'Psychological Realism': Truth's enemy in the U.S.

BOOKS; THE ARGUMENT

Pseudo-science mumbo jumbo has the same sort of truth-savaging effect as Stalinist Socialist Realism did.

July 11, 1999|By Craig Nova | Craig Nova,Special to the Sun

I have often thought that the Soviet Union collapsed not only because of the economic impossibility of the bureaucratic way of knowledge, although this must have been a large part of it, but also because of something else altogether, which was the way in which Soviet writers were compelled to work. They were not allowed to say what they thought, and they were told what to think, too, by way of something called Socialist Realism. This, of course, was the notion that the writer operated as an agent of the state and worked for its glorification.

In the United States, at this late date in history, we are far too hip to allow such notions to influence the way writers work, although we are up to something similar. And, of course, the way we go about it is uniquely American, which is to say we are doing so with an eye toward the practical and with the modern age's instinct to hide from unpleasant facts, particularly if our motives are beyond reproach. Our homegrown version of the Stalinist Truth Factory can be called, for lack of a better phrase, Psychological Realism.

Socialist Realism led to novels about the joy of the workers in Athletic Shoe Plant #31 who surpassed their quota of the Russian version of High Top Tennis Shoes. (It is probably best, I suppose, to avert one's eyes from the physical appearance of these items, and, of course, better not to think at all of how they fit.)

The practical impact of such writing was that the Soviet society was blind. It had no way of admitting to itself that something was wrong, and because of this it had no way of seeing the disaster it was facing. Everyone knew that something was amiss, but no one dared say it.

Or, as Czeslaw Milosz says in his introduction to "On Socialist Realism" by Abram Tertz (a name found in a Moscow university drinking song) and published in this country by the University of California Press, Socialist Realism was "... based on the glorification of the state by the writer and artist, whose task it is to portray the power of the state as the greatest good, and to scorn the sufferings of the individual ... the inferiority of poetry, novels, plays, and pictures produced in accordance with the formula cannot be avoided, since reality, which is quite disagreeable, has to be passed over in silence in the name of an ideal, in the name of what-ought-to-be." Tertz (or Andrei Sinyavsky, the author's real name) also published the classic satire from the Soviet era, a novel called "The Trial Begins."

And by god, if you were a writer in the USSR, you knew what to do. That is, unless you wanted to end up in Siberia. Jose Ortega y Gassett says in a little book called "Meditations on Hunting" (Wilderness Adventures Sports Press) that "reality has its own structure," and what better proof of this is there than the collision between Socialist Realism and what can only be called the facts of life?

Now, everyone in this country will sagely nod, "Yes, yes, how true. How true. Here, we do not practice such deceptions."

To a large extent, this is correct, but there is something in the way we use language that gives me the creeps, and these creeps are of a kind that have a certain resonance with the creeps that came from watching the self-inflicted blindness of the Soviet Union.

Part of this blindness was the popular Soviet belief that it had all the answers and that if you couldn't make do with these answers, why there was something wrong with you. In fact, many Soviet writers who had the foolishness or the bravery to try to address the details of the human condition, which seemed to thrive no matter what the Social Realist had to say, found themselves on their way to the loony bin. Truth, even stubborn truth, could be fixed by a course of electro-shock therapy.

This brings us to the problems in this country. The heart of what seems to be wrong here is that the words we often use do not illuminate reality but disguise it. The language of Psychological Realism is often drawn from crypto-science, and it gets a certain amount of power out of its association with the technical aspect of life.

In this age, it is technology that really packs the wallop. But then Stalin referred to writers as "engineers of the soul."

One of the discoveries that George Orwell made and that is often discussed in the "Collected Letters, Essays and Journalism of George Orwell" (edited by Ian Angus) is that people do not examine the facts when confronting a problem, particularly a political (or, I might add, a literary) one. Instead, they look for details that support what they already believe. They use words to suggest what they want to be true rather than what is true.

For the implications of this, in terms of Psychological Realism, let us start with some mundane examples in the Language Department. For instance, people now use "role model" when they mean to say "example."

Just as they say "closure" when they mean to say resolution.

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