Burnt by the Sun
15 July 2014
There is a fascinating Russian film titled Burnt by the Sun, which manages to put an interesting spin on the most repressive Stalinist period of Soviet history. The analogy here is that Russian society was “burnt by the sun” of the revolution, which like the summer sun that leaves us burnt, was so brilliant that some were “burned” by its energy. One could consign this to mere apologetics that fails to take the victims of Stalinism seriously, but it is a good film, and a morally serious film, that is not so easily dismissed.
In a literal, rather than a metaphorical sense, I often feel burnt by the sun after one of my touring holidays. At home, I lead a primarily nocturnal life, working mostly at night, and so am little exposed to the sun. It is different on holiday. Sightseeing can be surprisingly hard work if you take it seriously — and I do take it seriously. There is nothing else that has taught me as much as travel. So I push myself pretty hard, walking hour after hour through towns and museums in the heat of the day when such sights are open and available to the public. And I am part of that sightseeing public.
On the flight back to Portland I watched the (relatively recent) film The Grand Budapest Hotel, which centers on the life of a concierge at a famous hotel in a fictional eastern European country. In reciting a litany of the duties of a concierge, the protagonist mentions in passing the acquisition of private showings of art for guests, and I immediately wondered who merits such special access — something I have mentioned before in my book Variations on the Theme of Life:
“A dozen years after I visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, I read Auden’s poem, Musée de Beaux Arts, and realized that I had stood in the same room of Bruegel’s paintings, as have thousands before me and thousands after, from the famous to the unknown. I thought of another room filled with Bruegel’s images, where I have also been, at the Kunsthistorisches in Vienna, where tourists with glazed eyes file past while students take notes, and where, no doubt, royalty and the fabulously wealthy receive private showings outside regular hours — but all in the same space. At any present moment, space is the principle of individuation that separates us, but, once outside the eternal now, time is the principle of separation — between Bruegel and ourselves, between myself and Auden, between those who enjoy private showings and those of us who shuffle through with the masses. Time and tide, it is said, wait for no man, but while time cannot be stopped, it can be managed — our regime of clocks and calendars compartmentalizes us as effectively as any wall, barricade, fence, or velvet rope.”
J. N. Nielsen, Variations on the Theme of Life, section 57
I have shuffled through with the masses because it was that or nothing — Hobson’s choice in the acquisition of the Western tradition. Like the velvet ropes that restrained my access to the Strahov Monastery library that I mentioned in In Praise of Private Libraries — but which were held aside for others with better connections — these symbolic barriers separate us from another life that is denied us.
Just so, for ten days or two weeks a working class individual from the industrialized world can live like the one percent, but then the interval passes and we return to our place and position and society, only because we lack the resources to continue. Coming back can be difficult; in fact, for me it seems to get increasingly difficult. Perhaps for others it is different. But now I sit at my desk, burned by the sun, and daydream of Sardinia.
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