The comic courage of Volodymyr Zelensky | the new yorker

Journalism reveres, then history revises. Anyone with a minimal reading of history knows how quickly opinion changes. Teddy Roosevelt is straddling Central Park West one day and in the (figurative) basement the next. Today’s hero is tomorrow’s goat or, given the pace and revenge of verdicts in the age of social media, breakfast hero is lunchtime villain. (To see, passivethe Cuomos.)

But the story does not always revise – JFK’s conduct in the Cuban Missile Crisis looks, in any case, even better in retrospect than it did then, and at the time it looked impressive. Far from just staring at the Russians, as we thought then, he also showed them a way out, by secretly promising to withdraw US missiles from Turkey. And Winston Churchill’s speeches in 1940, whatever the bleakest verdicts on his imperialist conduct before the war and his woefully inconsistent presence afterwards, are still the cries of freedom they were to so many at the time. . Those who criticize Churchill now are free to do so because he protected freedom from some of the deadliest enemies it has known.

Among the myriad ins and outs of the war in Ukraine, the heroism of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speeches and public appearances stands out as something unlikely to be revised by history. Tragic fates may await the man and his people, but no one will easily forget the sight of Zelensky speaking out, within the confines of underground internet broadcasting, for his people and his cause. Some of his impromptu lines were memorable, such as in his reported rejection of an American offer to get him safely out of Kiev – “I need ammunition, not a ride” – but even more impressive were the courts rhetorical gestures: the repeated “here!” from one of his early broadcasts, insisting to his own that the president and his entourage were still, well, the. He practices a very 21st-century form of political rhetoric, made and consumed on smartphones, that rejects grand oratorical gestures for simple, short repeated takes. (And Zelensky is also very 21st century, in his willingness to recycle and sample older riffs, like when he repeated some of Churchill’s famous wartime rhetoric in a speech to the British Parliament.)

There may be revisionist histories; and the darkness yet to come may obscure the visible brightness now. No one is above or outside criticism; Zelensky is an imperfect democrat, like Churchill was, like all of us. (His relationship with media oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky is something to dig into.) But, for students of democratic-inspired styles, he remains fascinating and unique. Unique because before Zelensky became president, he wasn’t just an actor – a la Reagan and a few others – he was a comedian, a clown. He came to the office, it seems, on a platform of nothing else except his clowning, particularly his role in a comedy series about elevating an ordinary blunderer to the Ukrainian presidency. If he had a platform, we were assured when he ran for president in 2019, it was in mockery, especially of his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, who conveyed an appearance of harsh authority. Once, when called a clown, Zelensky didn’t argue, but posted a video on Instagram of his own face with a big red nose on it. The refusal to act like an adult infuriated Zelensky’s opponents as much as Groucho Marx infuriated his political opponents in Fredonia, in “Duck Soup”, with his without seriousness. “He dreams of a gentle, submissive, gentle, laughing, inexperienced, weak, ideologically amorphous and politically uncertain president,” Poroshenko said. “Are we going to give him that?” »

Indeed, looking at Zelensky now, you don’t think, Oh, wow, he was once a comedian! We think, this is what a comedian in power looks like. In American terms, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine the late George Carlin or Richard Pryor – or, for that matter, Carl Reiner or Mel Brooks – in the same kind of role, familiarly self-satisfy, suddenly restrained and serious. Thinking of the place of a comedian in power, the reader’s mind inevitably turns to a great Russian critic of the last century, Mikhail Bakhtin, who studied especially the complex relationship of “carnival” (i.e. say clown) with power. At a time when too many people dishonor themselves by turning against Russian art and literature, it’s nice to understand a Ukrainian hero through a Russian lens.

Bakhtin, who lived a long life, from 1895 to 1975, was a complex and multifaceted thinker, a linguist and philosopher of language as well as a Renaissance historian and literary critic. He missed the Gulag, or, just as likely, the bullet in the head that felled many of his collaborators, by chance and centimeters. To truly understand Bakhtin in depth requires understanding, for example, what he meant by “dialogued heteroglossia”, and his work is made even more opaque by the frequent need to mask his largely non-Marxist views in Marxist language.

But it is not difficult to paint a general picture of Bakhtin’s opinion in his great book, “Rabelais et son monde” (written in the 1940s but not published until the 1960s), that a “carnival” is not just a European Farmer’s Day but an event that gave birth to a whole new outlook on the world, a world turned upside down. The ugly and ridiculous things that bodies do – copulate, defecate, get drunk, fart – are the special domain of sane vulgar comedy, of “carnival”, and this comedy reminds us of the limits of the power to explain and dominate the ‘existence. The Church and the courts can give orders, but they cannot Craft an order more durable and permanent than the gloriously sordid order of the body. There were, writes Bakhtin, two lives available at the time of Rabelais: “One which was the official life, monolithically serious and dark, subject to a strict hierarchical order, full of terror, dogmatism, reverence and piety; the other was the carnival square life, free and unrestricted, full of ambivalent laughter. It was Rabelais’ genius to smash this world order by elevating it to literature, not only to make us laugh but to make us realize that the highest philosophy could be produced by the lowest comedy. Comedy is the revenge of the peasant on the king; laughter is man’s revenge on God.

Bakhtin, of course, contrasted the carnivalesque spirit with the cult of personality and the crushing bureaucratic evil of Stalinism. What he admires in Rabelais and calls “grotesque realism” is the opposite of social realism, the forced manner of civic virtue of the Stalinist period. But he did not regard “grotesque realism” as simply anarchic. From rubbish and absurdity comes renewal. The Marx Brothers, again, are an almost too perfect example of this kind of comedy – exploding, yes, but not merely scorching, the pompous order of politics or “high” culture, renewing it instead with a fluid alternative vaudeville of puns. , puns, improvised music and mime. (It’s no coincidence that so many on the Russian autocratic front today, like Patriarch Kirill, are so bizarrely obsessed with gay pride parades, despite their harmless and far from military nature, exactly. because they embody the spirit of carnival in contemporary dress, or undress. The parade, the public celebration of difference, is what threatens.)

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