Dialectical Satire

Paul Edwards

  • The Madhouse by Alexander Zinoviev, translated by Michael Kirkwood
    Gollancz, 411 pp, £12.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 575 03730 X
  • Judith by Nicholas Mosley
    Secker, 298 pp, £11.95, August 1986, ISBN 0 436 28853 2
  • Missing Persons by David Cook
    Alison Press/Secker, 184 pp, £9.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 436 10675 2
  • Only by Mistake by P.J. Kavanagh
    Calder, 158 pp, £9.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 7145 4084 6

‘If I had been Lenin I would have introduced the concept “shit” instead of “matter”. Shit is primary. How does that sound?! But it’s not only primary. It’s secondary, as well. And that puts paid to all philosophical argument.’ So much for dialectical materialism, a philosophy for which Alexander Zinoviev feels a professional scorn. Zinoviev’s academic speciality is logic, and his main work in that field (popularised in a forbidding volume called Logical Physics) is an analysis of the cogency and implications of the language of science. The results of this analysis are frequently counter-intuitive, apparently, but tell us nothing about the world: ‘the sphere of application of logic is language and only language.’ This is a rarified subject, but we are all familiar enough with the habits of thought subsumed under ‘dialectical logic’ not to be surprised that Zinoviev should also be the source of a gross and unstanchable flow of satire. The Madhouse, which dates from 1980, is the latest of his novels to be published here in translation. Since then, Zinoviev has turned to the subject of émigré life, but The Madhouse concerns the thoughts and fate of an intellectual misfit in Russia.

The ‘madhouse’ is a yellow building in Moscow, housing ‘the most undistinguished, untalented institution in the Soviet Union – the Institute of Ideology of the Academy of Sciences’. The central figure, whose story can be pieced together from the book’s patchwork of disparate genres and styles, is JRF, a Junior Research Fellow there, and his subject, like Zinoviev’s, is logic. Himself a multiple personality, it seems, JRF moves to a political department where his work brings him into contact with a variety of harmless eccentrics. He is eventually taken away by the KGB for his supposed complicity with a group of these mildly deranged ‘dissidents’. Before that happens we are shown various aspects of his life: in the Institute, on a collective farm during the harvest, and in a rest home where he finds the ‘union with nature’ that will supervene upon the achievement of full Communism.

Full Communism is the one great goal to which all Soviet society inexorably aspires. Its achievement will be the secular equivalent of the manifestation of God: a dissolution of all limits and alienations. The secularity of the process is seen in the role of science as a provider of ‘objective’ ideological assurance that the goal is being reached. (Not that ideology can be objective – the foolishness of the whole project is tacitly acknowledged by the mere existence of an Institute of Ideology attached to the Academy of Sciences. Zinoviev writes: ‘It’s as if the prestigious Academy of Medical Sciences had as one of its affiliates an Institute of Witchcraft.’) ‘Dialectical logic’ is the privileged form of scientific interpretation of reality that confirms this movement of history. The classical texts of Marxism are the unquestioned sources of this logic, but its ‘new testament’ is Stalin’s Dialectical and Historical Materialism, which is for Zinoviev the essence of Soviet philosophy.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in