Shalamov: blind man's child guide on the church threshold

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti commentator Anatoly Korolev) - Aristotle formulates the essence of art in his Poetics and Politics as follows: art helps man to achieve catharsis, a unique condition that cleans the spirit of evil, and purifies the soul through awe and compassion.

A man came 2,000 years later to say that all mortal sins are committed under the influence of art and do everything he could to prevent a cathartic effect of his own writing. His name was Varlam Shalamov.

He owed his harsh maximalism to 17 years in a Stalinist prison camp. A high-minded Moscow University law student, he was sentenced in 1929 for an underground publication of one of Lenin's last letters, known as his testament, in which the Bolshevik leader warned the party leadership about the danger Stalin's rise spelt.

An international conference gathered in Moscow for the birth centenary of Shalamov (1907-1982). He believed that artistic writing was downright immoral and that the novel was a crime against conscience. He blamed Russian literary classics for the Bolshevik yoke under which 20th century Russia fell victim to unprecedented tyranny. What criteria should a literary scholar accept to evaluate the works of a man who negated literature and classified his famous Kolyma Tales as "anti-literature" and his novel Vishera as an "anti-novel"?

Philosophers, literary historians and critics from many European countries, the United States and Australia came to Moscow on his centenary to meet at the Russkoye Zarubezhye (Russia Abroad) library foundation and crack his paradox.

Irina Sirotinskaya, Shalamov's friend, publisher of his heritage and conference organizer, stressed his highly unusual conduct. After release, the writer was deliberately clinging to his convict habits to demonstrate the absence of difference between Soviet life in or out of jail.

He passed her his convict know-how, teaching the girl to handle a wheelbarrow. He was sure it was knowledge without which one could not survive in the Soviet Union.

Oleg Volkov, another Russian writer with a prison camp past, also noticed Shalamov's stunning behavior, a demonstration of his ethics: "Shalamov lived in a tiny room in an apartment he shared with many other tenants. He looked every inch a convict. A cheap metal mug and bowl were his only dishes. He put bread right on the table and ate it with one hand cupped under the other, holding the slice, so as not to lose a single crumb. He made it a point to keep the room shabby. His guests had tea out of metal mugs and sugar out of a paper bag. There was no furniture but a neatly made plank bed, a table and three rickety chairs. The table served him as a writing desk, too, with a brand-new typewriter he kept meticulously clean - his only luxury."

Shalamov preserved every detail of his past as he picked breadcrumbs, and regarded his past as Absolute Evil, with not a single ray of sunlight in it.

As he was addressing the conference, Mikhail Shvydkoi, head of Russia's Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography, spoke about the nature of memory and reminiscences. Should one be selective about them and try to recollect only the good, or remember all the pain and torment?

Shalamov was an extremist on that point. He said it was man's moral duty to remember only what was bad, or one would gloss over the evil and produce idyllic pictures of the convict routine. "Never embellish!" was his creed.

Several conference speakers remembered the same episode in this context. After reading Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Shalamov telephoned the author to pay his compliments, but remarked: "You have a cat living in a prison camp. That couldn't have been true - the cat would have been eaten."

This episode encapsulates Shalamov's literary method. Creative writing, expressive idiom and artistic descriptions were, to him, not what literature was about. It was the writer's duty to witness at the Last Judgment. The reader was to get something like an interrogation record - concise and appalling in its dryness.

Luba J. Urgenson, a French prose writer and translator, spoke at the conference about Shalamov's artistic method and its trailblazing devices. He avoided "fiction" as a matter of principle and so described not action but situations. His stories have no traditional set-up, nor denouement, let alone the cathartic ethical climax. They merely enumerate psychological states. His method reminds of taking fingerprints. As in dactylography, the truth is, with him, in the degree of precision - not what you write truly matters but the fact that the written word belongs to you alone and you are ready to assume responsibility for it, up to facing the firing squad.

As his frostbitten hands felt no pain, so were Shalamov's eyes blind to beauty. He rejected the catharsis as the supreme artistic goal.

Russian philosopher Grigory Pomerantz made one of the most memorable speeches. He spoke about a sweeping deterioration of modern society, as the underworld lingo and ideology were taking the upper hand. Fruit of Stalinist labor camps, the Russian underworld bred its own value system that became all-pervading. It is a mental and ethical enclave. Criminals have deep roots in present-day Russia. That is its retribution for Stalin's atrocities, an echo of his terror.

The speech of Professor Valery Petrochenkov came to me as a thunderbolt. The American philologist talked about the dramatic relationship between Shalamov and his priest father. Tikhon Shalamov was a prominent missionary thinker, yet his son grew up an atheist.

The speaker offered the following explanation. Shalamov Sr. was not so much a religionist as a progressive. Religion was, to him, essential not for the individual heart and mind but for society. He gave pride of place to the therapeutic effect of faith. God came second to public education. Father Tikhon was a bit ostentatious with his views. All that prejudiced his child against religion, and he eventually came to hate his father. He could not forgive the priest his paradoxical Christian Darwinism, not even when Tikhon became blind, and the boy had to lead him to church by the hand.

In this, I see the root of Shalamov's hatred of Russian literary classics. He never forgave their passion for social therapy and ardent preaching. They made the cult of Christ into a path that lead to the cult of Stalin. To the accompaniment of prophets' wrathful cry, the nation was driven by whip away from the life-giving source of the peasant community into convict camps. That was how Shalamov saw recent Russian history.

His conclusion from it came as a merciless sentence on artistry. He demanded that the old way of literary writing be abandoned. Art as sublimation and purification was a pack of lies. The Gulag proved old Aristotle wrong, and there was nothing good about the catharsis. Diderot, in his time, doubted that art was an ethical remedy. Shalamov never doubted it was pernicious. The writer's true duty was not artistry but testimony.

"Each of my tales is a blood-stained record of the past," he said.

He might be the only 20th century writer to arrange his life and work according to Theodor Adorno's proverbial dictum: "Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric."

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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