Sunday, April 26, 2009

Shevchenko vs. Lenin: The insanity of too much reason

At the southern entrance to Taras Shevchenko Park in Odessa, Ukraine stands a statue of the park's namesake. His massive chiseled shoulders top a monstrous frame clothed in perfectly-pressed trousers and jacket. A face meant to either inspire or strike fear into the common worker is mandatory for Shevchenko, an Ukrainian poet, artist and humanist who is credited by many for the creation of modern Ukrainian literature and even the language. In the west, presidents and war veterans often take credit for founding society. But in the east, the poets are the heroes.
What is most striking about Shevchenko's statue in this southern port town is his eyes and his mustache. Evidenced by his portrait, Ol' T.S.'s cookie duster is the envy of World War 1 veterans and mustache enthusiasts the world over, but this statue's exemplification was unique. As were his eyes. They were so cold, so huge and yet dwarfed by his massive brow. And then it became apparent his shoulders were not his own, either.
It was Lenin. The enemy of patriotic Ukrainians everywhere, the destroyer of worlds himself, Lenin's statue had been altered into a beefy Shevchenko. How incredibly ironic and yet unsavory: turning Communism's godfather, the man responsible for a regime that enslaved Ukraine for half a century, into the hero Ukrainians credit as the patriarch of their very language and culture.
Reflecting on the laziness of statue redactors everywhere, I have begun reading G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy in order to make sense of why the world is so mad. In his first glorious chapter, Chesterton addresses the question of insanity, and what exactly keeps a man sane or expunges him from it. The answer, of course, is not that he has lost reason altogether, but that he has lost everything but reason. Insanity may very well be a problem of too much reason, which is what every tyrant like Lenin suffers from in the first place.
Chesterton's grandest example of this is in the contrast of exactly those two men in the Odessa statue: the logician and the poet. The problem with the all too reasonable logician, like Lenin, is he tries to understand everything in the infinite universe, and realizing he cannot, makes it finite. He intentionally limits his view of the infinite because he cannot explain it, making it finite and incomplete.
The poet, Shevchenko, accepts the universe as the infinite sea that it is, Chesterton says, and merely attempts to float his raft on it. Accepting the universe as something outside of his control, as something infinite, the poet makes a place for his finite self in an infinite universe and finds he has all the space he needs. Realizing his view of the world is not complete, he is free to wander about and look at everything, and is never bored because there is always more to be discovered.
Chesterton says the poet merely pokes his head into the clouds to have a look around. The logician attempts to fit the heavens into his head, and it is his head that splits.

Perhaps this is why the insanity of Lenin's ideas are now dying in the godforsaken aftermath of the Soviet Regime. The tyrant attempts not only to understand everything, to reason everything, but in doing so he attempts to control all. This might be best exemplified in Tsar Nicholas I's order to exile Shevchenko to the Ural Mountains for writing critically of Tsarist Russia. Nicholas' words were to keep him under the strictest surveillance, without the right to write or paint.
The poet gives up control of his surroundings and his existence and merely attempts to enjoy and observe it. Shevchenko died in exile at the age of 47, but not after producing numerous paintings, poems, writings and drawings that live on today in Ukraine as works of a national hero.
The tyrant is insane because in his power he attempt to stretch his finite being over the infinite, to reason and control it. He creates a reasoning perfect in its simplicity, a perfect circle if you will, but a circle that is limited by its size. As his control and reason is found wanting, the circle shrinks, its owner running around it faster and faster and always ending up at the same place he started. The tyrant finds this reasonable because all apparent contradictions to his perfect circle must be left out if it is to work.
Shevchenko managed to retain sanity in the the bitter cold of the Ural mountains, of physical labour, and of the tortuous punishment of his oppressors. It would seem logical to us he should have gone insane. Yet he withstood the cruelest punishment and harshest conditions unwaveringly until death. But his oppressors could not withstand even his simple poetry or the sight of his art, it was too beautiful to fit in the circle, and it was too infinite to be snuffed out even his death.


Anonymous said...

Outstanding. I want to read it again!

fifi said...

(sigh)... Eastern Europeans!
(sigh)... Poets!
(sigh)... Chesterton!

(sigh)... Deep philosophical discussions of all three! :)