Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 28, 2016

Finding Babel

Filed under: Film,literature,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 3:04 pm

The Outsider-Insider: Isaac Babel’s Big Mistake

Responding to an aggrieved muzhik (peasant), Dyakov, the eponymous Reserve Cavalry Commander who was a former circus rider described by Babel as “red-faced with a gray mustache, a black cape, and wide red Tatar trousers with silver stripes”, promised that he could make this “lively little mare spring to her feet again”. The idea that the horse splayed out on the ground could be described as “lively” was almost an insult. The muzhik cried out, “Lord in Heaven and Mother of God. How is this poor thing supposed to get up? It’s on its last legs!”:

Dyakov’s ability to bring the horse back on its feet was like Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead but all the more miraculous since it likely occurred. Most of Babel’s short stories were based on his experience as a war correspondent. He wrote:

“You are insulting this horse, my dear fellow!” Dyakov answered with fierce conviction. “Pure blasphemy, my dear fellow!” And he deftly swung his athlete’s body out of his saddle. Splendid and deft as if in the circus ring, he stretched his magnificent legs, his trousers girded by cords around the knees, and walked up to the dying animal. She peered at him dolefully with a severe, penetrating eye, licked some invisible command from his crimson palm, and immediately the feeble mare felt bracing power flow from this sprightly, gray, blossoming Romeo. Her muzzle lolling, her legs skidding under her, feeling the whip tickling her stomach with imperious impatience, the mare slowly and deliberate1y rose onto her legs. And then we all saw Dyakov’s slender hand with its fluttering sleeve run through her dirty mane, and his whining whip swatting her bleeding ranks. Her whole body shivering, the mare stood on four legs without moving her timid, doglike, lovestruck eyes from Dyakov.

“So you see-this is a horse,” Dyakov said to the muzhik, and added softly, “and you were complaining, my dearest of friends!”

Throwing his reins to his orderly, the commander of the Reserve Cavalry jumped the four stairs in a single leap and, swirling off his operatic cloak, disappeared into the headquarters.

Today, reading this story once again for the first time in fifty-four years, I am reminded of how important Babel was to me at the time. Like Ezra Pound, James Joyce and Thomas Mann, he was a portal into the world of modernist literature that still had an immense attraction for young bohemians in the early 60s. I never thought once about who Babel was or anything about the social reality he was trying to depict. All that mattered to me was Babel’s prose that could evoke the mysterious power of a Cossack resurrecting a dying horse.

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  1. “Baudelaire was Marx’s favorite novelist.” – You mean Balzac. https://thesocietypages.org/monte/2015/06/26/summer-reading-suggestions-karl-marxs-favorite-novelist-honore-de-balzac/

    On Friday, October 28, 2016, Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist wrote:

    > louisproyect posted: “https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbvjRxY2Zhc > COUNTERPUNCH, OCTOBER 28, 2016 The Outsider-Insider: Isaac Babel’s Big > Mistake by LOUIS PROYECT It was fifty-four years or so when a classmate at > Bard College insisted that I read a short story by Isaac Ba” >

    Comment by Fred Murphy — October 28, 2016 @ 3:22 pm

  2. Yes, Jeff St. Clair deleted the sentence. Time for me to look into Aricept.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 28, 2016 @ 4:29 pm

  3. I never feel I completely agree, but I am often moved by your contributions, specially on movies and cultural efforts. Merci.

    Comment by Richard St-Pierre — October 28, 2016 @ 11:47 pm

  4. I first read Babel at City College in the mid 70s and have periodically returned to various collections of his stories ever since. “The Story Of My Dovecot” is both a triumph of what I suppose you would call modernism and a most poignant account of a pogrom and what it meant to Jewish in Tsarist Russia. The triptych of ‘Gedali,’ ‘The Rabbi,’ and ‘The Rabbi’s Son’ are, in my humble opinion, as profound an appreciation as one is going to find anywhere of not just East European Judaism’s relationship to the Russian Revolution, but also of the costs, content and nature of revolution in general. Babel was very simply a master of his craft.

    Comment by burghardt — October 29, 2016 @ 12:16 pm

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