Monday, March 15, 2010

Dr. Strangeluv, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Start a Blog

Watching Chris Marker's film The Last Bolshevik, his chronicle of the Soviet filmmaker Aleksandr Medvedkin's life and work — the spotted horses, the cows in boots, the apartment complexes floating by on rails — got me thinking about other artists during the Soviet era who weren't so well connected, no doubt more daring and subversive, more ready to give the middle finger to regimes brought about by the philosophizing of a little philistine in tweed. These artists met a much less fortuitous end.

I'm thinking of Mikhail Bulgakov, best known for The Master and Margarita, a book unpublished in his lifetime, who, in his play Flight, has a White Major General descending into a penniless gambler of cockroach races, throwing money after Don't Cry Child, a brilliantly fast and slippery cockroach of the underworld. Or Anna Ahkmatova and her harshly critical Voronezh, whose "poplars raise their chalices / for a sky-shattering toast" while "in the room of the banished poet / Fear and the Muse stand watch by turn." Those artists were effectively banished from Stalin's republic, internal exiles left to rot in fear and irrelevancy. But not many people knew about it at the time.

When did we begin to suspect a farce was being perpetrated on us over here, not only by them over there, but by the shapers and purveyors of history and the news? When did we begin to realize that the iron curtain was also an iron mirror? How many people saw through McCarthy's bluster? I guess we always need to be on guard against too much seriousness in politicians, but you would think a raving lunatic would be laughed off the bully pulpit. A Zen master would have slapped him upside the head. (Are you listening Glenn Beck?)

Did we think differently about the Soviets and the threat of nuclear war after Dr. Strangelove? I wasn't around then, but I suspect we did. Just as Marx morphs in unexpected ways into Lenin and Mao, Strangelove morphs into Strangeluv, and the mighty command economy disintegrates into bread lines and Chernobyl. History taunts us. Tells us to beware. Had those in control always been so incompetent? Or had it only come on by slow degrees?

In May of 2001, I visited Hiroshima with a friend. First we went to the Gembaku dome — restored A-bomb leftovers of an Industrial Promotion Hall and now a World Heritage site — then to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. The Peace museum contains relics of the aftermath of the bomb: a watch that stopped at exactly at 8:15, a boy's bento box with the charred remains of his lunch, photographs of burnt bodies, and other not very nice things. I remember saying at the time that all world leaders should be required to visit the museum as part of training for their term. I don't think W.,  Kim Jong-Il, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made it there yet. 

Now, with Akhmatova's Fear and the Muse standing watch, we are set to start building tiny nuclear reactors to be buried in distant outposts around the globe. New mini Chernobyls waiting to happen in backyards all over the planet? Or sources for independence from oil and centralized control? Landmines for future superbeasts? Or power for our computing clouds?

Like I said, it's time for me to stop worrying, listen to Blonde Redhead, and get down to writing blog.

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