Mikhail Epstein. Cries in the New Wilderness:
From the Files of the Moscow Institute of Atheism.
Trans. and intr. by Eve Adler. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2002, 236 pp.
                        (hardcover and paperback)

                From Afterword: The Comedy of Ideas  (a fragment)

                        The Third Comedy

 The French poet and thinker Paul Valery once said that after Dante's Divine Comedy and Balzac's Human Comedy, it was time to start a third, "intellectual" comedy treating the adventures and transformations of human thought.

 Comedy, in the Dantean and Balzacian sense, is the most monumental of all genres, the genre depending least on the will of its author and most on the condition of his society, which, as it were, dictates to him, turning him into its literary secretary (this image comes from Balzac's preface to his work). Every society gets the comedy it deserves.

 Valery himself did not write the "third" comedy, although he had all the necessary qualifications for it: the broadest erudition, the subtlest intellect, and a great artistic genius. But he still lived in the Balzacian world of the "human comedy," where the moving force of all events was human beings, their characters, passions, interests.  Dante, for his part, had lived in a society welded together by Christian faith and organized on the model of the church. Its moving force was the authority of the divine Revelation, which had laid out the path leading from the sinful depths of earthly life to the bright crystal heavens of paradise.

 The Divine Comedy was as much a necessary expression of medieval, "feudal" society as the Human Comedy was of property-owning, "bourgeois" society. And these works were written in the very countries that were the classic models of the corresponding social-spiritual organization: pre-Renaissance Italy and post-Revolutionary France.

 The model of the third type of society, which we may tentatively call "socialist," appeared in post-Revolutionary Russia. It was precisely here that a new moving force appeared at the foundation of society: the force of ideas. It was ideas that brought the Revolution, waged the Civil and Great Patriotic Wars, established plants and factories—not only in order to produce something material, but also to assert the productivity of the ideas themselves. Socialist society is the only society constructed according to a previously laid plan based on ideas born in the minds of its thinker-founders; it is the most speculative and "premeditated" society on earth. Socialism is society without God and without things—spiritually and materially poor but rich in ideology, built on ideas alone—the kingdom of ideas ruling in its own name, where a ruler rules only in the name of an idea or as the impersonation of an idea, the triumph of its truth.

 In socialist Russia, the things that feudal and bourgeois society lived by lost their prestige and reality. A tense and conscious battle is waged against God—or, rather, against the idea of God, since His actual existence is denied. Likewise, a struggle is conducted for the idea of plenty, although articles of material luxury and even necessities themselves disappear. But in any case, only ideas—ideas of what is, ideas of what is not—have an acknowledged and felt reality, ruling over human beings. Everything that exists outside of ideas, whether acknowledged or denied, loses its living reality and recedes into the background. There is a struggle against the idea of God, though there is no actual God; there is a struggle for the idea of plenty, though there is also no actual plenty. Ideas are all there is. They neither save us in the next life nor feed us in this one, but they do give us the feeling that our life is rightly lived and our death is not in vain.

 Thus, the third comedy, the comedy of ideas, arises precisely from the self-consciousness of socialist society, whose inner spring is neither the will of God nor the private interests of human beings, but ideas in which the faith and passion of immense human masses are concentrated. The whole life of socialist society revolves not around the "divine" and not around the "human" but around some third thing, for which no suitable name has yet been invented, but which can be defined as the "ideational"—life according to the idea.

  Ludicrous and terrible—in the highest sense comical—is a human being who has fallen away from God into sin, living by merely human laws. Just as comical is a human being who is possessed by the passion for things, who has fallen away from everything human, living by the laws of the material world, in the interests of wealth, career, acquisition. Such are the characters of the Dantean and Balzacian worlds: the venal Bonturo and the usurious Gobsec; pere Ugolino and Pere Grandet, fathers who devour their own children; the thieves de Pazzi and Vautrain, Pope Nicholas III and the careerist Rastignac. But the characters of the Comedy of Ideas, perhaps, need no names—they are well enough served by initials, abstracted from concrete names as ideas are abstracted from concrete persons. As comical as the falling away from divinity and from humanity may be, there is nothing more comical than the idea, for in it the human being falls away from everything substantial and even from himself, from whatever is individual and unique in himself.

 The idea promises everything—and takes everything. There is no subject more worthy of comic representation, more distracted and addled, than the idea, for it is both more than and less than itself. It is at once heroic and parodic, surpassing what is and laying claim to what is not, full and empty, virtuous and vicious, an envoy to the Future and an abortion of Non-being. An idea is a something raised to the highest power, and for that very reason it corresponds to nothing and means nothing. Ideas: to unleash and intensify the class struggle for the sake of the classless society; to wipe out the wealthy for the sake of the common wealth; to devalue labor in support of the value of labor; to dry up the sea in the wilderness and pour it into flourishing plains; to fight militantly in the struggle for peace; to die of hunger in the struggle for the harvest; to annihilate matter in the struggle for materialism.  Every idea bears within itself a staggering comedy that has cost millions of people a tragic life.

 But what is tragic on the level of individual destinies underlies the comedy of Destiny itself. Ideas have destroyed the people who asserted them, but at the same time, through the tragedy of the generations, they have revealed their essentially comic nature. This is why comedy need not blush to tumble onstage in the still-warm tracks of tragedy, on the same boards, perhaps even simultaneously with tragedy, in the same roles. Alongside the Gulag Archipelago, the tragedy of the tortured and guillotined, grows its enormous shadow—the vaudeville of the very ideas that had played the roles of the torturers. People were sacrificed to the Idea; but while these sacrifices were heaping up before the Idea in its priestly role, it started clowning and winking, bustling around the bloody arena in whiteface, puffing up its cheeks and breathing its last; in the role of the hangman-buffoon, it would grab its own head by the hair and drag it to the scaffold.  One and the same act of the historical drama is played both as the tragedy of living people and the comedy of the specters that rule them.

 Tragedy, as the literary treatises say, moves from a happy to a sad situation, comedy from a sad to a happy. Tragedy embraces that period of our history when people, apparently made happy by the triumph of their ideas, turned out to be caught in their tightening trap: "from the happy to the sad." Comedy embraces the period when the ideas, having taken people captive, suddenly emerged from prison walls as a vaudeville stage set, a bunch of crumpled cardboard junk: "from the sad to the happy." Each took place through the other. The ideas had to be painted in blood so that history could later pour out its bile on them.

 Thus it is by the steps of the three comedies that the comic descends into the destiny of mankind: first the human without God, then the person without humanity, finally the idea without the person.

                         Encyclopedia as Genre

 In this sense, comedy is a genre whose contents may be embodied in completely different forms depending on the epoch. The Divine Comedy took the form of a poem, to which it was disposed by its very subject, the ascent of the soul seeking nearness and union with God. The Human Comedy took the form of a series of novels, since the novel is defined precisely by its concentration on the fate of the isolated man, the private individual—not in his relation to the highest will, as in the poem, but in his struggle with external circumstances.
 What form would best correspond to the contents of the third comedy? As a poem is directed to the heights of the divine and a novel to the depths of the human, so an encyclopedia is directed at the breadth of the variegated world of ideas. If the poem of Dante unfolds in the timeless space of the three worlds beyond the grave, on the hero's path through hell, purgatory, and heaven; if the novels of Balzac unfold in historical time, in the serial plot of actions and events, in the intrigues and conflicts of the characters;— then the third comedy can unfold only in that timeless and spaceless continuum where ideas co-exist and communicate among themselves—not by means of spatial or temporal connections but exclusively by means of references, citations, ideal attractions and repulsions. This intelligible continuum of ideas, all existing and calling out to one another at the same time, is the encyclopedia.

 As a collective genre that preserves and displays the sum of received knowledge, this genre is beloved of socialist society and answers the needs of its transhistorical nature. There is no time in the kingdom of ideas; it abides in itself, indexed in an invisible card catalogue where all the ideas that society acknowledges as worthy of existence are fully cross-referenced. And it makes no difference whose name is signed to the exposition of these ideas: the more authoritative an encyclopedic publication, the more likely the authors names are to be omitted. After all, it is not individuals who answer for the ideas but the ideas that govern the individuals. /…./

 Copyright 1993, 1994, 2001 Mikhail N. Epstein
 Copyright 2002 Paul Dry Books, Inc.
All rights reserved