Neuberger: Sergei Eisenstein: Ironic Belief

This essay was written by Joan Neuberger (University of Texas at Austin) for the 2019 Presidential Plenary on the topic "Belief".

My subject is Sergei Eisenstein, the great pioneer film maker and film theorist, but he would appear to be the last person who should be on a panel on belief. Eisenstein was famous for two things that seem at odds with faith of any kindhe was deeply cynical and endlessly ironicOn the other hand, if anyone could make belief a transformative practice” and “refusal to accept the tyranny of the now,” questions that Mark has asked us to address, Eisenstein could. Eisenstein was not always seen this way of course, and there’s a whole school of thought (which is wrong), that sees him as a craven and cowardly state servant.  Of course, either of these positionscynic or servant—could be a mask that covered some kind of belief, but the image of public conformist, private subversive doesn’t capture Eisenstein either (and of course that whole model of public/private dichotomy is problematic). One thread in Soviet history that we still don’t know a lot about is what happened to the political beliefs of non-party socialists, people who were active in the 1920s and survived into the 1930s-40s. Eisenstein was one of those people and he gives us some clues. 

Eisenstein is, as many of you know, famous for the political commitment of his early writing and film work. In the 1920s when Eisenstein was in his 20s, he was outspoken about cinema’s political impact on viewers: properly composed films could raise class consciousness, help build socialism in the Soviet Union, and propagate revolution elsewhere. Radical politics became muted in his later writing as his interests widened and the frame for public discourse narrowed under Stalin.   

When Eisenstein began to be screened and published again in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, the caretakers of his archive and his reputation left political questions alone and allowed him to be acceptable as the myth maker of the revolution while they went about publishing his more complicated writings. And when he was rediscovered in Western Europe and the US in the 1960s, and in Latin America in the 1970s, his admirers focused on the collective heroes of his early films and the political claims in his writings of the 1920s 

This generation of artists and scholars as well as the Soviet intelligentsia often disparaged Eisenstein’s later work as caving to the demands of Stalinist censorship or worse, toadying to the dictator. In fact, views haven’t changed much since 1966, when the renowned American film scholar, Annette Michelson, wrote her influential essay “Film and the Radical Aspiration.1 She argued then that radical political thinking had become impossible once the revolutionary wave of the early twentieth century had subsided and socialism had been disfigured by the states where it was adopted. When this essay was widely republished and anthologized, after the global failures of 1968, socialism seemed to have become nothing more than a subject for nostalgia and frustration as Michelson had predicted. And Eisenstein was her key witness:  

[Eisenstein’s] energy, courage, and intellectual passion which sustained both theory and work were, of course, among the noblest of our century—in his defeat as in his achievement, and down to the very fragmentary quality of his work! One’s sense of his defeat, visible in Alexander Nevsky, is so particularly agonizing because it constitutes a unique example of what one might call the pathos of dissociation [between the radical formal and the radical ideological] pushed to an extremity…2 

And this is understandable. It is easy to dismiss Eisenstein’s statements on the great achievements of the Soviet Union, on our “inimitable country and epoch” on “the Great Genius Stalin” as coerced conformity or as Michelson’s noble-tragic necessity for survival. And it is easy to assume that he is not serious when he writes things like: “Here in our country…Our cinema, as the most progressive of the arts has this great task before it: to reveal in its works that profound unity and harmony, and that profound worldview that our socialist era has brought to humanity.”3 But this is where it gets interesting.  Because it turns out that the concept of striving for the romantic-sounding, utopian world of “unity and harmony, was his frame for talking about the egalitarian, classless collective, a concept of socialist collectivity as an alternative to Stalinism. In other words, however skeptical we may be of his cynical or noble or tragic parroting of official discourse  and the language itself departs from his typically coy, ironic address to the reader  the socialist collective was closely tied to the central ideas of his work at this time. 

In the summer of 1945, as the war was finally coming to an end, Eisenstein wrote “The Music of Landscape and the Fate of Montage Counterpoint at a New Stage, also known as Nonindifferent Nature. That’s where we find the lines quoted above. The title is a riff on a Pushkin line about nature’s indifference to human fate—and much of Nonindifferent Nature reads like the nature literature of today. If you’ve read Richard Powers’ The Overstory, or Rosa Braidotti on the Posthuman or Emanuele Coccia’s The Life of Plants or Eduardo Kohn on How Forests Think and so on, you’ll recognize Eisenstein’s exploration of the ways that human beings connect with or immerse themselves in nature. Among other things, this position departed radically from the shared communist and capitalist aspiration to dominate nature brought out so beautifully in Bathsheba Demuth’s new book Floating Coast about the Bering Sea. For Eisenstein, that immersion was an experience of liberation (from the constraints of the body) and transformative (in its ability to produce dialectical synthesis and change without the collision of opposites), and a key element in all the ways that artists communicate with their audience (through immersion in the heightened sensory-emotional and intellectual perception of art). More broadly, and largely unrecognized by scholars, he repeatedly insisted that art is never independent of political context and that “great” art requires political engagement  another form of immersion  to be truly transformational for its audience. Immersion in nature and art was not just a model for social organization, but an essential component of communication and collective experience. Audiences connect with artists through their artwork, he wrote, the way people “dissolv[e] in nature,” which “feels like a removal of the contradictions between the general [collective] and the individual, usually opposing each other, just as humans oppose the landscape.”4  

Then, just when he seems to reach the limit of utopian possibilities of the immersive dialectic of the human and nature, artist and spectator, individual and collective, he snaps back to his more typically ironic and cynical self. But he does so in a way that only underlines his belief in the dialectical and transformative nature of immersion in nature. The Epilogue to “The Music of Landscape” provides a safety valve for would-be utopians, the reminder Eisenstein always gives us when the dialectic seems to work out too perfectly in some kind of a longed-for “unity.” Too much balance  too perfect a unity and harmony  is as dangerous as an over-powerful state. Eisenstein’s landscape is dialectical, which means that it is a tense dynamic of becoming that occasionally gives us the experience of intense feeling (pathos), out-of-body transformation (ekstasis), out-of-body dissolution into nature and feeling of transcendence, of synthetic unity, of social harmony, and radical transformation. But that experience is always dynamic and temporary. In the political references here at the end of Nonindifferent Naturehe uses the political to warn against every form of collectivity or merger or dissolution that is reified in ideology or political sloganeering. He suggests that such “unity and harmony” are attainable but also fleetinga momentary joining of material and ideal, and worth pursuing no matter how ephemeral. 

1 Annette Michelson, “Film and the Radical Aspiration,” Film Culture 42 (1966): 404-21. On Eisenstein in Latin America, see Masha Salazkina, “Eisenstein in Latin America,” The Flying Carpet: Studies on Eisenstein and Russian Cinema in Honor of Naum Kleiman, eds. Joan Neuberger and Antonio Somaini (Paris: Éditions Mimésis, 2017), 343-65.

2 Michelson, “Film and the Radical Aspiration,” 415.

3 Sergei M. Eisenstein, Nonindifferent Nature, edited and translated by Herbert Marshall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 376.

4 Eisenstein, Nonindifferent Nature, 356, 358