A New Face in the Snakepit (15)

XV. Victory was an ambiguous concept, that Stalin always had trouble dealing with. He had been successful before: he had managed to escape deportation to Siberia for a second time, by becoming an informer and betraying his comrades; he had been part of the efficient Communist takeover of power in Russia, and the absolute destruction of the only liberal regime the country had ever known; he had triumphed in internal party squabbles, by sending untold numbers to atrocious deaths, and had become undisputed leader of one of the most powerful states on Earth. Yet, he didn’t consider himself a man of success, and the years after 1943, full of accolades and accomplishments, were some of the hardest in his contradictory life.

While the Nazi and Japanese empires shrunk slowly in their respective, unstoppable agonies, the leaders of the new Allied Powers met in a series of conferences, in Moscow, Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam, to design the new world that would result from the eventual defeat of the enemy. These high-level talks were tough challenges for Stalin, as the Western leaders Churchill and, particularly, Roosevelt were more than willing to recognise the Soviet contribution to the war by surrendering much of Europe to the advancing Red Army; and Stalin was faced with the complicated task of rebuffing these generous offers without triggering even better revised proposals.

At that point, the Red Army had become the biggest problem for Stalin’s strategy of minimizing Soviet gains: confounding his expectations, the Soviet troops quickly pushed the Axis out of the Soviet borders, and then kept advancing in all directions, in what looked like a reverse flood to the earlier Fascist wave. Stalin tried to slow the campaign by ordering an unnecessary thrust southwards to the Balkans, against the advice of the Soviet chiefs of staff; and the thrust turned into a complete success, and the Communist takeover of the Balkans, even as the much reduced divisions on Poland kept advancing towards Berlin, smashing the German defenses without a second thought.

Easter Europe was already a Soviet playground; Roosevelt and Churchill had accepted the facts on the ground, and Stalin eventually did so too. There came the day when the news came that Berlin had fallen to the Red Army, Hitler had killed himself. The war was over, and the Soviet Union had won, absolutely.

XVI. In 1945, Stalin was a frail man nearing his seventh decade. He was tired, and frustrated: his continued efforts over the last four years had only served to strengthen the Soviet Union and, indeed, to turn it into one of two untouchable superpowers, with much control over the newly created United Nations and a whole bloc of “satellite” countries where Soviet divisions and local communists were working to ensure a full, speedy sovietization. Despite the great purges, and the famines, the disastrous collectivization process, the alliance with the Fascist powers that had given them the head-start in the recently finished war, the imprisonment and murder of just about every kind of citizen, the international terrorism that had killed Trotsky, the Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera and many others, despite the Katyn massacre, the Soviet Union thrived. Indeed, he wondered whether the whole world had grown convinced that there was “something great and bold,” as Bukharin put it, about such a naked display of nefariousness.

Stalin knew he was running out of energy. For the first time in a decade, he found serious opposition in a key issue, when the Politburo in full balked at his plans to stop the Soviet nuclear drive by eliminating the Nazi scientists in charge of the project. For a while, he toyed with the idea of launching another great purge, including a large element of boldness in it, and replace the entire Politburo with more pliant lackeys. However, he already had the top boot-lickers of the state in the Politburo: any change wouldn’t necessarily be for the best, and would very likely be for worse, given that the creation of the Soviet Nuclear Bomb was the one project that had achieved genuine, widespread support among all the Soviet society. Besides, he just couldn’t be bothered with conspirations and hushed instructions, and the prospect of dealing with some more back-stabbing in the Kremlin bored him to no end. And there was also the issue in question: the Americans already had the bomb, which meant that the British would soon have it. If the Soviet Union didn’t make one for itself quick, there was a real danger that the new American president, or the next one, would gamble on a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union – after all, the period of good relations between both countries had been short-lived, and was already turning into what some smart-asses called a “Cold War,” particularly due to the emergence of copy-cat revolutionary Communist movements all over the world. Hard as he thought, Stalin couldn’t see any moral improvement in letting the U.S. exterminate several Soviet cities, over having the Soviet state doing the extermination by itself. A nuclear balance, even if risky, would surely be healthier, and more comfortable for the few years that Stalin had left.

Stalin started to spend a long time watching cinema and visiting his dachas outside of Moscow. He saw his favorite movie – Boys’ Town, an American 1938 movie starring Spencer Tracy – over twenty times. That movie was about a priest who rehabilitates juvenile delinquents, and most of it is set in a kind of re-education camp, and Stalin also enjoyed Soviet movies about camps, which he found quaint and straight to the point; he loved Jolly Fellows, a 1934 Soviet movie about a local Jewish jazzman, Leonid Utyosov: a true rarity. He had a fondness for comedy, mostly international since Soviet comedy films were scarce, and spent some time trying to get a few decent local comedies shot for the benefit of the masses. His efforts were vain, and the results dispiriting.

Politics didn’t stop while Stalin enjoyed himself. By 1948, the Communist Bloc had been fully formed, and included such exotic additions as Albania, a majority Muslim country; and North Korea, ruled by a sort of madman who spent much of the last war in Soviet territory, intent on staying well clear of the Japanese army occupying his country. Stalin didn’t care: he had left such faraway concerns to the care of several Poliburo members who strove for influence like a pack of wild, bespectacled dogs fighting for a single bone. His only interest on issues like the civil war raging in Greece or the Vietnamese war against the French colonial troops was a factor of Kremlin squabbles: if they motivated such and such ministry to bicker and face off with opposing plans, he watched the dispute in search for humorous moments.

Stalin did retain a taste for bureaucratic jokes. Thus, at first he thought that the decision by the Yugoslavian dictator to break away from the Communist Bloc was some sort of prank. In fact, he had always thought that the Yugoslavian’s dictator nickname, “Tito”, was mildly laughable, and fitter for a clown or an entertainer. A professional ballroom dancer, maybe. But no: “Tito” was serious about the separation, he was told. Perhaps they should do something about it.

The Yugoslavian “crisis” refocused Stalin on high politics: he ordered reports about the situation in other European satellite states, and found to his satisfaction that the situation was uniformly bad.

Where the Communists didn’t rule – France, Italy, Greece – they were popular and taken as effective. The British government had actually given Stalin a Sword of Honour to commemorate the Stalingrad battle of all things, in a sign of understanding towards the Soviet pact with Hitler that led to the invasion of Poland, a British ally that was now an unhappy Soviet fiefdom. The Labour Party had won the first post-war elections in Britain, kicking Churchill off his seat, and several Labour figures had visited Moscow to deliver speeches in which they hinted, with delicious British understatement, that the victory of Socialism, in whichever shape, was inevitable.

Such enthusiasm for the cause was lacking in most Eastern European countries. The Yugoslavs had broken away, and there was talk of restlessness in Hungary and Romania. The Communist bloc appeared to be slowly, satisfyingly crumbling, at least on the European side of things. At the same time, the situation in China was, maddeningly, quite the opposite, and the local Communists led by Mao Zedong were defeating the U.S.-supported Nationalist Party. In 1949, the Communist victory in China was complete and the Chinese Nationalist government took refuge in the island of Taiwan, a former Japanese colony. Stalin saw some possibilities for mischief there: the Americans were pining for a fight against the rising Red tide, and the North Koreans, in plain ignorance of emerging Cold War conventions, were pining for a chance to occupy South Korea.

Stalin gave the green light, and the North Koreans invaded in 1950, taking everyone by surprise. The coup was completed soon thereafter, when Stalin ordered the Soviet representative in the U.N. Security Council to abstain from attending the meeting where the crisis was discussed: that left the way open for the Americans to secure a favorable vote and send U.N. troops – mostly Americans – to defend South Korea.

Throughout 1951, Stalin observed the events in the Korean peninsula with great interest: for a while, he despaired of the Americans’ ability to stop the quick North Korean advance, but then the Americans completely reversed the trend, with an audacious landing in the western coast that allowed them to retake Seoul and, in a matter of days, the North Korean capital Pyongyang. At that point, Stalin attended several Politburo frenzied meetings, where anxious hardliners called for a Soviet intervention on behalf of the North Koreans, seeking to avoid the complete collapse of the Soviet client. Stalin flatly refused to act.

“I’ll take all the blame,” he repeated, with half a smile.

Eventually it was the Chinese who intervened for their own reasons, causing Stalin some disappointment, even as he took all the credit for his remarkable sang-froid: after all, the Communist bloc would fight for Korea, to the last Chinese. For several months, the Korean war proved entertaining, as the Chinese pulled the U.N. troops back towards Seoul, and then took the South Korean capital again – for just a brief time, before the Americans counter-attacked and the front stabilized around the 1950 border.

Stalin had hoped for a stiff beating and swift disappearance of the annoying North Korean regime. Instead of that, he had secured its survival behind a wall of Chinese bodies. Once again, things had not gone according to the plan, and his foray into international politics had proved useless at best.With a heavy heart, he went back to the one proven scheme that had never failed: a new purge was needed.

XVII. Stalin was energized by the realisation that it had been a long time since the last purge, what with the world war and Nazi invasion, and the Soviet people were growing complacent on the inability of the state to murder them and make their lives miserable. He understood that a political purge would not do: it wouldn’t be the first; it would appear a matter of routine. It had to be something conceptually different, worse, so he came to the idea of an ethnic purge.

An ethnic purge had a key advantage: foreigners had to care about it, after the recent Nazi butchery and the Soviet misbehavior with non-compliant Caucasian minorities during the war had lowered the standards for shock. And there was a perfect victim for the new purge: a group that was influential, well-known, recently targeted by similar atrocities, and key for the Soviet economy (so the effects of the purge would be even more acute). A group that was well accustomed to purges.

The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 had provided the perfect excuse: Stalin hadn’t opposed it, out of disinterest for the whole matter, but then it looked as if Israel was becoming an American ally, and Israel’s enemies – that is, the entire group of Arab states – good Soviet friends. Stalin reasoned that such conditionals had to ensure acceptance on the part of the Politburo, no matter how reluctant or qualified: surely they couldn’t put their narrow preferences for not purging such or such ethnic group ahead of Soviet interests.

And so Stalin started his last purge: the purge of the Jews.

Stalin’s idea took everyone by surprise and, by the time a significant group of Politburo worthies had started to organise opposition to the purge, it already had some bureaucratic momentum and a catchy slogan: it wasn’t simply an anti-Jewish drive, one more pogrom in the long Russian history of abuse: it was a campaign against “rootless cosmopolitans.”

Many in the Politburo, including heavyweights like Beria, Khruschev, Malenkov and Bulganin, expressed open dismay: the Soviet Union was a nuclear superpower now, able to appoint pro-consuls all over the world and coerce dozens of countries with just a warning. It was a well-respected country with a dignity to defend, and Stalin’s latest excursion into chaos was inappropiate for such a lofty status; actually, it was more like a 1930s leftover: like one the political brawls that Stalin had used to clear the way, with the enthusiastic help of then young proteges with little to lose (then), like Beria, Khruschev, Malenkov and Bulganin.

Elevated views of the Soviet station in the world were one factor behind high-level opposition to the purge; another factor was of a more down-to-earth nature: the Politburo naysayers were married to Jews, or had Jews among their most trusted aides, or depended on Jewish doctors to stay somewhat healthy, or had been informed that many of the Soviet top scientists, including most of those involved in the all-important nuclear program, were Jews. Or, in same cases, were included in all of the above categories. Thus, the Politburo started to work, in secret, in a plan to get rid of the aged, troublesome revolutionary hero who just couldn’t stay put.

Weeks of subterranean political struggle followed, and Stalin came up with another idea to smooth the acceptance of the purge: the “Doctors’ Plot,” where he presented forged evidence that many of those beloved Soviet-Jewish doctors, including Stalin’s own physicians, had been murdering key Soviet and allied officials to further the interests of Israel and, by extension, the U.S.

The concept of a medical plot was arresting, if absurd. It had its own power, and served to cause some weakening of the emerging anti-Stalin coalition. Some victims were handed for public opprobium, to Stalin’s satisfaction: on December 3, 1952, a committee for the defense of the Rosenbergs – a couple of Soviet spies, of Jewish extraction, caught in the U.S. after they had obtained valuable information on the U.S. nuclear program – was formed in France, following instructions of the local communist party; the same day, Rudolf Slansky and ten other former leaders of the Czech Communist Party were executed in Prague after a trial plagued with the grossest kind of anti-Semitic innuendo.

However, the Politburo had resolved to minimize damage: it was fine to kill Slansky and other foreign communists on trumped-up charges, but not to go down the same dangerous road in the Kremlin. One month later, the Truth newspaper published an article under the toxic headline “Vicious Spies and Killers under the Mask of Academic Physicians,” and the Politburo put in motion its plan to poison Stalin.

The poisoning plan had the best quality of all successful plots, including the one that had eliminated Trotsky: it was simple. Nothing fancy was attempted. Beria picked warfarin, a powerful rat poison that inhibits coagulation of the blood and tends to bring about cerebral hemorrhage, a perfectly reasonable affection for a seventy-four year old man. Plus, warfarin is flavorless, and was easily administrated without Stalin’s noticing anything at all. Even as hundreds of Jews of all walks of Soviet life were arrested and sent to camps during February, 1953, Stalin was heavily dosed with the knowledge all of the members of the Politburo standing committee.

On March 1, Stalin suffered his first stroke after a heavy dinner with his secret murderers. He remained in his room for the next three days, as carefully selected non-Jewish doctors shuffled in and out without much purpose. Khruschev and the rest barely survived the uncertainty: consumed by excitement and fear, they eventually agreed to send in Beria, Stalin’s fellow Georgian.

As he entered Stalin’s room, alone, Beria saw something was wrong: the old man was breathing almost normally, and even showed some signs of consciousness. Beria had been efficiently trained, and he quickly dropped to his knees and kissed his master’s hand. Stalin tried to say something in Georgian (“you dirty old monster”) but failed to complete the sentence. He was very weak, and fell unconscious again, so Beria immediately stood and spat – on the carpet next to the bed, carefully avoiding the bed itself.

Something had to be done to end that long, terrifying agony. So Beria grabbed a large pillow and covered Stalin’s face, pushing with all his strength. As he suffocated, Stalin recovered consciousness for the briefest of moments, and understood that it was Beria himself who was killing him – him, the greatest leader in Soviet history, was being murdered by a fellow Politburo member, in the Kremlin! And Beria would surely get away with it! Stalin died quietly, in the sweet certainty that his work had been completed.

Posted in A New Face in the Snakepit | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Sin Título (no, en serio)

Leo en el TLS (28 Noviembre 2016) un largo artículo sobre la problemática de los títulos de cuadro: cómo en el mundo anglosajón se prefiere llamar Mona Lisa a lo que los italianos conocen como La Gioconda; cómo mucha gente se queda pensando en si la joven del cuadro tiene una expresión jocunda, sin saber que su marido (probablemente) era Francesco Giocondo, lo que le obligaba a ser Gioconda pusiera la cara que pusiera.

Todo eso me deja pensando en el Congreso de Jóvenes Escritores en Alcalá de Henares al que acudí en 1995, una de las más informativas experiencias de mi vida.

Entre las bastantes cosas que aprendí allí en tres días hay una que me enseñó un Joven Escritor con el que compartí barracón, por así decirlo: que es mejor no poner título a los cuentos o poemas o novelas, que poner uno sólo por que sí. Que uno puede escribir I y II y III, en lugar de infligir al lector un título innecesario. Por ejemplo, está este haiku (se habló mucho de haikus también en aquel congreso, que son como el rap, una moda irritante que parece no acabarse nunca):

Llego al prado

que es verde

y tiene muchas flores.

Dado este material, uno quizá debería escribir Haiku XXXV, por ejemplo, y dejarlo ahí. Lo que sería un pecado, también por ejemplo, sería escribir:


Llego al prado

que es verde

y tiene muchas flores.

Porque el título “El prado verde” no añade más que reiteración. Si uno va de listillo y algo metaliterario, podría escribir:


Llego al prado

que es verde

y tiene muchas flores.

Otra posibilidad, que da un sentido completamente diferente:


Llego al prado

que es verde

y tiene muchas flores.

Luego estaría mi preferencia personal:


Llego al prado

que es verde

y tiene muchas flores.



Posted in Ocurrencias | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A New Face in the Snakepit (14)

XIV. Everything had worked as Stalin expected, but Stalin was surprised by the fierceness of the German attack: in a matter of weeks, the Soviet forward armies, caught in their offensive stance and unprepared for defense, were surrounded and destroyed piecemeal: millions of Soviet soldiers were taken prisoners, and vast regions were occupied by Axis troops.

In some of those regions, say the Baltic countries, the Germans were taken as liberators, and local recruits joined the enemy in large numbers; in other regions, guerrilla groups were formed behind the lines to continue the resistance; in all of them, the Nazi murder machine worked at full speed, sweeping everything on its path.

Over that summer, the front quickly moved closer to Moscow, as the Soviet divisions collapsed one after the other. The Tukhachevsky purge had removed most experienced field commanders from the Red Army, and their positions had been filled with political appointees and friends of several Kremlin factions, whose military skill was unrelated to their military grades. Plus, the invasion had laid bare the inadequacies of the Soviet economy, unable to feed and supply millions of men and women under arms.

Kiev fell, the Axis troops penetrated deep into the Ukraine, and Stalin started to realise that, after all, there was a chance that Hitler’s army wouldn’t simply bleed to death in the Soviet vastness, but could actually succeed and conquer the whole country, or at least its European portion. With a full-blown crisis in his hands, Stalin reorganized several key ministries, and ordered the transfer of entire industries to the Ural region, well east of Moscow, to ensure that the fight would continue even if the capital fell. Useless but well connected generals were stripped of their commands and younger, more capable generals with no political god-parents were appointed to replace them. Stringent, Soviet-style directives were issued to field armies: not another inch would be given up. The German invasion had to be resisted to the last man. The survival of the Soviet Union, and more than that, was at stake.

The crisis lasted well into the Fall, with German armies approaching Moscow from the west, despite the early arrival of wintery cold and snow. However, the German offensive petered off at that point, unable to overcome the weather and the desperate resistance of the Soviet armies packed in front of the capital. Stalin cancelled the emergency plans for an evacuation of the Kremlin; on December 12, he ordered champagne to celebrate the Japanese attack on the American naval base of Pearl Harbor, which forced the U.S. entry in the world war.

With the Americans on board and supplying enormous amounts of military hardware by sea, everything was much easier in 1942. The Axis army mounted a respectable summer offensive that took the front to the downtown of Stalingrad, and the feet of the Caucasus; but the Soviets were well-prepared to hit back, and that they did in September, when Stalin approved two large-scale offensives devised by a young, brilliant general named Zhukov: Operation Uranus sought to roll back the Axis’ central army group just southwest of Moscow, and resulted in a costly fiasco, due to the stiff resistance offered by the German troops there; however, Operation Mars brought about the collapse of Romanian and German armies around the Stalingrad perimeter, and the complete encirclement of hundreds of thousands of top Germans troops inside.

In early 1943, the Sixth German Army of Stalingrad – now reduced to a few tens of thousands of starved, defeated survivors – gave up hope and surrendered. The war was won, even if the Nazis would refuse to concede defeat for two more years.

Posted in A New Face in the Snakepit | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Retrato del artista como Demiurgo, por @mahn

Habiendo leído la muy buena novela Intento de Escapada, de Miguel Angel Hernández, habrá quien piense que pinta un panorama terrible del mundillo del arte, ejemplificado en su mefistofélico protagonista, el Artista Montes. Personalmente, yo creo que se queda corta, pero en la buena dirección, así que no hay quejas. Observa este diálogo entre la “empresaria” cultural de la novela, Helena, y Marcos, el héroe-narrador inocente que descubre todo al tiempo que el lector; Marcos acaba de revelar la existencia del diario de un inmigrante africano, que puede servir de material para una ambiciosa obra de Montes:

Cuando Helena escuchó hablar del diario, abrió los ojos de par en par y exclamó:

–Fantástico, Marcos. Es el material perfecto.

Me sorprendió que utilizase exactamente las mismas palabras que había empleado Montes. El material perfecto.

–Perfecto, sí –dije–. Pero sobre todo tremendo y terrible.

–Claro, claro –corrigió ella–. Una tragedia cotidiana. Eso por encima de todo. Pero Montes la transformará en arte y la hará visible. Es decir, visible de verdad. Una historia no es nada si nadie la cuenta –dijo, abriendo la puerta del bar e invitándome a entrar antes que ella.

Magia. Pensé que el arte no era otra cosa. Magia, ilusionismo, pura prestidigitación. El artista era un mago, pero ya no un alquimista, como quizá había sido en el pasado, sino un prestidigitador, un embaucador y quizá también un equilibrista. El arte contemporáneo no era demasiado distinto al circo y a la feria. Quizá ésa y no otra fuese la verdadera filiación del arte, el espectáculo de las curiosidades, la feria de freaks, con la mujer barbuda, el forzudo y el mago. El arte era el nuevo «pasen y vean». Incluso cuando no había nada para ver o cuando era imposible pasar.

El arte moderno no es solamente el nuevo “pasen y vean”. De hecho, muy pocos pasan y ven (el cine y la música son más de masas en estos tiempos). Lo más relevante del arte moderno es que presenta una religión alternativa; ya que Dios ha muerto, el nuevo santuario está compuesto de Artistas:

La apostasía de la religión antigua es, obviamente, clave para ser admitido en la nueva. A ver quién me cita el nombre de un artista moderno prominente que promueve el Cristianismo (o el Islam). Y la religión nueva tiene una liturgia y un catequismo, sus propios pecados y sus propias penitencias; su propia clerecía.

En un momento dado, Hernández cita un poderoso poema del profeta de la nueva religión Brecht (que transcribo en prosa porque lo merece, como hizo George Orwell con los “Four Quartets” de T.S. Eliot; no tiene rima ni musicalidad, es el típico ejemplo de pieza que sólo quiere ser llamada poema para reclamar la atención del lector):

“Me han contado que en Nueva York, en la esquina de la calle Veintiséis con Broadway, en los meses de invierno, hay un hombre todas las noches que, rogando a los transeúntes, procura un refugio a los desamparados que allí se reúnen. Al mundo así no se le cambia, las relaciones entre los hombres no se hacen mejores. No es ésta la forma de hacer más corta la era de la explotación. Pero algunos hombres tienen cama por una noche, durante toda una noche están resguardados del viento y la nieve a ellos destinada cae en la calle.”

El narrador continúa:

Montes había dicho en más de una ocasión que todo lo que hacía era reproducir el mundo. Pero yo había creído que en el fondo algo cambiaba, que en esa repetición había un cambio, y que «aunque no era ésa la forma de hacer más corta la era de la explotación», «algunos hombres tenían cama por una noche». Sin embargo, tras pensarlo con detenimiento, aquella tarde llegué a la conclusión de que el único que tenía cama era el propio artista. Nadie salía de allí, nadie se resguardaba por una noche, tan sólo el propio artista. Él era el único que guardaba las distancias, el único que lograba no quemarse con la realidad. Porque incluso en las obras en las que arriesgaba su cuerpo, Montes era consciente del lugar que ocupaba. Y ese saber dónde estaba era lo que le permitía mantenerse a salvo.

Posted in Ocurrencias | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

A New Face in the Snakepit (13)

XIII. Trotsky’s grisly murder wasn’t the only commotion of the time for Communist fellow travelers. A few weeks before, the French had got what they had been expecting, and a lightning German offensive had tore through their much-hyped defenses, taking Paris and forcing a speedy withdrawal of the British army on the continent, as well as the creation of a pro-Fascist French government headed by the old World War I hero Petain. Denmark, Holland, Belgium and Norway had been overrun even faster; and the Nazis were the masters of much of continental Europe, with real or potential allies controlling the remaining independent countries.

The strategic situation had turned rather simple: there was a large Nazi-Fascist empire in the middle, with the U.K. isolated in its home islands and the Soviet Union on the other side, uncertain of its position. The biggest uncertainty of all consumed Stalin himself: Hitler was the most formidable enemy the Soviet Union had found in its history, and was apparently capable and willing of destroying the communist state; still, Hitler’s alternative to the Soviet Union was just as unappealing – for once, Stalin felt torn, even inclined to defend the country he led.

On the other hand, he was also aware of other possibilities. The Nazis were conspicuously unable to defeat the U.K., and they had been drawn into an uncertain campaign in Northern Africa, in defense of their troubled Italian allies. They looked close to overstretch themselves, and the United States were inching closer to get involved in the conflict, of course in support of their British brethren. The fresh Nazi empire could easily die of success, just like so many other empires before, if only it were pushed slightly in the right direction: in the direction of boundless expansion in exchange for little or no gain: that is, towards an invasion of the Soviet Union.

The plan was tricky and risky, but it could work – by invading the Soviet Union, Hitler could achieve a rare feat, the destruction of two large totalitarian empires in one single strike. By facing each other, Germany could be exhausted and weakened, left ready to be knocked off by a U.S. intervention; and the effort to stop the Nazis would also drain the Soviet Union of all energy, perhaps taking the country close to collapse.

As Hitler moved into Yugoslavia and Greece, Stalin quickly started to work towards his goal: he ordered all the best Soviet divisions to be redeployed next to the western borders with German-occupied Poland and Romania, in an offensive position just threatening enough to force Hitler to act. At the same time, Stalin instructed Soviet diplomats in Berlin to take an aggressive stance and propose the Germans a new pact they couldn’t but refuse: in exchange for continued neutrality in the conflict against Britain, Germany would force Romania to give up a good slice of its remaining territory to the Soviets, and would allow the Soviet Union to invade Turkey and secure control of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea; Germany would have to concede every major goal of the Czarist empire, or face the consequences.

Unsurprisingly, Hitler let the talks drag on as he built his forces on the Polish border. Then, on June 22, 1941, the German army attacked the Soviet Union.

Posted in A New Face in the Snakepit | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Azaña, voz de la razón en busca de extremistas

Los Diarios de Manuel Azaña son excelentes, y no acabo de entender por qué es imposible encontrar una edición completa en formato electrónico que permita hojearlos con tranquilidad. El contenido es apasionante, la época decisiva, y el personaje de gran altura. Por haber, hay hasta chascarrillos sobre la verborrea de Ortega y Gasset, quien el 4 de septiembre de 1931, en Cortes, explicó a los demás prohombres que “el hocico del tiempo se mete entre mis tobillos”, entre otras metáforas de interés.

Otros momentos brillantes de ese mismo año incluyen la entrada del 2 de Julio, en la que Azaña refiere una conferencia en el Ateneo, “de las de mírame y no me oigas.” El 26 julio 1931, un domingo, narra el día que pasa en su querido El Escorial con su mujer, y la contemplación del monasterio desde las alturas de La Herrería: “temo que la revolución cometa aquí algún vandalismo inconsciente; que me degraden El Escorial con miras culturales, o sanitarias, o… turísticas.” El 5 de agosto, se reúne con un militar portugués llamado Cortecao, que junto a sus “amigos” está preparando una insurrección revolucionario-republicana, armada en parte por el gobierno español, en Portugal. Cortecao le come la oreja con vagas promesas de una futura unión política hispano-portuguesa. El 17 de agosto, refiere la muerte de un toro a pedradas durante las fiestas de Cebrero. El 18 de agosto, recuerda como en 1925 estuvo en un punto anímico bajo y “entré en unos devaneos que al punto no fueron entendidos”, lo que suena a confesión de que se iba a suicidar o sabe Dios.

El 22 de agosto, Azaña narra una discusión en el consejo de ministros sobre la pobreza de Valle-Inclán, que había perdido recientemente un sueldo de 3.000 pesetas mensuales:

“Ha pensado irse a América… He dado cuenta del caso, y he opinado que no podía consentirse que Valle se fuese a mendigar por América, con el decoroso pretexto de irse a dar conferencias… Convencidos todos de que, por su carácter, es peligroso darle un cargo de responsabilidad, he propuesto que se invente uno: el de Conservador General del Patrimonio Artístico en España, con 25.000 pesetas de gratificación.”

En días subsiguientes, se acuerda con Valle que el puesto será de director de un museo de la República que sería localizado en el Palacio Real; esto, después de que Azaña se queje de una entrevista de dos horas con Valle en el ministerio de la Guerra.

El 1 de septiembre, después de varias breves referencias a un grupo de aviadores portugueses que han intentado un golpe de estado con bombardeo de Lisboa incluido, Azaña se queja de comentarios en el Ateneo de que los aviadores (que se refugiaron en España, de donde habían salido) están presos; “esto es tan falso que, lejos de prenderlos, el ministerio de la Guerra les paga los gastos de estancia.” Esto, junto con las confidencias sobre Cortecao, quizás ayude a entender por qué Portugal fue un aliado entusiasta del alzamiento franquista cinco años después.

Azaña tiene también momentos truculentos. Justo antes de la proclamación de la Segunda República española, escribe esto:

“Sería erróneo suponer que, en el régimen constitucional de España, sólo han fracasado ciertos hombres, ciertos partidos y organizaciones. Han fracasado también, y sobre todo, ciertos métodos (…) Por eso no bastará quitar unas personas para que entren otras; habrá que restaurar en su pureza las doctrinas y acorazarse contra la transigencia. La intransigencia será el síntoma de la honradez”

Esta, y otras declaraciones por el estilo, me hacen pensar que Azaña en el fondo era ese personaje típico de la ante- y pos-Gran Guerra: el intelectual que soñaba con ser un hombre de acción. Su preferencia era ser la voz de la razón y moderación, pero dentro de un grupo de extremistas con un programa radical. Nunca se habría sentido a gusto teniendo que propugnar el extremismo y el radicalismo en persona, lo que habría dejado en evidencia, incluso en ridículo, al ratón de biblioteca con gafas y sobrepeso: siempre sería mejor dejar tales bajezas en manos de otros más brutales y primitivos, a los que él pondría unos ciertos límites, que no llevasen el barbarismo demasiado lejos de la civilización, ni quedaran demasiado lejos de un auténtico poder revolucionario.

Posted in Ocurrencias | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Slavoj Zizek on Why We’re Building The Matrix

I don’t think The Matrix is a masterpiece. I have already written more about that movie than I should, probably. And I believe Zizek doesn’t think it’s a masterpiece, either. But he sure hasn’t written too much about The Matrix. I was reading a revised version of Zizek’s Enjoy Your Symptom (1992) the other day, when I came across this very illuminating discussion, which I believe perfectly illustrates Zizek’s oft-repeated contention that “If there is a point in psychoanalysis, it is that people do not want or desire happiness.”

Zizek first refers to this well-known dialogue in which Morpheus provides a high-falutin description of how and why The Matrix came to exist:

MORPHEUS: It’s that feeling you have had all your life. That feeling that something was wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. … The matrix is everywhere, it’s all around us, here even in this room. … It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.

NEO: What truth?

MORPHEUS: That you are a slave, Neo. That you, like everyone else, was born into bondage … kept inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste, or touch. A prison of your mind.

Zizek contrasts this conversation with the moment, toward the end of the film, in which Smith, the agent of the Matrix, gives a different, much more Freudian explanation:

« Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy? It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops [of humans serving as batteries] were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the matrix was redesigned to this, the peak of your civilization. »

What this shows, Zizek goes on to explain, is:

The imperfection of our world is thus at the same time the sign of its virtuality and the sign of its reality. One could effectively claim that the agent Smith (let us not forget: not a human being as other, but the direct virtual embodiment of the Matrix—the big Other—itself) is the stand-in for the figure of the analyst within the universe of the film: his lesson is that the experience of an insurmountable obstacle is the positive condition for us, as humans, to perceive something as reality. Reality is ultimately that which resists.

In a way, this is Zizek’s way of repeating the old witticism : “reality is what remains there after you stopped believing in it.” But the way Smith puts it, and Zizek underlines it, brings these verses to mind. The Lord is speaking to Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Prologue in Heaven:

I never have hated your ilk;

Of all the Spirits who deny,

I find the scamp the least tedious.

Man’s endeavor tends all too easily towards slumber;

What he wishes for first of all is unconditional rest.

Therefore I am wont to assign him a companion

Who provokes and must act and appear as a Devil.


Interestingly, Zizek ties his Matrix discussion in Enjoy your Symptom with the subject matter of the novel I published a couple of years ago: the unresolved murder of Geli, Adolf Hitler’s niece, in 1931:

Perhaps, it is along these lines that one can also explain the obsession of Adolf Hilter’s biographers with his relationship to his niece Geli Raubal who was found dead in Hitler’s Munich appartment in 1931, as if Hitler’s alleged sexual perversion will provide the “hidden variable,” the intimate missing link, the fantasmatic support that would account for his public personality. Here is this scenario as reported by Otto Strasser:
“Hitler made her undress [while] he would lie down on the floor. Then she would have to squat down over his face where he could examine her at close range, and this made him very excited. When the excitement reached its peak, he demanded that she urinate on him, and that gave him his pleasure.”
Crucial is here the utter passivity of Hitler’s role in this scenario as the fantasmatic support that pushed him into his frenetically destructive public political activity; no wonder Geli was desperate and disgusted at these rituals. Therein resides the correct insight of The Matrix: in its juxtaposition of the two aspects of perversion—on the one hand, reduction of reality to a virtual domain regulated by arbitrary rules that can be suspended, and on the other the concealed truth of this freedom, the reduction of the subject to an utter instrumentalized passivity. In other words, The Matrix gets it right, but in a wrong (inverted) way. That is, we just have to turn around the terms in order to get at the true state of things: what the film renders as the scene of our awakening into our true situation is effectively its exact opposition, the very fundamental fantasy that sustains our being. We are not dreaming in VR that we are free agents in our everyday common reality, while we are actually passive prisoners in the prenatal fluid exploited by the matrix; it is rather that our reality is that of the free agents in the social world we know, but in order to sustain this situation, we have to supplement it with the disavowed, terrible, impending fantasy of being passive prisoners in the prenatal fluid exploited by the matrix. The mystery of the human condition, of course, is why the subject needs this obscene fantasmatic support of his existence.

Posted in Zizekiana | Tagged , , | Leave a comment