Tag Archives: freedom

Sins of Denial

The word “lie,” like the word “truth,” is banned in art, and during the normalization neither of them can be used (251). 

IMG_2587When writing fiction, an author strives to make a story feel real and true, the reader must believe. Breaking the suspension of disbelief with questions like, “could that have really happened?” is naturally to be avoided. Unfortunately, non-fiction never ceases to mercilessly move the goalpost of plausible truth. It is difficult to compete with the awful, endless absurdity that is reality.  Mariusz Szczygiel has rather brilliantly shown fiction to be a mere sliver of the horrors of non-fiction. Exhibit A, his brilliant book of creative non-fiction,  Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia. 

2. not succumbing to idleness (so it is best to read, but with one reservation: DO NOT READ RUSSIAN NOVELS, says the slogan thought up by Bata and posted on the wall of the felting unit. Why not? Bata’s reply is on the wall of the rubber unit: RUSSIAN NOVELS KILL YOUR JOIE DE VIVRE) (17-18).

Szczygiel collection of vignettes in dark, despairing humor give a history of Czechoslovakia through the 1900s. It is fascinating, heartbreaking, and puzzling. Whywhywhy? Totalitarianism is formidable in its exercise and precision of terror.  The truth that it is nearly impossible to be heroic under total surveillance is made plain- at best the sound of your soul squashing will be second guessed and dissected by future gawkers of history, further robbing it of meaning and complexity.

Beginning the book with the grand rise of  the Plato/Henry Ford-esque utopian entrepreneur Tomás Bata (legendary Czechoslovakian canvas shoe maker) sets the perfect tone to a tale of societal engineering gone so incomprehensibly wrong.

‘I realized that, in Czechoslovakia, a hospital for the mentally ill was the only normal place, because there everyone could say what they really thought with impunity’ (journalist Eda Kriseova quoted, 167).

The stories of various screen stars, writers, singers and artists coping with life under extremely unfunny and cruel conditions that are shoved down every Czech citizen’s throat with an arrogant “it’s good for you” attitude are just devastating. The people that don’t kill themselves, must distort themselves into, as Szcygiel makes beautiful reference to, cubist versions of themselves: broken up, disjointed, disconnected. And still, goodness knows why, but there are always the unflappable spirits among us:

Though haggard and deprived of a job, he is always happy about something. He says that in prison he sang arias from Wagner’s operas. (“And if I hadn’t ended up in there, it never would have occurred to me to sing.”) (235).

The style of Szczygiel’s prose perfectly accentuates his theme of human fragility coping with the absurdity, cruelty, and bureaucratic black humor that history endlessly doles out. That people even survive societies where intellectuals are imprisoned for being the enemy of the “working man” (what ever that actually means…) while pulp fiction is literally being pulped for the crime of corrupting the intellect of the working man, (say what?) is remarkable. Little that would give pleasure through escapism survived, 70%, Szczygiel reports, of all “trash” crime fiction, horror, thrillers, adventure, science fiction and romance novels were liquidated. All pleasurable fiction was to be replaced with “social-realist trash.” Because, why just live it, eh? Besides why would you want to escape? Are you a traitor? Unsurprisingly,  the reverberations live on. I have difficulty understanding the totalitarianism mind-set, but no difficulty at all fearing it.

“Oh, that’s Procházka’s writing. Take a look, I think he wrote something about The Ear there,” he says.
Yes, he did.
“This story is made up. The things that really happened were far more terrible.” (director Karel Kachyna quoted, 145).

No doubt.

*Title from page 102: Taking note of linguistic details in the Czech Republic can offer clues. Thus, in situations where someone ought to say: “I was afraid to talk about it,” “I hadn’t the courage to ask about it,” or “I had no idea about it,” they say:
“THERE WAS NO TALK about it.”
“NOTHING WAS KNOWN about it.”
“that WASN’T ASKED about.”
I often hear the impersonal form when people have to talk about communism. As if people had no influence on anything and were unwilling to take personal responsibility. As if to remind me that they were just part of a greater whole, which also had some sin of denial on its conscience.

I would only add that, it seems to me, “communism” in this context is a mutable term. It is fundamentalists of any kind for whom freedom of thought and human dignity is actively suppressed, violently or in more subtle forms of propaganda and dogmatic ideologies, that are a plague upon peace and compassion. Haven’t we fought this battle, didn’t others cover this ground? Perhaps, but it seems to me reckless to neglect stating that this proclivity for fundamentalism is very much a part of present current affairs in many places around the world. I can’t just gawk. And as history has shown, simply speaking is a lot.

** Gottland translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

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Der Grufulde and Passionate Freedom

“I don’t see much difference between our life and the life of the carp in the pond there. They have the fiord close beside them, where the great free shoals of fish sweep out and in. But the poor tame house-fishes know nothing of all that; and they can never join in.” – Henrik Ibsen, The Lady From the Sea (40)

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Catfish sculpture by my son Eric Accardi (2014)

This spring I was deeply engaged in making an impassioned argument for the inclusion of literature in philosophical inquiry. One of the texts that I cited in my final paper used Ibsen’s plays- in particular The Lady From the Sea as a source. I had never read that particular play, but I was intrigued on two accounts. One was that the text that was included in the source described an artist that tries to convince a young girl to bind herself to him, with a promise to  “think of him.” He would go off and develop his art, but her thoughts would be a muse  for him. Callously disregarding what effect this might have on her life- emotionally (as well by antiquated ideas of a betrothal’s fetters) to be pledged to a man that had no intention of fulfilling her desires.

Lyngstrand: She too must live for his art. I should think that must be such happiness for a woman.
Boletta: H’m–I’m not so sure–
(56).

The second account was that it was argued that this play did not entail moral reasoning and therefore could not seriously be considered ‘philosophical.’

I promptly added it to my summer reading list.

Ellida: [looks after him a while] Of my own free will, he said! Think of that – he said that I should go with him of my own free will (56).

While writing the paper, as well as subsequently, I have yet to discover any piece of literature that does not involve moral reasoning – in fact, I enlisted all of my friends in the pursuit, and if you can name one, I would be most interested.

But, meanwhile,   The Lady By the Sea…oh Ibsen…what a wonderful humanitarian, feminist, and writer…

Ellida: You call that my own life! Oh no, my own true life slid into a wrong groove when I joined it to yours (76).

The play, while ever so slightly too neat, is an extraordinary anachronism.  Ibsen was writing, through the telescope of a female perspective the true meaning of ‘freedom.’  An internal state that is stronger than any temporal ‘moral’ strain imposed from an ‘authority.’

The Stranger: Do you not feel as I do, that we two belong to each other?
Ellida: Do you mean because of that promise?
The Stranger: Promises bind no one: neither man nor woman. If I hold to you persistently, it is because I cannot do otherwise (87).

The distortions of subjugation is the theme of this play. No life is complete, fulfilled, or worthy of sharing,  without complete freedom. Ellida must be free, as a woman, as a human, to choose her destiny…it seems a problem of the past, but in fact, it is not. Societal ‘norms’ dictate what is valued, who gets to choose, what is ‘moral.’ But individuals don’t stop feeling just because they ought not, or are perniciously told not to. Ellida insists her husband (a marriage, she feels, that was of mercenary convenience) must release her, just so that she can decide for herself if she must leave him for The Stranger. She can’t know while she is bound.

Wangel: [looks anxiously at her] Ellida! I feel it – there is something behind this.
Ellida: All that allures is behind it.
Wangel: All that allures–?
Ellida: That man is like the sea (53).

Det grufulde: ‘the terrible,’ what frightens and fascinates. Ellida cannot understand her own life until it is truly her own life. Ibsen had a genius for understanding the subtle but very real harm experienced by the lack of freedom women experience.

Ellida: You can never prevent my choosing; neither you nor anyone else. You can forbid me to go away with him– to cast my lot with him – if I should choose that. You can forcibly detain me here, against my will. That you can do. But the choice in my innermost soul–my choice of him not you,–in case I should and must choose so,–that you cannot prevent (75).

Ibsen bravely expresses the force of one’s heart. It never yields, it only buries itself far away from anyone’s touch. Once free to choose, a true love will out. Rather than forced to react like a caged animal, Ellida, as her own woman, can give her whole heart, at last, to the husband she’s come to love, because she is finally free to choose that love for her free heart’s content.

*title from footnote on pg. 70.

*The Eleonora Duse series of plays, translated by Mrs. Frances E. Archer.

 

 

 

 

A Pertinacious Azure

The part in each of us that we feel is different from other people is just the part that is rare, the part that makes our special value – and that is the very thing people try to suppress. They go on imitating. And yet they think they love life. 
– André Gide, The Immortalist

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The back flap of The Immortalist frames the story as one which is about a man’s struggle to live within the polite bounds of society: the “d” words out in force – dereliction, debauchery, debasement. And yet I found it much more subtle than that. I can see that in 1902 it would have stretched the faux-morals of the day, but in this day and age the actions of the protagonist Michel would be almost quaint. What makes it a good read, in fact, is that it is subtle. The more fundamental questions that torture are never so clearly defined as society at large would have us believe. We are immersed in our sea of grey reality wondering where the hell the clear blue is. 

‘What! You too Michel! But you didn’t begin by insulting me,’ said he. ‘Leave that nonsense to papers. They seem to be surprised that a man with a certain reputation can still have any virtues at all. They establish distinctions and reserves which I cannot apply to myself for I exist only as a whole; my only claim is to be natural, and the pleasure I feel in action, I take as a sign that I ought to do it.’ (100)

The character Ménalque who makes the above declaration is a man that lives outside of society’s narrow and arbitrary strictures, and is quite comfortable. I kept waiting for Gide to let the “moralizing” begin, but, luckily, he doesn’t quite get there. Yes—there are punishments served up, but they are not real punishments, they are only Michel’s self-flagellating perception.

So it turns out he is anti-bourgeoisie- so what? I am a bit of a failed bourgeoisie myself, (I just don’t care enough for things or social ambition to bother)  so perhaps I am not the right person to be shocked by Michel’s histrionic  search for justification of tangible pleasures of the non-materialistic type. It is an exercise in depression for me to consider the way that societies encourage open lust for, say, the latest Apple electronic device, yet consider the desire for personal happiness (ye gads, not that!) to be a depraved selfishness or at best a cultural weakness.

I have a horror of rest, possessions encourage one to indulge in it, and there’s nothing like the security for making one fall asleep; I like life well enough to want to live it awake. (95) 

Much of the book is wrapped around the corporal experience. Michel suffers from tuberculosis, and the intensity of illness—of being forced into such close appreciation and dependence on one’s body alters his emotional state throughout his convalescence, recovery and subsequent role reversal when he must nurse his angel of a wife Marceline who contracts the dreaded disease as well.

‘I should like an explanation for your silence.’
‘I should like one myself.’ (95)

It’s Michel’s curiosity that propels him. His fear of feeling nothing, of giving into the malaise which society cultivates and needs in order to function smoothly falls away from him by an illness that produces a physical malaise which humiliates whatever put-upon mental inclinations that cling to him. He is fascinated by people that don’t  self-inflict what fills his soul with despair. He wants to live, to feel, if only he could run away from the idea that that is somehow wrong and bad- even though some of his studies are on the ignorant depraved side of things…but that’s life—complex.

Nothing is more discouraging to thought than this persistent azure. Enjoyment here follows so closely upon desire that effort is impossible. Here, in the midst of splendor and death, I feel the presence of happiness too close, the yielding to it too uniform. (157)

In the spirit of gross Colonialism (in this case French) they travel to Africa where Michel really discovers and indulges his senses in the…presumed looser morals of the natives. It’s that myopic idea that just because “your” people aren’t watching and scandalized, no one is. Not to mention ascribing ones own warped ideas onto a people in which there is very little true understanding. Never the less, if we substitute what is more true—that inner country of knowing, where the passions of the body and soul can meet—if we’d let them, then the point is well made. That is the persistent azure—and it endures.

‘One must allow people to be right,’ he used to say when he was insulted, ‘it consoles them for not being anything else.’  (91) 

*The Immortalist translated from French by Dorothy Bussy