This is my third talk over the past two decades here. The first was on Russia and America, the second on the theme of the “Sophia”.
I chose this form of “talk” today [to read these notes], because I wanted to give you thoughts, images, stories, which I hope will remain with you, disturb you, provoke you, bother you, or seduce you, to think about, to discuss, to remember and not dismiss them.
Some will consider me pessimistic – and to them I am. But to me, I am a realist – though I may sting like a Socratic “gadfly”, or disturb and inspire like a Nietzschean “man with the lamp in the daylight’. I hope that some of these thoughts are like sand particles in oysters.
These are general thoughts and observations.
“It must be understood that the structure of the Russian Soul is all its own, and completely different from that of Westerners. The more penetrating minds of the West realize this well enough, and are attracted by the puzzle it presents.”
I won’t try to speak about Russian history; I will just give observations on life as I see it.
• In the late Soviet period in Russia there was fear, and stability; now there is “freedom”, and real uncertainty.
• Imagine that “communism” had won – and you Americans needed to learn Russian to get ahead; to save your remaining money in rubles somewhere hidden in your newly nationalized home; and you needed to learn not “free market capitalism” and democracy, but Marxist-Leninist doctrines. The Russians had changes so great to make, in a few years, in all aspects of their live, inner and outer.
• When the then largest McDonald’s in the world was opened on Pushkin Square in Moscow during perestroika, Prime Minister Thatcher is reported to have said that it was a great step forward for democracy in Russia. Novel though such a definition of democracy be: the average Russian lives as if he agrees...though not of course the Russian intelligentsia (though few now agree just who and what this is now).
• A Russian woman asked me about 1991: “What are taxes?”
• Hollywood and the “West” – like Western dress in Japan and much of the rest of the world – determines for Russian mass men and women what is “culture”, and what is “cool”.
• The word “culture” in Russia still means the best of man and cultural life. The ideas of “business culture”, “consumer culture”, “political culture”, etc, are, still, dissonant, if not impossible, to many Russians. Even wealthy businessmen will be openly embarrassed in public at how uncultured and uneducated they may be: often sending their children to the world’s best schools to learn, also, Russian culture. A broadly-cultured, well-educated, deep-souled, sufferingly-wise Russian person – even if perhaps poor and with missing teeth – is still more respected by most, than a rich Russian businessman. Such persons surpass even the highest Harvard academics in soul and breadth and depth of knowledge.
But American values – like all things American – are rising in Russia!
• A young girl of some 16 years of age stayed for two weeks in a middle-class American home in Florida. Returning to my English-language lessons in Moscow, she – with some polite hesitation – said: “Americans are like cows...they sleep, work, eat, watch TV, sleep, work,...”.
• Most common Russians want to live “the American Dream” – at the same time they believe that their country will never be stable, secure and prosperous enough for them to do so.
• Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilizations, spoke in Moscow in the early 1990’s to a well-educated, select group of Russian scholars. His Russian interpreter – a friend of mine – described how the astonished audience did not, out of politeness and lack of time, reveal to him how simplistic his ideas and knowledge of history were.
• American scholars are now mostly in Russia expected to be shallow-souled, naive and/or competent narrow specialists. Russians want ideas with soul.
• A young Russia girl about five years old daily played with the fresh snow, attempting with her orange plastic bucket and shovel to make a sort of snow castle – unsuccessfully; her retired grandmother standing nearby, I, unnoticed, observing from my fourth floor kitchen window. The young girl tried to copy her granny’s shaking of her head to express, approximately in American: you messed up. But the young girl shook her whole upper body instead. Probably she will never even consider that Americans, or Germans, express – semi- if not un-consciously – a similar attitude with different “body language”.
• A Russian specialist of American literature – deeply and insightfully knowledgeable of Poe, Emily Dickenson, Emerson, Thoreau, Henry James, et al – as she noticed low and middling mass American culture “polluting” her post-Soviet country was driven to ask: “What is better for the spirit of man?... what is more “Christian”?... a fancy, comfortable restaurant, or the gulag? an overfull... or a hungry stomach?” First hopeful and sympathetic to the USA, she is now become a sort of Arch-Russophile.
• A hilarious American joke is often not funny in Russia, and vice versa.
• At a Round-table meeting in Moscow in 1998, Solzhenitsyn – who some call a great Russian chauvinist – agreed: the Russian people are passive. And he added: there are people who know everything, but little changes or get done!
• A common Russian man, some 38 years old, in a Moscow subway car, who will most likely never travel outside his country, proudly wears an expensive, fake “Los Angeles Raiders” jacket – probably mass produced on the Russian-Chinese border.
• Walking beside the Moscow Kremlin, slightly drunk, as the snowfalls, late, late at night, hearing from a thoughtful Russian why mass culture is what the Russian masses want.
• Russia would be better now...had America not been so ill.
• One of my worst experiences in Russia: watching one evening in a full subway car a man being beaten by another in the face, the weaker man trying to shield himself, and no one – including the men standing by with their girlfriends – interfering or intervening. Some of the men standing nearby, though discernibly uncomfortable, tried to act “cool” and undisturbed, as they pretended to ignore the beating just a few feet away.
• One of my best experiences in Russia: deep, intelligent, educated, knowledgeable conversation, and commiseration.
• In sum: there is black, and white, and deep, in Russia.
James Truslow Adams – who coined the expression “American Dream” in 1930 wrote in a piece on Emerson:
“We have never suffered like the rest of humanity, and have waxed fat without, as yet having to consider the problems forced upon others, until we have ceased to believe in their reality. The dominant American note has been one of a buoyant and unthinking optimism. America is a child who has never gazed on the face of death.”
“…Are our letters and philosophy to remain the child until the Gorgon faces of evil, disaster and death freeze our unlined ones into eternal stone.”
• To transcend and ennoble being a provincial “American” – read and study our human history before July 4, 1776, especially the history and origins of those ideas by which Americans still live today.
• If you were conscious throughout the day that you were thinking and speaking American English, it would add some 5-10% to your daily awareness.
• The smiling American face is most often an imprisoning mask which hides a person in lonely, “solitary confinement”.
• America’s so-called “Founding Fathers” are merely a certain nation’s and period’s “moment” in the human story, that too shall pass.
• Jefferson – who did not at all intend to write an “American Creed” – would have been repulsed (read his letters with John Adams) by much which today considers itself: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Its Deist credo is passing and temporary; and one might consider what “creed” unites one with Goethe, Dante, Plato, Origen, Zoroaster.
• ...besides: “all men, women, children, sexes, philosophies, religions, value systems, moralities, persons, minds, people, are not created equal”.
• Politics maybe... but “culture”, and for example “history”, is not subject to the idea of “equality”.
• Who said “Truth” is democratic?
• If an American believes in spiritual individuality, but has not read for example, Thoreau’s Walden, they are, as an American, “culturally (and spiritually) illiterate”.
• The way one holds and butters bread; how one laughs, and its sounds; the expressions and movements of one’s face; most of one’s thoughts and feelings are, if not determined by one’s (nation’s) culture, largely influenced by it. The entelechy is buried beneath and inside these “personal/national” characteristics. This merits reflection.
• Contrary of popular presumptions: “American” may not be God’s first language.
• In the time of Soviet Russia, there was an ideology that all people had to live with (even if they only hated it); it unified all the people, in a way. California suffered, and suffers, from the opposite condition: disunity, dis-integrality, atomization. Each person makes their own cosmology, spirituality, etc. Returning to California, I see it as a sort of hyperschizophrenic culture, disunified, and in much greater disagreement than it politely acknowledges.
• “Spirituality” is sunk in subjectivities. In this way, too, like “Hollywood”, America and especially northern California, sets a dubious example for the world.
• People here are spiritually too polite: they often let nonsense, sloppy thinking, silliness, or just escapist fantasy, remain unquestioned and unchallenged.
• The body is not heaven; heaven is not on the earth.
• California’s culture influences the life in Moscow, Russia, and much of the rest of the world. Does California deserve and merit being taken so seriously? In my view, California could have, and should have, done better – though I may have been, and be, an unrealistic optimist!
• Mankind is a pyramid; and downwards gravity is the force which determines the life of most stones.
• If you haven’t experienced a hopeless nihilism in your path to the spirit, those who have may merit more respect for their deeper knowledge. In other words: if you think Camus or Sartre are simply sick skeptics, then you have not fully measured the human story, world, or life.
• Wasn’t Linnaeus too optimistic when he named us homo sapiens? (homo insapiens?)
• In the fourth century “AD”, in Alexandria and elsewhere, theologians disagreed as to the highest element in man: mind or heart. This serious debate should still go on, at least.
• The words: “mind”, “mental”, “man”, “memory”, plus many others – all derive from the same Indo-European root: mens, thought.
• En masse, there is a radical passivity to the human being; it is social forms and patterns which keep this difficult to discern. This makes the “globalization” of mass, mostly “American” culture inevitable – and it will happen mostly with movies and McDonald’s, not Mozart and philosophy.
• If we live in a secularized society and time – “post-Christian” – then does the year “2000” have any meaning? and if not, what is the date today?
• There are in fact very few serious people in the world.
• The greatest biographies are those in which the individual biography is a conscious and knowledgeable participant in the greater human story: biography as part of “anthropography”. Nevertheless, our lives and minds are bound to and by the time in which we live.
• In conclusion:
If the Gods be just, noble, earnest striving cannot but be amongst the best that mankind can do, in this tragi-comic drama.
First published in the magazine English, #02, 2002, p. 14.