“I cannot predict the future. Describing the present is already a risky task,” said Tzvetan Todorov, the French-Bulgarian philosopher and theorist.
He was speaking to a full house earlier this week at the Stanford Humanities Center during a series of lectures and seminars. Though I was mostly tied up with the arrangements for the Bing Concert Hall groundbreaking and a Pasternak conference, I was able to drop in occasionally — to the lecture mentioned above, “Reflections on the Fall of the Wall” (alas, I had to miss the his talk on Germaine Tillion), and also for his seminar on “The Dictator as Artist.”
Todorov, author of Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps (1996) and Hope and Memory (2003), discussed the self-reinvention of dictators, treating themselves as a work of art. Mussolini “transformed himself by effort of the will.” Hitler’s initial aspirations to be an artist are well-known. Stalin, who dabbled in poetry as a youth, “reinvented himself,” even changing his name and his birthdate. He favored Chekhov, noted Todorov, which suggests “we should temper the idea that the great classics soothe the savage beast.”
Todorov commented on the dictators’ fascination with festivals, parades, architecture (take an architectural tour of Hitler’s beloved Munich for evidence), eventually they meddle with art and artists. Hitler wrote to Wagner’s son that his father’s music was “the spiritual sword with which we are fighting today.” Stalin referred to writers as “engineers of the human soul,” and killed several.
In these dictators’ utopia, “Everything had to be deliberately willed,” noted Todorov, “nothing merely accepted.” What he called “feminine values” of love, compassion, and affection were rejected, and “utopian language” often masked the sinister means to achieve them.
And the attraction of artists to dictators? Even Pasternak fell under Stalin’s spell for awhile. Kornei Chukovsky recalled seeing Stalin during a Komsomol congress meeting he attended with Pasternak:
“The excitement in the hall! And HE stood, a little weary, pensive and majestic. One had a sense of power, an enormous assurance of authority and, at the same time, something feminine and soft. I looked about me. Everyone had enamoured, tender, inspired and laughing eyes. To see him – simply to see him – was a joy for all of us. … When he was applauded, he took out his [silver] pocket watch and showed it to the audience with a delightful smile. We all whispered one to another, ‘His watch, his watch, he’s pointing to his watch,’ and when we were leaving we again recalled that watch as we collected our coats and hats…Pasternak and I walked home together and we were both elated with joy.” [I use the translation from Emma Gerstein’s Moscow Diaries.]
At least one question was lively. Nina Witoszek pointed out that the fascination with dictators continues into the present: Slavoj Žižek openly admitted his admiration for Mao Tse Tung. (At the mention of Žižek, Todorov whispered to his neighbor, “Il est un provocateur!”) While teaching at the University of Florence and the University of Oslo, she found that students were fascinated with Heidegger.
“What is your comment on these liaisons?” she asked. “Is it a desire for a surrogate God?”
He answered, “Artists are attracted by power.” He recalled Hegel admiring Napoleon riding through Jena: “I saw the Emperor – this world-soul – riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it … this extraordinary man, whom it is impossible not to admire.”
Todorov said “I don’t have an answer.” And repeated in English: “Žižek is a provocateur.”
He continued: “Heidegger is not reducible to his admiration for Hitler.” Nevertheless, he said, “We have to analyze his blindness, which is not there by accident. It’s not the great philosopher and the weak man next to him – but something within the philosopher.” Something “made it possible, but not compulsory.”
He also noted France’s postwar fascination with Nietzsche and Heidegger – “two names connected mentally, spiritually with fascism” – a fascination he said that Dostoevsky scholar Joe Frank, sitting a few seats away with his wife Marguerite, had witnessed, as a Paris denizen in the 1950s.
Not all the questions were so lively. During his talk he quoted Simone Weil — a citation that I had been seeking for some time. I wanted the source. Todorov obliged: it’s from “The Responsibility of Writers,” Simone Weil: On Science, Necessity, and the Love of God, Oxford University Press, 1968:
“The essential characteristic of the first half of the 20th century is the growing weakness, and almost the disappearance, of the idea of value. This is one of those rare phenomena which seem, as far as one can tell, to be really new in human history, though it may be, of course, that it has occurred before during periods which have since vanished in oblivion, as may also happen to our own period.”
Tags: Nina Witoszek