Statement | Keep reading Dostoyevsky, but beware of ‘zombie culture’

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the West has been looking for sanctions that do something without shooting themselves in the foot. Among the more futile measures is the cancellation of Russian literature, which some say confirms and legitimizes the imperial dream of a great Russia. In a fiery argument (3/9), Slavist and author Sjeng Scheijen pointed out that none of the attacked authors were received particularly well by those in power. Brodsky and Dostoevsky ended up in an inhospitable penal camp, and Pushkin was exiled several times by the Tsar. These writers were not representatives of any regime, they were idiosyncratic minds far beyond their time. They represented universal values, which is why we still read them.

With this story about the universal value of canonical art, Scheijen seems to want to turn the clock back a century, when we still talked about the good, the true and the beautiful. Great national authors may start out as controversial free spirits, but once they’re on a stamp or a banknote, they’re entrenched in power. And usually long before that. Classic authors are classic not only because their work is so good, but also because those who call them classic can use them for their purposes. It’s been that way since Homer. And that changes the scope of the work.

Take the composer Tchaikovsky, another canonical Russian. To be Swan lake is largely the test image of the dominant Russian culture. Yet Tchaikovsky preferred to sound like a French composer, fine, playful, nicethat was his ideal. Generations of Soviet school conductors have passed since, and everyone thinks that Tchaikovsky must sound raw and crushing, because that’s how Stalin liked to hear it. Although Stalin has been dead for 70 years, the mark he left on culture will never fade. Tchaikovsky has become a different composer.

In the post-Stalin years, when the Soviet empire was slowly but surely crumbling, Russian bookstores only stocked a few dozen titles. Only the great classics and of course the works of Karl Marx. There were no more flavors. The father state had determined what was good for the citizen.

Self-congratulation ritual

The eerie thing about Scheijen’s plea for eternal art is that it ends up with the same monoculture. For him, Bach is the greatest composer, the man who makes universal values ​​sound, so it is a waste of time to listen to anything else. According to Scheijen, contemporaries are less universal, so why play Telemann, let alone Couperin or Rameau, because they don’t even look like Bach! Fortunately, many of the composers that Scheijen sees as ‘exhausting’ and ‘mediocre’ live on in the hands of musicians playing together at home. It looks a bit similar samizdat of secret literature in the Soviet Union. Incidentally, Bach’s work survived in exactly the same way before it was rediscovered by the Romantics.

Also read this article by Ian Buruma: The Russian soul is guilty – there is something wrong with that cultural analysis

With campaigns like ‘Bach van de Dag’, a kind of musical tear-off calendar on Radio 4 and the annual holy must of St. Matthæus, our country is approaching the zombie culture of the Soviet era, where everyone talks about top art and universal values ​​without these concepts having meaning. In this way, we cancel half of our culture out of ignorance, and we are left only with the self-congratulatory ritual of high art. Always the same names. Bach, Mahler.

That way we don’t have to prepare against Russia, because they have already won. We have become just like that. We must not listen, read and look less at art. We need more. We need art, literature and music from other times more than ever, as our time is fast becoming unlivable. It doesn’t matter if the artists were right or wrong. Even if Dostoevsky had sparked Putin’s dreams of a great Russia – I have a hard time with that – we still have to The Brothers Karamazov Read on to see how that worldview works.

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