arts / Drama / Film / History / Media / Movietime / Politics

Truth and facts: a dialectic


  . . .  there does not exist a fixed immutable boundary between relative and absolute truth. (V.I. LeninMaterialism ii. p.107 )

If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts. (Albert Einstein)

A wide screen just makes a bad film twice as bad. (Samuel Goldwyn)

Don’t confuse me with facts, my mind’s already made up! (Unknown)

Some thoughts on the historical inaccuracies in Heaven’s Gate.

Christopher Walken, Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle HuppertHeaven’s Gate is not the first time Michael Cimino has tampered with the historical record. (For details of the inaccuracies in this film, click HERE.) The notorious “Russian roulette” episode in The Deerhunter has no basis in fact. (Similarly, the episode in Apocalypse Now, of Vietnamese guerrillas cutting off the arms of children vaccinated by health workers was invented by John Milius, and is a complete lie, though in the movie  it plays a role in explaining Col. Kurz’s existential madness.)

In the last of my series of nine plays on  the life and death of Stalin, the dying man is confronted by phantoms of the victims of the Revolution (a sequence I borrowed from Richard of Gloucester’s nightmare on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth; it is no coincidence that Richard appears at the end of Stalin’s delirium).

Three of these phantoms confront Stalin with a disquisition on the nature of truth.

First, Grigory Yevseevich Zinoviev, executed in 1936:

CAPTION:

Grigory Yevseevich Zinoviev, shot for his part in organising the ‘Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Centre’, August 25, 1936.

(Enter Zinoviev)

ZINOVIEV:

Why me, Koba? Why me? I supported you against Trotsky at the Thirteenth Party Congress.

STALIN:

And you opposed the uprising in October, 1917. You even leaked our plans to the press.

ZINOVIEV:

But there was no “Trotskyite-Zinovievite Terrorist Centre”. You must have known that. Trotsky and I were never close. He attacked me and Kamenev in his book about October.

STALIN:

Listen to me, comrade. Learn some political facts of life. It is of no importance whether you and Trotsky were involved in such a centre of terrorism. OBJECTIVELY, you colluded with him. Just as, OBJECTIVELY, Trotsky served the interests of German fascism, when he opposed our pact with Hitler. Like the western imperialists, with whom, again OBJECTIVELY, he was in collusion, he urged us to pull the West’s chestnuts out of the fire.

OBJECTIVELY, he was working for the destruction of Soviet power.

I was trying to push through a new, more democratic constitution, but the NKVD claimed to have discovered new bogeymen under every bed. They hi-jacked the congress, when my report on the constitution was to have been the main item on the agenda.

You were a hostage to fortune. You had to be sacrificed. The new constitution was more important than the fate of any of the so-called Old Bolsheviks, you, or my daughter’s godfather, or even me. But I had to survive, or the constitution would have fallen. As it was, most of my democratic proposals were removed.

OBJECTIVELY, comrade, you did that. I do not regret your death.

Then comes Bulgakov, author of The Master and Margarita, as well as other satirical works, mostly banned in the USSR.

CAPTION:

March 10, 1940: Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov, satirist, dies of nephrosclerosis (an inherited kidney disorder).

(Enter Bulgakov)

STALIN:

Oh, Mikhail Afanasyevich! You cannot lay your death at my door. You died of natural causes. Of the same sickness which killed your esteemed father, if I recall.

BULGAKOV:

That is true, Citizen Stalin.

STALIN:

Indeed, I did what I could to help you, did I not? I went to see your play, The White Guard, fifteen times, and stood up and applauded at the end each time. One thing  has always puzzled me, Mikhail Afanasyevich. Why did you not take a curtain call on those occasions?

BULGAKOV:

The management advised against it. The play was not liked by the critics.

STALIN:

Critics!? Pfaugh! Jackals on the dung-heap of our culture. A necessary evil, perhaps, but . . .

BULGAKOV:

You denounced my play, Flight, about the civil war and émigrés, as “an anti-Soviet phenomenon”.

STALIN:

It was a poor piece of work, compared with The White Guard, which covered much the same area.

BULGAKOV:

You banned a play I wrote about your early life, and your imprisonment in Batumi in 1902.

STALIN:

There were many such works, glorifications, attempts to curry favour. I felt it was unworthy of you. And besides, my early revolutionary days were not so important. I did not wish my name to be associated with bank robberies, and similar banditry. The American president does not claim to have served under Al Capone.

BULGAKOV:

But I researched it assiduously, Citizen Stalin. It was all true.

STALIN:

No, Mikhail Afanasyevich, it was FACTUAL. Yes, I was in the Caucasus at that time, and yes, there were bank robberies, as well as arson attacks on the enemies of the people, and I was exiled as a consequence. These are no doubt the facts which you researched, assiduously as you say, Bulgakov. The TRUTH of the matter is somewhat different. It is the difference between naturalism and realism, as I am sure you recognise.

Was The Fatal Eggs true? The Heart of a Dog? You see, I am familiar with your writings, though my taste does not run to such fantastical works. Did Professor Persikov and his red ray really exist?

BULGAKOV:

He was a representative figure, the red ray an example of unprincipled research. Like Lysenko.

STALIN:

No, Mikhail Afanasyevich, no! Your Persikov was no Lysenko. His red ray did indeed cause hatching chicks to grow as large as ostriches, while the charlatan Lysenko could not get apples to grow on an orange tree, as the old song has it.

The other difference is that Persikov’s eggs were fatal because of mismanagement at a local level. Lysenko was promoted because his miraculous claims fitted in with our desire to remake reality in our own image.

Now that would have been a good target for your satire, Bulgakov, if you are looking for subjects.

BULGAKOV:

I would probably have ended up in the Lubyanka if I had attempted to write such a tale.

STALIN:

(He chuckles, humourlessly)

Most likely.

And what about the “sufficiently well-known personage who was calling from the Kremlin”? Was that supposed to be myself, perchance?

(Bulgakov does not answer.)

Well then, I did sometimes call people, Pasternak for instance, over the Mandelstam episode. I even called you up when you asked for permission to emigrate. Here your satire is factual as well as true.

But then I heard you burned many of your manuscripts.

BULGAKOV:

Yes, Citizen Stalin. It was very depressing, not being able to get work.

STALIN:

Did you not write somewhere, “manuscripts cannot be burned”?

BULGAKOV:

(Astonished)

But how do you know this, Citizen Stalin? That work was never published. Not in my lifetime, at least.

STALIN:

The Master and Margarita? I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. I wouldn’t raise a finger to have it published, nor to prevent publication. They tell me it’s a masterpiece.

But back to our telephone conversation. You wrote to me, as I recall, saying you couldn’t get work. So I called you up on the telephone. I suggested we meet.

BULGAKOV:

That would have been good. But it never happened.

STALIN:

Well, as I’m sure you realise, my time is not always my own. But didn’t I get you a job? Despite all enemies you managed to make with your satires.

BULGAKOV:

When I looked through my albums of cuttings in 1930, I discovered that there had been over three hundred references to me in the Soviet press during my ten years of work in the field of literature. Of these, three were complimentary, and two hundred and ninety-eight were hostile and abusive. One said he wanted to bash me over the head.

In 1936, my play about Molière, The Cabal of the Hypocrites, opened at the Moscow Arts Theatre, and was greeted enthusiastically by the audience. But it closed after seven performances, having been attacked in Pravda. My play, Ivan Vasilievich, was also due to open at this time, at the Theatre of Satire, but the production was abandoned after the appearance of the hostile Pravda review.

STALIN:

Please understand, that was at a time when I was fighting for my very survival. I did what I could. That bastard Yagoda!

CAPTION:

A lesson from history.

(Enter RICHARD, DUKE OF GLOUCESTER. He wears Plantagenet dress.)

STALIN:

Who the devil are you? Why are you dressed up like that, like some Shakespearian actor?

RICHARD:

An apt comparison, my brother. I fear you will be served as ill as I, when your successors come to write the history of your times. Uncle Joe will mutate into the Red Tsar, mark my words. But who will be your Shakespeare?

STALIN:

Why do you call me brother? You seem to be English.

RICHARD:

Were we not both leaders of men, my brother? And as I was treacherously murdered on Bosworth field, so are you dying in ambiguous circumstances. We did the best for our people, but history does not serve us well. Already the vultures are gathering around your bed. Trust me, they will dance with joy when you are gone.

And there is yet another circumstance that makes us brothers. Stretch out your right hand, Josef.

STALIN:

Why, why?

RICHARD:

See how I stretch out mine. I think we suffered the same sickness as a child. The arm is withered somewhat. Mark me, Josef, they will make you out to be deformed, a devilish dwarf, limping through oceans of blood to this, your deathbed.

(They both stretch out their hands. Richard grips Stalin’s and raises it, as if in a circle dance. He capers on the spot.)

Yet when I was young, I was so fair that the ladies lined up to dance with me. Does a crippled hunchback dance, Josef my brother? I think you are a poet.

STALIN:

It is true, I scribbled verses once.

RICHARD:

And wooed many a maid with them, I’ll warrant.

STALIN:

I was no voluptuary.

(He pauses, thinking of past times, and smiles.)

Yes, I was loved. But it was the love of the people that was most precious to me.

RICHARD:

As it was with me, my brother. That damned scribbler, that Tudor propagandist, our Shakespeare, made me out to be hated in my lifetime.

But he was a man of the people, after all, and he knew full well that the groundlings would not tolerate a travesty of my life and times, unless it were indeed a travesty, meet to be performed by a circus clown.

So he made me out to be such an embodiment of evil, such a loveable rogue that no one could take it seriously. Perhaps this is what he thought, to please his Tudor masters and also at the same time the commoners in the pit, who knew the facts.

But you cannot please God and mammon. So his travesty became received truth, with time. As it shall be with you.

Has the past played itself before you as it did for me on the eve of Bosworth?

STALIN:

(He nods, shuddering.)

The deaths of so many are on my conscience. Those whose death warrants I counter-signed, and those whom I ought to have saved, but I could not.

RICHARD:

Death happens, brother. It is the only certainty in this world. I shall see you in the next.

(Exit Richard.)

Obviously, all this dialogue is invented. But the facts in this whole sequence are the result of years of research since I composed the first scene from the play, The Stalin Epigram, which was performed at Bradford’s Priestley Theatre on November 13, 1999. But are they TRUE?

It is certainly

  • a FACT that Stalin got Mandelstam released from jail, despite the disgusting portrait in the “epigram” of his moustache, like  “huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip”,
  • a FACT that the Palestinian villagers of Deir Yassin were killed by bullets supplied to Jewish terrorists by socialist Czechoslovakia,
  • a FACT that prisoners in the Gulag mourned his death,
  • a FACT that because Stalin and Churchill had carved up the world between them, the Greek resistance fighters of ELAS were allowed to be killed by bullets from British Tommies awaiting demob,
  • a FACT that, far from being an alcoholic (a widely spread misconception) he drank plain water from a vodka carafe.

But do all these FACTS make the picture I paint of Stalin TRUE? As Chou En-Lai famously said of the French Revolution, it’s probably too early to say.

Despite its slanders on the memories of Nate Champion, James Averell, and Ella Watson, Heaven’s Gate paints a picture of the social forces in Wyoming – and throughout the United States, to that matter – that is essentially true. Faced with Cimino’s original five-hour cut, the first change the producers demanded was that he should drop the beginning and end of the movie. But the Harvard sequence and the steamboat sequence which bookend the movie set all that takes place in Johnson County in the context of the fact that this rich man turned lawman could not overcome his own social status, despite his sympathy for the oppressed. That is why the cattle barons hated him so much, because he is one of them, a traitor to his class. And I believe that the opprobrium heaped upon the movie by critics was in fact politically motivated.

This was a political story, and they did not want to heed its message.

The hypocrisy of those who caused to be carved the words of Emma Lazarus on a plaque below the Statue of Liberty – “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” – were exposed in the film, and the continued hypocrisy of the “free world” needs to be exposed as such today. But like Corporal Jones’s bayonet in Dad’s Army, they do not like it up them, no they do not like it.

By the way, I do not agree with Lenin that truth is relative, though how we interpret facts may change.

Circumstances alter cases, as Thomas Chandler Haliburton put it.

For more on the contradiction between facts and truth, see also my essay,
The Lie That Tells the Truth – Christopher Caudwell’s poetic vision in “Illusion and Reality”
online.

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