Geoffrey Hosking

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1652

Alexander Zinoviev must be one of the world's fastest writers. It is less than four years ago that his first work (outside his professional speciality) was published, and that was a gigantic novel, The Yawning Heights…. Since then, he has published three more novels [The Radiant Future, Notes of a Night Watchman and Anteroom to Paradise]….

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Yawning Heights [is] a rambling, surrealist presentation of the recent and future history of the Soviet Union in a variety of tenuously connected and often hilarious episodes….

On the one hand we have a superb satirist presenting an original and penetrating indictment of Soviet society. On the other hand we have the tireless gossip and armchair theoretician, repeating himself endlessly and without any sense of form. Both sides of Zinoviev seem to be indissolubly linked, and probably we could not have the one without the other. So inevitably the reader has a good deal of work to do, but it is undoubtedly well worth doing. Anyone who wants to understand the Soviet Union today must take Zinoviev into account….

Zinoviev's central thesis is that the Soviet Union is a normal society. It is not the product of a diabolical imported ideology: on the contrary, its arrangements are those which natural man would create for himself without the restraints imposed by centuries of civilized society. Indeed, Ibansk is in part a Hobbesian vision….

Hobbes's Leviathan, moreover, has somehow contrived to get himself already firmly installed in the state of nature, without waiting for a social contract, and far from riding impartially above the battle restraining it, actually lays down the ground rules, organizes the contests, provides the weapons and awards the prizes. Even without a social contract, however, this Leviathan rules with the approval of the great majority of its subjects, since it guarantees lazy, mediocre homme moyen sensuel a tolerable standard of living and a set of comfortable illusions….

The result is an elaborately varnished slovenliness offering a mode of existence well short of ideal, but still perfectly acceptable to most people in most circumstances….

Since [an] ideology exists to serve the interests of the ruling mediocrities and to give the illusion of dignity to the lives of the subject mediocrities, it does not stand or fall on its claims to scientific validity. Zinoviev once spent eight years of his life on a scientific analysis of Marx's Das Kapital, and abandoned the work because he felt that it was "an impossible and hopeless line of investigation". In a sense his current work represents a different line of approach to the same problem. As his night-watchman [in Notes of a Night Watchman] says: "I used to think there existed scientific studies of Ibanism, but that Ibanism itself was still far in the future. In fact it's the other way round. Full-scale Ibanism has existed for ages…. But there are no scientific studies of it at all." Zinoviev no longer criticizes Marxism theoretically, because it is invulnerable to such criticism: it is not a science, but an ideology…. On the other hand, a genuinely scientific study of communism as it has worked out in practice, in actually existing "socialist" societies (which Zinoviev holds have in fact already attained fully developed communism), would reveal a great deal, and this is undoubtedly one of the main aims of Zinoviev's writings.

In arguing that it is pointless to attack Marxism, Zinoviev is in more or less open polemic with Solzhenitsyn, who appears as Truth-teller in Yawning Heights. (p. 571)

Zinoviev is also in some ways immensely attracted by the forthrightness and integrity of Solzhenitsyn's stance, an admiration he has reiterated more than once in interviews with Western journalists. As Chatterer says: "Truth-teller is a great child-man, who has suffered unjustly, cruelly and senselessly. He is problem number one of our time. He is something much bigger than ideology, politics and morality. He is the focal point where all the problems are concentrated. If only men can contrive to preserve all this long enough!…"

This last rather enigmatic remark takes us to a nodal point in Zinoviev's thinking. What he means, I think, is that Solzhenitsyn has somehow conserved enough of the past in him to stand as a living testimony to the degradation of the present, and perhaps to point towards a new ideal for the future. This aspect of Zinoviev's thought has been evolving as he has been writing. In Yawning Heights his attempts to say anything positive were hesitant in the extreme. The work reaches its weary termination, in fact, in a crematorium, where the citizens end their lives voluntarily, literally bored to death…. Already in The Radiant Future, however, Anton has a positive programme for neutralizing the effects of the ideology. It consists in tirelessly accumulating and publicizing apparently trivial facts which make up the real texture of life in a socialist society, and ultimately subjecting that society to the kind of analysis which does not simply criticize or unmask, but offers something which can serve modern man's social and spiritual needs better than Marxism can.

In Anteroom to Paradise Zinoviev goes even further than this: he erects the framework for a new religion, intended to revive the restraints inside men which hold them back from unlimited self-seeking and mendacity, from the "war of all against all". As one might expect in Ibansk (or the Soviet Union—one gets accustomed to using the two terms interchangeably when talking about Zinoviev) the founder of the new faith is in a mental hospital, and he expounds it to a special high-level commission, established because the authorities want to study closely what they fear might become a popular and dangerous phenomenon…. In essence, what the mental patient puts forward is a kind of stoic civic religion. He rejects existing ecclesiastical faiths as "mere corpses of the past, upheld for various reasons which are actually detrimental to religion". The focus is a sense of "a certain higher mystery of being, a sense of involvement in this mystery and consequent suffering, and of compassion for everything on which the consciousness of this higher mystery is directed". This mystery is not, however, God: the concept of God is seen as derivative, in fact in Feuerbachian terms as "alienated human soul". The religion's manifestations, as outlined, are entirely moral and social. "Religious activity aims to make life gentler, more compassionate and humane by making people less harsh and cruel, kinder and more sensitive." It aims "to re-establish in people the internal restraints which will bring their lives closer to the humane ideal".

Zinoviev obviously has difficulties in formulating this new religion, and is still groping. Looking back at Yawning Heights in the light of his tentative formulation, one can see the first hesitant signs even there. Among the manuscripts found on a rubbish tip (the natural home of the flower of Ibanskian literary culture) there is a critical monograph on a certain E. N., who can be recognized as the painter and sculptor Ernst Neizvestny. The anonymous author sees E. N. as an artist for our times, a man who in his art is talking a new language appropriate to the spiritual state of modern humanity. He is creating, as it were, frescoes whose meaning can only be fully understood in the light of the religion which underlies them—a religion as yet only faintly stirring in the minds of men.

Interestingly enough, Neizvestny almost certainly makes another appearance in Yawning Heights in the person of Dauber, the painter who emigrates to the West, but returns disillusioned because he finds he cannot realize his ideals over there either…. He sells out to the authorities by doing a commissioned portrait of Leadiban (who is a composite identikit persona, derived from the members of Brezhnev's Politburo).

The opposite temptations of Truth-teller and Dauber, those of downright condemnation of the authorities and of collaboration with them, have doubtless both been strong in Zinoviev's mind over the years. One might regard his writings as a prolonged purging of both of them, and an attempt to elaborate a third way. It is not surprising that this attempt betrays an ambivalence which is the fundamental cause of the excessive length and chaotic structure of Zinoviev's work.

One thing which one cannot gainsay Zinoviev is his enormous satirical talent, which shines particularly in the pages of Yawning Heights. His account, for example, of the Ibanskian conquest of the world by the process of the Great Kissing—détente seen as a natural extension of the bear-hugs which socialist leaders give each other at airports—has positively Rabelaisian gusto and aptness. Since his satire derives from the breakdown of carefully structured literary and propaganda forms, it is naturally garrulous and tends to the formless. When, however, one adds to this Zinoviev's own uncertainties and his consequent obsession with classifying, analysing, arranging, even preaching, in short his attempts to remodel the material of chaos into new systems, it is not surprising that the result is cumbersome, confused and often trying to the reader's patience. His writing could have benefited from sympathetic critical attention and a good deal of pruning. (He can be quite concise, as Notes of a Night Watchman demonstrates.) But in Ibanskian conditions such attention is the one thing it could never have received. In his defects Zinoviev is still very much a citizen of Ibansk, but then so much the more vivid (if exhausting) is his account of his attempt to break away from it. And anyway, as Zinoviev himself warns, are we not all living partly in Ibansk nowadays? Particularly if we are employed by the state, participate in soothing collective fictions, jostle for promotion and material goods and are happy to pass off the pretence of work for the real thing. (pp. 571-72)

Geoffrey Hosking, "Mediocrity for the Millions," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4026, May 23, 1980, pp. 571-72.

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