Freethinkers Versus the Monsterverse: An Excerpt from “The New Enlightenment”

February 23, 2021   •   By Peter B. Kaufman

LARB PRESENTS AN EXCERPT from Peter B. Kaufman’s The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge, out today from Seven Stories Press.

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In Too Loud a Solitude, Bohumil Hrabal’s comic allegory about the life of the printed word in Czechoslovakia, the wise fool Hanta — Hrabal’s hero — works at a pulping press, forced to destroy the two tons of old books that are recycled each month. But Hanta has such a deep love for the book that he cannot bring himself to pulp all of the tomes that the garbage men bring to him. He rescues so many each week — old philosophy volumes, lives of the saints, first editions of novels — that all the shelves and cupboards of his little apartment gradually become stuffed with Schiller, Lao Tzu, and Nietzsche.

Early on in the novel, Hanta describes how horrified he was as a youth by the physical destruction of books — before his senses were deadened by 35 years working the compactor. He had chanced across a cache of thousands of gilt-edged, leather-bound volumes from the Royal Prussian Academy, stowed in some barns near Prague just after World War II. With a librarian friend, he had arranged to bring the books to the ministry of foreign affairs, just “until things simmered down,” when they could be returned to Germany. But someone snitched, the Soviet army found out, and they declared the books spoils of war. Hrabal describes Hanta’s shock at what the soldiers did:

[S]o the column of military vehicles started transporting all the leather-bound tomes with their gilt edges and titles over to the railroad station, where they were loaded on flatcars in the rain, and since it poured the whole week, what I saw when the last load of books pulled up was a constant flow of gold water and soot and printer’s ink coming from the train. Well, I just stood there, leaning against a lamppost, flabbergasted, and as the last car disappeared into the mist, I felt the rain on my face merging with the tears, so when on my way out of the station I saw a policeman in uniform, I crossed my wrists and begged him with the utmost sincerity to take out his handcuffs, his bracelets, as we used to call them, and take me in — I’d committed a crime, a crime against humanity.

This was Hanta’s first brush with the postwar destruction of the printed word. “A few more years of the same, though,” writes Hrabal, “and I got used to it.” [1]

In reality, most of the book lovers, intellectuals, lovers of ideas, and citizens of Central and Eastern Europe never did. Indeed, for all of those decades, an independent “second society” battled Stalinist strictures and censors with whatever communications equipment could be found and put to use: carbon paper, mimeograph machines, and makeshift printers and binderies, as well as radio, television, audiocassette recorders, and VCRs. Tens of thousands of people were regularly involved in the production of illicit publications in Central and Eastern Europe and in the Soviet underground, and millions read and disseminated them. Václav Havel, speaking as one of the dissidents in 1975, explained why. He spoke of censorship producing a loss that is “infinitely deeper and more significant than might appear from the numbers involved”:

The forcible liquidation of […] a journal — a theoretical review concerned with the theatre, say — is not just an impoverishment of its particular readers. It is not even merely a severe blow to theatrical culture. It is simultaneously, and above all, the liquidation of a particular organ of society’s self-awareness and, hence, an interference, hard to describe in exact terms, in the complex system of circulation, exchange and conversion of nutrients that maintain life in that many-layered organism which is society today; a blow against the natural dynamic of the processes going on within that organism; a disturbance of the balanced interplay of all its various functions, an interplay reflecting the level of complexity reached by society’s anatomy. And just as a chronic deficiency of a given vitamin (amounting in quantitative terms only to a negligible fraction of the human diet) can make a man ill, so, in the long run, the loss of a single periodical can cause the social organism much more damage than would appear at first sight. [2]

Samizdat — from the Russian, to self- (sam) publish (izdat’) — is credited for helping to end totalitarian thought control in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, bringing freer expression and more democratic institutions to hundreds of millions of people. With typewriters, carbon paper, and the copy machine, dissident writers and thinkers in the Eastern Bloc created a parallel communications culture, even a parallel political culture, and they managed to outflank official media and its state-controlled messages. The ideas shared across samizdat’s so-called second society or second culture became the backbone of the human rights movement and freedom and free expression. Future Nobel Prize Laureates Boris Pasternak, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Andrei Sakharov, among others, first published much of their work this way — as did world leaders including Havel and Lech Wałęsa who emerged from the underground dissident movement. Indeed, Solzhenitsyn, Havel, and others maintained that the liberation of the Soviet Union and the East Bloc would not have happened without it. [3]

Today it might be worth thinking about creating a parallel, samizdat culture of our own, here at home, as we scan the American communications landscape and solemnly realize how our media elites keep failing us over and over again. The fact is, our mainstream television networks, radio broadcasters, newspapers, press agencies, and magazines have missed and/or avoided essentially every critical story for the last 30 years. Our mainstream media has failed to help Americans focus on, understand, predict, or explain the roots of Donald Trump’s 2016 election (and the Americans who voted for him), the rise of Bernie Sanders (and the Americans who supported him), the real estate and banking crisis of 2008 (and the Americans who suffered so profoundly from it), the invasion and occupation of Iraq (and the Americans and Iraqis and others who have been killed and wounded there), the earlier rise of al-Qaeda — indeed, even the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and Berlin Wall brought about in part by the underground press. Our coastal media elites live in a bubble. Issues that are key to millions of voters in the heartland — and issues that are vital for Americans to discuss moving forward — are systematically ignored. [4]

What if now were the time for a new self-publishing here at home — a new samizdat? The time to create a new, parallel communications network and a fresh system for information sharing? A parallel network and a fresh system owned not by commercial interests — so Twitter, Facebook, Medium, and other seemingly “self-publishing” platforms can’t factor in here — nor by the state or the government, but by the very people who create and maintain them, part of a widening nonprofit, non-commercial ecosystem. Václav Havel spoke of the battle of first and second cultures as an epic contest between “an anonymous, soulless, immobilizing (‘entropic’) power,” on the one hand, and “life, humanity, being, and its mystery,” on the other. [5] Fellow dissidents spoke of samizdat’s second culture as “the only meaningful construction” people could create if they did not want “to remain passive appendices of the political and social structures created by the ruling power.” [6] They signaled each other as they wrote, distributed, and published — from the smallest codes, of the kinds that the Encyclopédistes used, to the largest and, also like the Encyclopédie, most earth-shattering. [7] Solzhenitsyn spoke of the mystical wisdom of a process in which information that is urgent somehow rises to the top. Samizdat, Solzhenitsyn wrote, “knows what is what.” [8]

This may be the moment for media that politics enjoyed 2,600 years ago, when democracy — dēmos (people) + kratia (power, rule) — took hold in Greece. Indeed this may be the moment when the internet could bring to media what our Periclean forebears brought to government more than 20 centuries ago — the power of the people. [9] Havel wrote of truth — relevant enough today — as a … “virus,” something that can “slowly spread through the tissue of the life of lies, gradually causing it to disintegrate.” Hard to read that now, for sure, but back then he was referring to a society — Czechoslovakia, Poland, Russia, the whole bloc — in which everyone was living the lie, rather than living in truth. The “crust presented by the life of lies is made of strange stuff,” Havel wrote:

As long as it seals off hermetically the entire society, it appears to be made of stone. But the moment someone breaks through in one place, when one person cries out, “The emperor is naked!” — when a single person breaks the rules of the game, thus exposing it as a game — everything suddenly appears in another light and the whole crust seems then to be made of a tissue on the point of tearing and disintegrating uncontrollably.

Havel wrote of truth as a “bacteriological weapon” that a single civilian can use “to disarm an entire division.” [10] Much as Diderot and the Encyclopédistes described their project as a “war machine” — “machine de guerre” — designed to defeat church and state back in their day as well. [11]

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The battles over the future of the past in this part of the world were real [12] — and were not fought only over print and paper; control over the screen, and indeed the network of screens and sounds that cinema and television made manifest, was a key tenet of the early Soviet social architects. [13] The Polish writer Tadeusz Konwicki, looking with me at the monstrous television tower in Warsaw 30 years ago, likened the structure to a hypodermic needle shooting “narcotic shit” into the body politic of the Polish nation. Withdrawal from that kind of dependence — on a national scale — brought with it paroxysms of junkie violence. [14] Let us remember that in the so-called bloodless or “velvet” revolutions that erupted as these and other countries burst out of this suffocation, the blood that was shed, in the main, ran from the corpses of protesters that tanks and gunshots scattered at the feet of the television towers in Bucharest, Vilnius, and Moscow. They were protesting the lies lived, purveyed, and broadcast by the totalitarian state.

These were the first real and physical battles for control over our screens, battles of freethinkers versus … the Monsterverse. [15]

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Peter B. Kaufman is a writer, teacher, and documentary film producer who works at MIT Open Learning and MIT’s Knowledge Futures Group. The author of numerous articles on media and education, he lives in northwest Connecticut and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Featured image: “Samizdat Chronicle of Current Events No 22 Cover and pages” by Nkrita is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been cropped.

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[1] Bohumil Hrabal, Too Loud a Solitude, translated by Michael Henry Heim (New York: Harcourt, 1990), 11.

[2] See Havel’s inspirational “Letter to Dr. Gustáv Husák, General Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party,” in Václav Havel, Living in Truth: Twenty-Two Essays Published on the Occasion of the Award of the Erasmus Prize to Václav Havel ed. Jan Vladislav (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 3–35, and quoted at greater length in Peter B. Kaufman, “Two Prague Publishers: Academia and SPN,” Scholarly Publishing 22, no. 31 (April 1991): 143–154. Jan Vladislav’s edited collection, sad to say, is not yet available online in its entirety — neither at the Internet Archive (https://archive.org/details/vaclavhavellivin00have) nor in the HathiTrust Digital Library (https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/002471389).

[3] Václav Havel, “The Power of the Powerless” and “Six Asides about Culture,” in Havel, Living in Truth, 36–122, 123–135, and Peter B. Kaufman, “Eastern Europe is Out of Print,” New York Times, April 6, 1991, http://www.nytimes.com/1991/04/06/opinion/eastern-europe-is-out-of-print.html. See also H. Gordon Skilling, Samizdat and an Independent Society in Central and Eastern Europe (Columbus: Ohio State Press, 1989), 8.

[4]  http://www.pbs.org/newshour/making-sense/do-you-live-in-a-bubble-a-quiz-2/

[5] Havel, “Six Asides about Culture,” in Havel: Living in Truth, 133.

[6] Skilling, Samizdat and an Independent Society in Central and Eastern Europe, 221 (emphasis added).

[7] Historian Anthony Grafton tells us how certain East German historians would make special “statements of intellectual centrality and allegiance” by putting the works of Marx and Engels out of alphabetical order at the start of their lists of citations. Coded, indeed. Anthony Grafton, The Footnote: A Curious History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 11.

[8] Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Oak and the Calf: Sketches of a Literary Life in the Soviet Union (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 284. See also Michael Scammell, Solzhenitsyn: A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1984).

[9] Peter B. Kaufman, “Toward a New Samizdat,” Medium, December 19, 2016, https://medium.com/@pbkauf/toward-a-new-samizdat-2af60f506d54.

[10] Havel, “The Power of the Powerless,” in Havel, Living in Truth, 58–60.

[11] Henry C. Clark, “How Radical Was the Political Thought of the Encyclopédie?” Online Library of Liberty, https://oll.libertyfund.org/pages/lm-diderot and Veronique Le Ru, Subversive Lumières: L’Encyclopédie comme machine de guerre (Paris: Centre national de la recherche scientifique, 2007). The Encyclopédie did have as its frontispiece an engraving of Truth radiating light, and Reason and Philosophy trying to catch it. It was the Age of Reason, after all. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lumi%C3%A8res#/media/File:Encyclopedie_frontispice_section_256px.jpg.

[12] István Rév, Retroactive Justice: Prehistory of Post-Communism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005).

[13] See Dziga Vertov, Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, ed. Annette Michelson and trans. Kevin O’Brien (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984); Christina Kiaer, Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005); V. S. Listov, Lenin i Kinematograph, 1917–1924 (Moscow: Isskustvo, 1986); Susan Tumarkin Goodman and Jens Hoffmann, The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film trans. Galya Korovina (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015); Richard Taylor, ed. and trans., The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents, 1896–1939 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1988); Richard Taylor, ed., and William Powell, trans., S. M. Eisenstein: Selected Works Volume III: Writings, 1934–1947 (London: British Film Institute, 1996); and Jamie Miller, Soviet Cinema: Politics and Persuasion under Stalin, KINO: The Russian and Soviet Cinema (London: I. B. Tauris, 2010); and Ellen Mickiewicz, Split Signals: Television and Politics in the Soviet Union (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988). See also Velimir Khlebnikov, Collected Works of Velimir Khlebnikov, Volume I: Letters and Theoretical Writings, ed. Charlotte Douglas and trans. Paul Schmidt (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987).

[14] Author interview with Tadeusz Konwicki, January 29, 1990, Warsaw, Poland. See also Konwicki, A Minor Apocalypse, trans. Richard Lourie (New York: Vintage Books, 1984).   

[15] For a comparison of the Velvet Revolution to the 1905 revolution and Russia’s Bloody Sunday, see Peter B. Kaufman, introduction to Russia and Its Crisis, by Paul Miliukov (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2005).