March 9, 2007

No Documents, No Person

I fell down a rabbit hole called "The Master and Margarita" by Mikhail Bulgakov.
(Skeleton key: The foreigner is the devil himself conjured unwittingly by publisher Berlioz who has commisioned an antirelgious poem, painting the life of Jesus Christ in "dark colors". Solovki, I assume is a gulag.)

I'm using this site to tie a rope around my waist as I go spelunking. Here's a sample:

De power of words

In the Soviet Union the word was extremely important. Up to the ultimate absurdity. When something was named, it existed, when something was concealed, it did not exist. Professor Efim Etkind (1918-1999) of the Paris Sorbonne, who had to leave the Soviet Union in 1974 under pressure of the KGB, described it as follows in an article entitled "Soviet Taboos": ..."What we don't recognize officially is a shadow, a ghost, non existing. What we don't give a name loses reality". Or, as the Master said: ..." - "No documents, no person".

But the opposite is also true. When certain words or notions - or, extended, opinions too - are repeated often enough, they become reality. The Soviet era was characterized by this kind of indoctrination. The denial of the reality which was created this way could be considered as subversive. Yes, even forgetting could be punished. The Kirghiz writer Chingiz Aitmatov, now ambassador of his country to the NATO, the European Union and Belgium, discribes in his book "The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years", how a man was arrested because he had forgotten to mention to an Englishman that World War II could never have been won without Stalin's genius. And in his novella "An Incident at Krechetovka Station " Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn discribes an incident he observed in one of the many rangeerstations during World War II. The Soviet citizen Tveritinov is arrested obecause he doesn't know Stalingrad.

Saying something - not saying something. It could define the correctness of your political opinion. The Lithuanian egineer and writer Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004) went one step further: "Even your gestures, the intonation of your voice, or your preference for a tie could, with the use of the right words, be interpreted as an expression of your political disposition - good or bad, it depends..."

With the using of words to create or interprete a reality - or not using words to deny a reality, Bulgakov plays constantly in his novel, sometimes in a subtile way, sometimes explicitely. One of the nicest exalmples is probably this reaction of Ivan in his dialogue with the doctor:

- Do you know Berlioz?' Ivan asked significantly.
- The... composer?'
Ivan got upset.
-What composer? Ah, yes... Ah, no. The composer has the same name as
Misha Berlioz.

So the Soviet official Misha Berlioz has not the same name as the French composer. No, the composer has the same name as Misha. It's just a question of respecting the correct order...

Defeat the ennemy with his own weapons

The masking, the constant interchanging of illusion and reality, and the naming or conceiling of concepts are instruments Bulgakov uses skilfully and plentifully to create fantastic and grotesk effects. In the real life of his time and place these instruments were generated by a hierarchical shift between language and reality by the authorities. What was true or false in the language of the Soviet authorities ruled over what was true or false in reality. So Bulgakov did fight the enemy with his own weapons Yet with more linguistic feeling, more sense of perspective, more sense of beauty, less arbitrariness and more respect for the reader or the listener.

Sounds familiar to me.

Posted by Dennis at March 9, 2007 4:20 AM

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