For the Realists

During the nineteenth century, coal and its no longer latent powers began mattering to art and literature. Having been perceived and depicted, they now demanded equal but different rank with the divine. To realize Anna Karenina’s feelings during her night passage on the Moscow-St. Petersburg express was the same problem for Tolstoy that it would have been for Homer, but it was only Homer’s routes that traversed a universe conceivable as a surface hiding no secrets and revealing all there was to reveal. Against that, the moment at the end of Anna’s emptied book when a disconnected fuel tender came rolling by itself down its track (VIII.5) was a revelation of movement without a discoverable origin in intent or terminus in meaning. It may have been that that extorted the last tears from Vronsky. His voyage of discovery had ended without conclusion, in smoky midair.

See how you yourself now perceive this silhouette of eleven womanless men and a danger sign. Inside their collective image, smoke from a waiting parovoz ascends to darken the cloudscape, and that seems to be all the meaning there is. Certainly no one within the artwork’s dark margins is reading the sign’s words.

“Track elevating at road crossing, Joliet, Ill.,” between 1900 and 1905. Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, Post-processed for contrast and detail. Replaces a 2014 restoration, which has now been deleted from the blog.

Signed at under such circumstances, lesser realists such as William Dean Howells and Jacob Riis reacted by filling their non-fictions and their fictions alike with brand names and street addresses, recorded with due accuracy. The intent seemed to have been to force signifiers like the railroadmen’s unread X to give up a meaning. In time, James Joyce came to understand that a record’s significance lies in its words, only. The data of its ostensible content are a pre-text, and that is enough. But the image you have just seen in parallel with Tolstoy’s words is a wordlessness. Its primary signifier is not a history like Tolstoy’s or Joyce’s but a chemistry and a meteorology, and its record is only one of the smudges that coal in the nineteenth century left in the air.

Codes forever unbreaking


In his 2012 screenplay for Anna Karenina, Tom Stoppard envisions Anna’s world as a ballet russe. It isn’t a glamorous ballet, however. Startlingly, it offers its audience neither a box of Petipa chocolates nor a healthful diet Balanchine. No; it is as specifically as can be a Soviet ballet, all moralizing didactic pantomime. All it lacks in that respect is a score by Khachaturian. As a Soviet ballet, it makes itself inaccessible to any of Tolstoy’s evocations of thought and feeling, but it excels at realizing his narrative of surfaces, etiquettes, coded languages of the coutures of rank. The time of the commissars was one of the great eras when language communicated not directly but through a code – a code whose breakability was a secret not yet revealed.


It wasn’t the only such era, of course. To describe the return of the Marquis de Vardes to the court of Louis XIV after twenty years in exile, Mme. de Sévigné wrote a language that could just as well have been the dialect of Diana Vreeland.

He arrived on Saturday morning, looking quite extraordinary, and wearing an ancient justaucorps à brevet in the style of those worn in 1663. . . . After this first interview, the King caused M. le Dauphin to be called, and presented him to him as a young courtier, M. de Vardes recognized him and bowed to him. The King said to him laughingly: ‘Vardes, what a stupid thing to do, you know quite well that you do not bow to anyone when in my presence.’ M. de Vardes replied in the same tone: ‘Sire, I no longer know anything, I have forgotten everything, Your Majesty will will have to pardon me even thirty stupidities.’ ‘That I will,’ said the King, ‘you have twenty-nine left.’ Later, when the King made fun of his coat, M. de Vardes said: ‘Sire, when a man is so wretched as to be banished from your presence, he is not only unfortunate, he becomes ridiculous as well.’

Gilette Ziegler, At the Court of Versailles: Eye-Witness Reports from the Reign of Louis XIV, trans. Simon Watson Taylor (1966; New York: E. P. Dutton, 1968), 154-55.

The etiquette governing that conversation was, you see, entirely impersonal. Like a physical law, it enforced itself equally and disinterestedly on both the subject and his king. And the ancient historian Carlin A. Barton has generalized an anthology of such anecdotes into something like a  code dictionary. With its help, we can begin to decrypt what our ancestors spoke without themselves understanding,

It seems that the restraints of Roman decorum grew ever more subtle and elaborate in the period of the civil wars and after. . . . Walking, sitting, reclining, facial expressions and gestures, and, above all, speech – its tone and tenor, rhythm and accent – were subject to regulation according to a set of increasingly refined stylistic models. Every aspect of the individual’s appearance and behavior was scrutinized and subject to strictures, ignorance of which invited ridicule and exclusion. . . . The esoteric, exclusive, highly scripted politesse of the Romans rigidly segregated them. To enter the society of the elite from the outside required total immersion in the fastidious etiquette that distinguished it. . . . And not even the preeminence of Hadrian could save him from being mocked in the Senate for his Spanish accent.

The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans: The Gladiator and the Monster (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 115-16.


The process of decryption can also work at shorter distances from the past – for instance, if we apply it to the corpus of the Soviet novelist F. S. Gladkov (1883-1958), author of the paradigmatic Socialist-Realist fiction, Cement. According to Pavla Veselá (104-05), that book went through 36 editions between 1925 and 1958, with Gladkov diligently rewriting full time, year after year, to reflect the ever-changing Party line and its ever-changing rules for properly interpreting the Socialist Real. But of course neither Cement’s title nor its plot (after the revolution and the civil war, heroic workers and their even more heroic leader rebuild the ruined cement works!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) could be acknowledged to have been brought, even once, into the presence of any of that change. A total society is like the perfect work envisaged in the Brahman fantasy at the end of Walden: into it time does not enter.

(Fyodor Gladkov, Cement, trans. Liv Tadge. 1981; Moscow: Raduga Publishers, 1985.

(Pavla Veselá, “The Hardening of Cement: Russian Women and Modernization.” NWSA Journal 15.3 [2003]: 104-23.)


Into language itself, of course, time enters slowly when it enters at all. When we read an English translation of a Russian novel of social change like Cement, for instance, we may want to keep in mind that the Russian language has no articles. The distinction between “a” and “the,” communicated explicitly in English, is communicated in Russian through context, and of course context is difficult to translate. However, there can be no doubt at all (at least in the translation I’ve read) that Gladkov’s cement mill is a the, not an a. To the workers who scurry around it like worker ants around their queen, it is all there is: sole object in their sole world. In one of the book’s most powerful passages, a little girl dies of lack of love because her mother has forbidden herself to live for anything except the mill. When the mill reopens at last, therefore, we are to regard that change as not just final but definitively final. Redeeming every pain and every death, it realizes the definite article: the moment of happily ever after. Following that utterance, nothing need ever change again.

The siren is the wordless birth cry of an eternal moment in the present tense, a full happiness ever in being because ever becoming. Of course F. S. Gladkov’s language changed with every breeze that rippled the flag held by his hero Gleb, but because Gleb was a part of the language himself he couldn’t know that. To him the words he spoke just before he grabbed hold of the flag (“We’re building socialism, comrades, building our own proletarian culture. . . Onwards to victory, comrades! . . .” [405; ellipses in original]) were a code which had finally been broken by the siren. Broken, it promised to release – any second now, as soon as the siren lets up! – a totally decrypted, totally comprehensible communication – a noise! a beautiful noise! – from the dead husks of what once was language. But the history of total societies always tacks the same distressingly happy ending onto that story. It assures us that language always outwaits the noise, reencodes itself, and goes right back to its life of crime, happily pushing ballerina after ballerina, forever after, under the wheels of the Moscow-St. Petersburg Express.