For English intellectuals, Russia is The Zone
I read Geoff Dyer's book, The Zone, last week. As ever with Dyer's books, it's interesting, slightly infuriating, slightly head-scratching...Is it genius? Is it silly? I don't know.
What it is, is a book about Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 slow, philosophical and quasi-religious film, Stalker, which in turn is about three people who travel through a mysterious place called The Zone, to seek out The Room, a place that supposedly grants your deepest wish.
The book is a sort of love letter to the film, celebrating its beauty and mystery, and also, in typical Dyer fashion, wandering off on his own little detours, about the nature of film, about creative inspiration (or lack of), about photography, threesomes, beer.
Sometimes Dyer seems more at ease talking about high culture than any other writer I know. He writes about it with a genuine love, and hate - I mean, he genuinely loves what he loves, and genuinely hates what he hates. This is refreshing after the cold dissection of many academics, who seem to ignore any questions of artistic quality in their critical anatomies.
And yet Dyer also often appears utterly ill-at-ease as an intellectual, that's to say, as a public intellectual, with important things to say about culture and society - a public intellectual in the mould of Raymond Williams or FR Leavis.
That sort of intellectual hardly exists in England any more. They were destroyed by Thatcherism, beaten into irrelevance by a free market that ignored them. Lofty critics like Leavis or Williams, who told the people what culture was good for them, came to seem incredibly elitist in the era of Thatcher and Murdoch. The people didn't want middle class art that was 'good for them'. They wanted sin, shock and sensation.
That's what Rupert Murdoch gave them.
And it's what the cannier intellectuals and artists learnt to give them - Damien Hirst is the classic example. But a more interesting example, from the point of view of Geoff Dyer, is Martin Amis, probably the leading writer of Dyer's generation, and one of the few to whom he defers (he's very rude about Julian Barnes, by contrast).
Amis developed a sort of role for the 80s intellectual, which was to describe the lurid ghastliness of 80s society and to revel in it. The writer becomes a master of bathos, who revels in the shabby boozer, the curry-house, the strip-joint, the darts tournament - the more sordid and tacky the better. The masterpiece of this sort of writing is Amis' novel, Money.
We know the writer is better than this world, because their writing is so vibrant and their insights so acute. But the writer also tells us there is no other world but this. There's no 'higher culture' we can escape to. So just dive into the awfulness of contemporary life and enjoy its awfulness, riff off it, and thereby also assert our superiority to poncey intellectuals who take themselves seriously.
Geoff Dyer does a lot of that sort of Amis-izing. He'll start to wax lyrical about 'high art', then he'll undercut himself, afraid of looking over-earnest and ridiculous, and will talk instead about the pub or threesomes or doing Ecstasy. Just to show he's not FR Leavis, yeah?
At the beginning of the book, for example, he gives a very interesting description of the slow beginning of Tarkovsky's film, then just to show he's not a ponce, he goes on about how boring Antonioni is. Throughout the book, he peppers his critical insight with laddish little phrases ('he is bricking it', 'get the beers in' and so on). He's like a combination of the LRB and FHM.
Clearly Dyer is fascinated by high art, by good art, by incredibly earnest art. Think about the artists he writes books about: DH Lawrence and Andrei Tarkovsky. You couldn't get two more serious, earnest and po-faced artists. They both took themselves and their art incredibly seriously. And there, riding beside them like a comic Sancho Panza, is Dyer, mocking them, but also, clearly, wishing he had some of their seriousness, their substance, their gravity.
But, I mean, a DH Lawrence in contemporary British culture would look ridiculous, wouldn't they? No one believes in the greatness of the artist, in their prophetic soul, in the redeeming power of culture. That's all wank, right? No one listens to intellectuals anymore in Britain...and...and that's probably a good thing, right? Because it is all wank, yeah?
Yet English writers occasionally look to Russia, and look to the historical example of the Russian intelligentsia - Dostoevsky, Herzen, Belinsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Bakunin and others - thinkers who took themselves and their public role incredibly seriously, and who saw themselves as the soul and conscience of their nation.
English thinkers can't imagine playing a role like that in our own society, but sometimes we take wistful voyages of imagination to Russia. Think of Tom Stoppard's Voyage to Utopia, for example, about the Russian intelligentsia of the 1840s. Or of Martin Amis' two books on Russia - Koba the Dread and The House of Meetings. Or, now, of Geoff Dyer's book on The Zone.
Dyer imagines himself going into The Room, the mythical centre of Tarkovsky's Zone which grants your deepest wish. He wonders what his deepest wish would be, and decides it would be to have a threesome. A moment of supremely English bathos, laid like a turd at the heart of Russian high seriousness.
But I reckon Dyer's deepest deepest wish is to be a Russian intellectual - that's to say, to be taken seriously, and to have a public role. That is every English intellectual's deepest wish, if they would admit it and overcome their fear of being labelled elitist.