Monday, February 12, 2018

The Good Life and Politics

Saturday was Boris Pasternak's birthday, and by sheer coincidence I finished re-reading Doctor Zhivago on Friday night.  I had undertaken it because I am  in a Russian kind of mood as the result of reading War and Peace for the first time since 1973.  As well, concerts I have been to or listened to on the BBC kept immersing me in the most amazing Russian music--particularly Shostakovich and Prokofiev, both of whom had an uneasy relationship with communist governments. 

I did not expect to find creative writing lessons for me in Doctor Zhivago, but they were there.  Pasternak's characters--particular Zhivago ("zhiva" means life in Russian) and Lara--are to some degree embodiments of Russia and the strife she is undergoing from pre-revolutionary days until after the Second World War.  I am hoping that Soul Weather will be a "condition of Canada" novel, one whose characters undergo the stresses and strains of Canada in 2011 and 2012.  That is not inconceivable to me.  But how to position characters in Russia over a period of extreme turmoil?  How to write a "condition of Russia" novel set among such circumstances?  The answer, intriguingly is to create weather and landscapes or cityscapes that are larger than life, so that when a larger-than-life character walks on to declaim his lines and live his life, the character doesn't seem too big for the world.

At the same time, I could clearly see that one of Pasternak's purposes is to consider how political and historical circumstances make it impossible to live "the good life."  Zhivago is both doctor (an amazingly good diagnostician) and poet.  He believes in the revolution, which he learns about when he is at the Russian front during World War I:  having lost his father, who commits suicide because he loses the family fortune, as well as his mother; having grown up as a penniless orphan in the houses of other people; working in hospital wards, Zhivago well knows that drastic and inhumane inequality permeates Russian society.  But two things happen after the war ends.  First, living conditions are appalling.  Zhivago must sometimes go out and quietly take apart someone's wooden fence in order to keep his family warm.  Indeed, there is a brisk black market in destroyed fences and unground grain.  Secondly, those who brought the revolution about have splintered into (at least) three groups:  The Whites, The Reds, and the Partisans.  Within the territory controlled by each of these groups, it is very dangerous not to understand and accept the persnickety and in some ways arbitrary party line, elements of which are sometimes absurd.  Every group knows exactly what principles should obtain in a new Russian order, and they are not reluctant to kill those who do not agree.  After Zhivago has been kidnapped by the Partisans, escapes, and returns to Yuriatin to live with Lara, the people at the hospital are very grateful for his intuitive diagnostic skills.  At the same time, appealing to "intuition" is somehow ideologically forbidden by the party in control:  they love him for the same reason they would put him in prison or shoot him.

But let me back up for a minute.  In order to escape some of this insanity, Zhivago, his wife Antonia, their son, and Antonia's father, move to the old family estate in the Urals.  If you've seen the film David Lean made of this remarkable novel, you will doubtless remember Omar Sharif in fingerless gloves writing poetry in front of a frosty window at a desk lit only by a candle.  Here they manage--briefly--the good life.  To Yurii Zhivago, the physical labour is a tonic; it feels real after the labyrinth of political correctness he needed to navigate in Moscow.  Living alongside of nature, repairing an old building and doing your own laundry and eating your own potatoes seems authentic in a way that living in Moscow did not.  The fact that this life allows Zhivago to read and write and think during the long winter emphasizes how honest and fulfilling it is--not unlike Thoreau's time in his cabin.

What forces conspire to wrench the good life away from Zhivago and his family?  First, the doctor who is taking care of anyone fighting for "The Forest Brotherhood" (a splinter off the Partisans) dies, so the group kidnaps Zhivago one night as he is coming back to Varykino from Yuriatin.  Then circumstances become so difficult at Varykino without Yurii that his wife, two children, and her father return to Moscow, where they find themselves on the wrong side of someone's arbitrary ideologies, and they are exiled to Paris.  Yurii will never see them again.  After escaping from the Brotherhood, Yurii, not knowing where his family is, returns to Yuriatin with the plan of going from there out to Varykino, only to learn from Lara that his family has fled.  Then it becomes obvious that both Yurii and Lara hold unacceptable beliefs and are soon to be arrested and "re-educated" or shot, so they too leave Yuriatin for a brief and blooming time at Varykino before Komarovsky comes to "rescue" them both and take them by train to someplace safe.  Yurii lies to Lara so that she leaves with Komarovsky while Yurii remains in Varykino for a while before literally walking back to Moscow.

If you were to see Yurii on your doorstep in Moscow, you would quickly assume that he is an importunate street person whom you must get rid of as quickly as possible.  His life from that time until he dies of a heart attack is fractured and marginal, largely because he has PTSD.  (In a harrowing scene, Reds who have captured a member of the Forest Brotherhood cut off one of his legs and one of his arms, tie them to his back, and force him to crawl back to the Brotherhood's camp to warn them of Red displeasure.  This is only the most harrowing scene from Zhivago's time with the Brotherhood.  He sees plenty of cruelty there.)  Without the hope of work to do and someone to love, he simply has little energy to put into living.  And besides, 'living off the grid' leaves him with more freedom he would have in a steady job.  

Despite the fact that his name means "life," his life and his peace have been made impossible by these groups vying to parse socialism in the truest and most accurate way, without any compassion for anyone who does not share their assumptions. I have long believed that one of the founts of evil is individuals and groups who are certain they have the only correct beliefs and that everyone else is wrong if not immoral and vile.  Certainly that is borne out in Pasternak's novel.

We see a similar view of ideological destruction of the good life in Anthony Doerr's remarkable All the Light We Cannot See, particularly in the life of the orphaned young Werner Pfennig, who is destined on the eve of World War II to go down into the coal mines where his father died as soon as he reaches fifteen.  In some ways, he is rescued by a glimpse of the good life, when he is taken to the house of one of the mine officials to see if he can fix a radio.  There he sees carpets, piles of cakes (where rationing is the order of the day where he lives with other orphans), comfort he has never imagined existed.  He can indeed fix the radio, and the official is not likely to waste a gift that could be put to use by the Nazi government.  So Werner is sent off to a special school where his best friend is a lovely upper-middle-class boy named Frederick whose greatest joy is birds.  

Werner's gift is indeed valued and rewarded:  being recognized for his expertise is immensely rewarding, and he feels--not powerful, exactly, but perhaps not powerless for the first time in his life.  Frederick, on the other hand, rebels against some of the brutality that characterizes life in the National Political Institute of Education # 6 at Schulpforta.  While Werner attempts to protect Frederick by polishing his shoes and making his bed, overtly standing up for him is too dangerous.  Here is one of the ways the good life is made impossible:  under a triple threat of going down into the mines, being sent to the front or being badly beaten by his schoolmates, Werner cannot do what he thinks is right.  The good life is not luxury or comfort, Doerr suggests.  It is believing that your life is your own--something Frederick tells Werner that he wrongly continues to imagine.  Werner's time in the army with transceivers he has invented to locate enemy broadcasters merely provides variations on this theme.

For both Pasternak and Doerr, one of the foundations of the good life is at least freedom from political or social forces that seek to control the way you think and that invent brutal and clever ways of reinforcing their control over you.  Frederick is finally beaten so badly after his refusal to conform that this bright young man spends the rest of his days drawing spirals.  Brain damage has reduced him to a two-year-old who no longer registers the birds that gave him such joy.  Any time Werner thinks about rebelling against the ideology and brutality of the school, Frederick stands as a visceral and personal warning.

At the best, however, one has freedom to discover, observe, reflect, think about what one loves and what one hates and why, as one defines the good life for oneself.  The good life is not offered by ideology or politics--which may certainly contribute some values.  An intrinsic part of the good life, both Doerr and Pasternak suggest, is the freedom to reflect independently on what one values.  One of the things that Canadians--or at least white middle-class (and male) Canadians--need to realize is that we have an almost ideal society for defining for ourselves and pursuing the good life.  We have no excuses if we define the good life unwisely or unproductively.  White Canadians in turn need to be aware of the many ways in which this process has been complicated for the Indigenous community, the LGBTQ community, and for the frightened refugees who come to us for safety after years of lacking such freedoms.

Your idea of the good life is molded from your life and experience:  from the things you love, from what delights you, from what seems to you unfair or unjust, from your family and from relationships that widen your frame of reference, from your ideals gleaned from your life experience, from what you learn to imagine about other people's experiences.  Rigid ideology, both Pasternak and Doerr suggest, only gets in the way.

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