came to be understood that the bias of psychoanalysis, so far from being Dionysian, is wholly in the service of the Apollonian principle, seeking to strengthen the “honest soul” in the selfhood which is characterized by purposiveness and a clear-eyed recognition of limits. The adverse judgment increasingly passed upon psychoanalysis [...] not only expresses an antagonism to its normative assumptions and to the social conformity which is believed to inhere in its doctrine, but is also an affirmation of the unconditioned nature of the self, of its claim to an autonomy so complete that all systematic predications about it are either offensively reductive, or gratuitously prescriptive, or irrelevant.” ~Trilling.

PREACH IT, BROTHER!

MADNESS

I. If you liked PTSD, then you might enjoy:

ABC: Big Changes for the Psychiatrist’s ‘Bible’.

It’s bad enough they’re practicing psychiatry, but they have a Bible too? Sin, pathology, tomayto, tomahto. Anyway, it’s nice to see them realize something I have been shouting in their faces for decades. Probably the shouting didn’t help. BTW, did you know the Catholics have decided suicide is not a sin? And the APA has decided it’s not limited to the clinically depressed.

APA leaders also emphasized the two new suicide risk assessment scales planned for DSM-V, one for adolescents and one for adults.

Dr. David Shaffer, of Columbia University, told reporters on the press call that suicide nearly always occurs in the context of some psychiatric disorder, but not always depression.

The new risk assessment tools focus on risk factors such as impulsive behavior, heavy drinking, and chronic severe pain and illness.

In DSM-IV, suicidal ideation is treated as a symptom of major depression and certain other disorders.

Every diagnosis until this year has gone like this: suicide attempt -> professional Dx of “Depression” -> someone asking me why I wanted to kill myself. In that order. Always. Then they go on to be confused as to why I have low self esteem. Because if you slit your wrists, you are depressed, and if you are depressed, you have low self-esteem, and this is the bizarre logic practiced by people who have devoted their lives to studying the human MIND. “Actually I don’t have a sense of low self-worth. I’m just sick of suffering. I just don’t want to live in a cruel world.” “It’s common for victims of abuse to have low self-esteem.” “If I had low self-esteem, would I be here trying to correct your assumptions about me?” “You are so smart. Why would you want to kill yourself? You must be sick.”

II. If you liked Stalin’s space monkeys, then you might enjoy:

Gawker: Roswell ‘UFO’ Was Nothing More than Stalin’s Nazi Space Ship Full of Monsters

Sin, pathology, tomayto, tomahto, monsters, children… The thing is, I totally believe it. Except for the Nazi part. For a country so gung ho on giving itself credit for saving the planet during WWII, we seem to have absolutely no concept of how the Soviet Union, er, did not like the Nazis. Which is not to say someone like Stalin would not be capable of ordering human experimentation to turn children into aliens with the aim of scaring the pants off Americans. Just that the Nazi bit seems a creative flourish to drive home the fact that turning children into aliens is, like, really evil. Which frankly implies that Stalin was evil sure but not Nazi evil. Just sayin.

As one of America’s foremost news sources for crazy internet people, we feel it is important to keep you informed on the very latest news regarding the real story behind mysterious government alien autopsy site “Area 51,” the Nevada military base where they keep that UFO that crashed in Roswell in 1947. And now, the most recent theory on the crash, from respected (really!) journalist Annie Jacobsen’s new book:

Joseph Stalin recruited Nazi scientist Josef Mengele to conduct human experiments to produce “grotesque, child-size aviators” and put them on a Russian spacecraft that was sent flying over the U.S. to “spark public hysteria,” and then the U.S. government covered it all up.

This has been a completely accurate transcription of The Latest Theory on Area 51. If you have more up-to-date theories, put them in the comments at once.

This is a such a great story that, like Santa, even if it is not true, we should still accept it out of honor for the capacity of human imagination. This story was on Nightline. Which I am addicted to because it’s lurid shock news without the politics. And they show it right before bed. Anyway. Their main concern was that the book also reports that Americans were doing human experimentation at Area 51. Why is this so difficult to accept? We have the money, the science, the ambition and the arrogance, and more of it than the even the Soviet Union. We created the bomb. Does anyone look at Washington and find the great voice of conscience that would prevent us from creating an abomination to retain our superpower status and, well, just because we can? Right? What I love most about this story is that it illustrates perfectly what I have been saying on this blog for ages: Americans and Russians are far more similar than anyone is still willing to admit.

Vova agrees.

III. If you liked, well, anything I’ve written about Putin, then you might enjoy:

Outdoor Life: One-on-One With Vladimir Putin.

Because I will never have enough excuses to post this:

OL: Do you think the Russian people are more open-minded about sports such as hunting and fishing, or have Americans just become hypersensitive?

VP: I think this question should rather be addressed to a professional psychoanalyst. I am not ready to assess transformations in Americans’ sensitivity and, more than that, I do not think it would be right to ascribe certain characteristics to representatives of one or another ethnic group.

The area where a person lives, the prevailing social and economic conditions and cultural traditions surely leave an imprint on his or her personality but, still, I have met quite a few Americans who could easily be taken for Russians if they did not speak English. In general, we have a rather similar mentality. In any case, we are not snobs. My “popularity,” as you call it, with American outdoors enthusiasts is just another proof of that similarity of our views and perceptions.

You say that you cannot imagine the U.S. President even allowing himself to be photographed while hunting, or with his shirt off. But I can because I remember pictures of Theodore Roosevelt taken not just with a hunting rifle or a fishing rod in his hands, but with a lion he killed. And indeed, as recently as last summer, President Barack Obama was bathing in the Pacific Ocean in front of TV and photo cameras, and he was not wearing a tie, to put it mildly. Does this look like politically incorrect behavior? Not to me, and my ethnic origin has nothing to do with that.

It is certainly very important, particularly for the Head of State, to carry oneself in such a way as not to offend or humiliate people’s feelings, in word or deed; however, the society is so rich in various—sometimes mutually exclusive—customs, hobbies and forms of self-expression that it is merely impossible to measure one’s actions against each of them every now and then.

We cannot reduce everything to absurdity, but we should not show off in this context, displaying ostentatious commitment to the so-called “standards of decency.” We need to identify and maintain essential, basic things.

I would like to say a few words on political correctness on the whole, and on tolerance, representing the crucial values of modern civilization; on the topics that have no direct bearing either to hunting or fishing, but belong to basic moral and ethical foundations of our existence.

I have observed more than once that in some countries, including the United States, people who call themselves Christians feel shy, resentful or afraid of showing their commitment to Christian traditions and rituals in public. In fact, they do nothing that could offend other confessions—provided, of course, that they treat those confessions with genuine respect and consider them to be of equal value with the Christian faith; all the more so since ethical values that lie at the basis of all religions of the world are essentially the same.

Here the feeling of superiority is unacceptable, even destructive, and we all see it very well. I rank strict observance of political correctness principles in religious matters among those very essential foundations of human behavior.

And you should listen to what Putin says about religion because when he’s not playing nature boy or running countries or singing for charity, he’s an angel. Oh don’t take my word for it!

Via Novaya Gazeta:

billboards around Piter:

AGT doesn’t see the resemblance, but as someone who has spent countless hours staring at pictures of the Russian PM, I think I am perhaps more qualified to judge. Mark your calendars, kids! For the first and perhaps only time, I am squarely with Novaya Gazeta on this one.

Speaking of madness, I mean religion:

Because so many of you have inquired, I cannot end this edition without addressing the question on all of your minds.

No. I did not start the female cult who worship Putin as saint and savior. But don”t let that stop you from joining.

Thanks for reading, and have a lovely weekend!

December 30, 2010

С Новым годом! With lists! And Akvarium!

Filed under: Odds & Ends — poemless @ 6:37 PM

I was goolging about for some vintage Soviet New Year cards and, in addition to finding girls with boob jobs, Patrick Armstrong and lolkat.ru, I came across some interesting cards. Like, what is this about? I assume it is pre-revolutionary. What is that clown doing? I don’t even know.

I also found the Scariest. Cheburashka. Evar. Gah!

It’s the end of the year, I’m exhausted and have little to say. Mishka’s gettin’ another 6 years? Ooof, if you only knew the wall of sound that was Western coverage of this story, you’d think Putin had just cancelled all elections and begun televised public hangings. I’ve been ambivalent about the who situation from the start, but for the life of me cannot imagine what is new to say about Khodorkovsky…

Do you like year-end lists? It’s become rather fashionable to snub them; ironic hipsters and scholars mewing on and on about how unscientific they are. Personally, I find their assumption that these lists are meant to be scientific, anything at all other than a narcissistic, fun way to pass some of the inordinate time off and postpone having to use critical thinking skills until your brain fully recovers from the liquid abuse it’s received over the past week or two, very unscientific.

So here goes!

1. FP. Last Action Hero: Vladimir Putin’s year of adventure.


He’s everywhere: Even by his own high-octane standards, the Russian prime minister had a banner year in 2010. Using carefully staged photo ops featuring, animals, celebrities and his own feats of derring-do, he more than demonstrated his still rock-solid dominance of Russian politics.

Ooooh, 2010 in Vova photos… I like this one. It has a cheezy 70′s spy movie feel:

.

2. Strictly Global. Dawn’s Mixtape 2010.

I don’t actually know many of those bands. But I love the show Strictly Global. It’s where I learned of artists like Shugo Tokumaru and Fever Ray.

3. Roger Ebert. The 10 best foreign films of 2010.

Again, not familiar with these, but it seems like a good reference to have…

4. Moscow News. Russians of the year.

Nominations include:

Activist Yevgeniya Chirikova, for pushing the environment back onto Russia’s agenda

Yevgeniya Chirikova became the flag-bearer of the group in defence of Khimki forest, had to dodge some attacks and even offered to run for president. And while her campaigners lost the first round, by the looks of it, the fight is not yet over.

Anna Chapman, for adding the sizzle to summer’s top scandal

Anna Chapman entered our lives as one of the spies caught in New York. Since then she returned to Russia in a spy exchange straight from a Bond film and tried a number of careers: a nightclub hostess, a business advisor, an innovator and a youth party official.

Blogger Alexei Navalny, for shining a light into the darker corners of official business

Alexei Navalny has been fighting corruption in state structures for a long time, called for more exposure of the system, and asked some questions of the Prime Minister’s summer break.

5. National Geographic. Best Space Discoveries of 2010.

#8. Astronauts’ Fingernails Falling Off.

Astronauts with wider hands are more likely to have their fingernails fall off after working or training in space suit gloves, according to a study released in September.

In fact, fingernail trauma and other hand injuries—no matter your hand size—are collectively the number one nuisance for spacewalkers. For now, the only solutions are to apply protective dressings, keep nails trimmed short, or do some extreme preventative maintenance.

“I have heard of a couple people who’ve removed their fingernails in advance of an EVA”—aka a spacewalk—a study co-author said.

I chose that one because #2. “Hints of Structures”Beyond Universe” and #1. “Black Holes Contain Universes?” are frankly beyond my comprehension at this time.

Ok, I can’t even make it to 10!

Why? I am too excited. I have a Christmas present to share with you! I know some Americans are thinking I am pretty pathetic with my late gift-giving. But of course, it is just in time for Novy God, and you can even re-gift it to yourselves again on Orthodox Christmas. (What? The consumerization of the Orthodox holiday is only a matter of time… Capitalism spreads like a cancer, and you are not immune.)

Akvarium: “Christmas Night.”

“It has been a personal tradition of ours for many years to start listening to various traditional Christmas songs few weeks before the Holiday Season began. This tradition always created a very special magic atmosphere for this Celebration of Renewal.

I always thought that there should have been songs like that in Russian, but for some reason we could not find them. For the lack of such songs, we wrote one ourselves. Or, it will be correct to say that the song wrote itself, with a wonderful poem of A. Fet as lyrics.

This song is our humble contribution to the celebration of Christmas and New Year.

Joy and Light to all of you!”

You too, BG. You too!

But wait. There is more. They have just released Записки о Флоре и Фауне. It is a double disk set of some 1982 recordings done in a Petersburg dorm, and it is fantastic, classic, old-school Akvarium. Please enjoy!

And have a fantastic, safe, happy and overall worthwhile New Years!

xoxoxoxo,
poemless

October 11, 2010

Odds & Ends: Like in a dream Edition

A bit of catching up.

Vova’s Girlz.

~ Kevin O’Flynn: “Wanted: Putin’s Girl.”

So, this is annoying:

A girl was needed, but no ordinary one. She had to be not too tall and not too short, not too young and not too old — which if you’re wondering, is apparently between 22 and 27 — and she had to have a Moscow propiska, or registration.

It sounds like many a Moscow or even St. Petersburg man’s dream. Her skin had to be pure — no mention of her heart — her brows not too heavy, her chins not too many. Slavic features, please, they asked. Good manners, a way with lifts, not too big on the hips.

A beautiful smile and kind, intelligence plus the ability to take a bullet to the chest if somebody takes a pot shot at the guy who looks almost tall — to you, possibly — by your side.

If asked to find an escort for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, it is unlikely that I would have stuck an ad up on a web site.

But that is what went buzzing around the Internet a week or so ago. The escort was needed for last Friday when Putin was set to visit the Arctic forum at the new Moscow State University building.

Her job was to escort him to the lift: Nails have to be short enough to be able to press the button; make some meaningless chitchat — “So when will Novaya Zemlya get its first Coffee House?” — and then fade away like a late morning dream.

She was not the only one, as the company in question was actually looking for three hostesses in total. Probably because there are always a lot of lifts at Arctic forums.

Your dress, the ad said, must be business-style: suit, skirt/trousers, blouse, high heels, “not vulgar but beautiful.”

The girls, who have already had their moment, were to be chosen in a “casting” close to the Universitet metro station.

Most specific was the height requirement: “Height, STRICTLY 160-165 (plus 2 to 3 centimeters is possible),” the ad said. “VVP has a height of 169 cm, not higher than him, that’s for sure.”

I didn’t even bother trying our for that one … you know, er, propiskaless and all. Maybe Kevin finds this kind of headhunting vulgar, but at least it is honest. In America, we invite all the highly qualified applicants, hire the pretty ones as intended all along, and send the rest consolation letters, if they are lucky.

Why isn’t Lyudmila helping with the elevators? If you want to send a pro-family, traditional-values demography-inspiring message to your people, why not have the wife at your side? Alas, perhaps she has joined a convent? There are not even elevators in convents, I don’t think. Not in the ones I’ve stayed at. Oh yes I did. Catholic school, baby. Anyway, here is the difference between me and Lyudia Putina: I can still entertain the idea that it’s just that he hasn’t met me.

~ … I don’t have much to add to the Great Calendar Debate, except to wonder if people even need wall calendars anymore. I buy them. Mine have themes like “365 Days in France” and “Warhol’s Shoes,” but only because Putin hasn’t out out his own beefcake calendar yet. However, between Outlook, Blackberry, Google and every other cyber organizing tool out there, why buy a wall calendar? Because it gives you something nice to look at when you realize your bills are due. Which, politics aside, is why depressing calendars don’t sell.

~ From Becky Cloonan, via Natalia Antonova:

Read This.

Elif Batuman is a name I’ve come across from time to time, thought I should remember, and always forgot. She is the author of The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. Which -based on nothing more than the title- has been immediately added to my reading list. But it’s her blog that has me reeling….

Kafka porn contest

Patient readers! I promised a Kafka contest, and here it is. In the course of researching my recent Kafka article, I was interested to learn about a 2008 Kafka pornography scandal, provoked by the publication of James Hawes’s Excavating Kafka (the US title of which, Why You Should Read Kafka before You Waste Your Life, makes me proud to be an American). As the Guardian put it:

At the focus of Hawes’ investigation are pictures he stumbled across in the British Library in London and the Bodleian in Oxford of the pornography to which Kafka subscribed while in his twenties. They include images of a hedgehog-style creature performing fellatio, golem-like male creatures grasping women’s breasts with their claw-like hands and a picture of a baby emerging from a sliced-open leg.

Myriad questions came to my mind. Whom or what was that hedgehog-style creature fellating? Was the Guardian being anti-Semitic when they called that breast-grasping creature a Golem? And who wants to see a baby coming out of someone’s leg? I consulted Google for answers and came across a terrifically helpful blog post which identifies and reproduces Aubrey Beardsley’s representation of a very angry-looking baby being removed from some guy’s leg (below), as per the description, in Lucian’s second-century proto-sci-fi hit True History, of how children are birthed on the Moon:\

Gratifying as this was, I was still really curious about that hedgehog and its unknown partner, which continued to elude my Googling skills for some time. One respected Kafka expert, to whom I broached the subject, basically counseled me to give up: “I think we can assume that the hedgehog was [performing these acts upon] another hedgehog, no? Isn’t that porn reportage protocol? You assume they’re of the same species, unless otherwise noted.” Well, Sir, that certainly isn’t my reportage protocol. And I’m glad it isn’t. Because, OK, don’t click on the link if you’re under 18 (believe me kiddo, it can wait), but I eventually found the picture, and, although I can’t tell you exactly what the soi-disant “hedgehog” is pleasuring, I can state with confidence that it is definitely not another soi-disant “hedgehog.”

As is often the case with Kafka, the more I learned, the more questions remained unanswered. What was that thing? Why was it behaving that way? Are such images “porn, pure and simple,” or are they, as Reiner Stach has suggested, mere “playful representations”?

Hoping to penetrate some of these mysteries, I addressed myself to valued reader and colleague Dimiter Kenarov, author of the Bulgarian bestselling poetry volume Апокрифни животни (Apocryphal Animals), the proceeds of which are diverted to the Sofia Zoo, where they have already financed a new swing for the monkeys. Kenarov suggested that the illustration represented some form of “apocryphal evolution,” but that, more significantly, one had perhaps stumbled upon “a whole new porn genre: Kafka Sex. There is money in here. For example, undressing a person only to find new and new layers of clothing underneath.”

I hereby decree this the first official entry in the My Life and Thoughts Kafka porn contest. Please send in your best ideas for this lucrative new genre, which may or may not eventually benefit in some way the monkeys in the Sofia Zoo.

Contest is over, and you’ve missed your chance to get some of her furniture. But a “first official entry” suggests there will be a second, official or otherwise. Anyway, this all somehow reminded me of that Edition 69 and the “The Devětsil ” literary movement. A bit after his time. But surrealist porn seems to be a theme with the Czechs…

~ Sheyngart recently showed up in the neighborhood. He did a great Q. and A., like he really wanted to be there, unlike Sasha Hemon. He’s quite funny. But not terribly serious. Which is too bad, because when he gets serious, great things come out. He was talking about how writers should take acting classes. I’d never thought about it, but it makes great sense. I’ve taken enough acting classes that I should now be prepared to write a novel. The crowd was a mix urban hipsters, Russian immigrants (a burly man rudely pushed past me to demand of the staff, “Vhat Time you Close?!”) and elderly Jews. Gary said he thought the Tea Party was better than Putin’s Russia. (Gary lives in NYC and doesn’t exactly have to worry about the Tea Party. I’ve not had any ancestors pogromed to death by Russians. We disagree.) He said he liked Pavel Pepperstein and Sorokin. He told a story about these old babushky who erected a giant toilet in central Moscow and were flushing Sorokin’s lurid books down it. You thought the story would end in grievance: so that’s the kind of thanks an artist gets in Putin’s oppressive Russia. He took a u-turn and remarked, “Russia’s the only country in the world that continues to care enough about novels to hold public protests against them.”

~ Adding to my blogroll: Lizok’s books.

~ I’ve about finished Rasskazy, and off the top of my head, the stories I liked most:

“THEY TALK” by Linor Goralik
“RUSSIAN HALLOWEEN” by Aleksander Bezzubtsev-Kondakov
“THE SEVENTH TOAST TO SNAILS” by Ekaterina Taratuta
“D.O.B.” by Aleksander Snegirev

Probably pure coincidence, but in this selection I’ve made, the women are writing experimental prose, and the men more traditional narratives. There is a lot of stuff in the book that, while very artistic and academic, does not seem to work very well. These did. I also wanted read twithout any political bias. One might argue that these are “Western” in their style, and condemnations of Russia in their content. They’re well written. And I am not sure I buy the idea that anything less than saccharine is an indictment, or the only good writers are Slavophiles.

And BG and Slava came to me in a dream…

~ c/o Oleg Kashin (who is spending WAY too much time on Twitter):

BG & Surkov! You know how in cheap beer commercials, there is always a set of hot twins the average Joe spies at a bar? (As if an average Joe drunk on Budweiser were more attractive to Scandanavian twins than the sober version of himself?) Anyway, If Budweiser were marketing to me, this would be the commercial. The third fellow is Andrei Makarevich. Meh. What was going on here? Political event at which musicians are kissing up? Or musical event at which poor Slava is kissing up? Anyway. So there is now some debate as to whether or not Boris has gone over to the dark side. Some people are like, hey, he’s just having a polite chat – who cares? They aren’t being helped by this, from Ekho Moskvy:

~ Борис Гребенщиков и Владимир Путин плавали по коммунальным квартирам России.

Известный музыкант Борис Гребенщиков в день рождения премьер-министра России Владимира Путина встретился с ним во сне. Об этом сам музыкант рассказал сегодня в эфире “Эха Петербурга”:

“Он мне снился сегодня. Мы с ним совершали вояж по России. По-моему, мы с ним плыли на катере сквозь квартиры коммунальные. Причём было дико красиво. Вероятно, вели разговоры. Я такого сна не помню просто в жизни своей! Я так ему благодарен! Какие силы работают на нашего президента… премьер-министра, что даже я вижу сны про него! Фантастика. Вот оккультизм настоящий”.

Alrighty then… Let’s keep in mind he smokes a lot of pot. But, is he being sarcastic, or sincere? Is it veiled criticism or harmless entertainment? It’s one thing to dream you’re sailing with Vova through communal apartments, another to issue a press release about it to your hippied-out followers. Hm. Fascinating indeed.

Bonus.

~ Finally, we have some pictures of the Soyuz capsule landing. For a while, I was not impressed. Looked like a piece of junk on a parachute. Then a piece of junk crashing to the dirt. Then an old piece of junk out in a field.

Then spacemen crawled out of it!!!! Wowee!

Soyuz TMA-18 Space Capsule Landing.

It’s really a metaphor for Russia, is it not? To the casual observer: junk. To the close observer: oudated junk. To the surveyor: junk surrounded by miles of nothing. But inside the junk are fascinating, adventurous, curious, educated and slightly insane people, doing astonishing things. And even the junk has stories to tell…

August 21, 2010

Odds & Ends: Official Latest Roundup Edition.

Filed under: Odds & Ends — poemless @ 2:26 PM
Tags: , , , , ,

Step right up, folks! Step right up!

I’d abandoned the blog for so long interesting spam began to show up. “Help! I am currently being held prisoner by the Russian mafia and being forced to post spam for p—s enlargement or they will kill me! Help!” I hit the delete button and allowed to poor chump to be offed. Well, he probably should not have been doing whatever he was doing to attract the attention of the Russian mafia, right? Who is worse, gangsters, or the people who do business with them, enable them, and then get all surprised an panicky and morally outraged when their lives start being threatened? I am pretty sure that was the whole Khodorkovsky defense… Well, as if I were not feeling enough guilt about slacking off with the blog this summer, Siberian Light goes and declares my previous post about reading on the subway “Poemless’ latest roundup.” Ack! That was a real life genuine blog post, with original thoughts on one subject and everything! It was no “roundup.” Boo! Also, round up is something you do to weeds and cattle and fractions. I write. Yeah. Anyway… Here’s your damn roundup:

POLITICS

I. Lovely little article appeared on FP this week in which professionals were paid money to make the same observations I make for free everyday and most 10 year olds could school you on. Oh well. I suppose a bit of repetition is required to get basic facts through thick skulls. Probably arranging a mafia kidnapping would be more effective, but journalism is legal.

Foreign Policy: Why Russia Matters. Ten reasons why Washington must engage Moscow.

Consider this your talking points memo:

1. Russia’s nukes are still an existential threat.
2. Russia is a swing vote on the international stage.
3. Russia is big.
4. Russia’s environment matters.
5. Russia is rich.
6. One word: energy.
7. Russia is a staunch ally in the war on terror (and other scourges).
8. The roads to Tehran and Pyongyang go through Moscow.
9. Russia can be a peacemaker.
10. Russians buy U.S. goods.

No one ever mentions #9! We only illegally invaded Iraq and then pretended to leave a decade later because Russia wasn’t going to give us the UNSC vote to do it legally. They also one of the (many) reasons we haven’t declared war on Iran. #1-6 are no-brainers but sadly a lot of people are too. #7 is a lame excuse both countries use to get away with things they shouldn’t. #8 sounds like the subtitle of a creepy neocon white paper and #10 is the least palatable reason in my book. And really, what the hell does the U.S. even manufacture anymore? Besides bullshit economic models and Hollywood celebrities? And I am taking the gangster defense on this: if Russians want to buy our stuff, I can’t be responsible for what happens to them.

ARTS

I. A “Who’s Who” of approved entertainment, or a potential blacklist, depending on your sensibilities…

Plucer: Служители Муз, участвовавшие в работе объединения “НАШИ” на Селигере.

художник Анатолий Осмоловский – 2010
художник Николай Полисский – 2009
режиссёр Никита Михалков – 2009
художник Андрей Бартенев – 2010
галерист Софья Троценко – 2009
художник Никас Сафронов – 2010
галерист Елена Селина – 2010
певица Земфира – 2005
группа “Любэ” – 2005, 2007
певец Вячеслав Бутусов – 2006
группа “Би-2″ – 2006, 2009, 2010
группа “Серьга” – 2006
дизайнер Денис Симачёв – 2010
дизайнер Леонид Алексеев – 2010
дизайнер Гоша Рубчинский – 2010
фотохудожник Олег Доу – 2010
дизайнер Татьяна Михалкова – 2010
поэт Евгений Евтушенко – 2009, 2010
писатель Леонид Каганов – 2009
писатель Олег Рой – 2009
писатель Елена Кунсэль – 2010
писатель Кирилл Бенедиктов – 2010
писатель Валерий Печейкин – 2010
певица Маша Макарова – 2006
группа “УмаТурман” – 2005, 2006
группа “Король и Шут” – 2006
группа “Кипелов” – 2006
группа “Ночные снайперы” – 2006
группа “Агата Кристи” – 2006
группа “Кукрыниксы” – 2006
группа “Мультфильмы” – 2006
певица Юлия Чичерина – 2006
группа “Дискотека Авария” – 2007
группа “Чай вдвоём” – 2009
группа “Город 312″ – 2009
группа “Корни” – 2009
группа “Блестящие” – 2009
группа “Виагра” – 2009
группа “Плазма” – 2009
певец Никита Малинин – 2009
певец Ираклий Пирцхалава – 2009
группа “Пилигрим” – 2009
певица Ирина Ортман – 2009
певица Лена Князева – 2009
певица Электра – 2009
певец Владимир Лёвкин – 2009
певец Александр Киреев – 2010
певица Пелагея – 2010
режиссёр Наталья Бондарчук – 2009
режиссёр Анатолий Прохоров – 2009
каскадёр Александр Иншаков – 2009
режиссёр Тимур Бекмамбетов – 2010
режиссёр Иван Максимов – 2010
режиссёр Сергей Мирошниченко – 2010
продюсер Ренат Давлетьяров – 2010
актёр Валерий Гаркалин – 2010
актёр Андрей Фомин – 2010
дрессировщики бр. Запашные – 2009

I have to plead guilty to not knowing half of these people (and even guiltier to having once attended a Ser’ga concert) but am rather shocked by the mention of Yevgeny Yevtushenko. It just seems a bit vulgar for him somehow. But then Mikhalkov has illustrated that the infamous haughty panache that so defines the Russian intelligentsia is hardly limited to critics of the government. In fact, the “real” Russian oldschool dissidents I know can’t stand Yevtushenko’s guts. So maybe I should be less surprised.

II. And speaking of Bekmambetov, who once had me kidnapped and forced to watch the filming of Wanted, it sounds like he’s about to make the most brilliant(ly titled) movie ever:

About.com: Wanted Director Signs on for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

And it is not a comedy! Is this from the same people who brought us the video game Eugene Onegin: Devil’s Mercy, which “sought to provide a lesson in literature by rendering the hero of Alexander Pushkin’s masterpiece as a zombie killer”? Is there some “historical-figure-becomes-monster-hunter” genre I am unaware of?

Well, I wasn’t kidnapped exactly. Just exiting a building smack in the middle of a stunt scene and swiftly corralled into the “safe” zone on the set. And not allowed to go home until they got the shot. So, kidnapped, basically. Movienapped, we’ll say.

III. Despite rumors of my darling BG once colluding with Surkov, I didn’t see his name on the list of celebs willing to publicly kiss up to a political party to get the kids to buy their records. Of course – he is taking the high road:

Far from Moscow: New from Akvarium’s Archives: “Our Life as Seen by the Trees.”

Yesterday a remarkable document from the history of Russian rock music was made available to the general public – in ways that might actually help that same social body. In other words, ten songs from the archives of St Petersburg ensemble Akvarium have been released via the music service Kroogi for charitable ends. Proceeds raised by the sale of these songs, known en masse as “Our Life as Seen by the Trees,” will be used to help victims of the recent forest fires in Russia. Kroogi is requiring downloaders to pay nothing more than one cent; hopefully fans of the band will feel obliged to offer more. Information about the charitable organization involved, headed by Dr. Elizaveta Glinka, can be found at the same online venue.

You should read this nicely written article, which includes some of Grebenshchikov’s own words about the time and place in which the songs were recorded, some history of the band and some heavy-handed reflection on the past and future or Russia.

P.S. If you are a fan of Akvarium, I’m putting in a plug forThe Bodhisattvas of Babylon, recently revamped. Checked it out.

IV. Apropos of nothing, Gary Shteyngart has a new book out, “Super Sad True Love Story,” and was just on PBS’s Need To Know.

I have a real love-hate relationship with Shteyngart. I think his novels lack any redeeming qualities, but I keep reading them for the Russian kitsch and for other reasons I am consciously unaware of but subconsciously probably just unwilling to admit to myself. I’d never seen him interviewed before and am glad I did. He seems much more decent and likable than his characters…

V. Finally, you can go check out some olden days fotos of Russian intellectuals who were Russian intellectuals back when that was a brilliant thing to be:

Babs71: Ленинград. Групповой портрет культуры. 1920-30е.

ODDS

I. WTF is going on in Japan?!?!

I honestly don’t pay any attention to Japan. Why would I? I mean, besides Banana Yoshimoto? But I keep coming across these INSANE stories about missing old people. Not as in “old people who wander off.” As in, “old people who are killed or whose deaths are not reported by relatives so they can collected their pensions!”

Slate: The Rise of the Parasite Singles.

Didn’t the Japanese used to kill themselves when they ran out of money?

A nationwide search for missing elderly people in Japan is turning up more macabre and mysterious stories every day. The hunt began earlier this month after Tokyo officials found the mummified body of an 111-year-old man in his bed, 30 years after his death. On Aug. 10, the city of Kobe admitted that the last registered address of the woman who at 125 years old would be Japan’s oldest citizen has been a public park since 1981.

With almost one-quarter of the population over 65 years old, Japan has more than 40,300 centenarians, about 87 percent of them women. Government officials suspect that more supposed centenarians are dead, and at least some of the deaths went unreported by family members so they could continue to claim the elderly relatives’ retirement benefits.[...]

The relatives (usually children) of the missing Japanese centenarians located thus far have all been of retirement age, people old enough to be getting their own social security checks. But a growing number of younger Japanese citizens are depending on their retired parents for financial support. On Aug. 12, police arrested a 56-year-old unemployed man in central Mie prefecture on suspicion that he starved his mother to death two years ago and has been living on her pension ever since.

But wait! There’s more!

BBC: Japan man ‘kept dead mother in a backpack’

The remains of a Japanese woman have been found in a backpack, in the latest gruesome discovery by investigators searching for missing old people.

The woman’s son told police his mother died in 2001 but he had not been able to pay for a burial.

A similar discovery weeks ago sparked a search for people who are registered as being more than 100 years old.[...]

“Because I didn’t have money for a funeral, I didn’t report her death,” the Sankei Shimbun newspaper quoted him as saying.

The AFP news agency reported that he told police: “I laid out her body for a while, washed it in the bath, then broke up the bones and put them into a backpack.”

But the woman’s pension continued to be paid and police are now investigating the son on suspicion of fraud.

There are more than 40,000 registered centenarians in Japan, according to government data, but the number of missing has raised concerns that the welfare system is being exploited by dishonest relatives.

Analysts say there is dismay in Japan that a rich, efficient society could have lost track of its senior citizens to such a degree.

I am in dismay that a rich, efficient society cannot afford proper funerals…

II. I am also dismayed by other stuff I found on Slate.

Slate: Here, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty: Is it legal to eat your cat?

When police in Western New York pulled over Gary Korkuc for blowing off a stop sign on Sunday, they found a live cat in his trunk, covered in cooking oil, peppers, and salt. Korkuc told authorities that his pet feline was “possessive, greedy, and wasteful” and that he intended to cook and eat it. Korkuc has been charged with animal cruelty. Is there a legal way to cook and eat a cat?
Maybe in some places, but not New York. Few states have specific laws barring the use of pets for food. [...]

California’s anti-pet-eating law has a broader reach. It bars possession of the carcass, so having bought your cat steaks from someone else wouldn’t be a useful alibi. The California law also protects “any animal traditionally or commonly kept as a pet or companion,” rather than just Fido and Fluffy. The statute is somewhat untested, though, so no one really knows which animals are included. Pigs are not, even though they are commonly kept as pets, because they are farm animals. Horses are specifically covered by a different section of the code. There’s no precedent on iguanas, goldfish, or boa constrictors.[...]

On the other end of the spectrum are states like Missouri, where very few restrictions are placed on when, why, and how an owner can kill his pet. In these areas, it would be difficult to lock up a cat-eater, unless his chosen means of slaughter were particularly inhumane.

Ah, Missouri… I’ve often thought about this issue, the double standard. My cat sinks his teeth into my flesh on a regular basis, and I am pretty sure if he were starving, he’d look at me and see dinner. But even if I were starving, I could not eat my cat.

III. If you think the previous two stories were disturbing … and enjoyed that, let me alert you to the website http://www.Christwire.org. There you will find stories about Chinese pandagators, gay pets (do they go to heaven?) and many, many far more deranged and offensive items. Parody, perhaps, but your boss won’t know that, so a NSFW warning is attached.

IV. Lastly, and remaining on the topic of pets and ethics:

AP: Russia marks 50th anniversary of space dogs flight

MOSCOW — Russia is marking the 50th anniversary of the space flight of two mongrel dogs — Belka and Strelka — who became the first living creatures to circle the Earth and come back alive.
The August 1960 mission helped test the equipment which was used to carry the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into space on April 12, 1961.

Belka and Strelka were part of a Soviet program of animal tests intended to pave the way for human space flight. They followed Laika, a dog that flew into space on Nov. 3, 1957 but wasn’t meant to survive and died.

The successful flight of Belka and Strelka had showcased the Soviet lead in space exploration and turned the dogs into global celebrities. Russian television stations topped their newscasts Thursday with anniversary reports.

Belka & Strelka!

August 6, 2010

Odds & Ends: Civilization and its Discontents Edition

“To me, culture is, first and foremost, a matter of literature.” That’s what Dmitry “Collapse Gap” Orlov says. But what of those who are unable to read? Not because they are pathetic saps with the misfortune to be born in a country where the skill of literacy is only appreciated in as much as it gets Oprah to make you buy things, even if they are books. But because you are blind? Or something? For clear (or blurry, as it were) reasons, I have been contemplating the phenomenon of audio books. No. I couldn’t live like that. Celebrity culture has infiltrated every other aspect of entertainment. I don’t want to hear the voice of an Oscar winning actor when I am escaping into literature. But I do need to read. Otherwise I will be reduced to a person who only gets information from my circle of friends and family and neighbors and coworkers, the tv, or the radio. Like the rest of America. Next thing you know, I will be joining the Tea Party and having opinions about “American Idol.” I’d try to download podcasts (a word that already smacks of obsolescence) but would not know how to do that blind. I have no ear for music. What would I do to nourish my soul, inform my opinions, fill the space & time between crawling into bed and falling into slumber? I know what you are thinking. Uhm, get a mate?

It’s on my list of to-do’s. But right now I want to share with you some things I have been able to read, or read about, recently. Unfortunately, the gift of sight does not come without a price. Sometimes your eyes will fall upon words that make you truly wish you were blind. Then again, sometimes Dmitry Orlov is a genius.

I. (Oh, and I am preparing the ground for an imminent Russian invasion of America, btw.)

Moscow Diaries: “Hello, goodbye.”

True/Slant.com has finally died a proper death, but let it be known it held on to its quaint values of paying bloggers and discouraging comments until its last day, and did not give up the good fight before It Girl Julia Ioffe was able to present this bizarre and perplexing defense to her critics:

Because who really believes in the virgin peachiness of the Yeltsin era? Who really thinks Kasparov or his cohort are a realistic choice to lead Russia? And really — and this is a question for all the commenters who accuse me of subterfuge and of preparing the ground for an imminent American invasion of Russia — really who is rooting for Russia’s demise? Who? To be brutally honest: no one in the world give that much of a shit about Russia to actively want America to take over. Maybe you’ve heard about how insular and navel-gazing Americans are? And maybe apathy is a more apt definition of a “Russophobe,” but then it isn’t much of the toothy ogre you’re looking to beat your chest about and make you feel once again to be the fulcrum of world history, is it?

It’s no concern of mine whether she is raving mad foaming at the mouth with hatred for her native land (I go there sometimes too) or she is so cool and disinterested she can’t be bothered to form an opinion one way or another. But it is a concern of mine when people open the door and allow logic to escape while pontificating about US-Russia relations. In quick order, actual responses to her rhetorical questions:

1) A lot of those navel-gazing Americans, actually. 2) Kasparov or his cohort and anyone giving them money or a soapbox, one expects. 3) What’s stranger, that anyone could believe this young woman is preparing the ground for an American invasion of Russia, or that she could believe it necessary to use her last T/S post to defend against such an accusation? 4) “no one in the world give that much of a shit about Russia to actively want America to take over.” What does this sentence even mean? Giving a shit about a country => wanting America to take it over? I understand it to imply the opposite among people who are not Ahmed Chalabi. People want to take over places because they care about them? If you are accused of not liking Russia, you are probably being accused of not caring about Russia, not caring too much. No one in the world cares very much about Russia? As much as anyone in the world cares very much about any country, it seems to me that the risks involved in not caring about Russia make the alternative far more appealing. So at least a few of us do. Re: this “takeover,” are you talking military takeover or ideological or financial takeover? Are you referring to official takeover, or the use of money, power and public relations to achieve significant enough influence to ensure Russia acts in the interests of America before its own? … Clearly Julia Ioffe is no toothy ogre – she’s quite the beauty in fact, and probably harmless, given her naivety: apathy is not dangerous or cause for chest beating? Oh? Beneath Ioffe’s flippant remarks, it seems real concerns remain unaddressed.

What have we learned today, readers? You can fight fire with fire, and strawmen with strawmen, but I’d advise against fighting fire with straw…

… or fighting ideas with fire.

II. How hot is it in Moscow? What is 451°F in Celsius?

Some opposition activist took a lighter to Surkov’s book.

Coincidentally, the activist was arrested that very night for his involvement in a protest against the destruction of a local forest. Don’t tell him books come from trees.

Все произошло в пятницу вечером, когда Виталий Шушкевич отмечал свой день рождения в компании друзей и не только в районе станции метро «Китай-город». На праздник пришли также Мария Дрокова из кремлевского проекта «Наши» и Мария Сергеева — бывшая активистка «Молодой Гвардии», которая всем запомнилась призывом не ругать русские машины. Среди подарков имениннику была и зажигалка с книгой речей и статей господина Суркова. Несмотря на присутствие среди молодых людей комиссара «Наших», Виталий Шушкевич книгу сжег.


Image source: Live Journal user plucer.

So nice to see the young champions of democracy and civil rights holding a good old-fashioned book burning. That’s the spirit! Though I’m not sure we can really justify setting unnecessary fires in Russia’s current incendiary condition… Still, I’m sure that’s one less beach babe who will be turned into a Nashist zombie, carrying out Surkov’s wicked, wicked plan to modernize the country and replace conscription with an army of giant felt vegetables. Good work, Shushkevich.


Image source: Live Journal user brainw45h.


Image source: Idiot.fm.

Looks like Slava has taken his own advice, “Innovate, gentlemen!,” and is branching out into new methods for achieving creepiness.

Speaking of the Ministry of Ideology:

III. Art as Ammunition!

ARTicle: “Mightier than the Bayonet?”

One of my favorite topics is propaganda. It is often taken to mean the dissemination of misleading or biased or plainly untrue information, rather than the promotion of any agenda, be it noble or malicious. I think it is because we believe ourselves capable of real objectivity. Like the swing voters. Or Julia. As if taking no personal position on anything were more responsible than taking a firm but well-informed one. But of course no one is omniscient, and some things are worth fighting for. Some agendas are worth promoting. The AIC looks at the role of Soviet propaganda posters in the fight against the Nazis:

The word propaganda might initially sound pejorative. Propaganda has been historically perceived as a malevolent method of spreading false rumors. But might we also interpret propaganda as a means of providing a nation courage and willingness to fight in the face of immeasurable odds? Such was the task of the Soviet news agency (TASS) window-posters created in the Soviet Union during the Second World War—and such is the content of Windows on the War, a massive exhibition of these “propaganda” posters that will be mounted at the Art Institute next summer.

Propagandistic posters are usually focused on bolstering support on the home front and distanced from the reality of the battlefield. However, the makers of the TASS Windows had a different idea: to use their creative skills as ammunition in the fight against the Germans. Art became a weapon.

The poster above, number 1000, acts as a visual manifesto for the TASS studio. Above the picture is a quote by Vladimir Mayakovsky, the acclaimed Russian Futurist poet and founder of the ROSTA Windows—predecessors of TASS in the 1920s and the inspiration for the TASS Window project as a whole. The quote reads, in translation, “I want the pen to be equal to the bayonet”—a wish visually manifested in this image. We see Hitler being attacked by three bayonets, alongside a pencil and ink pen. In fact, if we follow Hitler’s gaze, he seems to be staring directly at the hands holding these two tools. The artists, writers, and poets of TASS, it would seem, have succeeded—they have “killed” the enemy’s spirit, while boosting the morale of Soviet citizens with this symbolic defeat. Finally, as Mayakovsky wished, the pen and pencil are on equal footing with the traditional weapons of war.

There was a bona fide sense that producing these TASS Windows was as important as being at the front. In the Soviet Union, the artists who created the posters became beloved cultural icons, as important as military generals. They received state medals and great renown for their work. To this day, surviving former Soviet citizens alive at the time of the TASS Windows can name the artists by heart—artists such as Sokolov-Skalya, Solov’ev, Shukhmin, and the Kukryniksy.

Surrounding the production of the TASS Windows are stories of passion, fervor, and intense labor. The artists would gather, regardless of abominable weather or the advancing enemy attack on Moscow, to create a new poster virtually every day of World War II. Not unlike the Red Army soldiers, the artists and writers labored in inhospitable conditions for the sake of the war effort. Because of the cultural importance of these posters and the iconic status of these artists and writers, heroic or wistful cultural myths came to surround the studio as time went on. According to some anecdotes, TASS posters were carried to the Front by the soldiers and were used to intimidate the enemy. Some TASS artists and writers were even driven to the Front itself so that they might absorb the details of war to imbue later drawings with veracity. The artists and writers of the TASS Windows truly felt their art to be one of the most powerful weapons against the Nazi invaders.

–Julia A., intern in the Department of Prints and Drawings

This post is from the “Countdown to TASS” series leading up to the exhibition of Soviet propaganda posters at the Art Institute of Chicago next year. I mention this because the exhibition will be part of the Soviet Experience arts festival, a “14-month-long showcase of works by artists who created under (and in response to) the Politburo of the Soviet Union” which will be held at numerous arts institutions throughout Chicago from 2010-2011. Hopefully if you are in town, you will have the opportunity to check it out.

IV. Russian Lit. 101.

A Good Treaty: “The Tale of How Aleksandr Pochkov Quarreled with Vladimir Vladimirovich”

I don’t know what it is about constituent services and Russia, but no combination of subjects makes a more ideal setting in which to employ the literary devices of the absurd and grotesque. Behold!

In which AGT translates an incredible display of pathos and mockery that is the following exchange between an angry blogger and the nation’s leader:

Do you know why we’re burning?

Because it’s all fucked. I’ll explain. I have a dacha in a village 153 km [95 miles] from Moscow, in the Tverskaia oblast’. This village is the sort of place where everyone lives nose-to-nose and shares common fences, or — like my neighbor and me — no fences at all. I’ve got nothing to hide from him and don’t need the fucking thing. And since he’s a local, he also looks after my house when I’m away, even mowing my lawn. After all, what’s good for his cows does no harm to my grass. The lawn grows back fast. But let’s get back to the fires.

In this village under those asshole communists, whom everyone shits on, there were three reservoirs for fighting fires [pozharnye prudy], an alarm bell hung (which was sounded in case of a fire), and miraculously there was even a fire truck. Now sure there was just one for three villages — but there was still a truck. And then came Mr. Democrat and his friends to fuck everything up. First they filled in the reservoirs and sold the land to developers. Next they divvied off the fire truck to God knows where (aliens probably snatched it), and they changed the alarm bell into a phone (fucking “modernization”). Only the piece of shit doesn’t work because they forgot to connect the line. There’s still a fireman, yes, but he’s got nothing left but a helmet and a coat (left over from those terrible communists). Here’s how he works: about fifteen years ago, a fire started in the neighboring village. They promptly sent us a messenger, and we ran back to help put it out. Our fireman got dressed in his uniform, grabbed two buckets, filled them with water and (this part is still a mystery to me) hopped on a bicycle, and came with us to put out the fire. It was laughter and sin together. Someone called [another] fire department, but they only arrived at the end of everything (five hours later) because they had to come from Tver’. Using everything within reach — sand, water, even spitting — we somehow managed to save all but one house.

Do I have any questions? [In response to the government soliciting citizens to write in.] Where are our tax dollars going? Why every year do we slip further and further toward a more primitive social order? Fuck the innovation center in Skolkovo if we don’t even have something as elementary as fire trucks! Why did there used to be people like the forest rangers, who warned people about fires and quickly conveyed the information to firefighters, so it wasn’t allowed to reach residences? I don’t want a telephone in the village — I want reservoirs for fighting fires and I want my alarm bell back. Give me back the fucking bell and dig me another reservoir, and I’ll fill it in and take care of it myself. If the regional authorities are game, just give me the space.

Understand me, Mr. Bureaucrat, Russia doesn’t need all your shitty genius ideas. Well before you, smart Russians — real men [muzhiki] — already figured this stuff out. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. It was invented a long time ago and it works just fine, as long as you keep your nose out of our business.* Stop charging me taxes, or just cut off my pension deductions. I’m not going to live to retirement age in this kind of life, anyway. With the [saved] money, I’ll buy a fire truck for three villages and sleep soundly, knowing nobody will take it away from my people, from my neighbors, because that bitch will be ours and we’d kill anyone who tried. If you deputies and distinguished officials piss on us because we actually give a shit about ourselves and our neighbors, then let us live the way we want, happily and in peace [schastlivo i khorosho].

[But] we don’t expect much from you. We all understand that your life principle is that everyone around you should need you. But you’re mistaken. It’s you who needs us — and in a big way. Believe me.

So give me back my alarm bell, you bitches, and shove your fucking phone up your asses.

I ask you to convey my letter to the Kalyazinskii Region authorities, in the Tverskaia oblast’.

Thank you in advance. ~top_lap

Dear honorable Internet user,

At the end of the workday today, inhaling (as did all of Moscow) the smoke of the forests burning outside the city, with great interest and pleasure did I learn of your assessment of the summer fires situation that’s befallen central Russia.

Fair’s fair, one ought to point out that Russia hasn’t had such high temperatures for over 140 years — not even under the communists, that is.

This at least partly vindicates the authorities, who — while certainly responsible for fighting natural disasters — are only for the first time encountering something of this size on such a scale.

However, in general, I agree with your comments.

You are, of course, a remarkably plainspoken and direct person. All the more power to you! [Prosto molodets]

And you are undoubtedly a man of letters. If you had made your living as a writer, you could be living — like Lenin’s favorite writer Gorky — in Capri.**

However, even there you wouldn’t feel yourself entirely safe, insomuch as both Europe and the U.S. face the same mass-scale natural disasters. Suffice it to recall how many forests burned in Europe last year or the year before.

Despite all our problems and troubles, I hope you and I both make it to retirement age.

All necessary funds for disaster management and other pressing issues have already been dispatched from the federal budget to reimburse victims.

If you provide your address, your governor will receive an alarm bell right away.

Sincerely,
Vladimir Putin

But what A Good Treaty, and shockingly, everyone who has written on the topic of this fantastic exchange, fails to mention, or even possibly be aware of, is that the entire correspondence was conducted not between the blogger and the Premier at all, but between their dogs!

A dreary world indeed, gentlemen…

V. Smackdown: Orlov and Jesus v. Hitler, Lenin, Calvin and yer teevees.

ClubOrlov: “Miserable Pursuits.”

This is one of the best little Orlov pieces I have read in a while. I strongly encourage you to read the whole thing. Here are some excerpts:

The Russian author Eduard Limonov wrote of his experiences with poverty in America. To his joy, he discovered that he could supplement his cash earnings with public assistance. But he also quickly discovered that he had to keep this joy well hidden when showing up to collect his free money. It is a curious fact that in America public assistance is only made available to the miserable and the downtrodden, not to those who are in need of some free money but are otherwise perfectly content. Although it is just as possible to be poor and happy in America as anywhere else, here one must make a choice: to avoid any number of unpleasant situations, one must be careful to hide either the fact that one is poor, or the fact that one is happy. If free public money is to be obtained, then only the latter choice remains.

It is another curious fact that vast numbers of Americans, both rich and poor, would regard Limonov’s behavior as nothing short of despicable: a foreign author living in America on public assistance while also earning cash! It seems reasonable that the rich should feel that way; if the poor can’t be made miserable, then what exactly is the point of being rich? But why should the poor particularly care? Another cultural peculiarity: what dismays them is not the misappropriation of public funds. Tell them about the billions wasted on useless military projects, and they will reply with a yawn that this is just business as usual. But tell them that somewhere some poor person is eating a free lunch, and they will instantly wax indignant. Amazingly, Americans are great believers in Lenin’s revolutionary dictum: “He who does not work, does not eat!” One of the rudest questions you might hear from an American is “What do you do for a living?” The only proper response is “Excuse me?” followed by a self-satisfied smirk and a stony silence. Then they assume that you are independently wealthy and grovel shamefully.

Most shockingly, there are many poor Americans who are too proud to accept public assistance in spite of their obvious need for it. Most Russians would regard such a stance as absurd: which part of “free money” don’t these poor idiots like—the fact that it’s money, or the fact that it’s free? Some Russians who are living in the US and, in trying to fit in to American society, have internalized a large dose of the local hypocrisy, might claim otherwise, but even they, in their less hypocritical moments, will concede that it is downright foolish to turn down free money. And rest assured, they will mop up every last penny of it. Mother Russia didn’t raise any dummies.

But let us not blame the victim. What causes these poor souls to leave money on the table is just this: they have been brainwashed. The mass media, most notably television and advertising, are managed by the well-to-do, and incessantly hammer home the message that hard work and self-sufficiency are virtuous while demonizing the idle and the poor. The same people who have been shipping American jobs to China and to India in order to enhance their profits want it to be generally understood that the resulting misery is entirely the fault of the miserable. And while the role of the pecuniary motive may be significant, let us not neglect to mention the important fact that producing mass misery is a high-priority objective in and of itself. [...]

And so, a poor but happy and carefree future may yet await a great many of us, both idle rich and idle poor—one happy though rather impoverished family. But in order to achieve that we would have to change the culture. Let it be known that free lunch is a very good thing indeed, no mater who’s eating it or why, and never mind that Lenin said that “He who does not work, does not eat.” And while we are at it, let’s also dispense with the hackneyed adage that “Work will set you free” (Arbeit Macht Frei) which the Nazis liked to set in wrought iron atop the gates of their concentration camps. Let us consign the communists and the fascists and the capitalists to the proverbial scrapheap of history! Let us instead gratuitously quote Jesus: “Behold the lilies of the field, how they grow. They labor not, neither spin. And yet for all that I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his royalty, was not arrayed like unto one of these… Therefore take no thought saying: What shall we eat? or What shall we drink? or Wherewith shall we be clothed? … Care not therefore for the day following. For the day following shall care for itself. Each day’s trouble is sufficient for the same self day.” Amen.

The Limonov book in question is, It’s me, Eddie, and I think it is the most memorable work I have read by him, probably because it hit a lot of my American nerves. It is also this novel that features his astonishment at the “It’s not my problem” refrain commonly heard in America, which I mentioned in my piece on the hoarders. It’s Limonov, so it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I imagine that if you are reading this blog, you can handle this book, and so I think all of you should read it if you haven’t yet.

Note to Dmitry: It appears some miserable pursuits pay off:

VI. The Power of Negative Thinking.

USA Today: “Russians are less depressed than Americans.”

No word on if it’s anything to do with Americans reading USA Today

Despite what many social observers have described as a generally dark and brooding take on life, a new report suggests that Russians are actually less likely than Americans to be depressed.
In fact, researchers have uncovered indications that the Russian cultural tendency to dwell on the negative may ultimately insulate them from feelings of distress when engaged in self-reflection.

“Among Westerners, focusing on one’s negative feelings tends to impair well-being, but among Russians, that is not the case,” study co-author Igor Grossmann, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Michigan, said in a university news release.

“Russians focus more on their negative feelings than Americans do,” Grossmann explained, “but they spontaneously distance themselves from their emotions to a greater extent than Americans, who tend to immerse themselves in their recalled experiences.”[...]

The Russians appeared to experience less distress than the Americans after retelling the experience, and placed blame less often on the person involved in the incident. The Russians were also able to immediately distance themselves from their recollections, even while discussing them — a skill linked to less distress and feelings of blame, the study authors noted.

Culture, concluded the authors, has an impact on the emotional and cognitive consequences of bad experiences.

What? You mean our culture which practically criminalizes and literally pathologizes normal human emotions like unhappiness actually makes us more distressed and ashamed?

Get. Out.

Alright, dear readers. I am now going to go ruminate on my unhappiness and misfortune in the hopes it staves off depression. Thanks for stopping by.

July 26, 2010

I’m still alive. Unfortunately.

Filed under: Odds & Ends — poemless @ 5:05 PM

My ratio of drug use to creative output is violating all kinds of laws of nature these days (though one may be interested to note that the singular evil pill that seems to cure the migraine symptoms also cures my desire to write, confirming what we already know and scientists believe…)

I was going to write a rant about morons who call themselves doctors. About the right to live without pain. And something in defense of Sarah Palin.

Maybe I will do those things. For now here are some deliciously weird videos which you have undoubtedly already seen but which nevertheless deserve a home on this blog:

Jesus, the only man on earth who can be a badass on a trike or in a powder blue suit.

Also of note:

~ I am on Twitter, but am not posting anything.

~ Sean of his Russia Blog has relocated to DeKalb, IL, but the earth is still spinning (though freak Noah’s Ark like flooding has occured in the vicinity…)

~ Natalia calls on us to stop dissing Russian men. Geez, apparently the Russians love their fathers too. Someone alert Sting.

~ Vilhelm writes a run down of the “Forbidden art – 2006″ case. On the one hand, I am all about freedom of artistic expression. On the other, the fact that the courts have fined them for displaying such works gives the name of their exhibition a bit more authenticity, no?

~ David Suchet is of Russian ancestry. I discovered this while doing my own detective work trying to find out who murderd the art director of the previous “Poirot” mysteries and replaced their divine art deco glamour mystique with the predictable Masterpiece Theater crap. I am not the type of person who will watch all PBS mysteries, but I will watch all of Suchet’s Poirot mysteries, because he is brilliant and because I get weak in the knees for that severe style of the original series. Related or unrelated, the so-called “master” of art deco design, Erte, was Russian. What this has to do with anything I do not know…

June 9, 2010

Odds & Ends: Insomnia Edition.

A thought I had while riding the el, sleep-deprived:

It is conventional wisdom that the fall of the USSR was a glorious populist event that would have been something pleasant if it had not been set back by the greedy, corrupt, lawless and undemocratic actions that followed as a result of the chaos brought on by the fall of the USSR. In fact, the literal dissolution of the Soviet Union was a greedy, corrupt and undemocratic action that set the stage for those that followed. It was the first land grab of the 1990′s. Ha!

Well, it sounded more profound on the el. Probably the bearded tranny staring at me while I thought it gave it extra oomph. Honestly, just when I get comfortable with everyone’s unique sexuality, I’m commuting with a bearded transvestite. I want to scream, “Is this a game? Why can’t you just choose?!” But his or her (his and her?) sexuality is not mine to judge or make demands of. Still, I resent being made to guess what pronoun to use. Or how many.

~ Every moose is crazy ’bout a sharp dressed man.

I want to be this baby elk.

~ Gorbachev is not a dick.

This is a lovely interview. If you read it and return here and still think he is, you better keep it to yourself, or I’ll refuse to marry you, too.

~ “foreign video games accused of committing “ideological sabotage” by painting Russia as a country of spies, villains and bears riding unicycles.”

Maybe because dead poets, cold showers and cabbage soup are boring topics for video games… Don’t think they haven’t tried:


More recently came the release of “Eugene Onegin: Devil’s Mercy”, which sought to provide a lesson in literature by rendering the hero of Alexander Pushkin’s masterpiece as a zombie killer. But neither of these titles fared well with critics despite rave revues from Russian officials.

In fairness, the original Pushkin poem on which the game is based is pretty damn boring too. Wish it had zombies…

~ Some person with a blog wrote this:

It’s just, I don’t like attracting certain persons to my blog. Anyway, this is not about the author, it’s about McFaul.


Michael McFaul sent me a message on Facebook (I friended him because I thought he might have press releases on his profile or some comments on these meetings) and said he understood I was a critic of his commission with Surkov, said he wanted to understand my views better, and offered me a phone number.

I’m pretty sure the fact that Vladislav Surkov 1) does not have a facebook page, 2) does not care to know my opinion of his work and 3) has not given me his phone number is the clearest illustration yet of everything that is wrong with Russia. Especially that last part. I’m going to friend McFaul and see what the Civil Society Working Group can do to rectify this situation.

~ Единая Россия Fail.

Or maybe he won. I don’t know…

~ Genius.

Apologies to whomever I was calling a genius last week. I know I was ready to run away with Shklovsky. But this time it is for real, I swear. Forget what I said about having to read some 1920′s avant garde poetry. I have found true love! Daniel Kalder is the one for me!

Hole in my heart left by the eXile? Filled.

~ Music only dogs can hear.

“Vicious…” Meh, dogs are pretty indiscriminate. I can’t see them appreciating Lou Reed or Laurie Anderson. Most people who are not dogs can’t even do that. Probably it is a good thing only dogs can hear Anderson, actually. PETA might want to boycott this.

~ Hitch has an autobio… er, memoir out. It’s probably not as awesomely offensive as this interview.


Hitch: There are still people who want to criminalize homosexuality one way or another, and I thought it might be useful if more heterosexual men admitted that they are a little bit gay, as is everyone, and that homosexuality is a form of love and not just sex.

NYT: Not everyone is “a little bit gay,” as you say. Do you think your basic sexual confusion underlies your political confusions? [...]

NYT: Your mother committed suicide, in a pact with a lover, in 1973. Did she suffer from lifelong depression?

Hitch: No. I think she was having a bad menopause, and she was losing her looks, which were pretty impressive.

~ “чисто по-мужски?”

If you think I write like a man, you should watch me install an air conditioner. Though, IIRC, most men cry and curse when doing that. Someone should compare me to a ninja. Because that’s how I install an air conditioner.

Ok, thanks for reading.

Stay tuned for my review of Lost Cosmonaut. Hint #1: One reviewer called it “A cult waiting to happen.” Hint #2: I’m joining.

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