Episode 45: The Heights Of Absurdity

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Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we discuss what life is really like for those unfortunate enough to live under communist or socialist governments.    Recording from the suburbs of Wichita, Kansas, this is Erik Seligman, your host, along with co-host Manuel Castaneda in Oregon.

Today we’re going to be talking about a very unusual novel, “The Yawning Heights” by Russian dissident, philosopher, and sociologist Alexander Zinoviev.   Published in the 1970s, this immense work is a mix of satire, philosophy, and social analysis.   It differs from a lot of our discussions in this podcast in that it focuses on how Communism affects the lives of artists,  writers, and professors, drawing from Zinoviev’s own experiences as a chair in Logic at the Soviet Academy of Sciences.     While jockeying for political position and trying to rationalize and understand their own behavior, they have long discussions about social laws that ultimately trap them in a self-perpetuating system.

“The Yawning Heights” is structured as a sequence of vignettes in the lives of this circle of intellectuals, interspersed with long passages of philosophy or social analysis purportedly written by some of the characters.   It takes place in a fictional land called “Ibansk”, where every citizen is named Iban Ibanovich Ibanov.   To tell them apart, they are usually referred to by nicknames, like Schizophrenic, Artist, Dauber, Truth-Teller, etc.    Some are obvious stand-ins for real-life figures:  “Boss” is clearly Joseph Stalin, “Hog” is his successor Nikita Khrushchev, and “Truth-Teller” represents author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who exposed the horrors of the Gulag.

An early passage from the book gives a feeling for Zinoviev’s cynical sense of humor, as well as the corruption of the sciences which becomes a constant theme throughout:

All our scientists claim, and many foreign scientists accept, that the inhabitants of Ibansk are a whole head taller than everybody else… not by reason of any reactionary biological superiority … but because of the progressive historic conditions in which they live and the correctness of the theory for which they have been the guinea pigs, and thanks too to the wisdom of the leadership which has guided them so brilliantly. For this reason the people of Ibansk do not live in the old fashioned and commonplace sense of the word as it is applied to other people in other places. The Ibanskians do not live, but carry out epoch-making experiments. They carry out these experiments even when they know nothing about them and take no part in them, and even when the experiments are not taking place at all. This book is devoted to the examination of one such experiment.

The experiment was dreamt up by the Institute for the Prophylaxis of Stupid Intentions, and carried out under the supervision of the Brainwashing Laboratory, written up in the Fundamental Journal and was supported by an initiative from below. The experiment was approved by the Leader, his Deputies, his Assistants and by everybody else-except for a few holding mistaken opinions. The aim of the experiment was to detect those who did not approve of its being carried out and to take appropriate steps.

There are many parts of the book where Zinoviev takes savage aim at the corruption of the practice of science under Communist leadership.   Here’s one classic example, a passage likely inspired by the worthless agricultural methods once promoted by Stalin’s favorite scientist, Trofim Lysenko:

In Ibansk, a science which enjoyed a great flowering was that of meatology. To be fair, it should be said that initially things didn't go too well. … they made life quite impossible for the Ibanskians. Things had to be put right. So in their place the Great Veterinarian was appointed. He was quite incredibly stupid and tongue-tied. The Ibanskians said he couldn't tell Gogol from Hegel, Hegel from Babel, Babel from Cable, Cable from Beigel, Beigel from Table, but he came from the right social background, and had views which fitted in at the time in question. So he quickly made up for lost time. Relying on the work done by the founders of this branch of science, he began, on the wide open spaces of the Ibanskian wasteland, to carry out his famous experiments on crossing watermelons with maize. And he achieved remarkable results. In the outskirts of the city of Ibansk cows were exterminated. Milk began to come from powder, and meat from abroad.

He also continually pokes fun at the effort to create positive external appearances without any sense of internal order, direction, or purpose.

After historic experiments the village of Ibansk was transformed. The former school building was redesignated The Associate Department of the Institute. The lavatory was rebuilt and clad in steel and glass. Now, from an observation platform, the tourists who flow into Ibansk in a never-ending stream can convince themselves with their own eyes that the false rumours that have reached them are the purest slander. … So the tourists should have something to look at during the time they had free from visits to model factories, around the hotel ten new picturesque churches of the 10th century and earlier were built. Their walls were adorned with ancient frescoes by Artist himself, who painted a portrait of the Leader in the foreground. He was awarded prizes, decorations and titles for his work. … 

In the main fresco Artist painted the Leader and his Deputies, who for this were awarded prizes, while the Leader himself got two: one for the one thing, the other for the other. As a result food prices were lowered, which meant that they merely doubled, instead of rising by five per cent as they did outside Ibansk. The Ibanuchka River was dammed. It overflowed, flooded a potato field (the former pride of the Ibanskians) and swelled into a lake (the present pride of the Ibanskians). And for this all the inhabitants, with one or two exceptions, were decorated. …

The facade of the building is decorated with nine hundred columns of every order known to world architecture, and on the roof a multitude of towers reaches towards the sky, blending into a unified whole, a perfect reproduction of the inimitable domes of the church of Iban the Blessed. Overcome by so much beauty, Ibanov, the world-famous engineer of human souls, produced this high-flown sentence in the editorial of the bi-annual journal Dawn of the North-East: 'In the presence of such unearthly beauty one can only stand to attention and bare one's head.' His namesake Ibanov, an officer-cadet, happened to glance at the aesthetic aspect of the building which in his erroneous opinion was completely unsuited to normal human life-and, warily examining the three-story-high statue of the Leader, whispered to his old friend, cadet Ibanov: "As far as the number of columns per head of population goes, we have overtaken even the Greeks. Now we are the leading columnial power in the world.” His friend reported this conversation to the appropriate authorities, and the fate of the slanderer was decided before taps was sounded that evening…  He was carted away to a nasty cold cell.

More bureaucratic bungling is highlighted in the discussion of a trip abroad, one of the ultimate rewards for the most politically favored intellectuals.

When they reached their destination it transpired that Thinker was the only one who knew any foreign languages, and not the ones which were needed, in fact precisely the reverse. To do him justice, those he knew he knew perfectly adequately. … They were instructed to buy vodka to ensure a friendly atmosphere. Then the delegation was split in two, each half being instructed to keep an eye on the other. …  The success of the delegation exceeded all expectations : it produced five hundred denunciations, eight hundred devastating speeches, five thousand critical observations, and twenty thousand disparaging rejoinders.

There are many long, complex passages about social laws, which seem to compel these kinds of behaviors and results even when each individual realizes how absurd they are.    These sections of the book can be difficult reading, partly satirical and partly very serious, but form a very pointed critique of the entire Communist system.   Zinoviev pokes fun at the fact that he doesn’t use the words Soviet Union or Communism anywhere in the book, yet it is obvious to any reader what he is criticizing:  

When he had read this extract from Schizophrenic's manuscript, Sociologist said to Dauber that Schizophrenic would get into really hot water for it. "Whatever for?' asked Dauber in surprise. "What do you mean, what for?" replied Sociologist, no less surprised. This is all about us and our society. There isn't a word here that says it's all about us,' observed Dauber. 'Our bosses are no fools,' said Sociologist. 'Hypocrisy, oppression, disinformation, waste and so on— a babe in arms would recognize who all that's about.' 

And Sociologist told a story of a man who shouted 'Arrogant blockhead!' and was arrested for insulting the Leader, even though he protested that it was his workmate he had in mind. ‘Come off it-you and your work-mate!’, he was told, ‘everyone knows who the arrogant blockhead must be. ‘

‘But that's not legal,' cried Dauber, 'to charge a man with slandering us, just because someone decided that his words could be applied to us. ‘What's legality got to do with it?' exclaimed Sociologist. ‘…This manuscript will be assessed by an expert. And only a man who will produce the desired conclusion will be nominated as an expert.’

Zinoviev often makes fun of the fragile egos of the self-contradicting intellectuals, who try to convince themselves that their successes result from actual merit, while their failures are caused by undeserving enemies.  

Thinker knew that he was the most intelligent and educated person in Ibansk. He had a job on the Journal and was pleased about that since most people weren't as well placed as he was.  But at the same time he was dissatisfied, for there were other people with better jobs. Insofar as everyone who didn't have a job as good as his was more stupid than he was, he thought his position perfectly justified. But insofar as all those who had jobs superior to his were also more stupid than he was, he felt himself unjustly passed over. He knew perfectly well that if he were more stupid, he would have a better job. And because of this he was filled with rending self pity, and came to the point of despising even more the inhabitants of Ibansk, who fully deserved this scorn because of all their former history…

Sometimes Thinker wrote orthodox but inept articles. The occasions when they appeared became high days and holidays for the thinking part of the Ibansk population. Everyone could see with their own eyes how outstandingly courageous Thinker was, Thinker who was the first to refer to the historic speeches of the new Leader, and who raised to a record number his total of references to them.

I think the novel is at its most poignant when it’s discussing the suffocating effects of the system on the lives of  the characters who do actually have some merit, probably based on unfortunate friends and colleagues that Zinovev knew in real life.   A prime example is the situation of Dauber, an artist who everyone recognizes as brilliant and talented, though he is barely recognized by the authorities and just scraping by, as opposed to his politically favored but untalented friend Artist.   (By the way, Dauber is an obscure English word referring to an unskilled artist, in case you didn’t pick up on the ironic names.)

Artist and Dauber had been students together, and had been close friends. Once Dauber said jokingly that there was really only one rule in art: the higher placed the arse you licked, the better artist you were. You can't be a great artist if you are not painter to the King.  Artist took the joke seriously and soon their paths in art and life divided, although they remained on friendly terms. His outstanding successes led to Artist being awarded prizes, elected to Academies, and finally given an appointment. His portrait of Adviser brought him a flat. His villa came from his portrait of Assistant. His portrait of Deputy's wife yielded him a car. When he painted Deputy he got a trip abroad. …  For his second portrait of the Leader he was awarded the entire three-year allocation of studio funds for his own studio alone. For his portrait of Assistant, he was given his own exhibition, open round the clock with no admission charge. And yet Artist would have felt happier had it not been for the existence of Dauber.

At his own expense and after great difficulty Dauber found himself a tiny attic to use as a studio. And from time to time, working in complete anonymity, he turned something out, but not without scandals and rows. Artist got to hear some stupid rumours, which he didn't want to believe. He well knew what our art was about, and who our true artists were. Finally, some dubious intellectuals began to agitate for an exhibition of Dauber's work. A commission was set up under the chairmanship of Artist. The commission ruled against a one-man show. But since the winds of change were beginning to blow even through the spheres of cultural control, they decided to set up a new commission to examine the possibility of showing one of Dauber's more suitable works at a general exhibition of the works of amateur old-age pensioners and folk-art clubs.

When Dauber is invited to chat with a high-ranking official, Deputy, who also appears to be an admirer of his work, he just ends up with further obstacles.    Even his own friends are more concerned with following the party line than with helping him.

He said, "I value your work, and I could authorise your mounting an exhibition." "Go ahead," I said, "it won't cost you anything!" "There's no point," he said. "No matter what I do, nothing will come out of it. You know our system." "I do," I said. "Art has always needed the protection of the powerful. On its own, real art is defenceless. Without your protection, they'll make a meal of me." "Even with my protection," he said, "they'll gobble you up just the same."

When Dauber was invited to take part in the jubilee quarter-final exhibition for untalented artists of the first early middle age division, he was beside himself with delight.  At last!  ‘There you are’, he said to Slanderer, ‘even here something can be done!  I am an optimist!’ ‘Ah well, we’ll see’, said Slanderer.  Dauber sent more than a hundred magnificent engravings to the selection committee.   They were all rejected and he was asked to submit something similar,  Finally they accepted one tiny etching which Dauber had considered a failure and which he was going to tear up.  A friend of Dauber’s, who was organizing the exhibition, put the etching in the darkest corner beyond a great many works by Artist.   'What have you done?’ cried Dauber, angrily…

and you shove me somewhere almost out of sight.' Friend got angry in his turn. "How conceited can you get?' he said…

The Leader, himself, visited the exhibition. Beyond Artist’s powerful canvases showing the Leader in the front line, the Leader posing beside a steam-hammer, the Leader visiting a modern rat-breeding station, the Leader saving a neighbouring nation from the danger of back-sliding, as well as other aspects of our busy and colourful life, he did not immediately notice Dauber's pathetic etching. It was hard to tell if it was a representation of a finger, a phallus or a chromosome in the grip of sudden madness. The Leader disliked the etching. 'Our people feel no need of this kind of thing,' he said, 'because our people need something quite different.

That evening a special commission was set up to organise the struggle with Dauber and those like him. The commission included Artist, Writer, Friend, Thinker and Colleague. Thinker delivered a speech on false orientations. Colleague told the latest funny stories about the Leader. And Artist formulated a resolution: that Dauber's works were of no value and should be destroyed to avoid harmful consequences, and that Dauber himself should be regarded as having no existence, since there could in principle be no such monstrous deviation among our people. The resolution was adopted unanimously. Afterwards, Colleague and Thinker went to see Dauber, drank a bottle of his vodka, borrowed a hundred roubles to the end of the month, ridiculed the other members of the commission, and spent a long time trying to persuade Dauber to fix them up with some girls.

Of course, all Dauber’s and Artist’s friends know who has the real talent, including Artist himself.   But even when seeking direct guidance from Dauber’s success, Artist’s own lack of talent cannot be concealed.

Artist salvaged a few of Dauber's engravings from destruction and took them back to his own studio. He decided to copy some which were more or less tolerable. But whatever he tried to draw a finger, a penis, a nose, a woman's arse, a crankshaft… it always turned into a portrait either of the Leader, or of Deputy, or (in the best cases) of a high-yield milch-cow praised in a newspaper article. Writer said on this account that Artist had a very healthy inner core, and however hard he tried, he could never turn himself into some kind of imprexprabsturrealist. Slanderer said that they weren't even able to steal properly, these people, because they didn't know the right thing to steal. Some of Dauber's sculptures were melted down and turned into saucepans and smoothing irons, and the rest were slung out on to the rubbish tip. Afterwards young and progressive artists, who were pleased not to be aware of the existence of Dauber who had never existed and never could exist in the culture of Ibansk because of its general state of health, chiselled off lumps of stone from Dauber's sculptures and carved from them little unknown monsters. These monsters reminded the members of the commission of something they had once seen long in the past, but they were nevertheless allowed to exhibit them.

As our final quote from this all-too-brief collection, let’s look at one more moment of absurd dark humor, when the characters discuss why the events in the book are not quite as unbearable as they might sound:

'What a joy it is,' said Schizophrenic, 'that we are all fictitious characters. We can talk about suffering without experiencing hunger, cold or pain. We can talk about the discomfort of life without having to repair a tap, hunt for bed-bugs or complain about noisy neighbours." "Yes,' said Chatterer, 'we're very lucky that we have no real existence. And besides we can make discoveries without having to worry about publishing our books or getting our fees. We can produce masterpieces without suffering sordid arguments about getting them exhibited. This does have a certain charm and beauty of its own.’

[Closing conversation with Manuel]

As usual, we’ve just scratched the surface here— the full book is over 800 pages, so we haven’t come close to doing it justice.   But if you enjoyed the passages we checked out today, be sure to check out the full novel, The Yawning Heights by Alexander Zinoviev, linked in our show notes at storiesofcommunism.com. 

And this has been your Story of Communism for today.


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