Wednesday, February 07, 2007

So distinct a shade

I am most fascinated - and baffled - about the way we invest our experience of the world, and thus the world itself, with meaning. Naturally, science is the most reasonable tool available in giving us a framework for that process but I don't think it can in any way logically dictate the meaning of its findings. I would guess that a hard materialist would say that the question itself is meaningless; which for me is a peculiarly pointless view. Traditional religion, in those brief times that it has not been hopelessly entangled in temporal power struggles, has functioned as a kind of a shortcut to meaning, but it obviously is, in this peculiarly human form, intellectually and logically totally untenable. Philosophy and art are much better, much more effective and aware in their exploration: ideally, perhaps, a combination of those two would bring us closer to understanding the structure of our passionate being here. In some sense, I would think that this incompleteness of self-understanding is a permanent feature of our human nature - and that any real progress will mean abandoning that state of being. Until that our existence will unavoidably have the partial character of an intellectual and cultural cul-de-sac, with the only open question being the concrete historical level of fear, hysteria and aggression that this state generates.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

S Novym godom - svetom - kraem - krovom!

It has been a longstanding regret of mine not to be able to acquaint myself with the magnificent Russian literary tradition in the original. Brodsky's exhilarating essay on Marina Tsvetaeva's "Novogodnee" (whose brilliant, joyous opening line is in the title of the post) was another occasion to reflect on this. (Brodsky is such a great essayist combining an artist's reckless courage and style with a critic's discerning, detached eye.) I have only rudimentary Russian - having studied it for only two years at high school - but I have always felt that there is a certain depth and vitality in the language that translations can't completely capture. And a great tradition it certainly is, perhaps partly explained by the horrendous social and political history of the nation.

It is very strange to think that Russia has never truly experienced an administrative system not morally corrupt, not venal, not brutal (whether or not clumsily disguised). There have been brief times of fresher air, of optimism soon to be dispelled, and never a strong and healthy civil society. Out of the darkness we have got these amazing flashes of genius and integrity. A high price certainly. And so the curious combination goes on: a magnificent nation docile under the control of cynical, ruthless pygmies. If that is a permanent Russian Sonderweg, which I don't believe for a moment, it certainly would be a tragic, fruitless cul-de-sac. But that corruption was not the image that stayed with me yesterday having finished Brodsky's essay: it was of exiled Marina Tsvetaeva and her angelic speech to stars, to Rilke.

Monday, February 05, 2007

In one of the dives on Fifty-second Street

Joseph Brodsky's heavenly essays (On "September 1, 1939" and To Please a Shadow) are once again half-persuading me to have another look at Auden. I have been here earlier. It is very hard to pinpoint the problem: Auden is accomplished and profound, but his cadences and rhythms seem to be a hard taste to acquire for me. There is something there that feels lifeless and vague, something that fails to raise emotion and thought. You admire but are not engaged, encaptivated.

Of course to my shame there are some external factors involved as well - I have always found Auden's person slighly distasteful. All his various ideological phases, Freudian, Marxist and religious are varyingly unsympathetic to me. Freud was a mechanical, totalitarian thinker, the European heart of darkness in the 1930's was surely in Moscow, not Berlin (this shifted concretely only during 1941-42, whatever pre-existing hidden potential there was: in any case, if you were blind enough to venerate Stalin and discredit liberal democracy, you wouldn't have perceived any hidden montrosities anyway). The move to the neutral and isolationist USA in 1939 of all years does leave a questionable taste to mouth: after all that exhortation comes - a well timed departure. His bewilderingly shifting strands of Christianity I'm least familiar with; in case they obviously weren't very beneficial for his later poetry.

Still, once again Brodsky makes such a powerful, eloquent case that leaves very tempting echoes in the mind: years have passed since the last effort, perhaps I have matured enough for Auden...

Thursday, February 01, 2007

And so to Iran?

Josh Marshall perfectly encapsulates my own position on this question. Any rationally behaving administration would not stake all into another war of choice after the complete debacle in Iraq. Such an idea would simply be preposterous, there are no resources left, no rationale left. But this is not a rationally behaving administration: ideology trumps empirical observation, facts on the ground don't matter. The president's motto is very obviously "Après' mois le deluge" - it is quite frightening to think that the US political system would be so dysfunctional as to bring us to this point. One wonders if the corrective actions will come in time of if there are any self-corrective impulses left within the administration itself: for the next two years this disastrous, criminally incompetent and impetuous president doesn't need to think about democratic elections. Interesting times indeed.