On the relics of oppression
The New Criterion
When I went to Romania shortly before the downfall of the Ceauscescu regime, the Romanians (to judge by the displays in the bookshops) seemed to be a nation of stereochemists: for displayed to the exclusion of almost everything else in the bookshop windows was a volume entitled The Stereospecific Characterization of Isoprene. Perhaps the authorship, or the alleged authorship, of this volume explained its strange popularity: that of Elena Ceauscescu, Doctor of Science and Member of the Romanian Academy.
I did not know why the dictator’s wife had chosen chemistry as the realm of her supposed genius and world-fame. Nevertheless, I considered buying a copy, but then thought better of it. Surely any assistant in a bookshop would suspect me of wanting to expose it to satire, ridicule, and mockery on my return home? In a totalitarian society, participation in the cult of personality is easily interpreted as subversive, while failure to participate is tantamount to rebellion. In other words, where lies are the very lifeblood of the state, paranoia is inevitable.
I did, however, find one interesting book for sale in the bookshops: The Priority of N. C. Paulescu in the Discovery of Insulin. The book maintained that it was not Banting, Best, and Macleod of Canada who made this discovery, as every medical student is taught and therefore knows for the rest of his life, but Nicolae Paulescu of Romania. At first, I dismissed this claim as a typical piece of resentful national-Communist historiography of the kind that dates back to the Stalin era when almost every major scientific advance was credited to a Russian. But, in fact, there was a lot in it, and the evidence suggests that the Canadians wilfully misrepresented Paulescu’s work in order to claim priority for themselves.
What the book did not mention was that, besides being a brilliant physiologist, Paulescu was also one of the founding fathers of Romania’s other deeply lamentable political tradition, that of xenophobic and anti-semitic nationalism. For example, Paulescu suggested that the Jews of Romania might be exterminated, and though he died well before anything like this could happen, and it is possible therefore that he would have changed his mind when he saw his ideas put into practice, this side to his life’s work has bedeviled commemoration of him as one of the greatest scientists his country has produced.
Should the book have mentioned his political views? Was it sinister that it did not do so? After all, it was concerned only with a matter of medical history, of a narrow and quite specific nature. Here, I think, the answer depends upon the circumstances. Romanian publishing at the time was totally controlled by the state (there was not even any samizdat in the country, so ubiquitous was the Securitate), and in such an environment what is not said is no less ideologically loaded than what is. In an open environment, narrowness of focus, such as that shown by this book, would not be sinister; it would signify nothing, whatever the views of the author, for others would be free to expatiate on his omissions if they felt it appropriate or necessary to do so; it is only under a system of rigid control that an omission can become so sinister.
Has Romania changed, and changed fundamentally? Recently, I was asked to speak on a panel at the Romanian stand at the London Book Fair, and the question arose as to whether the overthrow of Ceauscescu was a mere putsch or a real revolution. The best answer was that, while the overthrow was intended to be the former, it turned into the latter as far as its effects were concerned. Ceauscescu was overthrown in the hope of preserving the essence of the regime, by and for his former lieutenants, but a regime such as his is like the bloom of a grape (though aesthetically much less pleasing, of course). One touch and it is gone beyond restoration. However much Ceauscescu’s successor, Ion Iliescu, may have fancied the role for himself of Communist dictator and ideological panjandrum, 1990 was not the moment for another Conducaùtor or Danube of Thought, to cite but two of Ceaus©escu’s honorifics; he had to be content with more normal forms of political power, influence, and corruption. To change the metaphor slightly, the genie was out of the bottle, and there was no conjuring it back into it.
The book stand at the London Book Fair, nearly twenty years later, was sufficient proof of a revolutionary change. A mad monomania had been replaced by a healthy—or is it merely normal?—diversity. By this, I mean real diversity, not the academic Newspeak form that means a combination of submissive mental conformity and public profession of adherence to certain secular pieties. For people who live by ideas, no change could be more profound or important.
Among the books on the stand I found one that had an almost physical effect on me. It was a book of photographs, with the title Kombinat: Ruine Industriale ale Epocii de Aur, translated as Kombinat: Industrial Ruins of the Golden Era. The Golden Era, of course, was the name that Ceauscescu and his acolytes modestly gave to the period of their own rule, and anyone who had the slightest experience of it could not mistake the depth of the irony of the book’s title, a symptom of a pent-up fury and despair so great that sometimes a brief verbal snort of contempt seemed, and seems, the only possible, constructive, and self-preserving response. But of course it is not enough.
There was a time not so very long ago when I despised books of photographs. I took the opposite view to that of Alice, who could not see the point of books without pictures: I could not see the point of books that consisted of little else. Comparatively late in life, however, I have discovered what ought to have been obvious to me before —books of photographs can form the template or occasion of prolonged meditation and reflection. Of no book of photographs is this more true than of Kombinat.
As soon as you open it, you sense that the notion in the preface by a member of the publishing firm Igloo that “Kombinat is, for us, a moral duty rather than a regular publishing enterprise” is no more than the simple and obvious truth. All who were associated with it must surely have been fired with a profound (and no doubt exhilarating) sense of duty to their country, and with an almost missionary zeal. The short texts that accompany the photographs contain insights—for example, the ruins displayed in the photographs decay but do not age—but it is the photographs themselves that take one’s breath away, that immediately abstract one from whatever trivialities one might have been thinking about before, to confront one with many important questions all at once.
The photographs are of the vast industrial complexes built under Ceauscescu in Romania that have, as the title suggests, fallen into ruins; they fell into ruins the moment captive markets for whatever they produced were freed to buy anything else. Untold acres are of land are now deserts of crumbling ferro-concrete towers, surrounded by polluted land of evil coloration, with pools of water that could almost serve as national repositories for toxic chemicals. Steel rods emerge from much of the concrete, twisted like the antennae of insects in their death agony. Even in the ruination you can detect from the quality of the construction that there was no human pride in the work in the first place; it was all slapdash folly from the beginning, with inevitable collapse built into it.
Fields of rubble; forests of abandoned chimneys; enormous skeletons of concrete girders; vast vertical plains of corrugated iron and smashed windows; processions of square concrete columns leading nowhere except to churned-up wasteland; rusting iron staircases rising or falling to or from a void; immense trellises of ironwork, supporting nothing; crumbling concrete tanks, silos, and water towers. It is as if a gray-brown organism that solidified into immovable detritus had invaded the earth and spread malignantly, eating up the landscape for miles around. Only occasionally is a village to be seen in the background, in the midst of which there is a church—anything not of ferro-concrete now appears like a masterpiece by Brunelleschi. But the vast industrial complex of ruins dominates all: the horizon, the eye, one’s very thoughts. There is no escaping it; as there was never any intention that you should be able to escape it.
No humans are to be seen; one has the impression that, at last, an environment has been created in which even rats cannot live. All that survives in the wasteland is a spiky, dry vegetation that takes on the same coloration as the ruins and that is able to grow where there is much cadmium, arsenic, lead, manganese, and other metals in the soil.
One of the first questions the photographs, taken by Serban Bonciocat, raise is the propriety of their aesthetics: for they are often of great beauty, the photographer obviously having taken great care with their formal composition. Is it permissible to aestheticize evil and disaster? Is it to become complicit with it?
I once faced this question in a particularly acute form. I was in Ayacucho, the city in Andean Peru, at the height of the conflict with Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). Ayacucho, and its revived university that had been in abeyance since the seventeenth century, was the cradle of this vicious Maoist movement, its founder having been the Professor of Philosophy there, Abimael Guzmán, who had written his thesis on Kant. By no means was it certain that the Peruvian state would emerge victorious in the struggle; the tension in Ayacucho was greater than anywhere I had ever been.
One day the body of the mayor of a local village was brought to the town morgue. He had been killed by Sendero for having organized elections in his village, and his face was the most terrible sight I had ever seen. The skin had been carefully removed from it in its entirety; it was like one of those flayed preparations used in anatomical illustrations from the time of Vesalius. It was also fixed in a grimace of abject terror.
I was struck at once by a sense of vocation, which was not without its exhilaration: I must show this to the world, everything else in my life up to this moment appearing suddenly to have been utterly insignificant. I was already convinced that Peru was a Cambodia in the making, but on a much bigger scale; this sight would alert the world to the fact. I therefore hastened to take a photograph, and in doing so I considered the composition.
Soon afterwards, almost immediately, in fact, I worried whether concern about background, angles, and light was not an unfeeling response to this manifestation of evil, whether I had not been dehumanized by a sense of vocation that prevented me from responding in a more normal and healthier way, with mere horror and revulsion. Did the end really justify the conduct? Was there not something sinister in my self-important excitement, not sadism exactly, but an ineffable joy at confronting evil, a joy whose existence was possible only if the evil itself existed?
In the event, my effort was futile. Sendero was defeated, Guzmán did not fulfil his ambition to be South America’s Pol Pot, and the British newspaper to which I took my photographs, while agreeing that they were of high quality and the subject matter of the highest importance, said that they would disturb the public too greatly. After all, the paper’s color supplement survived by advertisements for luxury goods, and my photographs were hardly conducive to thoughts about what impression one’s luggage might make at airports or on arrival at five-star hotels.
On balance, though, I think I was right; and certainly, in this case, the photographer ofKombinat has not, by taking beautifully composed photographs that are themselves beautiful, thereby romanticized his subject matter. Indeed, the unutterable hideousness of what he photographs survives the beauty of the composition, and therefore strengthens the point. If the photographer, with his artist’s eye, cannot disguise the horror of these ruins, then nobody and nothing else can.
One of the lessons of the book is the triumph of the implicit, its far greater power to act deeply upon the mind, at least in many circumstances, than the explicit. This is an important lesson in an age of hyperbole, when vehemence is apt to be mistaken for depth of feeling. It is the absence of human beings from these photographs of what are obviously human artifacts on a vast scale that makes them so unbearably tragic and terrible. The presence of human beings is all the greater for their absence. These ruined artifacts are, if you like, colossal human labor congealed into ferro-concrete: but a colossal human labor disconnected from all human purposes except tyranny. It was Custine, writing of the Russia of Nicholas I in 1839, who said that it was only under tyrannies that immense sacrifices are made to produce trifles; here is a monstrous confirmation of that dictum, one indeed that represents what the Soviets used to call, with regard to Marxist doctrine, a “creative development” of it.
It takes an effort of the imagination, I think, to understand the implications of these ruins, or rather of the constructions that fell into them. Here, perhaps, a minimal understanding of the background is necessary. It was one of the communist criticisms of capitalism, that took a part of the truth for the whole, that capitalism produced not for use but for profit; and in response, communists devised a system that produced neither for use nor for profit, but for propaganda.
Astonishing as it might now seem to young people who absorb environmentalism if not with their mother’s milk exactly, at least with the first propositional language that they ever hear in school, progressives not so long ago saw a world smothered in concrete, with factories belching black smoke on every horizon, as a sign, indeed as the goal, of progress. Socialist iconography always included the jagged-roofed factory in the distance with at least one chimney spewing smoke into the atmosphere. Nature was something to be overcome, controlled, subdued, and defeated utterly. In the early 1970s, when I was a student, I had a Communist friend who preferred nylon shirts to cotton ones, not because they were more comfortable or cheaper, but because they represented, in his words, “a triumph of Man over Nature.” Cotton, which had to be grown, depended to some extent upon the vagaries of the weather, which Man could not control, whereas he could control the extraction and transformation of the materials from which nylon was made and which called forth an industrial proletariat at a higher level of technical development. Ergo nylon shirts were socially progressive, while cotton ones were reactionary.
It is hardly surprising that, when people who harbor such ideas and emotions get into power, they view the past, and all material remains thereof, as reprehensible, as so much rubbish to be swept and cleared away, a painful reminder of the time when Nature had the upper hand and was incompletely subdued.
Thus Ceaus©escu’s systematization (as it was called), the policy of placing everyone in identical modern apartment blocks even in the countryside and of locating vast factories in rural areas without regard to economic disadvantages, was not the diseased or febrile scheme of a mad dictator: it was a logical deduction of an entire Weltanschauung. It was not enough that change should come about gradually, organically: the previous way of life must be—to use a word that communists were so fond of—“smashed,” until no vestige of it, material or immaterial, remained.
And thus the factories depicted in Kombinat were designed not so much to produce anything that anyone might want: Insofar as they did produce anything, it tended to be commodities that were wanted for mainly statistical purposes. Steel and pig iron were particular favorites of communist statisticians, and, oddly enough, their steeply rising graphs of production were for long accepted as evidence of growing prosperity by organizations such as the World Bank, which ought to have known better.
The other main product of Communist factories, of course, was pollution. This was welcome because pollution was to a communist what “respect” is to a young ghetto thug: a sign of his own importance. What was really being engineered in these factories was not metal or any other raw material, but human souls. The factories forged not iron, but the New Man.
The purpose of communist construction, then, was destruction. To reverse Bakunin’s famous dictum, the constructive urge is also a destructive urge. And since the communist outlook is one that is unlikely to recommend itself to many people, both the construction and the destruction have to be carried out coercively. Ferro-concrete is not only congealed labor, but also congealed coercion. The great success of communism was that it gained the participation of almost everyone in his own destruction and in the destruction of others so that it became difficult for anyone to consider himself superior to the regime: all the more so because he could not protest—indeed he had to participate in—the barrage of lying propaganda.
The photographs in Kombinat raise many questions, some of them deeply disturbing and not susceptible to easy answer. Man is free, no doubt, but to what extent does the past weigh on him? There is no doubt that what we see in these photographs is highly oppressive. We cannot just say, “Well, we’ll start out again, as from new, as if nothing had happened,” because the attempt to start out anew is what produced the catastrophe in the first place. The book, therefore, is profoundly unideological in its implications: it is against the notion of there being a blueprint for perfection. It implies that the condition of man is permanently that of the traveler who asks the Irish peasant how to get to such-and-such a place. “If I were going to such-and-such a place,” replies the peasant, “I wouldn’t start from here.” We are always in the wrong place.
It must not be thought that Kombinat is a book of interest and application to a faraway country of which we know nothing, much as it captures the particular suffering of a particular nation during a particular era. The destructive urge is with us still. As I write this, there is a laudatory exhibition in London dedicated to the work of the greatest architectural criminal in history, Le Corbusier. The main difference between his schemes of destruction and Ceauscescu's is that the latter was able to a large extent to put them into practice. Otherwise they were very similar—both were infuriated by their mediocrity in everything except ambition. For what are Le Corbusier’s designs but of mediocrity made grandiose, and of a destructive rage that he should not be able to do better than, say, the jobbing builders of a hundred provincial towns in England or France of the eighteenth century? That he remains a hero to European architects is a sign that destructive construction is still their underlying motive; and that, objectively speaking (to use a Stalinist turn of phrase), Nicolae and Elena Ceaus©escu are to them heroes also.
Doctor Johnson said that a man who had never been a soldier or a sailor was always aware of his inferiority when in the com- pany of such. What he meant by this was that the civilian never knew how he would behave in conditions of danger, whereas soldiers and sailors did. I confess to a similar feeling when I meet intellectuals from the former eastern bloc. For them, culture was not an adornment to human existence, but almost its deepest meaning, and certainly the necessary condition of their psychological survival. This gives to their culture a depth ours all too frequently does not have. It is the experience of the Golden Era of Romania under Ceauscescu that gives Kombinat its moral passion and seriousness. If I were a teacher of political philosophy in a university, I would use it to provoke my students to think.
- The Priority of N. C. Paulescu in the Discovery of Insulin, by Ion Pavel; Academy of the Socialist Republic of Romania, 251 pages. Go back to the text.
- Kombinat: Industrial Ruins of the Golden Era, by Augustin Ioan, Anca Nicoleta Otoiu, Liviu Chelcea, Gabriel Simionv, translated by Irina Pachitanu; Igloo Media, 195 pages,RON 70. Go back to the text.