Occupy Parnassus!: Kirill Medvedev’s ‘It’s No Good’
By Garth Risk Hallberg
February 19, 2013
In the fall of 2011, as the first protesters began assembling in Zuccotti Park, a different sort of occupation was underway in my apartment. My son had just turned one, and another kid was due in the spring. My life now consisted largely of early-morning adjunct gigs, late-night sessions banging my head against the writing desk, and afternoons measured out in the tiny spoons used to scrape the last bits of Gerber from the jar. Also: NPR. Lots of NPR.
By late September, the top of each hour brought new details about the methods and motives of “Occupy Wall Street.” Here, it seemed, was the cause I’d spent my twenties longing to throw my body behind. But now that it had materialized, there was a catch: mine was no longer the only body I was responsible for. I could take my son with me to the demonstrations, but did I really trust the NYPD to lay off the pepper spray, should he rattle the bars of our protest pen?
Plus who would take care of him if I got carted off to jail? Not his mother, whose nine-to-five job was our primary means of keeping the fridge stocked and the rent paid, and whose sick days would convert to precious maternity leave come the spring. There was always daycare, of course…but, then, as a would-be placard-carrying member of the 99%, I couldn’t even afford the hours of daycare I was already paying for. And here I ran up against the first great fallacy of the mainstream media’s OWS coverage. Of course the occupation as such was heavy on students, the unemployed, and men who looked like a cross between Santa Claus and Wavy Gravy. Stroller-pushing contingent-workers like me were constrained from spending all day and night at Zuccotti by the very conditions that made them want to do so. Thus does insecurity—financial, physical, psychological—become the stick that keeps us on the rutted path of late capitalism. (Consumer electronics being the carrot.)
Then again, another of the things too often glossed over in accounts of Occupy Wall Street is that it wasn’t a top-down program, whose output was a certain number of sleeping bags on the pavement. Rather, it was a piece of tactical hardware designed to execute any app deemed useful by its users—techno-utopian cant made collectivist flesh. This should have been apparent to anyone who spent more than half an hour down at Zuccotti. At first, you’d see the modest size of the occupation, relative to the number of cameras trained on it, and you’d think, Wait: Is this it? Then, out of nowhere, thousands of union electricians would appear, or affordable-housing advocates, or undergraduates, or, more likely, all of the above, and another drive or meeting or march would whir into motion. (As Michael Greenberg has noted in The New York Review of Books, those circuits would be reactivated after Hurricane Sandy to channel vital aid to the Rockaways.)
By October, my son and I had found our own way to take part. With his mother’s blessing, we pursued a sunshine policy, steering clear of martial-sounding or geographically marginal events in favor of those well-publicized enough to ensure my small comrade wouldn’t become another casualty on YouTube. We marched on Citigroup. We marched on JPMorgan Chase. We repaired to Zuccotti for pizza and purée, and then we marched some more. Well, I marched; he rode.
One memorable afternoon, in the company of a whole holy host of freaks and straights, aging lefties and juvie anarchists, friends from other events and perfect strangers—plus, this being a Saturday, my wife—we even took over Times Square. It was the same rainbow coalition I’d observed a decade earlier, marching against the Iraq War. In 2002, though, in the streets of D.C., everyone seemed to recognize that the switches on the war-making machinery had already been thrown. You could sense the inertia in the way the message decayed into calls for the abolition of the WTO and the World Bank, the liberation of Palestine and Mumia. Those chants that managed to break through the discord rang hollow off executive buildings emptied for the weekend.
By contrast, the message of Occupy Wall Street was so clear and so obvious as to subsume any ancillary concerns. Obviousness, in fact, may be why Occupy Wall Street proved such an effective counterweight to the Tea Party movement, with only a fraction of the money and organization and time. It takes great resources of all three to persuade Americans that Keynesian deficit spending is the source of our ills, because it’s total horseshit, whereas it takes very little to remind people of what they’ve already discovered in the most grinding, empirical way to be true: As an allocator of resources, our economic system is needlessly unjust, and getting more so by the day. And when the hoary old cry went up from Times Square—”We are unstoppable; another world is possible”—this, too, felt self-evident, assertion and evocation in a single stroke. For here was a halter-topped woman with frizzy hair leading thousands of people in social democratic chants from atop someone’s shoulders, and here was the commercial center of the world coming disobediently to a halt. Here were tourists taking buttons from engagé tweens and affixing them to jackets that would soon travel back to every corner of America. And here it all was again, up on the giant news screens overhead, the peak of a “high and beautiful wave” (to crib from Hunter S. Thompson). Under all those lights, we seemed to be waking, however briefly, from a long bad dream.
Notwithstanding the Monday-morning harrumphs of the commentariat, that autumn of idealism has left behind consequences of the most solid, realpolitik kind. The ongoing debate over whether creditors—i.e., capital—or borrowers—i.e., you and me—will bear the losses of the Great Recession has been permanently rebalanced, to the great annoyance of the business class. (Last December’s $43-million PR push was not so much about how to “Fix the Debt” as about whom to affix it to.) On its own terms, though, the Occupy project remains incomplete. When we argue over whether to set top marginal tax rates at 35% or 39.6%, or what to do about the sequester, or the class politics of Girls, we have turned from debates about an unjust system to debates within it. And though the possibility of “another world” has been preserved from total eclipse, it now seems hazy again, as if glimpsed from the far side of sleep. We need some outside force to jolt us back awake.
All of which is a very roundabout way of trying to explain why It’s No Good, the first major English-language publication of the writing of Kirill Medvedev, is so necessary, and so timely. Medvedev is a Moscow-based poet in his late 30s, and the book, the latest entry in Ugly Duckling Presse’s redoubtable Eastern European Poets Series (and the first to be published jointly with N+1), assembles English translations of his most important “poems/essays/actions” from over the last fifteen years. This was a period of radicalization for Medvedev, and the work amounts to a guerilla attack on the stagnation of Russian cultural life in the new millennium. By itself, this would make It’s No Good an invaluable document. But for readers beyond the old Iron Curtain, there’s a further twist of the knife: as with the best science fiction, the outrageous world Medvedev brings so vividly to life starts to sound awfully like our own.
An introduction by editor Keith Gessen sets the scene for Medvedev’s evolution. In “the years of mature Putinism, between about 2003 and 2008,” he explains, the atmosphere in Russia was one of “boredom, suffocation, and surrender…”
Nothing happened. No one wanted anything to happen. “Stability” was the word of the day and in service of this stability people were willing to give up a great deal. The liberal opposition that still made appearances in the New York Times not only had no real presence…[but was] also permanently discredited.
In the texts that follow, Medvedev will link this surrender to two mutually reinforcing phenomena, one political, one aesthetic. On one side was a problem of ignorance: Members of his generation, the first to come of age after the fall of Communism, “spent the 1990s not really knowing what politics was,” he writes. “We lived outside it; we never believed it could affect our private lives.” On the other side was a problem of sophistication: literature, which might have enlarged those private lives, had become content merely to reproduce them.
An exemplar here was the poet and impresario Dmitri Kuzmin, who published Medvedev’s early poems in his magazine, Vavilon…and who hovers over It’s No Good as a sort of Oedipal-Hegelian father figure, to be rebelled against and absorbed. A long, valedictory “essay-memoir” two-thirds of the way through the book may put some readers in mind of McSweeney’s circa 2003:
The central literary tendency of Vavilon was the so-called “new sincerity”: the appeal to personal experience (childhood; romantic and sexual encounters; family life) to the exclusion of social and political experience, justifying this by appealing to its authenticity (personal, emotional, etc.)
Of course, Russia’s liberalizing culture industry had no more difficulty assimilating Vavilon’s “authenticity” than the Politburo did assimilating social realism. As Medvedev sees it, this was art as gesture, as narcotic, as commodity, “a series of irresponsible infantile games and so-called independent intellectual proclamations – covering the terrain specifically assigned to such proclamations.”
The poems that make up the bulk of It’s No Good burst out of that terrain like bombshells. Superficially, their debt to Kuzmin is obvious. Medvedev’s voice, as translated by Gessen and others, is resolutely direct, colloquial, and personal. At times, it sounds like a Muscovite Frank O’Hara. “I don’t know why / I decided to work / at the nightclub Sexton / when I was eighteen,” begins one poem. Says another: “I really like when / a series of arches in moscow run /one after the other /creating their own kind of tunnel / out of arches.” As with O’Hara, the specificity of reference almost overwhelms argument; viewed from a certain angle, Medvedev’s poems might seem merely a catalogue of people, buildings, and foodstuffs signifying life for a young cosmopolite. Yet read him at any length (the poems are rarely under three pages, and sometimes swell to dozens), and it becomes impossible to confuse his urbanism with urbanity, or, as he puts it, “dignified aloofness” to the wider world. Medvedev complains, of one Vavilon-affiliated contemporary: “a person in his poems is always / returning from work / moving around the glaring twilit / cityscape / given shape by information streams.” His own Moscow resists such streamlined shapes. It is “glaring” in a different sense, made discontinuous by eruptions of frustration, pessimism, and rage. One moment, it’s true, we may be among the office towers, cruising through a catalogue
of everyone who turned out to be a computer genius
of everyone who became an assistant
or a designer
for major fashion magazines….
But then suddenly, we are hearing
of all the half-drunk and stunted intellectuals
who (unlike me)
matured too early,
then burned out,
of everyone who found work in the morgue
of everyone who did time in jail
then died of an overdose
of everyone who worked at
the politician kirienko’s campaign headquarters
and then joined his permanent team.
The closing descent from threnody back to sarcasm bespeaks the scale of Medvedev’s loss of faith in that distinctly Russian class formation, the “intelligentsia.” These were the people who were supposed to lead his country out of its slumber and instead discovered a taste for Ambien. But the dramatic expansion of the point-of-view, the deepening of emotion, and the Beatnik anaphora holding it all together produce a countervailing movement: One feels the quickening of an almost spiritual belief. Medvedev wants his poetry not only to “appeal to personal experience,” but to transfigure it, to break it open, to disclose what is underneath. And what is underneath, he insists, is always already political. The meticulously name-checked fruits of bourgeois existence—parties, nightclubs, careers, and even much of contemporary art—are underwritten by exploitation, militarism, and a more nebulous brand of postmodern unfreedom. Reader, you are hereby called to consciousness. Or at least deprived of an alibi.
Alongside Medvedev’s messianic streak runs a notable impatience with the formal strictures of Russian lyric poetry—the elegant prosody of Anna Akhmatova or his beloved Joseph Brodsky. Gessen’s introduction presents these tendencies as merely coincident. But really, I think, one compels the other. Trained at Moscow’s famed Gorky Literary Institute, Medvedev has a considerable, if well-disguised, capacity for artifice—for finding Pushkin in the punkish. Still, his conception of poetry is one of vision, rather than of craft. This helps explain the porousness (some might say sameness) of these largely untitled poems, which tend to flow together into a single Poem. It also helps explain their peculiar rhythms, and their general aversion to beauty. They gather force not by rhetorical turns, but by incantation, as Medvedev strains “to see without distortion by one’s social position, without limitations by one’s artistic milieu.” The results are frequently startling:
we dance around others’ misfortunes like mischievous wolves like some sort of
lascivious bats in a frenzy
we make our way toward them by the light of bonfires on the outskirts of town
through desolate fields of garbage
we fall on them swoop down throw ourselves at them with all of our might oozing
the syrupy poison of empathy.
Which isn’t to say that the artist-monk can’t be funny, because Medvedev’s puckish streak runs deep. It surfaces sometimes at the expense of others (“as a janitor / I was always beyond suspicion”), but more often at the expense of his own ambitions. One of my favorite poems in the collection concludes on a note of perfectly serious ridiculousness, or ridiculous seriousness:
misha is going to do everything right
in this life,
whereas I’m going to continue sitting here
deep in shit
with my principles.
In 2004, Medvedev’s principles led him to make an unusual move: he renounced copyright to his own oeuvre. Henceforth, he declared in his “Manifesto on Copyright,” his poems would cease to be grist for the culture industry. They would appear on his website, and on facebook and LiveJournal, but reprinting them “in any anthologies, collections, or other kinds of publications” would be “consider[ed]…a disgusting manipulative action by one or another cultural force.” They were to be published
ONLY AS A SEPARATE BOOK, collected and edited according to the desires of the publisher, released in a PIRATE EDITION, that is to say, WITHOUT THE PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR, WITHOUT ANY CONTRACTS OR AGREEMENTS.
The “Manifesto on Copyright” marks a hinge moment in the book, and in Medvedev’s career. Immediately before comes the longest, finest poem in the book (“Europe”) and an incendiary essay called “My Fascism.” The poems that follow the manifesto are thinner—at times they feel like Medvedev doing Medvedev—but the critical essays, by way of compensation, grow richer and more prophetic.
In the piece on Kuzmin and especially in “Literature Will Be Tested,” from 2007, Medvedev begins to articulate a dialectical vision of a new global humanism. Its acolytes, he argues, must preserve “postmodernism’s irrepressible critical outlook.” At the same time, Medvedev departs from the main body of post-’68 critical thought by insisting on the value of “grand narratives and global concepts.” To forego them, he says, is to accede to “an idealized consensus between the goals of ‘diversity’ and the interests of the global marketplace.”
And as he pursues the links between the stagnation he’s been confronting in Moscow and the larger, global situation, parallels that have heretofore been sub rosa become explicit. For Russia isn’t the only place where the notion of a life beyond politics gained traction after the collapse of Communism. “The end of history,” we called this period in the U.S. And what were the results? Open-ended war, accelerated environmental destruction, and the further consolidation of class power. History, history, and more history. Meanwhile, “the idea of ‘contemporary art’” grew ever more attenuated, as every imaginable gesture of “authenticity,” literary or otherwise, became a fungible commodity—one whose sale or purchase gets broadcast to your social network. “You can’t change the world that way,” Medvedev reminds us. “You can’t rise to the next level of existence that way.”
After the bracing cynicism of some of the poems, this formulation might sound preachy. But as a craftsman and as a human being, Medvedev knows he must make the political personal, even as the arrow also runs the other way. Taken as a whole, then, It’s No Good is less a sermon on change than a narrative enactment of it. In aesthetic terms, the distinctions among poems and essays and actions come to seem as provisional as those subtitular backslashes suggest; there’s criticism in the poetry, poetry in the criticism, and action in all of it. And in political terms, we get a portrait of the poet’s awakening to futility where he’d thought there was power, and vice versa. The thing might as well be a Bolaño novel…albeit one with a happier ending.
In another of his more unguarded moments, Medvedev confesses
I think it was genuine contact–
when two completely different people
begin to understand one another
in my opinion this
is a real event
in art and
It’s No Good is just such an event. It awakens us to the contingency of contemporary reality’s ceaseless argument for itself, and to what might still be possible outside it. Archimedes famously said something like, Give me a place to stand, and a long enough lever, and I’ll move the world. Kirill Medvedev and his translators have given American readers another place to stand, a kind of Zuccotti of the mind. Now if only we can keep our grip on the lever.
Bonus Link: Four poems from It’s No Good
Image source: dominic bartolini