Impatience as politics
In an essay on Turgenev, Isaiah Berlin cited the review of one of his first novels, On the Eve, by a radical Russian critic, Dobrolyubov:
" 'If you sit in an empty box, and try to upset it with yourself inside it, what a fearful effort you have to make! But if you come at it from the outside, one push will topple the box."... Those who are truly serious must get out of the Russian box, break off every relationship with the entire monstrous structure, and then knock it over from the outside."
This is our feeling about the U.S.A. at the moment -- although it alternates, every day, with other feelings. What American writer, after all, can afford to be out of the box? But what American writer can afford not to dream, at least, about climbing out and giving it a splendiferous kick? So one ends up half in and half out of Dobrolyubov's box.
This is the awkward state that has prompted LI to examine our impatience, exhibited at large on this site, at least since the start of the Iraq war. In the last post, with the help of the Gospels, we analyzedimpatience from the situational perspective. But what about total impatience? What if the obstacle in one’s way seems to be a total, encompassing structure -- a box, if you will. Or a coffin. What if the jab of passion -- Jesus' hunger, the barfly's thirst -- is not provoked by any one momentary need, but the sum total and onslaught of all one’s needs? What if my lungs are filled with the debris of the million media meditated stupidities that circulate around in the very air of this country, getting in one's pores? It smells like America, every day. What if one wakes up in a catacomb, and is assured that it is the homeland?
Questions which occurred to me reading Chekhov’s The Duel, which Chekhov wrote in 1891, after making his trip to the penal colony of Sakhalin Island. In our first post about this, we said that if we were to teach history class about Lenin, we would certainly assign Chekhov. Reading Chekhov in the age of Bush, which is making Lenins of us all, gives us a renewed sense of two intellectual responses to an era that deliberately wallows in its own ignorance, that deliberately and viciously tears down the characters of its best and most intelligent members while lavishing admiration on its brutes, its monied, its vacuous: resignation and impatience.
In our post about the image of Bolshevism that Cold War ideologues claimed to derive an from Dostoevsky’s analysis of nihilism, the claim received its plausibility from the idea that Stalin’s crimes demonstrated the truth of the Dostoevskian dictum, if there is no God, everything is permitted. In choosing Chekhov as our literary lens, we want to paraphrase that dictum, exchanging it for something like: if there is no God of love, then love is not permitted. In one way, it is easy to see how we can move from the desire to blow up the bonds of affection that tie God to us and us to God to the fear that this means pulling the rug out from under all social bonds of affection. If the love of God is an interested illusion, the projection of an emotion upon an imaginary object – one begins to wonder about the supposedly real objects of one’s affections, and about the very process of that projection. The future of an illusion – isn’t it to be smashed? And that, we think, is the disturbing thing about The Duel.