The device consisted in voluntary committing some absurd unexpected act that would be outside the systemic order of life, thus confusing the sequence of moves planned by his opponent.
Nabokov, The Defense, 1930
“Can you imagine such backwardness? These guys were making a revolution but did not even know how to drive a car.”
These lines from Vargas Llosa’s novel The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta may be read as a critique of irrationalism. However, they may also read as a humanistic tribute to our necessarily limited perspective on things. After all, a touch of magic and the whiff of irrationality have always been the outboard motor of unexpected initiative and energetic entrepreneurial endeavour.
Llosa’s lines are reminiscent of a passage in the Dutch writer Hermans’ Sadistic Universe. Many cultured persons do not understand most of the things going on around them, just as someone from the Trobriands has not an inkling of sexual reproduction, or a Papua of the circular solar system. Who has any idea of how the window of his car slides up and down? The poet can write verses only if he does not ask himself at the same time how his ink is prepared – unless, of course, he is writing a poem on preparing ink.
Aren’t people becoming members of a political party, which fights under the banner of ‘scientific socialism’, for reasons entirely unscientific? After all, you do not oppose the poverty in this world because there is a scientific program for its improvement. You get angry about injustice and crime, one’s first resistance originates in the heart or in the gut, not in the brain. Criticism and self-criticism become options only post hoc.
In old age the political-economist Mandel wrote a serious book about detective novels, Delightful Murder. He ‘confessed’ that in his youth he considered reading detectives a form of despicable escapism. A thoroughbred hedonist will ask this man: ‘Why a confession? Isn’t reading a detective novel pleasure only, is not our whole existence aiming at an escape from the tedium of everyday life?’
Having inserted a ponderous quotation from Hegel on the issue of human needs, the Trotskyite Mandel manages some kind of irony. He points his finger at ‘those Pharisees, the Tartuffes of the revolution’. Left-wing revolutionaries always demand from those who do enjoy themselves, that they feel guilty about it. Perhaps, so he suggests, his own ‘social history of the crime story’ is but a rationalization of his own little sins.
Guests at The Red Hotel have always been suspicious of the irrational and the emotional in others – but more especially of signs of so-called irrationality in themselves. However, they knew all too well that their stay in this hotel did not result from well-considered reasoning, but was caused by the outrage over injustice and people’s misery. Meanwhile, quite a few of those who will read this little essay do not even know what being a ‘Trotskyite’ meant. Perhaps, they think of some unknown species of ants, rather than of a subdivision of old-fashioned left politics.
Trotsky was the Dritte im Bunde of the Russian Revolution, the third man next to Lenin and Stalin. Also the one who lost to this Stalin in the battle for the succession of Lenin as party leader. His effigy has been repeatedly rubbed out from Soviet pictures of the triumvirate or when he was photographed together with Lenin.
Now you see him, now you don’t…
After Stalin’s rise to power Trotsky went into exile in Mexico, yet even out there the long arm of the KGB finally killed him with an ice pick. This typical Russian conflict was reflected in the leftist movement throughout the world. In Spain’s civil war it lead to disastrous fights behind the battle field, as witnessed by Orwell’s great Homage to Catalonia. Everywhere this fission between Stalinists and Trotskyites occurred, the last almost always being the minority. Detective-sinner Mandel played an important role in the Fourth International, the umbrella organization of all those Trotskyite splinters. Trotskyism, then – one of the true versions of Marxism.
It was certainly not the ‘scientifically correct line’ of the Fourth International that attracted me, it was Mandel with his unprecedented rhetorical talent, his wit and his talent as a speaker constituted its charm. I heard him argue live twice in my life. The first time in a debating match with the famous social democrat Joop den Uyl, the second time the opponent was the connoisseur of Russian literature Karel van het Reve. They were annihilated in a high level intellectual slaughter. Mandel was witty and persuasive. Den Uyl and Van het Reve, also known to be sharp and witty, suddenly lost their sense of humour when their arguments so miserably failed.
Older and hopefully a little wiser, a non-career in the Communist Party of the Netherlands, that counterpoint of Trotskyism, behind me, Llosa’s novel Mayta was pure reading pleasure. The book makes clear how orthodoxy and ‘the correct party line’ waste away all ‘criticism. Orthodoxy and suspicion are a tandem, glued to one another like yin and yang. The result is mistrust of the outside world, but quite often also distrust between the comrades themselves.
Leftist activists are mostly passers-by, they join an organization, get into fights while searching and finding difficulties – then again join another club. In all these political splinters there reigns ‘viewpoint logic’. ‘Comrades’ triumph when they manage to convert anyone, they feel good when a meeting of kindred spirits confirms their prejudice.
To share ‘being right’ is more comfortable than the laborious search for explanations for a confusing world. In this respect there is little difference between some radical left parties and religious sects. The former take an irreconcilable class conflict for granted and in their party want to force internal harmony over against the Evil Outside World. Vague religious sectarians, in turn, believe that the world is harmonious and that therefore they have to convert the others to make them see the light.
The world of orthodox people is either without discontent or it should be made so. They do not realize that a pleasant balance may result from prior tensions, upheaval in whatever form that can only be ‘eliminated’ temporarily. With both the political and the religious adherents of orthodoxy one cannot have a critical discussion, criticism of their tenets is anathema to them.
In all books written by Vargas Llosa – also, as argued in my essay The White Brothel, in the novel The White Hotel by Thomas [see this blog] – shape and style coincide with content. Thomas wrote his book about a pathological case, his style evokes what happens in psychiatric treatment: involvement and distance at the same time.
Llosa found his own solution to this literary problem. He stages a journalist who is searching information for his report on the relatively obscure leader of a revolt that erupted two decades before in a remote Peruvian village. The name of the leader is Mayta, member of the Peruvian Trotskyites, a party of precisely eight members who publish a paper in which they strike the note of a World Power – a paradox fed by the orthodoxy of Trotsky’s Great Story.
In the novel it remains continuously unclear where past becomes present and whether someone speaks ‘then’ or ‘now’. The journalist collects short stories from participants in the uprising, party members, Mayta’s wife and his family. Each of their stories does not only depend on the Great Story, but is also linked to those of the others. As in Thomas’ White Hotel, it is impossible for the reader to determine what is ‘true’ and ‘real’ and what is commentary.
Llosa successfully managed to write a political psychoanalysis of the Left. The book’s intensity suggests that what has now become the conservative author Vargas Llosa, must in his youth have been someone with left-wing sympathies. Presumably Llosa was a fellow-traveller, as a student in Paris reading the press reports on the political skirmishes in his own, then far away Peru with which he sympathised.
As the book progresses, this theme becomes more explicit. “Because it is less and less possible to know what is really going on, we Peruvians lie – we just invent and dream, we flee in our illusions.” This passage suggests at least one difference between literary illusion and the truth. However, a little further on, we read that “all fiction is a lie.” Llosa – at least in his novel – claims that not only a novel, but any representation of facts cannot be but fictitious.
By doing this, he undermines his own journalist’s ‘reporting’. Mayta realizes in a literary manner the intriguing theorem that was formulated in 1918 by the sociologist William Thomas: “If men define situations as real, these situations are real in all their consequences.”
The contrast between one Great Story and the many little stories involves the problem of History. Indeed, the Great Story of a party or of the church presupposes one story-line in all of them. Although each single act may have unintended consequences, according to the Great Story they form a pattern from which narrators can never escape, even if they are not aware of this. If however, as the novel Mayta implies, there is no such obvious connection between these stories, History is reduced to a plurality of little histories, perhaps even to unconnected niches therein. Any ‘correct party line’ becomes fictitious.
Mockingly, Llosa confronts the ‘correct line’ as a basis for revolutionary action with the pathetic drivel of the eight party members who do nothing else but publish their little political sheets. This desolate far niente – not sweet, but bitter and shabby – finally drives Mayta to support a doomed rebellion in a small village in the Andes, a move in violation of the party’s decisions. Thus, Llosa suggests that the ‘correct party line’ and an indolent orthodoxy have nothing to do with actual history.
“How mysterious and unpredictable are events in all their ramifications – that incredibly complex web of causes and effects, reflections and events which together make up human history.”
Llosa – so it seems – follows Nietzsche’s dictum that ‘no one can look around the corner of his own perspective’. An oppressing question thus presents itself: Is there, then, no distinction between different perspectives at all? Is there no difference in quality between the lenses of these various spectacles? Is there is no difference in human value between, on the one hand, a sectarian who accuses his fellow sectarian of dealings with unorthodox people, and a conscientious researcher who does his job in a self-critical manner, on the other?
This, then, is the problem of the humanist defender of radical multi-culturalism who, in the final analysis, claims that everyone is ‘right’ and that all behaviour is sanctioned by some code. In his White Hotel Thomas made it clear that every corpse in the pit of Babi Yar was a barrel full of rich experience, each having had its own interesting life. His message: Though each one is unique, no one is better or worse than another.
Nevertheless, here arises the delicate ethical question as to whether the death of one person is never a greater loss than the death of another – this, not only in terms of direct personal involvement, but also on a more abstract level. Is someone, who during a lifetime has cultivated his brains and talents, not ‘worth more’ than someone who stays a nerd, a loafer or a chatterbox? Was it – for instance – justifiable to save only Freud before the gates of Vienna’s hell, while leaving behind all those thousands of other Jews who were endangered in the same way?
Dangerous questions, for sure, nevertheless questions that a serious ethical discourse must pose, if only to better gauge one’s own limitations. If no Great Story exists, when there are only little stories, does not one storyteller tell or invent his tales better, in a friendlier way perhaps, than others? Real criticism is always looking for a qualitative difference and thus for criteria to make that difference.
Following the failed revolt, an informant tells the investigative journalist that Mayta ”was ahead of his time”. He had acted prematurely, because nobody at the time understood that it could have certainly resulted in something good. Meanwhile, Mayta has completely been forgotten. “Time shows no pity.”
The widow of the nineteenth-century left-wing hero, Alexander Herzen, once said about a critic who had drawn a bead on her husband: “Time will take care of that one!” Everybody will indeed remember her famous husband, not that critic.
The notorious anarchist Nechayev in turn commented on the widow’s remark:
“Time naturally takes care of us all, although one may understand how this woman could inspire awe with a statement like this. For smug optimists who have not, like us, learned to live in the realm of despair, the first glance at their own failings must resemble a vision of death.”
Despite these fine words, Nechayev must also have believed in some Great Story, otherwise he would not have been urged to commit his anarchist actions.
Llosa’s novel also made clear that, without conviction, people would do nothing. To have no convictions at all yields nothing. This is also true for too much conviction. So the writer must go on telling his stories – out of conviction.
Sierksma – Written about 1990