If Santa brought you ‘The Best Australian Essays 2011’, then you have probably already read Maria Tumarkin’s essay “The Whisperer in the Jungle” because it made the cut into that compendium. But if you haven’t read it, it is available online here as it first appeared in Meanjin last year.
You may recall that I read Maria Tumarkin’s recent book Otherland recently, and I have her earlier work Traumascapes on my towering TBR list- a fate that, sadly and paradoxically, seems to befall books that I am keen enough to buy and yet never seem to get round to reading. In this essay, she describes attending a Melbourne Writer’s Festival event in 2008 where Orlando Figes was discussing his then-recent book The Whisperers, a much-lauded book on people’s private lives under Stalin. I can easily see why she would have been attracted to the session: her own work examines the psychological cost of traumatic political and ecological phenomena, and as an Ukrainian-born historian, she would have a particular interest in the Soviet context.
But at one stage she reached across to take the hand of her Russian friend, whom she had cajoled into accompanying her:
After ten minutes I reached out and put my hand on my friend’s hand. I was afraid to look her in the face.
My friend and I, just by virtue of having been born in the Soviet Union, knew that the sweeping statements being hurled with overwhelming certainty from that stage were crude, conveniently mangled and phrased cheaply for effect, but it was something else that made us ill, a question. How could a person write a book about this kind of history and not have his heart even a little bit broken?
In this essay, written three years later, she returns to this memory of Orlando Figes’ appearance at the Melbourne Writers Festival in a reflection on moral bankruptcy in academia. For in 2010, news broke of the controversy over Figes’ anonymous and glowing comments on the Amazon site for his own book, and the equally anonymous and damning comments he made on the books of his academic rivals, in particular Robert Service and Rachel Polonsky (whose book I reviewed here). The controversy is spelled out in more detail in an article about Polonsky here , and the comments that follow the story are revealing and hint at the venom that the controversy drew forth.
It was the critical acclaim that greeted Figes’ most recent book Crimea: The Last Crusade– in bookshops now as I speak- that prompted her to dig up the story again. She begins by citing Figes’ own anonymous praise for his own work:
‘Leaves the reader awed, humbled yet uplifted … A gift to us all.’
Ever since the story (the scandal, the row, the controversy) spilled forth in April 2010, these words have proved irresistible, to the British media in particular. They have been printed and reprinted countless times. I feel no hesitation in repeating them here once more. Let them stand. Let them be read more times still.
I am digging this story up again because to this day it feels large to me, not merely the incongruous straying of an academic at the peak of his powers but more like a sweeping epic befitting the Russian nineteenth-century literary tradition that Figes sought to capture in Natasha’s Dance, the book that preceded The Whisperers. …my feeling is that in front of us is a much bigger story, one symptomatic of a particular kind of public culture that is able to absorb certain transgressions but not others, a culture that has a bigger problem with the stain on Monica Lewinsky’s dress—such is this culture’s fixation on the thousand variations of sexual impropriety—than with, say, the ostentatious abuse of intellectual power. It is a culture that is forgiving, indeed encouraging in some of its quarters, of a certain intellectual psychopathology notable for its indifference to three key human emotions: empathy, shame and remorse.
…No-one (really) knows what to do with you—and not just you, Professor Figes, but all you celebrated writers, artists, scientists (you know who you are); you bullies, cowards, hypocrites and cynical opportunists; you filmmakers who forced your little selves inside other people’s children; you philosophers who abandoned your own children to orphanages; you eminent scholars who proudly headed university departments in book-burning, people-eating dictatorships.
We seem to be hearing quite a bit about intellectual and political psychopathology in the last week here in Australia. We have been witnessing the fallout and the silencing that comes when people hold their tongues over the behaviour of a powerful man, and we can watch the rinse-cycle of public rehabilitation of reputation and legacy as it whirls into action. I guess that we like to think that there are second chances, and the possibility of public forgiveness but sometimes it seems that some people have to fight harder for it than others.