On Reading Tyranny
Besides, I object to the whole debasing notion of “value.” Literature is not a stock. Reading, like sex, has all sorts of secondary benefits: empathy, bonding, and (at least in the case of sex), children. But we practice it for the pleasure. Art, like love, often receives, but is in no need of market justification.
Still, after the election of 2016, I found myself turning to books for something other than sheer enjoyment.
Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason, believed Novalis. Might it also, I wondered, heal those inflicted by politics?
I had, in November of 2016, been about halfway through Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton. But after the election, I found I could no longer read about American politics, no matter how far removed the events described were from my era.
I dropped Cher now and picked up Horace, returning to a collection of contemporary translations of the odes edited by J.D. McClatchy and published in 2002. It’s a lovely and settling volume that had served me well through other, more personal crises (“Why do you worry the infinite question with your finite mind?”) Now I turned to ode II.13 translated by Rosanna Warren:
He planted you on a malignant day, whoever
First tamped your roots down, tree; with a cursed hand
He raised you to blight the future
And shame the countryside.
Yeah! Take that, you malignant Tree Trump. Instantly, I felt less alone.
After Horace, I started keeping a list. I labeled my file, rather dramatically, “Books for the Coming Autocracy.” And in the beginning it included: How Propaganda Works, by Jason Stanley; The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth; It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis; 935 lies: The future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity by Charles Lewis; The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt; Natural Right and History, by Leo Strauss; Bells in Winter by Czeslaw Milosz; Maps by Nuruddin Farah and The Man Without a Face, by Masha Gessen.
Some are books I wanted to re-read. Some are books I never got around to reading. And some are new books that I plan to read. I add to the original list almost weekly, knowing that I would need many lifetimes to get to all of them. The latest entries: American War by Omar El Akkad and The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch.
But as the weeks (and tweets) wore on, without really a design or plan for my reading, I found myself gravitating mostly to nonfiction. And specifically to histories analyzing the rise of Stalin and Hitler. This was less a statement of our current leader – I’m not trying to make ridiculous comparisons here – than a reflection of fears inspired by a president who reveals himself more historically unaware by the day.
Art and learning won’t save the world. But ignorance can actually get us killed.
It seems an unfair calculus. But that’s how it works. So I read on, with no clear purpose, but filled with a desire to know more, to try to ensure that at least I wouldn’t become part of the problem. I suppose in some ways – and though I hope never to use the knowledge – I was also reading to teach myself how to be a victim.
Early in Svetlana Alexievich’s stunning Secondhand Time, a Kremlin insider cynically tells her “Who has the real truth? As far as I understand, the truth is something that’s sought out by specially trained experts: judges, scholars, priests. Everyone else is ruled by ambition and emotions [A pause.] I’ve read your books…You shouldn’t put so much stock in what people say, in human truth…History records the lives of ideas. People don’t write it, time does. Human truth is just a nail that everybody hangs their hats on.”
Alexievich’s work provides an elegant, if tragic, riposte. Over 470 pages, we get an unforgettable history of the Soviet Union as told through its opponents, apologists and, most movingly, its victims.
Many years have passed…half a century…but I’ve never forgotten that woman. She had two kids. Little ones. She’d hidden a wounded partisan in her cellar. Someone informed on them…They hanged the entire family in the middle of the village. The children first…Her screams! They weren’t human, they were animal…Should people risk making such sacrifices? I couldn’t tell you. [Silence.] Today, people who weren’t there write about the war. I don’t read any of it…Forgive me, but I can’t.
Alexievich’s painstaking search for truth at the human level gives lie to the notion that history “records the lives of ideas” and affirms, instead, the wisdom of Ariel Dorfman who wrote: “When we look back at the past we need to be reminded that ultimately history comes down to real human beings, men and women who are grievously affected … one by one by one.”
I picked up Timothy Snyder’s slim pamphlet “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” on the advice of a friend and read it in a single nerve-jangled sitting.
“History does not repeat,” Snyder writes in the very first line, “but it does instruct.”
He goes on to warn: “Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so.”
Yes, he does seem to go a bit overboard at times: “Will we in retrospect see the elections of 2016 much as Russians see the elections of 1990, or the Czechs the elections of 1946, or Germans the elections of 1932?”
But just when I’m tempted to dismiss “On Tyranny” as overreaction, Trump invites the sinister dictator of the Philippines to the White House, calls the U.S. Constitution “archaic” and labels yet another negative report “Fake News.”
If you know history, you cannot help but flinch. “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts,” Arendt warned us years ago.
Snyder has nicely updated the sentiment: “Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle.”
“On Tyranny” led me to Snyder’s earlier work, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, which I had missed when it came out in 2010.
Snyder, in Bloodlands, reminds us of the danger of political polarization. Hitler was able to dismiss all his opponents as “communists” and Stalin his opponents as “fascists”, effectively neutralizing dissent by stamping an ideology on it.
But the book is less a history than a harrowing tally of those who suffered through it. The book’s form, Snyder writes in the preface “arises not from the political geography of empires but from the human geography of victims.”
And so very early in the book, we are introduced to the politics of starvation that Stalin unleashed on Ukraine in 1932. We are introduced to little Petrus.
In one village in the Kharkiv region, several women did their best to look after children. As one of them recalled, they formed “something like an orphanage.” Their wards were in a pitiful condition: “The children had bulging stomachs; they were covered in wounds, in scabs; their bodies were bursting. We took them outside, we put them on sheets, and they moaned. One day the children suddenly fell silent, we turned around to see what was happening and they were eating the smallest child, little Petrus. They were tearing strips from him and eating them. And Petrus was doing the same, he was tearing strips from himself and eating them, he ate as much as he could. The other children put their lips to his wounds and drank his blood. We took the child away from the hungry mouths and we cried.”
“Oh my god, don’t read these things to me!” my husband cried when I came to the end.
But we need to read it. We need to hear it.
We need to continually face down the darkness inside us. We need reminding that war is absolute hell – not a game of chicken, not something to be “negotiated” not the thing we resort to when a “deal” falls through.
War is hunger and death. War is a baby washed on a beach, a father holding his dead twins. War is a child eating his own flesh.
“Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it,” wrote Arendt. All great art traffics in complexity, rejects simple moral rules and shows us models of how we ourselves may deal with a perplexing and often violent existence.
Literature doesn’t simply add value to our lives. Literature is our lives – with all its ugliness and cruelty and love and hope. And the gift it offers is the knowledge that others have come before us on these same paths, suffered the same questions and ultimately found solace in a story, a fragment of history, a verse of poetry.
The experience of reading Bloodlands is akin to a terrifying fever dream. What happened to us? Page after page recounts orgies of murder. The world had gone insane. But even in the midst of utter depravity, there were decent people.
From them, too, we can learn how to be a victim.
“As during the Soviet starvation campaign of 1933,” writes Snyder, “during the German starvation campaign of 1941 many local people in Ukraine did their best to help the dying.”
Women would pretend that men were relatives and arrange their release. Sometimes they’d marry a prisoner to secure his freedom. Camp laborers would leave bags in the street on their way to work and would return to find them full of food.
“Women (the reports are almost always of women) would try to feed the prisoners during the death marches or in the camps.”
If literature can’t save us, at least it can remind us of what is worth saving: a hungry child, a wounded victim or sometimes, as Milosz suggests, our own mysterious selves.
In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent:
A thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us,
So we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out
And stood in the light, lashing his tail.
Ana Menéndez has published four books of fiction and is an editor-at-large for the Miami Rail.