What, if we take Babel as an example, is the artist’s obligation to history?
Read these for this week: WED/3/23: Isaac BABEL, from The Essential Fiction (Links to an external site.)s, “Line and Color” (33-34), “My First Advance” (37-43), “The Story of My Dovecot” (64-73), “Awakening” and “In the Basement” (81-94) ; and from Red Cavalry (read entire collection if you can): “Crossing the Zbruch” (165-168) “Pan Apolek” (178-184), “Gedali,” “My First Goose,” “The Rebbe” (189-196) “Dolgushov’s Death” (205-208) “The Life and Adventures of Pavlichenko, Matvei Rodionych,” “The Cemetery at Kozin”, “Prishchepa” (216-225) “Squadron Commander Trunov” (250-255), “Zamoste” (270-274), “After the Battle” (285-283), “The Rebbe’s Son,” and “Argamak” (291-301). (Val Vinokur). Then choose one of the following prompts for the essay: History: Babel lived and wrote during one of the most turbulent periods of the 20th century: the failed Russian Revolution of 1905 and the pogroms that accompanied it, World War I, the Russian Revolution of February 1917, Kerensky’s Provisional Government overturned by Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolshevik coup of October 1917, the Russian Civil War of 1917-1920, the Russo-Polish War of 1920 (the basis for Red Cavalry), Stalin’s genocidal collectivization of Soviet agriculture, the Great Purges of the 1930’s to which he ultimately succumbed in 1940. He felt he had an aesthetic and ethical duty to witness and describe all of this, but it wasn’t exactly what people interested in the Soviet Experiment wanted to hear. Even the great American critic Lionel Trilling, who wrote a seminal introduction to Babel’s stories, confessed that “it was not at all the sort of book that I had wanted the culture of the Revolution to give me. And, as it soon turned out, it was not at all the sort of book that the Revolution wanted to give anyone… It was all too heavily charged with the intensity, irony, and ambiguity from which I wished to escape.” This, of course, begs a key question for us to consider: What, if we take Babel as an example, is the artist’s obligation to history? When you read the Red Cavalry stories, written several years after the events they describe, how do we understand the fact that, in the recovered portion of his 1920 Diary, Babel was far from ambiguous about his comrades: “Must penetrate into the soul of the fighting man, I’m penetrating, it’s all horrible, beasts with principles.” Does he succeed? Babel describes the outside world in an attempt to reach its very essence. No surface is a just a surface here, in my view anyway. But what does it mean to “penetrate” this soul? Identity: Babel was marginal, a Jew from Odessa, not a Russian from Moscow or Petersburg. But he wanted to be the Soviet Tolstoy, to revive Russian literature by “returning” the Gogol of “The Overcoat” back to his native sunny Ukraine and thus to serve as a cheeky “literary messiah from the south.” Yet his seminal act was to enlist with the Cossacks – the natural enemies of Jews in the Russian and Polish borderlands since Khmelnitsky’s uprising in the 17th century slaughtered at least 100,000 Jews – and try to fit in. His diary and his fiction attest to the complexities of his real and literary identities as a Jew “pretending” (none too convincingly) to be a Russian during the 1920 Russo-Polish War. What kinds of ironies, contradictions, scandals, insights do these complexities yield in his fiction? Style: Babel’s prose has been labeled Ornamentalist, Decadent, “Skaz” (or “speakerly”), Modernist, Minimalist, and Realist. Take your pick. But perhaps the most famous and apt description was coined by the Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky: “Babel writes in the same voice of the stars and venereal disease.” In these stories there is a hallucinatory blurring of irreconcilable things, in ways beautiful and gruesome. General Budenny, commander of the Red Cavalry, attacked Babel in the press for an effeminately artsy treatment of an ostensibly heroic war – for “babizm,” the general’s ungainly pun on the author’s name and “baba” or wench. Babel’s mentor Maxim Gorky successfully defended him against such charges by saying Babel captured the “internal if not the external truth of the war.” Do you agree? And what does it mean to do that? Ethics of Aesthetics: Why did Babel employ this kind of style to such ethically and politically charged subjects as pogroms, war, prostitution, etc? Is this aesthetic escapism, slumming, decadence, or is there, in fact, an artistic ethos at work here? For more background please explore these: SELECTED FICTIONS From the Childhood Cycle: “Story of My Dovecot” (1925). Don’t be deceived, as even Lionel Trilling was, and assume that this is a truly autobiographical story. Babel did not live in Odessa proper by the time the 1905 pogrom took place. This classic tale is part of the literary persona Babel carefully constructed for himself, through “autobiographical” stories and interviews. If that is the case, what is this story, written after the Red Cavalry and Odessa Tales that made him famous, trying to accomplish? What sort of “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Boy” is this? Meta-Fictions: “My First Advance” (1922-28) and “Line and Color” (1923). Both stories are set during the immediate pre-Revolutionary period, and both serve as beautiful and condensed pieces about the blurring of art and life. How do they function as meta-fictions? From Red Cavalry: This cycle of short stories, in many ways a novel, was written 1923-25 and published 1926, based on Babel’s experience as a broadsheet journalist and propagandist – under the absurdly Russian, non-Jewish nom de guerre of Kirill Liutov (“Cyril Savage”), also the name of primary narrator in these fictions – with Gen. Budenny’s First Cavalry Army. Although most Cossacks (a privileged, semi-autonomous military caste under the Czars) fought on the side of the anti-Communist Whites, these were Red Cossacks. The field of battle also contained civilians, disproportionately Jews, who were slaughtered and pillaged by Poles and Cossacks alike. As you read the following stories, consider what that means for the narrator, a Jewish intellectual poorly concealed under a Russian name, ostensibly a representative of enlightened Communism to the backward masses, riding into battle with an unloaded gun because he is more afraid of killing than of being killed, longing desperately to be accepted by his flashy Cossack comrades, repelled and drawn to them and to the Polish Jews he encounters, and struck by the ancient and, to him, foreign Roman Catholic heritage of the newly independent Polish Republic that the new Soviet state (unsuccessfully) sought to crush.