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On the Wretchedness of Revolutionary Art

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

A Single Panel of the Berlin Wall, Newseum, Washington D.C., July 2009

I've been going through old pictures of my time in Germany, just after the wall came down in 1990. I recall visiting what was left of it in Berlin, though this was actually one of the panels on display at the Newseum in Washington D.C. (closed December 2019). This multi-layered cultural revolution post-Cold War, post-occupation, sexual rebellion-esque representation brings to mind Vladimir Nabokov's essay "A Few Words on the Wretchedness of Soviet Fiction and an Attempt to Determine Its Cause" (1926, reprinted in Think, Write, Speak, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2019, edited by Brian Boyd and Anastasia Tolstoy)? If you haven't read it, you should because it is a timeless metaphor for a changing (evolving?) society. I think Nabokov intended this, and for that I find him very astute. He spends the first thirteen pages spewing examples of the "laughable and talentless" writing that captured the heart of this time period in Russian history. Well, not so much the heart as the mind and body. And providing a poetic critique like only Nabokov can. Then he launches his explanation, and I think a very plausible one at that, for why Soviet literature represents Russia's "gray year." Notice the singular reference to represent the six years of political and social strife. Nabokov postulates there are five external reasons for the subterranean quality of storytelling (because he can't rightly call it literature): belief in historical cataclysm, the class take on the world, the narrow field of vision, the lack of culture, and censorship. If we replace literature (in its generic form) with art, or society, or politics, can we not see the parallel with other periods in history where revolution became the driving force of man, who, as Nabokov points out "is moved not by ordinary human feeling so extraordinary in their everydayness, but rather by some kind of extraneous class and mass sensations, which castrate art [or, perhaps human nature-ness?]." The very thing that makes us unique and special is the very thing that rises in us as fear and loathing. But, Nabokov goes on to say, there is hope because this is nothing more than "a kind of respite." Revolutions don't last forever. Living peacefully is the most difficult thing for humankind and every now and again we must acquiesce, not fight forces which naturally occur to facilitate necessary adjustment, rest and restore our energy to grow again, see beauty again, love another again, and live for the future again.

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