. . . and More in the New Year

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Traveling to Los Angeles recently, I saw one young woman wearing a Che Guevara shirt and another clutching a handbag decorated with Mao’s face. The high-end toy and gizmos store near my office sells an expensive statue of Joseph Stalin; maybe it’s ironic in intent, but still. In other words, Marxism may have gone down to defeat in history, but as an ideal, as a cultural referent, as something regarded as positive and good and hip, it lives on.

—Brian C. Anderson, from his review of Dan Mahoney’s book, The Other Solzhenitsyn: Telling the Truth About a Misunderstood Writer and Thinker in the latest issue of The New Criterion.

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The Year in Retro Commie Chic

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The phrase “retro commie chic” was likely coined by Glenn Collins of the New York Times.

Collins’ article about Greenwich Village’s K.G.B. Bar appeared in 1998; in the years since, the place has become a literary hub. According to a dining guide put out by New York magazine, “Today, the red menace congregates here—if graduate-level Marxist theoreticians can be considered ‘reds,’ that is.” The bar offers 40 kinds of vodka. Nazi stylishness, with 40 kinds of schnapps, would be an abomination to everyone. Nostalgia for left-totalitarianism (or at least the look of it) on the other hand exerts a lurid kind of attraction.

Why? The Cold War’s length, and its having ended rather anticlimactically, have to be part of the reason. At any rate, what Fredric Jameson called “old-fashioned political art of the socialist realist type” captivated the production designers and graphic artists of 2014.

 

The Interview. Communiposters advertising The Interviewst regimes still exist; as vestiges of an earlier time, they become candidates for camp. Former NBA star Dennis Rodman’s cultivation of North Korea’s dictator was no doubt the germ of this film. It’s too long and James Franco can’t do comedy. But yes, we have to stand by it given Kim Jong Un’s actions.

 

Meyerhoff Stalin

 

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra handbill. Last month, the BSO wanted to draw the public to Didi Balle’s “symphonic play” about Dmitri Shostakovich and his effort to survive the Stalin regime, while also opposing it. Since the piece is anticommunist, the use of a smiling Uncle Joe as, literally, a poster boy is confusing to say the least. Imagine promoting a night of music by the composer Wilhelm Furtwängler (whose ambiguous relationship with the Third Reich is somewhat comparable) with advertising that had one of those kindly-Adolf-Hitler-petting-a-dog photos.

 

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking

Cookbook. (Cheating a little, it’s from 2013.) Imagine a major publisher like this one putting out “Mastering the Art of Nazi Cooking.”

 

 

 

 

 

Tina Fey in Muppets Most Wanted

A funny thing happened on the way to the Gulag. Tina Fey and some movie zeks, in Muppets Most Wanted.

The Liberals, I — Bruce Bliven

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Here at Painting the Culture Red, a major part of our mission is to explore what liberals thought of the Soviet Union. Opinion on the Left was not monolithic. (Future posts will make this clear.) But let’s start with liberals who viewed that nation and its leader as democracy’s best hope.

The New Republic has given us a leg up on this. The February 3 issue retrieves an item “From the Stacks” by Bruce Bliven (1889-1977), one of the magazine’s longest serving editors.

Bliven led the flagship publication of Progressivism from 1930 to 1945. According to the current New Republic editors, Bliven’s “most egregious misstep” was “his sympathy for the Soviet Union.” That Stalin had set about publicly disgracing and killing his rivals was known to the world. The bloody purges “should have been a cue to renounce the USSR,” they write, “but much of the American left was not ready to assimilate that horrific reality.”

Here was somebody ready, at any rate, to complain to the dictator personally. In an open letter to Stalin, Bliven “scrounged for any scrap of logic that might excuse his hero, and endeavored to give the great comrade some heartfelt advice.”

Bliven to Stalin, March 1938:

The cables from Moscow tell us that fresh purges and additional trials are contemplated. I take it for granted that your heart sinks at this prospect, as do those of millions of other persons throughout the world. . . . What I now urge upon you is a revision of your policy . . .

In his 1970 memoir, Bliven said that he and the New Republic’s resident economist, George Soule, “were unforgivably slow to realize what was happening.”

The Drama of Galileo — and of Losey, Eisler, and Brecht

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“I believe in the gentle force of reason; in the long run, no one can resist it. Nobody can watch me drop a pebble and say it doesn’t fall. Nobody can do that. The seduction of truth is too strong.”

So says Galileo Galilei in Bertolt Brecht’s The Life of Galileo. The staged biography by the famed East German poet and dramatist pitted science (truth) against religion (rigorously enforced falsehood) and placed intellectuals on the side of the former.

Brecht’s work went through several versions beginning in the late 1930s, all of them featuring incidental music by the German/Austrian composer Hanns Eisler. In America, it played on Broadway in 1947 in a production directed by Joseph Losey. Losey’s conception of the play is still with us, in the form of the Losey-directed movie from 1974 that has the Israeli actor Topol in the lead role.

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Topol expressed admiration for the director but said that he was a man preoccupied “22 out of 24 hours of the day” with his own persecution by the U.S. government. Losey had been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951. After being blacklisted, he exiled himself to Europe (where he made Galileo, among other pictures).

If the theme of the creative mind under pressure from the Inquisition was relevant for Losey, it was more so for his longtime friend, Eisler, and his role model, Brecht. Both had run-ins with HUAC. Much more dedicated Reds than Losey (the American’s membership in the Party had been brief), they got deported as the communist controversy in America neared its height.

After deportation came the attempt to live in East Germany, “the land of real and existing socialism.” It was dicey; the truth was superintended by the scientific and cultural commissars of the Soviet bloc.

Hanns Eisler’s most ambitious project, an opera based on Goethe’s Faust, was condemned by East German academicians. They were enforcing the policy of Andrei Zhdanov, the Russian tasked with patrolling music and the arts behind the Iron Curtain and stopping any imperialist influences from creeping in. Eisler was denied authorization for his interpretation of Goethe and gave up writing the opera in 1952.

As Staatsdichter (state poet) of the German Democratic Republic, Bertolt Brecht fared better. He minded his p’s and q’s and was given the use of the grand Schiffbauerdamm theater for productions by his Berliner Ensemble, which became East Germany’s most distinguished institution. Aware that the theater could be taken away from his ensemble if he stepped out of line, he paid lip service to the theories of the Russian dramatist Stanislavsky and the socialist realism demanded by Zhdanov.

Brecht also doffed his hat to Trofim Lysenko, the truth-arbiter in the field of biology. “Lysenkoism” held that Mendelian genetics were a capitalist hoax; agronomists and horticulturalists in Russia and its satellite nations were to eschew Mendel and build upon Soviet theories exclusively.

He may be one of the few who, while being subjected to Zhdanovism, also dabbled in Lysenkoism. Die Erziehung der Hirse, a children’s ballad that Brecht wrote in 1950, about how to grow millet, highlights the wonders emanating from “Lysenko’s greenhouse in distant Moscow.” Stalin, “the Soviet peoples’ great harvest leader,” appears in a cameo role.

Brecht won the Stalin Peace Prize in 1954.