“HR Managers of the Human Soul”
by Justin E. H. Smith
In a speech to the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers in Moscow in 1934, Central Committee secretary Andreï Zhdanov reminded those assembled of Comrade Stalin’s recent declaration that, in the Soviet Union, writers are now “the engineers of the human soul”.
What obligations does this appellation entail? Most importantly, Zhdanov says, reality must be depicted “neither ‘scholastically’ nor lifelessly, nor simply as ‘objective reality’, but rather as reality in its revolutionary development. The truthfulness and historical exactitude of the artistic image must be linked with the task of ideological transformation, of the education of the working people in the spirit of socialism. This method in fiction and literary criticism is what we call the method of socialist realism.”
Literature in this vein “is a fundamentally optimistic literature, since it is the literature of the rising proletarian class, today the only progressive and advanced class. Our Soviet literature is strong because it serves a new cause — the cause of socialist construction.” Literature from the bourgeois imperialist nations, by contrast —excluding that small number of Western authors who had thrown in their lot with the global proletariat, a handful of whom were in attendance at the All-Union Congress— is, Zhdanov thinks, “a riot of mysticism, religious mania and pornography… characteristic of the decline and decay of bourgeois culture. The ‘celebrities’ of that bourgeois literature which has sold its pen to capital are today thieves, detectives, prostitutes, pimps and gangsters.”
If you believe, as many in Russia still did in 1934, that literature is fundamentally a Rabelaisian revelry (“the carnivalesque”, as one particularly unassimilable early-Soviet author called it), or at least a celebration of picaresque anti-heroes or sympathetic portrayal of the plight of Lermontovian “superfluous men”, then in the face of such a crackdown it would seem that the list of options is fairly short. You may, if you have it in you, get with the program and become a true believer. If you do not have it in you, you may pretend to get with the program while still harboring your own inward reservatio mentalis, and decorating your opening paragraphs with enough approved langue-de-bois to ensure that the enforcers, who are borderline-illiterate anyway, will be satisfied without reading any further and seeing your text gradually slip into its various deviations. You may go underground into samizdat; or you may go into exile like Vladimir Nabokov, and publish your pornography with unseemly presses in Paris. Or you may do like the great Daniil Kharms —who in the 1920s was still hosting “events” in his Leningrad apartment that consisted in him repeatedly urinating on his own floor and then pushing the puddle around with a mop, to the delight of his fellow avant-gardists— and feign insanity when in fact no one could be more lucid (the strategy didn’t work; he died of starvation in a labor camp in 1943). Or you may, finally, do as Isaak Babel attempted, and seek to become “a master in the genre of silence” (this didn’t work either; he was betrayed by his erstwhile mentor Maxim Gorky, and executed in 1940).
In Moscow in the 1990s I was invited to a performance-art spectacle in the basement of an exurban khrushchyovka: some poor young man, naked, rolled around on shards of glass as Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” played from a cassette tape in a cheap boom-box. I read a novel by Vladimir Sorokin, Голубое сало (Blue Lard, also translated as Bacon Fat) which features, if I recall correctly, an aggressively graphic sex scene between Stalin and Khrushchev. I spoke at length with Eduard Limonov (pictured below with me at twenty-four) about his autofiction of life in exile in 1970s New York, Это я – Эдичка (the ridiculously titled It’s Me, Eddie), which features among other things an evidently real sexual interlude with a homeless man in an LES alley, among other transgressions. Limonov had just come back from Bosnia, where he had been volunteering as a mercenary for Milošević, in the name of pan-Slavic brotherhood against the Bosnian infidel, and was now back home to start up his new rabidly nationalist and antisemitic National Bolshevik Party. Limonov was a real shit until the day he died, but his novel’s central conceit —riding along with the Jewish refuseniks to a life in New York City, whereupon he announced he was not Jewish and disappeared into the sleazy nightlife of Lower Manhattan— was pure rollicking picaresque of the most classical sort.
We’ll get back to the question of how one can be a shit and nonetheless create passably good works of art soon enough, but for now I just wish to emphasize that in the “Wild East” of 1990s Russia, it was hard not to conclude that what one was witnessing was the famous return of the repressed, and that perhaps it would have been better to have kept a valve at least partially open throughout the Soviet period for all the mysticism, religious mania, and pornography, all the thieves, detectives, prostitutes, and gangsters who, for all their demerits, have at least dutifully done their part to keep art alive.
In that same decade, I found myself in the living rooms of more than one Gulag survivor with a portrait of Stalin resting discretely on a bookshelf. One of them assured me, over a meal of pickled herring in a jar and pigs’ feet in aspic that made me want to retch and that I only pretended to eat (I had already learned to line my pockets with plastic bags and to practice only somewhat more subtle variations on that old sitcom trick of pointing over the table-mate’s shoulder and saying, “Look, a horse!”), that Americans were wrong to think the end of history had arrived, that I was foolish if I imagined my stay in Russia was any sort of “victory tour”; that Russia would be back. In hindsight I see that part of the yearning for a return, to whatever it is Stalin represented for them, was a yearning for a world in which one would not have to encounter the Ossetian caudillo represented in flagrante delicto with his successor. Repression has at least some virtues to recommend it over freedom. It promises comfort, for one thing. That’s why it keeps coming back.
“It would have been merely sententious,” Joan Didion wrote of the American women’s movement in 1972, “to call some of their thinking Stalinist: of course it was.” Almost a half-century later, evocations of that name —if we exclude such strongholds of nostalgia as the museum in the Dzhugashvili family’s hometown— tend to occur mostly in disreputable corners of the internet, whether pro (as in the “tankies”), or anti (as in Jordan B. Peterson and his followers). Yet at least in the domain of arts and culture, it seems to me uncontroversial to say that in the current moment bien-pensant Americans broadly share Stalin’s view that there is, or ought to be, a concrete purpose to literature, and that that is, namely, to engineer the human soul.
It is not in studying declarations at All-Union Congresses or in any top-down ukase that such a claim as this can be established, but only in combing through countless cultural artifacts, the daily phantom-bottom motions of the great mass of individual micro-assertions on the internet. Rather than asserting state power over culture, today power works more effectively by dissolving into culture itself.
In The New Yorker in January Tom Bissell published a remarkably lifeless reflection on John Kennedy Toole’s 1963 novel, A Confederacy of Dunces. Bissell identifies some real weaknesses of the novel, published only in 1980, many years after the author’s suicide resulting in part from despair at his lack of success as a writer. Toole relies too much on adverbs, Bissell says, and the characters are static and predictable: the usual flaws a critic may justly pick out and bemoan. But for Bissell the real problem is that the novel’s anti-hero, a reactionary and stunted autodidactic New Orleans medievalist with serious mommy issues, is an unsuitable guest at the never-ending internet-mediated public festival that passes for culture in the United States in 2021. “In 1980,” Bissell writes, “he seemed harmless. Forty years later, this red-pilled malcontent calling for a theofascist revival seems something else entirely. Ignatius J. Reilly —the godfather of the Internet troll, the Abraham of neckbeards, the 4chan edgelord to rule them all— was no anachronism. He was a prediction.”
He was also a retrodiction, of course, and a distillation out of several precedents, from Simplicius Simplicissimus and Don Quixote through Lermontov’s Pechorin and beyond, of a type that Western literature, or at least free Western literature excluding “socialist realism”, has excelled at producing: the somewhat repellent, wayward, comically un-self-knowing, tragically superfluous man, not as a model for how one ought to be oneself, but as, among many other things, a stimulus for being something different than that. Modern literature, properly understood, has largely been about incels, and the periodic efforts to purge them for something more “optimistic” (1934, 2021) have been waged by people who do not really know what literature is.
The previous month in the New York Times an even more overtly Zhdanovite call for a new literature, as single-minded messaging rather than as free play of the imagination, was issued by the indefatigable Viet Thanh Nguyen (also recently using his space in that newspaper to request of us that, in spite of his MacArthur Prize, we not refer to him as a “genius”, a call I have no trouble heeding). Drawing support from the Palestinian-American writer Noor Hindi’s self-explanatory poem, “Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying”, Nguyen insists that in the post-Trump era American writers must resist the temptation to go “back” to writing about “flowers and moons” (the latter in the plural, so presumably also including non-terrestrial natural satellites), on the grounds that, as Hindi puts it, “Palestinians don’t see the moon from jail cells and prisons.” But they surely remember having seen the moon at some point in their lives, and on one understanding of poetry its power lies, precisely, in its ability to conjure to the mind’s eye what is not there, to make worlds, to bring about poiesis. On one common understanding, moreover, it is good to call the moon to mind in this way, because the moon is one of the basic things that orients human beings in the world, that places us in the cosmos and in nature, and consoles us. But to acknowledge such a thing as the moon to be among the human goods is to commit the sin of what Zhdanov would call “decadent romanticism”, which is characteristic only of “bourgeois imperialist” literature.
For my part I am not at all convinced that oppressed people do not have the “privilege” or “luxury” or “freedom” to write about nature, or to engage in romanticism; in fact I think they do have this privilege and this luxury and this freedom, and these are what makes literature so incalculably powerful: it generates worlds within worlds, which are quite often beautiful worlds within ugly ones. I am not convinced in part because much of the most powerful nature writing I know has in fact been produced by people enduring brutal political persecution, for example the Sakha national author Platon Oïunskiï, aka Bylatyan Oïuunskaï, executed in the Great Purge of 1939 under accusation of leading a “bourgeois-nationalist counterrevolutionary organization” (he was not). In spite of appearances, Nguyen’s call is not one that takes sides with the oppressed; he is not, himself, in a prison cell, and to be a recent MacArthur recipient with a regular column in the Times is to occupy a position rather closer to that of a leader of the All-Union Congress of Writers than to that of a political prisoner. To paraphrase something Perry Anderson said of Jürgen Habermas, this dude is out there racking up awards like medals on the lapel of a Brezhnevite general. It is not for Nguyen to say who longs to speak of the moon.
As we move down the ladder of prestige into the world of unvetted tweets, we observe an increasing difficulty, among people with very strong opinions, in exercising that basic critical competence of distinguishing between the authorial creation of a character, and the author’s affirmation of that character’s every moral trait and political view. Thus one “reader” tweets in response to Elin Hilderbrand’s novel, Golden Girl (a “beach read”, I gather): “Really disappointed to see this, @littlebrown. The horrifically antisemetic [sic] ‘joke’ that was made in this book was not only written by @elinhilderbrand, but presumably approved by multiple people at L.B.” Of course if by “writing” we mean picking out the letters sequentially on a keyboard, then Hilderbrand surely did “write” the antisemitic joke. But the context here suggests that “writing” means “asserting”, which again suggests a failure to understand what literature is: not an affirmation of the characters and their conduct and their views, but a lens placed on these characters as exempla of universal humanity.
The most dogmatic and bloodthirsty corner of “book Twitter” is undoubtedly what goes under the name of “YA”, which stands for “Young Adult”, a genre whose representatives would have remained entirely unknown to me if I had not heard news of their long reign of all-against-all terror. Among the most urgent and most revolutionary values of this faction is the promotion of new work, and the abolition of anything that would look like a canon, which for them means suspicion of “new classics” only a decade old. Thus Moniza Hossain writes: “Here on book Twitter we’re like ‘stop recommending hunger games [sic] to kids! It was published more than a decade ago!’ Meanwhile adults in the wild are reccing Catcher in the Rye to reluctant readers.”
Quite apart from any question of actual artistic merit (the same goes for Hilderbrand’s work too, of course), the call for vigilance against prowling “adults” eager to place J. D. Salinger’s work in the innocent children’s hands is, frankly, delirious. Salinger plainly stands here for the old guard, a pre-revolutionary leftover, a reminder of continuity. The past, too, along with anti-heroes and romanticism, must go.
I could continue adducing examples ad nauseam, but why make ourselves Twitter-sick? Of course, some skeptics, some reciters of the this-is-fine mantra, will by now want to say: “Come on, don’t exaggerate. Unlike the Butyrka Prison where Babel was murdered, there is no sloping floor with a drain at the center in the offices of the New York Times Book Review where the blood of Jonathan Franzen might be more easily hosed away as in an abattoir. No one is at any real risk for their lives. Writers are just being held accountable. &c.”
But if this is true, it is important to understand the difference in global terms, and as one having primarily to do with transformations in information technology and its use in the regulation of public discourse. This would bring us far beyond our immediate concerns, but, very briefly, the twenty-first-century soft totalitarianism of Russia and China, notably, is one that has given up on driving around in surveillance vans with chunky audio-detection equipment looking for illegal shortwave radios in apartment blocks; on preventing the circulation of all but explicitly approved books; on ensuring that all public speech affirms the aims of the state in shaping the ideal citizen. I spend a lot of time on Russian- and Sakha-language social media, and the people in these spaces conduct themselves more or less as they do on US Twitter: there are anarchists, there are apathists, ironists, romantics, &c.
But this concession by the soft-totalitarian regimes is not for the sake of freedom itself; it was made only because a relatively free internet is a far more effective means of surveillance and social-control than any top-down old-fashioned authoritarian regulation ever could be. Over time, moreover, it is growing increasingly difficult to deny that private tech companies in the United States are converging in their function with the mostly state-run data-collection systems that produce the social-credit scores of citizens in China. Public or private, called explicitly by the name of social credit or not, increasingly the metrics of our online lives are also metrics of our freedom, and the ever-present threat of being “canceled” is for that reason a threat against our freedom, about which anyone who values liberal democracy is right to be gravely concerned.
As often, I can’t help but invoke the name of Michel Foucault here, whose central animating idea was that modernity has been a long process of coming up with ever more subtle ways to keep political subjects “in line”. If this is correct, then we might say that the drain at the bottom of the floor in Babel’s prison, where any hope for more words from him trickled away along with his blood, was just what you would expect from a crude and shaky revolutionary regime that was still working out its place in modernity. This was never the way the dogmatic zealots in power wanted to get rid of writers, just the way they settled for getting rid of them under chaotic circumstances.
Now, even if a certain amount of rebellious frisson in the form of memes is tolerated in social media in China, Russia, and the United States, all of these countries are doing a reasonably good job, at least in comparison with the previous century, of holding back from open, chaotic, visible violent repression of free thinkers and creative individuals. And all three are also doing a very good job, much better than in the previous century, in fact, of squelching the arts and literature through technology.
When former wrestler and Hollywood actor John Cena recently referred to Taiwan as a “country” at a press conference, he followed it up with a video posted to social media of himself apologizing, in Chinese, for offending the People’s Republic. Whatever movie he was promoting was, we may be confident in saying, artistically worthless, and very much in need of Chinese ticket sales in order to “succeed”. It’s one and the same system now; it’s subtle, smooth, and often has the veneer of fun. Its overt violence is mostly out of sight, and what is within sight are usually only gentle nudges and turns, each of which may individually be excused as just “holding people accountable”, “common decency”, &c. Unlike the full-time anti-woke crusaders, I very much believe in “structural violence”. This new world of ours, structured by the internet, is unrelentingly violent, as it is inimical to human freedom and human thriving.
I promised I would not spread my internet-poisoning to you, but I feel I still must mention what is by far the most dispiriting literature meme I have seen circulating so far: the one that seeks to identify “red flags” on the bookshelf when you “go home with a guy” that should, dear girl, cause you forthwith to flee. Typically the author of the “prompt” will list her own red flags, and readers will then rush in to add theirs. In the one I have seen most often, the author of course lists Hemingway and David Foster Wallace, and then moves on to some more unexpected enemies: Goethe (she likely has Sorrows of Young Werther in mind; I can’t imagine the Theory of Colours or the Metamorphosis of Plants would appear threatening to any Zoomer in search of romance); Turgenev (I have nothing to add here). And of course the list also includes that great clavis of algorithmic-positioning-as-criticism, your view on which is widely believed to illuminate your position on everything else: Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 Lolita (Russian translation by author, 1968).
Dare I say a few words about this book? We are often told that Gustave Flaubert’s work is “proto-cinematic”; reading his exquisite short-story “La légende de St. Julien L’Hospitalier” recently, in particular the massacre of the animals in the forest grove, I had the feeling that the author was also anticipating other twentieth-century forms of visual art and entertainment, notably video games. By comparison, sometimes, in reading Nabokov, I have the sense that his storytelling, in mere words, is prophecying storytelling technologies yet to come, the great difference from Flaubert being that we don’t yet know what these are. We see this in the drowning of Lucette in Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor of 1969 (his greatest achievement, in my view), when she begins to perceive her life as built up out of slices of time; and we definitely see it in the sublime and hilarious death of Clare Quilty at the end of Lolita, which seems to borrow in its humorous dimensions a great deal from cartoons, as when Yosemite Sam levitates from the force of the bullets streaming out of his six-shooters pointed at the ground, but it also seems, again, that we are being manipulated more directly than any visual art form could achieve, that we are, as they say, “right there”, in ways that no mid-twentieth-century visual form had managed to bring about.
It might seem simply reckless to couple such power of description with a theme as charged as child molestation, but the choice was not casual. Nabokov’s lurid focus is meant to satirize American culture’s obsession with faits divers, one that continues (and somehow gets a moral pass) in all the chatter today about true-crime podcasts and the like. This is clearly framed at the very beginning, in the absolutely ridiculous fake preface by “Dr. John Ray” the psychiatrist and specialist in sexual deviance, who walks that delicate line between service to science and raw exploitation: the same one walked by the producers of the “educational” films about the birds and the bees that until the 1970s doubled as pornography (recall the early scene from Taxi Driver), and, less convincingly, by “Dr. Phil” when he milks the great Shelley Duvall’s schizophrenia for high ratings. Such sending-up of this timeless fascination is also well established in the literary legacies that Nabokov is distilling and channeling, notably in several installations of Balzac’s Comédie humaine; I’m thinking in particular of the Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, which is meant to sound like the morally abasing tone of the chattering Parisian feuilletons of the 1830s, without in fact being a further instance of that tone. That’s how satire works.
As for the common concern that Lolita “goes too far”, it is worth recalling for comparison that Ada treats of a lifelong passionate love affair between brother and sister. But here the protagonists also live implausibly long lives, in imaginary countries, so it may be that the shift from mid-century faits divers to an Old Testament register signals to otherwise offended readers that we are moving into a reality where different moral rules apply. In any case “going too far” is a philistine accusation, as it presupposes a prior rule as to how far is too far, which the writer may simply consult when uncertain in the course of writing. There is no such rule.
The most common complaint though is surely that, in exclusively allowing Humbert Humbert to “tell his side”, Nabokov “silences the voice” of Dolores, thus necessitating such feminist remakes as Pia Pera’s Lo’s Diary of 1995. But this narrative positioning, it seems, is a key part of the construction of the effect I identified above, whereby the reader is made to feel “right there”. Nabokov’s greatest achievement is to convey to the reader so much more about Lo’s emotional condition than her diary ever could, and this even though the morally cretinous narrator himself has no consciousness of her condition. When Lo is sobbing on the bed, and Humbert Humbert happens, for once, to notice this, and to misinterpret it as adolescent moodiness, Nabokov is rubbing the reader’s face in the pure moral depravity of the narrator he has conjured from his imagination. But, again, the narrator is not the author, contrary to what the tweet aimed at Erin Hilderbrand said; and, contrary to Zhdanov, the imagination is not the will.
I think the time I felt most strongly that what I was reading really should have been censored was in 1998, when I was reading Philip Roth for the first time. I started with Sabbath’s Theater, and when I got to the part where the diabolical Mickey Sabbath was staying with his old college friend the dentist on Central Park West, and was permitted to stay in the bedroom of the daughter who was away at college, and immediately raided her underwear drawer and (if I recall correctly) proceeded to collect a sampling of the most enticing pairs of panties and to array them around him on the ledge of her private bathtub as he sank into a froth of warm bubbles, only to find himself caught off guard when his old friend, the father of the absent girl, came to check on him, I confess I did think: this has gone too far.
I understand that Roth’s posthumous legacy has met with some bumps recently, and it is hard not to suppose that the biographer who was responsible for seeing to it is now being punished in a sort of twofer deal: for his own real crimes, and for his deceased subject’s crimes of imagination. I don’t have much to add to the Roth/Bailey “discourse”. I don’t really know why people read literary biographies, let alone treat their authors as persons of public interest. For years I have struggled to come up with something interesting to say about the question of “moral luck” — interesting, that is, beyond the sort of hack position-taking that one is required to engage in for, say, a “Guest Essay” in the Times. I will say that I do not support anything so simplistic as “distinguishing between the artist and the work”, since it is fairly plain to me that often the moral rottenness of the artist is constitutive of the work. This extends even to philosophy, where any honest person will concede that Martin Heidegger was not “a great philosopher” who was “also a Nazi”, and that the whole challenge of dealing with Heidegger and his legacy is to figure out how Western philosophy developed in such a way that when Nazism emerged it made sense for at least one of its greatest expositors to offer his services as a handmaiden to this ideology. It is precisely for this reason that reading and understanding Heidegger is so urgent. There is nothing “honorific” about doing this; philosophy is not a fan club, and if you are treating it as one, this is because you do not really understand what philosophy is.
The matter is perhaps a bit more complicated when we move to literature, as it does make at least somewhat more sense to declare yourself a “fan” of Roth or Louis-Ferdinand Céline than of Heidegger or Carl Schmitt. Roth has called Céline, the antisemite and traitor, “my Proust”, and it’s clear that in part what Roth was learning from his literary forebear was a certain kind of immoralism, or a way of engaging imaginatively with immorality.
When philosophers like Thomas Nagel describe the cluster of problems at which we have arrived here in terms of “moral luck”, the idea is that rotten artists “luck out” because their rotten deeds, in contributing something valuable to humanity, turn out to be on balance acceptable only because they happen to have been born with artistic talent. As I recall Nagel’s preferred example is Gauguin, who abandoned his family in order to take off to Tahiti and there to create the paintings that the world now values — values, that is, presumably, more than the well-being of the family members he left behind. But it seems that the new Zhdanovshchina rejects this presumption: Gauguin is not lucky, Roth is not lucky, and if they have “gotten lucky” up until now it is high time to rescind that luck.
I have already confessed in this space to a certain sympathy for the devil in my musical taste, and it should not be surprising to learn that this sympathy extends into literature as well. I have been through hell, aesthetically speaking. I was “brought up” on tales of lowlife criminality from Jean Genet and William S. Burroughs (another red flag, apparently), and all sorts of “hardcore shit” I won’t even bother to describe. I think I turned out alright, as did the great majority of those in my cohort of bourgeois decadent romantics.
These days I am more sensitive, and a convert to the Good. But I can’t help but think that this conversion is also a continuation, just as J.-K. Huysmans’ arch-Catholic En route completes the trilogy that begins with the satanic Là-bas, and that the journey through that valley has been a key element of my own moral education. Nor does it seem to me that the two are so easy to separate out from one another, no matter what Zhdanovism —which is also a Manicheanism— would have us believe. There is nothing more transgressive than St. Julien’s massacre of the animals, not to mention his subsequent massacre of his parents. In the end what elevates him to the status of a saint is not his anchorite retreat from the world in repentance for his sins, but rather his hallucinatory erotic tryst with a dying scabrous leper. This is something Flaubert is in part spinning out of his imagination, but if Lolita is spun out from the stories of “detectives, pimps, and prostitutes” that Zhdanov sees as populating bourgeois imperialist arts and culture, Flaubert is rather drawing on the source material of the medieval “legends of the saints” genre, notably the Genoese archbishop Jacques de Voragine’s thirteenth-century Légende dorée. Christian tradition, and the literatures it has produced, has generally been sensitive, in a way that Zhdanovism cannot be, to the fact that we human beings, qua human beings, have always been doing hardcore shit, and it is a purpose of art to lay this bare, and compel us to meditate on it.
There is, of course, a resistance, and just as Franzen is not getting washed down the slop-drain today, so too do we find that our information ecology will not permit the new Zhdanovism anything like the monolithic power it could enjoy in a top-down, print-based and centralized society. Ottessa Moshfegh’s delightful My Year of Rest and Relaxation of 2018 was plainly a contribution to the venerable tradition of the Oblomovshchina, which is by its nature incompatible with Zhdanovshchina. But the author capable of conjuring a modern-day Oblomov is not for that reason herself a lethargic vegetable. Not coincidentally, it is the same Moshfegh who recently wrote in Bookforum: “A novel is not BuzzFeed or NPR or Instagram or even Hollywood. Let’s get clear about that. A novel is a literary work of art meant to expand consciousness. We need novels that live in an amoral universe, past the political agenda described on social media. We have imaginations for a reason. Novels like American Psycho and Lolita did not poison culture. Murderous corporations and exploitive industries did. We need characters in novels to be free to range into the dark and wrong. How else will we understand ourselves?” Hear hear.
Salman Rushdie has compellingly described his own literary production as a sort of homecoming of the storytelling traditions that were first developed through oral transmission in the broader Arabic and Persianate Muslim worlds, were then written down as A Thousand and One Nights, migrated as far as Latin America in the form of “magical realism”, only to return to him in Bombay in the mid-twentieth century. It is this sort of continuity that the conception of literature as social engineering conceals.
I am currently translating one of the legends of the Sakha oral epic tradition known as Olonkho (I’ve written extensively about my work on this project here). A common narrative sequence in this tradition features an ogre, far more beastly than Humbert Humbert, spying on girls in the forest. The girls pee in turn, and the ogre observes to see which of them produces the urine with the most bubbles in it. This is taken to be a sign of fertility. When he determines which of the girls it is, he kidnaps her, and takes her off as his “wife”.
In the prenuptial ritual traditions of several Eurasian cultures, extending broadly from the western coast of the Black Sea all the way to the north of Lake Baikal and the Lena River basin, there is a moment where the groom’s family and friends simulate a kidnapping of the bride. The simulated quality of the ritual is generally obvious in more bourgeois and urban settings; as one moves out into the countryside, it becomes more difficult to say whether one is witnessing a sublimation, or indeed the real thing. The Olonkho motif with the ogre and the maiden is itself a more distant sublimation — correctly discerning the true monstrous nature of the men who perpetuate this tradition. It’s an evil tradition. Engineers of the human soul would wish to deal with this evil by suppression; literature, real literature, deals with it through the power of imaginative sublimation. It is dark and wrong, to speak with Moshfegh, and we understand ourselves through it.
We have, today, a Zhdanovshchina suited to the particularities of our times, one that promotes not so much an “engineering of souls” as a “human-resources management of souls”. The abrupt ascendancy of HR as the central organizing power of society extends far beyond literature, of course. It has certainly overtaken philosophy, the academic discipline I know best. In the middle ages philosophy was said to be the “handmaiden” [ancillaris] of theology; in the modern period it became the handmaiden of science. Today philosophy is in many respects an ancillary of human resources (as here, for example).
In literature as in philosophy, we may at least comfort ourselves with the enduring existence of the treasures of the past, to which at least for the moment our information technologies continue to provide us access.
About the Author
Justin E. H. Smith is an author and professor of philosophy in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Paris. The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, will appear in 2021 from Princeton University Press.
All photographs are of or by Smith, and were taken in Moscow and Leningrad/Saint Petersburg between 1990 and 1999. The one exception is the fourth photograph, which is of Platon Oïunskiï/Bylatyan Oïuunskaï (1893-1939).