Edible Ekphrasis

babette's feastLast week, I had the pleasure of watching the 1987 Danish film Babette’s Feast, directed by Gabriel Axel. Based on a short story by Karen Blixen, Babette’s Feast is set in a small village in the nineteenth century, focusing on two sisters in a strict pseudo-Puritan sect and their French cook Babette, whom they took in as an act of charity after she fled violence in France (as we all do from time to time). Her mastery of French cuisine contrasts the bland, simple food the sisters eat. Babette eventually inherits 10,000 francs, and decides to cook an elaborate, “real” French dinner for the churchgoers, who wrinkle their noses at the appearance of her imported ingredients (live quails, a turtle, various wines and champagnes), vowing not to mention the quality of the food to maintain their piety. Their decision to refrain from commenting on the food becomes more and more difficult as they eat, and the wine certainly complicates things, too.

It was one of the two last films that I watched on a Sunday night tradition that has become known as Single Guy Movie Night, hosted by a kind and brilliant PhD student and attended by myself and a fellow second-year MA student (and sometimes a married honorary single guy when he’s available). Since August, I have enjoyed our host’s meals and taste in movies, and he has occasionally tolerated the movie tastes of his guests.

This last year, I have watched more films on Sunday nights than I can remember: The 400 Blows, Road Warrior, Mad Max: Fury Road, Moonlight, Elizabeth, Halloween, Carrie, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, Rogue One, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, Spartacus, ParaNorman, The VVitch, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, among many others. It was fitting, I think, to end with a soft film about food, and perhaps the best film about food I have seen.

There is a small canon of food films. Ratatouille remains my favorite Pixar film, and I enjoyed Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott’s 1996 Big Night, about Italian cooking. Jon Favreau’s Chef belongs in this canon, and though it is about many other, disturbing and beautiful things, Peter Greenway’s 1989 The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and His Lover is a fantastic movie centered around the act of eating/consumption.

These movies are ekphrastic, in that they are about other forms of art. Most ekphrastic storytelling tends to be about painting or music. Putting the focus on food, and therefore taste, forces the audience to think about their own taste. The visual emphasis is on preparation, ingredients, cooking, and of course eating, a meta-narrativized mirroring of what audiences do when they watch movies, not literally eating the film but taking it in, enjoying its flavors, the blend of sweet or savory scenes, bitter or vibrant dialogue. As such, these films subtly ask their audience to reckon with the art they consume, the difference between taste and appetite, the difference between taste and quality, and do so in ways that invite variation. There is plenty to choose from on the menu; what will you watch tonight?

Babette’s Feast is different. At the forefront is gentleness. Rather than for competition or financial success, the film’s protagonist chef wants to give her patrons a free, perfect meal to show her gratitude. Her patrons, again contrasting from most food films, want to lower their expectations and resist enjoying the meal. The climax is the feast, but the pleasure of this long, drawn-out scene is watching the characters resist their own pleasure, and in subtle ways fail. The audience gets to see them lose, which means for them enjoying wonderful food. Babette brings them to their satisfaction by what she offers on the plate, giving them permission to enjoy life.

I prefer gentle movies, and that is a matter of taste. I like atmosphere, music, scenery, and subtle character developments that are easy to miss. But this is taste, and I give myself permission to enjoy everything on the menu. Life is short, and if I stuck to the same kind of movie, I’d miss out on the dozens of excellent movies I’ve had the gift of watching this past year with friends. It is too late to prepare a real French dinner for them to show my thanks. This has been an obscenely difficult and unpredictable academic year that left me paranoid, disillusioned, and feeling far from gentle. Babette’s Feast reminds me I am allowed to enjoy what I consume, whatever it is, and there is nothing wrong with taking pleasure in things, in as many things as possible.

The year is over for me. What comes next is new and uncertain, but I would prefer to go into it with an expanded pallet and the energy to enjoy generously.

-jk

1917: The Peasants Go to Petrograd

Peasant

Peasant, Victor Vasnetsov, 1878.

Discussion of the Russian Revolution tends to focus on Petrograd and urban workers. Almost from the beginning of the February Revolution, the Soviets and Provisional Government directed most of their energy toward those striking in the capitol or the military.

Alexander Kerensky, a centrist leader between February and October, writes in his 1927 account of the Revolution, The Catastrophe, that no “mention of [the land] is to be found in the declaration of the Provisional Government made public on the day of its assumption  of office” and that it was not until April 2 that “the Provisional Government promulgated its agrarian reform, which was to give all the land into the hands of those who worked it” (Kerensky 121-122). He then quickly moves on to discuss industrial reforms.

Lenin and Trotsky were divided about the role Russian peasantry would play in a socialist revolution. Trotsky did not want to count on peasants to unite alongside workers. On the other hand, in his April Theses, Lenin contends that “the class-conscious proletariat can give its consent to a revolutionary war” only if “the power passes to the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants aligned with the proletariat” (Lenin). He also called for the nationalization of all land. It is important to note, however, that Lenin’s emphasis is on the power of the workers and peasants united, which suggests he did not see them as a unified class but as two separate categories. The distinction between worker and peasant was taken for granted in 1917, in part because of the peasantry’s history.

Donald Treadgold and Herbert Ellison note that in “1900, 80 to 90% of the Russian people were peasants” who had, since the medieval period, been subjugated to serfdom (20). Tsar Alexander II initiated sweeping economic and agrarian reforms, including the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, and that “at that time the Russian peasants were liberated either from private landlords, to whom about half of them had been in virtual personal bondage, or from the state, which controlled the other half” (20). Despite the 1861 emancipation, two years before the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States, Russian peasants remained tied by debt and poverty to communes and landowners, much like the development of the American South’s economy after slavery, which utilized debt peonage  and Jim Crow laws as another form of bondage.

The Russian government in the nineteenth century exerted bureaucratic organization over the post-serfdom peasantries across the empire. Specifically, three years after emancipation, peasants were organized into zemstvos. A zemstvo was “an elective body instituted in 34 provinces within European Russia in 1864, empowered with certain local administrative responsibilities and assigned limited taxing authority but were nevertheless still controlled largely by landed gentry (Miller 6).

In other words, after emancipation, Russian peasants were granted a means of local self-regulation, almost a kind of proto-Soviet, but because this means came from the top-down, it was more a way to appease peasants rather than give them any real power. Still “at the mercy not only of meteorological factors as they affected harvests, but also of the equally unpredictable predatory depredations of local officials” (130), Russian peasants lived 53 years under a new, more covertly oppressive system until 1917 when more radical reforms were possible. Nevertheless, because peasants had not participated in the February Revolution in a city whose leaders had a history of giving peasants one freedom in exchange for new forms of exploitation, there was a clear divide between workers, striking in Petrograd, and peasants, growing food for the war that never seemed to end.

A 1909 book entitled The Terror in Russia: An Appeal to the British Nation details the Tsardom’s ruthlessness, including the “drastic measures” taken as a response to “a famine in several provinces of European Russia” (Kropotkin 70). These measures allowed for “a wholesale flogging of the peasants, men and women alike. . . in order to obtain the arrears” of peasants who, because of the famine, were behind on debts owed to landowners (70-71). The famine itself is more important to note, because the response of the government outweighed any potential protection peasants’ zemstvos might have offered. By 1917, the situation had not changed, because the system had not changed.

Peasants grew restless in the countryside waiting for Petrograd’s dual power to enact real reforms, but many peasants participated in the smaller revolutionary acts of organization and asserting their collective authority. Just as workers’ Soviets emerged, many peasants’ Soviets formed as well. In May of 1917, the leftist-dominated All-Russian Congress of Soviets of Peasants’ Deputies met in Petrograd to represent the interests of peasants, though in part the meeting reemphasized the sense of alienation that many politically minded peasants felt. Nothing constructive had come from the Tsar’s reforms, the Provisional Government was stalled except to continue the war effort, and the Bolsheviks, who promised land redistribution, had made little progress.

The vast majority of imperial Russia’s population was not entirely neglected by the Revolution, but because of a long history of poverty, rural isolation, and top-down oppression coupled with a Marxist investment in industrial workers over rural workers, peasants had a difficult time making their desires known, if those desires could actually be expressed in a uniform way. Peasants’ Soviets could only make so much noise in the ongoing political crisis that took place, almost daily, in the Russian capitol.


Kerensky, Alexander. The Catastrophe. D. Appleton and Company, 1927.

Kropotkin, Peter. The Terror in Russia. Methuen & Co., 1909.

Lenin, Vladimir. “April Theses,” in Pravda No. 26, April 7, 1917.

Miller, Burton Richard. Rural Unrest during the First Russian Revolution. CEU Press, 2013.

Treadgold, Donald W., Herbert J. Ellison. Twentieth Century Russia. Westview Press, 2000.

Reading and Road Trips

Crested ButteTwo weeks ago, I graduated from UNL with a Master’s degree in English. It is the result of two years of reading, writing, and writing about what I read. More importantly, I had the pleasure of spending time with the friends and colleagues I worked with this past year. To celebrate the end of the semester and our program, several folks in my graduate cohort took a vacation by driving from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Crested Butte, Colorado, for a weekend next to a river. Soon, we will scatter and go our separate ways, and the slice of time we gave one another without responsibility, without the need to work for someone else, without tasks to fulfill, was a small slice of heaven (which is, as we all know, a place on Earth).

Right now, I have a summer of road trips planned ahead of me. I have been accepted into the MFA program at the University of Idaho, in Moscow (the fun Moscow). I’ll be driving there from Lincoln soon with part of my family, then through Montana and Idaho to visit a variety of relatives, then back to Flagstaff, Arizona, before driving back to Montana and Idaho a month later. I’ll be spending a lot of time in a car.

When a handful of English Majors go on a road trip, they take books with them, and for me it’s always been that way. As long as I can remember, I’ve taken long road trips every summer from Arizona across the Rockies to Montana, Idaho, Utah, Oregon, Washington, and California, and I’ve always taken a book with me. One summer, I read On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Another summer, I read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. On this most recent road trip, I read The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara, and to continue my step in the left direction through summer reads, I think I’ll take along Terrorism and Communism by Leon Trotsky, which I hear is a pleasant beach read.

I’ve spent the last two years reading more books than I expected, various novels, historical texts, books on theory, books on the Russian Revolution of my own volition, craft essays, and several Nigerian plays. It is telling that, on my first break from grad school, I continued to read. The same is true of my friends who went to Crested Butte.

I have a lot going on this summer, much to look forward to and much to fear. I could blog about going to a new graduate program in creative writing or the college-industrial complex after surviving it for two more years or moving to a new state again. But right now the only things I want to do are read and spend time (reading) with my friends. I even hear talk of a Kafka/Marxist reading group in the making.

-jk

Yet Another Final Poem

Floor waterIn a blogging tradition that dates to the early Enlightenment-era philosophers, I post one poem on the last day of April to celebrate the end of Poetry Month. This poetry month, I wrote fourteen poems, a record mediocrity (which is the title of an upcoming collection). In any case, the following poem is dedicated to the Floor Water Collective (or my graduate cohort who shared/trashed an office this past year). They will be missed, by someone, probably.

Dear Future Occupants of Our Office,

A word of caution: the doors are untrustworthy
and you might get locked out, or worse, locked in,
or better, locked in with people you trust.

The coffee is best made from a garbage can
if you don’t want to stain our office (we
did), and the kettle is closest to an outlet
on the floor, which you should lie down on
listening to music when the world boils.

That will happen a lot, in and out of the office.
Our decorative rhetoric has remade it
a pilgrimage site for the curious and passionate,
as a reminder of what we used to be.

The office is exhausted inside and out,
but like us it’s used to being used as a means
of production, a clogged factory,
a closet of disconnected cogs, an easy target,
and inside the doors break, the floors are ant-trodden,
and everything is stained one way or another
with blood, sweat, coffee, tears, pizza sauce,
the list goes on. Whatever bright shine the office had
a year ago is now replaced with a language
that will be scrubbed away over summer.
It will look perfect again for you, but the flaws
are well-hidden in the design.

This office is a good place to go when the world
slams its many doors on you. It’s a good place
to have your heart and idealism broken,
to be comforted alone during your worst thoughts
on an uncomfortable couch under a friend’s blanket,
Future cohort, we dare you to match our worst days, to survive
the way we did, together, while our worlds boiled.

-jk

1917: Kerensky’s Sidestep

Alexander Kerensky and Map

Alexander Kerensky, briefly Prime Minister, 1917. Via Keystone/Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In early 1917, rebelling Russians wanted three things: political reform, economic reform, and for Russia to withdraw from the Great War. The Provisional Government that took over many of the Tsar’s administrative tasks attempted to satisfy the various Soviets that appeared throughout Russia, which represented the interests of soldiers, workers, and peasants (often in that order). Without mutinying soldiers, the February Revolution would likely not have happened, but many soldiers were divided about whether or not to continue a war that had proven disastrous for them under the Tsar.

The crisis of leadership following the February Revolution placed several key figures into powerful positions. Pavel Miliukov, a pro-monarchy and pro-war politician, became the Provisional Government’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, and in contrast, the moderate socialist Alexander Kerensky simultaneously held positions in the Petrograd Soviet and the Provisional Government, as the vice chairman and Minister of Justice, respectively. Kerensky’s role in the chaotic time between March and November of 1917 shaped Russian policy between the year’s revolutions.

At the start of the war, Kerensky was the leader of the center-left Trudoviks. After the February Revolution, he came to power in both the Petrograd Soviet and the Provisional Government against official Soviet policy, which made it illegal for Soviet members to hold government positions. Kerensky occupied  a position comparable to a US Senator who somehow managed to also hold a seat in the US House of Representatives.

Led by the Mensheviks, the Petrograd Soviet held a firm grip over the capital, but refused to act as a new government because Mensheviks predominantly believed that “the February Revolution was a ‘bourgeois revolution.’ . . it was the task of the workers’ party to refrain from compromising itself in the workers’ eyes by taking power” (Treadgold & Ellison 96). As a result, the Petrograd Soviet and Provisional Government created a power vacuum that could not be filled, preventing elites from exercising power but also making it difficult to pass economic or military reforms, what Trotsky called “dual power.” Kerensky managed to bridge that gap.

Kerensky was liked by those to the political right of him. In isolation, Tsar Nicholas II wrote in his journal that the “more power [Kerensky] gets, the better” (91), and Miliukov said in a speech to the Provisional Government shortly after its formation that he “just received the consent of [his] comrade A. F. Kerensky to assume a position in the first Russian public cabinet. We are eternally joyful to place into the trusty hands of this public activist the ministry that will mete out out just retribution to the servants of the old regime” (Daly and Trofimov 51).

He continued to rise to power as the year progressed and the Bolsheviks continued to attempt to stir up support after their mid-April return from exile. In late April, Miluikov’s pro-war policy found little support, and he resigned from office on May 2, days after the Minister of War, Alexander Guchkov, resigned. Once again, Kerensky filled the power gap by replacing Guchkov as War Minister on May 5. However, Kerensky adopted a similar stance on the war, and rededicated the Russian military to the Allies. Kerensky slid to the center and Russia stayed in the war.

After a failed coup in summer, he would replace Prince Lvov (appointed by the Tsar) as Prime Minister. In four months, Kerensky would rise to power by moderation, rhetorical savvy, and his continual sidestep closer to the right. The stalled gears of “dual power” in the capital made it possible for one person straddling both branches to exert more and more influence, foreshadowing Stalin’s power grab a decade later. But Kerensky was neither a dictator nor a cynic. His politics were pragmatic, though increasingly conservative. His betrayal of leftist idealism makes sense in the wake of leftist hesitation while his rise to power was possible only through the failure and resignation of other powerful figures. Because his lack of immediate shortcomings contrasted the inadequacies of those he continually replaced, his rise to power was seen as stabilizing rather than centralizing. But his military failures and insufficient land and economic reforms imitated the same failures that led to the Tsar’s ousting. If February was a bourgeois revolution against Tsarism, October was an intelligentsia’s revolt against Kerenskyism, which was a bourgeois liberal’s attempt at restoring order without changing the order of things.


Daly, Jonathan, Leonid Trofimov. Russia in War and Revolution, 1914-1922. Hackett Publishing Group, 2009.

Treadgold, Donald W., Herbert J. Ellison. Twentieth Century Russia. Westview Press, 2000.

All the Great Writers I Don’t Want to Be

Stay in Designated AreaNaturally, writers compare authors’ works to one another. This is useful in workshops, reviews, and literary criticism, and I think it’s inevitable. Writer friends of mine draw inspiration from Ernest Hemingway, others from Cormac McCarthy, and others from detective fiction, and I can see this inspiration in their writing, not as plagiarism but as influence.

More and more, stories I’ve written have been compared to writers I have never read. At a recent conference reading, my nonfiction was compared to Stephen Wright and George Saunders, and I had to embarrassingly admit that I was unfamiliar with their work. Multiple friends, whose opinions I love and respect, have compared my prose to that of David Foster Wallace, another I have never read.

To my surprise, nothing I’ve written has ever been compared to those who inspire me. Maybe that’s a good thing. I know the writers I love, but peers haven’t identified that influence, even when I’ve quite consciously imitated their styles.

My earliest literary influence was Douglas Adams, whom I read in middle school and spent the next four years mildly stealing from. I’ve also been inspired by Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Lately, I’ve found inspiration in short story collections like Monique Proulx’s Aurora Montrealis, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, and Pamela Painter’s The Long and Short of It. I also draw inspiration from John Steinbeck and David Eagleman, who blend science, philosophy, and fiction, and the science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke. Tiphanie Yanique’s How to Escape from a Leper Colony never ceases to inspire me, and neither does Amin Maalouf’s The Crusades Through Arab Eyes.

It’s not that I want to be compared to these writers. Such a request would be too pretentiously egocentric, even for the pretentious ego-driven beast I so obviously am. But I am surprised.

I’m also distraught by the frequency with which my work is compared to David Foster Wallace. I don’t want to be compared to yet another depressed white male author who died by suicide, because it’s too close to home for me. What will I get from a writer I’m apparently so similar to? If I read Infinite Jest and hate it, what will that say about my own writing? Even worse, what if I love it without question? I want what I read to challenge my style, not reinforce it.

Was David Foster Wallace a perfectionist like me? Did he worry that he would die without making an impact, like me? Did he secretly resent himself for being a writer because such a profession requires both ego and humility, both of which are difficult for an introverted perfectionist to simultaneously possess, like me? I don’t know. I don’t want to know.

I also don’t want the comparisons to stop, because I want my friends and colleagues to be honest about my work. But so many comparisons to a writer that some of my heroes love and others hate has made me want to avoid reading anything by DFW. I can’t change what others see in my writing, but I know what writing I find pleasure in, and so far I find the most pleasure in being surprised. Maybe I’ll sit down and chug through Infinite Jest, but it won’t be anytime soon.

-jk

1917: Fifty Shades of Red

Pins

After the February Revolution, numerous political parties fought for influence in the Provisional Government that formed as a response to the revolution. The political Left occupied a broad, ever-changing spectrum of ideas and strategies focusing on three key issues that most Russians, at least those rioting in Petrograd, wanted to immediately address: political reform, economic reform, and whether or not to remain involved in the Great War.

Socialist leaders were split in 1917. If the October Revolution was led by Bolsheviks (meaning majority), the February Revolution was at least informed by the Mensheviks (meaning little, or minority), two distinct socialist factions. In 1903, Russian Marxists tried to forge a cohesive political party, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, for the third time at their II Congress. Their initial division was small. Mensheviks were more willing to allow liberals and bourgeois activists into their circles, whereas the Bolsheviks were highly suspicious of liberals who might muddy their leftist proletarian-focused goals, and wanted tight control of who could join the Party.

The etymologies of Bolshevik and Menshevik are misleading. Bolsheviks were “an embattled minority” whose political success was unlikely leading up to the October Revolution (Daly and Trofimov xxviii). The moderate leftist Mensheviks represented the majority of leftists in the Provisional Government, while several far-left Bolshevik leaders (including Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin) were struggling to return from exile.

Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were torn over subtle nuances, but ultimately aimed for a radical leftist recreation of Russia, rather than mere top-down political reforms. Both camps “agreed that workers could not solve their problems through shopfloor-struggles exclusively,” but Mensheviks “proposed to restore production under management-control” as opposed to absolute proletarian control, whereas Bolsheviks took the more orthodox Marxist approach in their desire “to have workers themselves organise production collectively, and in their interests” (Marot 126). Mensheviks cautiously called for “dual power” between the Provisional Government and the Soviets, and many workers “quickly endorsed the political objectives the Mensheviks set for the working class” (126). Radical Marxism, then, was unlikely to come from the ground up exclusively.

In addition to Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, there were also the Trudoviks, a moderate peasant-based labor party, and the Cadets, who favored a constitutional monarchy with the Tsar in power but a strong Parliament, similar to England. Both the Cadets and Trudoviks represented what might be called Russian conservatism, emphasizing all-Russian patriotism, unity, and reform. The Cadets held a majority of votes in the Provisional Government for some time, which is why the Provisional Government never withdrew from the Great War (the Bolsheviks would in December). Between the Trudoviks and Bolsheviks were several shades of Marxist thought active in both the Provisional Government and the Soviets.

Within the tightly-knit Bolshevik community, which comprised an intelligentsia whose goal was to forge a communist state, were key distinctions. Vladimir Lenin believed that “‘professional revolutionaries’ were needed to lead the proletarian party” into action and to prevent liberal and/or bourgeois infiltration (Treadgold & Ellison 40-41). Often accused of “Jacobinism” (the idea that only an elite intelligentsia should lead revolutionaries), Lenin’s model of a “party system” reflected the sense of order he wanted to affix to the revolution. Leon Trotsky was critical of the risks that a centralized Party brought. Lenin and Trotsky wanted a dictatorship of the proletariat; Stalin’s eventual dictatorship at the expense of collective authority seems to validate Trotsky’s anxieties about centralized organization.

The lineage is crucial to follow: Lenin built his politics around an orthodox reading of Marx, further than Marx allowed himself to go. Lenin did not construct Leninism, but his particular reading and implementation of Marxism, emphasizing the organization of a Communist Party, became the tenets of Leninism, which influenced subsequent communist governments. Trotsky’s politics were not built as a response to Leninism, but as a response to Stalin’s reading and implementation of Leninism, which became Stalinism. Trotskyism, then, is a Marxist-Leninist rejection of Stalinism.

Trotsky spent much of his time before the October Revolution straddling the nuances developed between Bolsheviks and Menshevisk and advocating “permanent revolution.” Unlike Lenin, he did not trust the Russian peasantry to rise up alongside the industrial proletariat. Instead, he looked beyond Russia’s borders to the millions of other workers in western Europe who had been consumed by the Industrial Revolution. Trotsky wanted to spread communism actively beyond Russia, so that an international community of urban workers could unite in a global revolution, and this could only happen if revolution was perceived to have no stopping point. However, he gravitated toward Lenin’s party system in 1917.

What is key is that just about every political ideology present in the Provisional Government in April wanted some kind of reform. Even the Cadets recognized the need for more autonomy among workers and peasants. The unity of the Communist Party did away with these political tensions, which prevented peace and economic reform, but Lenin died before his party system could prevent individual dictatorship. The diversity of leftist thought in early 1917 may have prevented more radical reforms, but as such diversity diminished, the authority of the Party began to overstep the autonomy of the Soviets.


Daly, Jonathan, Leonid Trofimov. Russia in War and Revolution, 1914-1922. Hackett Publishing Group, 2009.

Marot, John. The October Revolution in Prospect and Retrospect. Brill, 2012.

Treadgold, Donald W., Herbert J. Ellison. Twentieth Century Russia. Westview Press, 2000.