Death and Art. The Russians had a curious fascination with music. I listened to their songs, their beloved balalaika and watched their gravity defying acrobatic dances. Dancing and singing, the Russians claimed to hear “language beyond the mind”(zaumni iazik). Language beyond the mind. Before beginning to write Tolstoy habitually seated himself at the piano. When he sat beside Tchaikovsky and listened to the composer’s Quartet, he began to sob at the andante, before everybody.
Lenin confided to Gorky that music provided a disturbing force even in his monolithic world of revolutionary utopia:
I know nothing more beautiful than the “Appassionata”; I would hear it every day. It is marvellous, unearthly music. Every time I hear these notes, I think with pride and perhaps childlike naïveté, that it is wonderful what man can accomplish. But I cannot listen to music often, it affects my nerves. I want to say amiable stupidities and stroke the heads of the people who create such beauty in a filthy hell. But today is not the time to stroke people’s heads; today hands descend to split skulls open, split them open ruthlessly, although opposition to all violence is our ultimate ideal – it is a hellishly hard task…(1)
If only Lenin had listened more often to Beethoven the world would have been spared the “filthy hell” of Bolshevism. Bolshevik revolution is sought for the future good. Beethoven’s music is sought not for the future good but for itself. Lenin’s hands descend to split skulls open. Tolstoy’s hands ascend to pray. He understood that music and religious feeling were virtually inseparable. It is in and through music that we can grasp the naked wonder of life. I agree with Tolstoy and the Russians who sang and danced during the lull of war that music is the language of life. This is, beyond any liturgical or theological specificity, a sacramental motion. Songs and tap dance are re-enactments, reincarnation via artistic and technical means of that which human questioning, solitude, apprehension of time and death can intuit of the fiat of creation, out of which have come the self, not the soldier, and the world into which we are cast.
Speak memory. In post-war Hungary I had teachers who survived the Holocaust. They personified a life shaped by two forces: the Nazis and music. At Auschwitz, there was a Girls’ Orchestra, the only all-female ensemble among the Nazi-run prisoner musical groups in the camp system. The Girls’ Orchestra was ordered to play the marches that imprisoned women had to keep step to as they shuffled out to work in the morning and, even more in humanly, as they returned, walking skeletons, at the end of the day. The girls in the Orchestra also sang songs by Schubert, Bach or Mozart to SS officers, while the Girls’ Orchestra also had to play for new detainees arriving for the gas chambers. Festive occasion. People smiled and waved at the musicians. They assumed, where music was playing, there was life and joy. They knew not their destiny. The musicians knew. They played with tears in their eyes.
Speak memory. In Dante’s Hell, the spirits of the dead are silent, alone, and without escort. Here the dead are “weightless to the wind”. At Auschwitz, the detainees walked, placed their feet upon the nothingness that awaited them. And the music played. In Hitler’s Germany, music escorts the living to death. The Nazi innovations within the crucible of violent, sadistically inhuman death are unparalleled in the history of man. Neither our language nor our intellect is capable of encompassing such an evil. We should be able now to understand why all our knowledge will be dead the moment the music stops and the door closes on the future. “No epistemology, no philosophy of art can lay claim to inclusiveness if it has nothing to teach us about the nature and memory of music.”(2)
It is in and through music that we can grasp the magic, naked wonder of life. And so does the power of ideas. We are, in respect of music and ideas, human, all too human. Tolstoy believed in the power of ideas. And so do I. One single book can significantly change the reader’s attitude and action. A book can also save life. Ben Jonson, commonly regarded as the greatest of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, was “almost at the gallows” for killing a fellow actor after a quarrel, and converted to Catholicism while awaiting execution. He confessed the indictment, and entered a plea of guilty to the charge of manslaughter before asking for “the book” to read it “like a clerk”. By this request, Jonson was seeking the benefit of clergy, a technical loophole which originally allowed ordained clergy to claim that they were outside the jurisdiction of a secular court, permitting them to be tried instead under canon law. This benefit was extended to anyone who could read the so-called “neck-verse” or test of literacy.
This was Psalm 51: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving kindness.” By successfully reading the verse, Jonson escaped the gallows. His ability to read a poem saved him from an almost certain death. He found himself, in the idiom of the day, “saved by the book”, an appropriate form of salvation for Shakespeare’s friend who placed such a trust in the printed word.(3)
I understand the power of ideas and why the Russians often sang “Volga, Volga” and “Za Rodinu, za Stalina, za Plutochek” [For the Motherland, for Stalin, for the Blue Shawl]. While they sang, the Captain sat on a stool by the stove and read a battered copy of War and Peace. Here is Art, here is Beauty. They do more than bring or bestow peace. They communicate man’s transcendent aspiration. A statue by Michelangelo, a piece of music by Beethoven, a novel by Tolstoy, tap dance or songs, each is an interpretation of experience by virtue of its comprehensive and basic quality, its mood, its tempo, and its essential timbre.
The Russians, who fought their way from Stalingrad to Budapest and Kesztölc, put into sound and words and art what life essentially meant to them. These three functions, intensification, clarification and interpretation of experience, the arts fulfil in various degree, even in war. Art is another name for intelligence; its functions span the whole of men’s concerns, as it functions happily in those works we call beautiful, in those happy, relaxed moments we call aesthetic pleasure.
Art and Death. Tolstoy once spoke of a “little green stick”, on which, he believed, was inscribed the secret to universal happiness. When he was in his seventies, he wrote in his Recollections (1902):
And just as I believed then, that there is a little green stick, on which is written the secret that will destroy all evil people, and give them great blessings, so now I believe that such a truth exists and that it will be revealed to people and will give them what it promises.
There was no little green stick in the Captain’s knapsack. Instead, there was a copy of War and Peace and Ilya Ehrenburg’s famous pamphlet titled “Kill”. The Captain loved Tolstoy and spoke with anger about the desecration of Yasnaya Polyana. Here eighty-three Germans were buried next to Tolstoy. They were dug up and reburied in the crater made by a German bomb.
Death and Art. On Tolstoy’s grave flowers scent the air. Bees are crawling on them. Little wasps are hovering over the grave. It is fascinating that the Captain, fighting the Germans, drew strength from two Russians, Tolstoy and Ehrenburg. At the age of ten I learned from the Captain that it is impossible to read War and Peace, for instance, without developing a very vivid sense of the kind of person Tolstoy must have been. Indeed, the pleasure of Tolstoy’s intellectual company is one of the primary reasons we read him.
The Captain and the Russians in our house always referred to “Ilyusha” or “our Ilya” without naming Ehrenburg. He summoned Soviet soldiers to be executioners of Germans as sub-humans. As the German army was approaching Moscow, Ehrenburg wrote the famous article “Kill”. Its final paragraph concludes:
The Germans are not human beings. From now on the word German strikes us to the quick. We shall not speak any more. We shall not get excited. We shall kill. If you have not killed at least one German a day, you have wasted that day… If you leave a German alive, the German will hang a Russian and rape a Russian woman. If you kill one German, kill another – there is nothing more amusing for us than a heap of German corpses. Do not count days, do not count kilometres. Count only the number of Germans killed by you… Kill the Germans – that is your motherland’s loud request. Do not miss. Do not let through. Kill.(4)
The Russians who used our house as HQ were all Frontiviki – the Red Army term for soldiers with real experience of fighting at the front. The Frontiviki killed many Germans. One day we asked the Captain why was he brave, fighting the Germans. I never forgot his answer. “I have got a simple soul, as simple as balalaika. It is not afraid of death. It is those with beautiful souls [Schöne Seele], the Nazis, who fear death.”
To the Frontiviki, Ehrenburg’s columns in Krasnaya Zvezda were so sacred that the paper on which they appeared was never used by the soldiers for rolling makhorka, coarse Russian tobacco, black as sin and foul as hell. His writings stirred feelings that no gruesome reports of Nazi atrocities could match. Ehrenburg, a master of invective, sent his manuscript, The Fall of Paris, to Stalin, who called him in middle of the night. He liked the book and asked Ehrenburg if he intended to denounce the German Fascists. “Just go on writing”, Stalin told Ehrenburg. “You and I will try to push the third part through.”(5)
Stalin and Ehrenburg as co-authors. What a new untrodden path opens to creative enlargement. Stalin says, “thus it shall be!” And that determines the whereof and whither of mankind. His knowing is creating, his creating is law-giving. Stalin had to see the copy of every single manuscript of Ehrenburg before it could be printed. Now we have drawn back the curtain on the gradual corruption of man’s moral, intellectual and artistic life in Stalin’s Russia. There is a frightening directness in Ehrenburg’s boast, “Stalin is my first reader”. He declared, “The German people must be exterminated”.(6) This was music to Stalin’s ears. But I doubt Stalin would have approved Ehrenburg’s praise of the United States. When Ehrenburg completed his tour in America, April–June 1946, he said: “One cannot understand the world and humanity without having seen America.”(7) Even more astonishing, Ehrenburg confided to a friend that “Europe was two hundred years behind the United States”.
If Europe was behind the United States, Stalin’s Russia was infinitely behind Europe. Nothing illustrates it better than the Captain and the Russians under his command. He took pride in his “simple soul”. Actually, many souls cohabited and struggled in his breast. This chaos in the souls of the Frontiviki led us, like Dante, through the hellish circles of fear and trembling, bondage and annihilation. We were taught to believe that the whole object of life was to reach out to beauty, art and love, and that mankind, in its progress to perfection, had killed the savage instinct, cruelty, blood-lust, the primitive law of war of all against all. All poetry, all art, all religion had preached this gospel and this promise.
Now that ideal was shattered. The contrast between That and This was devastating. The Captain read War and Peace to relax and learn. He also read Ehrenburg’s invective “Kill” to the soldiers going into combat. He made the soldiers think of the Red Army as an army of vengeance. These young men, children of Stalin, felt humiliated and offended. They were Russian and therefore inferior to the Aryans. The Germans had attacked the Soviet Union, the “homeland of workers and peasants”. And now, the workers and peasants in the Red Army swept through Europe, from Budapest to Berlin, and stuck the red flag on the Reichstag.
The “simple-souled” Captain was also an accomplished looter. One day he pulled out of his knapsack a skull, taken from a museum. It bore the motto Et in Arcadia ego – Even in Arcadia I (Death) am found – inscribed on its forehead. Arcadia evokes the happy life of shepherds and goatherds on farms in the country. In Arcadia, ploughmen like my grandfather are not introduced, because their life is too laborious and sordid. Yes, our village had a shepherd but he too, animated by the war, became a soldier. As a teacher of literature and art, the Captain might have known that the phrase Et in Arcadia Ego occurs first in a painting by Barbieri, showing two shepherds coming upon a tomb, surmounted by a rat-gnawed skull.
The skulls I saw were Russian, freshly dug up, crusted with dirt. During the war, the fallen Russians had no Christian burial. They rested in pits of clay that one saw in different parts of the village. After the war, the village council decided to exhume the Russian graves and bury the bodies in the churchyard. One fine morning, it was startling to come upon a grave-digger. This crusty old fellow, who delighted in jokes, freaks and wine-heated twists of thoughts, was sitting on a pile of dirt by the graveside. Next to him were the tools of his trade: shovel, pickaxe and a demijohn of wine.
I stood there, wide-eyed, transfixed by the scene that, in many ways, recalls the churchyard scene in Hamlet (Act V, Scene I). The scripture says, Adam dug, and so did the grave-digger in continuing Adam’s profession: exhuming the dead.
But he could not dig without arms or a spade. The grave-digger, seeing my fear, with his shovel nudged a skull on top of a mound of earth. It rolled close to my feet.
Unlike young Hamlet, I, only 12, did not pick up the skull.
Hamlet: How long will a man lie i’ the earth ere he rot? Grave-digger:Faith, if he be not rotten before he die […] he will last you some eight year or nine year. A tanner will last you nine year.
Hamlet: Let me see. [Takes the skull.] Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times […] Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. – Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs?
The dirt-filled skull at my feet had a tongue in it, and could sing once “Volga, Volga”. How the wine-soaked grave-digger poked it with his shovel, as if it were “Cain’s jaw-bone that did the first murder”! I recoiled at the sight of man, so noble in reason, so infinite in faculty, in action like a devil or an angel. Nietzsche might be right. “Nothing is beautiful, only man: on this piece of naivety rests all aesthetics, it is the first truth of aesthetics.”(8)
If I may, let me add its second truth. Nothing is ugly but degenerate man – a Nazi, a Bolshevik. The domain of aesthetic judgement in politics is therewith defined. Everything ugly, be it goose-stepping SS fanatics or Stalinist zealots, weakens, afflicts man. At the sight of a Nazi or a Bolshevik we actually suffer a loss of dignity as human beings. Whenever we feel in any way depressed, we sense the proximity or see the presence of something ugly. Our feeling of self-respect, our moral ideals, our pride – they decline with the ugly, they increase with the beautiful.
In the case of beautiful and ugly let me draw a conclusion. Its premises have been accumulated in this essay in abundance. The ugly is defined as a sign and symptom of degeneration – Nazism and Sovietism – which produces in us the judgement “ugly”. Every sign of exhaustion, of fear, every kind of tyranny and form of dissolution, of decomposition – all this calls forth the same answer, the value judgement “ugly”.
I did not consider the skull at my feet ugly. Rather, it symbolised the paradox of man’s bodily and spiritual duality. Hamlet himself speaks of the duality. It is not a sight to sustain belief in man’s beauty and grandeur. The removal of the Russian bodies from the village to the churchyard had more than hygienic considerations.
The Russian enclosure in the Kesztölc cemetery contains fifty-five headstones, or cement obelisks topped with red stars made of tin. Cement and tin, symbols of things Soviet, speak no language of grief, memory and mourning. For cement and tin are limited as language of emotion. In the house of dead, the Russian soldiers, children of Stalin, rest with the humble folks of bygone years. Here is the identification of dissolution with initiation. The cemetery is a school of life. The place of the dead is a school for the living, a paideia – the education, the socialisation of the individual, a training of sensibilities – as Pericles, the Lincoln of Athens, would have said.
Cemeteries teach lessons to which none may refuse to listen and what all that love must hear. Truths may be those felt and taught, in the silence of our meditations in cemeteries, more persuasive and more enduring than ever flowed from human lips. The rustling pine and the drooping willow, the tree that shed its pale leaves with every autumn, a fit emblem of our own transitory bloom, and the evergreen, with its perennial shoots, instructing us that the wintry blast of death kills the buds of life.
The Russians inhumed at Kesztölc were young and died young. What passing bells for those who died young and unknown? The fifty-five obelisks are blank. The anonymous numbers resist a face. No names, no births, no dates of death. No candles are lit to light your way to the unknown. No Pericles, no poet spoke over the Russians buried at Kesztölc. In his Funeral Oration, Pericles praised the Athenians who died at Marathon in defence of democracy and freedom. “When the Athenians fought at Marathon against the Persians, which battle the Athenians won, Aeschylus the poet fought in this battle, aged 35.”(9) For Pericles, Athens is itself a schooling for Hellas. But Stalin’s Russia is no schooling for us. Athens sets the pattern for art, philosophy, courage, form of government, it is “what really made us great”. Moscow sets the pattern for slavery, tyranny and gulags.
The original Greek meaning of paideia(10) is the education of the young by means of art and visual extravagance, the Acropolis; the necessity of conveying what it means to be good and excellent. Though I am not Hellenocentric, I return to Greece because it fulfils some need of our own time and life, although that need may be very different at different stages of our life. I return to Pericles’ Athens because the deliberate pursuit of an ideal begins there, and not in Stalin’ Russia. By “begins” I mean not only the temporal commencement, but also the intellectual, moral and spiritual source to which, as we reach every new stage of development, we must revert in order to re-educate and reorient ourselves. But there is a gigantic difference between that feeling of good and excellent and the sense of complete estrangement which we had when we confronted the Russians in Kesztölc.
The middle of humanity the Russians rarely knew, but in the extremity of both ends – rape of women, violence and looting – they excelled. The rape of women, young and old, reaps a harvest rich in tears, humiliation and death. In Moscow, Stalin staged his Great Terror. In Kesztölc, the Russians enacted the Great Terror of Phallus. In ancient Greece, an image of phallus, symbolising the generative power of nature was carried in solemn procession in the Dionysian festivals.
In Kesztölc, Phallus is not coactive with Art. It is coactive with Death. Take the case of Elisabeth, my mother’s young and beautiful friend. She asked my mother if she could borrow me and some of my friends to serve as a protective human shield against the marauding, rape-lusting soldiers. To deter the Russians, Elisabeth and four maidens munched raw garlic, pasted their faces with soot and cow dung, smeared their genitals with wheel-grease, and wrapped their bodies in filthy, moth-eaten cloths. So ugly and so hideous in their attire, that they looked not like the inhabitants of the earth, and yet were on it. These horrid creatures were foul and ugly enough to wake the dead, and weird enough to be sisters of the Weird Sisters in Macbeth.
The women chose a wine cellar as a sanctuary and refuge. Imagine a hellish, vaulted cellar, its heavy oak door enforced with iron bars. Outside the cellar, war, injustice and misery prevail. Inside the cellar huddle humans in darkness, full of fear and trembling. At night, we kids slept close to the door on the ground between wine barrels. Our “beds” were cushioned with straw, eiderdown pillows and quilts.
Were the Russian to arrive and break down the door, we kids would cry, hug the skirts of the Weird Sisters and cry “Mother!” Mother! Yeah, when I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, and I could cry “Mother!” as a child. At night I heard heavy bangs on the door, piercing scream and gunshot.
I woke early, barely able to breathe in the nauseous air. I went outside, looked at the rising sun and drank the morning air. The snow-crusted trees glittered like a sudden riot of jewels. Walked to a snow mound. Unzipped my pants and pissed in the snow. I froze in terror. A naked woman lay under the snow. I stood there, not able to move, gazing, in awe and fear, at the naked figure. That piercing scream and gunshot in the night. The Russians raped the woman at gunpoint, shot her, saw a red spot on her breast, and left her in the night to freeze. Her face, framed in crystal ice, looked at me and the blue sky.
No face, other than the face Botticelli painted in The Birth of Venus, the ancient goddess of beauty, ever looked more beautiful. Botticelli shows the goddess Venus on a conch shell blown to shore by the breath of zephyr, where she is greeted by the Hours who clothe her in immortal garments. The dead Venus I saw had a pearly dress, crystal snow. Sunlight fractured in ice adorned her with diamonds, light and eternal.
Botticelli paints the goddess covering her breast with her right hand and her dolce pomo with her left, so signifying her modesty, pudicitia. The dead Venus I saw was no symbol of love and the animating spirit of renovatio mundi. Her images contain the sum of war. Naked, the dead Venus did not cover her sex with her hand while also pressing her hair around her loins.
Art and Death.
John Donne, Elegy XIX:
Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee
As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth’dmust be,
To taste whole joys…
William Blake, Proverbs of Hell:
A dead body revenges not injuries.
[…] The nakedness of woman is the work of God.
[…] Exuberance is Beauty.
[…] Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believ’d.
Beauty and Death.
Enough! Or too much. Both are unfathomable things, so rich in brilliant azure and so rich in shadow, each terrible and equally creative. Holding within them the same riddle, the same secret.
One winter morning I found myself alone with a naked symbol of war. Come away, O human child, from what you have seen. Come away, play. I did play, reckless, as ever. Let me put this in perspective. The philosopher Hannah Arendt designated our species as Homo Faber: Man the Maker. It seems to me that next to Homo Faber, and perhaps on the same level, Homo Ludens, Man the Player, deserves a place in our memoirs. Children play, men play, we play. Play cannot be denied. You can deny, if you like, most of the abstractions: justice, beauty, truth, happiness, mind and God. You can deny reason like Rousseau did, but not play. We play and know we play, so we must be more than rational beings, for play is irrational. Did not Shakespeare compare the world to a stage on which every man plays his part?
I learned early that the rules of warfare were built upon play-patterns. “We have to conclude, therefore, that civilisation is, in its earliest phases, played. It does not come from play like a babe detaching itself from the womb: it arises in it as play, and never leaves it.”(11)
My play began with theft which nearly turned fatal. The Russians parked a wagon in our yard. It contained ordnance, military supplies: guns, ammunition, boxes of dynamite and cartridges, among others. That wagon proved irresistible to my inquisitive curiosity. I saw how the captain loaded and used a flare gun which he kept in the wagon.
I stole the flare gun and a box of cartridges. On a lovely day three boys raced to the straw yard. I loaded the flare gun and shot green flares into the blue sky. What pleasure, what joy, what excitement, what a beautiful world it was, entailing as it does no appreciation of good or ill. Homo Ludens, boys playing with a flare gun. The captain used the flare gun, and so did I. The sheer, exhilarating fun of playing. Play lies outside morals, and so does war. In itself play is neither good nor bad. To understand play we must be capable of donning the child’s soul like a magic cloak and of forsaking man’s wisdom for the child’s.
We call war a game. The play element in warfare. “War and everything to do with it remains fast in the daemonic and magical bonds of play.”(12) From the violent bondage of war I was set free by shooting flares for the excitement and beauty of it. But unknown to us, the fired flares were typically used for signalling distress.
The fired flares, our beautiful moments of play, caught the attention of two Russians on patrol. They rushed at us, seized the flare gun and flung us against a haystack, shouting: Smert spionam! – Death to spies. O fate’s unkind decree, I was a “spy” who, in love with play, faced a submachine gun. The Russians, convinced we were sending distress signals, meant business: death to spies. My earthbound life was about to end at age ten.
While the Russians kept hitting and kicking us, some villagers ran to our home to alert my mother. Suddenly, I saw the captain running toward us, shouting, “Stop it. Stop it”. He flung himself on the two Russians, knocking them to the ground. He took away their submachine guns and dragged me home. Without saying a single word, the captain took off his belt and gave me a severe beating. It was the first beating I ever received on this earth. Even on that occasion I reflected stoically that God, the creator of beating, had in his infinite wisdom also provided that he who does the beating must eventually get tired, for otherwise the beating would be unbearable.
The belt with which I was beaten was brown, but the stripes it left on my buttocks and back were dark blue. I have never forgotten the beating and the blue stripes. Nor did the Captain. As my mother was putting some ointment on my back, the Captain tousled my hair and muttered, affectionately: “Malchik. Malchik, prostyi” [Little boy. Little boy. Forgive me].
The Captain saved my life. My mother’s proud lips spoke not, but her heart did: tears welled up in her eyes. In my many-coloured childhood, I, in playing, took what could have been the last and gravest step of all – death. And yet death never is a wholly welcome guest.
Let me put this in literary context. I was at Harvard when, in discussing Dostoevsky with Harry Levin,(13) I recounted how I faced death at age ten. Levin looked at me with surprise. “And you did not become a novelist?” To my puzzled look, Levin reminded me of the famous scene where young Dostoevsky faced an execution squad. Dostoevsky, accused of being a member of a conspiracy against the government of Tsar Nicholas, was arrested, interrogated and sentenced to death. His brother sent a copy of the Bible to him in prison as well as a volume of Shakespeare. “I particularly thank you for the Shakespeare”, Dostoevsky wrote delightedly. “How could you have guessed?”(14)
Dostoevsky and fourteen of his co-conspirators were condemned to execution by firing squad. Blindfolded and tied to stakes, the accused awaited death. The priest moved down the row holding up the cross to their lips so that they could kiss it. Dostoevsky was third in the row. The Tsar arranged a mock execution. Suddenly, an aide-de-camp arrived on the scene at a gallop carrying the Tsar’s pardon and the real sentences. Dostoevsky’s shackles were dumped in the middle of the platform with a grinding crash. Here begins Dostoevsky’s journey into exile, in Siberia.
Dostoevsky had just turned twenty-eight when his life was spared.
He recalled that, at the moment of saying goodbye, he asked one of his companions a rather indifferent question, and took keen interest in the reply. After saying goodbye, he began the period of two minutes reserved for inward meditation. He knew in advance what he would think about: he wished to focus his attention firmly, and as rapidly and clearly as possible, on what was going to happen: right now, he was existing and living; in three minutes, something would occur; someone or something, but who, where? He thought to resolve these uncertainties during these two final minutes. Nearby rose a church whose golden cupola sparkled under abrilliantsun.Herecalledhavinglookedatthecupolaandtheraysit reflected with a terrible obstinacy; he could not take his eyes away; those rays seemed to him to be that new nature that was to be his own, and he imagined that in three minutes he would become part of them…(15)
The scene of my possible death ended differently. The threat of death was real, not contrived. No aide-de-camp of the Tsar arrived at the straw yard. The Captain arrived. I was ten, Dostoevsky was twenty-eight. I was not exiled, I was beaten.
Recalling the Captain, I come to this conclusion. In times of war even the crudest kind of positive affection between persons seems extraordinarily heart-warming and beautiful, a noble symbol of peace and forgiveness of which the whole world stands so desperately in need. And the Captain did something truly extraordinary.
He arranged with my grandfather to take me for a sleigh ride. I sat in the coach- box next to the driver, the Captain. He was wearing a brand new uniform, showing the creases where it had been folded, and heavy gold epaulets which seemed to stand up rather than lie on his massive shoulders. He had the air of a man happily performing one of his most solemn, pleasurable functions in life – taking a boy for a ride. It was plain that the Captain was delighted and was heart and soul wrapped up in it.
Leaving the village, we turned toward Piliscsév. This was an open space, a vast flat field with boundless horizon. Flashes of light suddenly gleamed from the east and the sun’s rim floated triumphantly over the Pilis Hills. Only the blue sky in the infinite above and the white expanse ahead of us. The Captain stood up, scanned the horizon, took a deep breath, made a sharp click with his tongue, and cracked his whip. The horses sprang forth, the sleigh flew, the whole road was flying, the whole vast expanse was flying, no one knows where into the boundless space and boundless emptiness.
The Captain, free of the iron chains of war, flying over open fields in horse-drawn sleigh, enacted a famous passage from Gogol’s novel Dead Souls. The final image in Gogol’s masterpiece is Chichikov’s troika heading off across the steppe to an unknown destination. It epitomises the enigma of Russia’s future.
Russia! Russia! […] In thee all is open, desolate, flat; thy lowly towns lie scattered like dots, like specks unseen among thy plains; there is nothing to allure or captivate the eye. But what mysterious inexplicable force draws one to thee? […] What is it that calls and sobs and clutches at my heart? Whatarethesestrainsthatsopoignantlygreetme,thatgostraightto my soul, that throb about my heart? Russia! What wouldst thou of me? Whatisthemysterioushiddenbondbetweenus?Whydostthougaze at me thus, and why is everything within thee turning upon my eyes full of expectation? […] I stand motionless […] and thought is numb before thy vast expanse. What does that immense expanse foretell? […] Is it not here there should be giants where there is space for them to develop and move freely. And thy mighty expanse enfolds me menacingly […]. Ah, marvellous, radiant horizons of which the earth knows nothing! Russia!(16)
In the troika passage Gogol insists that Russia be “not guileful” [ne khitry] but like a straightforward muzhik of Yaroslavl who moves “not through the turn of a screw” but with clean stroke of axe and chisel.
Whither Russia? In Kesztölc the guile or treachery of the Russians is so callous and so brutal, and yet the world knows nothing. On 30 December 1944, in Kesztölc, the Russian military command announced that all males between the ages 20 and 45 should gather in front of the village council to receive new identification papers for malenki robot [little work]. No less than 480 men showed up. The population of Kesztölc was under 3,000. These men marched or were transported, under false promises, from village to village, from Soviet camps to Soviet camps. After weeks of starving and marching or locked up in wagons, the malenki robot prisoners arrived in one of the infernal “circles” of the Soviet archipelago.
Of the 480 men only 120 returned to Kesztölc. The village had become the kingdom of widows. At the Potsdam Conference, Stalin told President Truman and Winston Churchill about the post-war situation in the Soviet Union. “I usually do not complain but now I must say that we are in an extremely difficult situation. Due to our enormous losses, we do not have enough men and, if I revealed the true circumstances of my country, I should burst into tears.”(17)
In the height and pomp of power, Stalin, in whose blood-stained hands the rod of empire had swayed, may have burst into tears in the Kremlin, most likely in drunken stupor. But in Kesztölc the 300 widows’ tears flowed in rivulets. The widow who prays and cries in church for her missing or dead husband is more human and precious than the dictator’s contrived tears in the Kremlin. The tears of widows shed in church, not the tears of Stalin shed in Kremlin, restores to life its greatness. For there is no finer sight than that of an understanding at grips with a reality which transcends it. The sight of the human pride of the widows of Kesztölc is unsurpassable. To impoverish that reality whose love and faith constitutes human greatness is tantamount to impoverishing man himself. Whoever thinks and feels otherwise knows little of the fathomless heart. Growing up in Kesztölc, I saw frail creatures, aged and singular; those broken souls were women long ago, Mary or Ann. As widows they are still souls beneath their black clothes and hair white. Have you seen? Many an old woman’s bier is little bigger than that of a grown child’s. Consumed by grief, poverty and waiting, the widows aged quickly, their bodies shrank. Merciful, wise death made those coffins similar; symbols enervating and unparalleled. I have seen some of the coffins. The widows of Kesztölc waited and prayed. They grieved and they loved. They worked and they died. They gave to grief and misery all they had, a tear, a prayer, a sob. There are tears in things and it touches the mind. The life of the widows that I knew was like a long sob, all heavy with tearful farewells. Their hope had grey hair, their love had mourning on, their eyes trenched with tears, their faces carved with cares. To their little joys and life obscure, no grandeur nor smile attaches. Such is the short and simple annals of the widows of Kesztölc.
These memoirs are an attempt to remember.
1 Maxim Gorky, Days with Lenin (New York, 1932), p. 52.
2 George Steiner, Real Presences (The University of Chicago Press, 1991), p. 19.
3 Ian Donaldson, Ben Jonson: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 135–136.
4 Ilya Ehrenburg, “Kill”, in Krasnaya Zvezda [Red Star], 24 July 1942, p. 4.
5 Ilya Ehrenburg, People, Years and Life, 2 vols. (New York: Pergamon Press, 1972), 2:228.
6 People, Years and Life, 2:251–52.
7 The New York Times, 26 June 1946, p. 11.
8 Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, p. 88.
9 The Parian Marble. B. The Paros Fragment. Entry 48. Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Oxford.
10 Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, 2 vols. (Oxford University Press, 1965), 1: xv.
11 Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1949), p. 173.
12 Homo Ludens, p. 209.
13 Harry Levin, Letters with Árpád Kadarkay, Houghton Library – Modern Books and Manuscripts, Harvard College Library, bMS Am 2461 (531).
14 Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky, 5 vols. (Princeton University Press, 1983), 3:23.
15 Dostoevsky, 3:57.
16 Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls (New York: Modern Library, 1936), vol. 2, Book One, pp. 39–40.
17 Andreas Hilger, Deutsche Kriegsgefangene in der Sowjetunion, 1941–1956 (Essen: Klartext, 2000), p. 173.