Simpering for the Soviets

Derek Lambert: The Red Dove; Stein and Day; New York.

Anthony Olcott: May Day in Magadan; Bantam Books; New York.

At a recent professional conference I had an informal discussion about world affairs with an editor of a metalworking trade journal. A constant concern in that industry, as in automotive, is foreign competition, especially Japanese. The gentleman is a middle-aged Midwesterner, a man who lives in a small town outside of a metropolis, who is undoubtedly a member of one or more civic organizations and an upstanding member of a local church. The Republican Party is probably the one that he supports. By nature, and because of the demands of his vocation, he is a commonsensical, nuts-and­bolts sort of person —or at least seems to be. Doubt crept in as he began discussing his bête noire, the Japanese. He claims that they are a true diabolical enemy of the U.S., that they planned to lose the war in the Pacific — years before it began in 1941-so that they could get back at the U.S through economic warfare today. Imagine: a conspiracy that con verted the deaths of hundreds of thousands into a triumph of Sony TVs, Minolta cameras, Honda motorcycles, Yamazaki machining centers, and Toyota autos.       

As the murder of 267 persons on the KAL jetliner had recently occurred, the conversation turned to that topic. The editor figuratively tugged at his braces and began a spiel about the greatness of the Soviet Union, about how the people there have a vast untapped potential that, if given the opportunity to be unleashed, will have salutary consequences for the rest of the world. He insisted that the U.S. must “understand” the Soviets, not be hostile toward them, for they have been, he claimed, always harassed. Some of his comments sounded as if they had been orchestrated for him by some grey functionary in the bowels of Moscow: Stalin’s mass-murder is excusable because he was conducting a revolution; the domination of Poland is strategically necessary; the Soviets have no intention of every using all of those SS-20’s and other thermonuclear devices that they have so assiduously produced; the Korean passenger plane was justly shot down because it violated Soviet airspace. Andropov’s ears were undoubtedly tingling with delight as the solid American citizen delineated the paragon of progress and possibility. I was suddenly imbued with fright as I realized that the man writes editorials on a monthly basis that end up in the offices of hundreds of manufacturing facilities of all levels of sophistication throughout the U.S., the shops, plants, and factories that are or can be called upon to produce the equipment that this country needs to remain free —  everything from tractors to cruise missiles. A few weeks after the conversation took  place it was revealed  that  a  man in Silicon Valley, who  had  access to top­ secret  defense  details  from  a contractor shop of this sort, sold those plans to the Soviets  for a paltry sum he, too, is undoubtedly a well-meaning dupe who wanted to assist a “great people.” The metalworking editor has probably not ever seen a copy of The Nation, and if he knows about Mother Jones, it’s only because of the difficulties that it caused the Ford Motor Company. But it’s likely that he’d read books like Derek Lambert’s The Red Dove, a popular thriller, of sorts. Lambert draws crude cartoon characters, though he doesn’t use a heavy line that provides a demarcation between black and white, good and evil. For him, all the players, whether they be American or Soviet, head of the CIA or of the KGB, are about the same. The American president’s motives for maneuvering to capture the Soviet space shuttle — to ensure reelection — are put on par with the Soviet leader’s intention for sending up the hypocritically named Red Dove — to mount an offensive weapon in space. Certainly, there is a qualitative difference between public relations and military strategy, but not in Lambert’s book. A Soviet astronaut, the hero, comes off like a l 960’s American rebel (i.e., one against “The System”), whereas a real-life counterpart is a  piece  of programmed, indoctrinated  space freight. But the reader — a  Western  reader, for a book  cannot  be  officially published  in  the Soviet Union  if it questions  the  motives of the Politburo — can  only  conclude that the Soviet Union is really an okay place that has a few minor problems that will be eventually worked out since the people there are all essentially well-meaning.

Anthony Olcott is more realistic in May Day in Magadan another popular book that deals with the U.S.S.R. Although his down-at-the-heels protagonist is a sympathetic character, it is because he is a hapless victim of an evil system,  not  a person  resembling one’s next-door neighbor, to say nothing of a nationalhero. Olcott’s book is pervaded with greyness, numbing cold, fatigue, sickness, shortages, duplicity, pettiness, impersonality. It is a murder mystery. Unlike many similar works that are set in the West, conventional pot­ boilers, the unraveling doesn’t occur because someone is interested in justice ( a paramount concern of those ranging from Sherlock Holmes to Mike Hammer), but because the bureaucracy demands it: forms have been filed  and  so the  procedure must be followed mechanically, even though most of those involved aren’t particularly interested in the resolution. Those who are interested  are  attentive only inasmuch as it has an effect on their careers within the Party structure. Events are likened to the condition of a cheaply made sweater: once snagged, it will run down until it forms a pile of irregular wool.

In  The Red  Dove characters eat caviar; in May Day in Magadan a clean fork in a restaurant is like the Holy Grail. Olcott’s book is “less exciting” than Lambert’s, but it provides a better understanding of a portion of the status quo-the one that exists, even though it doesn’t jibe with the views of the metalworking editor and most organizers of the nuclear­freeze movement. cc

Cabals, Criminals, & Ghostbusters

Peter Reuter: Disorganized Crime: The Economics of the Visible Hand; MIT Press; Cambridge, MA.              

Thomas Pynchon, especially in his The Crying of Lot 49, has put his finger on a modem mania that is often undiagnosed. While some reasons for this condition can be put forth that serve to justify it, it is more likely missed for the same reason that the proverbial woods in the trees are. That is, there isn’t a gang of psychoanalysts that prevents the discussion of the modem mind-set that has it that there are cabals, leagues, societies, orders, squads, syndicates, guilds, unions, and various and sundry other secret confederacies behind the movement or manipulation of everything from mail service to the amount of vodka available at any given moment in history. The study of semiotics has undoubtedly taken off with a zoom because many people are already attuned to looking for signs and signals — be they newspaper typos or the arrangement of milk bottles left on a doorstep — that portend much more than common sense would indicate. Junior Sherlock Saussures know that there are key signifiers out there, clues to some group of Moriartys, that are waiting to be tied up with their fitting signifieds. After all, these heirs to the Flat Earth Society maintain, the world is an awfully complex place, and it’s unimaginable that it could function without some central masterminds lurking like puppeteers behind the scrim. Evidence to the contrary is automatically deemed inadmissible, dismissed with a comment shared by parapsychologists, UFOologists, and their kin: “That’s what They want us to believe.”

It’s hard to accept that governments, multinationals, and other large organizations — overt or covert — are operated by people who have to cope with at least some aspects of quotidian reality (e.g., headaches, unruly children, air-traffic delays, etc. even if they are served by neurologists, nannies, Lear jets, etc.) like everyone else. It would be devastating for many people to discover that the grand systems. that man has devised are fragile, that many profound experts are merely apt Peter Reuter goes in this direction in Disorganized Crime by claiming, on the basis of serious study, “that the Mafia may be a paper tiger, rationally reaping the returns from its reputation while no longer maintaining the forces that generated the reputation.” Imagine! The Mafia, that grand shebang of secret societies, may not be the mover and shaker that it’s conventionally (and comfortably) thought to be. As he examines bookmaking, the numbers, and loan sharking, Reuter points out that the organizational structures of the “markets” are such that central Control, or the Mafia, is not a motive force. This is not to say that the Mafia doesn’t exist, merely that the “families” do not exert an iron hand over market operations, though they can when it comes to providing what Reuter euphemistically calls “dispute settlement services.” Reuter maintains that because organized crime was once dominant (such as during Prohibition) it is assumed to still be, so law enforcement officers go after the big mobsters and the newspapers and TV news programs make a big deal out of the arrest of people with monikers like ”Joey the Monkeywrench.” Meanwhile, as those spotlighted activities are going on, numerous small entrepreneurs are operating within the  various  illegal markets. And the markets work. cc


Stylishly Abstruse

Roland Barthes: The Fashion System; Hill & Wang; New York.

Although New York, Milan, and Tokyo are making strong bids for eminence, Paris remains the couture fashion center of the world. All concerned eyes tum in its direction for the semiannual exhibits that set the de facto standards for what is acceptable and gracious, for what is Fashion. While some American designers, such as Perry Ellis, are setting styles, initiating trends, the general so-called “designer fashions” in the U.S. are essentially derivative from Parisian sources. Similarly, intellectual fashions have been — and are being — set in Paris. Students of modem culture must certainly look back to Voltaire and Rousseau, both of whom were once “fashions,” sources of contemporary ideas and mores (to be fashionable, of course, does not mean to be ephemeral: some designs just won’t go away, such as those limned by Jean­ Jacques). In the post-World War II environment the French are at the fore. Names like Sartre and Camus are well established in both learned journals and college reading lists, and Levi-Strauss is known far beyond the circles wherein structural anthropology is discussed-and is not confused with blue jeans. Another name that emerged from this milieu: Roland Barthes. For the cognoscenti of intellectual fashion, Barthes’s as passé as Pierre Cardin is to those who follow the sartorial scene. That is, Barthes’s works on structuralism and semiology have been fairly well examined and co-opted or discarded at the leading American universities. They have moved beyond Barthes. While he’s not quite at the level of the ready-to-wear rack, he is within the reach of a broader segment of the American market: he is out of the boutique and into Bloomingdale’s.

Structuralism and semiotics — Barthes’s trademarks, just as a combination of initials are Saint Laurent’s — are both rather abstruse subjects. Thus the fashionability of Roland Barthes in America today is, seemingly, problematic: few will purchase and wear extraordinarily outlandish garb even if it is the raging “thing”; mannequins can have a difficult time maneuvering once they are off of the runway. Barthes was very sensitive to such matters of taste; he recognized the matter of limits as perceived by the various social strata In many of his early writings he is concerned with rather common, ordinary things, such as wrestling, steak, and the Eiffel Tower. Near the end of his career Barthes published A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, which is an examination of a person in love: the language the lover uses, the poses he strikes. These two portions of his work can be considered his Halston (pre-J.C. Penney Halston, that is) period: well executed and accessible. Between the two poles the more academic texts are found: one has to be very serious to take them on, just has to be very devoted to put something by Claude Montana on her back.

Fashion is taken very seriously in Paris. This helps account for its present preeminence (and the acknowledged existence of things by designers such as Montana), French intellectuals have been, are, and can be just as serious about fashion as they are about, say, the cinema. It is intellectually respectable. As Susan Sontag pointed out, Mallarme edited a fashion magazine. (Arnold Bennett, a novelist who strongly admired the French, was once the editor of Woman.) The French attitude toward fashion helps account for Barthes’s The Fashion System, which was originally published in Paris in 1967 as Système de la mode.

The text is simultaneously open and exclusive. It deals with a very tangible subject: the writing in two French fashion magazines during one year’s time, 1958-59. However, Barthes performed an analysis on the material through semiotics, which puts the text out of the reach of even the most fashion-conscious readers, who would be better served by, say, Elle. That is, Barthes didn’t explain why one thing is in fashion (e.g., the color blue; a linen dress) and another thing out (e.g., the color red; a wool skirt). “Fashion” is the given code, how the signs in code operate and so come to have meaning is what he looked at. His purpose was, it seems, to provide a full working model of the semiotic activity, not a picture of the trends in clothing. Throughout The Fashion System there are various formulas; Barthes described one as a “half-verbal, half-algorithmic utterance.” In what is something of an autobiography, Roland Barthes, Barthes wrote of his “taste for algorithms” and noted that he had “never worked out real algorithms.” About his utterances that take that form he admitted, “Such figures, in fact, are of no use whatever.” Similarly, The Fashion System is of no use to anyone except those persons who are interested in Barthes as semiotician, not Barthes as the latest Parisian fashion; it can be worn at campus watering holes, not at cocktail parties.    cc        


Numbers Without Numbers

Dorothy Mermin: The Audience in the Poem: Five Victorian Poets; Rutgers University Press; New Brunswick, NJ.

During the 165 years since all of Europe thrilled to the arch­ Romanticism of Byron’s Childe Harold, English-speaking poets have seen a general decline in their readership as the novel gradually replaced the poem as the dominant literary form. Certainly, the Victorian age, the period examined in Dr. Mermin’s scholarly work, featured a number of fairly widely read poets, including Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, Clough, and Meredith. Each of them wanted to express his personal perceptions just as sincerely as the Romantics, and yet each also dimly sensed that the epistemological subjectivism of Romanticism, though initially attractive, could not hold a large audience for poetry in the long run. Thus, in trying to develop a post-Romantic poetics, these five poets experimented with bringing auditors into the poem with the speaker and allowing their presence to variously affect the content and tone of the verse. Through their efforts, Tennyson and Browning did succeed in winning sizable contemporary followings, but neither’s work has aged well. The intellectual and moral vapidity beneath Tennyson’s carefully wrought surfaces is obvious now even to sophomores, who rarely rerum to them after the obligatory survey course. And the muscular Christianity of Saul and “Prospice,” once the delight of the Browning Societies, seems irrelevant to a secularized society in which most readers do not reach for anything that TV Guide cannot grasp.

TV Guidedoes contain a few snippets of verse-chiefly advertising jingles — do the programs it lists. But even if McDonald’s publishes a variorum edition, ”You Deserve a Break Today” will never recommend itself for aesthetic contemplation. Indeed, S. I. Hayakawa has suggested that serious modem poetry is arcane and unpopular because all of the readily understood poetic diction and forms have been commercialized. While it is hard to think of a’ recent apostrophe to Nature that did not conclude with a pitch for a new condo development, this argument seems incomplete.

A more complete explanation for the waning of poetry can be gleaned from Dr. Mermin’s discussion of Matthew Arnold, whose poems lamenting the impossibility of understanding oneself or of communicating with others did not command wide circulation during his lifetime, although he was sure they would eventually “have their turn.” True enough, now that solipsistic despair is all the rage among academicians of literature, his bleak work has enjoyed a modest renascence. But verse celebrating emptiness can never forge a large community of off-campus readers. As Dr. Mennin points out, only “mythic discourse undoes the separation of speaker and audience,” and the solitary agnostic Arnold shared no such dis­ course with a Victorian world itself slipping into skepticism. Indeed, the use by critics of the adjective mythic when referring to pagan or Judeo-Christian systems of belief is itself symptomatic of the cultural vacuum. Technically a nonpejorative term signifying the suprarational, mythic is nonetheless still haunted by the connotations surrounding mythical: “We don’t really believe this sniff.” In societies possessing a sacred discourse accepted as fully true, Dante and Milton could voice their most intimate personal convictions in sublime and reasonably lucid verse, knowing that it would be met with a widely sympathetic public response. In the absence of such a meta­ physical consensus, unbelieving poets have lapsed into the morbid confessionalism of a Plath or the rarified aestheticism of a Stevens, while devout poets like Eliot had to devise tortuous ways of making themselves merely heard in a heathen age. Consequently, while Madison Avenue hucksters co-opt and degrade the conventions of accessible poetry, genuine poetic talent disappears into what Arnold appropriately called “The Buried Life.” As Milton and Dante both knew, the only way out of such a grave is through Resurrection. (BC) cc