28 November 2007

Nineteenth-Century Russian Exiles in Recent Anglophone Literature (Part One)

Under Review
Tom Stoppard, The Coast of Utopia [Performed at RAMT, Moscow, 11 November 2007]

[Note: What follows is a short impressionistic review, rather than a full treatment. I don’t have the time or energy for more, but I thought folks might want to know what the non-dissertation part of my brain chewed up in November, aside from the news. So I put together this mini-series on Stoppard and Rudahl, lumped together under the title above. Follow the links in the second paragraph if you want a more rounded treatment of Stoppard's play.]

Nineteenth-century Russia provided social, political, and economic conditions that both fostered revolutionary thought and marginalized its revolutionary thinkers. As such, a fair share of Russian intellectualism was an exilic production, dreamed up in Western Europe and, to a lesser degree, the United States, where writers could work outside of the purview of the censor and with a lessened threat of imprisonment. As has been noted by many literary critics in recent times, theories conjured in exile, lacking conversation with practice, often have a utopian quality; exiles imagine a better world, but without any effective means to create that place outside of the confines of one’s personal relations. This perverse situation is the theme of Tom Stoppard’s recent play, The Coast of Utopia, which endeavors to paint a portrait of the lives and thought of several major mid-century Russian-thinkers (Herzen, Bakunin, Turgenev, Ogarev, and Belinsky feature prominently). It’s a tall order to ask a play to properly elaborate the heady brew of these intellectuals. To accomplish the job, Stoppard enlisted, as he himself notes, two crib-sheets: Isaiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers and E.H. Carr’s The Romantic Exiles.

Much has already been made of Stoppard’s dependence on the Cold-War liberalized Herzen he inherited from Berlin. It has rightly been noted that Berlin cultivated a Herzen that stripped away his rougher, more idealistic streaks, making him a perfect foil for Bakunin’s and Marx’s ostensible idealistic fervors, the contrast Stoppard uses to elaborate his play’s philosophical outlook. But the personal details of this group’s collective life, and to a certain degree the play’s tragic outlook, are wholly borrowed from Carr’s 1933 study of the circle around Herzen. It is not surprising that less has been made of the influence of Carr’s work, as the author (most well-known for the primer What is History?, the path-breaking study of international affairs The Twenty Years' Crisis, and his multi-volume history of the Bolshevik Revolution) was a quixotic leftist and wide-ranging observer of politics and society, whose views, compared to Berlin’s, could be quite hard to pin down.

Readers familiar with Carr’s later works might be a bit surprised by The Romantic Exiles, as it focuses as much, if not more, on intimate lives as on political thought. And this setting is retained in Stoppard’s play, as the locations, save an 1848 barricades scene, are domestic and the philosophizing presented as kitchen quarrels. For Carr, the foregrounding of the domestic had two consequences. First, it underscored the ways in which the circle around Herzen was romantic and idealistic in both senses of both words. They seem less motivated by concerns of social justice than they are by abstract striving toward free relations. Second, the tight angle highlighted the ways in which this circle was, in many ways, cut off from any effective sphere of action, allowing their ideas to develop wildly and without concerns of application, often with tragic consequences for the families involved. The bother with this up-close approach, only amplified in its theatrical staging, is that it robs social and political thought of its context.

Stir together this bell-jar domesticity with Berlin’s anti-utopianism and The Coast of Utopia, despite itself, might well be considered an anti-play of ideas. Political philosophies are presented, usually in the form of exhausting monologues (each to be followed by applause in Moscow), but instead of being evaluated on their own terms, they are judged by how well they play in an insulated, bourgeois setting (that in all probability intentionally extends into the audience). Of course, Bakunin and the young Marx come off as uncouth and dogmatic in the milieu of genteel society. But I presume that the merits of their political views and philosophy should be judged by different criteria than the ones used to assess the likeability of characters on the The Gilmore Girls. (I know that this may come as some shock to American voters.) Then, such a consideration might require that the peasants play a role other than happily singing in between scenes while they change sets. Ultimately, Stoppard seems uninterested in such a broader view. Instead, we are fed some tripe about the dominance of nonsensical, annoying radicalism in the face of liberal common sense, a recurrent theme in Stoppard’s work from the 1970s on. Radicals can be so hindersome to delightful entertainments and witty banter, it seems.

It is to the credit of the strong cast and the lasting vitality of the historical figures upon which the characters are based that the play succeeds in holding one’s attention for nine hours, as the ideological writing is on the wall as soon as the over-bearing Mikhail Bakunin shows up at Premukhino. Herzen (Ilya Isaev), Bakunin (Stepan Morozov) and Turgenev (Aleksandr Ustiugov) are all played brilliantly. Evgenii Red’ko’s Belinsky makes one appropriately uncomfortable. (As for the Ginger Cat, I have no facilities with which to judge, or even describe, that scene. You will have to try to catch it yourself, if you can.)

As a provocation, perhaps the play was a success, as I hope some viewers, lured in by the performance, will read these thinkers for themselves. But as a statement as to why these thinkers might be particularly important to return to in the West, or moreover in contemporary Russia, a time and place in which the term “liberal” has come to mean “someone who screwed us over in the 1990s”…that’s another question and one that Stoppard ultimately has no answer to, that I can discern. Maybe it’s better this way, as I fear whatever more exact answers a self-professed Thatcherite might have come up with.

The question I do plan to take up in the second part of this series is how else we might look at Russia’s nineteenth-century revolutionary exiles, in a broader context and outside of Carr’s Whiggish interpretation of the rise (and purported fall) of idealism, followed by the march of scientific socialism in Russia. Tune in.

Coming Soon on MTBE: Nineteenth-Century Russian Exiles in Contemporary Western Works, Part Two, a review of Sharon Rudahl’s A Dangerous Woman: A Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman.


"amanda" said...

tom stoppard: yum.