Tag Archives: Literature

Of Youth and Age

T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem, The Waste Land, begins:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

I first read these lines in my early 20s and thought I understood them. But as it is in so many instances of literature, this poem seems commensurate with a certain age, the way Proust is an author for one’s forties and J.D. Salinger for the early teens. The meaning of this strange admixture of memory and desire which indeed comes about suddenly in Spring is not fully appreciated until one reaches an age where the crucial bit, “cruellest,” is actively felt. The opening of The Waste Land finds us somewhere between the youthful outlook of the Pastoral mode and the poetic resignation of Ecclesiastes: “the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail.” In that middle space desire persists, but memory indicates the direction in which you’re going, how far you’ve gone, and thus the inevitable matter of the diminishing return.

For me this late middle period, or if you prefer middle age, outlook is best illustrated not by allusion to Spring, but Fall. Here it is, the beginning of September, and it is a beautiful sunny day – Autumn is in the air – as the students return for another year of classes. I admit the whole thing makes me deeply nostalgic. But for what exactly? The facts of much of my years as a student were: tedious lectures, essays, term papers, exams, poverty. I know I do not miss any of these. And yet, when I walk alongside the residences and I get a glimpse inside, a part of me is absorbed into the scene and I want it all again. One month of actual student life, if not one day, would cure me of this, for I’m certain it would be an utterly depressing and irksome experience. But then, I am thirty-four years old and they are twenty. What I really want seems to be this: to be at a point in my life where discovery is a normal mode of experience, where everything is charged by a sort of blind, intense wonder.

A college student is ignorant and entirely at the mercy of hormones, or desire. That is the whole point of being young. But one does not think about that under the spell of nostalgia; one thinks how marvellous it is to have pals gathered about, rather than scattered to the corners of the earth, as they now are. And one ponders how wonderful it was to fall in love for the first time – all while harbouring the conviction that college romance is uninspiring and pedantic, and we’d be better off without it.

Nostalgia is pure sentiment. That is why you can never quite argue yourself out of it. A good lie deeply felt is more useful than an unpleasant fact arrived at through vigorous examination supported by evidence. And the principal lie about college, perhaps even about youth, is that you are freer than you will ever be later on. What you in fact are, for the most part, is confused, naïve, excited, drunk, anxious about the future, tired, and horny. Above all, if you are a young man, horny. All of these remind you that you are at the mercy of mysterious (so it seems at the time) forces, the forces of April. That is what it means to be young. And of course part of the habit of youth is abandoning oneself to these things, because the future, one suspects, consists of stability, boredom, and convention.

Your youth teaches you, if you are paying attention, that it is good to be alive, and it is also messy and inconvenient and painful and absurd. The young accept and even exploit this recognition, and the old perhaps wish desire would relent and leave one well enough alone. Somewhere in between these, life is overtaken by professional and personal aspirations, all of which are organised around making of one’s living a structured, comfortable, and secure affair. And for a time you almost believe it is so – that life has something like predictability about it. A comic idea, when you come to look at it. Nonetheless, a middle aged adult is typically a person who has long ago stopped believing – stopped feeling – that the future is a domain of great promise and newness, whether or not this was ever the case. One gets on with it, and is rewarded for a short time with the illusion that we are more or less on a manageable and rational voyage. The seasons go round, now and then stirring memory and desire, and this too passes. The business of life carries on. [- September 2000]

A View from the Stadium: Politics and Sport

A common view among academic writers, and especially writers of the political left, is that professional sport constitutes a diversion from practical affairs. The consuming public, according to the Diversion Theory, is made stupid and docile by generous outlays of – one can feel the approach of the inevitable phrase from Juvenal – ‘bread and circuses.’ Here I must qualify the discussion with a distinction between sports as recreation and sports as business. The following essay does not consider sports from the view of the participant, but rather from the view of the spectator-consumer. Our topic, major-league spectator sports, is particular. My job in the following paragraphs will be to answer a question: what is the spectator getting these days from sports? Indirectly, however, I shall be attempting to investigate the relation of sports and politics as this relation is described in conventional theory.

Intellectuals, among whom are few sports fans, often give an unflattering answer to the question just posed: what is the spectator getting from sports? Here are some of Umberto Eco’s thoughts on the subject, from a 1980 essay called ‘Sports Chatter’ (published in an excellent book, Travels in Hyperreality):

And since chatter about sport gives the illusion of interest in sport, the notion of practicing sport becomes confused with that of talking sport; the chatterer thinks himself an athlete and is no longer aware that he doesn’t engage in sport. And similarly he isn’t aware that he could no longer engage in it, because the work he does, when he isn’t chattering, tires him and uses up both the physical energy and the time required for sports activities.

You’ve gathered that the sports fan gets from sports, among other things which Eco elsewhere identifies, the illusion that he or she is an athlete. I suspect that this aptly describes a portion of the sports audience. One weakness of Eco’s approach however is that it considers sports from the point of view of one who presumably has risen above the folly he describes. This strategy comes with limitations. I shall attempt to clarify the matter of limitations by transposing Eco’s paragraph into another subject: literature.

And since chatter about literature gives the illusion of interest in literature, the notion of practicing literature becomes confused with that of talking literature; the chatterer thinks himself a writer and is no longer aware that he doesn’t engage in literature. And similarly he isn’t aware that he could no longer engage in it, because the work he does, when he isn’t chattering, tires him and uses up both the physical energy and the time required for literary activities.

I doubt that Eco, or academics in general, would accept this transposed statement. For chatter about literature (or art, or politics, etc.) is precisely how critics show their interest; they furthermore do not suppose this interest an ‘illusion.’ Here we disclose the critical necessity of attempting to understand human behaviour by examining one’s own.

We should be suspicious of the view which reduces all interest in sports to a parody of civic participation. The view is widespread, especially among Marxists – who necessarily suppose that ‘politics’ is a universal human concern. The alternative is to suspect that perhaps The People don’t care much for political affairs, and from this to infer a possible lack of enthusiasm for Marxism itself, or whatever one is promoting. The fan of sport, therefore, must be revealed as expressing his or her political nature. The result is a denigration of the sport spectator, over whom the superior theorist casts a dark shadow. The duped sports fan gets excited, argues about the decisions of the leaders, debates the strengths and weaknesses of outcomes, and urges what ought to be done to improve things. All of this energy is political in nature, but unlike the efforts of the scholarly investigator, it is foolishly misdirected toward an inferior end. Worse, the fan’s behaviour is manipulated by commercial interests: hence, he is not accorded even the attributes of agency. You can see why this reasoning flatters the academic, whose own perspective apparently rises above that of the mob. Eco, who (I think) is not a Marxist, even uses the telling phrase “fake conscience.”

Academic chatter about sports tells us a good deal about the assumptions of academics; it tells us less about the assumptions of fans. Seen from the perspective of the sports fan, professional sports are not a diversion from a more substantial occupation (that is, electoral politics); they are a diversion from tedium and banality. ‘False consciousness’ was a concept invented by Marxists to explain the masses’ complicity in their oppression. At the heart of the concept is the proposition that the people support the ruling classes because they (the people, that is) haven’t got a proper, Marxist understanding of class relations. In other words, to know Marxism is to love it. Needless to say there are other explanations for the rejection of Marxism, most of which concern the character of people who call themselves Marxist. ‘False consciousness’ nonetheless was adopted by critics of various political persuasions as an explanation of mass-behaviour. It allowed one to believe, ‘The People do not submit to me because they do not understand me: they are ignorant.’ Furthermore, false consciousness renders urgent the crusade to enlighten the masses. Academic writing on popular culture often discloses this logic, especially when it concerns political matters from the perspective of the political left. The unpleasant fact for the left is that they often find the behaviour of their beloved masses repulsive. Thus, the masses must be irrational or misinformed, and hence capable of being reformed through the application of rational analysis. Eco does not strike me as the crusading sort, but many critics are missionaries in disguise.

The challenge for the academic, then, is to offer a rational explanation for a behaviour that is considered irrational. The favoured explanation of the academic is that mass behaviour is a distorted version of his or her own; hence, the sports fan is engaged in an irrational parody of a rational human activity. Yet the sports fan’s relation to sport is the same as the academic’s relation to his subject of study. Both relations are rational and gloriously useless. Both reward an intimate knowledge of the discipline’s history, techniques, and rules. Both involve skill, the pursuit of excellence, and above all competition – for a trophy, for jobs, or for scholarly eminence. The literary critic who cleverly discerns a feature of, say, Shakespeare’s genius implicitly puts himself in Shakespeare’s company. The idea is that it takes a certain degree of skill to discern and appreciate skill in others. One reveals his or her genius in the praise of the genius of others. On this foundation rests the reputation of scholars and sports commentators alike. Academics, like sports fans, affiliate themselves with the honoured tradition and are thereby honoured.

If an intellectual feels it necessary to hitch his efforts to High Public Purposes, then we may reasonably suspect that he feels insecure. His insecurity is probably apt, given the unenviable social status of most intellectuals. Sports fans, for their part, are comfortable with the inutility of their pursuits. Indeed, inutility is one of the chief merits of sport for the fan. Sport, we need not be reminded, is play. Politics, we have all learned, is crass; it is about little more than advancing one’s own agenda. At least one is able to enjoy sports, despite the commercialization, and to see in them something more than money- and power-grubbing. It is precisely the academic thesis that ‘everything is political’ which blinds many intellectuals to the positive value of sports and mass culture in general. Many fans see as clearly as the intellectual that sports are political (theirs is not a ‘false’ consciousness), but they choose sports nonetheless and manage to look beyond the politics. The sports themselves are felt by the fan to be good; when however there is no ‘sport in itself,’ but only a manifestation of the political, the rot appears wherever one cares to look. So it is fulfilling even for a casual fan to sit in the stadium and watch the game, while it’s a scandal for the theorist who sees only or mostly political theatre. Both sports and politics offer intellectual stimulation, abundant statistical data, debate, controversy, allies and enemies, and collective endeavour. The principal difference is this: sports do not leave you feeling only that people are vile.

Perhaps the previous line is too harsh. Nonetheless, I think, it makes my point. The public aspect of life, which includes the pundit’s analysis of it, is rather cynical. Professional sport may be the only public good able to command broad respect. We recognize that sport is a business, and that as such it is a private commodity as much as it is a public good. My point is that mass-produced spectator sports often succeed while politics often does not. By ‘often’ I mean that sports command a broader following than politics. I cannot prove this with numbers; it is a conjecture based upon my experience. Furthermore, my definition of success is the following: the ability to produce and substantiate both constructive attitudes and actions toward collective ends. Politics fails because contact with it produces, in many cases, the feeling that the world is filled with shits. It is perhaps healthy to avoid environments that support this feeling, and on this proposal I rest my claim that the sports fan is usually engaged in healthy behaviour. The word ‘usually’ allows for the sports fan who engages in chauvinistic displays of team boosterism, especially where these displays involve violence. Violence tells us something about the psychological condition of the individual fan, and it reminds us that spectator sports invoke deep feeling. But it is clear that deep feelings do not lead by necessity to predetermined acts. In any case, some of the feelings are themselves good – for instance, the sensation of being involved in the pursuit of a shared, worthy good, such as winning the championship. When is the last time politics made you feel something good?

Of course, I’m intellectualizing a feature of contemporary life which is transparent to ordinary folks. I suppose a good many fans would say they like sports because sports are action-packed, interesting, and full of compelling strategy. In other words, they no more feel their pleasure needs analysis and justification than do the critics theirs. Pleasure is pleasure. Nor is there only one sort of pleasure involved in any single field of interest. Sports offer the pleasures of watching, reading, learning, committing facts to memory, and discussing those facts with others. Unlike other forms of knowledge – knowledge of literature, for instance – sports knowledge also constitutes a lingua franca. Sports talk is the language of Common Humanity, and unlike talk of politics, it is usually jovial and at most mock-belligerent in nature. In short, sports yield a useful and engaging discourse among many ordinary, civilized people. And as any intellectual ought to understand, language itself is (among other things) a basic form of human recreation. [-January 1999]

Reading Chekhov’s Stories

THE RUSSIAN WRITER Anton Chekhov was born in 1860, the son of a poor grocer. He studied medicine, supported himself and his family by writing, and eventually worked his way up to the profession of doctor. He travelled, lived five years on a country estate, and died in Yalta in 1904. He is today regarded as one of the finest writers of the short story. In short, he was a specimen of a Russian rarity, the upwardly-mobile peasant literary genius.

The above sketch is clearly skeletal, but it suggests already the themes with which Chekhov was concerned: rural life, the relation of the classes, and self-improvement through education. Most Chekhov stories involve something like the following. A Russian goes on a rural trip in harsh weather. He is brought by circumstance into the company of a differing social class. Someone brings out the samovar, or tea-urn, and conversation ensues, but the classes do not communicate. There is usually a long passage in which the protagonist dwells upon the absurdity of it all. This one, for example:

Why are there doctors and medical orderlies, he wondered, why are there merchants, clerks and peasants in this world? Why aren’t there just free men? The birds and beasts are free, aren’t they? So is Merik. They fear no one, they need no one. Now, whose idea was it – who says we have to get up in the morning, have a meal at midday and go to bed at night? That a doctor is senior to an orderly? That one must live in a room and love no one but one’s wife? Why shouldn’t things be the other way round – lunch at night and sleep by day? Oh, to leap on a horse, not asking whose it is, and race the wind down fields, woods and dales like some fiend out of hell! Oh, to make love to girls, to laugh at everyone!

There is a good deal to be said about this quotation and the attitudes it suggests. But before we come to the analysis, I should like to explain why I’ve chosen this particular passage. For I could as easily have produced a dozen other on the same theme, all of them making the same point. I chose this one because I have thought exactly these very thoughts. ‘Who decided we must eat breakfast in the morning? sleep at night? work from dawn to dusk for a wage? dedicate our lives to consumption? look forward to the weekend and retirement? etc. etc.’ One can hardly live in an organized society without feeling the subtle and not so subtle external compulsions that determine so much of her behaviour. Are we free? Most of the time we think so, but then come those moments when we know we are living according to a script. It interests me that those moments involve things like breakfast and sleep. After all, war is obviously absurd, but breakfast? Precisely what feels natural, precisely this is being questioned. Beneath the careful crafting of a Chekhov story, one discovers the question, Could the world be otherwise than it is?

The question Could the world be other than it is? tosses us into politics. Here we find what I shall call the skeptical turn of mind – that is, the calling of things into question. A writer whose characters wonder over the meaning of breakfast could hardly be expected to accept human arrangements at face value. Yet what did Chekhov think? He seems to disapprove of the abuses of the Russian class system, but what would he put in its place, if anything? That is the rub. On first reading Chekhov, I find a vague humanism and a pervasive skepticism. Life is absurd. Yes, the peasants are getting shafted, but look at what sort of folk they are! Stubborn, bigoted, suspicious, and above all, stupid. They cannot even perceive their self-interest. Chekhov is commonly portrayed, along with James Joyce, as an exemplary model of the disinterested and apolitical writer. If he is unwilling to accept flattering nonsense about the aristocracy, he is equally unwilling to romanticize, in the common manner of the social reformer, the common folk. The consensus is that he merely describes the world without rendering a judgement.

Is this correct? Consider ‘An Awkward Business,’ which examines an incident between a country doctor, Gregory Ovchinnikov, and a medical orderly, Michael Smirnovsky. Here, as elsewhere, Chekhov establishes a set of contrasts. The doctor is young, educated, and thoughtful. Furthermore, he is a professional with aspirations. Chekhov is careful to note Gregory’s “keen interest in ‘social problems,’” a phrase which seems to me deliberately fuzzy. For Gregory, in contrast to the aged, bumbling, alcoholic Michael, is profoundly at odds with something we would call the system, and yet he’s unable to put his discomfort into practical language. Gregory’s problem is this: he has punched Michael in the face for coming to work drunk. He knows this is unprofessional behaviour, and that he ought to be disciplined, and yet the norms of 19th-century Russian society make only one outcome possible. The ‘old boys’ will rally around Gregory, and as a consequence his behaviour will be pronounced just. Indeed, this is precisely what happens.

Regarding the workings of the system, Gregory comments on ‘the sheer, the crass stupidity of it all.’ Here we have the perspective of the radical, the would-be reformer who is interested in social problems. Gregory seems to me to have Chekhov’s sympathy, but the implicit lesson of the story is that, like it or not, the system works. That, after all, is its function – to keep things moving along. Michael himself understands this and begs the forgiveness of his assailant. It is only when the embarrassed doctor suggests instead a lawsuit against himself that things get complicated. The expedient course of action would be to observe social conventions and let the system do its work. Why drag impractical notions like ‘social problems’ into the matter? No answer is given for this question. The impractical notions are simply there, and as a result Chekhov’s fiction is much more complicated than I’ve made it appear. His characters are plagued by a concern with justice, but they’ve learned to get along in an unjust world. It’s worth noting that the passage quoted above (“Oh, to leap on a horse…”) ends with this: “It would be a good idea to burgle some rich man’s house at night, he reflected.” In other words, once we have decided that the status quo is so much cruel nonsense, which clearly it sometimes is, we may move in any direction. Those directions include murder, robbery, and all manner of violence. Having questioned the prevailing arrangements, Gregory learns what everyone else has known all along, that things flow most smoothly when they follow the established channels. The alternatives are, as the story’s title ironically indicates, awkward.

The Chekhov I’ve proposed thus far conforms to the conventional notion of him as a wry observer of human affairs. But this Chekhov is, I think, too much a quietist, too much a man who merely contemplates things as they are without believing one can make a difference. That Chekhov was no reformer I agree. And yet I’m not satisfied with the view I’ve advanced thus far, that he is a skeptic and nothing more. He makes observable commitments and characteristic choices. There are implicit answers to the question, Could the world be otherwise than it is? In short, there is more to be said about the world of Chekhov’s fiction.

We may note the following. Chekhov is more interested in rural Russia than he is in the cities. Whatever implicit views he has may be inferred from his fondness for the ‘backward regions.’ He is interested in peasants, but he consistently narrates his stories from the perspective of the gentleman, or, where gentlemen are lacking, figures of relative high status. The protagonists are sometimes disdainful of their social inferiors but sometimes are ‘anxious,’ which is to say they encounter the lower orders with a mixed emotion of fear and desire. In the latter case, the upper classes do not wish to be confused with the down-and-out, and yet deep down they believe that the down-and-out lead a fuller, richer, more ‘earthy’ existence than they themselves do. The result is that the lower classes assume a sinister but compelling aspect, as in this passage from ‘Thieves’:

‘Phew, that girl has spirit!’ Yergunov thought, sitting on the chest and observing the dance from there. ‘What fire! Nothing’s too good for her.’

He regretted being a medical orderly instead of an ordinary peasant. Why must he wear a coat and a watch-chain with a gilt key, and not a navy-blue shirt with a cord belt – in which case he, like Merik, could have sung boldly, danced, drunk and thrown both arms round Lyubka?

Yergunov is nearly seduced by Lyubka, and he is robbed by Merik, but the greatest danger these characters pose is the one suggested by the story’s ending, that Yergunov will betray himself and defect his class. And why not? The peasants are having a wonderful time of it, robbing and killing with apparent impunity. Here we get another glimpse, I think, of Chekhov’s ‘position’ on the question, Could things be otherwise in the world? Nowhere does Chekhov allow class defection to occur without at least the suggestion of dire consequence. One has a choice to be a peasant or a gentleman; beyond that there is mere anarchy. Furthermore, class mobility is properly a matter of sustained effort and self-transformation. His is the sensibility of a man who through his own effort has left behind poverty and achieved success, and who believes that the answer is for others to do likewise. In short, he is concerned with personal evolution, not social revolution.

This explains the features of his work, some of which I have already identified. There is no grand social-reform vision in Chekhov’s stories because he is interested in the individual. This interest informs the manner in which he both criticizes and affirms the system. The system dooms the occasional intelligent, gifted individual to be born a peasant; nonetheless, for most peasants, theirs is a proper and even necessary role. As Kuzmichov comments in ‘The Steppe,’ ‘The point is that if everyone becomes a scholar and gentleman there won’t be anyone to trade and sow crops. We all starve.’ It’s not clear to what degree Chekhov endorsed Alexander Arkhipovich’s claim (in ‘An Awkward Business’) that ‘It’s only among professional people and peasants – at the two poles of society, in other words – that one finds honest, sober, reliable workers nowadays,’ but isn’t it interesting that he chooses rural settings, precisely where he may best concentrate upon these two classes. My suspicion is that, like Kuzmichov, Chekhov accepts the practicality of the class system. Social revolution is regarded skeptically, while the system, though evidently flawed, is at least valued as a source of social stability. Those characters who do accomplish a sort of revolution, for instance the protagonist in ‘The Cobbler and the Devil,’ find the results disastrous. The cobbler sells his soul to the devil in exchange for riches, but because he has not risen to his position through his own efforts, but instead by a sort of trickery, he is unable to fill his social position credibly. Despite his riches, he is still at heart a cobbler. When he wakes to find the whole thing was a dream, he joyfully accepts his humble lot. He has learned it’s where he belongs.

The Chekhov I am inferring may today sound reactionary, but we should recall the sort of ideas which were about in the 1890s. Social Darwinism was in ascendance in America, Germany, and Russia – to cite only the most historically significant manifestations. One of Chekhov’s late stories, ‘The Duel,’ repudiates proto-fascist notions about the lower classes, i.e., that they are degenerate and must be sacrificed to the greater good. Chekhov had no kind feeling for this point of view. Here however we may introduce another characteristic of Chekhov’s fiction, that it is almost oblivious to the stirrings of what has come to be called Modernism. A rural setting allowed Chekhov to explore the Russian class system, but the exploration is devoid of what really matters, from a modern point of view. I am referring to the conditions of urban life, the urban proletariat, the aristocracy, and mass society. His fiction looks backward, or tries to ignore the march of history altogether. Considered in its historical context, Chekhov’s decision to write mostly about peasants and gentlemen is remarkable.

I should address the accusation that Chekhov cannot be judged by today’s standard. Modernism did not come along until after his death, so how can he be expected to have written about it? I believe this accusation is misplaced, because clearly Chekhov did see what was happening. He knew that something one of his characters calls the ‘in-betweeners’ was emerging between peasant and gentleman (likely a reference to the rural bourgeoisie, known also as Kulaks or miroyed), and he knew about conditions of life in the cities. The point is, these did not interest him as a writer. He must also have been aware of grievances against the tsar, of the ‘Land and Freedom’ movements, and of the growing state repression of reform efforts. Nonetheless, Russia in 1890, for Chekhov, is farm labour, violent weather, inns, and samovars. ‘Upper classes’ means country priests, doctors, and clerical workers: in other words, gentlemen who have been educated out of the peasant class. As I’ve remarked earlier, these are the only two classes of person you’ll find. Chekhov also gives us murderous criminals, madmen, and exiles, but these are people outside society. They serve as a foil to his chief interests. Nor does class as such seem to be his concern. The peasants complain of their lot, and their suffering is presented sympathetically, but with a suggestion that it is inevitable, given their ignorance. There is no hint of the political struggles that culminated in the 1917 Revolution – struggles, one should note, that had been going on for many decades. One encounters the odd peasant rant against ‘the rich,’ as in the story ‘New Villa’ for instance, but we are never encouraged to take these comments seriously. Class oppression does not seem to be the problem for Chekhov, who himself had shown you could move about in Russian society if you had talent and a bit of gumption.

I am tempted to say that Chekhov’s fiction is informed by something akin to ‘classical liberalism’ or ‘meritocracy,’ but neither term is quite appropriate. I do think nonetheless that the stories imply a rejection of social reform (especially revolution) and that they treat ‘social problems’ as a matter of the individual. The world is recognized as a cruel and harsh place, and the poor are shown to have it badly. But Chekhov suggests that nothing can be done for them which will alter the fact of their poverty; alas, there must forever be peasants. One cannot read ‘New Villa’ without getting this message rather clearly. If the odd, individual peasant has talent and education, he may become a professional. In any case, the system will sort things out and people will end up where they belong, either among the peasants or gentlemen. Note that some, like Chekhov’s cobbler, will belong at the bottom and will only be harmed by artificial arrangements that put them elsewhere. The end result of the system may be harsh – will probably be harsh – and you may not like it, but such is life. That is the apparent moral of many a Chekhov story. Chekhov believed in private philanthropy and the obligations of rank (he helped to organize famine relief), and his story ‘My Wife’ shows he found the gentry’s mere lipservice to these deplorable. But the fact of wealth and poverty does not seem to have bothered him, so long as everyone bore his social rank with dignity and treated others kindly. The people who flout this principle get Chekhov’s harshest treatment. One however should not mistake the harshness as the sentiment of a reformer. If I am correct, Chekhov’s fiction offers us a qualified and careful apology for the class system.

All of this no doubt sounds familiar. Something like the ideology I have been describing is emerging as the official political consensus in all the industrialized countries, including Canada. Already it is the dominant view in America. Put crudely, the beliefs are that social reform has been attempted and found misguided, most of the poor are the authors of their condition and aren’t helped by the state regardless, one’s social position is a matter of merit, the individual alone is responsible for his or her fate, and the best one can do is to alleviate suffering through private philanthropy. Along with the emphasis upon the individual we find renewed attention to education, crime, and the family. When the system is conceived as a mere collection of individuals, issues such as personal crime (as opposed to corporate crime), private education, and personal moral values will come to the surface. The behaviour of the individual will become the substance of reform. Class conflict, structural unemployment, systemic racism, and other such grand reformist catch-phrases will recede to the margins of public discourse. The system will be of little political concern. Reformation of the subject will be the political object. (June 1998)