Tag Archives: Russia

Introducing Ken Detective

Ken Detective takes the last of the bourbon. He of broad shoulders, square chin, chaws chaws the glass to tabletop, until a waitress arrives on a circuit that will soon return her bearing another.

Ken Detective eyes the courtyard. Birds fall from the clouds to walk the earth. The birds tell men secrets of sky-gods. The birds whisper to the sky-gods tales of human disappointment: the corn that does not grow, the infertile wife, the idiot President. The gods are bored but also indifferent. They do not listen. They have witnessed the efforts of men, Icarus on his waxy feathers, Neil Armstrong tumbling through space in a bucket. Long ago they decided that mankind is absurd. The birds return to earth, where the impotent men take note of their flight or eviscerate them, spilling the entrails for divination.

Today the birds reveal nothing to Ken Detective. The only thing certain is that the President, Mr Crusher, is a dangerous idiot. Detective takes the last of the bourbon, chaw chaws on the table, awaits his blessed comet of booze. The bar is dark, and if not for him it would be empty also, an ebony nothingness where no comet would bother to go. A good thing that he likes the darkness, likes to hunt it down, to invigilate it for intel. His best work, the real and true art of his occupation, happens in back alleys and taverns. Ken Detective has no use for the bright nonsense of men and their lucent delusions, or for people in general, unless they have information to spill. Then, by all means, find a dark place to slice em open. Shed some light on a shady subject.
*
The President is a shady character, a narcissistic con artist with a lot of low friends in high places. Russian mafia, Chinese crooks., pimps, hustlers, dirty operatives. The kind of people your mother told you to steer clear of when you were a child. You know the type: grubby and snotty-nosed lowlife bastards who pulled to the curb and offered you candy. Hucksters and shysters, perverts, liars, and creeps. All the President’s men. I haven’t nailed him yet, but jesus I will I swear, on whatever you got in those pockets of yours. I’ll get the bugger, if it’s the last act and the curtain is hitting me in the face. Shit on my corpse and never speak of me again if I don’t.

The thing about being a detective is you care about the facts like you care about oxygen and the kind attentions of a pretty woman. It’s in me like the piss and vinegar is in me, like the bourbon is in me, and although it burns and sometimes makes me go mad, I keep coming back for more. If I have to crack a head for my facts, by god I’ll crack a head. It’s only business. I get to the bottom, and sometimes, my friend, the bottom is a long way down. Not many men have the iron for it, I’ll tell you that. Look at the folks who went punch drunk mad building the Brooklyn bridge, diving and surfacing, diving and re-surfacing, until their brains turned to mush. But I ain’t like that, somehow. I keep on going, I push, I go to the bottom. And I come up and do it again, and then again some more, because the drive is in me. If there’s anything I hate it’s an up-to-no-good liar, covering his lying ass with a sack of lies. I want to kick that ass clear all the way to damn hell. So because I have it in me that’s the thing I’m going to do, so help me god.
*
Ken Detective takes the last of the bourbon and rises, dropping a bill on the table. He has an appointment in a dark place, with a fellow whose head just might need some cracking.

Yes Mister President Yes

Through the fence between the curling flower spaces the ones who make the words the mean words can see us hitting later they bring me the papers the papers papers papers and I tell them I say Enough of the fucking papers no papers tell me in words use your fucking words the fucking words FUCKING not papers and they say Everything is good Mister President the people love you they say which they do I think so yes the people love me but how do I know well there are the rallies my huge rallies they adore me and clap and hold up signs I hear nice words nice and they love me they all do every one of them they adore me and they wear hats and shirts with my name CRUSHER my name me they love me at my rallies me love me how I wish I were there now instead of here on the floor they have hidden the remote control again perhaps under a chair or carpet so I will crawl along the ground feeling for the remote and my phone is gone also where could it be I must make the words that go out into the world the words for my people the people love me the news is all good they tell me this they say You are doing a fabulous job Mister President and Look here Fox News is saying nice things about you Mister President You are a good President and Yes I say I am a good President so good only inside that feeling like fire or smashing things falling falling I sweat and soon my hands are pounding pounding pounding they should love me all of them I am pounding why do they not love me everything coming apart to pieces I hate them all what is going to happen it is all going wrong now I am Crusher the greatest CRUSHER no one is smarter or stronger than I am I always win I will win I will crush them they will see now the television is on I see bright pictures faces moving nice people talking will they be nice to me are they nice people or mean people nice or mean I go to that place now I am hitting the ball and it goes wheeeeeeeeeee up into the air and falls falls somewhere up the fairway under a blue sky a steak and ketchup fries gold the people love me I am everywhere on the newspapers the televisions everywhere the gold of my home steak I hit the ball I am happy the people love me they adore me they are mean they are mean to me so I hit back I hit them HIT HIT HIT HIT HIT them they are fucking mean they are mean I HIT them FUCK FUCKING FUCK these motherfucking No Mister President they say Please Mister President Give us the phone I am shouting FUCK then pick pick pick words pick pick pick words it is full to 140 that means it is full and it is done pick it is done the words out in the world I HIT HIT HIT them the ball into the air I am calm now there the ball is in the air it is up in the blue sky I breathe where is the ball I can breathe ah the ball and steak and ketchup and fries and ice cream I am calm the people say They love you Mister President and it’s true I think it is true what is this I am hearing words I hear words I hear them say Crusher I hear them say words names I hear mean words bad people FUCK FUCK my hands pounding YOU ARE FIRED FUCK poundingpounding Please Mister President they say Please sit Look your picture here look the words are nice about you they are nice words about you love the people love love warm it is warm Please Mister President they are saying Look at the nice picture and then I am calm I hit the ball wheeeeeeeeeee look! it goes up into the air they take the flag out and I am hitting then they put the flag back and we go to the table and I hit and the other hits and I crawl on my hands and knees looking for the remote the phone I am crawling Listen at you now Lester says Was it on account of them Russians Lester Holt says I can see him now up on the TV he is nice Yes I say the Russians Yes I say Yes

Talk Amongst Yourself: Podcast 75

Week of 09.01.2017
Podcasts

How CNN and BuzzFeed Failed | The Women’s Clothing Store Man’s Oasis | Ronald Reagan Revisited | An Interview with Me | Toronto’s Indigenous Business District

The Roundtable Podcast 75

The Roundtable Podcast 58

Week of 28.12.2013

2013

Thousands across eastern Canada still in the dark | Stephen Harper thanks ‘brave men and women in uniform’ in annual Christmas message | Canada departs Afghanistan in 100 days | Featured Article: The Corporate “Free Speech” Racket – How corporations are using the First Amendment to destroy government regulation | Associated Press announces Top 10 stories of 2013 | Music: Ian and Sylvia, “Got No More Home Than A Dog” | Edward Snowden says government surveillance now far worse than George Orwell’s 1984 envisioned | Activists clear to come home after Russian charges dropped | Wisconsin Has So Much Cheese They’re Using it to De-Ice the Roads | Botched circumcision allegations against Quebec doctor grow | 27 Things to Leave Behind in 2014

Download entire podcast (320 kbps mp3) | Visit The Roundtable on Facebook.

The Roundtable Podcast 50!

Week of 18.08.2013

Califone

Egypt mulling Muslim Brotherhood ban as forces storm Islamist-held mosque | The U.S. government has finally confirmed the existence of Area 51 | Canada’s military forced to accept fatter, less educated recruits as demographics change, audit reveals | Senators are partisans, appointed for life. How could that not go wrong? | Recommended Article: 4 biggest myths about crack | Chinese zoo accused of trying to pass off dog as African lion | Meet the Mayoral Candidate Who Believes Russia Will Vanquish the Antichrist | Music: Califone “A Thin Skin of Bullfight Dust” (from the album Stitches, out September 3) | Police probe Mayor Rob Ford friends who sought crack video | Extensive Timelines Of Slang For Genitalia | H&M pulls headdresses from Canadian shelves after complaints | B.C. bedroom dentist was headed to Toronto, officials say

Download entire podcast (320 kbps mp3) | Visit The Roundtable on Facebook.

Putin victory carries Russians forward into the past

WHEN IN THE final days of his anti-climactic election campaign Vladimir Putin sought the blessing of the Theotokos of Tikhvin, he confirmed symbolically an attachment both to the Russian Orthodox Church and the czarist tradition. Add to the pious optics of this gesture the state dominated, and eastern Europe dominating, megacorporation Gazprom as well as the country’s informal ‘silovik’ network of former security operatives—embedded into the country’s banking, commercial, media, and energy sectors—and one would have in a single photo-op a complete representation of the current Russian state.

Continued …

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.