Friday, November 3, 2017

Phantom Generation by Lydia Ginzburg

[The generation that was born @1900,  in Russia, young adults at the time of the Revolution, lived through the purges of ’37 and ’38, the  Patriotic War during which Ginzburg endured and survived the blockade of Leningrad in which a million starved to death. These are excerpts from the ‘Theoretical Section’ of her story “Otter’s Day.” They were drafted between 1943-45, published posthumously in 2011.

There is opaque quality to much of Ginzburg’s writings, a circling around without fully landing. It is not simply a matter of the difficulty of translating the beautiful colloquialisms of Russian into English, or ironic play.  These notes were  stowed away in the drawers of her desk. There was a moment of great risk for her, during the purge against “The Jewish Doctors’ Plot” but Stalin fortuitously died, the prosecutions ended and she survived.]

History has devoted an interval of time to proving  the impossibility and horror of an egotistic sense of life. With every means at its disposal it has reiterated and hammered home that the singular person has no value. It has repeated again and again – woe to the egoists and the hedonists: there is nothing in the world more defenseless and fragile than egoists and hedonists.

Open and masked forms of history’s lessons. Under the masked forms people made use of many benefits and escaped many calamities – for a time. But they received the most terrible in full. Even more than their share, because they were decidedly unprepared for it.

A second ordeal cannot elicit a reaction like the previous one. History has proven the futility of this reaction. For a normal thinking person it necessarily elicited the reaction of disgust at egoism, which had condemned a person to the greatest helplessness and misfortune. This ordeal had to generate longing for a severe civic sense of life, which accepts the fact of death and accepts the burden of life, understood as connectedness. In this way a new consciousness must be born, which creates new culture. For in the area of the culture of philosophy and the humanities, the subjective consciousness of the twentieth century already long ago lost its ability to create anything fruitful.

Two great illusions have been destroyed – here, the illusion of humanistic socialism; there [in the West], the illusion of humanistic individualism.

Thus, only now has the historical fate of this phantom generation and the symbolism of its fate become comprehensible. The first ordeal elicits an extremely individualist-hedonistic reaction; the second proves the unfoundedness of this reaction. The combination of both these acts within the bounds of a single generation is important, because humanity comes to know the truth only on the basis of its own experience, never on the experience of other generations.

In order to prove to a generation the futility of humanism, its incapacity to solve the contemporary tasks of life and the tragic doom of egoism, it was necessary to completely turn a generation into mincemeat. And history made it into mincemeat. The generation turned out to be the experimental material of history. And history burned and disemboweled it and turned it into a bloody mess. The end results were inevitable; the only discussion could be about the forms were opened or masked.

In its open form fascism turned people into slaves, condemned them to eternal burdens and deprivation in the name of Leviathan’s interests, subjected them to systematic extermination and systematic moral decay. It deprived them of human dignity, their very human likeness, and placed them in front of the spectacle of their own baseness, decay and disgrace. And people understood. That is, for now certain people have understood, and the majority has inwardly matured to the point of understanding that egoism as the measure of human behavior is similar to death, that hedonism, individualism and humanistic socialism are untenable, and this on account of two factors that have been revealed emphatically – the illusory nature of individual existence and the ineradicability of social evil.

Those who were condemned to physical annihilation and moral decay lost, more easily than others, the illusion of the absolute value of the individual consciousness (soul). Perhaps at last they will realize that everything valuable in a person, the very idea of value  belongs only to the basis of the community. Culture is a phenomena of connection. The word is the condition of the spiritual life of a person – it is a factor of association. The absolute value of a singular consciousness is an illusion, a psychological aberration of individualism.

The new method of examination corresponds to the new (at this point still predominantly negative) concept of a person. The psychological novel of the 19th century arose on the great illusions of individualism. Now the examination of the person as a closed, self-sufficient soul has a sterile, imitative quality. The contemporary understanding is this: not a person, but a situation. The intersection of biological and social coordinates, from which the behavior of a given person is born, the way this person functions. A person functions as this intersection. This dismal analytic method does not occur to me as valid for all times, but as the most adequate for the negative concept of a person that exist at the present moment.

The second discovery of the anti-hedonistic order is the discovery of the ineradicability of social evil. Together with the refutation of the value of the single individual it separates, to the highest degree, the people of the 20th century from the people of the 19th. The latter piously believed in the eliminability of social evil by social means – this was the very premise of humanistic socialism.

It turns out that social evil cannot be eradicated – only replaced. That is, in the place of the evil that has been eliminated, another rises up quickly and dialectically (concrete examples include freedoms, the mutual displacement of higher and lower cultures, families, women, etc.) The question lies only in the historical dialectic of choosing the more suitable evils, the lesser evils.

It is not a matter of extirpating social evil, for this is impossible – it is a matter of finding a relationship to it. A relationship is a defense; otherwise evil collapses on the naked egoist like a crushing hammer. A salutary relationship (the acceptance of necessity) can be found only in ascetic citizenship. In the condition of open forms, a generation lost important motivating illusions of the 19th century; beyond that, it lost all possibilities of the kind of (creative) activity that takes initiative of one’s own; lost the inertial forms of everyday life, lost even the substitutes for material goods.

But at one time they started to prime this generation for these substitutes, in order to furnish it with some kind of content for their lives. But the pre-war economy and politics could not sustain this. This had to be stopped short and replaced by the slogan of preparedness for mobilization. This was the last blow. The generation lost everything, including a human image and likeness.

In the interval this generation’s position was horrible, worse than it could even have expected. The second ordeal gave its existence a kind of historical meaning. The meaning was that of a terrible, catastrophic denouement of the one-and-a- half-century-long epic of the individualistic consciousness (there was no one to think about this. If there were people who could think, then they would have thought about this).

During the time of the greatest unfreedom the generation attained the semblance of inner freedom and independence through the awareness of the fact that the difference between open and masked forms [of evil] is unimportant. Does it make any difference whether such-and-such people didn’t take advantage of certain rights and benefits, if the result was one and the same? And it even happened that the greater the rights and benefits – the worse the result (again there arises the problem of the replaceability of social evil).

Within the open form, the difference between winner and losers turned out to be even less significant. And the losers who were in the most unpleasant circumstances received satisfaction from this. Where are the careerists and the establishments where they were making their careers? Here stand their empty, looted apartments. And their owners tossed about along the roads [of war]. What difference is there between published and unpublished books, if there are neither authors nor readers? For people belonging to the generation doomed to extermination, the definition of success was not to die.

These people who had skipped over the offenses  and calamities that had oppressed them quickly accommodated themselves to new ones.

In the relative stabilization of reality there is both strength and weakness. The difference between East and West, generally speaking, is greatly exaggerated. But in regard to the present discussion, there is a difference. The West, with its masked forms and hedonistic illusions, turned out to be psychologically unprepared. The East, in contrast, for decades (and in the sense of historic tradition, from time immemorial) was raised in the spirit that [as the saying goes] “our planet is badly equipped for merriment”. This sense worked out a great number of qualities that are useful in such circumstances as these – a relative indifference to life, patience, endurance, habituation to calamities, and the conviction that calamities are what make up the normal form of existence. All of these are characteristics of armies of serfs, which, however, were cancelled out by another of its attributes – lack of initiative. These qualities, however, formed the basis of a sui generis (passive) heroism. Thus is the psychological essence of a peasant heroism. People will withstand calamities, because nothing else remains for them to do. And at that people will withstand them rather calmly, because they are indifferent, capable of endurance, and accustomed to calamities.

But the weakness is in the fact that what has taken place is only a quantitative strengthening, an amplification. No new quality was born that would bring with it enthusiasm and new initiative. With its habituation to calamities the East provided an average level of behavior (the ability to stand firm), whereas not being habituated, the West provided either disintegration, collapse (France) or an upsurge (England). For the Englishman the circumstances where they send him to dig trenches or dispatch him up to the roof is exotic, a factor belonging to a dizzying, new, unrecognizable  reality, for him these are completely new demands by the Motherland, which are therefore exciting. But . . .. take a fascist person, for whom all this is a still more unpleasant continuation of the habitual compulsions – to which he reacts with the habitual attempt to evade them, and in the case of failure – with passive endurance. In contrast to the first case, this material life does not turn into an ideological value and, therefore, does not serve as a condition for realization – that says it all. . .

[ The great myth about Eichmann was that he was, in a sense, passive, a mere cog in a machine, following orders which he could neither resist or evade, whereas the truth was that for a Nazi he was exceptionally active and innovative and therefore proved himself of inestimable value in implementing the holocaust.  Others suited themselves as Ginzburg describes here, worked evasively, sloppily, passively enduring an unpleasant continuation of habitual compulsions, fulfilling ‘abstract duties’ an comforting themselves as ‘ good family men’ see: Soldiers of the Wehrmacht  followed orders unquestioningly- to degree that shocked their opponents in the Red Army. See: ]

Passivity (lack of initiative) is hyperbolically underscored by the fact that everything happening presses on and crushes a person, but he himself does not participate in anything, until the Leviathan extends its tentacles in order to grab him and use him to its advantage. If in stagnant conditions he has not become needed by the Leviathan, then he is doomed to the kind of idleness that, probably, is how they punish sinners in Hell. He is in the midst of everything, everyone is next to him (the building blocks), he suffers everything, but he himself does not participate, does not do anything. He does not know or see this idleness, though it threatens him with annihilation at any moment. He is closed in his circle and runs along the circle, purposely repeating uniform movements next to others who ae running along the same circles that do not intersect with his: the ring of the blockade, the circle, the day.

The psychology of the slave, that is of a person who has no values, who does not even present himself to himself as a value, whom nothing touches and who is directed by desires that are straightforwardly egotistical, the urges close to hand. In given situations this psychology became manifest to an exaggerated degree. A fashionable illness (dystrophy) brought it to a symbolic clarity. It’s basic features are: a beastly clinging to the pursuit of the most petty egotistical goals , and the loss of feeling of all immaterial values, including one’s own, which leads to indifference to life and death that is strangely combined with this petty clinging to life, which ends up as an easy death (from starvation).

The point is that tenacity is only stimulated by the unmediated impulses of suffering and pleasure – a return to an animal state.

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