The title essay of Tatyana Tolstaya’s Pushkin’s Children: Writings on Russia and Russians is an account of the changes in feeling toward Russian writers, within Russia, over time. The essay questions the writer’s role, as artist and as citizen, and the role of words as cause, effect, or neither.
Tolstaya points out that from the 1960s to the 1980s, “things were very bad for the citizen,” but despite (or because of) Soviet censorship, “artists, writers, and poets—miracle of miracles!—flourished in this stifling era…. People stole journals from their neighbors’ mailboxes. Thieves broke into apartments in order to carry away books,” she says. “Both writers and readers dreamed of external freedom….”
When Gorbachev declared glasnost in 1985, “the word flooded the land,” Tolstaya says.
“Instead of controlled doses and cautious judgments, all manner of opinion was suddenly available, from the intelligent to the bizarre; all possible viewpoints appeared in print, from the most democratic to the most fascistic and misanthropic; all kinds of prose…all kinds of poetry, and religious tracts, astrological charts and calculations, the prophecies of Nostradamus, the mystical texts of Daniil Andreyev, pornography, the platforms of dozens of political parties, cooking recipes, rules of good taste from the 1880s, exposés, memoirs, autobiographies—all of it overwhelmed the reader…. The word, which had seemed unique and rare, was published in editions of millions…. The reader, elated at first, was eventually overwhelmed and then disappointed.”
This essay was first published in The Wilson Quarterly in 1992, just as the Internet was about to provide an exponentially greater explosion of texts (and images) to the world.
In a time of glut, “What should we write about?” Tolstaya asks. She means writers, but it applies to us all. “What should we speak about? To whom should we appeal? To whom call out? Whom should we amuse and frighten, and to whom should we complain? And how to find one’s voice? And what should we do? Destroy? But everything has already been destroyed. Build? What kind of dwelling and for whom, if the wind is so strong that it will demolish any structure?”
Called to sustenance, the mind in the Internet age slips like a dog racing around a corner. In their excitement, people spread rumors that Antifa set the California wildfires, while local officials express exasperation. Officials downplay infection, causing more. No one will say where the money went after that previous disaster. QAnon is set to win public office. Guns are used as statement for ill-defined ideas.
“Periods of crisis often generate misinformation,” the old slow newspaper of record says.
Yesterday was the 19th anniversary of 9-11. Social media users reposted New Yorker writers on the crisis, trying to make meaning just after the towers fell.
“On CNN, people were running north,” Donald Antrim wrote. “Because I was not one of those people, and because I was reacting to reality, I was overreacting. I wanted to be home in New York, because it did not seem right to feel even relatively safe. Instead, I rode around Vienna in a car. ‘Much of the city was destroyed in the war,’ my host told me. Of course. I was in Europe, where the destruction of cities exists in living memory. Is the United States now a part of the rest of the world?”
Nineteen years later we are still finding it difficult to be part of the world. It would take maturity: serious people, not without a sense of humor, who are sincere, thoughtful, deeply interested, who have substantial and complex views. Sophistry, for all its grim intent, does not count as seriousness, nor does cant, spin, bloviating, self-dealing, ignorance, or hatred.
The word flooded the land, but as Time said recently, “The facts that should anchor a sense of shared reality are meaningless to them; the news developments that might ordinarily inform their vote fall on deaf ears. They will not be swayed by data on coronavirus deaths, they won’t be persuaded by job losses or stock market gains, and they won’t care if Trump called America’s fallen soldiers ‘losers’ or ‘suckers,’ as the Atlantic reported, because they won’t believe it. They are impervious to messaging, advertising or data. They aren’t just infected with conspiracy; they appear to be inoculated against reality.”
This is a disappointment of what was meant to be an external freedom.
Read more by John Griswold here.