Sunday, April 30, 2006

May Day

Yesterday, probably because May Day was coming, I found myself humming the Internationale, the international workers’ song, associated with Communism but, when I was young, associated in my mind with the anti-Fascist Lincoln Brigade that went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War and with other ghosts of Leftie New York politics. I am probably one of the few people around who still hums it and our daughters are probably among the few children to have it hummed to them as their lullaby.

Written by Eugene Pottier and Pierre Degeyter, the Internationale was penned to celebrate the Paris Commune of March-May 1871, an event now celebrated as the first time workers took power into their own hands. The Paris Commune was an informative event for Marx, who wrote in Civil War in France on its significance. It goes without saying that the Commune was destroyed by the conservative French government in Versailles in a bloody massacre cheered on by the ruling classes of the world.

I think that the lyrics of the Internationale remain interesting:

Arise ye workers from your slumbers
Arise ye prisoners of want
For reason in revolt now thunders
And at last ends the age of cant.
Away with all your superstitions
Servile masses arise, arise
We'll change henceforth the old tradition
And spurn the dust to win the prize.

So comrades, come rally
And the last fight let us face
The Internationale unites the human race.
So comrades, come rally
And the last fight let us face
The Internationale unites the human race.

No more deluded by reaction
On tyrants only we'll make war
The soldiers too will take strike action
They'll break ranks and fight no more
And if those cannibals keep trying
To sacrifice us to their pride
They soon shall hear the bullets flying
We'll shoot the generals on our own side.

No saviour from on high delivers
No faith have we in prince or peer
Our own right hand the chains must shiver
Chains of hatred, greed and fear
E'er the thieves will out with their booty
And give to all a happier lot.
Each at the forge must do their duty
And we'll strike while the iron is hot.

You can see, I think, why many intellectuals of the first half of the last century fell in love with Communism. Take the French writer Andre Gide. In 1937 Gide traveled to Russia, like many European intellectuals of his time hoping to revel in and celebrate Soviet Communism. The ideals of socialism, an inspiration to a generation of thinkers who felt certain that the growing power of oligarchies and corporations were bound to subvert the western democracies, provoked Gide’s journey, a journey that had become the equivalent of a Leftist Grand Tour.

Janet Flanner, writing from Paris for the New Yorker, recounted Gide’s journey. As did many of his compatriots, Gide came away bitterly saddened and completely disillusioned. As we now know and as Gide learned firsthand, the socialist ideal, as beautiful as it might be in theory, could not withstand the realities of human nature. People were bound to ruin it, and they did. Stalin was only the worst offender in that regard, a titanic tyrant ruling over a multitude of pint-sized tyrants.

Flanner concludes her piece on Gide’s reversal of position with a point of real interest to creative people. “Gide notes,” Flanner writes, “that because of the emotions which Communism arouses, the truth about Russia is usually told with hate and the lies with love.” This rich observation extrapolates. We artists, roused by emotion, often do the same thing. In our work, we end up hating more than we should and loving more than we should. This tends to make our work too cynical, on the one hand, and too romantic, on the other.

We excoriate our small town because our disrespect for its values and its denizens has turned to hatred. At the same time we eulogize the plight of the one poet our small town has produced, turning her into a troubled saint, when in fact she was just a smart anorexic better at words than at life. In the process of hating our town and loving its poet we distort and make unrecognizable the truth about our environment, our neighbors, and our artists. A great gulf is manufactured and our intentions to see clearly tumble into it.

How can we love and still see clearly? How can we feel the legitimate outrage we feel and still see to either side of it? I think that these are harder tasks than anyone imagines. I think that our enthusiasms blind us and our hatreds blind us in ways that confound us. An artist may inadvertently paint unicorns and never stop painting them, or inadvertently paint violent gashes and never stop painting them, exactly because he is trapped in an infatuation, like the intellectuals’ infatuation with Communism. This infatuation, compounded of wishful thinking and raw emotion, does not let reality or maturity in.

Humming the Internationale, I am taken a long way back. I have no idea what my politics now are, but I know that humming it feels excellent. I am in complete solidarity with something and one day I will know what that something is.

1 comment:

gerald said...

"How can we love and still see clearly? How can we feel the legitimate outrage we feel and still see to either side of it? I think that these are harder tasks than anyone imagines."
They are. And that is what makes what seems to be a simple task so very, very worthy. What a thing to engage!
thank you. nicely said. wanted and needed.