an American's Reflections - Stephen Lapeyrouse’s website

Sleep and Pain, and Anniversaries at 220 and 850?

Bicentennial Celebration, 1976, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Bicentennial Celebration, 1976,
Smithsonian Institution Archives

In 1976 the United States of America celebrated its 200th anniversary, the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th at the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia, a document which overtime came to be treated as a sort of national ‘holy script’ in America. There had been much preparation for this national holiday, to culminate with tremendous fireworks displays over Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, San Francisco, and so on across the USA. Speeches, conferences, meetings, fairs, parties, plays, books, essays, articles, television programs, etc., etc., etc., were all part and parcel of this great national celebration. The founding of the USA – and it was not at all certain that this Enlightenment “experiment” in self-government (as the later-named “Founding Fathers” described it) would be successful – is a “birthday” far more “abstract” than, say, the establishment of the cities of Boston (1630) or New York (1623); and yet it is far more historical and earthly than the ancient, typically mythical accounts of the origins of such cities as Athens, Rome, or even Constantinople. In reality the date “July Fourth 1776” is much closer in historical character to the foundings and anniversaries of the Ancient Greek Delian (477 BC) or Achaean (ca. 280 BC) Leagues, or the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (which lasted, from 800-1806 in time beyond the modern national founding of the USA), or to the foundings of the “modern” (a somewhat presumptuous though common label, regarding our period in time) states of Germany (1871) or China (1911). Cities, states, great historical events or people – be they religious (like the pivotal date of Jesus’s birth), political, social, scientific, etc., are all celebrated on their various “anniversaries”. And as we organize our human time into decades and centuries, and so on – we seem to be in awe of zeros: 10, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000, . . . – we tend to act as if such anniversaries (with 0’s) are more powerful, significant and meaningful than others. (One sizeable heterodox group in Central Europe reckons anniversaries according to multiples of 33 1/2 – a common reckoning of Jesus’ life on earth – whereby we can recognize the special character of our more commonly celebrating dates with zeros – like 200 years after 1776, or 850 years after 1147 AD).

Personal birthdays are closer to home in the feelings and thoughts of most people, and even here the mysticism of zeros is observed. When it comes, in the USA, to celebrating a “July Fourth 1776”, with fervor, nationalistic pride and emotion, by millions of Americans who obviously had nothing directly to do with the events of that time (and who unfortunately today seldom well know US history), one can see that the “anniversary” is a somewhat construed, deliberate, public social event. “Hooray for the red, white and blue!” (colors of the US flag, with 50 stars – not suns or moons for example) – with speeches describing America as “the greatest”, “best”, “freest” country, “the leader of the free world”, even “the greatest nation in history” is not unusual to hear on “July Fourth” and at other times.

Whatever of such celebrations is hollow social pomp and circumstance; whatever pretentious public ceremony, or real elations of nationalistic emotions, etc. – there is a longing for order, for meaning, for special defining moments in an individual’s, a group’s, a nation’s life. 1776-1976 was an example of such a numerological search for meaning, and “event”. But “July Fourth” 1975 and “July Fourth” 1977 (and the more recent July 4, 1997 which I recently experienced in the USA) were treated and celebrated just as normal, common national anniversaries: fireworks, drinks and foods. Will Moscow at 850 years be a more profound reality experience and event than the more meager celebrations of Moscow’s 849th or 851st birthday? Does the zero in “850” make the anniversary more real, meaningful, mystical and powerful?

In 1986 I traveled with a group of American students (mostly from the University of New Mexico) for the first time to the USSR. With our American group leader (who taught Russian in America) and our Intourist guide, we happened to be in Leningrad on July 4th (220 years after 1776). Americans from the “leader of the free world”, visiting communist Russia, were met at supper (in our restricted, luxurious, Intourist Hotel restaurant) by our Intourist guide, who had obviously “dressed up” for the occasion of our national American holiday. Her personal demeanor made clear that she held real respect for our country and its holiday, and that her wearing her nicest dress, was not merely an Intourist job necessity. “What are you going to do to celebrate your national holiday?”, she inquired sincerely of our indifferently-dressed group at the dinner table. Embarrassed, awkward glances shot around the table, as people nervously searched for some sort of response to the very unexpected question. “Well, uh, …”, “gee, um,…”, “…let’s order another bottle of wine,” interjected our teacher, to everyone’s relief. Everyone laughed. The solution was perhaps a bit disingenuous (the first bottle was nowhere in sight), but it saved the situation! It was obvious that this group of 20 or so typical, young American students – even in Communist Russia – had given little or no thought at all to “the Fourth of July”. The birthday had little real meaning to them. Of course, in Washington, D.C. that day, there were speeches and fireworks, but these Americans in Soviet Russia would neither inwardly nor outwardly celebrate “July Fourth 1776”. This the embarrassed response of the group to the Russian made clear.

Abraham Maslow
Abraham Maslow

An American psychologist, Abraham Maslow (1908–1970) – whose humanistic psychology “system” is perhaps more creative and helpful than even Carl Jung’s – spoke of the “peak experiences” in human life. Great people (e.g. Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King Jr., et al) realized the highest experiences potential in humans, and even common people could sometimes know rare high moments. And while a broad strain in the American social attitude of “equality” has come to hold that there are no people better, or greater, than any other; and to say that, for examples, jogging, sex and eating are “spiritual experiences” – the 1960’s hippie movement’s experimentation with LSD and other drugs, was in part ensouled by a longing for dramatic, “peak” human experiences – the desire for a real celebration, an anniversary, is, it seems to me, a search, a longing, a desire for some sort of social, collective “peak experience”, with powerful community feelings and meaning.

The human being – as those, like Dostoyevsky, knew, and others, like Jefferson, believed (or hoped) otherwise – is a strange, cantankerous creature: it wants rest, peace and sleep, but needs struggle, confrontations, noble strivings . . . indeed, sufferings and painful experiences. Though people – due to social traditions – tend to celebrate the “good” times and events, the cantankerous creature often learns, feels, knows . . . indeed, treasures more, that which it experiences which is painful, extraordinary, and dangerous.

On a popular US Sunday evening TV program called “60 Minutes”, in the late 1980’s, there was a fifteen-minute interview with the immigrated Soviet dissident and former prisoner Natan Sharansky. Strange though it may be to hear, he said to the American interviewer, his time in the gulag was some of the very best of his life . . . the richest, deepest . . . the most meaningful. Man – the strange, cantankerous creature. And, surely, most of the comparatively few people of Moscow who surrounded the Russian “White House” in 1991 to protect it from military or KGB troops, will remember those days as amongst the most special in their lives. Whether these are called “peak” or deep experiences, the human being is such that these are often, though seldom preferred, treasured more than the greatest days of comfort and calm. (Celebrating some such experiences – like imprisonment – would be perhaps a bit strange, but they often are greater marks in a person’s or a nation’s story.)

850th anniversary of Moscow celebration
850th anniversary of Moscow celebration

Thanks to nothing, i.e. zero, as in 1976 – 200 years of the USA – the 850th anniversary of the small undramatic settlement of “Moscow” in 1147, will be a staged, “great” social celebration. Still, in fact, it will in essence be a false event; perhaps not completely empty and void of meaning or usefulness (at least in needed civic pride), but with much less substance and soul than speakers will rhetorically claim. Few people, even with Russian souls, can feel “850 years” of Moscow or something other. (And who can feel an unambiguous love or respect in order to praise Moscow today?) Not even the remaining oldest buildings in Moscow can convey – beyond a mood or feeling – much of a dramatic, unforgettable “peak experience”. No matter how loud and furious (future President?) Lushkov may speak and preach of Moscow’s past and future glories; no matter how solemn the Patriarch or President recall portions of Moscow’s eight and one-half centuries, the 850th anniversary of Moscow will – or so this American sees it, and he would be happy to be wrong – be a basically empty external parade of ceremonies, events, and exaggerated speeches (at least in so far as they are supposed to really in some way reflect and manifest the “850th year” of this now overly-large city). Not even the final night’s culminating fireworks will bring the real collective “peak experience” the human soul sometimes seeks, and the celebratory rhetoric and colorful fireworks explosions suggest.

Many will ignore the event completely; for many others, including the older, pensioned Moscovites, it is an impossible luxury in their impoverished lives; even others will see it as a mere good excuse for drinking. But none of the speeches, parades and ceremonies will be able to really inspire much emotion towards the abstraction: “the 850th anniversary of Moscow”. It will be a pseudo-event – distinct from the 849th and the 851st by little more than “0”.

Certainly many people, Muscovites and otherwise, care for, and want the best for the life of this city – but even the oldest parts of the city are, contrary to the past months’ city-paid advertisement-billboard lyrical eulogies of Moscow by Chehkov, Esenin, et al, about ‘the magic and mood of Moscow’, like the rest of Moscow, ruined in feeling and atmosphere by the noisy and polluting cars, which the new free social life and conditions in Russia means grow worse with “progress” (more cars on the street) everyday. (Banning most private cars would be a real celebration of Moscow!)

Were Moscow not the center of what George Soros has called post-Soviet Russian “robber capitalism“…were retired elder Soviet pensioners treated with as much “respect” as new banks, property and profits…were the so-called political leaders devoted servants of the society, rather than of dollars and themselves…were Moscow not coming daily to resemble any other “great city” in the world today (the more it becomes identical to other cities, the more today’s political leaders will find it to be “great”)…

Moscow has some old and interesting buildings; a long and interesting past (some of which defines life still today); very many ugly apartment blocks; and many interesting people; but its celebration will be more of a social political show, than some deep collective remembrance, anniversary and celebration. Celebrating Moscow’s 850th anniversary is a – perhaps unavoidable, or necessary – collective social ceremony; but the 1976 of the USA would lead one to say that it will not be a deep, serious, memorable, collective, “peak experience” (in spite of the fireworks), if only because man is a cantankerous, strange creature – who often prefers sleep.

First published in the magazine English, #35, August 1997, p. 11.

See also the essay Unpopular Thoughts on Moscow’s Celebration and London’s Tragedy (English, #39, October 1997 – #40, October 1997).