Notes from the Underground

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I tolerate this century, but I don't enjoy it.

All of the ephemera that is far too trivial to be bothered with elsewhere on this site or, depending on your point of view, a meta-commentary on it. This ephemera includes, but is not limited to art, music and literature. Most of the content here will be discussed in terms that are as abstract as possible, reality being a singularly overrated concept.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

A somewhat unusual article on Post-Soviet 'Gothic morality:'

"How can we discover the consequences of historical amnesia? How can we employ customary historical methods to measure the impact of absent memory on contemporary Russian society? What kind of sources could reveal for us this hidden work of deformed memory that results in transformations of values, attitudes, customs and social relations? Fiction is a particularly fruitful source for studying historical representations of the Stalinist past. As a genre, it addresses moral and aesthetic dilemmas; describes transformations of values, attitudes, customs and social relations; and provides access to the emotions and to the workings of the individual memory of its protagonists. Post-Soviet fiction, loaded with reminiscences of Soviet terror and atrocities, discloses the connection between suppressed memory and the emergence of new moral norms and social structures.

However post-Soviet fiction differs considerably from realistic prose such as Tolstoy's War and Peace or even Grossman's Life and Fate. It is overwhelmed by all kind of magic and monsters – vampires, witches and werewolves... Over the last three centuries, Enlightenment rationality has boxed dragons and witches into a specific genre – fairy tale. Now we see them becoming the main protagonists of novels and films aimed at adults. The human being, that as an inheritance of the Enlightenment used to be the centre of the anthropocentric universe, has been pushed to the periphery in favour of the non-human. Two highly popular cult novels – Sergei Lukyanenko's Night Watch and Vadim Panov's Taganski Crossroads – serve as examples. Their success with the Russian reading public is testified by huge print runs and by the fact that they have been turned into movies and computer games. Both novels share features that are typical for the genre in general. Both leave the realities of Russian culture and society almost intact, making them extremely fertile for an analysis of moral and aesthetic developments. Their main protagonists are strikingly similar: rank-and-file administrators, average men on the street, painstakingly portrayed positive heroes with whom the reader fully identifies. In both novels, the plot unfolds in contemporary Moscow.

A simple mental experiment helps to prove this statement. If we remove the vampires, werewolves and witches from these narratives and substitute them with cops, gangsters and their victims, if we parenthesize the witchcraft and the magic, the story would not differ much from a pale description of everyday Russian life. At the heart of gothic morality is a remarkable equality of good and evil, expressed in Night Watch by the opposition between "light" and "dark" vampires. Their methods and goals are explicitly compared and judged to be the same. Nevertheless, light and dark vampires represent not just a metaphor for the notorious convergence of the state and mafia in Russia. The impossibility of distinguishing good from evil – the heroes conclude – makes any attempt to do so a sheer absurdity. The total denial of morality leads to a cult of force. Gothic morality considers murder an everyday routine – who counts (dead) humans? "Life against death, love against hate, and force against force, because force is above morality. It's that simple," concludes the hero of Night Watch... Personal loyalty to the boss is the only principle that the hero of post-Soviet fantasy never betrays. He is always ready to go against his own judgments, betray his inferiors and the norms of his unit to obey his boss's orders.

It's not an overly persuasive argument. It may be true that Lukyanenko does tend to depict the forces of light and dark as being opposed but equivalent, needing to be brought into balance. The two concepts sometimes seem equivalent to good and evil, sometimes not. But in any case, much of the above criticism of Lukyanenko would also apply to the likes of Anne Rice or any number of contemporary horror novelists in any number of other Western countries. I'm also not persuaded that it's such a bad thing to deny the validity of collective projects (or meta-narratives); if anything, that also seems a rather Western attitude. With that said, it is interesting for other reasons. Realist fiction does tend to presume some degree of social homogeneity or stability, in keeping with its status as what Lukacs called the "bourgeois epic," even if ghost stories were a favourite pastime for the writers as produced landmarks of nineteenth century realist fiction. Nontheless, this may be part of why the fantastic is a familiar component of Russian literature (or why South America produced magical realism). Dostoevsky, Pushkin and Gogol all wrote stories quite similar to the above, set in a familiar realist setting and depicting average men on the street. It would have seem more persuasive to me to observe that horror fiction in increasingly post-traditional societies that lack chiastic structures of good and evil to rehabilitate (or emasculate) the monsters they depict. In other words, to foreground the romantic outcast and decenter the damned creature. A novel like Dracula is frequently depicted as an allegory of Victorian anxieties that perhaps lack the same force today:

"According to Nina Auerbach, in "Our Vampires, Ourselves" (1995), Dracula’s crimes are merely symbols of the real-life sociopolitical horrors facing the late Victorians. One was immigration. At the end of the century, Eastern European Jews, in flight from the pogroms, were pouring into Western Europe, thereby threatening to dilute the pure blood of the English, among others. Dracula, too, is an émigré from the East. Stoker spends a lot of words on the subject of blood, and not just when Dracula extracts it. Fully four of the book’s five vampire-hunters have their blood transfused into Lucy’s veins, and this process is recorded with grisly exactitude. (We see the incisions, the hypodermics.) So Stoker may in fact have been thinking of the racial threat. Like other novels of the period, Dracula contains invidious remarks about Jews. They have big noses, they like money—the usual.

At that time, furthermore, people in England were forced, by the scandal of the Oscar Wilde trials (1895), to think about something they hadn’t worried about before: homosexuality. Many scholars have found suggestions of homoeroticism in
Dracula. Auerbach, by contrast, finds the book annoyingly heterosexual. Earlier vampire tales, such as Polidori’s story and Carmilla, made room for the mutability of erotic experience. In those works, sex didn’t have to be man to woman. And it didn’t have to be outright sex—it might just be fervent friendship. As Auerbach sees it, Stoker, spooked by the Wilde case, backed off from this rich ambiguity, thereby impoverishing vampire literature. After him, she says, vampire art became reactionary. This echoes Stephen King’s statement that all horror fiction, by pitting an absolute good against an absolute evil, is "as Republican as a banker in a three-piece suit."

According to some critics, another thing troubling Stoker was the New Woman, that turn-of-the-century avatar of the feminist. Again, there is support for this. The New Woman is referred to dismissively in the book, and the God-ordained difference between the sexes—basically, that women are weak but good, and men are strong but less good—is reiterated with maddening persistence. On the other hand, Mina, the novel’s heroine, and a woman of unquestioned virtue, looks, at times, like a feminist. She works for a living, as a schoolmistress, before her marriage, and the new technology, which should have been daunting to a female, holds no mysteries for her. She’s a whiz as a typist—a standard New Woman profession. Also, she is wise and reasonable—male virtues. Nevertheless, her primary characteristic is a female trait: compassion. (At one point, she even pities Dracula.) Stoker, it seems, had mixed feelings about the New Woman.

Whether or not politics was operating in Stoker’s novel, it is certainly at work in our contemporary vampire literature. Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series openly treats vampires as a persecuted minority. Sometimes they are like black people (lynch mobs pursue them), sometimes like homosexuals (rednecks beat them up). Meanwhile, they are trying to go mainstream. Sookie’s Bill has sworn off human blood, or he’s trying; he subsists on a Japanese synthetic. He registers to vote (absentee, because he cannot get around in daylight)... In The Vampire Chronicles, Anne Rice also seems to regard her undead as an oppressed group. Their suffering is probably, at some level, a story about AIDS. All this is a little confusing morally. How can we have sympathy for the Devil and still regard him as the Devil?

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posted by Richard 2:16 PM