Sunday, May 30, 2010

Go Back to the Shadows

I should probably know better than to try to piece stereotypes together like pieces of a rational puzzle, and yet I still do it all the time.

The other day, I saw a man reading some kind of Weekly World News or Star Magazine type journal. was of that "not serious" flavor, for all of our sakes. On the obverse (from him - the side facing me, that is to say), I saw an advertisement for male enhancement herbal drugs developed in Nepal. Isn't that something - the conflicting racist stereotypes - the one desire to emasculate Asian races with comments about their penis size (which might fuel the ad campaign - "There was high demand for this, so they developed it") compared to the stereotype of any Asian race as masters of herbal remedies and esoteric sciences (so they can market an exciting, exotic variation on the male enhancement scam).

I guess I've half-answered my own query. If you think "supply/demand" then you can justify the whole racist enterprise; if you think in terms of whether or not the medicine might actually work, then it all breaks down. Because if "Asian masters of herbology" have perfected a male enhancement drug, there should be no stereotype of the small Asian penis.

I used a hypothetical "you" in that last paragraph. I got into trouble with that when I went to burgers with Gypsy-Song, Briullov, and company. Gypsy-Song said she didn't care for my Butler allusion and I explained, to the rest of the company, that I was extending her metaphor about the heteronormative and the transvestite. "...but if you see a transvestite on the bus, you'd feel more threatened than you would by the same individual you saw on stage."

Gypsy-Song asked, "Who's 'you' in this story?"

"The heteronormative Great White Male."

"See, that's what I don't agree with. I don't think that such an opinion is normal."

"Of course it's not normal," I said, "But it's prevalent [I ought to have said 'normative] - else why would there be such a big deal about securing equal rights for humans, regardless of their sexuality?"

"Oh, people are stupid," she said. "Look at how many people follow the Tea Party."

"The Tea Party is the best thing to ever happen to the Republican Party," - this was Debbie/Dallas interjecting, "I'm excited to see them split themselves up."

The girls are likely right. I still let myself fall into the trap of the hidden center, from time to time. Hopefully there's no one who would fall for the racist stereotypes of an ad; hopefully there's no one who would fit the criteria to act as the heteronormative Great White Male. I'm scared they number more than I care to admit.

A young GI sat next to me on the final leg of my journey, possibly reading me writing about the possibility of him reading me writing about the possibility of him...

Again with the craziness. I was tempted to grill him: how old are you? Were you just on drill or in some flavor of deployment? Why did you join? What are your hopes and dreams? Who is the enemy? Why are you fighting?

I didn't, though.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

I can listen to Pandora once again!

Alright, now I'm back, typical for the atypical, that narrative voice of Neurogia you know and love. Bukowski's narrator is a gross and pathetic misogynist, but there's something fun and alluring to the beer-bellied, apathetic beatnicitude of it all the same. So, slice and splice, inculcate, depricate, play the typical Western mystic and take those aspects of some ancient and spiritual tradition, remove the spiritual and the ancient and the traditional, and market the rest.

I am a very good American boy.

But really, there comes a point when being beatnik stops being cute and cool and rebellious and dissident, and just becomes a drunk old man who hasn't amounted to anything, a point when I start querying the narrative because there's no way this man who just described himself as a 280-pound loser can really be pulling as much tail as he claims to be. At the risk of shattering the aura of mystery around mine Portsmouthwerk, I must say I've figured out a new facet to the philosophy major's ideal fate. Always fun and exciting.

The whole point with the last post was that I allowed myself a moment of regression. I've already established for myself the parameters of how I understand humans and their agency, but I had a relapse into a different mindset. The question was whether I should dramatize this summer [June, at least] into "internal exile" or if I could ignore the sirens' song from the coast, so far and yet so close.

The problem is that I didn't go for a run yesterday. The days to be afraid are the days when I don't run run run. On my run today, I pondered the problem - this past year I've changed to uncertain or unfamiliar settings to force myself to query new things. The challenge presently upon me, then, is to query the painfully common and certain and familiar.

Location is just a set of space-time coordinates, after all.

Friday, May 28, 2010

At the Post Office, Take 2, Except Not

home and safe. long line at dc plus bukowski = destruction of the english language. an elderly couple in front of me:
Joe American: Look at how few of the stations are open. Great job, Obama.
Jane American: [chuckling] Oh, you.
i looked up from Post Office, imagined a sarcastic response:
Right, because every minor inconvenience is Obama's personal wrong-doing. If McCain and Palin had won the presidency, all these foreign nationals would be shot as soon as they stepped on US soil, so at least we'd have those stations at our disposal as well...
but fantasy!Icarus is braver than I shall ever be (cf the post before this).

but lines, man, hanging out with raised emotions (even though those emotions be low-level anxiety and disgruntlement flavored with a light salting of despair) with the same select group of people results in a bizarre and artificial emotion of camaraderie, particularly when this is a line, many of whose denizens feel it is perfectly acceptable to air one's dirty laundry at higher-than-normal-speaking-volume. we might almost have been friends, once.

Wif laughed when I told her about my Bukowski-tinged dreams. She said, "You let yourself be too strongly affected by the literature you're reading."

She raised her hands to the sea and sky and said, "This is P'mouth! You're back!"

She pointed her hand at me and said, "It's you, in P'mouth!"

and then i drove back home.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Oh, Coward, Every Time.

It's one thing to recognize that a poet's character speaks, but not for the author, that the writer speaks, but not on behalf of his time. It's a whole other beast to internalize that belief, to understand that it's both the very heart of the matter and completely unnecessary to look at creative individuals, these thinkers and these dreamers, these ticking time bombs of suicide and rage and love, all emotion amplified, all decisions exemplified, all voices testifying to one Purpose, and think that we'd untangle to the heart of some mythic Zeitgeist.

How easy it is, likewise, to call Stalin the WRITER of his era, like Tolstoy rules his flock, a higher calling controls the stock and hollow tocks upon the hammer's anvil. Instead we hear the cacophony of voices, the pigeons cooing all amass, and moving to those pitched out crumbs from higher hands their teeth to gnash. Multiple hands, and though strings might pull upon the birds' shit wings, they are so many and so invisibly tangled there can be no thought about cause and effect. So I should just STOP IT already. It has to be a path of thick description; it must be the game of articulating magic the likes of which no one will like but, like, maybe me alone.
His [Pasternak's] wife recalled that when they got to the shore [after their boat almost capsized] he was "white as a sheet" - but, as even the Romans noted, the best soldier is the one who pales after the danger's passed: the coward is afraid before the fight, the brave one - afterwards.
I hate flying.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

There's no Sun in the Subconscious, so whence the Shadow?

I'll break an unwritten law I had for myself - not to admit when I'm describing a dream sequence, but to allow the surreality to take care of that statement. I originally wanted not to be all "this is reality, this is not" on your asses.

Like a recent Doctor Who episode, I've been having bad dreams recently. Mine are less focused sati-driven themes, though - more on the bit where our own minds are able to pick up on exactly what would scare us the most, and toy with the places that scare us, and not in the good way.

The Shadow Icarus of one dream (to use the Jungian archetype) had a blog, like mine, also with crazy nicknames, like mine, and included links to people's blogs, which counteracts the whole question of pretending to write the stories with anonymity.

So when he talked about a character named "Athenian" (because this dude was so pretentiously philosophical, as I gathered), and linked to this blog as he's systematically writing every failing I've ever had: "Athenian is one of those guys who..." etc., etc, I felt the upset.

Dream!Icarus wrote an email: "I'm not trying to deny your freedom of speech, but could you at least take down the links that directly identify me in your comments?"

Le sigh. Joseph Campbell wrote about how we see The Shadow in myths as these fantastic villains - like Percival's half-brother, whom he fights for the right to enter the Grail Castle. My Shadow is nowhere near as cool.

Then I was punished for quoting Dmitriev earlier. I was walking downtown through one of those thunderstorms, but this one wasn't stopping. This one kept raging and the wind was all up in my grill and there were puddles bound by jersey barriers that retained water rising up to your thigh.

My subconscious is systematically destroying me, the man and the environment, the pelagic depths swirling in the wake of the fall. The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned...

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Now I just need a superhero(villain?) name.

The most impressive feat from last night was when The Doctor's Brother's...well, I don't even know how to describe her. Crush? Very-temporary-love-interest? Anyway. There was an individual sitting down the table and we thought, "She looks like that girl from How I Met Your Mother. What's that character's name?" And we thought and pondered and contemplated and came up with Barney Marshall Lily Ted and...

And we drew a blank.

Staring across the table at one another, whoever was participating in this - definitely me, Waterloo, The Doctor's Brother - I think Briullov and Gypsy-Song were off having a more intellectual conversation or two - and I remembered: "Robin! Robin Robin Robin!"

Be impressed. I have inherited my father's ability to retain obscene amounts of useless trivia. It shall combine with my other superpowers to help me take. over. the. world.

I already have a sworn nemesis and everything! Yes. Good. Good. Very good. Everything is falling into place.

Friday, May 21, 2010

It's all for you, Damien!

Study this. There will be a test. We have, my friends, the opportunity to look into the eyes of our enemies and defeat them, if only we can spend long enough staring.

I decided, recently, and in related news, that no one ever can tell what color my eyes are. I swore - perhaps rashly, perhaps crazily - that the first woman who can tell me, without any prompting or hinting or knowing about this comment, that my eyes are blue, will bear my children.

I know it's the word of a crazy person. I know my eyes are a very dark and stormy blueish gray, but they're my dark and stormy blueish gray, and I don't like it when I've been told to my face that I have brown eyes or hazel eyes. No. False.

I'm fine with it when people think my irises are black, though, that's fun and exciting. Like Damien. Or Paul Atreides.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

You may call me Orgoch.

There are so many stories I want to tell, stories I've never gotten to about characters who've been in the background but never announced, like Gypsy-Song and the Queen Supreme, like Waterloo and The Doctor’s Brother, all of the whores at the end of the universe that we are, but half of those stories aren’t mine to tell, and the other half I’m bound by circumspection not to recount, and there’s an extra third that defy any flavor description I might give to them.

We’re nearing one of the edges of this blog-tapestry, and the weave is fraying. Can you feel it? No matter the story I try to tell, it starts getting crazy. Crazy crazy crazy. And those repeated images and phrases I keep using may well turn yet into a system of careful motif and theme, or could simply devolve into lazy repetitions, or may form nothing more than a corpus of practice sketches to one as-yet-unformed oeuvre. And as Mickey Fouc says, a genius is just a madman with l'oeuvre -- so until that day, I'm just a crazy person.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Workin at the post office, yea!

I went to the post office!

I said goodbye to a great many books, the exact weight of which I will have to tell you when I receive them back in the US-of. My receipt says that I shipped two packages at 5 kg each, but no way was I only carrying 10 kg when I felt like I was going to die. Granted, I had overpacked the shopping bags I was using, and the handles had broken before I even reached the metro, and that might have something to do with it...

I make adventures for myself. I had to walk past the Central Telegraph building to draw out enough money, and then come back, and saw a sign that said "international shipping" pointing into a sketchy backdoor area. It fit with my assumptions that the post office would be in this creepy place, so I might as well follow the sign, right? And so I did.

After fifteen minutes in a line I wasn't meant to be in (and feeling like a character in Sorokin's novel) I saw that everyone had filled out forms and asked the person in front of me where I could get some. He dug a set out of a cardboard box, and I decided it would be worth my while to duck out of line, write the forms with very careful beautiful handwriting, and then start again. And so I did.

Halfway through the form-filling, I got to the question "what items are you shipping and how much do they weigh?" I asked a woman, nearby, if I had to weigh every book individually or if I could get away with writing "books." She replied - and you've been waiting for this realization to come - that I was in the wrong room, the wrong line, using the wrong forms, and I needed to go into the main entrance. And so I did.

There, I became momentarily discouraged by the "line" (read as: "pressing crowd") of citizens around the first bank of windows, all of which read "Mailing throughout Russia." I kept walking down the hall, walking walking, ooh cement glue! walking, walking, and came upon the "Packaging and Mailing Internationally" window.

There was no line! See, above, the weird can't-actually-be-the-right-weight parcels the employee made of my books. Three didn't fit, but that's a number I can handle. It's a magic number!

The best part was when the employee finished with the second parcel (really, they are parcels, cardboard paper wrapped in twine, om nom nom) and asked, "More sdelaiem?" [Will we make (or do) the sea?]

I thought, "I couldn't possibly have heard that correctly," and said, "Shto-shto?" [Sorry, what?]

More sdelaim?

I thought, "What the shiz? What sea? I don't get it..." and - as my mind always draws up for reference when I hear the word "more," the phrase from Tolstoy came to mind, "nashe more otchaiania" [our sea of despair] - and I got all the more confused.

She looked exasperated at this point, but was kind enough to explain: "Do you want to send it by sea or by air?"

"Ohhhhhhh," I both said and thought. "Sea'll be more economic, right? Let's do that."

She nodded, and started typing up the receipt.

Meantime, I pictured a Russian freighter sailing the oceans, blue "Pochta" sign on its hull matching the roiling azure of the oceantide, and then I pictured a Somali pirate vessel taking said freighter captive, and then I couldn't decide if I was dreading that possibility or hoping it'd occur, since I'd thereafter be able to say, "Pirates stole my research."

I'm sad they don't ship crude oil and the post on the same vessels.

Sandy salty om nom nom

I'm going to skip the anger and rage this article inspired because you've heard me say it before. At some point it's just babies crying in a nursery for the sake of crying, and no one can do anything to calm them down for all the sobbing, and no one can hear the individuals for the cacophony of voices.

If that article were part of Catch-22 I could laugh at it. As Judith Butler has already explicated, someone who buys into a normative version of the world can still find a transvestite on stage funny, even if he would be discomfited or upset by that same individual on a bus.
Butler's full article is "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory," Theatre Journal vol. 40 no. 4(1988) 519-531, for those playing along at home.
I mean to say that in a satirical or fictional context, this performance of sadness and retrospection, brought about by this arbitrary number, this one thousandth death, would be a moment of high artistic value. In the bus that is this world, hurtling along some road that can only end, presumably, in a murky body of oil-piss-water we've spilled for our greed, which we'll try to clean up by some Iranian nuclear weapon's test strike, it's just pitiful.

I wonder how many Faustian watchdog lists I just signed up for with that last sentence.

The point here is that I think it's a performance, a propagandic performance, a hollow and empty pretense at sorrow, that comes about at any of these "landmark" deaths. How come we still haven't realized that it's not dulce et decorum pro patrii mori? Faced with the dehumanizing effect of statistics and numbers, rather than addressing the problem that is creating those statistics and numbers, our response is to try to rehumanize the dead? That's stupid. That's like looking at a patient with an infection on a hospital bed, and instead of diagnosing the specific infection and giving whatever regimen of steroids and antibiotics is necessary, providing palliatives for all the symptoms. It's not "like" that - that is precisely the phenomenon under question. The one-thousandth little boy who gave his life for freedom [this he knows for those who bade him fight had told him so] gets a special exposé in the New York Times not for anything special about his life, about his death, except for that number; conversely, the nine hundred ninety-seventh, -eighth, and -ninth soldiers to live and die were no more or less special than Mr. One-Thousand, except that they died too soon. And, of course, the obverse with Soldier One-Thousand-and-One.

It's like that Biblical story, when Abraham tries to talk his God into sparing Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of a certain number of people. He talks the Wrathful One down to sparing the cities for just 10 people -- but even as a kid, I remember it upset me that he didn't try to save the cities for the sake of one person. The tale is contradictory - on the one hand, it says the number of "good" people is irrelevant (inasmuch as he talks down the collective number of good souls) but on the other, the number is of the utmost importance (because there still must be a total of ten souls for the cities to be saved).

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Don't blink. Don't even blink.

People have been asking me, recently, how I feel about leaving.

It's like...yesterday I walked through setting sunlight into a cafe, and there were only some small grey clouds that could have been posing as smokestack-jizz or smog. By the time I was settled I noticed that the lighting had changed, all the people who'd been reclining out on the patio were standing in the airlock, staring at the gloom and hail. Within five minutes the sun was back out, but it was still storming. For the next three hours, my work was accompanied by a crazy mix of sunset-colored skies and the fiercest of fierce thunderstorms.

Moscow is, of course, no port city; no drizzly rainy maritime daylong very gross gloom, here. Well. Sometimes. But it's not maritime, in any case, and it's not often. Every phenomenon eventually occurs, and everything has its time, but that time limit is akin to how long bad performers are allowed on the entry rounds of American Idol before Simon buzzes them off the stage. All are the rage and the storm and sound and fury, signifying nothing, and their ilk.

Um. What was the question?

In pointed the-hero-and-his-shadow dichotomy is the conversation (in a different cafe, but during a most similar storm) Briullov and I had, where Briullov said, "Sometimes I'm excited that there are just a couple of weeks left."

Briullov says, "I don't think I could handle much longer than that."

Briullov says, "We're kind of crazy people, you and I. We make it so everything - even sitting in this cafe - is stressful."

Briullov says, "But we've gotten a lot done."

Monday, May 17, 2010

There's something on your back

Sibulla, ti theleis?
That's from The Wasteland, Eliot himself quoting the Satyricon. "For I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl of Cumae hanging in a jar, and when the boys said to her, 'Sibyl, what do you want?' [Sibulla, ti theleis?] she replied, 'I wish to die.'"

Ok, so it ends up being depressing and morbid. The Sibyl asked Apollo for eternal life but forgot to ask for eternal youth, so she withered and wasted until she was so tiny the people could hang her in a jar, like a moth in a cocoon; later, she was just a voice echoing from that jar. A fate, as the cliche goes, worse than death.

I'm not interested in her response, though. I'm interested in the fact that the boys said SIBYL, what do YOU want? The Sibyl is never just a person, never just a revered seer/immortal. She is the one who ought to be questioned; that is her role. I haven't read The Satyricon - is it so readily apparent in it that the village boys have CORRUPTED the very foundation of the Sibyl's role in myths? The Sibyl, acting upon her own desires (answering what SHE wants), can't pronounce those confused messages from the gods that more often lead to heroes' ruin than not.
Pyrrhus, you the Romans will defeat.
There is no INPUT value for her to begin the process of trickery (because the boys haven't alluded to their own desires). Think about this in terms of kulturovedenie. A person can never escape her home culture - nor the heroes the path that brought them to the Sibyl's cave - but the questions they ask there, no matter how informed by that baggage, can escape the stigma of the INPUT; if the questions lack self-interest and personal, imperial, colonial agendae, they lack an INPUT -

I argue not, here, for a sense of some kind of questioning that would be objective and true, nor even do I need to maintain the dichotomy of objective-subjective. I want only to say that any interpersonal contact will lead to catastrophic ruin the flavor of a Greek tragedy so much as it is based upon those selfish inputs.

There's somewhere hidden here the foundation of my critique to Ayn Rand's selfish Objectivism. I've just not puzzled it out yet.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see...

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Day in the Old, Newly Cast

I went to St. Petersburg!

And I watched how the sun rose over the river.

It was an amazing day. Starik said it was the first of such warm, sunny days they'd had this year. It was awesome, and according to the Russian version of google maps I ended up logging some 18 miles of wandering the city streets, but I was always bothered by this feeling that summer-Piter is so radically different than the Piter I once knew.

I had breakfast in a cafe Briullov recommended, and it was most disconcerting - this cafe was located on the same street as my university and gym, and I remember passing it almost every day, and even thinking, so often, that I should step in, and yet I never did. It was precisely my taste, a little basement haven, tastefully and comfortably done, for little wannabe-hipster kids and mel'kie biznismeny [small-business owners/middle-management].

Still, I interpreted signs that told me I was meant to come take a day of relaxation in the Northern Capital.

And God smiling down upon from above Smolny Institute. The city was familiar but I couldn't call it "mine." Aslan's not a tame lion.

But maybe that's a good lesson to learn, before I leave Russia. The city lives and the city breathes and grows. I had a moment where I thought I was lost, looking for one of the major prospekts. I thought, "I have to be headed in the right direction - if I go too far one way I'll hit the river, too far the other way and I'll hit Nevsky Prospekt - the only street I can come across is Liteiny, but where is it?" I was in a section of the city whose streets I'd often pounded, and to see it in that new light, in that disconcerting light of almost-zabluzhdenie was like Yoda shouting at me from his perch upon my back. [zabluzhdenie technically means "delusion" but it's the noun formed from the verb "to be lost" so I mean it, here, to signify "almost-lost-itude." It's not just English I'm systematically destroying.]

The irrational artist side of me rejects the ideas of loss and (de)evolution that typically retain hegemony over discussions of the built environment. The world is cyclical in its reformations, and even if the god must break the egg from which he's born, yet another egg will take its place. There's no point in riddling whether the chicken or the egg came first.

In normal terms: even the most familiar objects, like the Hermitage, above, can be recast in a new light; but when I took that picture I was consciously copying a Soviet photographer I know, just so I could write this statement:
Ceci n'est pas un photographe d'Ignatovich.

Because even the most familiar objects, even in the most cyclical or canonical representations, can offer enlightenment to the subject, even if they, the objects, haven't changed. Starik is kind of like Barbie, and rather anti-stereotypical-Russian, in that I've never seen him wear the exact same outfit twice. Various accouterments and implements emerge like so many sonic screwdrivers and dei ex machina from the pokcets of a Time Lord. (He had to take a call when we were hanging out and got mad. "Мария Ивановна, вы не ругайтесь на Таню..." [Maria Ivanovna, don't you bitch out (in loose translation) Tanya...]

It's a question of engaging in contemplation of the places that scare you.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

From Repressed Writers

“When arrested on May 15, 1939, [Isaak Emmanuilovich’] Babel’’s manuscripts, notebooks, and personal papers were confiscated and have not been seen since. A new collection of his work, Novye rasskazy, was in preparation and was to include stories about ‘heroes of our times.’ But, as Babel’ was heard to say as he was being led away, ‘They didn’t let me finish!’”
I hear ya.


Ne dali mne zakonchit'! I really have to translate it?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Victory Day

One of the coolest bits about Victory Day is being able to walk all of the central streets right down the middle with impunity.

Yes, we did indeed flash the peace sign.

The Communists celebrated with a huge netted catch of what I can only assume was meant symbolically to be red caviar.

This picture is meant to be ironic. The statue is to the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, whose Futurist poetry is all about industry hammer smashing and fiery proletariat humping. He's on a small square in the middle of one of the major prospects, so usually he's happy - but since it's spring, he gets crazy pink tulips that must make his ghost pissssssssed.

There was a sit-in on Red Square! People sat down in Red Square! (There was a huge TV playing old film clips). But still. People were sitting - on the ground! So exciting!

From left to right, Belief, me, and Tequila-Cocktail, still on Red Square.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

To the Capital!

The Northern, or Second, or Tsarist capital, that is. I'm gone to St. Petersburg ("Piter," as it's known in everyday Russian, because Sankt-Peterburg can be a mouthful).

It took me, granted, eight-and-a-half months of playing at all three of Chekhov's Three Sisters to get there. (They spend the whole play daydreaming about taking a trip to Moscow.)

I'll let you in on a secret confession, since I'm all gone to the other capital and what not. I can't suffer the ramifications of this confession. Oh, I make myself laugh.

The first time I went to Piter was to study abroad, which I can describe by an allusion to reality TV. Picture the intro to The Real World. "Six strangers, living together...find out what happens when people stop being polite and start being real." Now picture that, not with six strangers, but twenty; and not in a locale with citizens of the same country and linguistic background as those strangers...and you begin, I think, to see what happens in a study abroad program. Classes all day don't preclude the students from drinking almost every night; multiply the hormones and attitudes of a Real World cast by the power of 3 and 2/3.

My succeeding trips to Piter are full of funny-in-retrospect but not incredibly pleasurable memories. This was the time when Wounded-at-Broken-Elbow became Wounded-at-Broken-Elbow; this was the time when I called Starik at 4 am from a Russian hospital and tried to garner his advice in my broken, ADHD-addled three-year-old Russian; this was the time The Old Man by the Sea and his wife drugged me with a sleeping pill.

All of those memories inform my relationship to Piter. All of them poisoned my psyche, leading to that pregnancy-length hesitation to sit on the metro to Komsomol'skaya and buy a ticket; all of them are methamphetamines in my blood stream, now, all anticipation and excitement about the city.

The thing is I can never poise myself as a calm and collected, mature individual making a triumphant return to the city from exile in Elba.

I shake like little leaf in tree
Autumn wind it is trying to destroy
And leaf itself hard to keep its vein intact
To live, to feel glow of one more frozen day
Then comes little boy as hooligan
And pulls the leaf off its branch
"Ouch!" How it cries. "My tree, my love -
Never shall we meet again. Прощай!"

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The field of battle

Last Saturday, The Professor and his family invited me outside the city on a day trip. We went to Borodino, a famous battleground (roughly equivalent to Gettysburg) from the War of 1812, which is the first of two Velikie Otechestvennye Voiny in Russia (the second is World War II).

The crown jewel of the diadem, made by Konstantin Ton (who also planned Christ the Savior), constructed in 1837. (Excitingly enough, the Soviet authorities dealt the same blow to this monument as they did to Christ the Savior, considering it part and parcel of Ton's masterwork - claiming it had no cultural or historical meaning, it was destroyed in the 1930s at the same time Christ the Savior itself was.) There are other obelisks and graves throughout the entire field, which is a huge territory that has been mostly preserved - parts of it are farmed, the rest protected as a landscape-cultural monument.

Nuns at the Spaso-Borodinsky monastyr' [Saved at Borodino Convent] minding a cow, sheep, and ewes on the field.

Nikol'skii sobor [Church of St. Nicolas] in Mozhaysk, built 1799-1812, unknown architect. There's an old saying from the times of Muscovy, zagnat' za Mozhaysk, which means, in its current and figurative sense, "to get someone the hell out of here." Mozhaysk was a frontier town before the union of all the regions, so the phrase historically means "to banish" or "to exile" - out of sight, out of mind.

Khram Rozhdestvo Presviatoi Bogoroditsy Luzhetskogo monastyria [Church of the Nativity of the Theotokos, Luzhetsky Monastery] I have no idea what Luzhetsky means, other than it appears to be a relatively popular last name. The church has The Professor's seal of approval as a Well-Preserved Monument™, which he gives out sparingly, so that's exciting.

I am also a well-preserved monument. It was sunny. (I was tempted to include just this picture for Luzhetsky fact, this seems like a funny prank to pull on Facebook. "My time in Moscow" - and the whole thing is pictures of me with indiscript monuments in the background. Mwahaha)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

It's the Reds! Quick, tesseract away!

Edit: Briullov always beats me to the punch, even when we've (as in this case) not spoken about the phenomenon together. /Edit.

The question, today, is on the topic of Communists.

There's something "universal" about Yakov Smirnoff's "In Soviet Russia..." jokes, where the typical agents and objects switch. (For those not familiar, something like "In Soviet Russia, tooth brush you!") On the one hand, the jokes are funny because they break a basic feature of English syntactic structure, in a way that fits the stereotypic Russian accent. It's funny to talk about the funny ways people say funny things. Funny funny funny.

But there's that extra bit at the beginning - the "In Soviet Russia" clause. It's key to the punch of the joke. If I just said "Tooth brush you" in an affected Russian accent, it wouldn't be funny. Even if I said "In Russia...", it still wouldn't have the desired effect. It has to have that clause, and I think the reason is similar to the reason why, as Polish-born journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski details, people say the threat of "they'll deport you to Siberia," and not to a different snowy and Arctic region - it's never "they'll deport you to Alaska*" or " Canada" or " Sweden."**
* Although this has a new connotation in post lipstick-wearing-bulldog America.

** Possibly for fear that, if there were a massive ABBA-reunion concert happening, it would be condemned by the UN as cruel and unusual punishment.
"Siberia" means cold, desolate, barren -- but it also means "dictatorship." Same thing with the joke. In Soviet Russia, so the story goes, no one has agency. Everything is done to YOU. The joke isn't just funny on a linguistic basis. It's funny because it reaffirms our stereotypic and - as I think has already been sufficiently proven (those links are, of course, an incomplete list) - misinformed understanding of the Soviet Union as a state of homogeneous mindless labor under the control of one horrible disembodied brain.

So Briullov marched with the Communists on May Day. I was downtown, and saw the parade go by. I was with a different Faustian Contractee and her father, and heard his intriguing and enlightening commentary, as a US citizen who had lived through the tail end of the Cold War, to set foot on Red Square and see that the ground wasn't rumbling with tanks and guns and military men (my pictures of Victory Day will come later); to see a Communist parade go by on its peaceful way, singing nostalgic revolutionary songs. The posters to Stalin and Lenin aren't necessarily for the dictatorships the images represent; they're just NOT for the government(s) that have arisen since.

That's the crux. If there's a cultural imperative for the US to think of Russian political movements as a threat, the enemy is not the Communists. Whatever "gut reaction" all of that reductivist history and political studies from our schooling programmed us with was false then and more so now. At worst, the Communists today are guilty of nostalgia, of some flavor of naïveté. But for all of that they seem to have a better grasp of what social problems grip the nation than...certain others...might.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Playing in the puddles

Too much seriousness, the past couple days. Here are some pictures from Olympic Sports Complex Luzhniki (related to the word for "puddles" because it was built in a swampy area).

Your eye does not deceive you. He is, by hand, repainting every line on that track.

Eduard Streltsov, legendary Soviet football champion, a member of the team at the 1958 Melbourne FIFA World Cup. gutter. You can see the main building in the background.

The main corpus of Moscow State University, from across the river. I ate a trubochka, vanilla ice cream in a crunchy chocolate shell, and watched the stormy clouds play each other in their cosmic football.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


Happy Mother's Day and all that.

Now back to war.

Who pays attention, in Joe American's typical Memorial Day and Veteran's Day celebrations, to the atrocities of the past? Are we not as guilty of selective memory - or worse, seeing as there is no part of the history on which we focus? The Fourth of July is fireworks and nothing but. Veteran's Day is a day off work and nothing but.

The Holocaust is the figure of "6 million" that we can rattle off since third grade.

That last actually upsets me the most. What is the point in drilling into little children's minds that atrocious event? I knew extensive details about the Holocaust long before I learned about the Soviet Union, and far longer before I learned about Japanese-American internment camps. (Lady Brett has a much better memory that I do; she would know exactly when we learned all those historical events...)

What makes the Holocaust the only "real" genocide? What about the Armenian genocide? The Khmer Rouge? The Rwandan? (Just to name some of the "popularized" genocides of the 20th century. Consider the Wikipedia list of how disgusting humankind is.)

I remember learning the term "Manifest Destiny" in fifth grade, but not fully comprehending how it went hand in hand with events like the Trail of Tears until at least eighth.

Does anyone remember the protests back in the 1990s when the Smithsonian was planning a historical retrospective on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Heaven forbid that we remember our victims' suffering. I can't be the only one who was told that if I was displeased with military colonialism in the Middle East I could always emigrate to a different country. How angry we get when someone questions our historical actions, those steps we've taken along the road of Manifest Destiny.

I disagree with the cliche that it's "easy to be a critic." Sometimes it can be very hard to be critical, particularly of sensitive issues or of phenomena that have been coded as "non-issues." The logic by which I excuse myself of Quiet Americanism is that while I can identify events or objects that may be problematic in Russian society, I'm not trying to offer a perfect solution to those "broken" objects; I'm certainly not trying to offer them the American way of life as the only right path.

And no critic is infallible. I've already mentioned, if not here, then in person to most of you, that one of the reasons I have never enjoyed studying American history is because I feel too personally responsible for the atrocities of our past. I am a member of that sub-race once known as the Great White Male, and those "atrocities of our past" aren't all relegated only to the past. To force myself to look upon them forces me to question just how little I've done to fix the structurae and schemae that inform my cell of the Panopticon.

There, I suppose, is my answer. Any "dissenting" opinion has been coded as "un-American," and I, myself, fall into that trap transcription. Who knows how many people subscribe to the "Joe American" views of such a reduced, simplified, patriotic, Hurray!-nationalistic history? Maybe no one. Maybe we're all looking to an invisible Big Brother in the center for our cues and it's not that we can't see him for his secrecy, but for his absence.

Saturday, May 8, 2010


As threatened, this is part one of a two-parter dedicated to my contemplation of the 65th anniversary of Victory Day. There will be pictures I've plumbed from my trip to the Novodevichy Cemetery, so give your eyes and thoughts a break when you need to, and
Remember me as you pass by.
As you are now, so once was I;
As I am now, so you must be,
Therefore prepare to follow me.
I've never been able to convey this in a way that sounds lucid (I am, as I often profess, a crazy person). Let me try anyway.

I know that Victory Day doesn't sound important to my US readers. Here it's like Memorial Day, Veteran's Day, and the 4th of July all in one. I've heard it described as "New Year's Eve, Part II" (remember that Russian New Year's Eve is both Western New Year's and Christmas). I'll talk about the polemic of my status as a foreigner tomorrow. Today, let's pretend I have a grip on what this holiday means.

First off, when I mention Memorial Day and Veteran's Day I mean inasmuch as there are military parades and barbecues. The emphasis, however, is not on the war, nor on the soldiers, nor on the veterans, nor on the victims. The emphasis is literally on the victory; the celebration begins with the euphoria of troops' return to their home cities. It's not the storming of the Reichstag that's important, but the flag of the Soviet Union flapping in the wind above Berlin.

This sets the celebration in diametric opposition to the manner in which the war is remembered and encoded in films, which are often celebrations of annihilation (perhaps a subgenre of torture porn?) As Gregory Carleton recently described,
In these revisionist narratives a tide of blood washes over all. Absent now, however, was the justifying, indeed comforting, patina of sacrifice; in its place came the stark truth of untold, unknown millions who perished unnecessarily...Death stalks Russia; war is its permanent affliction, not a temporary condition. Be it World War II or Chechnya, he [Astafiev, a memoirist] argued, there has to be a point – moral, ethical, historical and semantic – where pride in sacrifice should become shame in carnage; where pyrrhic victory is no longer victory.
(I didn't play with the color saturations - the rose is plastic, and that fakely bright.)

In the decorations around the city, there are images of war and death, but in weird, "learn about history" presentations. The major banners and billboards are pictures of women holding babies or grandparents with little children or loving couples. As I see it, this rhetoric has a very good and a very bad side.

The positive is that it gives voice and emphasis to a euphoric cry: "We survived!" That's a nice sentiment, from individuals in a culture stereotypically represented as dry and hopeless, from individuals whose country was occupied by a military force whose own rhetoric involved massacre and enslavement of the entire populace.

The negative is that it recasts war as a glorious event without suffering. Victory is not the sacrifice of the dead; victory is not the psychological scarring upon the living and the maimed. Victory is an encoding of Russia into the Holy Ones who have protected themselves (and the rest of the world) from Satan Himself. It ignores history; it destroys history; it destroys nuance and particulars.

(That's fresh pussy willow in his grip.)

If we conceive of the Nazi ideology as the ideal fate of racism, the fight against the Nazi engine of war was the fight against racism itself. Kak eto ni paradoksal'no [That makes it all the more paradoxical] that this rhetoric of victory recasts history into nationalist and racist propaganda: THIS people is 100% holy and triumphant; THAT people is 100% evil. I have heard very educated Russians, individuals whom I respect and think quite wise, nevertheless intone radically racist statements about the current German youth. One told me that, seeing a group of athletic German college students drinking juice on a train, he could only picture them in 20-years time as a Neo-Nazi group.

I think, primarily, because a) they were German b) they were drinking juice, not beer.

When I've gotten to this point I'm usually stopped by the comment: "But doesn't it make sense, to an extent? When the Germans occupied Russian territory, they were perpetrating total war. Think of how many millions died. Of course they remember; of course they cast it as a celebration of surviving."

But the people who survived are not the current generation. That's where I'm scared in this recasting of the war into selective memory. There is, first of all, no mention of the thousands of German women who had unpleasant surprises nine months after Soviet troops rolled through their territory. There is only this sense that "I was victimized but I survived," to this day, from individuals who were not victimized, but taught a culture of victimization. There is nothing individual about that rhetoric of annihilation and torture and victimization; it's not "These are the relatives whom I lost," or "This is how I was personally affected."

It's a collective, "WE, the RUSSIAN PEOPLE, survived." And because it is cast as such a collective, such a general statement, it becomes individual again. It allows everyone, anyone born in 1925 or in 1995, to perceive of "the Russian People" as a mass with one face - the face of that individual. That is - the positive is negative, and the negative is worse, and the whole phenomenon is very, very scary to me as a foreigner, as a historian, as a person.

Friday, May 7, 2010

So many nedostatki

On Saturday, Briullov and I went to our friend, The Global Citizen's (she prefers the title "whore of the universe" but I'll keep it classy), place for dinner. And about a barrel of red wine a person.

Occupational hazard of the professional academic. There's a false memory echoing back from the future:
"Mama, why does Daddy drink so much?"

"Alistair, he's a historian."
But why must it be Alistair? Maybe that'll be a question posed by Damien. (My children will have anti-saint names. Yes. Quite.)

Drunk, having laughed until we couldn't breathe, having stolen books, we set off for the metro and talked about...something.

Something I wish I could remember, because now all I can recall is that when we were standing on the platform, I turned to him and said, "You're a genius. That was really smart, what you just said."

And he replied, "We're both geniuses. We came up with it, together, just now."

And yesterday we tried to remember but couldn't, not by any stretch of our memory or imagination. Briullov said, "Let's not try to remember. It's better not knowing."

I don't know how I feel about the utopianism that like as not will arise - the concept of a svetloe proshloe, a moment in time so sublime that we'd succeeded in piercing some small part of the maya curtain and stared into the void and for that couldn't remember -

Not like there's anything I can do to remember what has been forgotten.

Also: went to Dunkin Donuts. I am sad because they only have one flavor of iced coffee. It is ok, though - gives me something to look forward to when I return home to an empty house (apparently, speaking of Satanic Children™, three grandchildren are more important than one child. Particularly when two of them are acting all precognitive genius fortitude and such.)


Now I just have to find a place for Visa and me to live this summer in P'mouth and I shall be happy.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

They Don't Give Tours of the Panopticon

I finished editing that essay I mentioned making Briullov read. It is now sent off to The Professor. (I also sent him a packet of poetry. We're going to have a fun time talking about it all. He doesn't...really...speak English. But he wants to see what kind of writing I do when I'm not writing at the level of a five-year-old with undiagnosed ADHD (that is, in Russian).)

Then I thought - as the essay was really just as a thought-experiment, and I don't plan on trying to get it published or accepted in any flavor of mainstream academic community, and I have this platform, I could put it up here!

But it's an 11-page paper, and I have a massive two-post blog I've been working on for Victory-Day coming up (there will be pictures to give your eyes a break, don't worry), so I decided to take pity on you.

If you're interested in reading it, you can find it here.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Yes, Virginia, There is a St. Sofia.

I went for a long walk on Sunday, before the thunderstorms rolled in. These are pictures of Novodevichy monastyr' [The New Maidens' Convent]. Notice how much it resembles a fortress. This is not an accident.

Stupid trees ruined what I wanted to be a cool infinity shot, a picture of a painter of a fortress...

Minus trees and people. But with ducks. I hate ducks, Kipling!

The Vestibular Church of the Transfiguration ("vestibular" being me corrupting English and forming an adjective off of "vestibule." The church has nothing to do with equilibrium. I think it's the nicest way to translate nadvratnaya, which is an Old Church Slavonic word that means, literally, "over-gates-ish")

Pleas to St. Sofia. The best part was that after I took this picture I rounded the corner and a dog was peeing on the wall. I guess it was baptizing the prayers in holy water?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Feed him to Erato!

Poor Bill Bryson will have to suffer my wrath, because he happens to be the most recent popular historian whose work I have read (showing here).

I’ve heard that an English [academic] historian says that he doesn’t use footnotes because, iakoby [allegedly] the only reason to keep footnotes is so distrustful readers can fact-check. “Either you believe me,” (I am quoting reported speech), “or you don’t. The footnotes won’t change that.”

I must disagree. Footnotes are just as much important for the very purpose of building a community of scholarship, for participating in the discipline that falls under Clio’s ancient tutelage. The purpose is to write a descriptive text, not a Bible (that is, we must allow the possibility that future scholarship will make any research null and void).

Popular history – inasmuch as it is popular history – falls outside the realm of the discipline. That Bryson doesn’t include footnotes throughout Shakespeare, then, doesn’t make me blink an eye. He’s trying to tell a story, and he doesn’t trust his reading public to tolerate a text that has footnotes or endnotes or explanations or, heaven forbid, an extensive bibliography. (I wouldn’t trust the general reading public either. People are stupid.)

I turn to the footnotes/citations immediately because as soon as we take them away, we lose any possibility of being part of the historic discipline. Any possibility. The text becomes a story, and only a story, and we have to be okay with that. Non-fiction is an umbrella genre that includes far more than history.

That separation means that we shouldn’t think of popular history versus disciplinary history in the way they’re phrased, as two flavors of one generic HISTORY. They are apples and oranges in ink-on-paper form.

I’m not prejudicially opposed to popular [hi]stories. I like fictions. I like tales. I like to see what a crafty individual thinks might tickle our collective fancies, or learn about some event I don’t care to experience in the full “orange” depths of disciplinary history. I read Wikipedia entries on all sorts of things. (Like the Taman Shud case. Gah! So exciting!)

Where Bryson incurs my wrath is not in his storytelling but in the metacommentary that fuels and supplements his description of every event. He quotes figures of how many sources one might find by searching “Shakespeare” as title or subject in various databases not to speak to the poet’s supreme place in the Canon of Phenomenological Objects, but to laugh at the [iakoby] lengths to which academics have taken their research. His final comment on Shakespeare’s birthday is to brand it “rather academic” not just because of scanty records, but also because of the nebulous transition between Julian and Gregorian calendars. “Academic,” in this sense, means “stupid,” “ridiculous,” “unimportant.” At any point where he references the historiography of an event (I use the term “referencing” loosely, here, of course, as there ought not to be anything resembling citations or quotations in a “good” popular [hi]story), Bryson posits his opinion with a lead-off clause of metadiscourse or two: “of course,” “[almost] certainly,” “it should be readily apparent,” or my least favorite, “as should be obvious.”

If an event or explanation should be obvious, why state it, let alone surround it with rhetoric emphasizing that same blatancy? The thrust of Bryson’s work is two-fold: “This is how little we can know about Shakespeare, the person,” (a statement he paraphrases almost every paragraph), and “These are all of the misguided attempts those academic [with the above connotations employed] historians have perpetrated, failing to recognize this one true path that I will herein describe.”

If only I didn’t have this book on loan, I’d do to it what I did to the advanced-reader’s copy of Atwood’s Year of the Flood I read, and correct all of the proofing mistakes. Or, more precisely, like I did to my copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - tear out the epilogue and pretend it never existed. Except in this case I’d do much heavier editing, and skim over the black lines of censored text, and enjoy the scanty text, but nice story, that remains.

Monday, May 3, 2010

This is where they do the blood sacrifices.

When I included a picture of this step-pyramid last time, I was too close to give it its proper credit. This is the view from Trubnaya.

This building dominates the area. As close to the historic center as it is (it's located just outside the area called Zemlianoi gorod, which is one of the concentric rings of the growing city), it is surrounded by 2- to 5-story buildings. In its state of incompleteness, it exemplifies the current-era of corrupt and nesovershennoe stroitel'stvo [incomplete/imperfect construction]. Many building projects are fronts for nefarious activities, and pause at some point in the building process. Couple that with the economic crisis, which is much less a rhetorical device and much more a real phenomenon, here, than I perceive it to be in the US, and...

As for the future, picture that steel carcass with an exterior of granite and stone, and encrusted with the frosting decorations it will surely receive at some point, and a spire on top...and you have the 9th Vysotka. (I think it's actually meant to be a glass structure, but. Still.)

Land-surveyors will come to this area and seek audience with the businessmen who live in that castle, and wait and wait for permission, and entangle themselves in affairs with barmaids, and receive permission to see the overlord only on their deathbed.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

I ignored May Day.

In fact I - and you might have noticed this - didn't even schedule something to go up that day.

I'm not really sure why. I guess I can just be a cranky pants sometimes. Instead of commenting on that, I'll continue from before.

When I experience science-fiction {books, movies, television, etc.}, I don't question the fact that apparently everything, from wooden door to 53rd century computer, can be undone by a small object with a blue flashing light. No matter how complex the technology, how explosive or dangerous the weapon, its dismantling can be accomplished in the span of five, ten, twenty seconds. Typically at least one of the rules from the Evil Overlord's Handbook will be broken:
I will not include a self-destruct mechanism unless absolutely necessary. If it is necessary, it will not be a large red button labeled "Danger: Do Not Push." The big red button marked "Do Not Push" will instead trigger a spray of bullets on anyone stupid enough not to disregard it. Similarly, the ON/OFF switch will not clearly be labeled as such. There will be no Plug.
Coming up with "plausible" explanations and technologies isn't the point of science fiction, and if there were long spiels of technobabble every episode or page or minute it'd be boring. Sometimes I forget about that.

Sometimes I forget that the "punchline" of an episode doesn't have to be shocking or unexpected. Science fiction is more about posing questions in such a way that we, the viewers, will query analogous phenomena in our own lives.

My tolerance for the deus ex machina of a sonic screwdriver, or of the moralizing message intoned by a creepy creature that looks like he's making a cameo from Rainbow Brite, is in direct proportion not only to the level of writing, but to the foreshadowing surrounding that same action. It turns out the character known for her inability to deal with computers saves the day because she's imbibed some of the alien biology? Ok, because there were weird moments prepared us to expect something. "The Beast" is actually "the beauty"? Sure, because we should never expect things to be exactly the way they're so clearly expressed within the first five minutes of a storyline.

Still, there's a fine line between foreshadowing and non-sequiturs that sound forced and stilted and horrible. I'm not going to do a line-by-line analysis, but suffice it to say that a recent episode had far more of the latter than the former. There comes a time when you, Mr. Episode-Writer-Author-Dude, stop sounding exciting and smart and fill me with anticipation, and start sounding like a dull cocktease.
"So it was Ol' Man Whipplethrop Snaptickler the whole time?"

"And I would've gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for you darned kids and that dog!"
Just like that.

I really AM crankypants, today, for whatever reason. Le sigh.