Aristotle credited Thespis with revolutionizing Greek drama in the Sixth Century, B.C., by introducing an actor in addition to the traditional chorus. The question has arisen, however, whether Thespis ever existed or, if he did, whether he was responsible for this radical change, which inspired Aeschylus and others to introduce additional actors, giving birth to Western theater as we know it. In Aristotle’s favor: someone must have introduced this change and many ancient Greeks believed it was Thespis, so why not? On the other side: believing does not make something so and it is unlikely that a single person could be responsible for an essential change to a long-standing ritual.
In the year 2000, nine years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and 43 after the publication in the West of Doctor Zhivago, I was studying in Russia and a literature professor told my class a story about the publication of this novel, an event that during the Cold War seemed of great symbolic importance. The professor’s story was that Boris Pasternak gave a copy of the manuscript to an Italian publisher, saying that he would send him a telegram stating whether or not to go ahead with publishing the novel. The idea was that Pasternak was still hoping to gain authorization to publish the novel in Russia, and he was not at all sure he wanted to have it published without the approval of his society and the Union of Soviet Writers. Some time after the publisher returned to Italy, Pasternak sent him a telegram saying, no, don’t publish the novel, but the Italian went ahead and published it anyway. (Among the less symbolic consequences: the publisher gained prominence and money, both of which he already had a great deal of; Pasternak was attacked by participants in the Soviet regime for having “fouled the spot where he ate and cast filth on those by whose labor he lives and breathes”. He won the Nobel Prize and was given the opportunity to leave Russia, but refused both, instead publicly apologizing to the Russian people for his work.)
To the professor the morals of the story were simple and clear: Pasternak, for all he was a Jew, an artist and critical of his society, was a loyal Russian first and foremost. He had been betrayed by a Western capitalist, or, more generally, by the immoral West, which values nothing so much as making money. (As Marx indicated: the capitalist manufacturer’s goal is to produce any article that can be sold for more than the production and sales costs. He does not produce either boots or books for their own sake.)
Yet even while the professor was still wrapping up the story I began to have doubts. Perhaps, I thought, the negative telegram was a positive signal that Pasternak and the publisher had agreed upon in advance? That is, perhaps “do not publish” in this case meant “do publish”? And was this a failed strategy? Had Russian spies failed to intercept the telegram and thus the Government had lacked the necessary “information” to conclude that Pasternak had opposed the publication of his novel in the West? Had he been punished—excoriated, dismissed from the Union of Soviet Writers, his mistress imprisoned—for his failure to pretend publicly enough that he was refusing to commit an antisocial act?
I asked the professor about this possibility, and she said there were Russians who believed that indeed the “no” telegram had meant yes, publish. Had anyone seen a copy of this telegram? I asked. In the West we have “critical editions” of literary works which include copies of pertinent historical documents.
The professor had never seen a copy of the telegram, nor had she heard of anyone seeing it, nor had she heard of it being kept in any archive. Was there ever any telegram? I wondered. My intuition—my character and my interpretation of experiences I had had up to that point—told me there wasn’t.
It seemed to me that this anecdote well portrayed the nature of much of Russians’ “knowledge”—about literary and political matters, medical treatments, child-rearing methods, Russian history, life in other countries. There were lots of bits of information floating around in the culture, but there was no way of being sure which bits were government lies, which were cherished fictions or popular superstitions, which something more reliable. Russians picked and chose among the bits based on their own characters and personal experiences. For one Russian the telegram existed and meant what it seemed on the surface to mean: don’t publish. For another, there never was any telegram, it was a government lie or popular fantasy. And yet all were as certain as we in the West about what they knew. The more sophisticated believers in the existence of a sincere “don’t publish” telegram understood that other intelligent Russians believed in different versions of the story, and they understood why these other people were wrong: they had gotten a little too caught up in conspiracy theorizing and cynicism. And similarly one might know whether a cancerous child had indeed been cured by psychic energy, or whether it had been Chechen terrorists or government agents who in 1999 had blown up apartment buildings in Moscow and Volgodonsk, reportedly killing hundreds of people, bolstering the government’s case to renew the military campaign against Chechen separatists. (A 2002 poll suggested that approximately 40 percent of Russians believed it likely that government agents were involved in the explosions, while another approximately 40 percent were sure they were not.)
It also seemed that all this baseless knowledge was the result of centuries of governments that sought to suppress dissent and relentlessly spied on their own people; of governments that in order to force people to do work that they otherwise would not do, accused and convicted people of crimes they did not commit and got the accused to confess publicly to having committed these crimes. (At the height of the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, Pasternak switched from publishing his own work to publishing translations, and not only of Shakespeare, Verlaine, Rilke, but also of poets from Stalin’s native Georgia. One theory is that on account of this latter work Stalin spared Pasternak’s life. However, why should this be the case? Georgian poets were among the targets of Stalin’s persecution. Alternatively, it has been said that in the 1930s Pasternak took steps to get himself denounced as an enemy of the people in order to avoid being called upon to serve as poet laureate for Stalin’s regime.)
It is plausible that since so many lies have been disseminated by Russian government authorities, be they ostensibly communist or otherwise, and since rarely have the sources of either government pronouncements or popular beliefs been able to be carefully examined, the people have lost interest in authoritative evidence, without losing interest in knowledge. Thus they embrace, interpret and imagine such evidence as seems necessary to support a set of beliefs that appears to be as comprehensive, coherent and seemingly well supported as Westerners’ sets. Further, since in their hearts they know that their evidence is unreliable, if not fanciful, Russians pay evidence in general little heed, preferring to theorize late into the night.
We might compare this situation to that of ancient Greek culture (which Russian culture resembles more than is noted, including in the power of the polis over the individual and the arbitrary way this power is often used). The Greeks too were little interested in evidence, in empirical data. A theory was credible if it organized bits of myth, folk beliefs, native prejudices and philosophical speculations in a logical fashion. Or as the Italians say, “Si non è vero, è ben trovato.” Whether it’s true or not, it sure sounds good.
When we come in contact with or read about people who seem to live more limited or painful lives than we do, we have moments of appreciating that people and societies are not all the same. We may also have moments when we recognize that along with their disadvantages other peoples and cultures enjoy advantages that we do not. For example, notwithstanding our much-celebrated “free speech” and the independence of our media from government oversight, in my experience the intellectual level of discussion among middle-class Americans, and the quantity, scope and intellectual ambition of the books most Americans choose to read, is notably lower than that of Soviet-educated middle-class Russians. And if it has long been dangerous for Russians to criticize the existing government, they have also been free to criticize—they have luxuriated in criticizing—Russian life in general. Some might say that in the U.S. it is simply the other way round: one is free to criticize the existing government and constrained to sing the praises of the American system and way of life. Woe unto those who do not feel what a blessing it is to be an American, to those who—perhaps as a result of particular unpleasant experiences, say, in the American labor market—have forgotten that for Americans the glass is always at least half full. Such “losers” and “malcontents” are not merely criticized for having a bad attitude, they internalize this feeling and, inverting their personal histories, come to conclude that the fact that they are not financially successful or have not overcome some terrible disease is precisely because of their bad attitude; the system that needs reforming is their own internal one.
In any case, what certainly happens when we become acquainted with other cultures is that by focusing on particular limitations and sources of suffering of other peoples—and by defining these things as characteristics of these others—one disassociates oneself from these problems. In many cases we seize upon negative aspects of other cultures precisely because we do not wish to confront the fact that these are aspects of our own culture as well.
Thus reading about how the Russian government has spied on its own people allows Americans to enjoy moments of forgetting that their government has done and does the same. Reading about the role imprisonment played in the Russian economy, we forget about the use of imprisonment, and vigilante and police violence, in preserving an economically and politically useful black underclass in the decades after the Emancipation Proclamation and, less ferociously, in recent decades. Reading about the difficulties Russians face in trying to know what is going on in their country, and reading about how they turn to intuition, fantasy and what philosophers call the coherence theory of truth, we gain assurance that our knowledge is “the real thing”.
Which is also to say that we, or at least some of us, harbor suspicions that it may not be. Among the e-mails purportedly sent by Americans to the then-reigning Saddam Hussein via an Iraqi government website was one that concluded, “Oh well, what do I know. I am just an American citizen, which doesn’t entitle me to much in the way of knowledge.” The Harvard philosopher Willard Quine begins one of the great paragraphs in the history of epistemology: “The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from the most casual matters of geography and history to the profoundest laws of atomic physics or even of pure mathematics and logic, is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges.”
In the political sphere, among the questions that for many years were not voiced regarding the Chechen separatists is how much covert support they may have been receiving from the American government or various oil interests. And what about our historical conundrums: Who was or was not behind the killing of John Kennedy? How much advance notice of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor did Franklin Roosevelt have? I read recently a reputable American source stating that at the end of the Second World War the Allies gave supplies to the German army fighting the Soviets. (To reduce the expanse of Central Europe that would come under Soviet influence or to reduce the credit the Soviets might receive for defeating Hitler? Or is the whole story apocryphal? That an event can be explained in no way implies that it occurred.)
Even before playwrights began turning doctors into staples of satire, medical information was being distorted by the pecuniary interests of medical specialists, and the intersection of capitalism and medicine seems to have magnified these distortions. In many cases the problem remains venality; in addition many medical specialists and consumers have been so brainwashed, let’s call it, that they rarely recognize the extent to which the profit motive is tainting the medical information and advice they are receiving. (In the U.S. the problem is compounded by the fact that the American media is beholden to business interests which, by buying advertising, provide most all the media’s income and which also reduce production costs by providing “information”, including whole stories ready to print.)
I once read some confused commentary from a renowned school of public health regarding the treatment for head lice. It seemed that an informal test conducted by the school had suggested that soaking one’s hair in olive oil might be an effective, low-risk and low-cost solution—and this while the toxic and rather expensive anti-lice pesticides were seeming to be of limited effectiveness. And yet the school on its website went to some lengths to deny that it was recommending olive oil and to point out disadvantages—e.g., the danger of slipping on spilt oil and the difficulty of getting the oil out of one’s hair (that is, of washing one’s hair?). Particularly given the extent to which knowledge is not an individual but a social construct, there is no reason to assume that my truth regarding this subject will prove more enduring than others’. Nonetheless, my hunch is that the companies that sell the anti-lice pesticides—or public relations companies in the pesticide companies’ employ—had lobbied the public-health school to make its website commentary on head lice “more objective”—that is, to make it say less about the problems with the pesticides and more about the problems of olive oil.
The situation is not all that different at American universities and with professors who via research grants, consulting contracts, donated facilities and the like enjoy a good deal of “corporate support”. For example, for many years while the previous generation of birth-control drugs was protected by patents, little innovation in the field was apparent in the West. At the beginning of the Twenty-First Century, when the patents were expiring and inexpensive “generic” versions would soon become available, drug companies began issuing new, patented drugs with all the usual claims of superiority. Does this in any way imply that these new drugs are not at least a little better? Before approving for sale a new drug, the U.S. government itself does not test the drug’s safety or effectiveness, let alone its superiority to existing, less-expensive products. Rather it requires the drug company in question to submit evidence from a few studies showing that the drug is safe and effective. It has been reported that before coming up with a few studies that “proved” the effectiveness of anti-depressant medications, drug companies did some 30 studies that suggested these drugs were no more effective than placebos. But for years this bit of information was withheld from the public.
Long ago my world view and my gratitude to aspirin for helping me through so many youthful migraines led me to suspect that aspirin had been condemned and acetaminophen and ibuprofen vaunted because the profit margins on sales of the latter were greater than those on aspirin sales. Recently I read of a study that gave credence to this suspicion, revealing that acetaminophen has serious side-effects that were previously “ignored” by the medical community. (That is, I suppose, information about these side-effects was suppressed.) So then one should go back to taking aspirin? The conducting and publication of this latest study could just be an indication that the profit margins on acetaminophen sales have dropped and drug companies have a new patent-protected product almost ready to go.
In 1956—the same year as a leading Moscow monthly rejected Doctor Zhivago, stating that the novel “represented in a libelous manner the October Revolution, the people who made it and social construction in the Soviet Union”—at the Soviet Communist Party congress Nikita Khrushchev rejected the notion that war between East and West was inevitable and denounced Stalin. This denouncement was made in a “secret speech” that like Zhivago was not published within the Soviet Union, but quickly became available to Russians via unofficial channels, including with the help of a Western publisher, in this case that of the U.S. Department of State. Perhaps like Stalin before it, in 2002 acetaminophen was in the process of being “secretly” denounced.
“Here’s what upsets me,” notes the badly hungover narrator of Venedikt Erofeev’s famous samizdat novel Moscow to the End of the Line (as the title has been translated). “I have just calculated that between Chekhov Street and the train station I drank another six rubles worth—but what did I drink where? and in what order? And did it help or hurt? No one knows, and now no one will ever know.”
William Eaton is an award-winning journalist, novelist, and writer of philosophical essays and dialogues. Surviving the Twenty-First Century, a collection of his essays from Montaigbakhtinian.com, was published last year by Serving House Books. One of Eaton’s dialogues, The Professor of Ignorance Condemns the Airplane, was staged in New York in 2014. He is editor of Zeteo, an online journal for generalists. (updated 4/2016)
William Eaton has also published in AGNI as William Eaton Warner.