Academic-speak these days is quite easy to imitate. Here is a representative specimen that might well be found in your email in-box if you happen to work in American higher education: “As a community we must all rededicate ourselves to dialogue about inclusion, diversity, and social justice, and to rejecting the hegemonic discourse of oppression that dominates the white/heteronormative culture.” Lots of abstract jargon strung together to warn opponents and reassure friends—nothing in the way of real thought or even mere description.
For those who are committed to a de-politicized education, such language represents, to use a phrase of Roger Scruton’s, “the deep syntax of our torment.” Truth be told, language has been deployed in such a manner before. Under communist regimes, there were “reliable” terms that officialdom arranged and rearranged almost endlessly: “bourgeois,” “imperialist,” “Zionist,” “progressive,” “proletarian,” or “building socialism”—one could undoubtedly come up with a host of others.
Language is used in such discourse not to reveal meaning—to provide a window on reality—but to exert power. It prefers the abstract to the concrete, the general to the specific.
People appeared in this discourse not as freely-choosing individuals but as abstractions, through which impersonal forces struggle for domination . . . Meanwhile, it was important to fuse the permitted words into bundles, so as to block the doors through which reality might enter.
Thus does the language of political correctness recall the totalitarian discourse of communism—a world that now belongs to the apparently distant and foreign 20th century. Yet if totalitarian discourse is returning, merely with a different glossary, perhaps it would be worthwhile to rediscover the totalitarian world more broadly. And we need not return to the era of mass show trials, densely populated labor camps, or revolutionary violence. Perhaps more instructive would be the stultifying, bureaucratic, mendacious world of the 1980s. This is precisely where Roger Scruton transports us in his novel Notes from Underground (from which the above quote was taken).
Scruton tells the tale of Jan Reichl, a Czech émigré teaching in the United States, who narrates the action of the novel from his perch as a university professor in 2005. Jan looks back primarily on where he was in 1985-86, which was Czechoslovakia, where his mother was arrested and sentenced to nine months in prison for “misuse of socialist property for private gain.” She had been active in typing and publishing samizdat literature—she called her enterprise the “Powerless Press,” in a nod to Václav Havel’s influential essay “The Power of the Powerless.”
This was when Jan was 22. Before that, when he was 13, his father died in a mining accident in a labor camp, to which he had been sent as punishment for participating in a reading group. Jan’s father’s legal troubles meant that Jan was barred from graduating from high school or attending university, or from gaining a decent job. He found work as a street sweeper in the Prague district of Smíchov.
Jan’s father had bequeathed to him a taste for literature and culture more broadly. Jan read all the classic Czech authors and other European classics, like Stefan Zweig and Dostoevsky. The young man is under no illusions about “really existing socialism.” He sees his world as one of
slogans in which no one believed, of vague prohibitions and joyless celebrations of our benign enslavement. It was a world without friendship, in which every gathering was an object of suspicion, and in which people spoke in whispers for fear that even the most innocent remark could accuse the speaker of a crime.
The boy’s Dostoevsky-inspired reaction to this “daylight world” is to retreat underground: literally to the Metro lines beneath Prague, and figuratively to a fictional world of characters inspired by the anonymous faces of Metro riders. He writes stories based on the faces he encounters beneath the city, publishing a samizdat collection called Rumors under the pseudonym Soudruh Androš (Comrade Underground).
Life might well have gone on in this way, even after Jan’s mother’s arrest. He might have continued cleaning his 200 meters of pavement in Smíchov, writing reports on himself for his personnel file (an act much appreciated by his supervisor), and riding the Metro searching for material for his stories. But one day on the Metro he sees Betka. Alžběta Palková is only four years his senior, yet she exhibits a worldliness and self-possession he can scarcely fathom. She rescues Jan and introduces him to a very different underground world than the one of his own devising. The core of the novel is really their story, Jan and Betka’s. They fall in love, but Betka also allows Jan to experience a love for the world as it is, a world partially hidden, partially bruised, by communist mendacity, but no less real for that. It is these two love stories that drive the narrative.
Jan comes to see his own underground life as merely “another form of selfishness and fragmentation.” Scruton’s portrayal of Jan’s transformation is evocative and moving—as readers we are brought to care deeply about Jan and appreciate the profundity and strangeness of what he is experiencing. And this is also where the novel challenges us to really think through the why’s and how’s of Jan’s development. Through Betka, Jan is introduced to a semi-secret world of educational seminars, church services, and a network of so-called “dissidents” with international contacts who become aware of Jan’s mother’s arrest.
In the midst of the underground seminars, Jan discovers true hospitality—something he had previously associated, mistakenly of course, with apparatchiks holding their important meetings. He forms communal bonds naturally, in the course of a search for truth. He is overwhelmed and intoxicated by friendships and by an intense solidarity. Such selfless devotion was totally alien to the regimented, fragmented world of the country’s communist masters. But as Jan later looks back upon it all wistfully from suburban Washington, D.C. in 2005, he experiences different yet equally powerful longings. “Here in America’s capital,” he says,
where the ripe fruit of abundance hangs from every tree, where days end in parties, where friends come and go with easy hilarity and where fear is a specialist product, to be bought and sold in videos or downloaded from the Internet, how can I conjure a world where words were kept close like secrets, and friendship had the furtiveness of sin?
The apparatchiks’ artificial communal life under communism overtly destroyed true human community—yet Jan prods us to wonder whether the formless freedom of America is also inhospitable soil for the flowering of meaningful bonds of affection.
The warm associations he finds among the oppositionists effect another transformation in Jan: they open him to the richness of his home and its history. The richness had, of course, been occluded by the encrustation of the communist “official” history. Jan begins to look around and take in the beauty of his surroundings—for example, the baroque churches of Mala Strana and the palaces of the aristocratic families like the Sternberg’s or Lobkowicz’s. He yearns for an account the past that will tie together the complex cultural strands that all meet in Prague. Jan receives a copy of the samizdat journal Central Europe, which shows him that “we are not what Mr. Chamberlain had said we were at the time of Munich, a far-away country of which the British know nothing, but the very heart of Europe.”
Immersed in this community, Jan meets the compelling figure of Father Pavel Havránek, a Catholic priest who lost permission to perform his ministry because he published an article in the exile press. Father Pavel works as a mechanic and attends the same seminar as Jan. He prompts the young man to engage with his own spiritual longings, long buried. Father Pavel speaks of God not as a distant and external force, but as an “everyday presence, folded into the scheme of things like the lining of a coat.” Religion, he says, is not an “escape from suffering but a way of accepting it.” Jan does not convert, but nonetheless follows Father Pavel’s instruction to seek and appreciate reality as pregnant with transcendent meaning.
This world had been opened to Jan by Betka, who awes him with her confident bearing and refusal to shrink before the authorities. Her situation, we learn gradually, is quite complicated. She has plans. She refers to Jan as her “mistake,” for her lover does not factor into these plans. Betka’s love for Jan has a purity because of its selflessness or perhaps uselessness. Jan, for his part, wonders whether he loves her truly for her own sake, or as an agent of discovery of a better life. Eventually he admits to himself that he “had never for one moment considered how I might forego some advantage for Betka’s sake. Sacrifice had not entered my thoughts of her, and for that very reason my love for her had grown around a core of distrust.”
I would be remiss if I did not point out that, in addition to Betka and Father Pavel, there are a number of other acutely drawn characters in Notes from Underground. Scruton’s evocation of this time and place is convincing because it is fully realized. The theme that runs throughout is the power and dignity of sacrifice. Scruton reveals that there is an ever-present need for communities to inculcate an ethic of devotion and selflessness to achieve a healthy and vibrant social order. And this need, he more than hints, is no less present in the context of a liberal regime than it is in a totalitarian one.
One of the lessons of the totalitarian experiment, Scruton shows here, is that it is quite possible for us to reject the promise of our humanity. He has Father Pavel tell Jan that the greatest achievement of the communists is to divide the country into two groups:
the cynics who live without morals and who know the price of everything and . . . the pure souls who know the price of nothing and who therefore recoil into the world of the imagination to pursue their beautiful dreams.
The return of totalitarian discourse in the lexicon of political correctness threatens to so divide young people on college campuses today. While the situations surely are not identical, they are strikingly analogous: There are students who learn to deploy this language that the authorities demand, and these students succeed in navigating the system to their own advantage. Then there are others who recoil; the latter might try to simply opt out, retreating to disciplines mostly untouched by this discourse. Let us hope there are Pavels and Betkas around to remind this “underground” of the beauty of their history and of the dignity of the longings which are partially suppressed by the empty “syntax of [their] torment.”