April 12th, 2020

The relationship between ideas and the people behind them

I recently read this blog post by Alexander Pavlenko which was highlighted in LiveJournal's newsletter. The post is in Russian, as most of LiveJournal is these days (LiveJournal having been bought by a Russian media company and migrated to Russian servers some years ago), but the language is clear enough that Google Translate (or whatever digital translator you prefer) can handle it pretty well. In essence, the post is mostly a commentary on a story titled "И деревья, как всадники" ("And trees like horsemen"), written by Georgy Shakhnazarov, a Soviet-Armenian politician who today is mostly remembered for his political activities, but who had a hobby of writing stories in Russian which remain mostly untranslated today, and thus mostly unknown outside of Russia (and indeed, hardly remembered even within Russia). The story is about a writer who becomes one of the most acclaimed writers of his time, only to be disgraced when he is unmasked as a plagiarist: His writings are actually all just reprints of other people's stories which had been written long ago and subsequently forgotten. The story concludes, however, that the supposedly disgraced writer is actually a hero, because he inspired people to read forgotten masterpieces which would otherwise have remained unread by the current generation, and even if he falsely claimed the writings as his own, his actions were still noble and admirable as the work of resurrecting ideas and stories worth remembering.

(Only now does the supremely meta nature of this essay I'm writing become clear to me: I'm writing a blog post, about a blog post, which is about an author who wrote a story, which is about an author who claimed to have written stories.)

Pavlenko's blog post promptly denounces Shakhnazarov's story as "A strikingly stupid story whose value lies in the remarkably accurate reflection of the Soviet idea of ​​intellectual property, and literature in particular". Pavlenko declares that mediocre writers are better at describing the times they live in because they tend to focus on mundane aspects of everyday life, while great writers are usually not stuck in the present, and usually not focused on the minutiae of the world around them, with the result being that while great writers produce timeless ideas, if you want an accurate description of a particular place and time, a particular zeitgeist in human history, you'd be better off consulting a mediocre writer for that. Perhaps this is true.

But Pavlenko takes something of a dubious leap of logic when he declares that the separation of ideas from their authors is responsible for the downfall of Russian culture. Pavlenko very clearly expresses his disagreement with the idea that authors behind books are interchangeable: That it does not matter who wrote, for example, The Idiot, that it could just as well have been Dostoevsky or Pushkin, or for that matter, H. G. Wells. Pavlenko holds this to be a Soviet idea, the idea that ideas are what is important, and the person who came up with the idea is irrelevant. This does perhaps describe the communist, industrialized core of the Soviet Union: A country where all people were supposed to be the same, cogs in a machine, a place where the identity of the author of the novel you're reading is as irrelevant as the identity of the machinist who produced the gas pedal on your car. People are interchangeable, disposable, and identical to each other; that was the communist mentality in the Soviet Union. To Westerners, who value individualism and diversity among people, these ideas are horrifying.

On the other hand, it is true that ideas often grow far beyond the importance of the people who developed them. We know for a fact that one plus one equals two, that a wheel makes transporting things more efficient, and that silicon can be used to make circuits that store and transmit information. These principles are true no matter who's talking about them and who discovered them. Does it really matter who developed arithmetic, who invented the wheel, or who performed the first experiments with electronic semiconductors? If this history interests you, you can read it, but it is not really important to our everyday lives that the transistor, for example, was developed by the team of William Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter Brattain; if these men had not invented the transistor, someone else would have. We do not have much to gain from learning the names of the people. The point is that math and science work. If William Shockley had been named Thomas Nelson instead, would that have changed the course of history or had any impact on our lives?

Not long after reading Pavlenko's post, I thought about these ideas again when watching an interview of Vladimir Putin in which Putin commented on some public sentiments that had been expressed in the media. I don't even remember what the particular ideas were, but Putin dismissed the identity of the people behind the ideas as irrelevant, declaring: "I don't really care who's saying these things. The main thing for me is: Are the things they're saying true or not? Because if the things people say are true, it doesn't matter who's saying them". Putin, of course, was born in the Soviet Union and grew up there, and it occurred to me: Maybe that is a Soviet way of thinking after all. And yet it's true, isn't it? If democracy is important, then it isn't really critically important who wants democracy, who talks about it, or who creates it; the important thing is that it exists and the idea is discussed, right?

When I lived in Saint Petersburg, Russia, I once got into a discussion with a co-worker about Russian literature. Having read a couple of books by Dostoevsky, I expressed admiration for Dostoevsky (who was, like Putin, from Saint Petersburg) as a writer, but my co-worker angrily dismissed my praise, declaring: "I don't like Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky was an alcoholic and a madman". I knew these things to be true, but I didn't really see why they mattered; Dostoevsky may not have been a role model as a human being, but I found some of his writing interesting. Isn't that enough? Does the person behind the words have to be a saint for their writing to have value?

To be sure, when I like a particular writer, I take some interest in their personal life, because it is interesting to discover and think about the life experiences and influences which led to that person becoming a writer and developing the ideas they expressed. Certainly, the identity of a writer is indelibly intertwined with whatever works of literature they may produce. Often you'll read a book and say "Yup, this kind of writing is definitely representative of this author's style and could only have come from their mind". Behind every word that gets written, there is one individual who chose to use that word; behind every sentence is an individual's mind which conceived of that sentence. And yet, is it really meaningful to study the personal life of these people in great detail? Sometimes writers are just regular people who happened to come up with good stories or ideas; there isn't always a great story behind the story.

All of this ties into something which I recently wrote about in a post recounting a quasi-discussion between Slavoj Žižek and Will Self. I accused Žižek of leaning too heavily on names, trusting in references to last names of respected philosophers to explain his positions rather than expressing actual ideas; for Žižek, "Here I agree with Hegel" is an adequate explanation of his opinion, rather than actually expressing what his opinion is or why he thinks that way. This kind of answer is completely unsatisfactory; even if listeners are familiar with Hegel and his writings, to say that you agree with Hegel brings no new ideas or enlightenment into the conversation, no points which could be discussed. Thinking about this also reminds me of one thing which always bothered me about how the Bible is discussed in Christian churches: I grew up in a religious family which regularly read and quoted the Bible, and I never had a problem with this per se, but people have a tendency to rely on names rather than the ideas behind them: "Remember what Moses said", they'll say, or "Remember the story of Joseph". Yes, I remember the story of Joseph; what about it? Just mentioning his name doesn't communicate anything. Joseph could have been named Isaiah, or Daniel, or Žižek for that matter; just invoking some person's name doesn't impart any useful ideas. If there is something important to be learned from the story of Joseph, then I would appreciate it if people elaborated on what point they're trying to make rather than just reciting a bunch of names from the Bible to show off how much they've memorized, as that doesn't really bring any useful information to anyone.

I will certainly agree that learning about the identities and lives of the writers behind great works of literature can be a fascinating and rewarding study. The same goes for great musical composers, film directors, painters, and so on. It can be true for scientists and inventors, as well: The ways that real people are inspired by ideas and the ways they turn those ideas into reality is sometimes inspiring and enlightening. There may be value in learning this history for those who are curious about it. But let's face it: A great idea is a great idea, regardless of who came up with it. In the Soviet Union, even the top scientists and inventors never received any financial gain from their developments, considering the advancement of human understanding to be sufficient reward. Regardless of whether you agree with this mentality or not, I still consider it rather a stretch to claim that the separation of ideas from the people behind them is singularly responsible for the collapse of Russian culture; the fact that Pavlenko's post abruptly ends with this idea makes it seem more like a non sequitur than a defensible position. And I do not consider it necessary to learn more about Pavlenko or his life's history to understand why he took this position; I disagree with his idea and consider his idea to be invalid, and this conclusion is sufficient for me until such point as I may receive evidence to the contrary.