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Thomas More in a labor camp

June 14, 2012

I once thought of Varlam Shalamov as a powerful but rather straightforward writer, but I’ve been learning from Sarah J. Young that he does more than bear witness to prison camp suffering. She has a substantive post on defecation in Shalamov. As usual I learned quite a lot from it, but I was confused by a bit in the middle about bodily functions in Thomas More, Rabelais, and Shalamov.

First, I wasn’t sure where Rabelais came in, or the idea of a “grotesque body.” Shalamov’s narrator paraphrases More as distilling happiness down to four basic feelings: eating, sex, urination, and defecation. These are the four feelings that Gulag prisoners were deprived of. If Rabelais were making such a list, surely drinking massive amounts of alcohol could not be left out, and More-according-to-Shalamov’s four feelings would be made grand, mock-epic, hilarious, rather than a minimal concession to nature in a dry philosophical argument.

Thomas More (1478-1535)

Beyond that I’m pretty sure Shalamov is modifying More to suit his purpose here (perhaps More is a prestigious name to attach to a shockingly simple idea). He seems to be talking about this part of Utopia where More explains how the Utopians see happiness. They prefer things we are drawn to by both reason and direct feeling, like the four feelings Shalamov mentions, but also other pleasures of the body, like “the pleasure that arises from music” and “delight in health,” and beyond all these, “they esteem those [pleasures] most valuable that lie in the mind,” such as “knowledge,” “that delight which the contemplation of truth carries with it,” “joyful reflections on a well-spent life,” “the assured hopes of a future happiness,” “true virtue,” and “the witness of a good conscience” (70-72). What the Utopians don’t think qualifies as real happiness is seeing other people kneel before you or wearing bright-colored stones or fancy clothes – for people aren’t drawn to these things by nature, but only after culture and reason assign them false value.

Shalamov’s own topic, in the passage SJY quotes, is what it’s like to be deprived of the pleasure of defecation, then regain it. Compare More on the pain of deprivation outweighing the pleasure of a need satisfied:

If any man imagines that there is a real happiness in these enjoyments, he must then confess that he would be the happiest of all men if he were to lead his life in perpetual hunger, thirst, and itching, and by consequence in perpetual eating, drinking, and scratching himself; which any one may easily see would be not only a base, but a miserable state of a life. These are indeed the lowest of pleasures, and the least pure; for we can never relish them but when they are mixed with the contrary pains. The pain of hunger must give us the pleasure of eating; and here the pain outbalances the pleasure; and as the pain is more vehement, so it lasts much longer; for as it begins before the pleasure, so it does not cease but with the pleasure that extinguishes it, and both expire together. They think, therefore, none of those pleasures are to be valued any further than as they are necessary; yet they rejoice in them, and with due gratitude acknowledge the tenderness of the great Author of Nature, who has planted in us appetites by which those things that are necessary for our preservation are likewise made pleasant to us. (72)

I’m not sure we can square this passage from More with Shalamov’s narrator’s talk of “four basic human feelings, the satisfaction of which leads to the highest bliss in More’s terms.” It seems complicated to me how More’s idea that it would be perverse to deliberately suffer hunger for the later pleasure of food fits with Shalamov’s description of the “resurrection” of the four basic feelings for the (ex-?)prisoner. Maybe there’s nothing here but the oddness of comparing the effects of harsh treatment in the Gulag (and its end) to disputes on what kind of happiness is best in Utopia. In any case, read all of SJY’s post, which is about much more than this.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 15, 2012 5:12 am

    Many thanks for this response. My (rather poorly expressed) point about Rabelais is simply that Shalamov is projecting a different type of grotesque body from the way it is usually considered. In Return from the Archipelago, Leona Toker tries to incorporate this difference by describing the Gulag body in terms of the opposite of the carnivalesque, positing a Lenten trope. I don’t think this works, not least because it attempts to Christianize Shalamov, which to me seems unwarranted, at least in relation to his prose (his poetry may be a different matter, but she is talking about his prose, and in any case grotesque bodies are not a prominent subject of his poetry), but also because the whole idea of the Lenten does not really seem to tell us anything significant – and it’s notable that within work on Gulag narratives, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone else engage with it.
    On the other hand, even if unsuccessful, it is one of the very few attempts to conceptualize the type of grotesque body Shalamov projects. In the work that has been done, as far as I know, the Thomas More connection has not been addressed at all. It is indeed an odd and distorted view, and I don’t think I’ve got a complete handle on what he’s doing here yet (perhaps he didn’t either; the looseness of many of the stories in the final collection convey a sense of the author trying to conceptualize the experience, and not altogether succeeding). To some extent I think it’s simply about the perversion of the camps – the feeling that returns is ugly and distorted, and the possibility of happiness is gone forever (and therefore, so much for the Socialist Utopian project as a whole). Moreover, if everything remains distorted, then ideas are too, and the treatment of More is a necessary result of that. So we’re back to the problem of writing, and how one encapsulates that experience whilst remaining true to the feelings associated with it.

    • June 16, 2012 12:25 am

      Thank you for the comment! I like the idea of ideas being distorted like everything else in the camps – though of course, even in non-camp literature, it would hardly be surprising for a narrator to “quote” Thomas More in a slanted or selective way. And to be fair to Shalamov’s narrator, the euphemisms More uses for urination and defecation in that passage are what remain in one’s mind – it’s been years since I read Utopia and I remembered it more like it was portrayed in Shalamov than like it actually was when I looked up the relevant part. Thanks also for bringing up Leona Toker and the Lenten trope/anti-carnivalesque Gulag body. All that is new to me, and it’s very interesting to read of those arguments and your reaction to them.

      • June 17, 2012 9:40 am

        Yes, that’s exactly right – like you, the version of Utopia I remembered was rather closer to Shalamov’s than the original. And that question of the distortion of memory is really significant in the context of the rest of the story, when he describes the poetry evenings where the three convicts are reciting poetry from memory. It seems like every connection you follow in Shalamov makes you realize how much more there is to his writing than meets the eye! This is really helping to clarify a few things… – Thanks again!

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