INTERVIEW WITH FOCUS (ФОКУС) MAGAZINE
(Interview of Daniel Rancour-Laferriere conducted by Anna Siniashchik via email, 8-23 December 2015. English original from which Russian excerpts were published in Fokus magazine (Kiev), 22 January 2016, pp. 56-57).
Q1. In your book "The Mind of Stalin: a Psychoanalitic Study", in the part called "Postscript", you wrote that when you had been learning Stalin's personality, you had somehow felt like Stalin: you knew what he would feel or say. You had dreams about him. Lately you have been engaged in research about Christianity, particularly about Jesus. What does it feel like?
A1. Whenever I engage in research on a historical personality - Gogol, Stalin, Tolstoy, Jesus, Mary - I am inclined to identify with that personality. How can one truly understand Jesus without putting oneself in Jesus’ place? That is what the psychobiographer must do. How, for example, did Jesus feel about being fatherless? There is no reference to an earthly father for Jesus in the New Testament, and there are no depictions of his relationship with his earthly father (as opposed to his earthly mother Mary). Jesus speaks only about his heavenly father. He even directs his followers to “call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father - the one in heaven” (Matthew 23:9). But Jesus was going too far. I detected some kind of compensatory reaction here. Assuming that Jesus had a real, earthly father like the rest of us, I sensed that he had some kind of problem with this real father. Jesus must have been hurt psychologically by the absence of his real father in his childhood, and his adult response was to preach about the importance of relating to a “Father” in heaven instead. As a human being, I was able to relate to this. I had a very poor relationship with my own father as a child, and I turned to religion as a young man. As you probably know, a Roman Catholic priest is called “father."
Q2. A lot of things are going on outside: ISIS's acts of terror, the Syrian Civil War, the European refugee crisis, Russian occupation of the Crimean peninsula. Even the most religious people can't stay away from such problems and be indifferent. How would Jesus feel and act today? What would he suggest doing?
A2. The real, historical Jesus, if he were somehow to be transported to our twenty-first century, would be shocked at the violence of our time. Even ISIS, which makes a show of beheading hostages, is willing to go beyond this killing ‘by hand’ and utilize automatic weapons, bombs, and the like. Jesus would be especially upset by the violence perpetrated against children (the “little ones” in chapter 18 of Matthew). On the other hand, Jesus preached forgiveness, even nonresistance to evil (his famous “turn the other [cheek]” at Matthew 5:39). Jesus also practiced what he preached. He was a moral masochist who provoked the occupying Roman authorities into crucifying him, as I have demonstrated in The Sign of the Cross: From Golgotha to Genocide (2011). If Ukraine were to follow Jesus’ example, it would accept the Russian occupation of Crimea. I am not recommending that anyone “take up their cross” (Luke 9:23) and follow Jesus, however. I am just pointing to the clinical reality of Jesus’ moral masochism.
Q3. It's interesting, you have used the word "masochism" and it immediately reminded me about your famous book "The Slave Soul of Russia: Moral Masochism and the Cult of Suffering". In this book you managed to show a portrait of the whole Russian nation. As you wrote, their literature, culture, folklore and history are full of pain and drama. They enjoy suffering. Is it still true today or has anything changed lately? And what can influence radical changes of this nation's portrait?
A3. And well you should be reminded of the “slave soul” (Vasilii Grossman) of Russia. Jesus Christ is the paradigmatic moral masochist when it comes to “Christian” civilizations. As the Symbolist poet Viacheslav Ivanov wrote, the expression “upodoblenie Khristu” is inscribed on the forehead of the Russian nation. I think, however, that many nations (or national components) besides Russia (or components of Russia) have at various times acted in ways that could be characterized as morally masochistic. Think of Nazi Germany, for example. This country destroyed itself under the leadership of Hitler, who expressed his admiration of Christ on many occasions, who attended performances of the famous Oberammergau Passion Play, and who led Germany to ruin under a Christian symbol, the hooked CROSS (German Hakenkreuz, which is NOT a “swastika”). Or consider those medieval warriors who participated in a crusade - an English word which is cognate with the Latin word crux (“cross"; cf. Russian krestovyi pokhod, which also refers to the cross [krest] of Christ). A crusader (krestonosets) was a soldier who “carried” Christ’s cross, much as Christ “carried” his cross at Golgotha. Many crusaders viewed their aggression against Muslims, heretics, and Jews as an opportunity to suffer a glorious martyrdom, a Christ-like death. Of course in those days (starting in the eleventh century) crusaders imagined that they were defending not a nation or a country, but Christendom generally. Large numbers of crusaders were guilt-ridden individuals serving in the military as penance. This was so-called "penitential warfare.” To die at the hands of the “enemies of Christ” was to die a good death, a Christ-like, masochistic death.
Here I have to admit that, lately, I have gotten rather sick of Christian moral masochism as a research topic. Sometimes I feel nostalgia for the days when I was merely examining the linguistic structures of Russian poetry. Most recently, I have turned to the so-called Blessed Virgin Mary who - in the great majority of her representations - was no masochist.
Q4. I just can't skip asking this. In your opinion, what can influence radical changes of nation's portrait? Weather changes? Wars? Economic crisises? Or something else? (I would like to ask you to use Russian or Ukrainian portrait as an example, if it is possible).
A4. In the 1990s, right after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, there was an opportunity for the “portrait” (as you say) of each formerly Soviet “nation” to change. I can only speak of the case of Russia. I started traveling there more often at that time, as the country was opening up in many ways, and I wanted to learn about the changes. It was possible to go places, meet people, discuss politics openly, not worry about who was listening, and so on. Although initially pessimistic that real psychological change was possible for Russians, I became more optimistic toward the end of the 90s and the beginning of the 2000s. It seemed to me that Russian identity was staying the same (which was normal and good), and that Russian national character was changing for the better, if only because it was now possible to use the word мазохизм in public (I even recall seeing Putin say on TV that "we should not be мазохисты"). There was an idea that Russians could keep their dignity without having to consume excessive amounts of vodka, or without glorifying Ivan durak, or without fearing to stick their necks out in the collective. The freedom to discuss these matters openly with colleagues in Moscow and St. Petersburg was exhilarating.
Today that freedom is gone. I am a pessimist again. Russian nationalism, collectivism, and the Russian narcissism of empire - have become driving forces in Russian society and culture. I cannot pretend to explain these developments. The slave soul of Russia (moral masochism as one component of Russian national character) probably played some role, but I am not certain of that. The underlying national character of Russia was probably not as easy to change as many of us imagined in those “wild” 1990s. What you have termed “radical changes of a nation’s portrait” probably never happened in this case. And, in any case, an in-depth, book-length psychological examination of the question would require years of work. But I have not been back to Russia for ten years, and I have been busy writing other books.
Q5. Probably, our readers will be interested in learning more about the beggining of your academic path. Why did you choose to study Slavic (particularly Russian) literature, people and worldview? How were you choosing personalities for your research?
A5. In my teen-age years I was a fanatic bird-watcher. In college I majored in biology, and I studied German and Russian in order to be able to read some of the scientific literature on ornithology, animal behavior, and ecology. I had a fantasy of becoming an expert on the birds of Siberia.
But the Russian courses got me interested in Russian literature, especially Russian poetry, so I quit biology and eventually (1972) got a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Brown University (with a thesis on the poet Afanasii Fet). Pushkin, Maiakovskii, and Mandelshtam were especially important Russian poets for me in graduate school. From the linguist Roman Jakobson I learned some techniques of the structural analysis of poetry.
At one point I attended a poetry reading by Evgenii Evtushenko, and I was particularly impressed by his “Babii Iar” (“Nad Bab’im Iarom pamiatnikov net…”). This got me interested in that horrifying phenomenon known as the Holocaust. In August of 1970 I was in Soviet Kiev, and I paid a visit to Babii Yar (this visit is described in The Sign of the Cross). So Russia, Russian literature, and antisemitism are intertwined here.
But there was also Ukraine. The theories of Ukrainian philologist Potebnia fascinated me at an early stage. I was also an admirer of Gogol, and his works seemed particularly amenable to psychoanalytic study (I had already been reading Freud and other psychoanalysts in graduate school). My book Out From Under Gogol’s Overcoat (1982) was one result, as were a few articles on Gogol’s “Ukrainian” stories published in Harvard Ukrainian Studies and elsewhere. Some of this work has been translated into Russian in the volume Russkaia literatura i psikhoanaliz (Moscow 2004).
Q6. What made you switch from linguistic research to research on the history of Christianity? Did something happen to you? Or did you feel bored by the topic?
A6. Research on the Christian religion came late, after I had formally retired from teaching Russian Studies at the University of California Davis, in 2004. The linguistic-philological research was conducted early, mostly in the 1970s and 80s. I had been strongly influenced by Roman Jakobson’s linguistic analyses of poetry. Also, Jakobson, unlike most Slavists, was open to psychoanalysis. He encouraged me in my efforts to combine linguistic and “Freudian” analyses of poetry (I called this combination “psycholinguistic” in my first book, Five Russian Poems, 1977). In those days I viewed the complex linguistic structures in poetry as psychological defense measures designed (unconsciously) by the poet to protect the reader from any unpalatable psychological issues which would otherwise make the reader feel uncomfortable. For example, in Aleksandr Blok’s famous “Neznakomka,” an incest fantasy is hidden, in part, by the non-uniform deixis of first person pronouns in the poem.
As my research interests moved in the direction of Russian prose (especially Lev Tolstoy), the linguistic approach became less relevant. The same was true for my later research on the “slave soul” of Russia, and on Russian nationalism, and on Russian religious ikons, and most recently on Christianity. However, even in these writings I have not forgotten language and linguistic structures. The Russian “slave soul,” for example, is in part dependent on a very large net of discourse-level associations with the key Russian word sud’ba. So that, for example, Sud’ba - indeika, zhizn’ - kopeika. It would be extremely difficult to convey the meaning of this proverb in English. Repeatedly in my book on Russian nationalism (available in Russian as Rossiia i russkie glazami amerikanskogo psikhoanalitika, 2003) the reader is called upon to remember that there are four East Slavic languages - Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, and (most recently) Rusyn, and that the last three of these are not just “dialects” of the first, as is sometimes affirmed by ignorant Russian nationalists. In my most recent book Never Enough of Mary (which has not yet been published), I am often attempting to explain the meaning of passages in medieval or liturgical Latin about the virgin Mary by pointing to linguistic devices or linguistic patterns in the Latin original which help convey the meaning.
So I have definitely not gotten “bored” by linguistic topics!
Q7. The world pays a lot of attention to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. We carefully follow politicians' speeches related to this topic. But the USA don't consist of politicians only. What do "average" Americans think about Ukraine? And does their opinion differ from professors' and scholars' opinions?
A7. I am no expert on American public opinion, but my impression is that “average” Americans do not pay much attention to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The news media here were reporting on that conflict for a while, but much less so now. Putin pivoted to Syria, as we know, and has contributed to the violence raging there. He is also now deeply involved in negotiations about a possible political settlement to the complicated civil war in Syria. Syrian refugees pour into Western Europe by the hundreds of thousands, but to my knowledge there are few Russian or Ukrainian refugees gaining media attention in the West.
Q8. As you have written, you analyzed Gogol's "Ukrainian" stories. And, if I'm not mistaken, you deeply analyzed his personality. What can you say about Ukrainian soul (I mean, a nation's portrait)? In what way does it differ (or look similar) to Russian's one?
A8. I have studied Gogol’s literary output in some depth, but I have not conducted any research on Ukrainian “soul” or on the Ukrainian national “portrait.” That would require at least the same long-term scholarly effort that I put into the book on Russian “slave soul,” or the book which I wrote on Gogol (Out From Under Gogol’s Overcoat, 1982). I doubt that Gogol’s personality reflects the “portrait” of a typical Ukrainian. When he grew up Gogol left Ukraine, and from then on he prefered to live in urban, ethnic Russian surroundings - or abroad in the West. His sexual orientation was gay, as has been established by the late Professor Simon Karlinsky. The early “Ukrainian” stories are actually written in Russian, like the rest of Gogol’s oeuvre. They are clever folksy caricatures of considerable psychological interest. “Vii," for example, explores Khoma Brut’s phobia of heterosexual coitus, which is portrayed as an essentially sado-masochistic act involving castration of the male. In "Sorochinskaia iarmarka” the implicitly homosexual narrator represents women as wishing to take away a man’s penis. The world-famous Akakii Akakievich of the Petersburg tale Shinel’ has a neurotic fixation on his feminized, maternalized overcoat, and dies when it is stolen from him.
None of these marvelous literary texts strike me as having anything to do with “Ukrainian soul.” They are the product of a brilliant, creative personality who had the misfortune of living in the homophobic milieu of imperial nineteenth-century Russia.
Q9. The last question. This is a pretty personal one, still, I hope you will answer. What do you consider to be the greatest value in life?
A9. This is indeed an important question. For me there are two equally great (equally “greatest") values in life: love and work. I borrow the idea from Freud, but he is absolutely right in this case. In my experience, life has been happiest when I have had both love and work. May all readers of Focus experience this happiness!