Sunday, June 26, 2011

Book Review: Gulag by Anne Applebaum

By Joseph Kellard
When published in 2003, Anne Applebaum’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag: A History was touted as the most authoritative, comprehensive book on the Soviet labor camps.

Applebaum, a Washington Post columnist, recounts the many facets of this decades-long slave system. Among her topics are the gulag's origin and expansion, the living conditions and distinctive work at the various camps, and how prisoners survived, rebelled, escaped and died.

While Gulag presents what were, to me, some surprising details, including that numerous prisoners were actually released, Applebaum routinely returns, whether implicitly or explicitly, to the evil purpose of the camps.

One example comes in her comparison of Nazi and Soviet camps. She notes that the Soviet camps focused more on exploiting labor than on deliberately killing "enemies of the people," whereas in Nazi concentration camps, where a Jew's death was virtually assured, the reverse was true. Gulag prisoners usually died not by being deliberately killed, but by the system's "gross inefficiency and neglect,” Applebaum writes. Yet she demonstrates that certain labor camp projects, such as useless grand canals, reflected the communists' desire to kill for killing's sake:

"A propaganda slogan declared that the ‘Danube-Black Sea Canal is the tomb of the Romanian bourgeoisie!' Given that up to 200,000 people may have died building it, that may have indeed been the canal's real purpose."

In the epilogue to her primarily fact-finding, journalist book, Applebaum properly touches on the realities of the post-Soviet population's widespread evasion of this important part of Russia’s history, and points to its harmful consequences, such as Putin's authoritarian rule. Yet, for a book on this subject and its scope, she draws virtually no cause-and-effect relationship between communist ideology and the gulag. Worse, her deeper, conclusive commentary on her subject is actually anti-philosophical:

"Only our ability to debase and destroy and dehumanize our fellow man has been — and will be — repeated again and again”; and: "The more we know of the specific circumstances which led to each episode of mass torture and mass murder, the better we will understand the darker side of our own human nature."

In other words, Applebaum believes not in fundamental philosophic ideas — chief among them being communism’s glorification of self-sacrifice to the state — as the underlying cause of the gulag, but rather man’s “ability,” that is, his (alleged) innate evil, to destroy his fellow man, and certain unspecified “circumstances.”

One of Gulag’s merits, however, is that it offers many concretizations of communism’s inevitable results: mass privations, disease, starvation and death. As I read the various injustices that Soviet citizens suffered under this slave system (within a slave state), I was reminded of accusations that communists and their apologists had leveled against capitalism and the United States. Recall that they claimed that capitalists “exploit” their workers, and asserted that Soviet Russia held the most promise for the “common man,” the promise of unprecedented prosperity and equality of results. All of this came to mind as I read this passage:

"Ivan Nikishov, who became the boss of Dalstroi in 1939, in the wake of the purges, and held the post until 1948, became infamous for accumulating riches in the middle of desperate poverty. [Prison bosses] even began to compete with one another, in a fantastic version of keeping up with the Jonses."

While Applebaum fails to provide a deeper, philosophic understanding of how communism led to the gulag, her book nevertheless provides many examples that help ground the stark reality of that false, evil ideology.

* This is a revision of a previously posted review.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Jesus vs. Howard Roark

By Joseph Kellard
While talk continues in Objectivist circles about a Christian organization's comparison of Ayn Rand to Jesus, I'd like to remind or enlighten HBLers [subscribers to the Harry Binswanger List], as I did when Mel Gibson's “The Passion of the Christ” was all the rage, about an excellent letter Miss Rand wrote that contrasts Jesus and Howard Roark. You'll find it in “Letters of Any Rand” (p. 287, hardcover), under the title: “To Sylvia Austin, a fan.”

Among the ideas Ayn Rand addresses are the contradiction between individualism (in regard to Christianity's reverence for the sanctity of the individual soul) and Jesus' morality of altruism, the demeaning implication that what is noble in man is strictly divine and not human, “bearing each other's burdens,” and “loving one another.”

About the latter she wrote: “Since all men are not virtuous, to love them for their vices would be a monstrous conception and a vicious injustice. One can not love such men as Stalin or Hitler. One can not love both a man like Roark and a man like Toohey. If one says one does, it merely means that one does not love at all.”

Stick that in your pipe, American Values Network!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Color Breathes Life Into an Ordinary Painting

By Joseph Kellard
Why did I take a photo of this painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you ask?

It should be obvious: the colors are brilliant and complimentary. They are used to make the central subjects stand out boldly in an otherwise nondescript scene that is as simple as its title suggests: Arabs Crossing the Desert (early 1870s).

The rich reds, yellows and green in the horsemen’s robes are set against and complimented by the expanse of cloudless blue sky, and the varieties of color used also comes across in the three different-colored horses: chestnut brown, gray and white.

The artist, Jean-Léon Gérôme, a French painter and sculpture (1824-1904), could have painted all the horses the same color, just as he could have given all the horsemen uniform clothes (perhaps their different-colored robes denote something about their status?). But then the painting would not stand out in anyway, since the action it depicts is slow and subdued, and the subjects are mostly hidden under their clothes.

Arabs Crossing the Desert is a great example of how color can carry a painting, making a rather routines scene “pop” and come alive.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Vine

By Joseph Kellard
Whenever I trek to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I always try to pass through the American Wing to catch even just a glimpse of The Vine, by Harriet Whitney Frishmuth (1880-1980). During my most recent visit there, with my new Nikon D90 in hand, I took several snapshots of this beautiful sculpture from a variety of angles.

The Vine is one of my two favorite sculptures, competing only with Joy by Sam Axton.

As I did with Joy, I eventually want to break down and analyze why exactly I find The Vine so special, why it strikes a particularly powerful chord with me, and perhaps put to rest which of the two sculptures I can definitively call my top favorite — that is, if I decided this is really necessary or even possible.

Today, I simply want to show a few shots of this beautiful sculpture that evokes a similarly elative spirit as Joy. Which of the two works of art more effectively evokes that spirit — and why? These are questions to be answered perhaps another day.

The following is a description of The Vine that accompanies the sculpture at the Met:

In the early twentieth century, sculptures of dancing women were produced in great numbers, inspired in part by the popularity of Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, and Anna Pavlova. Frishmuth often turned to dancers for her sculptural themes and employed them to pose for her with musical accompaniment. Show stretching upward and outward in imitation of a living vine, this lyrical nude balances on tiptoe in the ecstasy of performance, a grapevine suspended in her hands. The first version of the work, a statuette eleven and a quarter inches high, was enormously popular, cast in an edition of 396. In 1923, Frishmuth enlarged the sculpture to monumental scale, using Desha Delteil of the Fokine Ballet as her model.