Tuesday, June 14, 2016

What is freedom?

As I often note here, we struggle to make meaning of our existence from the time we realize that we are mortals.  It is a challenge to understand the fact that we arrive in this world with invisible expiration dates printed on us.  In the back of our heads, as we lay down to go to sleep, deep down we know that we do not know when it will end.

In order to make meaning, we developed various institutions.  Religions that explain where we come from and--even more important--where we go after the big sleep.  During our life on this wonderful planet, which I know I will miss, we work with interpretations of love and hate. Even as we mentally prepare for that ultimate outcome, we realize that there is a life to live out, for which we then come up with various socio-political arrangements.

Svetlana Alexievich writes about how the collapse of the Soviet system not only shattered the structure of the everyday life that people lived, but it also eviscerated the ideas about Russia and its place in the world and, along with that, their own place in this world.

The oral history that Alexievich employs is certainly different from the kinds of work that I have read.  She is not merely telling the people's stories but is helping readers like me understand the very existential crisis that people went through and go through.  I was reminded of what the New Yorker had noted about Alexievich after she was awarded the Nobel Prize:
The Swedish Academy, which announced today that Alexievich will receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, cited the writer for inventing “a new kind of literary genre.” The permanent secretary of the Academy, Sara Danius, described Alexievich’s work as “a history of emotions—a history of the soul, if you wish.” Her work might also be described as oral history by excavation.
 Even the few pages that I have read thus far make it abundantly clear that Alexievich is unpacking the lives of ordinary people who bare their souls to her.  It was so touching to read one say:
It became rude to ask, "What are you reading?"
As I have often noted here, even in the old country, the world of reading and thinking and art and culture does not seem to exist anymore.  Whether it is the old country, or Russia, or here in America, people seem to be obsessed with money and riches.  They seem to be think that they can escape the existential struggle by chasing wealth.  No wonder reading has been thrown out; after all, serious books "don't teach you how to become successful. How to get rich ..."

Most of the voices in the book are those of women.  Women authors, and women's voices in this book, will fill a huge void in my understanding of this world and my own existence.  There is a reason why Alexievich focuses on women's stories:
Focussing on women was a wise decision, Alexievich said: “Women tell things in more interesting ways. They live with more feeling. They observe themselves and their lives. Men are more impressed with action. For them, the sequence of events is more important.” 
Less than fifty pages into the book and I can already get a sense of why in his twilight years "Gorbachev has become an isolated figure".  Alexievich channels one voice:
We're rolling around in shit and eating foreign food.  Instead of a Motherland, we live in a huge supermarket. If this is freedom, I don't need it. To hell with it! The people are on their knees. We're a nation of slaves. Slaves!
I am sure I will understand more about the existential crisis over the 470 pages of the book.  


Ramesh said...

Chasing wealth is a good thing, not a bad thing. Chasing only wealth is of course not a very admirable thing to do.

I am in for a looong summer if within 50 pages of the first book "oral history by excavation" has made an appearance. I freely confess that I have no idea of what this means.

Sriram Khé said...

Almost always, chasing wealth means that people spend very little time in activities like reading and thinking because serious books "don't teach you how to become successful. How to get rich ..."
One of the voices in the book had another interesting comment: People no longer seem to "earn" money. Instead, they make money, or pull down an income, or whatever else the lingo is. This linguistic shift is not an accident ...

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