Books: From the Land of Shadows |
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From the Land of Shadows

First published by Jonathan Cape as a hardback in 1982, From the Land of Shadows came out as a paperback from Picador a year later. (For the next three volumes of my essays, this pattern prevailed: the Cape hardback one year, the Picador paperback the next.) I remain fond of the title, although strictly it is a mistranslation. The Russian word would have been more accurately rendered as “shades”. That, however, would have made the book sound like a report from the country where Steve McQueen was king.

for Diana Phipps

Alle Krystallisationen sind ein realisiertes Kaleidoskop

Author's Note

Thanks are due to the editors of the various periodicals in which these essays first appeared; and also to Anthony Thwaite, editor of Larkin at Sixty (Faber, 1982).


The land of shadows is where we should be proud to live. In August 1946 Zhdanov launched an official attack on certain reactionary tendencies in the arts, with particular attention to the poetry of Anna Akhmatova. Called The Report of Comrade Zhdanov on the Journals ‘Zvezda’ and ‘Leningrad’, his main speech on the subject is one of the dirtiest pieces of writing I have ever read. Long before finishing it you would be ready to sluice yourself down with used washing-up water just to get relatively clean. Pornography might feel dirty but most of it washes off the mind fairly easily. Political murder in written form has a dirtiness that you can’t free yourself from merely by taking thought. From Zhdanov’s smutty invective you get a feeling directly connected with what he would have liked to do to his victims once he got them alone. He was instinctively and rightly certain that the most degrading way to torment the poets was to bring them down to his level. Reading his smug prose is like being vouchsafed a glimpse into the mind of an obscene phone-caller, except that the range of ambition encompasses not merely the disturbance of of your domestic innocence but includes starvation, torture, bitter cold and a broken back.

Yet for all the power that Zhdanov represented, he could not entirely destroy the deliberate poetry of talented people, and at least once he created accidental poetry himself. He found Akhmatova and the others guilty of sharing a Bohemian background. Vociferously echoing Gorky, he loathed that inventive, forward-looking, past-respecting, liberal-minded pre-revolutionary culture in which they had their roots and for which he correctly suspected they longed in their troubled sleep. An almost touchingly spiteful example of his censorious type, the type of the artist-manqué cultural commissar, he especially hated the very idea of Akhmatova in Paris. The cosmopolitan heritage of these backsliders he called their ‘world of shadows’. (I have changed ‘world’ to ‘land’ in order to preserve the idea of its being a separate country.) The land of shadows was evidently a place where art was presumptious enough to behave as if it had its own laws.

For other beginners in Russian, incidentally, the study of official Soviet speeches can be confidently recommended, since the restricted vocabulary and constant repetitions make them even easier to cope with than The Three Bears, the Russian version of which is written by Tolstoy and thus features stylistic subtleties of a kind rigorously avoided by Central Committee spokesmen. The day I puzzled Zhdanov’s unintentionally beautiful idea out of the original language and noted it down, I already knew that it was a special jewel. Zhdanov had set his precious stone in a knuckleduster. Time having chipped it loose, it was now free to be set in a ring, even if the ring had to be tinsel. By accomplishing such a transference, however maladroitly, I could symbolise what I regarded myself as good for in the role of literary critic. It might not be much but nor was it quite nothing. Even in the most conceited moments of youth, the average writer knows himself powerless to affect history as it happens. Whether through disappointment or a growing sense of realism, that conviction tends to become deeper with the years. But so does the conviction that truth is objective after all and that in helping to tell it on even the most elementary levels resides an absolute merit. Max Weber defined the state as that organisation controlling a monopoly of legalised violence. When totalitarian mentalities are in charge there is a lot that a monopoly of legalised violence can do to rewrite the past, dictate the present and shape the immediate future. But in some areas violence is without the complete power it would like to have and language is one of them. Even the tyrant may inadvertently coin a phrase that can be used against him. He can’t always calculate its future effect. (It should be said, however, that not every phrase intended as abuse can be redeemed as an unintentional felicity. In China at the time of writing, those concerned with intellectual matters are known officially as the Stinking Ninth. Try making a resonant title out of that.)

But what would depress the tyrant if he really knew himself should inspire the literary critic. The literary critic can’t wholly calculate his future effect either, but in his case the uncertainty should be a source of courage. By saying what is so he might, for all he knows, help someone now to change the future, or someone in the future to rediscover the past. That he can never be quite certain he can’t do these things should give him hope, if hope is what he needs. Ideally, of course, he should be capable of seeing that the truth is worth telling for its own sake, but most of us have luckily never lived in circumstances where that fact is made self-evident by the relentless virulence dedicated to calling it a lie.

So the title of this book means not quite what it at first might seem to mean. The land of shadows is the country we inhabit at those times when we admit the existence of a mental life independent of material determination. In the land of shadows there are only local patches, instead of a universal incidence, of that remorseless, enervating white light in which the Zhdanovs would prefer all mental life to take place, so that it could be checked up on in all its aspects. The West’s best chance to endure is in staying true to its liberal heritage, and so far it still looks resigned, if not resolved, to doing that. If the West is ever in doubt as to what that liberal heritage actually consists of, all it has to do is take a long look at the Soviet Union, and ask itself how the alleged giant, which undoubtedly possesses a strapping pair of hairy thighs, ever came to have such a pin head. Teleological conclusions are bad ones to reach about history but there is some point to the contention that the totalitarian states came into being specifically to remind us that there is such a thing as liberty after all.

The contention that there is no such thing as objective truth is, or ought to be, self-refuting. (If there were no such thing as objective truth, the contention that there is no such thing as objective truth could not be objectively true.) But for some reason an obvious illogicality is not always enough to disprove a point. What’s needed is a huge, unarguable, pitifully wasteful historical example. The Soviet Union should be enough to provide it. For more than sixty years the Soviet government has striven to extirpate the very notion of any reality independent of ideological precept. By now everyone who sincerely wants to has drawn the moral. You don’t have to teach yourself the Russian language in order to appreciate the heroism of those who dared to say what was so even as the boot was coming down across their throats. The lesson of political tragedy is there for the learning, even if you can’t read it in the Cyrillic alphabet. But what even the most elementary knowledge of the Russian language helps you towards realising, quite possibly against your will, is the magnitude of the cultural tragedy.

My own Russian studies, such as they are, I began when in 1975 I could no longer bear not to know something about how Pushkin actually sounded. I was ready for his grandeur when I got to him. Even Tolstoy’s perspicuity did not come as a shock, since if you have read War and Peace and Anna Karenina in various English and French versions you are bound to have some idea of the transparency his translators, each hampered differently by an individual style, are trying to emulate. Chekhov’s stories were a revelation, but they were a familiar revelation: already knowing him to be a genius helped prepare you for his being a genius on such a scale. The true shock came from the sheer richness of the immediate pre-revolutionary culture.

In those years between 1898 and 1917, Russia was not only industrialising itself at a rate which no five-year plan has since been able to equal, it was experiencing a cultural efflorescence for which the whole of the astonishingly vital nineteenth century would have looked like the mere preparation, and which would have needed the whole world in order to unfold its unprecedented wealth of blooms. We think we know something about this putative vigour from the history in exile of the ballets russes. We listen to Stravinsky and think we can guess at what Diaghilev stood for. But when you actually look into Diaghilev’s magazine Mir Iskustua (The World of Art) you start getting some idea of what that aspect of Russian culture was like when it was still in Russia. You start getting some idea of why the very name of Petersburg should retain, even today, such emblematic importance for the Russian intelligentsia. Bely’s symbolist novel Petersburg, like Joyce’s Ulysses, presented a home city as a world capital, but what in Joyce had an element of defiant caprice was in Bely virtually a natural impulse, since Petersburg in those years must have felt like the actual, not just the metaphorical, centre of the world.

Diaghilev’s energy can be interpreted along Marxist lines as a bourgeois impulse emerging belatedly from an ossified feudalist structure. The young poets who datelined their slim volumes ‘Petropolis’ can be regarded as revolutionary harbingers if you are prepared to stretch a point. But no amount of social analysis can reduce that total artistic upheaval to a formula. It took repression, physical extermination and a comprehensive rewriting of history to do that. So thoroughly has the job been done that even the most sceptical Westerner is still inclined to swallow the idea of a Soviet cultural exfoliation in the 1920s. Impressed by Malevitch, the Tatlin tower, Mayakovsky’s poems, Eisenstein’s films, Dzhiga-Vertov’s newsreels and the heady prospect of agitprop trains steaming with the good news towards the cultural front, they blame the hardening bureaucracy for cracking down on a new Renaissance. But for all its energy and achievement, the Soviet post-revolutionary decade was already a stunted parody of what might have been. Not what might have been — what must have been.

Almost the entire mental life of a whole great nation was destroyed. Not even the famous names who lived on into the new era and were eventually snuffed out are typical of their kind. The typical poet was Gumilev, not Mandelstam. Mandelstam survived as far as the 1930s, where he at least had the dubious privilege of being done to death by known philistines and obscurantists. Gumilev was killed off straight away, in the era when the arts were supposedly being set free from their long bondage. We should be less impressed by the way Mayakovsky stood on the throat of his own song than by how Gumilev never really got a chance to open his mouth at all. Hope, without which we can’t function, tells us that a civilisation is a hard thing to kill. But realism, without which hope is mere frivolity, should tell us that there is indeed such a thing as cultural extinction. The idea that the repressive conditions of the Soviet Union make poetry mean more to its citizens is essentially and insultingly frivolous. If poetry means more in the Soviet Union, it means more in the same way that air means more to a choking man. It is a peculiar kind of arrogance to suppose that Akhmatova, for instance, wrote her poem Requiem in order to reconcile us with history. The voice in Requiem (which has never been published in the Soviet Union, and of whose existence not even the most subversive of the young poets would dare make an open acknowledgment) is that of a traumatised child speaking the wreckage of a nursery rhyme. ‘This woman is sick,/This woman is alone./Husband dead, son in gaol,/Pray for me.’ When you have enough Russian to absorb that wounded, sobbing rhythm, you have already arrived at the heart of the great, irreparable disaster of modern history. It is a disaster not just of destruction but of loss. What has been wiped out would be frightening enough but is made more frightening by what has not happened at all. The reader walks out of a garden into a desert. Germany has never really recovered as a culture from the destruction of its Jews, but at least the generation now coming of age is able to contemplate the event in its fullness. The awful thing is all over bar the weeping. With the help of so imaginatively realistic a book as Golo Mann’s Deutsche Geschichte des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts a young German can establish the separation of the past and present and so connect them. But for the young citizen of the Soviet Union there is small chance of doing any such thing. For him or her, history is more easily ignored than come to terms with. The catastrophe goes on. That the regime should come to terms with its own past is beyond expectation, but for even the ordinary citizen to face the facts must entail coping with an intensity of deprivation that only the obsessive or the very brave could possibly support.

But with all that against it, the truth, as Nadezhda Mandelstam always said it would, goes on being reborn. Sometimes it is not easily recognised by those of us with incurably high expectations of life. In my essays on Zinoviev, for instance, I could see the originality of the social analysis underlying his comic invention but underestimated his intellectual consistency. The reader will see how relieved I was, when noticing Sans illusions (the French translation of Byez illuzii, not yet done into English at the time of writing), to find an apparent amelioration of the scepticism towards dissidence evident in The Yawning Heights and The Radiant Future. Actually Zinoviev’s attitude towards dissidence is perfectly consistent and not to be taken as a source of comfort, although his views on the subject are expounded with the necessary thoroughness only in such later books as Mi i zapad (We and the West) and Kommunizm kak realnost (Communism as Reality), which will be some time reaching general circulation amongst the English-speaking reading public. Zinoviev can be accused of determinism but he has his answers ready ahead of time. If anybody is serious on the subject of the Soviet Union, Zinoviev is. He is perhaps even more serious than Solzhenitsyn, who wants the Soviet Union discredited, and Sakharov, who still so generously thinks, after having his life made misery by official persecution of the most disgusting brand, that technological necessity might bring liberal reforms. Zinoviev claims to be expounding an objective sociological view by which the Soviet Union is not an aberration but the natural and complete expression of the collectivist impulse in mankind. He thinks that even if the Soviet Union collapses it will collapse outwards. He argues as powerfully as Pareto. Reading him without a twinge of fear takes strong nerves. But at least you will know that you are reading someone fully engaged with his subject.

I was once told by a reviewer in whose radical politics I was not interested that I was not interested in politics. Similarly people are reluctant to call you serious if you do not take them seriously. I don’t mind being called frivolous by the solemn: in fact it is a reputation I court. But I hope that the truly serious reader will be able to detect, in even the least grave of the following essays, a certain disinclination to make cheap jokes, or at any rate a determination to make only expensive ones if I can. I don’t regard myself as a humorist and am slow to take it as a compliment when given the name. Not just by ambition, but by a sense of responsibility to those who have suffered innocently in the political catastrophes of the twentieth century, I consider myself debarred from the attitude of irreverence as it is commonly defined. T. S. Eliot defined humour as the weapon with which intelligence defends itself. What I believe is that those people capable of seeing the world as it is speak a common language of which the play of wit forms a part. The jokes of the obtuse are not worth hearing, but the laughter of the intelligent and sensitive is well worth trying to elicit. It comes when you put what they think into brief words without belittling what they see.

During my first years in London in the early 1960s I read through the transcripts of the Nuremberg trials and began at last, after a decade of horrified vagueness on the topic, to get some precise idea of the times we had all been living in. Until the advent in English translation of Solzhenitsyn, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Marchenko, Eugenia Ginzburg and all the others, the equivalent information on the Soviet Union was less readily available in the one spot, but there was no real excuse for not being aware of the truth, just as, at the present time, there is no real excuse for not being aware of the truth about Mao’s China, even though the story is so short of detail that Shirley MacLaine’s little cries of ecstasy at the alleged happiness of the Chinese under the Cultural Revolution can still, in retrospect, touch the heart more than they turn the stomach. So at the beginning of my career as a literary journalist I was already aware of the difference between politics in the totalitarian nations and politics as they are generally understood in conditions of freedom. Such an awareness is my politics. A specialist in political thought might find my attitude hopelessly simplistic. A young radical, should he or she happen to pick up this book, would no doubt be suitably disgusted at the thoroughness with which I have embraced reaction. But really it is not Pangloss speaking in these essays, although it might well be Candide. There is no sense in which I believe that the sweet calm of Paradise obtains in all the lands of the West. I am just suitably grateful for the fact that the democracies hold together, despite the strength of the forces operating to pull them to pieces. In this book the reader will find several Western prophets taken with what might appear to be undue levity, but there is such a thing as a sense of proportion and it is a kind of conceit to flout it. Solzhenitsyn has earned the right to fulminate unreasonably against what he conceives to be the West’s lack of purpose. Westerners should start off by being thankful for waking up at liberty each morning.

Like most of my contemporaries I spent a good number of my young years being scared witless by the foreign policy of the United States, which seemed specifically designed to yield the moral advantage to the Eastern powers. By working on a global scale to help dictatorial regimes wipe out any democratic element brave enough to raise its head, the United States pursued a Realpolitik which didn’t even have the merit of being real, since to give up the moral advantage almost invariably meant handing over the political advantage as well, as the communists recruited the non-aligned populace and expanded into the central vacuum. The Carter Administration, which it is fashionable at the moment to laugh at, did something to reverse this policy and is thus likely to gain credit in the long view, especially now that President Reagan seems as determined to misunderstand the world he is living in as all his predecessors put together. There are, of course there are, changes one would like to see made in the Western democracies. But I am of the wrong generation, and have the wrong education, to believe in my heart that they should be radical changes. It is not just that I fear what havoc might be wrought by those I see around me if traditional restraints were to be removed. I fear what havoc might be wrought by myself. Once in conversation I was giving public thanks that I had never had my moral fibre tested as a prisoner in a concentration camp. Someone present reminded me, with a casual acerbity never to be forgotten, that I was being too confident: I might not have been a prisoner, I might have been a guard. Most of us don’t have to examine our own characters for long before discovering such weaknesses as envy, bad faith or at least a certain thoughtlessness for the welfare of others. In conditions of freedom a shared sense of community keeps us up to the mark or near it, but in the forcing-house of a totalitarian state such weakness would become our character. Here in the West, in the tense but fortunate here and now, I can give a contemporary a bad notice without his imagining that he will be taken away in a plain van next morning, and he can do the same for me. To read a bad notice of your work and feel stung is one thing, but to read a bad notice of your work and know yourself doomed is quite another. As this world goes, the elementary conditions of civilised debate should be regarded as abnormal rather than otherwise, and not be voluntarily given up for any reason, however convincing it might happen to sound.

The ideological apparatus of a totalitarian state is run by people not entirely different from ourselves. We would be insulting ourselves unduly to think that we could ever have been Zhdanov, but most of us have had weak moments in which the conduct of someone like Ehrenberg becomes chasteningly understandable, and even the most independent of us should take warning from the behaviour of such a considerable mind as, say, Lukács, who sang hosannahs for the greatness of Stalinist literature at the very time when the real writers were having their knuckles crushed. Zhdanov, who was all spite, merely wrote the vile junk of which he was capable. Lukács, a man of immense culture, committed blasphemy. A wilderness was being created and he called it peace. Leszek Kolakowski, in the third volume of his great book Main Currents of Marxism, calls Lukács the most striking modern case of the betrayal of reason by those whose profession is to defend it. Lukács probably deserves the title but he had a lot of competition, and if our circumstances changed tomorrow he would undoubtedly have more competition still. How many among us could guarantee to answer for ourselves beyond the first year? Beyond the first month, week, day? Thank heaven for large mercies.

The first duty of the intellect is to extend, or if it cannot extend at least protect, the area of common reason. As a political force the intellect habitually fails to realise its limitations. Wanting intellect to limit itself does not necessarily make you an anti-intellectual. Indeed it is often the sign of an intellectual who knows his business. The same applies to academicism, which like intellect tends to get above itself because of its own impulse towards order. Wanting the academy to stay sane does not necessarily make you anti-academic. Even when I cockily styled myself a metropolitan critic it never occurred to me that metropolitan criticism would last long or mean much without a solid academic effort backing it up. But I meant a solid academic effort, not vaporous posturings adopted by baby dons desperate to mark out for themselves an area of legerdemain which might be mistaken for a literary personality. It is an unfortunate fact that the academic student of literature must be either properly humble or else very intelligent indeed. In the rare case of academic genius he will be both, and you will get such scholars as Ernst Robert Curtius, Menendez Pidal, Natolino Sapegno, Gianfranco Contini, George Saintsbury and W. P. Ker. But a student can usefully be one without being the other. A. E. Housman was by no means humble but such was his intelligence that his classical papers remain a vital repository of critical acumen even to a reader unqualified in that field. Conversely it is possible to have an intelligence of the second or third rank and still do essential work: all it takes is a suitably modest appraisal of one’s own abilities. The danger — the very present and steadily growing danger — comes from those ambitious mediocrities who look for a marketable gadget and all too often find it, mainly because the demand continues to outpace the supply, so that if you have a quirk to peddle there will always be an audience to hear it. But there are worse aberrations for a society to suffer from than the average academic fad, and there is even something to be said for the dullards marking themselves out by all suddenly adopting the catch-phrases of, say, structuralism — at least you can hear them coming and take avoiding action. The voice of real life will usually cut through the hubbub, not for its being loud, but for the way it sounds reasonable.

The present writer doesn’t aspire to anything more than that, and doesn’t think that anything more can legitimately be aspired to. In a glossy magazine one of my books of television criticism was accused of frivolity because it had nothing more to offer than common sense. I stood condemned because of my propensity for finding sententious expressions for what everybody knew already. Guilty, I hope. Common sense gets harder to have as the field of study becomes more complex, but it still remains common, even if common only to the qualified few. Most of us show enough common sense to run for a bus without falling under the wheels. Some of us show common sense about our trades and professions. A few of us show common sense about abstract speculation. Einstein showed common sense about the stars. The necessary conceit of the essayist must be that in writing down what is obvious to him he is not wasting his reader’s time. The value of what he does will depend on the quality of his perception, not on the length of his manuscript. Too many dull books about literature would have been tolerable long essays; too many dull long essays would have been reasonably interesting short ones; too many short essays should have been letters to the editor. If the essayist has a literary personality his essays will add up to something all of a piece. If he has not, he may write fancily titled books until doomsday and do no good. Most of the criticism that matters at all has been written in essay form. This fact is no great mystery: what there is to say about literature is very important, but there just isn’t all that much of it. Literature says most things itself, when it is allowed to. In the land of shadows it is still allowed to, and we should bless our luck for being alive to listen.