Oscar Wilde said that artists are useless. Of all the useless artists out there, some have to be more self-obsessed than others. In literature, Philip Roth comes to mind as one of the most masturbatory and indulgent of all time, as his own name appears in many of his novels. If it doesn’t, his alter egos (most notably, Nathan Zuckerman) will. Roth’s authorial persona is childish and petulant. He throws temper tantrums in the theme park where he dragged his parents (er, readers).
On the other side of the library you can find Kirill Medvedev, Russian poet, essayist, and activist. Medvedev’s writings are impossible to put down (more so than Exit Ghost or Portnoy’s [eternal] Complaint) and decidedly not useless.
In 2003, Medvedev renounced the copyright to all of his work, just after the devastating elections, which failed to provide the liberal-democratic opposition party Yabloko with the 5 percent vote necesary to participate in the Duma. Medvedev’s work was recently compiled by American literary magazine N+1—without his cooperation, but theoretically, with his permission—as a volume entitled It’s No Good. It includes poems from before and after his break with the literary world and myriad essays.
Medvedev addresses the glitzy new publishing world in Moscow, where a regular cup of coffee costs $8.25—so much for the starving artist. To become successful enough to afford some joe, Russian writers must appeal to logocentrism—the society’s obsession with language over meaning.
Forgoing the popular way of writing, Medvedev cares most (as evidenced by his own poetry) about the concepts that the words convey. I love this conceptualism. I want to apply it to the critique of today’s sterilized MFA writing, or even of the tight, complex but not-so-compelling award-winners, like Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. Good technique without conceptual substance is like a Leo’s cupcake. I want fresh strawberries after a homemade meal, like Medvedev’s poetry and prose.
Medvedev says, “Poetic language in Russia.…is a source of healing, or a method of oppression … If you don’t give Russia a living language, it will take a dead one … and everything will remain as it’s always been.” His own poetry more than fits the bill of being “living.”
Medvedev continues to address the self-indulgence of Russia’s authors who claim to write personal, “private poetry” or prose. Though there are books of self-discovery that move beyond the individual, like Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, Medvedev alerts us to the proliferation of the bildungsroman, usually featuring a young man on the road to self-discovery (yawn). This is the writing of a “private poet,” and is mostly a navel-gazing mess. In the face of Russia’s corrupted society, the bildungsroman has to be run over by the motorcycle that the new protagonist rides into the sunset.
This isn’t to say that poetry or novels must directly address politics, but they, and their creators, must acknowledge the fact that they exist enmeshed in a political system. Art and politics can’t be divorced. Every book I have reviewed, every book you have read for pleasure this year is political: their content and production may affect others. If a writer denies this, they are being self-indulgent.
“The hardest thing of all is to be democratic, under any circumstances,” Medvedev quotes poets Alexander Brenner and Barbara Shurz. “Democratic art teaches that….we need constantly to understand that we are mortal, limited, cruel selfish, greedy, ignorant beings, but…we may be able….to approach a very intense form of love, and powerful contact with one another, and genuinely elevated expressions of our thoughts and feelings.”
Medvedev is democratic. All truly moving art is democratic. And democratic art moves one to be democratic in one’s own life. Lest I begin to sound too logocentric myself, I suggest you all read It’s No Good. Medvedev is a great intellectual who offers a “disengaged critique of Authority, in a non-identification with any official discourse.”
Medvedev calls for an art that recognizes human failure, “yet has faith in them that demands the strictest possible ethical relation to people and art and life; that tries to justify and improve social existence.” Because literature has impacted me so deeply, I write this column, and this is why: I believe that art has the power to “justify and improve social existence.”
Whether through art or economics, we must be men and women for others. This is how we should guiltlessly justify our own version of an “overall ineffectual existence” as students, not immediate actors of change. It’s No Good, sure, but there are things that make it better. For me, art is one of those things, and I will not be a private artist any longer, not until everyone can be, too.