Monday, June 13, 2005

Going Back Again

To write about the second study trip I made to the Soviet Union, in late 1969 and early 1970, is a different task from the one I set myself earlier, in the series of posts I called Going Back, about my visit to Moscow University in 1967.

The world - especially the Communist world - had changed.

I spent the early months of 1968 in Cambridge. Recently married, I’d been continuing to work on my Annensky dissertation, while paying attention to events in the U.K., particularly the student revolt, begun as elsewhere in the U.K. largely in imitation of the events in Paris, which were covered daily on TV and radio, and in the press, from which it was hard to remain detached if one lived in Cambridge: the so-called “Free University” was everywhere in evidence, with boycotts of lectures and lecturers, meetings and demonstrations. There was a sense of genuine change in the humanities side of the academic world, and the ideas of Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Benjamin, Lukacs, and so on were debated in a direct though feverish way that hadn’t been known in England before. The memories of my recent visit to Moscow hadn’t really faded much, and the conflict and contrast between what I’d experienced there and what was going on in British intellectual life – a steady leftward drift that proclaimed itself free of the “reified” machinations of Soviet ideology – had an effect on many, including myself. Looking back on it now, I think I wanted to believe that somehow there could be a viable alternative both to the dialectical materialism of the Soviet outlook and to what seemed the ossified rationality of “bourgeois” positivism, as evidenced by the Oxford school of philosophy and practitioners like Ayer and Popper, who gave the impression of having given up on any kind of creative or hope-inducing interpretation of contemporary society and the modern world. Rebellion and protest were in the air, and as a twenty-three year old student I wanted to rebel and protest – though somehow inside of me I knew that the whole crazy “situationist” experiment was probably doomed from the start. In Cambridge, we followed the events of the “Prague spring”, which radical students in the West were trying to associate with the Paris uprising, interpreting the Czech students’ very different revolt as an assertion of a “liberal” Marxism. Reading an unholy mix of Lacan, Heidegger, Benjamin, Artaud, Bataille, Bachelard, and so on, I tried at the same time to concentrate on drafting the first version of my dissertation, with its study of the influence of French symbolism on early Russian symbolism, and particularly on the work of Annensky.

A major shock came in August, with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. For most in the West – and in Czechoslovakia, too – this was a truly unexpected event. No one had believed that the Soviets would intervene, in a replay of Hungary 1956, taking on themselves again the ignominy that intervention had involved. There was also the possibility, for the first time since the late 1940s, that the Soviets would start exerting military pressure on the West, and even move into Western Germany. The prospect of a tactical nuclear war was, for a time, quite a real one - though this was downplayed in the Western press.

The poet W.H. Auden wrote:

The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach:
The Ogre cannot master speech.

About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.

The British and European “New Left” and the “student revolution” which had become infatuated with dreams of “socialism with a human face”, seeing this ideal realized in the aspirations of Alexander Dubcek and his fellow politicians, did not really recover from this shock, which in addition to shattering the dreams of Czech democrats, also checked the impetus of a Western social movement which, for a few months, had looked as though it might radically transform the political landscape of Europe. The demonstration outside the Soviet embassy in London that took place shortly afterwards was a much smaller and more restrained affair than the massive demonstrations against U.S. involvement in Vietnam that had rocked Grosvenor Square earlier in the year. I’d taken part in them all, yet it was the Czech demonstration that began to finally change my thinking about world politics, and to lead me to realize that most of the ideas my generation had fed on were hollow and empty. It also led me to a split in perception and allegiance: while part of me identified with my Western and British contemporaries, who weren’t involved with the study of Russia and the Soviet Union, and didn’t know what life was like over there, another part of me felt increasingly allied with those people of my age in Eastern Europe and the USSR who were resisting a brutal enslavement of minds and persons.

I spent most of the rest of 1968, and the early part of 1969 in Cambridge, continuing to work on my dissertation. At the same time, looking back on it now, I think it’s true to say that throughout all this time I was casting around for a way to unite within myself the “Western” and “East European” modes of seeing the world and its problems. This made the prospect of the forthcoming second study trip to Moscow all the more auspicious. My wife, who was preoccupied with mathematical research, didn’t see the forthcoming visit in quite the same terms – yet for her, too, this was to be an eye-opening experience in terms of personal and political awareness, and cultural contrast.

(to be continued)

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