Christopher Sloce, socialist writer and co-host of the It Can Be Done podcast, responds to Elif Batuman’s peice “Novels of Empire” This is the fifth installment of The Culture Column, a series criticizing the culture we have so we can create the culture we want.

In the early days of the Ukrainian War, PEN Ukraine (Poets, Essayists, and Novelists) made a request for international support dealing with Russia’s invasion.

The website for PEN Ukraine’s #StopWarAgainstUkraine campaign outlines 3 demands: to cut Russia off of using SWIFT, a Belgian international co-operative society that allows money to be transformed from bank to bank; to protect Ukraine airspace; and to send NATO forces. The second request effectively is a weasel wording for a “no fly zone”,  which would require NATO forces to shoot down any Russian aircraft flying over Ukraine on sight. The third request is what it sounds like.

NATO’s reasoning behind not complying with either of these requests is simple: 1) Ukraine is not a NATO member, and 2) inviting NATO forces into the war would escalate into conflict between nuclear powers.  

Another request to the international community, calling for “A total boycott of books from Russia in the world!” included this line: “Russian propaganda is woven into many books which indeed turns them into weapons and pretexts for the war.” No specific books are named, so nobody can confirm or deny this fact.

Per usual, propaganda is when your enemies communicate and when you do it, it’s the truth, which is propaganda in and of itself. No Ukrainian novel could ever be propaganda; propaganda is for spooky Russians with dossiers full of kompromat and a Hunnic taste for endless expansion, which ends up infecting their novels as well. 

Or does it? That’s effectively what novelist and memoirist Elif Batuman ponders in her essay “Novels of Empire” or, as it is titled online, “Rereading Russian Classics in The Shadow of the Ukraine War”.

A helpful tagline: “How to reckon with the ideology of Anna Karenina, Eugene Onegin, and other beloved books.” In the space of a title and by-line, we have two issues effectively asked: how much should we blame Russian culture for Putin’s invasion? And then there’s the ancillary, more vaporous debate: is it okay to read problematic literature?

At least, those are the stakes as presented by Batuman. The essay, in the classic ponderous form of the American literary “thoughtful” house style, would seem to aim for something like “objectivity”.

It builds to the sort of piquant ending that’s supposed to linger as a great finisher, and throughout, Batuman presents a series of dualities. Take her discussion of Georgia: Georgia was “conquered” by the Red Army, but Stalin’s birthday is still celebrated. Batuman enjoys Russian literature enough that she has a master’s degree in Russian literature and wrote not one but two books named after Dostoevsky novels , but she doesn’t like how Russian literature gets propped up by the Russian state.

In fact, it’s something like that very objectivity that got her into Russian literature in the first place: 

“As an only child, going back and forth between my divorced parents (both scientists) during the school year, and spending summers with family in Turkey, I grew up surrounded by different, often mutually exclusive opinions and world views. I came to pride myself on a belief in my own objectivity, a special ability to hold in my mind each side’s good points, while giving due weight to the criticisms.

I fell in love with Anna Karenina because of how clearly it showed that no character was wrong—that even the unreasonable-seeming people were doing what appeared right to them, based on their own knowledge and experiences. As a result of everyone’s having different knowledge and experiences, they disagreed, and caused each other unhappiness. And yet, all the conflicting voices and perspectives, instead of creating a chaos of non-meaning, somehow worked together to generate more meaning.”

But things have changed. While Batuman was once happy to uphold objectivity, now, the shadow of Putin extends all across time, choking the sunlight out of Russia’s literature. Reflecting on “The Bronze Horseman”, a poem of Pushkin’s that begins with Peter the Great looking at the swamp where he planned to found St. Petersburg and thinks to himself, “From here, we will threaten the Swede,” she says, “It wasn’t like there was nothing there that could remind you of Putin.”

Of course, objectivity rears its head again when she discusses how, in the poem, the statue of Peter comes alive and terrorizes a clerk to death. Each of these juxtapositions would seemingly tell the reader, “In conclusion, Russia is a land of contrasts,” showing both the highlights of Russian culture and its ongoing low-lights.

Wouldn’t, then, Pushkin’s poetry have both the “conflicting voices and perspectives” that work together to generate more meaning?

But a careful reading shows that’s not exactly what Batuman is up to. On a surface read, it might look like an unremarkable piece of NPR drippiness communicated in the novocaine injected rhetorical crutches of our middle and upper middle class culture. There’s a certain affect the shibboleths of our intellectual culture take on: a narcotized thoughtfulness that drifts between high minded liberal fantasia dotted with sudden realizations of one’s actual effect on the world (though those realizations don’t ever lead to anything, and instead just increase how thoughtful the writer looks).

If you want to seem literary and thoughtful, write about everything like you’re Carrie Bradshaw getting ready to have an epiphany about some broker she’s laying. The more rhetorical questions that you’re going to answer later in the essay, mostly by implication, the more thoughtful you are. (Or are you?)

The faux-introspection of the thoughtful style drives directly into rhetorical thickets, because literariness and thoughtfulness are one in the same, and to be thoughtful is to be ‘literary’. “Georgia’s tangled history with Russia seemed to open out before me like another pathway in an ever-forking maze,” she writes, turning a straightforward metaphor into a tangle when “another path in an endless maze” is cleaner.

And anybody who refers to something they were taught and internalized as “mental furniture” is beyond saving.

Because there’s so much thought put into doing all of the tricks of the house style– the tortured metaphors, the piquant fact placed like a mint on a pillow, gestures towards social concerns– the effort must have value. Put Elif Batuman on a cruise ship, like narcissist hack par excellence David Foster Wallace, and it becomes tolerable. But this war, one that is drawing the world into a vulgar series of camps, is not the place for NPR’s dental equipment whirring.

The war, in Batuman’s piece, is ever present, but still under discussed. What’s important is that Batuman experiences the good and bad of Russian culture enough that it has a bittersweet tinge, one that can be felt by the New Yorker’s audience. Batuman acts as a sin-eater, with stacks of Russian books taking the place of the beer and bread, but instead of the war’s dead, the sins devoured is the guilt of the thoughtful liberal who has always wanted to read Anna Karenina and now with Batuman’s authority, can point towards why they won’t. 

There is a scare word operating in the background of Batuman’s essay, is it okay to enjoy art that’s problematic? What’s “problematic” about Russian literature is its connection to the Russian empire from Anna Karenina’s affair with a cavalry officer to Pushkin writing about Peter the Great. Like a lot of words we use to waffle around or simplify the complicated, there is an element of truth to “problematic”: no author, including smart-asses writing cultural criticism for Marxist websites, is completely removed from the ills of their time, and what was once progressive will reveal the prejudices of its time.

But “problematic” is nebulous: it makes the existence of a ‘problem’ the problem rather than naming the problem, allowing its very presence to act as a blanket for whatever variety of sins. What makes a piece of art “problematic” can pop up everywhere from the story told to the storyteller, and the definition of “where” in relation to the story and storyteller is nebulous, depending on how bad faith of an interpretation you want to make.

A piece of art becomes something you put on trial to meet a series of moral checkpoints (usually not factoring in other variables; in a vacuum Promising Young Woman is a more “moral” film than Basic Instinct, but it’s the morally reprehensible one of the pair) instead of an object created to give another experience of the world than what was already there, or to expand on what was. Batuman doesn’t say “problematic” because the essay is in The New Yorker, but there is a similar logic at play here. The stakes have increased to something greater than assailing the morality of people who argue about their favorite  Supernatural character. 

Now if Russian literature is problematic, it is aiding Vladimir Putin in his quest to regain the former glory of a chimeric Russian greatness. There are no innocents in Russia because there is no capacity for innocence. Even the best of their culture is covered in the powder burns from the hussar’s pistols.

Never mind the absurdism of Danil Kharms or the vision of the Strugatsky Brothers or the poetry of Mayakovsky or even the gut level horrors of war that Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry portrays: there is only Putin, considered the apotheosis of the Russian experience; Stalin without the decadent communism and Peter the Great as the conqueror of Nazis. For all of Batuman’s gestures towards objectivity, for the literary establishment, the question of objectivity is up in the air now for Russians. 

All of this is a cost of the war. It is a great Manichean battle:  the good Ukrainians who love democracy and the bad Russians who love authoritarianism. Nevermind Zelensky, beneficiary of one of the most obnoxious liberal lovefests since Hamilton, who’s cracked down on trade unions, left parties who might see the war for what it is and see Ukrainians dying for a flag that’s already sold the country to a disastrous post war reconstruction plan, and even the Russian Orthodox Church.

Liberals who would have put safety pins on their eyebrows to show solidarity during Trump’s early presidency don’t see any of these things, and if they do, they agree. The Russiagate hysteria primed the pump for the carte-blanche acceptance of any measures taken against Russia. Once you think the President of the United States is a secret Russian agent like the world is Rocky and Bullwinkle, it’s over for everybody else. 

A more fitting and timely reference would be that Donald Trump was a member of HYDRA, the Nazi descended organization that infiltrated SHIELD in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (I had to phone a friend for that). Even though the Trump Russia hysteria fizzled, a second front was opened in the fight for Western democracy–the only kind of democracy that can ever exist– and Putin became the figurehead of a new Axis of evil.

The flattening of the complex network of countries and markets into a story of Good versus Evil has resulted in a new era of dangerous nationalism that American liberals think they’re above. America’s status as a hegemon may be slipping, but until the moment the glass breaks, liberals will continue to believe that they are pouring water into the aquarium rather than swimming inside of it.

To return to the Marvel Cinematic Universe for a moment, this comes from the testimony of Pavlo Kazarin, a journalist who volunteered to fight in Ukraine, published on no website less than NATO’s, who views Ukraine as a useful piece in their goal of pushing the Russians further into a corner: “Ukraine is hosting one of the great epics of this century. We are Harry Potter and William Wallace, the Na’vi and Han Solo. We’re escaping from Shawshank and blowing up the Death Star. We are fighting with the Harkonnens and challenging Thanos.”

Every comparison here invites the same Manichean battles of good and evil, other than the misreading of Dune that puts the Azov Battalion in a grimmer light than they’d like. It also looks like a vacation in Orlando, Florida, where you can buy tickets to pretend you’re a wizard, a superhero, or a space cowboy. And for the online among us, it brings to mind that “problematic” as a term emerged from spaces where fandoms thrived: the social conflagration based around the enjoyment of any of these franchises, full of its readymade controversies and inside jokes.

Above all else, Ukraine has been sold as a story: David and Goliath, the Resistance and the Empire, the Red Sox and the Yankees. With phenomena like the NAFO, or the North American Fellas Organization, the pro-Ukraine meme propagandists exhibit an interaction with the Ukraine War that feels more like being a fan of anime rather than fanning nuclear flames. And it’s the simple moral compass of these stories, bereft of any complicating elements, that feeds into the gawking desire for the war, to take part in the epic of our times. 

What exists as a counter to this simplistic drive for blood is the Keatsian negative capability great literature allows us, a space where we are “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. Rather than exist in conversation with the world around them. In that negative capability sits the ability for all types of stories to exist.

Rather than literature priming us to punish and alienate what we don’t recognize, it should allow us to exist, seeking to understand. With that search begins the attempt to make sense of the world without supplied, easy answers. From there, we might understand that the narrative of the Ukraine War, rather than being a struggle between good and evil, is a battle pitched on the question of who gets to exploit Ukraine as a bulwark against the other. Only one possibility allows for the existence of Russian and Ukrainian life and in it the lives of all others: a simple call for peace. Only the end of war restores the possibility of life in the shadow of Putin, Zelensky, and NATO, even if it comes to pass the only way to end this imperialist war is for the people to turn bayonets on the generals and leaders of Russia and Ukraine alike. The stakes are evident.

Batuman was once able to sit in that negative capability. But the stakes of inter-imperialist war are high. The contributors to the casual dehumanization of Russian people culture as we saw in the early days of the war, when Russian displays of the arts were canceled worldwide, immediately benefit the end goal of imperialism. That goal, the attempt to control as much of the world as one can, cannot allow for ambiguity.

No wonder then that the pro-war boosters of each side rely on the simplistic stories of goodies and baddies better suited for cereal boxes. With the continued dehumanization of the arts, what will be left in its place is the infantile narratives of nationalism and quipping superheroes. It is no accident that’s what’s left. It should also not be a surprise that the liberal arts community, who supposedly respect the power of art as an implement to democracy and civil society, have made their bed with bourgeois democracy, a democracy exists to supplement their power alone, no matter what ballets get stopped in the process.

If Russian ballet for a moment allows a vector of interpretation of the rules and mores of the new great game, then the very classes that supported freedom in the arts will view it as dangerous. 

When PEN America and PEN International was established in April 19, 1922, the goal was to “foster international literary fellowship among writers that would transcend national and ethnic divides.” The very first line of the PEN Charter reads as follows: “Literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.

Those writers who worked on such a small fellowship in the face of the horrors of Verdun and trenches are a better model than the quivering, hemming and hawwing of Elif Batuman. Either literature is common currency among people or it isn’t. The Batumans of the world want to make it weapons and pretexts for the war.

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