• Українська
  • Русский
  • English
Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Postmodern Neo-Cynicism, its adepts, slaves, and victims

15 January, 2008 - 00:00

“Neo-Cynicism cometh. I do not exist in it.”

What prompted me to critique Ukrainian postmodernism was the emergence of this phenomenon on the pages of various Ukrainian publications, including The Day. An interview with Serhii Zhadan (“A remake of the Makhno era is quite possible,” Nov. 17, 2007) is generously illustrated with quotations from the texts of this prolific Kharkiv-based author who, in order to describe his not always banal observations, for some reason cannot avoid such intellectual lexemes as “ass,” “bullshit, “f...ing,” etc. Another article, an interesting and thought-provoking critique entitled “Burlesque, buffoonery, travesty...” by Nazarii Nazarov (Nov. 2, 2007), looks at postmodern. The author reveals that various provincial centers and universities host meetings of teachers, students, and local community members with the writer Yurii Andrukhovych. These encounters, especially one that took place in Drohobych, and the guest speaker’s behavior and ideology prompted this journalist to offer the concerned reader some thoughts of a broader nature.

In the early 1990s many well- known people warned us about the weeds of “anti-culture” that had run riot under the guise of a struggle against the Russian colonial regime. Unfortunately, anticulture in all its varieties — antireligion, antipolitics, anti-art, antiscience, antimorality, etc. — has taken deep root in post-imperial Ukraine. Inheriting the worst examples of the past Soviet era and the present democratic liberal and globalized world, this phenomenon often dominates culture. A typical example is the policy of the “Ukrainian state,” which is usually indifferent to burning questions in contemporary Ukraine, as well as the pseudo- scholarly pursuits of certain liberal arts figures, pursuits that Lina Kostenko has called “desacralization” (“The humanitarian aura of a nation, or the defect of the main mirror”).

Another classic Ukrainian writer and 1960s dissident, Valerii Shevchuk, characterizes the work of these academics as “political anti-Ukrainian literary research” and notes the following: “Most of the blows fall on Taras Shevchenko: among those who are flexing their muscles here are George Grabowicz, Oksana Zabuzhko, a certain Herostratus named Oles Buzyna (on a vulgar level), B. Sushynsky, and others. They batter away at Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky and Ukrainian modernism, Lesia Ukrainka, Olha Kobylianska, Ivan Franko, etc. In other words, the brightest Ukrainian luminaries are being actively debunked. What is this, a viewpoint? Not at all, this is an absolutely political action that creates the impression that it is a carefully orchestrated campaign, a spiritual war against Ukraine.”

Literature is no exception in this anticultural process. If, in the opinion of most philosophers, culture is a set of national and spiritual values, then anticulture is a set of antinational and antispiritual values. While culture creates a human (as a national personality) by cultivating humanity, anticulture kills a human by erasing the category of humanity. Unfortunately, this refers to a considerable proportion of contemporary writing that solemnly proclaim itself as “modern Ukrainian literature,” but which in fact is the opposite. The latest method of creating this so-called literature is postmodernism borrowed from the West, which unbiased researchers long ago characterized as a political principle in the field of culture, turning liberalism into a fetish (S. Kvit).

Some of the components of postmodern creative writing in the age of “Neo-Cynicism” (coined by Lina Kostenko) are mimicry, the abnormal use of quotations, constant irony (which, for some reason, skewers traditional values), the destruction of ethical, esthetic, religious, and other norms, vulgarity, aggressiveness, kitsch, underworld slang, unbounded egotism, preprogrammed eclecticism, relativism, the glorification of nymphomania, sexual deviations, pornography, violence, drug abuse, etc. All this brings forth, as the young critic Dmytro Drozdovsky noted wittily, “the anti-esthetics of opportunism” or “Ukrainian postmodern antiliterature,” which is firmly based on the despiritualized, denationalized, and cosmopolitan values of Western liberalism. The status of colonial literature of a similar antinational nature, although of a different ideological brand, was imposed on literature by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union by means of a different political method known as socialist realism.

An illustrative example of postmodernist literature is the works of Yurii Andrukhovych, one of the main representatives of a group of intellectuals who are supported and funded by the Harvard professor and desacralizer George Grabowicz. Andrukhovych often takes part in meetings, especially in Ukrainian universities. His works are highly controversial. In the 1980s he began actively experimenting with modern and avant-garde styles, thus positioning himself against Moscow’s colonial esthetics. At the time, this could have been justified if not in literary then in political or moral terms, and some of those works (mostly poetry and army prose) still have artistic value. Today we sometimes come across interesting political articles and essays by this undoubtedly talented author, in which he opposes Russian colonialism and its legacy, occasionally produces original critiques of certain processes of globalization, and speaks out in defense of Ukrainian identity. I wish there were more articles and essays of this kind, but for some reason they are not the subjects that come up for discussion whenever the author meets the public. Most of Andrukhovych’s works consist of poetry and prose works of a pronounced postmodern nature. This is what the author teases the local public with.

Especially interesting and eloquent (the “signature tune” of improvised meetings) is a text entitled Bad Company, which presents the latest, noble vision of classical Ukrainian literature, where Taras Shevchenko (in a gesture of “hail, fellow, well met, the author uses the familiar “Taras”) is characterized as a “wino and a snake,” Hryhorii Skovoroda (“Hrytsko”) as a “pederast,” Ivan Kotliarevsky (“Ivan”) as a “bon vivant, freemason, and philanderer,” Panteleimon Kulish (“Panko”) as a “scribbler,” Marko Vovchok (“Marko”) as a “hermaphrodite,” Panas Myrny (“Panas”) as a “screwball,” Borys Hrinchenko (“Borys”) as a “pedant,” Ivan Franko (“Yakovych”) as a “confirmed atheist,” Lesia Ukrainka and Olha Kobylianska (“Leska and Olka”) as “lesbians,” etc.

It is surprising that the respected author, after warming up the audience with these kinds of texts, chooses for some reason to do without some longer quotations from one of his five novels. For example, he could quote some fragments from his latest one entitled The Mystery (2007). (It truly is a mystery why these memoirs, written in the form of an interview, are called a novel, but this is of no consequence to the respected Andrukhovych, who is a trained philologist.) One could cite fragments from this work in which not always nihilistic thoughts or frequent pornographic descriptions are expressed by more than 150 four-letter words (mostly Russian ones) and vulgarisms. Once, in the remote 1980s, as the author of The Mystery recalls, this anti-regime- minded author, who was going to publish a collection of poems, removed, on his editor’s advice, the lexeme “angel, which exceedingly jarred the atheistic ear. The impression is that the author has somewhat changed his nonconformist orientation: instead of expunging normative words, he introduces not so normative ones, although no one knows whether he is doing this on the orders of surprisingly well-mannered and Ukraine-loving editors or at the call of his own “Central Eastern European” conscience.

Mr. Andrukhovych’s typically anti-Ukrainian and anti-artistic (according to Valerii Shevchuk) jibes against the Ukrainian classics (he rarely dares to take on Western ones; he usually praises them) are accurately described by the well- known Ukrainian poet and literary scholar Bohdan Boichuk. He points out that Bad Company is simply “journalistic writing in a column” (“There is no vers libre there because vers libre is poetry”), which is focused on the “uninteresting and boring pummeling of the classics.” The antiliterary essence of most of Andrukhovych’s works cannot be hidden even by the fact that they are widely translated and popularized by liberal cosmopolitan intellectuals in the West. As the well-known Austrian researcher Erwin Chargaff has rightly noted, “the more ungifted the poet, the easier it is to translate him into other languages.” Meanwhile, specialists claim that it is extremely difficult to adequately translate Shevchenko.

Although these meetings with lecturers are often attended by literary specialists and students of philology, they do not always succeed in demonstrating their critical scholarly awareness. But it is not so difficult to force the highly respected author — by way of a couple of simple, witty, and quick questions — to show not only his literary inadequacy and egotism but also his typical postmodern crudeness, political bias (one professor of philology managed to do this in Drohobych), and what Academician Ivan Dziuba called “democratic nihilism,” Prof. I. Denysiuk — “neo-Bolshevism,” and Valerii Shevchuk — “anti-Ukrainianism,” i.e., “hostility to national values.”

In general, publicity articles, interviews, and meetings with the leading postmodernists lead one to reflect and pose certain questions.

Question one: of course, not everyone is capable of making the same kind of observation as Nikolai Berdiaev, who said that creative writing can be a response to the call of both God and Satan. In other words, far from everything that calls itself literature is such in reality and far from every Ukrainian-language litterateur is a true Ukrainian writer. But why are the organizers of these literary soirees not able to see this? Why are these people, often trained philologists, incapable of noticing the contradictory, antispiritual, and hence antiliterary elements in the writings of Andrukhovych and like- minded people?

Question two: Ukraine is full of political, artistic, scholarly, literary, and other campaigns that, unfortunately, sometimes resemble anti-Ukrainian provocations. Is it a good idea to initiate or support these kinds of provocations, in particular, to hold meetings with authors whose antiliterary writings are permeated with antihuman, anticultural, and antinational ideas that can trigger an interethnic and interreligious feud by damaging the national dignity of Ukrainians? Is it worth doing this at universities, at institutions that, as the Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin has rightly noted, should be a “school of national intellect?”

It would be wrong to appeal to democratic pluralism here. It is next to impossible to imagine that any university in democratic Israel would welcome a meeting with an author who maligns Moses, Theodor Herzl or, say, Bruno Schulz. I do not think that a meeting that scorns the names of Adam Mickiewicz or Juliusz Slowacki would stir up enthusiasm at a university in free Poland, now a European Union member. Freedom of thought and freedom of anti-Ukrainian activities are clearly not the same thing.

Question three: What is the true worth of declarative patriotism and ostensible love for Ukraine, the title of “Ukrainian intellectual,” and people who first pompously preside over a festive event dedicated, for example, to Shevchenko or Franko and fervently praise these classics, only to lavish equally fervent and rapturous praise the next day on those who playfully denigrate these same classics? How can one distinguish between a principled approach to national issues and the Pharisee-like stance of “patented patriots” (Franko)?

Experience confirms that postmodernism, as the latest liberal deity, an idol of anticulture, has its slick priests (literary practicians and creative theoreticians) who protect, popularize, and fund it, and this deity thanks them with generous funds from multinational sponsors. It also has its own slaves, who serve and play up to the priests, who do not dare to have their own independent opinion about their god but can only chant, spellbound, nihilistic mantras. It also has its own victims — above all, young people — who are losing their spirituality, finding literature where it does not exist, and turning from free individuals into dead souls, denationalized marginals, and servants of cosmopolitism — those of whom Shevchenko said “forget their mother on the German’s order.” Be that as it may, postmodernism cannot have a harmful effect on a normal individual with a well-formed national identity, who knows very well that anticulture is the opposite of culture, that an idol is not God, and that sooner or later all idols fall.