Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The Political Unconscious: Kadare's Palace of Dreams

I recently read a translation (from French) of The Palace of Dreams (Nëpunësi i pallatit të ëndrrave) by the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare with my book group at the University of Leeds Library. Whether it's SF is up for debate, but the events of the novel are certainly dystopian and understood to be informed by Kadare's experiences living under state totalitarianism in Albania during the 1970s and 1980s.

In it, we are presented with the central character of Mark-Alem, a member of the powerful but inauspicious Quprili family. This ancient Albanian dynasty have a long and fractious history within the Bulkan empire, sporadically falling out of favour with the ruling Sultans. Nevertheless, soon after the story begins Mark-Alem is selected to work in the prestigious Tabir Sarrail (The Palace of Dreams). Widely known as the state’s most secretive organisation, the workers select and interpret the dreams of the country’s citizens, which are gathered on horseback from all corners of the empire. Each week a Master Dream is selected and presented to the Sultan, as a means of anticipating plots to overthrow the authorities. 

Mark-Alem quickly and inexplicably rises through the ranks of the Palace but is often disorientated navigating his way through the labyrinthine corridors of the Tabir Sarrail, and constantly baffled as to why he is distinguished from his peers. Part of the clue lies in a quote that featured on the front cover of my edition of the book:

And so that the bridge might endure, a man was sacrificed in its building, walled up in its foundations. And although so much time had gone by since, the traces of his blood had come down to the present generation. So that the Quprilis might endure...

The Quprili family name means 'bridge', so the suggestion is that Mark-Alem sacrifices himself in order to ensure the family's continued influence. By having an agent in one of the state's most powerful institutions, the Quprilis can ward off potential conspiracies against them. There is also a nod to one of Kadare's earlier stories in this reference to the bridge, The Three-Arched Bridge (Ura Me Tri Harqe).

What I find so interesting about the story is the idea of the Palace of Dreams itself. In this system, the consciousness of the people is at the mercy of its government and the motif of the dream, which can often be associated positively with the capacity to imagine (utopian) alternatives, is presented in a scenario that allows for no alternatives, and actively precludes them. Lenin's quote from Pisarev on the importance of dreams, that 'if there some connection between dreams and life then all is well', is turned on its head here. As Mark-Alem's uncle, the Vizier, tells him towards the end of the novel:

Some people [...] think it's the world of anxieties and dreams - your world, in short - that governs this one. I myself think it's from this world that everything is governed. I think it's this world that selects what it wants from the abyss.

My reference to Fredric Jameson's study in the title captures the sense in which the so-called unconscious is deliberately put to work serving the political ends of a totalitarian regime. In Jameson, this relationship is figured differently; Ian Buchanan's commentary of Jameson's criticism and his uptake of utopia as a critical method offers an insightful summary:

Utopia is figured as the repressed; its conspicuous absence in most cultural texts is thus a symptom of a deep resistance. Of course the fact that texts are actually cast as symptomatic means this particular repressed is, thankfully, irrepressible, that is to say, insistently returning. The larger goal of Jameson’s criticism, then, is to diagnose the source of this censorship, and, in the same gesture, perform a kind of cultural “talking cure” by bringing into the open the repressed idea of Utopia as it exist in popular and other texts.

In The Palace of Dreams, then, the idea of utopia is repressed in the manipulation of the people's dreams. The novel's ending is ambiguous, is there a hope of return, of the resurgence of alternatives? Or is Mark-Alem irrevocably in thrall to the sinister dream-world, through which the state exercises its control?

Monday, 9 June 2014

Structures of Soviet Science Fiction (I)

“... an avant-gardist long after the days of the avant-garde who dreams the dream of the avant-garde one last time in the seclusion of his own room.”

Boris Groys, Ilya Kabakov: The man who flew into space from his apartment (London: Afterall, 2006)

The Strange City is the title of a current exhibition at the Grand Palais, Paris, by Russian conceptual artist Ilya Kabakov and his wife, Emilia. It takes the form of a journey through the ‘strange city’, comprising related installations which variously suggest notions of dream, the labyrinth, time-and-space, utopia; reviewing the exhibition, Matilda Bathurst found it “haunted by whispers of J.G. Ballard and Jorge Luis Borges.” The Kabakovs’ previous exhibits in the UK include pieces for Star City: The Future Under Communism (2010) at Nottingham Contemporary, and a recent installation, ‘The Happiest Man’ in London, at the University of Westminster’s Ambika P3 gallery (2013). Critic Boris Groys traces the connections in the Kabakovs’ work between Soviet revolutionary propaganda and the subsequent ‘space heroism’ of Yuri Gagarin and his fellow cosmonauts, summarising that:

“The official Soviet cult of space exploration... [was] a blatant misuse of the cosmic utopia of unlimited free movement... [with] an ideological excess of parades, rituals and ceremonies... the Communist project was originally a global, cosmic project.”

Image from The Strange City, 2014
The Kabakovs consciously reference a tradition in Russian philosophical and scientific thought expounded by Nikolai Fedorov (1828/29-1903), author of Philosophy of the Common Task, rocket pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) and ‘Cosmist’ Aleksandr Chizhevsky (1897-1964), whose overlapping theories of cosmic conquest, resurrection, space travel and the perfectibility of man were adapted, sometimes uncomfortably, to fit an early-Soviet Utopian vision. Philosophy of the Common Task, posthumously published by friends and followers of Fedorov, was a key text in this respect, roughly summarised by its translator Elisabeth Koutaissoff as a  “utopian vision of universal human kinship”, where man’s great ‘task’, or duty, is “to regulate the forces of nature, to defeat death and bring ancestors back to life.” The fusion of belief in science and technology to improve mankind with mystical, even occult, ideas was not outlandish in pre-Revolutionary Russia; the two were compatible and these historical precedents of ‘scientific mysticism’ were carried forward into early Communist thinking, and informed the art and theory of Constructivism.

This latest exhibition makes those links explicit, as the visitor is guided around the large-scale installations which make up The Strange City, variously titled ‘The Empty Museum’ or ‘The Centre of Cosmic Energy’, where the work of Vladimir Vernadsky (1863-1945) on the Noosphere[1] – itself an extension of Fedorov's belief in humanity’s ability to shape “the course of evolution and the fate of the planet” – and the grand Soviet Utopian projects such as Tatlin’s Tower are juxtaposed with fragments of propaganda posters, praising “the courage, labour, and reason of the Soviet people!”. The grim reality of that illusory dream of earthly paradise and cosmic unity, evidenced by famine, the GULag, the purges and decades of totalitarian rule, are unspoken, but undeniably present. This is another strand in what curator Robert Storr calls “Kabakov’s project of recreating the jerry-rigged workers’ paradise... [recalling] barely remembered nightmares.”

Model of Tatlin's Tower, 1919
A visit to Moscow’s Space Museum, explored in Part Two, reinforces the disjuncture between the Utopian vision and the Soviet reality, and provides another example of “the collapse of socialist dreams.”