A Reviewers Notebook: The Velvet Prison
MARCH 01, 1989 by JOHN CHAMBERLAIN
From Hungary, in a sometimes difficult prose text, there comes an enigmatic book about the fate of literature under totalitarian governments. It is called The Velvet Prison: Artists Under State Socialism, and is by Miklos Haraszti, a dissident who is introduced to us by a fellow dissident, George Konrad, and translated from the Hungarian by Katalin and Stephen Landesmann with the help of Steve Wasserman (New York: Basic Books, 165 pp., $14.95).
One calls the book enigmatic because Haraszti skips from sections in which he mocks himself to more serious passages in which he seems to be saying it is quite normal for an artist to work within the confines of any culture that is his national inheritance. The excuse has a sometimes unnecessarily forgiving tone.
Haraszti’s thesis is that socialist writing comes in two forms, depending on the state of affairs pertaining to any given moment in a totalitarian society. If one is under a Stalin, Communist pictorial art will be poster work, and literature will follow a propagandist line. There will be strict censorship exercised from a central point. Under a Khrushchev or a Gorbachev, however, things might differ. In periods of relaxation, artists under socialism may be permitted a wide degree of serf-censorship. The ones that seem to be good socialist citizens Will be rewarded by ample funds and good working conditions—hence the term “velvet prison.”
What Haraszti says may very well be true for Hungary. He doesn’t talk much about specific Hungarian authors, so it is difficult to see where “soft aesthetics” may take over. In medieval times the architects of Chartres Cathedral would have endorsed everything Haraszti might have had to say about working in a culture. But in Soviet Russia the Haraszti thesis doesn’t check out.
True enough, there was plenty of poster work under Stalin. But the writers who were permitted latitudes under Khrushchev did not ask for velvet prison cells. Doctor Zhivago and various books by Solzhenitsyn were uncompromising. Indeed, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago still awaits a Soviet publication under the so-called relaxed Gorbachev.
The Haraszti book does not check with Max Eastman’s excellent Artists in Uniform, written many years ago and unfortunately now out of print. Max dealt with Soviet writers both in the pre-Stalin period, when Lenin and Trotsky were permissive about art, and in the gloomy night when the totalitarian “inquisition” took over. In Leningrad, in the first days of Bolshevism, poets were permitted their lyricism. They could sing to the moon if they pleased. But the story of Yesenin, who married the American dancer, Isadora Duncan, is symptomatic. Yesenin had hoped to travel about Russia with Isadora, singing while she danced. But when Lenin and Trotsky ceased to have a direct influence on Yesenin, he took to reading texts he couldn’t understand. Says Eastman, “It was the twofold misfortune of Yesenin’s lyric nature to be born into an age of gigantic concentration upon a practical undertaking, and into a company of engineers whose blueprints took the form of metaphysical demonstrations that the universe itself, or man and all society and all history, is that undertaking.”
In short, Yesenin was convinced there was no room for poets under either militant or a more relaxed socialism. “My poems,” he wrote, “are no longer needed here.” So his suicide followed.
In Eastman’s story of what happened after Stalin grabbed the power and the printing presses, there were more suicides. Maiakovsky, after announcing his surrender to the politicians, offered a “thunderous manifesto of defeat” and shot himself. There was an epidemic of suicides of poets of lesser importance. An exception, Eugene Zamyatin, author of the beautiful novel We, did not make any great effort to keep himself from being framed. Panteleimon Romanov recanted his “mistake” of writing Three Pairs of Silk Stockings, which called attention to evils that had already been attacked by government. Isaac Babyel, author of Horse Army and Odessa Stories, refused to behave “like a recruiting sergeant” (he wouldn’t write “ballyhoo” for the Red Army), and he shut up voluntarily. Boris Pilnyak, a great talent, rewrote a novel in order to get a visa to America. Says Eastman, “Probably no work of art in the world’s history was ever completed in more direct violation of the artist’s conscience, or with a more unadulterated motive of self-preservation than Pilnyak’s The Volga Falls to the Caspian Sea.
In Hungary, apparently, there were fewer suicides in Stalinist times. Says Haraszti, “although the tradition of ‘productive, revolutionary, and national themes’ survived into the post-Stalin era, it was discovered that aesthetic regulation alone would do the trick.” No such discovery was made in Russia when Khrushchev denounced Stalin. Solzhenitsyn welcomed the denunciation for what it did to get a few of his books into print, but he now lives in Vermont and refuses to change his style to conform to any “aesthetic regulation” that Gorbachev might want.
Where are the fairly decent works of art or literature that have emerged from Hungary under self-censorship? No doubt there are some. But Ben Shahn, the perceptive painter who wrote The Shape of Content (New York: Vintage Books) is dubious of the value of any system of conforming. “Nonconformity,” he says, “is not only a desirable thing, it is a factual thing. One need only remark that all art is based upon nonconformity, has been bought either with the blood or with the reputation of nonconformists. Without nonconformity we would have had no Bill of Rights or Magna Carta, no public education system, no nation upon this continent, no Science at all, no philosophy, and considerable fewer religions. All that is pretty obvious.”
The good artist, says Shahn, has no really vested interest in the status quo. Hitler, a bad architect who wanted to kill expressionism, tried to establish a Nordic status quo, “a cloying art of kirche, küche, and kinder . . . [it was] stillborn and unremembered.” German expressionism hasn’t come back, but there will be other rebels.
In Hungary, according to The Christian Science Monitor, they are “taking a giant, if little-noticed leap toward letting capitalism out of the closet.” If a nonconforming art is to go with this leap, Haraszti is the man to discover it. But he has been too concerned with maintaining his sardonic pose.