The Paris Commune, and them and us

Fighting Over the Paris Commune | The New Yorker 

Raoul Rigault
Right on my subject. All the contradictions that Adam Gopnik mentions are themes of my novel in progress. I'd quibble with some of his characterizations — Raoul Rigault and others were no angels, communeux or communards (they themselves generally used the first term) were far less inclined to annihilate their enemies than were the Versaillais commanders, “well-dressed ladies” really did do some of those horrible things after the massacre (we have ample newspaper accounts, by foreign and presumably objective reporters). And and then there's this remark,
but the

There are many instances in Merriman’s account of people being saved by accident or by the act of a charitable and decent individual. But there is scarcely an incident of a principled humanity, where one side or the other refused to massacre captured civilian prisoners or hostages on the ground that it was the wrong thing to do, rather than impolitic at that moment.
Yes, there were such instances, not only but mostly by "communards" — the most vivid testimony is in Vuillaume's "Red Notebooks"(also the best source on the crazed self-importance of Vuillaume's one-time friend Rigault). But in the last days and hours, the desperation of the Commune's defenders led to uncontrollable, mad rage on the last remaining, eastern streets of Paris. Eugène Varlin, draped in his official Commune sash, tried mightily but failed to save a group of hostages on the rue Haxo (image right).

A bloody mess, and it's true that the "Communards" were hardly united, except in their anticlericalism, and had they "won" or at least held out for a longer time, it's not at all clear that the progressive, democratic and humanitarian leaders among them would have ruled. Well, all this is rich material for my novel "The Bookbinder" (working title), which will be not only about the Paris Commune of 1871 but about us and our world today.


An earthquake of a book about an earthquake event

Ten Days that Shook the WorldTen Days that Shook the World by John Reed
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This vivid first-hand reportage of the first ten days of Bolshevik power, from the seizure of the Winter Palace in Petrograd, 25 October 1917 (by the Julian or Old Style calendar, which corresponds to 7 November 1917 in the Gregorian or New Style calendar) to its consolidation in Moscow and gathering force in the rest of Russia, is strongly partisan, pro-Lenin and the Bolsheviks, but also scrupulously documented and honestly, frankly observed. Reed describes the appearance, voices and quirks of the protagonists, including anonymous soldiers, sailors, Red Guards and workers, making apparent the chaotic, improvised character of most of the events, and the quick-witted decision-making and sometimes pitiless actions, especially those of the austere and uncompromising Lenin and the far more colorful, dramatic, and sarcastic Trotsky that repeatedly saved the Bolshevik insurrection from impending disaster. Reed does not hesitate to describe flaws, doubts and internal disputes, showing how precarious was their adventure and how close to failure. He collected leaflets, newspapers and bulletins from all parties, many of them reproduced in the book, and learned enough Russian not only to translate these but also to conduct interviews of Kerensky, Trotsky, Lenin and many other actors in this drama. Events in Petrograd and, later, Moscow are acutely observed, making this an indispensable account of the violent, chaotic, suspenseful first days of the seizure of power by masses of workers and soldiers with no administrative experience and, for all but the few intellectual leaders of the various parties, scant literacy or general knowledge of culture or history.
Those first ten days did indeed shake the world: they determined Russia's withdrawal from the Great European War, shaking diplomacy and strategy for all the other powers involved (Germany, Austria, England, France, the US especially), and created the beginnings of the hastily assembled Red Army which would eventually to triumph over the many fronts in the civil war in the world's largest nation, which was also one of Europe's least developed. The book itself continues to shake readers loose from more simplistic interpretations of this terribly complex series of events that redrew the lines of world power for the rest of the 20th century.
This 1922 edition is the first to appear with a foreword by Vladimir Lenin, encouraging all to read it. Reed was surprised and delighted to learn that Lenin had actually read it, and apparently was not offended by the very frank reporting that did not glorify the Bolsheviks, even though it supported them. Recognized even by the fiercest opponents of Communism as splendid and indispensable reportage, reader demand has not diminished and the book continues to be reissued by any number of publishers and in virtually all languages. Even if you have no particular interest in the Russian revolution (unlikely, but who knows?), you will find this book a model of vivid, scrupulous journalism — as Reed had already demonstrated in an earlier book, "Insurgent Mexico" but was unable to repeat after "10 Days," because he died in 1920 of typhus, in Russia. He was 33. He is buried alongside other revolutionary heroes just outside Lenin's mausoleum in Red Square.

View all my reviews


Anti-boycott petition

This just come to my in-box from a scholar at Tel Aviv University. I agree (broadly) with the argument that an academic boycott is not the way to encourage dialogue, and dialogue is what we most need in the age of extremisms. Boycotts of many products may be effective, for example, a boycott of the Israeli weapons industry might be a very good thing — and might even make the Israel government respond. But boycotts of academic or any other intellectual interchange — "I refuse even to listen to you" sort of boycotts — will not only be utterly ineffective to change Israeli (or anybody's) policy, but will simply hamper much needed communication. 

They are seeking signature from academics, but I am not affiliated to any academic institution, so rather than sign I'm expressing my support here. Follow the link to read the petition, though I think Professor Dreyfus' presentation of the case is especially clear.

May I suggest that you consider signing this petition against academic boycotts, specifically academic boycotts of Israel’s academic institutions, scholars and students. The petition originated in the USA but is intended to be signed by scholars in all

Personally, I oppose much of our present government’s policies with respect to Palestinians and a Palestinian state. So do many of my colleagues. However, I oppose an academic boycott in principle (see Zvi Ziegler’s arguments below) and in practice: A boycott is likely to weaken voices against government policy and strengthen the right wing in Israel. 

Best wishes,

Tommy Dreyfus

Zvi Ziegler is head of the committee gathering signatures. He writes,
Our approach is that academic boycotts are harmful to the progress of mankind , and that science should be pursued without discriminating against people on account of their race, gender, nationality, politics, etc. This approach is identical to the one expressed by several national academies of science, including the USA one.


Brilliant images hold up a wispy tale

Light YearsLight Years by James Salter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Salter is famous for his beautiful sentences, beginning here with “We dash the black river, its flats smooth as stone. Not a ship, not a dinghy, not one cry of white. The water lies broken, cracked from the wind. This great estuary is wide, endless.”

The opening of Light Years seems to open a world, a very particular world of rough, unyielding nature — river, trees, rocks — and the precarious and unstable marks left by generations of humans, down to the youngest, two little girls who crouch outside the bathroom, urging their story-telling papa (who is soaking in the tub) to come out and tell them more about their pony that, according to him swims to the bottom of the river to eat the onions that grow there.

The little girls grow up, their story-telling father continues telling fables but mostly to himself, while their mother keeps trying out new ways, and new lovers, in a mostly unsuccessful effort to keep herself interested in life. Their pets, including that errant pony, a tailless dog and a turtle, grow old and all but the turtle die, as do some of this family's friends — lots of little events, and some bigger ones, occur over the 15-some "light years," 1958 to about 1973, through which we observe a man and a woman, the parents of those little girls, from their home in rural New York to their work and play in New York City, and then briefly (and separately) to Italy and Switzerland, before each — separately still — returns to the soggy land around that black river, its familiar buildings decayed and newer, unwelcoming ones thrown up as gaudy future ruins.

And that’s about it for the story. No one here is driven by any great, unforgiving ambition, but the man and woman and all their friends move mostly by inertia, nudged along at times by dreams and impulses, which are mostly disappointing when fulfilled. Still, the book is so beautifully written, the people are so believably individual, and the weather and texture and look of the sites so vivid, that it is a joy to read. The opening lines, about the river and the sea birds and its “dream of the past” are as entrancing as the opening lines of García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, but with this difference: the first lines of the latter book — the Colonel facing a firing squad and remembering his childhood — contain the hint of the whole complicated story. In Light Years, there almost is no story beyond the images of different moments in the slow and uncomprehending maturing, or simply aging, of a man and woman as they drift apart and with no common project.

View all my reviews


From the center of the maelstrom of the Paris Commune

Mes cahiers rouges: souvenirs de la communeMes cahiers rouges: souvenirs de la commune by Maxime Vuillaume
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Maxime Vuillaume’s “red notebooks” (cahiers rouges) contain some of the most vivid first hand testimony of all the writings on the Paris Commune. Vuillaume knew almost all the major players, some of them very well, and was himself an important actor, as a founder and editor of one of the most popular newspapers of the Commune, Le Père Duchêne.

Only 26 when he barely escaped execution in the bloody final week of the Commune (May 20-28, 1871), Vuillaume wrote the first post-commune reports in clandestine documents from his exile in Switzerland, before the amnesty (1880) permitted him to return to France. For years, he was reluctant to publish his notes, for fear of injuring people still living or being sued by their descendants. But finally, some 30 years after the annihilation of the commune, a younger journalist, Lucien Descaves, persuaded him to put them into shape and publish them, and Vuillaume then also began to compose and publish additional "cahiers", sometimes correcting things in the earlier ones or adding detail, and sometimes taking on aspects of the Commune that he had not personally experienced but researched through documents and interviews. All of these, the earliest and most personal and the later researched reports, have been gathered together in this edition of the “red notebooks.”

Vuillaume's Père Duchêne was a foul-mouthed, rabble-rousing, over-the-top scandal sheet, in imitation of the original Père Duchesne of Jacques-René Hébert that rallied the sans-culottes from 1790 until Hébert was guillotined in 1794. As in the original version, the "Old Man" or "Père"of the title was the fictional voice of a man of the "people", i.e., the unprivileged, lambasting the rich, the clergy, and anybody else seen as an oppressor. Its readers probably knew the paper was not to be trusted — reporting events that may or may not have occurred — but they bought it anyway, so many of them that the paper made more money than expected. They must have delighted in the invective against the “jeanfoutres” and “bougres” (gross insults, common in speech but rarely seen in print in those days), meaning all those opposed to the Commune, including Catholic clergy, local bourgeois and the government in Versailles.

The more mature Vuillaume, traumatized by the horrific bloodshed and prolonged repression of the end of the commune, became a much more serious, careful and responsible reporter, but without losing his capacity for vivid and impassioned description. Thus all these reports or “notebooks” are well worth reading, even those that go over material also covered by his journalist contemporaries Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray and Jules Vallès (both of whom Vuillaume knew well). But by far the liveliest cahiers are those on the experiences closest to him: Cahier I, “Une journée à la cour martiale de Luxembourg,” describes the army's systematic killing of suspected communards after their final defeat and Vuillaume’s own very narrow escape from execution; III, “Quand nous faisions Le Père Duchêne,” about all that he and his equally young partners, Eugène Vermersch and Alphonse Humbert, had to go through to get the capital together, write and distribute a daily paper in that period of intense debate, street agitation and combats, and IV, “Quelques-uns de la Commune”, intimate portraits of communards including Raoul Rigault, who in his last days was the commune’s chief prosecutor. Samples from some of those sharp-tongued articles are included in this book, but for the most part, the mature Vuillaume writes a more temperate prose, but still with passion for the lost cause of the Commune.

See also my reviews of Jules Vallès' fictionalized account, L'Insurgé,  and Lissagaray's Histoire de la Commune de 1871

View all my reviews


Memory Booster | HMS

Another step forward in understanding how short-term memory works! And without it, we couldn't create long-term memories — or so I suppose, and that's what most specialists also believe. We may all be wrong, but now that they've identified this calcium sensor in short-term memory, they may be able to test that hypothesis.

Memory Booster | HMS

Memory is all we have to work with, we authors. So this really matters. For more reflections on this topic (e.g., my note on Elkhonon Goldberg's book, The Wisdom Paradox) click on "memory" keyword below.


Visit to Russia — Susana's travelogue

Here is my accomplice Susana Torre's account of our recent trip to Moscow and Saint Petersburg. For more writing and other work by Susana, see her website, Susana Torre.


SHHHHHHH!!! The young guards were, very loudly, making sure we didn’t make any noise going down the steps of Lenin’s Mausoleum in almost complete darkness. It’s impossible to tell if the figure lying in state with face and hands precisely lit is the real mummy, or a wax representation. All the same, we wanted to say goodbye in our last day in Moscow to the symbol of the momentous social changes brought about by the October 1917 revolution. Goodbye, Vladimir Ilych. Goodbye, John Reed and Alexei Shchusev buried with many others along the Kremlin wall.
Red Square. From left: GUM, St. Basil's, Lenin's tomb (click for larger view)
We made this trip intending to make the picture in our heads, formed by our readings by historians, theoreticians, protagonists and inspirers of the revolution, more nuanced and complete. Not exactly a nostalgic trip for lost ideals, but to see first hand whatever remained of the material evidence of those ideals, and to see what had become of them today in Moscow and Saint Petersburg (called “Peter” by the Russians). First Moscow, and then a trip on the fast “Sapsan” — “Hawk” — train to “Peter”, through flat farmland, villages and densely packed residential high-rise suburbs. Geoff had resumed his college Russian language studies, and managed to communicate and read all the Cyrillic signs, indispensable to travel by public transportation – especially the subway, as efficient, clean, advertisement-free, frequent and fast as touted in the tourist guides, including the lavish use of marble surfaces and alabaster fixtures.

Considering an alternative to the Moscow subway
On our first day in Moscow we visited Krasnaya Ploshchad, Red, or Beautiful, Square (“krasnaya” has both meanings in Russian), the vast open space, formerly a market, just outside the walls of the Kremlin. The brightly colored multiple onion-domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral dominate one end, and the more somber, red-brick State Historical Museum the other, over 2,000 feet away. Stretching along part of the wall is Lenin’s classical-cum-constructivist mausoleum, and facing it across the square, 230 feet away, sits the huge GUM, the largest covered arcade in the world. Built in 1890 to impress Europeans and create an enclosed place for the nobility to consume the latest Parisian fashions, today it is a private shopping mall known to locals as “the exhibition hall of prices”. From the restaurant terrace in front of GUM, we watched the people ambling across the great space, at a much more leisurely pace than the purposeful walk of people in Western capital cities. Maybe this is because the square is a destination unto itself, not a passing-through place. It is from here that the avenues structuring the city radiate, intersected by multi-lane, high-speed ring roads that pedestrians may cross only by underground passages. To my surprise, the interior of St. Basil’s Cathedral (a Museum since 1929) was not a large nave, but a collection of eight chapels around a ninth, central one less than 700 square feet in area. We had to search through the narrow connecting corridors to find one with especially great acoustics, resonating with the voices of a four-man vocal group.

Even the Cathedrals within the Kremlin walls followed a similar pattern, churches meant for a privileged few and with no ambition to include the unwashed masses. We were more impressed with the model of Catherine the Great’s insanely ambitious Grand Kremlin Palace, now in the Architecture Museum than with the existing Kremlin itself. Had it been built, monumental Neo-Classical double colonnades would have surmounted the entire Kremlin Wall facing Red Square.

Christ the Savior,Tsereteli’s sculpture 
Everywhere we saw the signs of historical continuity between Tsarist, Soviet, and post-Perestroika Russia: cathedrals turned into museums; streets in Moscow’s center lined with mansions of the aristocracy now put to public uses or turned into homes for the “oligarchs”, including the Art Nouveau gem of a house the last Tsar had built for a lover — now a museum — with the balcony from which Lenin harangued the partisans after he had taken over the house for Bolshevik
headquarters. One discontinuity, Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, demolished by Stalin to make room for a Palace of the Soviets that was never built, was rebuilt in the 1990s. Here, Pussy Riot staged the 4-minute concert that landed two of their members in jail for almost two years. The cathedral faces the river and a pedestrian bridge that brings Moscow’s youth into the fashionable Strelka café, and the nearby, exceedingly ugly 15-story high statue by the apparatchik architect/sculptor Zurab Tsereteli. The sculpture was a gift representing Columbus, intended for the US but rejected, and here displayed with a new head, that of Peter the Great.

Another continuity is the ubiquitous orange and black striped ribbon of St. George, symbolizing fire and gunpowder, that is everywhere attached to car handles and rear-view mirrors, to Putin’s lapel and the lapels of bodyguards in black suits in 90-degree weather. The ribbon is a component of military decorations awarded by imperial, Soviet and current Russia governments, now used to show support for pro-Russians in the disputed regions of Ukraine. Many coffee mugs in the souvenir section of the gigantic Izmailovo flea market had the map of Crimea next to the legend: “It’s OURS!” The popular mood seems to be with Putin, and the Russian TV channel in English kept reporting on the lies of the Western media about Russia’s military involvement in the Donbass.

Among the dozens of house museums where artists and writers lived, the one I wanted to see most was that of Anatoly Lunacharsky, Lenin’s Commissar of Enlightenment, a great intellectual and promoter of the artistic avant-garde; he staged a happening avant la lettre, a trial against God for crimes against humanity, in which the deity was condemned to death and “executed” by a firing squad shooting machine guns into the sky. When we could get no answer on the phone for an appointment, we simply showed up at the address and rang the bell. A burly man— evidently the caretaker — came down to inform us, by gesture and the few words we could understand, that the apartment was now privately occupied; with a semi-apologetic grin, he explained in one word: олигарх, i.e., “oligarch”.

In both Moscow and St. Petersburg we visited art and political history museums. In Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery annex, we were able to see the 50% of George Costakis’ extraordinary art collection that he was obliged to leave behind when he moved to Greece, including Malevich’s Black Square and some of the best pieces of Natalia Goncharova, which establish her role as the inspiring founder of new movements. It was enlightening to see them for the first time in the context of earlier and later works by Russian artists not well known in the West. The focus of the contemporary art world is Moscow’s “Garage”, a would-be museum currently housed in a temporary, unremarkable structure designed by Shigeru Ban, awaiting its permanent location in a Soviet era pavilion being remodeled by Rem Koolhas, in a clear effort to become an international destination. Although we are not entirely up-to-date with Russian contemporary art, we had liked the rambunctious energy of songspiel videos by the art collective Chto Delat? (What is to be done?) http://vimeo.com/12130035 -- but the exhibition at Garage, with work by artists in the periphery of the Russian Federation about the dislocation produced by the end of the Soviet Union, seemed trite and superficial.

Construction in Moscow’s center, especially in its main radial avenue, Tverskaya Ulitsa, seems to have stopped after Stalin built the Seven Sisters skyscrapers in the late 1940s and early 50s. The foundations for an eighth “Sister” bordering Red Square were used after Stalin’s death for the modern, monstrously big Rossiya Hotel (21-storeys, 3,200 rooms, police station, etc.), the biggest in Europe, which was finally demolished in 2006. It has become a contested site, with public pressure to use it for a park instead of a new entertainment center designed by Norman Foster. But a new International Business Center, boasting Europe’s tallest building, is nearly finished on a site beyond the third ring road. We saw its gleaming towers at a distance during our tour of Constructivist buildings – the workers’ clubs, communal housing and other emblematic projects built during the 1920s that embody the revolutionary social change made into architecture during the Bolshevik government’s first years.

We continued our search for places and buildings of that fateful period when we arrived in picture book Neo-Classical “Peter”. Such buildings can be found mostly in Narvskaya Zastava, the center of the workers’ movement during the events of 1917, still a proletarian neighborhood full of factories and streets with names like “Tractor” or “Barricade”. Two impressive relics are the Kirovsky District Soviet building, municipal offices still used for the original purpose, and the former humongous industrial kitchen supplying hot lunches to factory workers in the area, now a shabby shopping mall. Lenin’s statue and the hammer and sickle on the façade of the Soviet building have not been removed to a “Fallen Monuments” park like the one we visited in Moscow, and his statue with the raised arm still shows the way on the square in front of the Finland Station (we had been re-reading Edmund Wilson’s book.) The temporary exhibition of extravagantly lavish costumes worn by the army of palace servants we saw at the Hermitage was another reminder of why the revolution had to happen. Sustaining it through the decades; a world war; centralized power; and a lack of understanding about the transformation of a proletarian consciousness was quite another matter.
Vladimir Ilyich & comrade, in the Park of Fallen Monuments


Will Self declares George Orwell the 'Supreme Mediocrity' | Books | theguardian.com

I surprised myself by agreeing with him! "Wigan Pier", "Down and Out in Paris and London" are important reportage, also "Homage to Catalonia" if you account for the very obvious bias, and even (the much weaker) "Keep the Aspidistra Flying" may be worth reading for the satire (not the characterization or plot drama, which are almost nil), but Orwell as didactic preacher ("Animal Farm", "1984", "Politics and the English Language") really is just mediocre at best. Good reporter, shallow thinker. And barely acceptable as a novelist.

Will Self declares George Orwell the 'Supreme Mediocrity' | Books | theguardian.com

Now I suppose I'd better read something by Will Self.


Postscript: Russia and Ukraine

The "pregnancy" metaphor, may be overworked, but this analysis is in line with our impressions from the Russian newscasts and our conversations during our recent visit to Russia:

Russia Is Pregnant with Ukraine

New York Review of Books, 2014.07.24