It’s a Russian word, samizdat. Sam = “self, by oneself” and izdat is from, izdatel’stvo, = “publishing house”, so roughly samizdat means “self-published.”
Writings prohibited by the all seeing eye of the Soviet state were clandestinely passed around often at great risk to the copyists and readers. Those taking on the task of reproduction worked without reward in a laborious fashion. They typed whole books out with perhaps a sheet of carbon paper for duplications. Sometimes whole manuscripts were copied by hand! There were no copy machines in the 1950’s, no faxes, no one was cutting and pasting. It was done for one reason alone: Someone else has to read this! The truth has to be told. This forbidden poetry (poetry was highly suspect) must be seen. This novel is worth reading. That’s how Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago was read. That’s how Bulgakov and Brodsky found an audience. That’s how foreign works were smuggled into the country. Eventually slightly more sophisticated methods were used: surreptitious printing machinery, copy machines and even computers were used for duplication by the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse.
There is another interesting category of samizdat: magnitizdat, things copied onto magnetic tape, which would include lectures, poetry and above all music. And actually this proved to be a bit of an Achilles heel to the vast Soviet state. The Communists cracked down hard on any means of paper reproduction with stiff penalties. But since every citizen could own a reel-to-reel tape recorder much was passed around this way; especially all of that rock music being churned out by the decadent West. And Russians could be ingenious about how they smuggled in their music. Eugene Hutz, of Gogol Bordello, talks of “music on the bones”, recordings transferred from magnitizdat to plastic x-ray plates with holes punched in the center to play on record players. The legendary Vladimir Vysotsky’s gravel soaked voice was disseminated mostly by cassette. Although he is considered the greatest Russian singer/songwriter of the late communist era he was never allowed by the Melodiya machine to make a full-length album in his lifetime. Yet when he died in Moscow in 1980 his funeral was a major event. People left the Moscow Olympics to attend his funeral. An older Russian man in New York City once told me of the tens of thousands of people who lined the streets such to get a view of his coffin. Not bad for a man who had to wait until the Gorbachev years to get an album released in the U.S.S.R. A similar even more haunting tale surrounds folk punk singer Yanka Dyagileva, who died tragically at the age of 23 in the 1991, the last second of the old Soviet Union, leaving behind a small, poorly recorded body of work that puts to shame much of the music spit out by the world music industry since then. (I’m going to devote much more time to Yanka in the near future.)
It sounds a bit like the Punk idea of Do-It-Yourself. And while there are several crucial similarities I would point out some very serious differences. Samizdat functioned as a means to hear forbidden truth. The government was actively involved in squashing the literature involved and at times the music.
The work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is a good case in point. After an accidental breach of the Stalinist wall during Khrushchev’s all too brief thaw, that allowed One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to be published in 1961, the book was quickly allowed to go out of print. It then was strictly a samizdat production as were the rest of his novels. So fearful were the Soviets of Solzhenitsyn that anyone merely possessing a copy of The Gulag Archipelago, his massive literary expose of the gulag system, was guilty of a grave offense. Only Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Prize saved him from another lengthy nightmare in the camps, but not from being booted out of the country. As Walker Percy once remarked, modern Western writers would kill to have their literature taken that seriously.
The D.I.Y. aesthetic of Punk and the Alternative culture of the late 80’s and early 90’s never produced anything so perceptive or piercing. The D.I.Y. scenesters were desperate to have their obsessions and fixations cause some kind of upheaval. But, no matter the provocation, the rants and raves of the alternative world did not cause the commercial and political authorities to tremble. They either ignored them or co-opted them. Interestingly many of the current crops of cutting edge television series are now being written by screenwriters who spent much of the early 90’s pickled in the alternative scene. In the late 80’s early 90’s zines and alternative comics flourished.For a little while there was a modicum of inquisitive life through these channels. Yet what seemed transgressive then now seems commercial. The crude little cut and paste zine featuring badly photocopied photos of rock bands or serial killers has now turn into a stale looking website. The countercultural dream has largely dissipated and isn’t coming back.
And yet it seems that in this postmillennial culture, so addicted to the virtual, some kind of samizdat is required. It is quite clear by now, however, that the old countercultural line running from the Beats through Techno Raves, including pretty much every anti-mainstream trend since the 60’s, has truly failed. But that doesn’t mean that that no counterculture can now exist. It just means that the moribund ingredients that caused the failure of those movements need to be placed in the sociological coroner’s office and dissected to note the pathological elements.
Certain features stand out immediately and certainly should be examined in much more detail later. Top of list is the entire emphasis on intuition and instinct; usually most cheaply stated in the idea to follow your heart, be yourself, follow your dreams. The number of songs and movies containing these sentiments and their kin are legion, innumerable. This road leads straight into the maw of the commercial establishment. This is an underlying tendency that dooms every anti-authoritarian movement to end up as the consumer software to the hardware of mainstream culture. This first occurred to me when I visited a Sex Pistols exhibit in a small New York City museum about 1990 or later the Gap ads featuring Jack Kerouac or the way any death metal song can be used as background music for promos advertising Monday Night Football.
If there is to be a new samizdat that goes against the current in a truly anadromous fashion it can’t be anti-intellectual. Brains have to start working again. Real dialogue has to be reengaged. In order to interrogate the coming society it won’t do to make a big loud angry noise. Noise is the nature of the beast. But it will certainly be essential to understand the chaotic sounds of our recent past. It will also be much more imperative to study history; learn a foreign language; to recognize how propaganda works; to use the aspects of past cultures and countercultures that can be applied in a wise manner. (Wisdom; now there’s a word you don’t here in popular culture much anymore.)
We can understand then what a samizdat for our spewing dervish of an age might be if we go back to the samizdat of that antique Iron Curtain. There are lessons there. Might I suggest thumbing through a copy of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago to the chapter called The Ascent and starting there?
“It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful success I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either–but right through every human heart–and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…a small unuprooted corner of evil.”
No, this isn’t going to be a discussion of military tactics. Rather, the need for real human engagement is pressing down on me. And if these disembodied words floating through the ether are going to have any effect we need to do something to prevent them from being trampled in the dust. So it occurs to me before I start writing on whatever subjects call to my attention that I need to set forth some guidelines as to what this is and is not.
First of all, I am not writing the kinds of things I could write on Facebook, Myspace, etc. I won’t be commenting on what I had for breakfast, whether it’s a sunny day, diary entries, why I can’t find work or whom you should vote for in the coming (or passing) elections. The social networking sites live and breathe this stuff. While it’s nice to keep, perhaps, a digital finger in someone else’s pie I don’t find a need to do that over and over in every format.
What I do find a need for, desperately so, is a place to share thoughts that have some measure of substance. And to receive feedback in a like manner. I’ve often been asked, reminded, cajoled, commanded to get some of my observations down in some form other than passing conversations. I guess I’m finally listening. Of course, that assumes that I have something worth hearing. If I do, and I’m gambling that something I have is worth reading, that this isn’t a waste of time… And if I do, then I have to find a way to get past the limitations of this medium, which are manifold.
The first problem I encounter is that either we often only exchange positive platitudes or enraged polarization. On the platitudinal level see Facebook. I’ve got 300-ish “friends” from all manner of my past and a few I’ve never met. So I have friends from my days living in Christian communes in the 70’s and also from my days submerged in the countercultural worlds of New York City in the 80’s and 90’s. All of these are mingled with various stripes of erstwhile and permanent Alaskans. Apart from their basic humanity what do all these people share in common? Not a whole lot. I’ve got Tea Party folk and performance artists, Christian scholars and fishermen. I’ve got the politically correct, both left and right variations, and politically incorrect, again across the spectrum. So what do I write as headlines that will actually communicate something?
But that’s another problem in itself: Headlines and Captions. It is clear to me that more and more people spend more and more time within their virtual social districts. I know I’ve had people reject invitations for physical human interaction that probably went home and spent time with their “friends”. How many times have you had real life human conversations interrupted by cellphones, text messages, even that strange squirming anxiety, which comes from the suspicion that someone somewhere out there might be trying locate you? I’ve felt it myself. It seems sometimes that our lives have been reduced to headlines and captions and no content. Are people still seriously writing diaries? Or does online time eat up the individual self?
Next issue: So who is going to even read this? I’ve already broken the first rule of Internet writing by making my paragraphs too long. And I’m sure I’m going to break several more. The second one is to convey a sense of what my perspective is, knowing that it is best classified as “none of the above”. First of all I am a Christian. Second of all I am deeply suspicious of the Right Wing and commercialized variants of contemporary Christianity. Third, the Left Wing styles leave me just as cold. What does all of that mean? Well that’s a lot longer of a discussion than I should indulge in at this moment.
Add to that the following: I am deeply involved with many of the countercultural movements of the last 100 years: Expressionism, Surrealism, Hippies, Punks, Alternative Culture, etc, etc. And at the same time I mourn the loss of the old classic Western Culture. How do I reconcile these two opposing directions? You’ll have to keep come back for more to find out. And there are many other seeming contradictions to contend with: city/country, American/European, rules/freedom, faith/science, etc. All of which give me ample subjects to opine upon.
So, my rules? Subject-wise, the road might go anywhere. But it will never be the kinds of things best expressed in social networking. I have no political ax to grind. But I do have opinions that range from left to right, from monarchy to anarchy, from conservative to radical. But I don’t believe in rants, another Internet specialty. I do believe in reasoned, measured and passionate discussion.
Who am I writing this for? People who are thoughtful and are still willing to read. And it is quite clear that this number is being thinned daily. I don’t actually care whether they are Christian or not, as long as they find the subject interesting. And I will be allowing myself to discuss films, music, social events and conditioning, technology, philosophy, theology, comedy, fashion, puppetry and anything else that I feel like, with personal asides when relevant.
As far as comments go? Well that would be wonderful. But be warned this is a real problem area! I will delete any comments, that seem to be uncivil, trollish, flame-like. Ranters take heed. Likewise I’m not too interested in pointless agreement, ala Facebook “likes”. I will be pointing back to this moment, when comments frustrate me. BUT!! Disagreement, even sharp disagreement, is fine and needed. As long as there is a willingness to discuss, debate, expose, repudiate and the like in a civil manner. And likewise agreement should be thoughtful. (Talk about swimming against the current!)
As far as why I am writing this… read Welcome to the Anadrome.
Thanks for your Time, a resource of ever increasing value.
Anadromous is an odd sounding little used word. Yet to anyone who has spent time near the rivers of Alaska it is a very useful concept. It is the scientific designation of what Pacific salmon and a few other fish do. They are born in fresh water. They live out in the ocean for anywhere between two and five years, depending on the species, And finally, with a brain about the size of a pea, they inexplicably manage to find their way back home to the same stream they were hatched to breed once and die.
The word “Anadromous” come from the ancient Greek, meaning “running back”, or to run up or against. So the act of swimming up a river, against the current, is an anadromous act. For those familiar with any of the five species of Pacific salmon, the word anadromous also contains another idea. Once salmon leave the salt water to swim up a fresh water river they cease eating and commence dying. And so they swim against strong currents, often blinded by silt, without nutrition, until they finally arrive home; that clear stream or lake where they were born.
The females leave their eggs behind. The males fertilize them. Salmon in their home stream are not a pretty sight. By then they have seriously begun to decompose. Their flesh speckles white. If you picked one out of the stream, very easy for you, a bear or an eagle, they might just start to fall apart in your hands. Sometimes the act of mating and dying transpire within an hour of each other. And so to be anadromous is to fight not only against the current, but to fight with one’s last ounce of strength against death itself until your work is done.
And that’s not the hard part. A salmon can lay over 4,000 eggs. Biologists have estimated that out of those 4,000 only 1 to 4 make it back to the home stream. Meanwhile from the moment they are born everything else is out to get them. From cutthroat trout eating the young fry to fishers with their oceanic gillnets to bears standing patiently along the rivers as squadrons of birds await their turn. And so the anadromous life of a salmon is a race against everything that life can throw and death can deliver to leave something behind. Talk about unseen epics!
Our lives are something like that. We are born into an extremely unpredictable world. Yes we can depend on gravity, sunshine and a fractal reality. Yet how easy it is to be waylaid by the side of the road. Predators abound both, without and within. If we make it out of our teens into adulthood we have a chance to learn, to grow, even reproduce over and over, unlike our salmon. But even then adulthood is a perilous ocean. And then we start to head back to see what our actions and words mean. As Eliot said, “In my end is my beginning”. And as we head back towards home the dangers increase: Age, sickness, bitterness, abandonment, dementia. And finally death comes to pose its questions.
I’m inaugurating this blog at a time when it has become pointless. Our social technology has seemingly emptied out the content of much of our lives. I can be fairly certain that a good share of my Facebook “friends” will never read these little bottled messages. It’s just too time consuming, tedious. Plus we’ve got way too many screens to keep up with now. We are becoming too distracted by our headlines and captions to look for content anymore.
But the again I am writing these words for the few: The ones who are still looking along the shores of the wild ocean for bottles containing notes of more than a few paltry words and abbreviations; more than happy-go-lucky photos and text messages. I am choosing to swim against the current, the very shallow current, for those who still care.
The Anadrome is a road or course that goes back against the current. It is the road less traveled. It is not the road that veers to the Right or the Left. It is not the broad middle road that leads to destruction. It is the narrow road that leads to life through the valley of shadow of death. It is essentially a joyful and a humble road that anyone can travel but few choose.
Finally I am reminded me of something G.K. Chesterton wrote in 1925 in The Everlasting Man: “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.”