poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

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!

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June 14, 2010

Another horror story about Russian traffic cops?

Filed under: Culture: Russia — poemless @ 6:05 PM
Tags: , ,

So I am probably the last person on earth to hear of this guy, Sergei “Vissarion Christ” Torop, who used to be a Siberian traffic cop until he realized he was the Second Coming. Which leads me to wonder if being a Russian cop isn’t as psychologically dangerous for the cops themselves as it is for those they serve and protect. Especially the traffic cops. In Siberia. For whose inhabitants there appear 3 life options: corrupt civil servant, corrupt savior of mankind, or their victims. You can write the guy off, but he has 10,000 of followers. And they haven’t taken the Kool-Aid way out. Yet.

Here is a video produced for Nightline (an evening news program in the States that no one to my knowledge watches):

I was not made aware of Vissarion by Nightline, but by Daniel Kalder’s book, Strange Telescopes, which has a large section devoted to the cult. Unlike the backpacker in the news item, Kalder is a bad ass and goes to stay there during the winter. Like any proper cult, or political party, they have strict talking points (after watching several YouTube videos produced both by and about the cult, they start to sound like robots), so you won’t gain any new revelations from interviews with the members or its leader. But something I found very neat about Vissarion’s cult is how it is allowed to prosper: First off, he acquired a ton of land on lease in the heady days of the collapse of the Soviet Union, when encouraging religious expression and giving away land to crooks was all the rage. This is where he and his followers have settled among the mountains and taiga. He’s been able to stay legit in the more stringent, un-Orthodox friendly Putin era by … well, what does Mr. Putin like? Following the rules. Seriously, the Vissarions follow the law, pay taxes, conduct legal business, allow regular government audits and inspections, home school the kids using the State-approved textbooks, support the local governor, the whole shebang. In the country from which I hail, most cults spout up out of resistance to the government. We have more freedom of religion than Russia. (Which means little more than annoying people with pamphlets can show up at my door and not go away, or pyramid schemes with Hollywood actor acolytes can get tax breaks.) Yet the Messiah is thriving in Siberia. Oh, also the Messiah is also waging a War on Christmas by abolishing it and changing the holiday to his birthday. How nice to be God. Well, technically he’s not God. And technically he’s the 3rd coming.

Listening to and reading about the lifestyle of his followers and his basic teachings, I can initially totally see myself running away to join. At least for a year. They’re all environmentalists who develop useful skills and think positive thoughts. That sounds nice. No money. That sounds lovely. Arts and crafts and the whispering of the wildflowers in the Siberian spring… oohhhh. Then there is the stuff about following him, the global, nay, intergalactic Jewish conspiracy, traditional marriages and gender roles. (Kalder is miffed that Vissarion gets a hot little girlfriend -in addition to the wife- and a Land Rover while his followers must do without, but he is God, after all. It would be weird if he couldn’t have those things.) Yet I can see how people get lured in. It’s not difficult to imagine an educated professional reflecting upon their crap life of materialism and social alienation and thinking, all I have to do is submit to this guy and I get to live in a Utopia? Alright. The people I’m forced to submit to now are 10 times more evil and I’ve little to show for it.

Most if not all of the outside coverage of Vissarion’s cult point to the back-breaking work and harsh climate to illustrate just how brainwashed and desperate his followers are. You’d have to be either a total wreck or operating against your free will to become a Siberian construction worker. After all, that’s what Stalin chose as punishment for those who dared threaten his regime. I don’t buy it. I can totally see how sitting in an office/car/living room/etc. for most of their lives would make people antsy for some hard fucking labor, Office Space-like. Especially the kind of labor that leaves you with something to show for it. As for climate, it’s not like Moscow and St. Peterburg are tropical paradises. Plus, it’s a “dry cold,” making it more tolerable. (I’ve heard this when referring to the heat, but never the cold. Hm.)

Most if not all of the outside coverage of Vissarion’s cult point to the new religious freedoms allowed in the past few decades to illustrate what might have provoked such a cult. Eager to take advantage of their new rights and a bit confused and adrift because of all the social chaos and lack of obvious choices, these poor folk fell into Vissarion’s trap. I don’t buy it. Most Russians who wanted to cash in on their religious freedom had no problem locating the Orthodox Church across the street. But more importantly, Vissarion’s cult seems to me motivated less by the need to worship indiscriminately and more by the need to leave their current socio-economic situation for something better, more promising, more fulfilling. Yes, the origin of Vissarion’s cult coincided with the end of State atheism. But in many ways it is now trying to replicate the economic ideals of that failed State. I wonder if it was an infusion of faith, or a crisis of faith that has lured people to this workers’ paradise? Vissarionites are rejecting their post-Communist country, after all, not embracing it…

You can read more about Kalder’s stay with the Vissarionites here.

June 11, 2010

Lost Cosmonaut: Book Review

Filed under: Culture: Russia — poemless @ 6:03 PM
Tags: ,

Sad Teletubbies, Elista, Kalmykia. c.Daniel Kalder.

I recently got to thinking about the difference between a blogger and a journalist. It’s a terrible subject so I only thought about it for a few seconds before I settled on, “journalists are paid.” But now I’ve found another difference: Bloggers can write reviews of books that were published 4 years ago. Which kinda throws a wrench in the CW…

I don’t read many travel narratives. I went through a phase where I collected them, but I could never get past the first chapter before deciding I not only knew how the story ends, but I’m pretty sure the author was that jerk I used to see in the stolovaya being all chummy with the scary abacus lady or that girl with the overwhelming goodness and lack of personality particular to a breed of Western girls studying in Russia. I even wrote one too. Because when something deranged happens every day of your life, you have to write about it. Like vomiting to avoid alcohol poisoning. The problem is this: the same deranged things happen to everyone who writes these books. It’s all new to the author of course, but not to anyone who has already read a travel narrative, personal memoir or pseudo-autobiographical novel about Russia by a Westerner. So I passed by Daniel Kalder’s Lost Cosmonaut repeatedly until the day came when I’d read all the other books in that section of the local library, except Anna Politkovskaya’s Russian Diary which I don’t think I could bear. (A typo just gave me brilliant idea for a children’s book: “Anna Politkovskaya’s Russian Dairy”.) Also, I am not crazy interested in Udmurtia or Kazan. What’s going on there? Nothing.

A co-worker of mine and I were laughing today at the crazy synopses people put in WorldCat records. “Epic masterpiece that is about nothing and everything.” Ok, that’s helpful.

Lost Cosmonaut is an epic masterpiece that is about nothing and everything. Specifically as nothing and everything is experienced by a noncoformist Scot in Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Mari El and Udmurtia.

If you are interested in Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Mari El and Udmurtia you should probably read this because not much in English is written about them and you don’t have a choice. If you are not interested in Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Mari El and Udmurtia you should probably read this because it’s not really very informative about these places anyway. You could be reading about anywhere. Or nowhere. Which is the point.

Kalder sets off with a mission to introduce the world to forgotten an unknown peoples and places. It begins with a manifesto:

From THE SHYMKENT DECLARATIONS

(Excerpts from the resolutions passed at the first international congress of Anti- Tourists
at the Shymkent Hotel, Shymkent, Kazakhstan, October 1999)

As the world has become smaller so its wonders have diminished. There is nothing
amazing about the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, or the Pyramids of Egypt. They
are as banal and familiar as the face of a Cornflakes Packet.

Consequently the true unknown frontiers lie elsewhere.

The duty of the traveller therefore is to open up new zones of experience. In our over
explored world these must of necessity be wastelands, black holes, and grim urban
blackspots: all the places which, ordinarily, people choose to avoid.

The only true voyagers, therefore, are anti- tourists. Following this logic we declare that:

The anti-tourist does not visit places that are in any way desirable.

The anti-tourist eschews comfort.

The anti-tourist embraces hunger and hallucinations and shit hotels.

The anti-tourist seeks locked doors and demolished buildings.

The anti-tourist scorns the bluster and bravado of the daredevil, who attempts to

penetrate danger zones such as Afghanistan. The only thing that lies behind this is

vanity and a desire to brag.

The anti-tourist travels at the wrong time of year.

The anti-tourist prefers dead things to living ones.

The anti-tourist is humble and seeks invisibility.

The anti-tourist is interested only in hidden histories, in delightful obscurities, in bad art.

The anti-tourist believes beauty is in the street.

The anti-tourist holds that whatever travel does, it rarely broadens the mind.

The anti-tourist values disorientation over enlightenment.

The anti-tourist loves truth, but he is also partial to lies. Especially his own.

At one point Kalder quotes the end of Gogol’s Dead Souls and answers the question of what lay ahead for Russia: “poor people and junk.” If the moral of the story were that every provincial Russian city is miserable in the same way (general disrepair, awful weather, egomaniacal leader, Stalinist factory, ethnic population with little or no recollection of their heritage as a result of centuries of occupation and systematic assimilation, dive hotel where the rooms are outfitted with radios you can’t turn off and no hot water, fat American men trawling for wives, Brezhnev era apartment blocks, depressing cafe and nightclub …) well, I’d have gotten through the first chapter and decided I knew how the story ends. Been there. Done that. The names were different (Pskov, Uglich, Suzdal…) but I’ve experienced the radio you can’t turn off and it is particular hell that cannot be underestimated. And I’m pretty sure the most depressing cafe in the universe is in Uglich. But that wasn’t the moral of the story. And I wasn’t prepared for the ending.

At times Kalder is a kamikaze thrill seeker, presenting his surroundings the world with all the grace and humility of an eXile deathporn spread. He’s really into Peter the Great’s collection of preserved mutant babies and Ilyumzhinov’s egomania. Russia is cruel and psycho. Lick it up baby, lick it up.

Then he gets really existential about the psychological effect of living in a place the rest of the world does not know exists. He muses that globalization makes life easier. We see an for McDonalds, Pepsi, Mercedes and are immediately connected to everyone else who has seen those ads. A man in London is eating the same cheeseburger as a man in Houston. They are not alone. Anyone who’s been in Russia or other Commie’d out countries when there were no or few corporate ads has understood this. All those nameless remont chasovs can really become unsettling. When you only have uniquely named stores in your town, when the billboards only advertize your local dictator, you are estranged from the rest of the world. Or something.

Realizing there is nothing shocking to see in these outposts he becomes obsessed with the nothingness, the boredom, the profound insignificance of his surroundings. Zen-like. (The combined fascination with the grotesque and the mundane leaves the reader feeling a little psychotic.) Eventually he does give himself completely over. But not to the nothingness. Or the freakishness. But to things as they are. To the efforts people make, the dignity they maintain, when dealt a mediocre deck. Nothing exclusively Russian about that. Except that Russians are perhaps more honest and upfront about their crap deck than rest of us. No sense in pretending about it.

There are many things I really liked about this book. The gonzo journalist tone is reminiscent of the eXile, which I really miss. He’s a pretty good and funny writer. Who happens to be interested in something that interests me. It is also endearing to watch someone else go through the stages of grief people with souls tend to go through when they try to get to know Russia. Like me. In fact, I have many selfish reasons for loving this book. The most obnoxious being that Kalder reminds me of this strange boy from college I hung out with for a year. Anyway. Kalder makes a lot of lists, which I too enjoy. Lists. He takes photos of random stuff and calls it “The Secret History of the World” – photodocumentation of things others walk past and never see. I liked that. He makes up entire scenes as if briefly lost in reverie while writing. He can be irreverently crass but it’s not an act, nor is the painfully sweet and beautiful observations he makes about things most people don’t notice. A little girl he catches a glimpse of in a dank cafe with her mother whose entire life he manages to invest himself in emotionally before she leaves – vanished forever. A self-promoting pagan preist who just makes up everything and even has a shrine to himself, but whom Kalder defends as not a fraud or a loser but just like the rest of us, making it up as we go along, seeking fame, trying to give some meaning and staying power to our unnoticed lives. Instead of getting angry at one local authority whom he expects to set him up with important people but can only get him a meeting with a local museum tour guide or theater director, Kalder thinks, well, he did his job, they did theirs, they don’t owe me anything beyond that. They didn’t even owe me that.

At the end, a tv anchor asks him what’s wrong with Russia. “Look around! It’s terrible. Other countries are not like this. Why is Russia like this?” She’s clearly not happy with the state of affairs. That’s for someone else to discuss, Kalder thinks. Let someone else make a profound appeal for democracy. From their warm safe lives in the West. Experts making profound appeals for democracy are a dime a dozen. Fuck them.

I really liked that last bit.

You should go check out his website now.

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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