You can see, I think, why many intellectuals of the first half of the last century fell in love with Communism. Take the French writer Andre Gide. In 1937 Gide traveled to Russia, like many European intellectuals of his time hoping to revel in and celebrate Soviet Communism. The ideals of socialism, an inspiration to a generation of thinkers who felt certain that the growing power of oligarchies and corporations were bound to subvert the western democracies, provoked Gide’s journey, a journey that had become the equivalent of a Leftist Grand Tour.
Janet Flanner, writing from Paris for the New Yorker, recounted Gide’s journey. As did many of his compatriots, Gide came away bitterly saddened and completely disillusioned. As we now know and as Gide learned firsthand, the socialist ideal, as beautiful as it might be in theory, could not withstand the realities of human nature. People were bound to ruin it, and they did. Stalin was only the worst offender in that regard, a titanic tyrant ruling over a multitude of pint-sized tyrants.
Flanner concludes her piece on Gide’s reversal of position with a point of real interest to creative people. “Gide notes,” Flanner writes, “that because of the emotions which Communism arouses, the truth about Russia is usually told with hate and the lies with love.” This rich observation extrapolates. We artists, roused by emotion, often do the same thing. In our work, we end up hating more than we should and loving more than we should. This tends to make our work too cynical, on the one hand, and too romantic, on the other.
We excoriate our small town because our disrespect for its values and its denizens has turned to hatred. At the same time we eulogize the plight of the one poet our small town has produced, turning her into a troubled saint, when in fact she was just a smart anorexic better at words than at life. In the process of hating our town and loving its poet we distort and make unrecognizable the truth about our environment, our neighbors, and our artists. A great gulf is manufactured and our intentions to see clearly tumble into it.
How can we love and still see clearly? How can we feel the legitimate outrage we feel and still see to either side of it? I think that these are harder tasks than anyone imagines. I think that our enthusiasms blind us and our hatreds blind us in ways that confound us. An artist may inadvertently paint unicorns and never stop painting them, or inadvertently paint violent gashes and never stop painting them, exactly because he is trapped in an infatuation, like the intellectuals’ infatuation with Communism. This infatuation, compounded of wishful thinking and raw emotion, does not let reality or maturity in.
Thoughts to ponder...