A good many years ago, in 1929, I chanced to read a book which disturbed me in a way I…
One of the most original short-story writers of our time was the Odessa Jew, Isaac Babel, who began writing during the Russian Revolution and disappeared fifteen years later during Stalin’s Great Purge. He died (it is said) in prison in 1939 or 1940. Lionel Trilling contributes this illuminating essay on his life and work and enables us to see Babel as a representative figure of that generation of Russian Jewish intellectuals who found themselves torn between the lure of violence and revolution and the deep, inexpugnable claims of peace. Mr. Trilling’s essay forms the introduction to The Collected Stories which Criterion Books is soon to publish.
A good many years ago, in 1929, I chanced to read a book which disturbed me in a way I can still remember. The book was called Red Cavalry; it was a collection of stories about the Soviet regiments of horse operating in Poland. I had never heard of the author, Isaac Babel—or I. Babel as he signed himself—and nobody had anything to tell me about him, and part of my disturbance was the natural shock we feel when, suddenly and without warning, we confront a new talent of great energy and boldness. But the book was disturbing for other reasons as well.
In those days one still spoke of the “Russian experiment” and one might still believe that the light of dawn glowed on the test tubes and crucibles of human destiny. And it was still possible to have very strange expectations of the new culture that would arise from the Revolution. I do not remember what my own particular expectations were, except that they involved a desire for an art that would have as little ambiguity as a proposition in logic. Why I wanted this I don’t wholly understand. It was as if I had hoped that the literature of the Revolution would realize some simple, inadequate notion of the “classical” which I had picked up at college; and perhaps I was drawn to this notion of the classical because I was afraid of the literature of modern Europe, because I was scared of its terrible intensities, ironies, and ambiguities. If this is what I really felt, I can’t say that I am now wholly ashamed of my cowardice. If we stop to think of the museum knowingness about art which we are likely to acquire with maturity, of our consumer’s pride in buying only the very best spiritual commodities, the ones which are sure to give satisfaction, there may possibly be a grace in those moments when we lack the courage to confront, or the strength to endure, some particular work of art or kind of art. At any rate, here was Babel’s book and I found it disturbing. It was obviously the most remarkable work of fiction that had yet come out of revolutionary Russia, the only work, indeed, that I knew of as having upon it the mark of exceptional talent, even of genius. Yet for me it was all too heavily charged with the intensity, irony, and ambiguousness from which I wished to escape.
There was anomaly at the very heart of the book, for the red cavalry of the title were Cossack regiments, and why were Cossacks fighting for the Revolution, they who were the instrument and symbol of Czarist repression? The author, who represented himself in the stories, was a Jew; and a Jew in a Cossack regiment was more than an anomaly, it was a joke, for between Cossack and Jew there existed not merely hatred but a polar opposition. Yet here was a Jew riding as a Cossack and trying to come to terms with the Cossack ethos. At that first reading it seemed to me—although it does not now—that the stories were touched with cruelty. They were about violence of the most extreme kind, yet they were composed with a striking elegance and precision of objectivity, and also with a kind of lyric joy, so that one could not at once know just how the author was responding to the brutality he recorded, whether he thought it good or bad, justified or not justified. Nor was this the only thing to be in doubt about. It was not really clear how the author felt about, say, Jews; or about religion; or about the goodness of man. He had—or perhaps, for the sake of some artistic effect, he pretended to have—a secret. This alienated and disturbed me. It was impossible not to be overcome by admiration for Red Cavalry, but it was not at all the sort of book that I had wanted the culture of the Revolution to give me.
And, as it soon turned out, it was not at all the sort of book that the Revolution wanted to give anyone. No event in the history of Soviet culture is more significant than the career, or rather, the end of the career, of Isaac Babel. He had been a protégé of Gorki, and he had begun his career under the aegis of Trotsky’s superb contempt for the pieties of the conventional “proletarian” aesthetics. In the last years of the decade of the 20’s and in the early 30’s he was regarded as one of the most notable talents of Soviet literature.
This judgment was, however, by no means an official one. From the beginning of his career Babel had been under the attack of the literary bureaucracy. But in 1932 the party abolished RAPP—the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers—and it seemed that a new period of freedom had been inaugurated. In point of fact, the reactionary elements of Soviet culture were established in full ascendancy, and the purge trials of 1937 were to demonstrate how absolute their power was. But in the five intervening years the party chose to exercise its authority in a lenient manner. It was in this atmosphere of seeming liberality that the first Writers’ Congress was held in 1934. Babel was one of the speakers at the Congress. He spoke with considerable jauntiness, yet he spoke as a penitent—the stories he had written since Red Cavalry had been published in a volume at the end of 1932, yet since that time he had written nothing, he had disappointed expectation.
His speech was a strange performance. It undertook to be humorous; the published report is punctuated by the indication of laughter.1 It made the avowals of loyalty that were by then routine, yet we cannot take it for granted that. Babel was insincere when he spoke of his devotion to the Revolution, to the government, and to the state, or when he said that in a bourgeois country it would inevitably have been his fate to go without recognition and livelihood. He may have been sincere even when he praised Stalin’s literary style, speaking of the sentences “forged” as if of steel, of the necessity of learning to work in language as Stalin did. Yet beneath the orthodoxy of this speech there lies some hidden intention. One feels this in the sad vestiges of the humanistic mode that wryly manifest themselves. It is as if the humor, which is often of a whimsical kind, as if the irony and the studied self-depreciation, were forlorn affirmations of freedom and selfhood; it is as if Babel were addressing his fellow writers in a dead language, or in some slang of their student days, which a few of them might perhaps remember.
Everything, he said at one point in his speech, is given to us by the party and the government; we are deprived of only one right, the right to write badly. “Comrades,” he said, “let us not fool ourselves: this is a very important right, and to take it away from us is no small thing.” And he said, “Let us give up this right, and may God help us. And if there is no God, let us help ourselves . . . .”
The right to write badly—how precious it seems when once there has been the need to conceive of it! Upon the right to write badly depends the right to write at all. There must have been many in the audience who understood how serious and how terrible Babel’s joke was. And there must have been some who had felt a chill at their hearts at another joke that Babel had made earlier in his address, when he spoke of himself as practicing a new literary genre. This was the genre of silence—he was, he said, “the master of the genre of silence.”
Thus he incriminated himself for his in ability to work. He made reference to the doctrine that the writer must have respect for the reader, and he said that it was a correct doctrine. He himself, he said, had a very highly developed respect for the reader; so much so, indeed, that it might be said of him that he suffered from a hypertrophy of the faculty of respect—“I have so much respect for the reader that I am dumb.” But now he takes a step beyond irony; he ventures to interpret, and by his interpretation to challenge, the official doctrines of “respect for the reader.” The reader, he says, asks for bread, and he must indeed be given what he asks for—but not in the way he expects it; he ought to be surprised by what he gets; he ought not be given what he can easily recognize as “a certified true copy” of life—the essence of art is its unexpectedness.
The silence for which Babel apologized was not broken. In 1937 he was arrested. He died in a concentration camp in 1939 or 1940. It is not known for certain whether he was shot or died of typhus. Both accounts of the manner of his death have been given by people who were inmates of the camp at the time. Nor is it known for what specific reason he was arrested. Raymond Rosenthal, in an admirable essay on Babel published in COMMENTARY in 1947, says, on good authority, that Babel did not undergo a purge but was arrested for having made a politically indiscreet remark. It has been said that he was arrested when Yagoda was purged, because he was having a love affair with Yagoda’s sister. It has also been said that he was accused of Trotskyism, which does indeed seem possible, especially if we think of Trotsky as not only a political but a cultural figure.
But no reason for the last stage of the extinction of Isaac Babel is needed beyond that which is provided by his stories, by their method and style. If ever we want to remind ourselves of the nature and power of art, we have only to think of how accurate reactionary governments are in their awareness of that nature and that power. It is not merely the content of art that they fear, not merely explicit doctrine, but whatever of energy and autonomy is implied by the aesthetic qualities a work may have. Intensity, irony, and ambiguousness, for example, constitute a clear threat to the impassivity of the state. They constitute a secret.
Babel was not a political man except as every man of intelligence was political at the time of the Revolution. Except, too, as every man of talent or genius is political who makes his heart a battleground for conflicting tendencies of culture. In Babel’s heart there was a kind of fighting—he was captivated by the vision of two ways of being, the way of violence and the way of peace, and he was torn between them. The conflict between the two ways of being was an essential element of his mode of thought. And when Soviet culture was brought under full discipline, the fighting in Babel’s heart could not be permitted to endure. It was a subversion of discipline. It implied that there was more than one way of being. It hinted that one might live in doubt, that one might live by means of a question.
It is with some surprise that we become aware of the centrality of the cultural, the moral, the personal issue in Babel’s work, for what strikes us first is the intensity of his specifically aesthetic preoccupation. In his schooldays Babel was passionate in his study of French literature; for several years he wrote his youthful stories in French, his chief masters being Flaubert and Maupassant. When, in an autobiographical sketch, he means to tell us that he began his mature work in 1923, he puts it that in that year he began to express his thoughts “clearly, and not at great length.” This delight in brevity became his peculiar mark. When Eisenstein spoke of what it was that literature might teach the cinema, he said that “Isaac Babel will speak of the extreme laconicism of literature’s expressive means—Babel, who, perhaps, knows in practice better than anyone else that great secret, ‘that there is no iron that can enter the human heart with such stupefying effect as a period placed at just the right moment.’”2 Babel’s love of the laconic implies certain other elements of his aesthetic, his commitment (it is sometimes excessive) to le mot juste, to the search for the word or phrase that will do its work with a ruthless speed, and his remarkable powers of significant distortion, the rapid foreshortening, the striking displacement of interest and shift of emphasis—in general his pulling all awry the arrangement of things as they appear in the “certified true copy.”
Babel’s preoccupation with form, with the aesthetic surface, is, we soon see, entirely at the service of his moral concern. James Joyce has taught us the word epiphany, a showing forth—Joyce had the “theory” that suddenly, almost miraculously, by a phrase or a gesture, a life would thrust itself through the veil of things and for an instant show itself forth, startling us by its existence. In itself the conception of the epiphany makes a large statement about the nature of human life; it suggests that the human fact does not dominate the scene of our existence—for something to “show forth” it must first be hidden, and the human fact is submerged in and subordinated to a world of circumstance, the world of things; it is known only in glimpses, emerging from the danger or the sordidness in which it is implicated. Those writers who by their practice subscribe to the theory of the epiphany are drawn to a particular aesthetic. In the stories of Maupassant, as in those of Stephen Crane, and Hemingway, and the Joyce of Dubliners, as in those of Babel himself, we perceive the writer’s intention to create a form which shall in itself be shapely and autonomous and at the same time unusually responsible to the truth of external reality, the truth of things and events. To this end he concerns himself with the given moment, and, seeming almost hostile to the continuity of time, he presents the past only as it can be figured in the present. In his commitment to event he affects to be indifferent to “meanings” and “values”; he seems to be saying that although he can tell us with unusual accuracy what is going on, he does not presume to interpret it, scarcely to understand it, certainly not to judge it. He arranges that the story shall tell itself, as it were; or he tells it by means of a narrator who somehow makes it clear that he has no personal concern with the outcome of events—what I have called Babel’s lyric joy in the midst of violence is in effect one of his devices for achieving the tone of detachment. We are not, of course, for very long deceived by the elaborate apparatus contrived to suggest the almost affectless detachment of the writer. We soon enough see what he is up to. His intense concern with the hard aesthetic surface of the story, his preoccupation with things and events, are, we begin to perceive, cognate with the universe, representative of its nature, of the unyielding circumstance in which the human fact exists; they make the condition for the epiphany, the showing forth; and the apparent denial of immediate pathos is a condition of the ultimate pathos the writer conceives.
All this, as I say, is soon enough apparent in Babel’s stories. And yet, even when we have become aware of his pathos, we are, I think, surprised by the kind of moral issue that lies beneath the brilliant surface of the stories, beneath the lyric and ironic elegance—we are surprised by its elemental simplicity. We are surprised, too, by its passionate subjectivity, the intensity of the author’s personal involvement, his defenseless commitment of himself to the issue.
The stories of Red Cavalry have as their principle of coherence what I have called the anomaly, or the joke of a Jew who is a member of a Cossack regiment—Babel was a supply officer under General Budienny in the campaign of 1920. Traditionally the Cossack was the feared and hated enemy of the Jew. But he was more than that. The principle of his existence stood in antithesis to the principle of the Jew’s existence. The Jew conceived his own ideal character to consist in his being intellectual, pacific, humane. The Cossack was physical, violent, without mind or manners. When a Jew of Eastern Europe wanted to say what we mean by “a bull in a china shop,” he said “a Cossack in a succah”—in, that is, one of the fragile decorated booths or tabernacles in which the meals of the harvest festival of Succoth are eaten: he intended an image of animal violence, of aimless destructiveness. And if the Jew was political, if he thought beyond his own ethnic and religious group, he knew that the Cossack was the enemy not only of the Jew—although that in special—but the enemy also of all men who thought of liberty; he was the natural and appropriate instrument of ruthless oppression.
There was, of course, another possible view of the Cossack, one that had its appeal for many Russian intellectuals, although it was not likely to win the assent of the Jew. Tolstoy had represented the Cossack as having a primitive energy, passion, and virtue. He was the man as yet untrammeled by civilization, direct, immediate, fierce. He was the man of enviable simplicity, the man of the body—and of the horse, the man who moved with speed and grace. We have devised an image of our lost freedom which we mock in the very phrase by which we name it: the noble savage. No doubt the mockery is justified, yet our fantasy of the noble savage represents a reality of our existence, it stands for our sense of something unhappily surrendered, the truth of the body, the truth of full sexuality, the truth of open aggressiveness. Something, we know, must inevitably be surrendered for the sake of civilization; but the “discontent” of civilization which Freud describes is our self-recrimination at having surrendered too much. Babel’s view of the Cossack was more consonant with that of Tolstoy than with the traditional view of his own people. For him the Cossack was indeed the noble savage, all too savage, not often noble, yet having in his savagery some quality that might raise strange questions in a Jewish mind.
I have seen three pictures of Babel, and it is a puzzle to know how he was supposed to look. The most convincing of the pictures is a photograph, to which the two official portrait sketches bear but little resemblance. The sketch which serves as the frontispiece to Babel’s volume of stories of 1932 makes the author look like a Chinese merchant—his face is round, impassive, and priggish; his nose is low and flat; he stares through rimless glasses with immovable gaze. The sketch in the Literary Encyclopedia lengthens his face and gives him horn-rimmed spectacles and an air of amused and knowing assurance: a well-educated and successful Hollywood writer who has made the intelligent decision not to apologize for his profession except by his smile. But in the photograph the face is very long and thin, charged with emotion and internality; bitter, intense, very sensitive, touched with humor, full of consciousness and contradiction. It is “typically” an intellectual’s face, a scholar’s face, and it has great charm. I should not want to speak of it as a Jewish face, but it is a kind of face which many Jews used to aspire to have, or hoped their sons would have. It was, surely, this face, or one much like it, that Babel took with him when he went among the Cossacks.
We can only marvel over the vagary of the military mind by which Isaac Babel came to be assigned as a supply officer to a Cossack regiment. He was a Jew of the ghetto. As a boy—so he tells us in his autobiographical stories—he had been of stunted growth, physically inept, subject to nervous disorders. He was an intellectual, a writer—a man, as he puts it in striking phrase, with spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart. The orders that sent him to General Budienny’s command were drawn either by a conscious and ironical Destiny with a literary bent—or at his own personal request. For the reasons that made it bizarre that he should have been attached to a Cossack regiment are the reasons why he was there. He was there to be submitted to a test, he was there to be initiated. He was there because of the dreams of his boyhood. Babel’s talent, like that of many modern writers, is rooted in the memory of boyhood, and Babel’s boyhood was more than usually dominated by the idea of the test and the initiation. We might put it that Babel rode with a Cossack regiment because, when he was nine years old, he had seen his father kneeling before a Cossack captain who wore lemon-colored chamois gloves and looked ahead with the gaze of one who rides through a mountain pass.
Isaac Babel was born in Odessa, in 1894. The years following the accession of Nicholas II were dark years indeed for the Jews of Russia. It was the time of the bitterest official anti-Semitism, of the Pale, of the Beilis trial, of the Black Hundreds and the planned pogroms. And yet in Odessa the Jewish community may be said to have flourished. Odessa was the great port of the Black Sea, an eastern Marseilles or Naples, and in such cities the transient, heterogeneous population dilutes the force of law and tradition, for good as well as for bad. The Jews of Odessa were in some degree free to take part in the general life of the city. They were, to be sure, debarred from the schools, with but few exceptions. And they were sufficiently isolated when the passions of a pogrom swept the city. Yet all classes of the Jewish community seem to have been marked by a singular robustness and vitality, by a sense of the world, and of themselves in the world. The upper classes lived in affluence, sometimes in luxury, and it was possible for them to make their way into a Gentile society in which prejudice had been attenuated by cosmopolitanism. The intellectual life was of a particular energy, producing writers, scholars, and journalists of very notable gifts; it is in Odessa that modern Hebrew poetry takes its rise with Bialik and Tchernikovsky. As for the lower classes, Babel himself represents them as living freely and heartily. In their ghetto, the Moldavanka, they were far more conditioned by their economic circumstances than by their religious ties; they were not at all like the poor Jews of the shtetlach, the little towns of Poland, whom Babel was later to see. He represents them as characters of a Breughel-like bulk and brawn; they have large, coarse, elaborate nicknames; they are draymen and dairy farmers; they are gangsters—the Jewish gangs of the Moldavanka were famous; they made upon the young Babel an ineradicable impression and to them he devoted a remarkable group of stories.
It was not Odessa, then, it was not even Odessa’s ghetto, that forced upon Babel the image of the Jew as a man not in the actual world, a man of no body, a man of intellect, or wits, passive before his secular fate. Not even his image of the Jewish intellectual was substantiated by the Odessa actuality—Bialik and Tchernikovsky were anything but men with spectacles on their noses and autumn in their hearts, and no one who ever encountered in America the striking figure of Dr. Chaim Tchernowitz, the great scholar of the Talmud and formerly the Chief Rabbi of Odessa, a man of Jovian port and large, free mind, would be inclined to conclude that there was but a single season of the heart available to a Jew of Odessa.
But Babel had seen his father on his knees before a Cossack captain on a horse, who said, “At your service” and touched his fur cap with his yellow-gloved hand and politely paid no heed to the mob looting the Babel store. Such an experience, or even a far milder analogue of it, is determinative in the life of a boy. Freud speaks of the effect upon him when, at twelve, his father told of having accepted in a pacific way the insult of having his new fur cap knocked into the mud by a Gentile who shouted at him, “Jew, get off the pavement.” It is clear that Babel’s relation with his father defined his relation to his Jewishness. Benya Krik, the greatest of gangsters, he who was called King, was a Jew of Odessa, but he did not wear glasses and he did not have autumn in his heart—it is in writing about Benya that Babel uses the phrase that sets so far apart the intellectual and the man of action. The explanation of Benya’s preeminence among gangsters does indeed take account of his personal endowment—Benya was a “lion,” a “tiger,” a “cat”; he “could spend the night with a Russian woman and satisfy her.” But what really made his fate was his having had Mendel Krik, the drayman, for his father. “What does such a father think about? He thinks about drinking a good glass of vodka, of smashing somebody in the face, of his horses—and nothing more. You want to live and he makes you die twenty times a day. What would you have done in Benya Krik’s place? You would have done nothing. But he did something . . . .” But Babel’s father did not think about vodka, and smashing somebody in the face, and horses; he thought about large and serious things, among them respectability and fame. He was a shopkeeper, not well-to-do, a serious man, a failure. The sons of such men have much to prove, much to test themselves for, and if they are Jewish, their Jewishness is ineluctably involved in the test.
Babel, in the brief autobiographical sketch to which I have referred, speaks with bitterness of the terrible discipline of his Jewish education. He thought of the Talmud Torah as a prison shutting him off from all desirable life, from reality itself. One of the stories he tells—conceivably the incident was invented to stand for his feelings about his Jewish schooling—is about his father’s having fallen prey to the Messianic delusion which beset the Jewish families of Odessa, the belief that any one of them might produce a prodigy of the violin, a little genius who could be sent to be processed by Professor Auer in Petersburg, who would play before crowned heads in a velvet suit, and support his family in honor and comfort. Such miracles had occurred in Odessa, whence had come Elman, Zimbalist, Gabrilowitsch, and Heifetz. Babel’s father hoped for wealth, but he would have foregone wealth if he could have been sure, at a minimum, of fame. Being small, the young Babel at fourteen might pass for eight and a prodigy. In point of fact, Babel had not even talent, and certainly no vocation. He was repelled by the idea of becoming a musical “dwarf,” one of the “big-headed freckled children with necks as thin as flower-stalks and an epileptic flush on their cheeks.” This was a Jewish fate and he fled from it, escaping to the port and the beaches of Odessa. Here he tried to learn to swim and could not: “the hydrophobia of my ancestors-Spanish rabbis and Frankfort moneychangers—dragged me to the bottom.” But a kindly proofreader, an elderly man who loved nature and children, took pity on him. “How d’you mean, the water won’t hold you? Why shouldn’t it hold you?”—his specific gravity was no different from anybody else’s and the good Yefim Nikitich Smolich taught him to swim. “I came to love that man,” Babel says in one of the very few of his sentences over which no slightest irony plays, “with the love that only a boy suffering from hysteria and headaches can feel for a real man.”
The story is called “Awakening” and it commemorates the boy’s first effort of creation. It is to Nikitich that he shows the tragedy he has composed and it is the old man who observes that the boy has talent but no knowledge of nature and undertakes to teach him how to tell one tree or one plant from another. This ignorance of the natural world—Babel refers to it again in his autobiographical sketch—was a Jewish handicap to be overcome. It was not an extravagance of Jewish self-consciousness that led him to make the generalization—Maurice Samuel remarks in The World of Sholom Aleichem that in the Yiddish vocabulary of the Jews of Eastern Europe there are but two flower names (rose, violet) and no names for wild birds.
When it was possible to do so, Babel left his family and Odessa to live the precarious life, especially precarious for a Jew, of a Russian artist and intellectual. He went to Kiev and then, in 1915, he ventured to St. Petersburg without a residence certificate. He was twenty-one. He lived in a cellar on Pushkin Street, and wrote stories which were everywhere refused until Gorki took him up and in 1916 published in his magazine two of Babel’s stories. To Gorki, Babel said, he was indebted for everything. But Gorki became of the opinion that Babel’s first stories were successful only by accident; he advised the young man to abandon the career of literature and to go “among the people.” Babel served in the Czar’s army on the Rumanian front; after the Revolution he was for a time a member of the Cheka; he went on the grain-collecting expeditions of 1918; he fought with the northern army against Yudenitch. In 1920 he was with Budienny in Poland, twenty-six years old, having seen much, having endured much, yet demanding initiation, submitting himself to the test.
The test, it is important to note, is not that of courage. Babel’s affinity with Stephen Crane and Hemingway is close in many respects, of which not the least important is his feeling for his boyhood and for the drama of the boy’s initiation into manhood. But the question that Babel puts to himself is not that which means so much to the two American writers; he does not ask whether he will be able to meet danger with honor. This he seems to know he can do. Rather, the test is of his power of direct and immediate, and violent, action—not whether he can endure being killed but whether he can endure killing. In the story “After the Battle” a Cossack comrade is enraged against him not because, in the recent engagement, he had hung back, but because he had ridden with an unloaded revolver. The story ends with the narrator imploring fate to “grant me the simplest of proficiencies—the ability to kill my fellow men.”
The necessity for submitting to the test is very deeply rooted in Babel’s psychic life. This becomes readily apparent when we read the whole of Babel’s work and perceive the manifest connection between certain of the incidents of Red Cavalry and those of the stories of the Odessa boyhood. In the story “My First Goose” the newcomer to the brigade is snubbed by the brilliant Cossack commander because he is a man with spectacles on his nose, an intellectual. “Not a life for the brainy sort here,” says the quartermaster who carries his trunk to his billet. “But you go and mess up a lady, and a good lady too, and you’ll have the boys patting you on the back . . . .” The five new comrades in the billet make it clear that he is an outsider and unwanted, they begin at once to bully and haze him. Yet by one action he overcomes their hostility to him and his spectacles. He asks the old landlady for food and she puts him off; whereupon he kills the woman’s goose in a particularly brutal manner, and, picking it up on the point of a sword, thrusts it at the woman and orders her to cook it. Now the crisis is passed; the price of community has been paid. The group of five reforms itself to become a group of six. All is decent and composed in the conduct of the men. There is a general political discussion, then sleep. “We slept, all six of us, beneath a wooden roof that let in the stars, warming one another, our legs intermingled. I dreamed: and in my dreams I saw women. But my heart, stained with bloodshed, grated and brimmed over.” We inevitably read this story in the light of Babel’s two connected stories of the 1905 pogrom, “The Story of My Pigeon House” and “First Love,” recalling the scene in which the crippled cigarette vendor, whom all the children loved, crushes the boy’s newly bought and long-desired pigeon and flings it in his face. Later the pigeon’s blood and entrails are washed from the boy’s cheek by the young Russian woman who is sheltering the Babel family and whom the boy adores. It is after her caress that the boy sees his father on his knees before the Cossack captain; the story ends with his capitulation to nervous illness. And now again a bird has been brutally killed, now again the killing is linked with sexuality, but now it is not his bird but another’s, now he is not passive but active.
Yet no amount of understanding of the psychological genesis of the act of killing the goose makes it easy for us to judge it as anything more than a very ugly brutality. It is not easy for us—and it is not easy for Babel. Not easy, but we must make the effort to comprehend that for Babel it is not violence in itself that is at issue in his relation to the Cossacks, but something else, some quality with which violence does indeed go along, but which is not in itself merely violent. This quality, whatever it is to be called, is of the greatest importance in Babel’s conception of himself as an intellectual and an artist, in his conception of himself as a Jew.
It is, after all, not violence and brutality that make the Cossacks what; they are. This is not the first violence and brutality that Babel has known—when it comes to violence and brutality a Western reader can scarcely have, unless he sets himself to acquire it, an adequate idea of their place in the life of Eastern Europe. The impulse to violence, as we have learned, seems indigenous in all mankind. Among certain groups the impulse is far more freely licensed than among others. Americans are aware and ashamed of the actuality or potentiality of violence in their own culture, but it is nothing to that of the East of Europe; the people for whom the mass impalings and the knout are part of their memory of the exercise of authority over them have their own appropriate ways of expressing their rage. As compared with what the knife, or the homemade pike, or the boot, can do, the revolver is an instrument of delicate amenity and tender mercy—this, indeed, is the point of one of Babel’s stories. Godfrey Blunden’s description of the method of execution used by the Ukrainian peasant bands is scarcely to be read. Nor is it only in combat that the tradition of ferocious violence appears, as is suggested by the long Russian concern with wife-beating as a national problem.
The point I would make is that the Cossacks were not exceptional for their violence. It was not their violence in itself that evoked Tolstoy’s admiration. Nor is it what fascinated Babel. Rather he is drawn by what the violence goes along with, the boldness, the passionateness, the simplicity and directness—and the grace. Thus the story “My First Goose” opens with a description of the masculine charm of the brigade commander Savitsky. His male grace is celebrated in a shower of epithet—we hear of the “beauty of his giant’s body,” of the decorated chest “cleaving the hut as a standard cleaves the sky,” of “the iron and flower of that youthfulness,” of his long legs, which were “like girls sheathed to the neck in shining riding-boots.” Only the openness of the admiration and envy—which constitutes, also, a qualifying irony—keeps the description from seeming sexually perverse. It is remarkably not perverse; it is as “healthy” as a boy’s love of his hero of the moment. And Savitsky’s grace is a real thing. Babel is not ready to destroy it by any of the means that are so ready to the hand of the intellectual confronted by this kind of power and charm; he does not diminish the glory he perceives by confronting it with the pathos of human creatures less physically glorious, having more, or a higher, moral appeal because they are weaker and because they suffer. The possibility of this grace is part of what Babel saw in the Cossacks.
It is much the same thing that D. H. Lawrence was drawn by in his imagination of archaic cultures and personalities and of the ruthlessness, even the cruelty, that attended their grace. It is what Yeats had in mind in his love of “the old disturbed exalted life, the old splendor.” It is what even the gentle Forster represents in the brilliant scene in Where Angels Fear to Tread in which Gino, the embodiment of male grace, tortures Stephen by twisting his broken arm. This fantasy of personal, animal grace, this glory of conscienceless self-assertion, of sensual freedom, haunts our culture. It speaks to something in us that we fear, and rightly fear, yet it speaks to us.
Babel never for a moment forgets what the actualities of this savage glory are. In the story “The Brigade Commander” he speaks of the triumph of a young man in his first command. Kolesnikov in his moment of victory had the “masterful indifference of a Tartar Khan,” and Babel, observing him with genuine pleasure, goes on to say that he was conscious of the training of other famous leaders of horse, and mentions “the captivating Savitsky” and “the headstrong Pavlichenko.” The captivating Savitsky we have met. The headstrong Pavlichenko appears in a story of his own; this story is his own account of his peasant origin, of the insults received from his aristocratic landlord, of how when the Revolution came, he had wiped out the insult. “Then I stamped on my master Nikitinsky; trampled on him for an hour or maybe more. And in that time I got to know life through and through. With shooting . . . you only get rid of a chap. Shooting’s letting him off, and too damn easy for yourself. With shooting you’ll never get at the soul, to where it is in a fellow and how it shows itself. But I don’t spare myself, and I’ve more than once trampled an enemy for over an hour. You see, I want to get to know what life really is . . . .” This is all too raffiné—we are inclined, I think, to forget Pavlichenko and to be a little revolted by Babel. Let us suppose, however, that he is setting down the truth as he heard it; let us suppose too that he has it in mind not to spare himself—this is part, and a terrible part, of the actuality of the Cossack directness and immediacy, this is what goes along with the grace and charm.3
In our effort to understand Babel’s complex involvement with the Cossack ethos we must be aware of the powerful and obsessive significance that violence has for the intellectual. Violence is, of course, the negation of the intellectual’s characteristic enterprise of rationality. Yet at the same time it is the very image of that enterprise. This may seem a strange thing to say. Since Plato we have set violence and reason over against each other as polar opposites. Yet it is Plato who can tell us why there is affinity between violence and the intellectual life. In the most famous of the Platonic myths, the men of the cave are seated facing the interior wall of the cave, and they are chained by their necks so that it is impossible for them to turn their heads. They can face in but one direction, they can see nothing but the shadows that are cast on the wall by the fire behind them. A man comes to them who has somehow freed himself and gone into the world outside the cave. He brings them news of the light of the sun; he tells them that there are things to be seen which are real, that what they see on the wall is but shadows. Plato says that the men chained in the cave will not believe this news. They will insist that it is not possible, that the shadows are the only reality. But suppose they do believe the news! Then how violent they will become against their chains as they struggle to free themselves so that they may perceive what they believe is there to be perceived. They will think of violence as part of their bitter effort to know what is real. To grasp, to seize—to apprehend, as we say—reality from out of the deep dark cave of the mind—this is indeed a very violent action.
The artist in our time is perhaps more overtly concerned with the apprehension of reality than the philosopher is, and the image of violence seems often an appropriate way of representing the nature of his creation. “The language of poetry naturally falls in with the language of power,” says Hazlitt in his lecture on Coriolanus and goes on to speak in several brilliant passages of “the logic of the imagination and the passions” which makes them partisan with representations of proud strength. Hazlitt carries his generalization beyond the warrant of literary fact, yet all that he says is pertinent to Babel, who almost always speaks of art in the language of force. The unexpectedness which he takes to be the essence of art is that of a surprise attack. He speaks of the maneuvers of prose of “the army of words . . . the army in which all kinds of weapons may be brought into play.” In one of his most remarkable stories, “DiGrasso,” he describes the performance of a banal play given by an Italian troupe in Odessa; all is dreariness until in the third act the hero sees his betrothed in converse with the villainous seducer, and, leaping miraculously, with the power of levitation of a Nijinsky or a panther, he soars across the stage, falls upon the villain and tears out his enemy’s throat with his teeth. This leap makes the fortune of the Italian company with the exigent Odessa audience; this leap, we are given to understand, is art. And as the story continues, Babel is explicit—if also ironic—in what he demonstrates of the moral effect that may be produced by this virtuosity and power, of what it implies of human pride and freedom.
The spectacles on his nose were for Babel of the first importance in his conception of himself. He was a man to whom the perception of the world outside the cave came late and had to be apprehended, by strength and speed, against the parental or cultural interdiction, the Jewish interdiction; it was as if every beautiful violent phrase that was to spring upon reality was a protest against his childhood. The violence of the Revolution, its sudden leap, was cognate with this feral passion for perception—to an artist the Revolution might well have seemed the rending not only of the social but of the perceptual chains, those that held men’s gaze upon the shadows on the wall; it may have seemed the rush of men from the darkness of the cave into the light of reality. Something of this is suggested in a finely wrought story, “Line and Color”—like other stories of the time of Babel’s sojourn in France in the early 30’s, it was written in French—in which Kerensky is represented as defending his myopia, refusing to wear glasses, because, as he argues very charmingly, there is so much that myopia protects him from seeing, and imagination and benign illusion are thus given a larger license. But at a great meeting in the first days of the Revolution he cannot perceive the disposition of the crowd and the story ends with Trotsky coming to the rostrum and saying in his implacable voice, “Comrades!”
But when we have followed Babel into the depths of his experience of violence, when we have imagined something of what it meant in his psychic life and in the developing conception of his art, we must be no less aware of his experience of the principle that stands opposed to the Cossack principle.
We can scarcely fail to see that when in the stories of Red Cavalry Babel submits the ethos of the intellectual to the criticism of the Cossack ethos, he intends a criticism of his own ethos not merely as an intellectual but as a Jew. It is always as an intellectual, never as a Jew, that he is denounced by his Cossack comrades, but we know that he has either suppressed, for political reasons, the denunciations of him as a Jew that were actually made, or, if none were actually made, that he has in his heart supposed that they were made. These criticisms of the Jewish ethos, as he embodies it, Babel believes to have no small weight. When he implores fate to grant him the simplest of proficiencies, the ability to kill his fellow man, we are likely to take this as nothing but an irony, and as an ironic assertion of the superiority of his moral instincts. But it is only in part an irony. There comes a moment when he should kill a fellow man. In “The Death of Dolgushov,” a comrade lies propped against a tree; he cannot be moved, inevitably he must die, for his entrails are hanging out; he must be left behind and he asks for a bullet in his head so that the Poles will not “play their dirty tricks” on him. It is the narrator whom he asks for the coup de grâce, but the narrator flees and sends a friend, who, when he has done what had to be done, turns on the “sensitive” man in a fury of rage and disgust: “You bastards in spectacles have about as much pity for us as a cat has for a mouse.” Or again, the narrator has incurred the enmity of a comrade through no actual fault—no moral fault—of his own, merely through having been assigned a mount that the other man passionately loved, and riding it badly so that it developed saddle galls. Now the horse has been returned, but the man does not forgive him, and the narrator asks a superior officer to compound the quarrel. He is rebuffed. “You’re trying to live without enemies,” he is told. “That’s all you think about, not having enemies.” It comes at us with momentous force. This time we are not misled into supposing that Babel intends irony and a covert praise of his pacific soul; we know that in this epiphany of his refusal to accept enmity he means to speak adversely of himself in his Jewish character.
But his Jewish character is not the same as the Jewish character of the Jews of Poland. To these Jews he comes with all the presuppositions of an acculturated Jew of Russia, which were not much different from the suppositions of an acculturated Jew of Germany. He is repelled by the conditions of their life; he sees them as physically uncouth and warped; many of them seem to him to move “monkey-fashion.” Sometimes he affects a wondering alienation from them, as when he speaks of “the occult crockery that the Jews use only once a year at Eastertime.” His complexity and irony being what they are, the Jews of Poland are made to justify the rejection of the Jews among whom he was reared and the wealthy assimilated Jews of Petersburg. “The image of the stout and jovial Jews of the South, bubbling like cheap wine, takes shapes in my memory, in sharp contrast to the bitter scorn inherent in these long bony backs, these tragic yellow beards.” Yet the Jews of Poland are more than a stick with which Babel beats his own Jewish past. They come to exist for him as a spiritual fact of consummate value.
Almost in the degree that Babel is concerned with violence in the stories of Red Cavalry, he is concerned with spirituality. It is not only Jewish spirituality that draws him. A considerable number of the stories have to do with churches, and although they do indeed often express the anti-clerical feeling expectable in the revolutionary circumstances, the play of Babel’s irony permits him to respond in a positive way to the aura of religion. “The breath of an invisible order of things,” he says in one story, “glimmers beneath the crumbling ruin of the priest’s house, and its soothing seduction unmanned me.” He is captivated by the ecclesiastical painter Pan Apolek, he Who created ecclesiastical scandals by using the publicans and sinners of the little towns as the models for his saints and virgins. Yet it is chiefly the Jews who speak to him of the life beyond violence, and even Pan Apolek’s “heretical and intoxicating brush” had achieved its masterpiece in his Jesus of the Berestechko church, “the most extraordinary image of God I had ever seen in my life,” a curly-headed Jew, a bearded figure in a Polish greatcoat of orange, barefooted with torn and bleeding mouth, running from an angry mob with a hand raised to ward off a blow.
Hazlitt, in the passage to which I have referred, speaking of the “logic of the imagination and the passions,” says that we are naturally drawn to the representation of what is strong and proud and feral. Actually that is not so: we are, rather, drawn to the representation of what is real. It was reality that Babel found in the Jews of the Polish provinces. “In these passionate, anguish-chiseled features there is no fat, no warm pulsing of blood. The Jews of Volhynia and Galicia move jerkily, in an uncontrolled and uncouth way; but their capacity for suffering is full of a somber greatness, and their unvoiced contempt for the Polish gentry unbounded.”
Here was the counter-image to the captivating Savitsky, the image of the denial of the pride of the glory of the flesh to which, early or late, every artist comes, to which he cannot come in full sincerity unless he can also make full affirmation of the glory. Here too is the image of art that is counter to Di Grasso’s leap, to the language in arms—the image of the artist’s suffering, patience, uncouthness, and scorn.
If Babel’s experience with the Cossacks may be understood as having reference to the boy’s relation to his father, his experience of the Jews of Poland has, we cannot but feel, a maternal reference. To the one Babel responds as a boy, to the other as a child. In the story “Gedali” he speaks with open sentimentality of his melancholy on the eve of Sabbaths—“On those evenings my child’s heart was rocked like a little ship upon enchanted waves. O the rotted Talmuds of my childhood! O the dense melancholy of memories.” And when he has found a Jew, it is one who speaks to him in this fashion:”. . . All is mortal. Only the mother is destined to immortality. And when the mother is no longer living, she leaves a memory which none yet has dared to sully. The memory of the mother nourishes in us a compassion that is like the ocean, and the measureless ocean feeds the rivers that dissect the Universe . . . .”
He has sought Gedali in his gutted curiosity shop (“Where was your kindly shade that evening, Dickens?”) to ask for “a Jewish glass of tea, and a little of that pensioned-off God in a glass of tea.” He does not, that evening, get what he asks for; what he does get is a discourse on revolution, on the impossibility of a revolution made in blood, on the International that is never to be realized, the International of the good and the gentle.
It was no doubt the easier for Babel to respond to the spiritual life of the Jews of Poland because it was a life coming to its end and having about it the terrible strong pathos of its death. He makes no pretense that it could ever claim him for its own. But it established itself in his heart as an image, beside the image of the other life that also could not claim him, the Cossack life. The opposition of these two images made his art—but it was not a dialectic that his Russia could permit.
1 I am indebted to Professor Rufus Mathewson for the oral translation of Babel’s speech which he made for me. Professor Mathewson was kindness itself in helping me to information about Babel; he is, of course, not accountable for any inaccuracy or awkwardness that may appear in my use of the facts.
2 Eisenstein quotes from Babel’s story “Guy de Maupassant.” The reference to Babel occurs in the essay of 1932, “A Course in Treatment,” in the volume Film Form: Essays in Film Theory (1949).
3 The celebration of the Cossack ethos gave no satisfaction to General Budienny who, when some of Babel’s Red Cavalry stories appeared in a magazine before their publication in a volume, attacked Babel furiously, and with a large display of literary pretentiousness, for the cultural corruption and political ignorance which, he claimed, the stories displayed. Budienny conceived the stories to constitute a slander on the Cossacks.
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Isaac Babel: Torn Between Violence and Peace
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Corporate silly season.
At some point in recent decades—I couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment—corporate America turned itself into an organ of liberal nannyism and virtue signaling. No longer a commercial bulwark against liberal statism, many firms now happily enforce the orthodoxies of cultural liberalism in the workplace. Which means that, for most of us, the “American experience” feels like one seamless garment of dreary, conformist liberalism wrapped around the public square and the private economy.
The transformation reached its apotheosis this month with the announcement that WeWork is turning itself into a “meat-free organization.” That means the shared-office-space purveyor won’t serve meat at cafeterias and office events. Nor will the firm pay for meat-based dishes on expense accounts.
“New research indicates that avoiding meat is one of the biggest things an individual can do to reduce their personal environmental impact,” co-founder and “chief culture officer” Miguel McKelvey said in a memo, “even more than switching to a hybrid car.” That whooshing sound you hear is McKelvey’s superhero cape fluttering in the wind.
How the company will enforce the new rules is a mystery. The meat-free rule will likely prove to be a nightmare for frontline human-resources workers as well as the executives who have to wine and dine clients at company expense. Less of a mystery is the motivation behind the change. Vegetarian dishes are on average cheaper than meat-based ones. Moreover, as Virginia Postrel points out, “the meat ban is an exercise in brand-building. In today’s ‘meaning economy,’ what we buy carries value-laden significance. It defines our identity and marks our tribe.”
Yes, apparently there are consumers and employees for whom the food served at the company cafeteria is an important source of spiritual meaning. Pray for them.
Then there is the brain-power problem the firm could be creating for itself by imposing a lifestyle preferred by just 3 percent of Americans on all 6,000 of its workers. To wit, science tells us that “high meat intake correlates with moderate fertility, high intelligence, good health, and longevity with consequent population stability, whereas low meat/high cereal intake . . . correlates with high fertility, disease, and population booms and busts.” The long-term evolutionary success of our species, per numerous biological studies, had something to do with eating meat.
In 1940, amid a national debate in Britain over balanced wartime diets, Winston Churchill wrote: “Almost all the food faddists I have ever known, nut-eaters and the like, have died young after a long period of senile decay . . . The way to lose the war is to try to force the British public into a diet of milk, oatmeal, potatoes, etc., washed down on gala occasions with a little lime juice.” In corporate America in 2018, the faddists and nut eaters and other ninnies are winning the war. For now.
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The president's blind spot.
You could sense a disturbance in the force on Tuesday, as center-left identitarian social-justice activists awoke to the news that former President Barack Obama had set fire to the exclusionary identity politics at the heart of what it means to be “woke.”
“This is hard,” Obama told the audience at the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in South Africa. For participatory republican democracy to work, the president added, pluralism was a non-negotiable prerequisite. Toxic identity politics that segregate based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or any other demographic signifier is the enemy of that kind of pluralism. “You can’t do this if you just out-of-hand disregard what your opponents have to say from the start,” he said. “You can’t do it if you insist that those who aren’t like you because they’re white or because they’re male, that somehow there’s no way they can understand what I’m feeling, that somehow they lack standing to speak on certain matters.”
Now, Obama was speaking about the context of political life in South Africa, where ethnic whites make up less than 10 percent of the population. South Africa’s complicated history, persistent racial disparities, and the associated violence render the problem Obama was addressing an urgent one, and it is not directly applicable to civic life in the United States. And yet, stripped of its regional context, you could be forgiven for thinking that Obama was taking a swipe at his compatriots.
Washington State’s Evergreen State College exploded last year when biology professor Bret Weinstein objected to a student-led initiative called the “day of absence,” in which white students were asked to voluntarily leave campus. Weinstein called it a form of racial segregation. In turn, he was called a racist by students, whose ensuing protests managed to close down the school for three days. Weinstein and his wife resigned and later cost the school a half-million dollars in a settlement over their treatment.
As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni observed, people like Mark Lilla, a Democrat and opponent of identity politics, come under attack from progressive activists who take issue, not with their ideas, but with their race and gender. “White men: stop telling me about my experiences!” read the graffiti that Bruni recalled seeing deface an advertisement for a campus talk Lilla was prepared to deliver in 2017.
It only seems to become difficult for liberals to find evidence of the left’s efforts to silence those with perceived majoritarian traits when they are called to account for this separatism. It is not hard to substantiate the accusation that liberals have made a habit of demanding that straights, whites, males, or any combination thereof, stifle themselves in favor of women and minorities. The impulse to define individuals by their accidents of birth is by definition exclusionary, and it is one that any pluralist society cannot abide. Obama’s admonishment was as welcome as it was universally applicable. It’s a shame that his commitment to it is entirely cosmetic.
Hours had not passed before Obama was again paying homage to the diktats of liberal identity politics. “Women in particular, by the way, I want you to get more involved,” the former president told an audience in Johannesburg. “Because men have been getting on my nerves lately.” He added that men have been “violent,” “bullying,” and “just not handling our business.” Again, the context of these remarks was supposedly limited to affairs in sub-Saharan Africa, but they are hard to divorce from the abuses uncovered by a handful of men almost exclusively occupying positions of power and status in the United States uncovered as a result of the #MeToo movement.
This contradictory behavior is standard fare for America’s 44th president. He has at times eloquently attacked the “crude” identity politics that pits Americans against one another, but these flashes of brilliance were few and far between. Barack Obama was a politician catering to a constituency, and that constituency took to divisive identitarianism like fish in water.
It was Barack Obama who pledged to “punish” the “enemies” of America’s Latino population, and it was his vice president who insisted that Mitt Romney, of all people, wanted to reinstate black slavery. When the president only called on women at a 2014 press conference, his White House made sure to call around to reporters after the fact to make sure they noticed. It was the Obama administration who spent years promoting the pernicious idea that American employers systematically discriminated against women even though his own Bureau of Labor Statistics insisted that the 77 cents myth was almost entirely the product of individual choices. It was Barack Obama’s attorney general who implied that Republican opposition to Obama (and himself) was a product of their racial animus.
“The Obama family’s tenure in the White House has overlapped a revolution in the way Americans deal with identity,” read an NPR retrospective on the Obama years. “From race to religion, from gender to sexual orientation and beyond, marginalized groups that historically worked and waited for ‘a seat at the table’ increasingly demanded their share of cultural power.” What’s more, demographics that were once the locus of American cultural power “were called on to defend their ideas and ‘check their privilege.’”
Latent hostility toward African Americans even among outwardly non-discriminatory Americans deserves as much blame for this phenomenon as any acts of agitation by Obama and his fellow Democrats. The racial provocateurs and hucksters on the right who leveraged white anxiety to their financial benefits played as much of a role in establishing the sorry state of affairs that typifies our present. But a fair reading of Obama’s time in office must concede that the president liked to condemn the theory of identity politics more than he eschewed it in practice. The aspirations that led a whopping 70 percent to say in 2009 that Obama’s presidency would improve race relations had all but evaporated by 2014, well before Donald Trump descended down the escalator.
Divisive identity politics is now how both political parties approach the electorate. As a tool, it has proven too effective for any competent political operation to abjure. Barack Obama appears to recognize that this is a tragedy, but he is not yet willing to take responsibility for the role he played in our lamentable condition.
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Trumpism is a disposition, not an ideology.
Since Donald Trump took the oath of office, he has vacillated between extremes. One day, he’s running a laudably conventional Republican administration. The next, he’s taking a sledgehammer to the conventions that define America’s national identity. Conservatives who opposed Donald Trump’s candidacy in 2016 can expect to be regularly berated by their right-of-center compatriots—justifiably on occasion—who cannot understand why they maintain their suspicion of this conventional Republican administration. But those Trump skeptics only have to wait for the inevitable heel-turn, when Donald Trump again acts like Donald Trump and the wisdom of their skepticism is confirmed. The Trump skeptic’s purgatorial torment is without end.
The only real question is whether this dynamic will outlast Donald Trump’s days in the Oval Office. Will Republican voters gravitate toward the Trumpian version of Donald Trump or to his more ordinary persona? Some, like The Daily Beast’s Matt Lewis, claim the question answers itself. The erudite and morally discerning party of Ronald Reagan, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and William F. Buckley is no more. It’s a cult of personality now, and that personality is uniquely unsavory and corrupting. While it is easy to succumb to despair in moments like these, I think Lewis may be wrong, in part, because he’s asking the wrong question.
In praising her moral authority, Lewis cites Kirkpatrick’s antipathy toward her former comrades in the Democratic Party who “blame America first,” an unattractive trait that the Trumpain GOP has adopted. But the 1979 COMMENTARY essay and subsequent book that propelled Kirkpatrick to the helm of the American Mission to the United Nations under Ronald Reagan, “Dictators and Double Standards,” was a case against a rigidly ideological foreign policy. It was an argument in favor of a realist approach to foreign affairs based on a grand strategic commitment to principle and was, therefore, duplicable. Donald Trump, by contrast, has no ideology and his style has proven harder for his disciples to mimic.
Trump’s press conference alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin stood out not just because he defended Russian attacks on U.S. interests and disparaged his own Cabinet officials—it also reflected his deep obsessions. Perhaps the most notable line from that event occurred when Trump dwelled inexplicably on Hillary Clinton’s email server. “What happened to Hillary Clinton’s emails?” he asked. “33,000 emails gone, just gone. I think in Russia they wouldn’t be gone so easily.” Implied in these comments is the assumption that an authoritarian nation like Russia would not allow unmonitored channels of communication in the first place.
These comments aren’t pro-Putin so much as they are pro-autocrat. What’s more, they are akin to comments Trump recently made about the increasingly autocratic president of Turkey. According to Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer, Trump expressed frustration over the political process that prevented democratic NATO member states from hiking their defense budgets by decree. “‘Except for [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan over here,” Bremmer recalled Trump saying of the Turkish leader. “He does things the right way.” It’s hardly the first time Trump has heaped praise on Erdoğan even amid his regular crackdowns on Turkish dissenters, and no one has alleged that Trump has any particular affinity for Ankara. Nor has anyone established “collusion” between the Trump campaign and North Korea, but that didn’t stop Trump from praising Kim Jong-un as an “honorable” and adept leader.
What these comments reveal is an affection for illiberalism because it is pragmatic; he does not have an attachment to Putinism per se. That’s important. There is a substantial faction on the right that has convinced itself of the blinkered belief that Putin stands for all that they hold dear. They believe—erroneously, as it happens—the propagandist line that Putin is a savior of Christianity. They see him as a bulwark in defense of Western civilization, primarily or in part because of his government’s hostility toward the LGBTQ community and championing the rights of ethnic Russians.
This Buchananite wing of the GOP really believes all this earnestly, but does Trump? He’s given no indication that he has any ideological opposition to gay rights or religious freedoms. His hostility toward immigrant groups is, ultimately, a problematic proposition for Republicans interested in the long-term electoral health of the party. Authoritarianism, like extremism, is a tool to achieve certain circumspect ends, not an end in itself. The ends of Trumpism remain relatively undefined. If Trump’s primary attachment to Putin isn’t ideological but rooted solely in his affection for undemocratic systems, it is going to be hard for conventional Republicans to mirror what is essentially a disposition, not a doctrine.
And that leads us to the most compelling evidence that Trumpism’s hold over the GOP may end up being ephemeral. The secret of Donald Trump’s presidency is that it receives its highest marks when the president moves in directions preferred by establishmentarian Republicans and traditional conservatives—when Trump sticks to reading from the script, nominating Bush-era judges to the Supreme Court, or aggressively containing Russian revanchism. But when Trump reverts to a form he perfected on the campaign trail—when he’s calling equatorial nations “s***holes,” apologizing for white supremacists, attacking his critics’ physical appearance on Twitter, or blaming America for Russian attacks on U.S. interests—the bottom falls out. Republican lawmakers break ranks to criticize him and, on occasion, force Trump to walk his incitements back. Trump-skeptical Republicans continue to exercise a level of influence over the GOP disproportionate to their relative numbers. That might help explain why this routed, rump caucus of malcontents without a broad constituency haunts the imaginations of so many committed Trump Republicans.
Ultimately, all bets are off if the president wins a second term in office. Two-term presidents have a habit of remaking their parties, regardless of the odor about them when they lift off from the White House lawn in Marine One. And even if Trump’s legacy is limited to one term, it’s possible that his hostility toward free trade and comprehensive solutions to America’s illegal immigrant population may persist as the dominating views in his party. But the evidence today that the GOP has been thoroughly remade in Trump’s image is remarkably superficial. Republican lawmakers talk a game just good enough to boost the president’s ego and flatter his phalanx of defenders in the conservative press, but talk is cheap. And the wall is still unbuilt.
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The man knows his constituency.
President Trump’s joint news conference Monday with Vladimir Putin was a catastrophe. On that, all but the most servile of his apologists agree. Not even latter-day consul Publius Decius Mus, aka Michael Anton, could rouse himself to defend the president on CNN. Here was the putative leader of the free world giving voice to sophomoric nonsense better suited to a Noam Chomsky seminar.
Even before the event itself got underway, Trump went full Chomsky with a pre-conference tweet blaming Washington for the state of U.S.-Russian relations: “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity. . . .”
That sent the right’s Trump-whisperers scrambling. They insisted that the “foolishness” Trump had in mind was Obama’s weak posture. But given Trump’s refusal at various points to condemn Russian meddling in elections across the West and illegal annexation of Crimea—not to mention his persistent reluctance to criticize Putin directly—the rest of us can’t be blamed for thinking that by “foolishness” Trump meant “American hawkishness.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry’s pithy response to Trump’s tweet cleared up any remaining doubt: “We agree.”
Chomsky should be proud. He has won legions of fans over the decades, mainly among the simple and the half-erudite who imagine the MIT professor’s jeremiads offer secret knowledge of the way the world really works. And the key to that secret knowledge is that the U.S. is just as bad, if not worse than, its most vicious adversaries among rogue and revanchist regimes.
Trump has long had a Chomskyite streak, of course. Recall his flirtations with 9/11 trutherism amid the GOP primary campaign; his claim that President Obama quite literally founded ISIS (“ISIS is honoring President Obama. He is the founder of ISIS. He is the founder of ISIS, okay? He is the founder”); and the moral parallel he drew between the U.S. and Russia’s thugocracy in an interview with Bill O’Reilly soon after he took office.
But all that paled next to the spectacle of Trump humiliating America’s security apparatus, elevating the Kremlin’s global prestige, and crediting Putin’s incredible denials of election interference—all while standing next to the Russian strongman, who grinned Cheshire-like with a look of ironical amusement in his eyes.
Trump’s comments and the whole Helsinki affair look even worse against the backdrop of his rhetorical assaults on America’s European allies during the earlier NATO summit in Brussels. Not all of his criticisms were wide of the mark. As I wrote last week, the president was right to take Germany to task for a pipeline deal that would enhance Moscow’s energy dominance in Europe. But to describe the EU as a “foe,” as Trump did, and then to follow that comment with the grotesque moral equivalences of Helsinki marked a dismal moment in the history of the American presidency.
The best that can be said for Trump’s performance is that it doesn’t reflect his administration’s policies. The president might babble, but his babble is just that—for now. While he chums it up with Putin, Trump is arming Ukraine, blowing up Russian operatives in Syria, squeezing Moscow’s Iranian clients, and so forth. All this is an improvement over Trump’s predecessor, whose deference and pusillanimity toward the Kremlin took policy form.
But the policy defense only goes so far. For starters, we are already witnessing a rollback on the policy front. Jimmy Quinn notes at National Review that Trump may be rethinking his opposition to the Nord Stream II pipeline. Following his gabfest with Putin, Trump appeared to have changed his mind about the project, telling reporters that he now understands “where they’re all coming from,” and adding: “So I’ll just wish them luck.”
Foreign policy isn’t just about the policies a nation pursues. Statements and symbolism and personal signals matter enormously. As my colleague Noah Rothman has repeatedly argued in these pages, the danger in all this obsequy toward Moscow is that it might cause Putin to miscalculate Trump’s own parameters and trigger American tripwires, which in turn could lead to a rapid military escalation for which neither great power is prepared.
And what are the likes of Poland, Hungary, and the Baltic States, which live under the shadow of Putinist aggression, to make of all this? Whatever their qualms with the European Union and its mandarins, the citizens and leaders of these nations know the difference between the free air of the West and the stultifying, corrupt air that pervades the Kremlin sphere. They can’t afford for the American president to channel Noam Chomsky.