Sunday, August 2, 2020

Only love can save those who are infected with anger

From an interview with Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich:
Life itself gives birth to all my themes. At first, as you know, it turned into several books. A history of that period of time, the Red time, when the idea mattered most of all. Everyone was infected with the idea, to a greater or lesser extent. Or, at least, they were curbed by it. But everyone depended on it and many believed sincerely in it. In the end, many lost faith. But the idea remained, like an unyielding inner core, a reinforcing steel bar. During this lifetime, the time when the idea ruled, various things happened. I selected the most overpowering, most dramatic events, ones that could shed a light on what kind of people we were. What we had been through. How we had been deceived by that utopian vision. And how, at first, we hadn’t understood but eventually began to understand. How we wouldn’t have been able to endure living in any other way than we did. It wouldn’t have worked for us. 

As I moved on, from one book to the next, something struck me. People talk about the war or about Chernobyl. But only rarely do people talk about happiness. A feeling grew on me that people didn’t talk about the things that really matter in human lives. And I’d look back over my own life. My childhood, for instance. My parents never spoke about happiness. About how you ought to be happy and grow up. How beautiful life is, how joyful it is when love comes to you. How you will have children but not only that, you will also find love. And that it is something so enigmatic, so interesting. But … all the talks we had were about death and the mother country. Talks about what is important about being human simply never happened. Later in life, it was just more of the same. Of course, people did fall in love and led their lives. But there never seemed to be … a philosophy of life. It was up to the individual to try every day to push ahead, and reach for the meaning of it all. This was neither seen as a philosophy for individuals nor for communities. Always, there was something that mattered more. That towered above human beings. A striving of some kind, a sacrifice of some kind. Which you must be prepared for, always. And when I had come to the end of that series of books – when utopia had been defeated, when we were all caught up in the rubble it left behind – I began to think that I wanted to write an account of who we are, in ourselves, but from a different point of view.

I wondered: what would be the core of a narrative like that? If, earlier on, the core had been Afghanistan or the war or Chernobyl – where would you find it now? I thought that it would probably be found among the things we never used to think about. Never, that is, until now, when private life has finally been resurrected. When, finally, money has taken on meaning, significance. Before, everyone was just as broke as everyone else. Money hadn’t meant anything in particular. Now, though, people had started to travel, to see the world. For them, a lot of questions had surfaced, they had found desires. If they wanted to, they could dive into a kind of vast ocean that was completely unknown to them. That’s to say, into private life. It offered another form of human meaningfulness than to go off and die somewhere. As it turned out, literature – Russian literature – was unable to help them because it has always been preoccupied with quite different things. With loftier and high-order ideas, that is. It always contains something ready to squash human life. Whatever higher order idea it is. And then I thought, of course, love is the most important, essential aspect of us; it, and the time when we are about to slip away. When we prepare ourselves for disappearing from this world. . . .

On one hand: this is my way ahead, a stage in my travels. The journey is part of to my present intentions. On the other hand: ahead, there is an opportunity to speak about what is valuable in life – personally, I feel that all other words are drained of meaning. Should I once more travel to find the war, and then write about the war? And once more speak out about how senselessly people kill each other and what an insane occupation it is to murder another human being? That ideas should be killed, not people. That everyone should sit down at a table and talk together …? None of all that works any more. It is banal. I check the internet and read every day: ‘Today, thirty militiamen in the Russia-supporting militia have been killed and twenty soldiers in the Ukrainian army. And five civilians.’ That’s how the day begins. I don’t think it would help if I kept speaking about this. Because I believe that … love is what people miss most of all. Perhaps THIS is the language I would like to start speaking. Besides, nowadays, the situation is that society is hugely fragmented and people have become infected with anger. So, there is a lot of hatred around. I don’t think it is possible to conquer it with ordinary words, with ordinary arguments.

The writer Oksana Zabuzhko1 recently published a book based on all the writings that were posted on the internet during the Maidan [Ukrainain revolution]. I wrote in the book that all the dreadful things quoted in it – that people died and were ill-treated – can be turned either into hatred or into love. I wished they were used for love. Only love can save those who are infected with anger.
I have never read anything with which I agree more. Life is not about things that loom above us, that are always threatening to squash us, the ideas that demand we sacrifice ourselves for their sake. It is about us, and those we know and love, and what we make together. 


Mário R. Gonçalves said...

Can't agree more, indeed. Threatens are either natural and real - we have to summon all our cleverness and capabilities to resist and win over them - or artificial and made up, which is more and more the case. Made up mostly of anger. Living under the threaten of the Apocalypse, or the Plagues, or the Y2K, or the coming asteroid, or the new Fascism, all that is made up by the Fear Business &Hollywood, the Shock and Awe line of action, and I wish love could be our best defence, that we could trust love over all that rubish; I can't go so far as that though. Love is not reliable enough. But under a poetic, idealist phylosophy, alright, John Lennon said it.

G. Verloren said...

It's hard for people to think about and talk about a "philosophy of life" when they are the inheritors of a legacy of suffering and death.

Alexievich comments that her parents never talked about happiness, but her parents were some of the first who didn't live through the unimaginable horrors of earlier eras. They lived in a time that, for all its flaws, couldn't begin to measure up to the difficulties of living through WWII in the Soviet Union, or the chaos of the Revolution a generation before, or life under the Tsars a generation before that. By comparison to their own parents, grandparents, and great grandparents, her mother and father lived in wondrous ease, freedom, peace, and prosperity.

The post-war generations were arguably the first working class Russians and Soviets to have the luxury of thinking about a philosophy of life, rather than spending all their energy desperately struggling just to survive. Veterans and survivors of WWII weren't likely to talk about happiness, because in their minds they already WERE happy, at least compared to the Dark Times when the Nazis were killing multiple tens of millions, and Stalin was killing a full twenty million of his own people.

Everyone might have been poor, but at least the Soviets weren't dying by the millions anymore, and were successfully standing up to the Capitalists they feared so deeply (and justifiably), and were even creating history by forging ahead into outer space, as a recently industrialized society. What was there to get philosophical about? Compared to a generation before, Alexievich's parents had every reason to be happy without needing to reflect on it - just to enjoy it. So is it any wonder they never talked about happiness? It was self evident to anyone who knew what came before.

People only think about how to be happy when they aren't trapped in a living nightmare. A serf under the Tsars didn't dwell on how to be happy - they dwelled on how to live through another winter, and when they could next get their hands on enough vodka to help them forget their troubles for a little while. Happiness? Only the rich worried about being happy. Everyone else settled for being content - or at the very least, not actively miserable.

Mário R. Gonçalves said...

Right, philosophy and not 'phylosophy' as I wrote, sorry. I am not native English speaker, though that's no excuse.

I don't agree that people don't wish, and try, to be happy even under extremely dismal conditions. There have always been lots of stories of love and hope in spite of a miserable life. Even in concentration camps. That 'hate' of the rich and of capitalism is one of Mr Verloren marks.

"Alexievich's parents had every reason to be happy without needing to reflect on it". But not at all. They had every reason to be unhappy, under the most repressive system on earth. I agree (and admire) with Svetlana, she is the most lucid witness of those horrible soviet times.

G. Verloren said...

"They had every reason to be unhappy, under the most repressive system on earth"

To suggest that the USSR was not drastically better after the end of WWII and the death of Stalin is ludicrous. It had severe faults, but it was hardly the most repressive system on earth - while figures like Pol Pot, Ho Chi Minh, Yakuba Gowon, and others were systematically slaughtering whole swathes of their citizenry, the average mid-Cold-War Soviet citizen lived a safe, prosperous, and fairly free life. It was far from ideal, but it was also nowhere near as bad as other people had it.

And that's ignoring my actual point - the Soviet Union during the Cold War was staggeringly less terrible that it had been in the first half of the century, and anyone who had living memory of how things used to be would have felt grateful that life was so much improved relatively speaking.

It's like going from being homeless and penniless, to merely being below the poverty line. Living in poverty isn't GOOD, but it's a lot better than having nothing.

I'm descended from immigrants who came to America with nothing, and who lived in poverty and faced social and systemic racism their entire lives - but they were happy because it was better than everything that had come before for multiple generations. They were exploited, they lacked equality and freedoms and acceptance and security, they were afraid to voice their true politics at times - by all measures they were a repressed people. And yet, they were no longer peasants and they could at least vote for whichever candidate seemed more likely to leave them alone instead of make their lives hell (they knew it was fantasy to imagine someone would actually REPRESENT them and their interests). It was a step up, and they were happy because they knew and remembered how much worse things could be for them.