Notebook: Freedom and Kindness
by Ann Kjellberg, editor
The Odessa Fine Arts Museum, now encircled with razor wire. The director Kirill Lipatov told The Washington Post that “the 123-year-old Fine Arts Museum is so delicate that it would surely burn to the ground if it were hit with a shell.”
As a thoughtful American, one is always aware that one’s country is doing harm somewhere. Even if one actively resists and protests that particular harm, one is to some degree implicated, as a democratic citizen and probable beneficiary, if only at some remove. Shared responsibility is one of the jobs of democratic citizenship.
The war in Ukraine, however, has thrown these considerations of national responsibility into a new, unfamiliar light. Previous wars in my lifetime have been fought against a shadowy foe on behalf of an aggrieved (if perhaps sometimes somewhat fictional) party: if the wars in Vietnam, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, were won, the antagonists—the Viet Cong, the Taliban, Saddam Hussein and his cronies—would be pursued and these societies would be expected (perhaps somewhat hazily) to return to a peaceful latent status quo. If we encountered people from those countries in our daily lives, they may not support the war, but they were usually not in favor of the rogue element that we were opposing either. We were not struggling against Vietnameseness or Afghanness. Vietnamese food was still cheerfully consumed; Iraqi antiquities admired. Islam was sometimes carelessly equated with Muslim extremism, but its 1.7 billion adherents around the globe and centuries of civilization easily countered that. We assured ourselves that the effort, however dubiously justified, was on behalf of, basically, everyone, or almost everyone.
In Ukraine, the antagonist is not a shadowy ideology or a clique of reformable perpetrators but a whole nation, whose longtime leader and recognized government we have been living alongside, in uneasy family rivalry, for much of our lives. For some of us who are old enough, such a war was within memory literally regarded as an apocalyptic, final denouement; a world-consuming coda. That country’s defeat is unimaginable; so is its victory. The brazenness of the invasion itself broke at once the brittle language of settled understandings; then the shameless cruelty of the execution, its heedless incompetence, challenged even those trying hardest to frame it within the discourse of established relationships.
Of course most of the people one knows (or I know) from this country also oppose this war. But the very existence of the war renders them stateless, or demands, if they are in emigration or in opposition at home, that they find a way to renounce their country without being other than who they are. In the realm of culture this situation has created a pressure we are not used to. Even in the Cold War Americans could love Russian ballet, Russian novels, Russian food, with the understanding that the Soviet Union was some sort of affliction layered over Russianness. But this war—in its language and ideology, and also in the fact that it sprang from a nominally democratic process beginning with the much-celebrated bloodless revolutions of the late eighties and nineties—appears wound into Russianness itself. Anti-war Russian intellectuals feel compelled at the very least to invite readers to look away from their traditions and embrace those of Russia’s subject neighbors. More stridently, some writers, like Oksana Zabuzhko writing recently in the Times Literary Supplement, argue that Russian culture is top to bottom implicated in the invasion of Ukraine and its attendant horrors and must be ditched. Programmers nervously remove Russian composers from concert schedules and Russian restaurants anxiously advertise that they are operated by Ukrainians. We have to look back to World War II for a precedent of a military engagement representing itself as a totalizing national confrontation: Naxism was about the fate of Germanness, and Germanness was a thing that was all around us in different ways, spread far beyond its borders and into our psyches and libraries.
I am sympathetic with writers like Michael Idov who question the “media oxygen” getting consumed sometimes by “successful Russians” these days, and I appreciate that many Russian writers, such as our own Eugene Ostashevsky, regard this as a time to embrace and magnify the arts and the voice of Ukraine and other cultures threatened by Russian imperialism. This seems to me decent and appropriate. But I feel that the idea that Russian culture is in some sui generis way to blame for this cataclysm and should be removed from circulation demands more examination.
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At what point is a whole culture “responsible for the formation” of people who commit barbarity, to quote Oksana Zabuzhko? The easy answer to this is that every single society past and present has been responsible for harms, some for breathtaking atrocities. Certainly all the big civilizations represented in our museums and libraries carry huge loads of guilt: not just German and American but French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Greek, and Roman. How blameless does a civilization have to be for us to listen to its music?
Whenever people come together in a politics or a language they begin to wrestle with the problem of collective responsibility; one could argue that this is itself one of the generative forces of art. Art is the fruit of individual introspection in the form of a shared object or ritual; it always resonates with the group’s guilt as well as its resources of inspiration. Let’s look at the work of Sebald and Richter and ask ourselves if a culture’s responsibility for crimes disqualifies it from cultural attention.
But this is not the end of the question. In America now the matter of whether there is a political test for inclusion in the culture is one of the most inflamed and inflammatory that we have. I think most of us have an instinctual feeling that greatness in art is earned by a fundamentally truthful insight into humanity and we expect great work not to endorse evil. We can now recognize that Pound, Celine, Junger, were serious thinkers, but their embrace of fascism will forever shadow the way they are received. Virgil and Sidney were spokesmen for empire, and we should be able to evaluate that in their writings with a clear eye. In America we have no respected artistic tradition that advocates slaveholding. It is impossible to imagine. Often artists, who crave conditions conducive to the creation and reception of their work, and sometimes have somewhat rarefied perceptions of social conditions, adopt politics at odds with some of their audience. We do not always vote with people whose work we like. Yet we have a sense that there is a line to be crossed in art between questionable political reasoning and sponsorship of brutality.
At least since the arrival of democratic institutions gave artists and thinkers some autonomy they have been held to account if their work advances a deplorable cause. Since Feburary 24, Russian intellectuals themselves, and critics of Russian intellectuals, appropriately question whether they participated too readily in a system that was leading toward autocracy during the last ten years (or thirty). We Americans can equally ask ourselves, how responsible is our culture for drone strikes on innocent civilians or disproportionate executions of African Americans? If our society became more autocratic, as it may well do, how much might we have been expected to anticipate that and do more, or otherwise, during these years? Russian artists and thinkers today wrestle with the question of whether they do more good by staying or going, by being openly dissenting or just dissenting enough to avoid getting arrested. How different is the conductor who is an overt propagandist from the ballerina who conformed because she wanted to remain a principle from the opera singer who didn’t want her aging parents threatened by the police? Because one theater director is courageously oppositional does that mean another who wants to keep showing classical plays in the provinces is a compromised person? If the stage, and the language, are owned by the state, how do you dance or sing or play or act or even write?
We can say with certainty, yes, it is much worse to see your city leveled or to be chained and tortured in your basement than to have the luxury of grappling with such questions. Ukrainians would understandably not want to spare a thought for the vicissitudes of Russian intellectuals, and for the rest of us their lot might not rank high at the moment among claims on our sympathy, but to propose to excise Russian culture permanently from study and reflection beyond its borders takes matters quite a bit further than that. If culture is so important in creating bloodthirsty regimes, shouldn’t we be worrying a little about what goes into a culture that countenances wrongdoing and how to nourish a critical one where aggressors make their home?
Oksana Zabuzhko in the TLS cited an argument in The New York Times in the eighties between Milan Kundera and my old friend Joseph Brodsky about whether Russian culture was implicated in what was then Soviet repression in Eastern Europe. Zabuzhko articulated the dispute as being narrowly between aggressed (Czech émigré Kundera) and aggressor (Russian émigré Brodsky, though he himself was driven from his homeland by the Soviets), underlining a cue to the present with her quip that Brodsky “shut down his opponent like an aggressive bot on social media.” But their argument was more subtle than that. Kundera did not, as Zabuzhko puts it, ”exclude Russian literature from European culture,” saying he still admired, for instance, Chekhov. Kundera faulted Dostoevsky in particular for “the climate of his novels: a universe where everything turns into feeling; in other words, where feelings are promoted to the rank of value and of truth,” choosing to cast his lot with writers he identified with reason and the Enlightment. Brodsky countered that it was simplistic to say Dostoevsky’s work was about “feelings”: his concern was for the spiritual development of man (“the gist of most of Dostoyevsky's novels is the struggle for man’s soul, for the author assumes that man has one, that he is a spiritual entity … if literature has a social function, it is, perhaps, to show man his optimal parameters, his spiritual maximum”), and in that Dostoevsky’s work was, with Kundera’s, and Brodsky’s own, inhospitable to Russian tyranny.
Brodsky argued that the extent to which Dostoevsky was successful as an artist was the extent to which his work transcended his nation’s narrow political interests: it was a force for individual autonomy and against enslaved thinking. I think Brodsky has to be right if we are to care about literature. Yet for me neither Brodsky nor Kundera captured what is disturbing about the work of Dostoevsky and its relationship with cultural aggression. It has always made me nervous when Dostoevsky identified a messianic Russian destiny as a driving human aspiration. Finding this in Dostoevsky, however, taught me to be skeptical when I saw similar impulses animating, say, Whitman. Perhaps in all cultures one might look to expressions of exalted nationhood as ominous and worth a closer look; perhaps this is something that seeing literatures side by side teaches us.
Brodsky always advocated for following aesthetic impulses before ethical ones, a position descended from distrust of the hollow claims for human betterment pervasive in the ideology he grew up in. He was not without a sense of moral presence in literature, though, as is evinced by his abiding fidelity to the work of W. H. Auden. In Auden he saw a commitment to basic humanity, on the level of one person rather than the collective, play out as a guiding principle of art. “That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third / Were axioms to him, who’d never heard / Of any world where promises were kept, / Or one could weep because another wept,” Auden’s poem “Shield of Achilles” laments of the fallen world depicted by the shield’s creator Hephaestos.
Brodsky was, like Auden, a loner, too restless for much of his life to settle into any shared identity, even of the most basic sort. The extent to which his parents in Russia were threatened by his own artistic autonomy was an early warning that the demands of responsible collective living do not always sit easily with the centrifugal promptings of art. But he was fully committed to decency and cried out forcefully in the face of actual (as opposed to rhetorical) harms to others. He always admired in Auden that the impulse toward love never, or almost never, ran counter to the promptings of the muse; this consonance was a product of his discipline and faithfulness to his form.
Before Brodsky died he was trying to create a Russian Academy in Rome, to draw Russian writers and artists on a reprise of the nineteenth-century grand tour that inducted them into the fellowship of culture as such, rather than culture with a national adjective in front of it. This effort was envisioned as prophylactic to precisely what we are seeing now. (A bunch of us tried in a modest way to make this happen after he died.) Even Kundera in his original essay placed his loyalties not with Czech or even Eastern European literature but with literature broadly: Laurence Stern, Diderot, Beckett, Chekhov.
Many historians, Stephen Kotkin perhaps most notably, have drawn attention to a throughline of autocracy through Russian history, persisting from tsarism, through Communism, through Putinism. Masha Gessen has written of the role of trauma in recapitulating habits of submission in a whole population. But the precise role of culture in abetting (as opposed to resisting) this tendency has not, to my knowledge, been isolated. Kotkin identifies a persistent grandiosity in the Russian self-understanding that is at odds with geopolitical reality: “Many Russians view their country as a providential power, with a distinct civilization and a special mission in the world, but Russia’s capabilities do not match its aspirations, and so its rulers resort, time and again, to a hyperconcentration of power in the state in a coercive effort to close the yawning gap with the West.” Such perceptions of a unique destiny may be advanced by literature and the arts, but literature and the arts are also a potent weapon for dismantling them, as we have seen historically by how emboldening dissenting culture has been for those defying oppression, not least in Russia and the USSR. In a country in which artists and particularly poets still have a prestige that is pretty much evaporating elsewhere there is a real opportunity to support those who might open a better way. Wholesale repudiations of a culture throw this incipient promise out with the bathwater of propaganda.
There is no single answer to the question of what art we can accept because the answer is: we need it all. We have never developed a foolproof test of what art merits enduring or will pop up to help us in the future, and we’ve certainly shown a frightening aptitude for crushing ideas we will later need. The notion that there is an opposition between human decency on the one hand and freedom or fullness of thought on the other is false. On the international stage, as much as in the classroom, we can at once be tender and caring about the harms that ideas can bring (we can choose to read a Ukrainian poet this week) at the same time we develop resilience and resistance by carefully considering ideas that are painful and even toxic. It is art itself that teaches us to locate the harms and dangers that lurk in art; to imagine and predict the pain and damage that ideas can bring; to germinate ideas that foster a larger vision of humanity. Freedom should not be a pretext for cruelty or oppression, and behaving humanely does not demand that ideas be obliterated. Building a society that fully engages people who were formerly excluded demands that we have open ears and open hearts in our institutions, which were built around a different experience. We can be both kind and free, we can protect the vulnerable and take on the complex, indeed we must. Balancing the two is an ongoing project of maturation—emotional, intellectual, moral—and art is our teacher. Banishing whole categories of thought amputates the regenerative tissue this maturation requires.
Art enjoins us not to traffic in absolutes, to experiment with empathy, to inhabit the alternative voice, to weigh conflicting truths. It also dramatizes the costs of failing to embrace principle when we must: it does not teach relativism. The more me learn, the more adept we become at recognizing an absolute worth embracing, a compromise worth making. Art is not one thing, it is everything we are, and everything we can imagine being. Culture itself is curative in a way that any one province of culture is not; anti-intellectualism is a more likely predictor of authoritarianism and violence than any one set of ideas. As we never tire of saying over here at Book Post, those of us who live in countries threatened by autocracy should be thinking about how to get culture itself—culture, not bullying, tendentious arguments about it—in front of people as much as possible in its various, mutually argumentative, restorative forms.
Ann Kjellberg is the founder and editor of Book Post.
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Thank you for this, Ann.