Wednesday, July 8, 2009

on Russia

In my mind's eye, I see that country's vast greatness. I'm up there like a raven winging over the countryside. Just like that long opening shot in Bondarchuk's 1967 film version of War and Peace or that extended (and very strange) sequence in Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev, with the hot-air balloon soaring over the lakes, streams, and muted terrain.

Russia is an incubator of melancholy. Just ask Rachmaninoff – listen to his aching Preludes or his piano concertos…or the 2nd Symphony. It is the passionate home to Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6. And most wondrous strange is the ineffable music of Alexander Scriabin -- emotion become aural colors. What could be more sobering and spiritually devastating than the death dance of a young maiden, sacrificing herself in prehistory so that the tribe might survive? Stravinsky conjured this scenario out of the collective Slavic consciousness for his Le Sacre du Printemps.

Russia has suffered indescribable shocks. Germanic invasion centuries ago, as well as a more recent violation. The resilience of the Russian heart is unique. And the world owes the people of Russia its undying gratitude for their defeat of the Nazis. The shocks also come from within. The Stalinist nightmare was a wrenching time for a population weary from abuse. Shostakovich's powerful 10th Symphony is a comment on the pain and scars of that great self-mutilation, as well as an affirmation of indefatigable spirit.

What other oven could raise the yeast of art to the profound level of a Kandinsky? The world approaches numinous revelation through his canvases. As the human brain receives multiple stimuli, it eventually processes these, thus the world, into a simplified shape. Kandinsky traced those signals back through the collective hippocampus, so to speak, and gave us a glimpse of an unfiltered reality. Even our moribund sense of time shatters into shards of teeming significance in his pictures. Dull representation is lifted into higher, truer abstract realms. Thank you, Russia.

And of course, we must not leave out the writers. Among them, Dostoevsky has touched me the deepest. I've read his major novels several times and gain further enrichment with each cycle. I also have a deep affinity for his shorter work Notes from Underground. I've felt like that ridiculous man below the floorboards most of my life. Dostoevsky's novels are serious probings of human psychology and social disquietude. Yet they are sprinkled with episodes of hilarity. One laughs as much as one weeps while reading The Possessed (variously titled Demons).

The people of Russia are not our enemies. Never have been. Only governments fabricate enemies.