I just read today’s New York Times opinion section, after which I dipped into the readers’ comments, as I always do.
Despair, hopelessness, monumental depression — about us, the United States. Secession, too, had its proponents among my fellow readers, a mutually agreed upon secession. Not another violent Civil War, although it seems to me we’re already in one.
Reading the moroseness of so many deeply intelligent and concerned people was depressing. So I’m wandering off track into a field of wild, weird flowers.
I found the descriptive “pathological optimist” in the May 30 New Yorker’s The Talk of the Town section. It was applied by the pathological optimist himself, a Ukrainian writer (“I write in Russian. I am not a Russian writer…”) named Andrey Kurkov. With whom I am instantly in love.
He is not the first contemporary writer in Russian I’ve been in love with. He was Sergei Dovlatov.
The Wikipedia entry for Dovlatov is worse than unsatisfying; it seems to have been written by a hostile Soviet apparatchik. But I found that link above, to a James Wood review in the New Yorker of a posthumously published Dovlatov novel, Pushkin Hills. How had I missed getting and reading it? I will remedy this hole in my life.
(Pause, as I find a used but good hardcover edition on line. And buy it.)
Reading Wood’s wondrously luminous essay now reminds me why I am a pathological optimist.
Dovlatov was not published in Russia during his lifetime. During the 1970s, he circulated his writing in samizdat and began to be published in European journals, an activity which brought about his expulsion from the Union of Soviet Journalists in 1976. He left the Soviet Union in 1978…
As Wood says, Dovlatov’s work is an epic, often hilarious, discussion of freedom. Not “freedom,” the way we brandish the word casually, without any distinctive definition beyond a glorious, misty panorama, but the complicated and scary meaning of freedom to emigrés who came from a country where there was none.
“Dovlatov was not published in Russia during his lifetime.” Imagine that. Imagine living in a State which could gag you because It didn’t like the words you emitted, and even silence you when you weren’t there anymore. A State which didn’t appreciate the use of satire and absurdity to comment on Its criminal existence. If It really didn’t like you, you were disappeared.
At the top of this page, I mentioned reading a number of columnists in a major journal, the Times. A journal available to anyone with a local newsstand and/or internet access. Each of the columnists — Michelle Cottle, Paul Krugman, Jamelle Bouie, Michelle Goldberg — mourned the horror of dead children in school, the insanity of heavy weaponry owned by lunatics. Their readers’ comments unleashed worldwide fury over what has happened in this country.
Most pointedly, each columnist and reader excoriated the politicians who, in stupidity and fear of their own voters, refuse to do their jobs and ban weapons of mass destruction. Instead, what those politicans propose as solutions to our anguish is banning language, books, actual history, dissidents, people who don’t look and think like them. If children are shot in public schools, they will shut public schools — as they did throughout the South after the decision in Brown v Topeka.
What the minority party here is promising is a State like the old Soviet Union which Dovlatov condemned through satire, and the new, but similar Putin State which Andrey Kurkov now condemns through satire.
Satire is the asylum for creators who can only criticize obliquely to evade State punishment.
But not one of the Times’ columnists, not one of their readers used satire to convey their horror. They didn’t have to. We live in a country in which “cancel culture” doesn’t mean disappearance, doesn’t mean death.
On the floors of Congress, our elected representatives are breaking our hearts out loud in condemning what is happening, in asking and demanding that the GOP join them in enacting laws. Chris Murphy was on his knees, pleading for sanity.
On Twitter, people who are known to us, who are named, who are public figures, are not afraid to make their opinions known. And they name names, they condemn the GOP by individual name after name.
We all have that freedom to tell those names to fuck off.
This kind of freedom was dangerous and scary to Sergei Dovlatov, Soviet citizen, who had no mechanism for protesting. It isn’t dangerous or scary to me. Or you. After the despair will come action. Because that’s what freedom means here. It means a state of fluctuating but permanent revolution. We are not losing our freedom to Putin worshipers. They are in the minority, and they always will be.
We will conquer them the way we always do. We have had 237 years of practice improving and widening these freedoms.
We are the majority. We vote.