Tag Archives: totalitarianism

Philistines From the Plush Parlors

Any legend immune to rational arguments can be supposed to rest upon powerful collective desires.
Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A psychological history of the German film (117).

IMG_5602A couple of weeks ago some of my children and I went to see Star Wars. I’ll state right up front, unequivocally—I love Star Wars. Okay, maybe a little equivocation—I am only speaking of the first three, and mostly the first two that were made. Nevertheless—we were excited. The film was fine, I do not regret the price of admission (which my lovely daughter’s boyfriend paid for come to think of it, although I bought the exorbitantly priced popcorn and what not) and it went a long way to make up for the last three monstrous iterations. But never mind all that. The discomfiting thing I wish to discuss is the previews that we were subjected to.

What films reflect are not so much explicit credos as psychological dispositions—those deep layers of collective mentality which extend more or less below the dimension of consciousness (6).

There were of course many previews. The remarkable thing to me was not that they were all hyped-up action flicks—I suppose that is to be expected when one goes to see an action film—but it was the sheer redundancy of the films. We watched the first one which was based on a comic book, something to do with a superhero “civil war.” Then the next film was previewed—instead of DC Comics, this one was Marvel Comics about a superhero “civil war.” I look around in dismay—we literally just saw this preview, I hissed to my daughter— It’s the same film, right? Am I right? The next six previews were exactly the same, saving the scenery—one in ancient Greece, another Egypt, et cetera, ad nauseum. What the hell?

And permeating both the stories and the visuals, the “unseen dynamics of human relations” are more or less characteristics of the inner life of the nation from which the films emerge (7).

I began to be convinced that these films must surely suggest something about the American psyche. A deep fear, a hope for a single vigilante-like hero to save a world beset by evil. By a very interesting coincidence the next day a book that I had requested from ILL (inter-library loan) came. It had been recommended to me by a fellow blogger Howard JohnsonFrom Caligari to Hitler examines just this question in pre- and interwar Germany. And the comparisons are chilling.

Significantly, many observant Germans refused until the last moment to take Hitler seriously, and even after his rise to power considered the new regime a transitory adventure.[…] Their surrender to the Nazis was based on emotional fixations rather than on any facing of the facts (10, 11).

In the book, Kracauer takes the reader through a history of the German film which, he argues, shows the struggle and latent anxieties of the German people at that time. Film, in particular, because of its collaborative nature, has the ability to inadvertently expose the pulse of the culture. No single person’s pathology emerges, rather there is a sort of leveling out of the zeitgeist. The major difference between our time and the time Kracauer writes of is the complete excess of entertainment we now face. One can (and believe me, I normally do) easily avoid “popular” movies and TV, while still enjoying myriad film productions. This may diffuse our ability to gain insight into our particular current psyche. But— I am very confused about Donald Trump’s popularity…and I think it is worth a few moment’s thought to take him more seriously, or probe the unfathomable-ness, than any semi-intelligent person might otherwise be inclined.

All said, I am not sure whether or not I should be happy that what I sensed on the screen was as potentially ominous as I perceived, or, seriously depressed that it might in fact be so.

*title from p. 272 “The blare of military bugles sounded unremittingly, and the philistines from the plush parlors felt very elated.”

** Photo of my daughter and her Donald Trump creation made for our dear friends’ Guy Fawkes party this past fall.

 

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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