A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Shakespeare and Russia


The future of Europe has recently come into doubt, the doubt being not that Europe will have some future, of course, but that it will have a European one. It therefore seems prudent, if painful, to review what a final collapse of a civilization actually looks like, so that we can at least be prepared for it as it unfolds. Sadly, a current example of a failing civilization, which at least obviates the need to flip through musty old history books that detail the slow-motion fizzling of the Byzantines or the pillaging of Rome, does exist for us, collapsing right before our eyes. I speak of course of Russia.

In the land of the Czars longevity has dropped to below 60 years, a stealth AIDS crisis is in the works, and over 60% of pregnancies are aborted. Women are voting on the new Russia with their wombs and they are voting no. In that society, everything is collapsing.

"This will last out a night in Russia, when nights are longest there."

Measure for Measure, Act II.i

If I may drift today from my usual focus on the Bard to recount a personal story, in the winter of 1993 I had a chance to wander around East Europe for a few weeks. I played chess on the St. Charles Bridge in Prague and was invited for beers with the buskers – the trinket sellers – who worked there. I stayed with a Hungarian family whose daughter, with her fiancé, took me Hungarian discoing. A thief who had already robbed other passengers, as the police later explained to me, shared my train car before jumping off just shy of a station in Slovakia. I saw impoverished gypsies and water-filled crystalware musicians playing a la Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality. In short, I had a ball. And I'll come to Russia in a moment.

"Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear,
The arm'd rhinoceros, or the Hyrcan tiger;
Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves
Shall never tremble:…"

Macbeth to Banquo's ghost.

Every city I visited – Prague, Budapest, Berlin, Warsaw – was filled with art galleries, for which I give Europe credit. Many were devoted to contemporary art, with their rooms invariably divided by country. The Polish and Czech rooms were invariably impressive. The French rooms notably polished and assured. The Italian rooms were stylish and playful. The Scandinavian rooms were dutifully bleak. The Ukrainian rooms talented but despairing.

"Foolish curs, that run winking into the mouth
of a Russian bear and have their heads crushed
like rotten apples! You may as well say, that's
a valiant flea that dare eat his breakfast on the
lip of a lion."

Orlando in Henry V, III.ii.

But the Russian rooms were strangely, memorably horrifying. Of course it's not the kind of thing one can prove, but the impression these artworks left was that not only the concept of beauty, and even of design, but the very concept of order seemed to have been banished from their canvasses. In today's Western museums and galleries, of course, one sees a hatred of beauty and an assault on the concept of art, but at least the concept is understood. In these works there was not even a denial of art – there was simply no relationship with it at all.

Lucio: "Some say he is with the Emperor of Russia;
other some, he is in Rome: but where is he, think you?"

Duke: "I know not where; but wheresoever, I wish him well."

Measure for Measure, Act III.ii – the Duke is in cognito and talking about himself.

And so on the basis of no more than a few gallery visits outside Russia (well, together with a bit of reading and reflection as well) I am willing to venture the opinion that Russia is dying because Russia is Dostoyevskian, and suffers as a result from a nihilistic justification of sin, crime, self-centeredness and despair.

"The Emperor of Russia was my father:
O that he were alive, and here beholding
His daughter's trial! That he did but see
The flatness of my misery, yet with eyes
Of pity, not revenge!"

A Winter's Tale, Act III.ii.120

Culture really is about ideas, and which ideas prevail within a culture greatly matters. There's a reason so many Americans are still displaying their Kerry or their Bush bumper stickers today. Even as the real Senator Kerry and President Bush melt back into being merely human, their names remain the current standards in a culture war whose outcome is still very much unknown. And ask any high school sports referee, morale as much as strategy and leadership count on the field, particularly in the face of setbacks and adversity.

France tells us which is the wrong road. And Russia tells us what will happen if the wrong road is taken and pursued.

Ros: "Help, hold his brows! He'll swoon!
Why look you pale? Sea-sick, I think,
Coming from Muscovy."

Love's Labour Lost, V.ii

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