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« Spy vs. Spy -- Rossotrudnichestvo, Russia's Agent of Influence Finder | Main | Why I Love This Russian Police Conductor »

November 02, 2013

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David McDuff

I think that in the 20th century many writers, artists, composers, musicians, dissidents and rights activists set out more or less deliberately to look into the mirror "which blinded anyone who looked into it" - and a large number of them managed not to be blinded. It had something to with ideas versus ideology, language versus propaganda, humanity versus the "-isms" of political and socio-political systematization.

It's the place where Nabokov meets Brecht, where Mandelstam meets Neruda, where Stockhausen meets Mingus, where Picasso and Stravinsky meet everyone. Where Bukovsky and Corvalán sit at the same table, and Brodsky talks with admiration of the poetry of Slutsky.

In Peter Weiss's novel "The Aesthetics of Resistance", which among the hundreds of narratives it contains even manages to chronicle the lives and deaths of the White Rose university students who resisted Hitler and were executed, Picasso looks at an empty canvas:

"His goal was not the number of bombs dropped, of houses destroyed, of people wounded or killed. Those figures could be read elsewhere. He waited till the clouds of smoke, of dust had lifted, till the moaning and screaming had faded. Only then, for himself, when he was all alone with the surface of the canvas, did he ask himself what Guernica was, and only when it took shape before his eyes, as an open city, as a city of defenseless inhabitants, did it become the tremendous reminder of afflictions, the kind that could still come." (tr. Joachim Neugroschel)

Catherine Fitzpatrick

Hmm, I can feature Mandelstam meeting Neruda but Bukovsky and Corvalan would never sit down at the same table, never. And apparently there is a place where Brodsky and Slutsky meet:
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9434.2009.00543.x/abstract

Thanks for this comment, much food for thought I will look up this novel by Peter Weiss.

I'm going to be completely politically incorrect and say that I don't like Guernica (and maybe it's part of my not liking Picasso in general). Perhaps it was too early exposure. My grandmother showed me these paintings as a little child, and I could never understand why the entire piece felt like a newspaper, why the cartoon horse was so bothered by a light-bulb such as to neigh with nostrils flared, and why an oil lamp was required if there was already a light-bulb. I didn't realize the hand was cut off, but I distinctly remember having a dream then of a cut-off hand on the grass, and telling my grandmother, but for some reason she didn't realize I was telling her a dream, and reassured me that it must have been a doll's hand.

And I still find myself jamming on those sorts of elements.

Yes, I know what I am "supposed" to think and feel about Guernica but I don't. Maybe also too many times staring at that tapestry knock-off that used to be in the Security Council or something, and of course zillions of reprints in popular culture. I find that knowing that painting, I know nothing about the real Guernica. Who was that mother who lost that child? Do I in fact know more about the Spanish Civil War from reading Homage to Catalonia?

If there is a painting of human suffering in a massacre like this, is there some other painting that works better? I find myself thinking that even a kind of kitschy painting I saw once of some Roma displaced people in rags, barefoot in the snow, at the gates of a Soviet collective farm, somehow tells me more. Again, I realize this is blasphemy and I'm not cultured, but I have to say what I think.

I'd like Guernica to work and be something I could convince my children of. But it feels like a thumb-nail sketch that, if clicked on, brings the right associations and memories for some people, but others get a 404...or something.

When I read the paragraph you put here, I find myself thinking, yes, but I wish we did have a work about the number of bombs dropped, the houses destroyed, the people killed...well, at least there's Wikipedia.

You say that a large number of them managed not to be blinded. And I can say yes, that's what Guernica represents.

I try to think of what *are* the great works that achieve this, and instead I come up with cultural memes -- the photograph in Life of the woman with the print of her dress burned into her skin from Hiroshima; the skeletal thin men at Auschwitz and...what for the Gulag? Solzhenitsyn in his padded zek jacket? As much as I've worked with this topic I can't think of a universal signifier like "Anne Frank's Diary" but perhaps it is "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich".

To continue the critique of this idea of Lolita as an art work reflecting the horrors of the 20th century, well, okay, sure. But here I guess I'll be a bit middle-brow or overly modern. You brother died in the Holocaust, your father was assasinated by Russian rightists, your family is forced to flee, and wait, your response is that you objective and sexualize pre-pubescent girls, supposedly due to pursuit of a lost innocence? But how does that work, *really*, Humbert, and are you just taking advantage of what Dostoevsky said, "If there is no God, anything goes"?

David McDuff

Brodsky was indeed an admirer of Slutsky, learned from him, and once said: "This poet indeed speaks the language of the twentieth century... His tone is tough, tragic and nonchalant - the way a survivor normally talks, if he cares to, about what, or into what, he survived."

Weiss's novel is very long (1000+ pages), and uneven in quality, but is still an extraordinary text that deserves to be better known. Unfortunately only the early part of it has been translated into English - the really fascinating parts, which involve the Swedish poet Karin Boye and the White Rose students, are still only available in German.

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