In Devastation and Laughter, Annie Gérin explores the use of satire in the visual arts, theatre, cinema, and the circus under Lenin and Stalin. Gérin traces the rise and decline of the genre and argues that the use of satire in official Soviet art and propaganda was neither marginal nor untheorized. The author sheds light on the texts written in the 1920s and 1930s by Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment, and the impact his writings had on satirists. While the Avant-Garde and Socialist Realism were necessarily forward-looking and utopian, satire afforded artists the means to examine critically past and present subjects, themes, and practice. Devastation and Laughter is the first work to bring Soviet theoretical writings on the use of satire to the attention of scholars outside of Russia. By introducing important bodies of work that have largely been overlooked in the fields of art history and film and theatre history, Annie Gérin provides a nuanced and alternative reading of early Soviet art.
About the author
Annie Gérin is a curator and assistant professor of art history and art theory in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Ottawa. She has published articles on public art in journals such as Espace, BlackFlash, and Fuse.
- Short-listed, 2020 AATSEEL Best Book in Cultural Studies American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East
- Winner, CHOICE Outstanding Academic Titles of 2019 awarded by the American Library Association
Excerpt: Devastation and Laughter: Satire, Power, and Culture in the Early Soviet State (1920s-1930s) (by (author) Annie Gérin)
The following speech was given by Anatoly Lunacharsky on 30 January 1931 during the inaugural meeting of the Commission for the Study of Satirical Genres at the Academy of Sciences of the USSR in Moscow. It was published for the first time in April 1935 in the journal Literaturnyi kritik. This translation is based on the 1967 reprint of this text, in Lunacharsky’s collected works.
Comrades, when I suggested that the Academy of Sciences organize a commission for the study of satirical genres, I was first and foremost guided by considerations that have to do with the rapid development of research on the history of literature conducted according to a Marxist method, that is to say dialectical materialism. While pondering on what area of literature would allow trying out this method with greatest ease, and yield prompt results – so that Marxist research in all areas of literature can use this experience as a basis – I reached the conclusion that satire is the type of literature that should be first considered.
What do we mean by Marxist research?
Before all else, we consider each literary phenomenon we study as performing a social function. We search for concrete historical manifestations of class relations, as reflected in a given literary form or a given literary work. We confer great value on this genetic point of view, but it does not, however, prevent us from looking for the actual meaning of a literary work. We believe that in many cases literary works are quite intentionally written by their author to make a certain impression on their world, the social class they belong to, other classes, their targeted publics, as well as the more casual publics they might reach. Whether or not it is possible to prove that the author of a literary work had any outright intention to propagate certain views, we have to consider that such intent may be unconscious, but it is nevertheless undoubtedly present.
The aspiration of certain critics to direct the attention of our contemporaries towards an absolutely “pure” work of art (one that would maintain maximal distance from social issues) is a long-standing trend that values above all else the “extra-social.” But in essence, even such a work of art fulfils a social function and, furthermore, it reflects class consciousness, which stems from its social situation at a given time.
In instances when a work of art undertakes outwardly and formally to produce the laughable – das Lächerliche (it is the widest term available to designate our field of inquiry), then, more than ever, the particular features of social trends become evident. It is true, we could single out grotesque-comical phenomena that seemingly pursue no other goal than entertainment. But the aspiration to “simply make people laugh,” regardless of any social tendencies, is already in itself a social tendency. There is much discussion about artistic periods when laughter had no other purpose than to entertain, but these can and should be explained by Marxist literary history.
The class consciousness of an individual writer or of the masses that create this or that satirical object is always fairly clear; it is much easier in satire to distinguish the threads of social fabric that construct it, than in sentimental or highly emotional lyric poetry, or in an apparently objective epic work.
Very often, guided by certain characteristics of satire, we can learn how to distinguish the specific social tendency that informs works produced in analogous genres.
What immediate theoretical problems does our commission face, and which concrete historical questions have moved to the foreground?
Obviously, we absolutely cannot avoid considering the general question of what laughter is.
As is well known, laughter is innate only to humans. There have been attempts to observe in pets something resembling a smile – Turgenev, in particular, made such attempts – but the word “smile” can only be used here in its allegorical sense. This fact in itself tells us that laughter is not simply a biological phenomenon, accompanied by a particular irritation of the nervous system, rapid exhalation, etc.; laughter supposes, obviously, some other cause, and can only occur at a very high level of development.
I will not attempt to put forward a single theory of laughter, mine or anybody else’s. I will only say that, in my opinion, at the present there is no absolutely satisfactory account.
"Deploying both contemporary and historical theories of the comic, Gérin makes a persuasive case for the continuity of Russian humor culture through the centuries."
"Gérin’s work is theoretically informed but not overburdened, her focus being cultural history and close reading of visual materials. It is in the selection and dissection of such print materials as posters and journals that Gérin truly excels."
Canadian Slavonic Papers, vol 61 no 3
"Gérin reveals that the Bolsheviks understood theories of laughter and sought to shape it for their own purposes. Satire and its laughter, they believed, could destroy the old bourgeois attitudes needed to create new people."
<em>American Historical Review</em>