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 beauty and nightmare of such a system, if it gets anywhere near achieving its aim, is that there is no possibility in it for any actions that do not have a public, ascertainable meaning. Everything anyone does emerges ready-made and stamped, its character inscribed upon it like the names of the beasts in the Garden of Eden. The comprehensive grip of this philosophy makes it superb material for the satirist, and one of Zinoviev’s great strengths as a satirist is the inverted dialectical ingenuity he brings to interpreting the minutiae of the life he depicts.

One strategy for a satirist in Soviet society would be to accept the state’s ideology and show how, because of corruption, greed and laziness, people fall short of the proclaimed goals. There are elements of this strategy in The Madhouse. Workers’ heroism, selflessness and tireless efficiency as depicted in inspiring newspaper accounts – ‘Some of the tractors and trailers, laden with the leafy tops of root vegetables, hasten to a strip of woodland where a green mountain is rising alongside the ricks ... one feels that everything has been well thought out and organised’ – are contrasted with the reality of rotting dumps of vegetables and meals of violet boiled potatoes. As for well thought-out organisation: ‘the machine to which we had been allocated ... had broken down. We found a suitable spot behind some bushes and flopped down to catch a bit of shut-eye. An hour passed before it dawned on the management to transfer us to another patch to drag away by hand those same leafy tops of root vegetables.’ Contrasts of this sort provide much of the fun of The Madhouse. But Zinoviev does not accept the state’s ideology: corruption, alcoholism and fornication are less criticised than celebrated as a fart in its face.

Another satirical strategy is to show that dialectical materialism drastically fails to account for the real trends in Soviet society. That society is organised almost exclusively for the increasing production of ideology, through universities, Komsomol schools, newspapers, conferences, seminars, radio, television and even the armed forces. ‘The marxist thesis on the pre-eminence of material production ... is shown to be monstrously false. What is beyond doubt is the primacy of ideology over all other aspects of life.’ But by far the most effective of Zinoviev’s satirical strategies is the more subtle one of showing that the chaos of waste, cheating, backbiting and laziness that he depicts is a fairly successful embodiment of the goal of Marxist philosophy. Thus the Institute is a collective and collaborative organisation in that the directors get their juniors to do all the work for which the directors get the credit – in the same way as Stalin took the credit for the writings published under his name. The Institute also exemplifies ‘the development of matter’ on the model of dialectical materialism. Within the department of struggle against anti-Communism a group divides into two units after Brezhnev has ‘yattered on about anti-communist hysteria somewhere in the West’. The two units become a separate sector – an example of ‘a quantitative change becoming a qualitative one, and secondly, a subdivision of a whole. The subdivision was preceded by a raging feud, an example of the conflict of opposites as a force for development. Then everything ran like clockwork.’ Full Communism will be achieved when all, instead of most of, the goods produced in the Soviet Union are rubbish (eliminating the possibility of privilege) and everyone, including the leadership, eats violet boiled potatoes. Conditions will then be as they are in the advance model of Communism – the rest home: a bored society that is a travesty of Eden.

Scientific socialism is subjected to scorn and ridicule in The Madhouse. From the standpoint of his own logical critique of pure science, Zinoviev knows the extent to which scientific ‘fact’ is constituted by the frame of reference through which its data are discerned. The Madhouse shows a society stuck so fast within one fantastic frame of reference that even its rebellions only contribute to a debased fulfilment of its ideology’s impossible goals; there may be something inherently Stalinist about the Russian people, the book comes close to suggesting. It is most unfortunate that his English publisher has chosen to issue an abridged version of The Madhouse which omits ‘some of the more serious sociological and philosophico-historical strands’. Zinoviev must know a lot about capitalism by now.

Scientific Communism can be seen as a collectivised Faustianism, a version of the Hegelian ideal which speaks of a complete knowledge of the absolute: abolishing the mutual alienation of knowing, thinking and doing, this would restore the perfect grace that obtained in the Garden of Eden. One of the most haunting meditations on this Faustian theme is Heinrich von Kleist’s essay of 1810, ‘On the Marionette Theatre’. Perfect grace is attainable by mechanical dancing puppets because they have a single centre of gravity; their movements are undisturbed by will, consciousness or deliberation. Man can only re-attain this grace by completing his knowledge of self and world, thus returning to Eden by the back door. Judith, Nicholas Mosley’s latest novel, takes Kleist’s essay, with its switchback logic that equates god with puppet, as one of its main sources of meaning. Part of the book is set in an ashram in India (squalid hippy camp or Garden of Eden?) run by a Bhagwan-like guru called God who makes his public appearances jolting like a fairground puppet on his litter. God’s parables are mainly tasteless and trivial little fables which by the same logic may flip over and become deeply significant. We never quite know where we are in this narrative – an uncertainty we share with the heroine and (as we might have guessed) with modern physics. Before the ashram, Judith’s pilgrimage has begun in ‘swinging London’, where social climbing, drugs and mechanically-assisted sex take her to ‘rock-bottom’ (or is the bottom the top?). From India she returns to East Anglia and a demonstration at an airbase. Something happens there involving a bomb, a suitcase in a neolithic flint-mine, a helicopter, a watchtower, a child, and a sheep with two heads.

Judith is clearly an attempt at something very ambitious. Perhaps Mr Mosley wishes his heroine to achieve the mysterious grace of the god or puppet while retaining the fascination of uncertainty – getting in touch with a hidden order of reality such as seems to be alluded to in the pictures he describes by Piero di Cosimo. I cannot say if he has succeeded, because I do not altogether understand either Judith or what its success would consist in. Perhaps it would be the creation of a more magical uncertainty than is obtained by his main narrative device (lengthy letters from Judith to other characters). Every page seems sprinkled with question-marks, most of them registering Judith’s attempts to grasp what is happening – she realises that something is being laid on for her. Many of the question-marks follow statements, but the rising intonation forced on them by the punctuation fails to lift them above the banal. Judith’s irritable reaching after fact and reason resembles an obtuse doper’s paranoia, with other characters coyly acting like initiates of the mysteries. Is it possible, one wonders, to present grace without its looking like self-satisfaction.

An answer is suggested, as it happens, in David Cook’s marvellous Missing Persons. We are quite unaware, as this humorously sordid saga of bread and marge, tinned beans, false teeth, betting shops, adverts, punks, child prostitutes and novelty key-rings progresses, full of implausible chance meetings, long-lost sons, eighty-year-old private detectives and fortunes stuffed in cushions, that the story is moving to a surprising and impressive moment of grace. Cook’s eye for comically inconsequential detail, from all periods of this century, is matched by an ability to show this detail as charged with deep emotional significance for his frustrated and inarticulate characters. An example is the recurrence of half-lit fires smouldering in the hearth – that 19th-century incubator of domestic bliss. Edith, one of the book’s least lively and most pathetic characters – in her seventies and disfigured by unwanted hair – reaches a state of grace that is the negation of all that has encumbered her. That moment has magic because the predominant mood of the novel has been one of grotesque comedy. Like the rest of the book, it also forms part of a dialogue with the 19th-century novel that beautifully hints at an overlooked continuity in English life. Edith’s moment of grace is rendered at the conclusion of the novel in a passage which, astonishingly, transposes and inverts the passage in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White that describes the meeting between Hartright and Maria Halcombe – also made ‘ugly’ by facial hair. Edith’s grace is attained only in death: an unexpectedly romantic conclusion with which Kleist would have sympathised.

P.J. Kavanagh’s Only by Mistake aligns itself with a different aspect of Romanticism, if Coleridge’s Kantian preoccupation with duty can be called romantic. No doubt the true romantic relies upon feeling and instinct, and like the Kleistian puppet allows no troublesome reflections to mar his graceful consonance with the world’s spirit. But for Kavanagh this is an unsatisfactory doctrine. His hero, Dougal Kerr, a matinée idol, son of a matriarchal Irish nationalist campaigner of the Gonne-Markiewicz type, has been divorced and is now remarried to an American starlet. This marriage is also threatened, partly by her self-neglect, which has evidently been precipitated by his failure to reciprocate her intense feeling for him. If one is hollow inside, as Dougal feels himself to be, what feelings are there to rely on? Such questions are skilfully embedded in a Buchan-like adventure thriller. Dougal is chased to the island of Hoy by IRA hitmen. He is the sort of matinée idol who takes along Coleridge’s notebooks.