life as understood

by jeff carr, master of the arts, -------------------------------------------------------------------------- presumably from a couch


no place

courtesy of Jeff |

If anything I've learned in grad school that has really sunk in personally, it's this: there truly is a place where my career aspirations are realistic and my specific skills are valued to their fullest extent. Unfortunately, that place no longer exists.

"The writer is the engineer of the human soul."
-Josef Stalin

Among the endless array of reasons that make the Soviet Union a mind-bendingly fascinating place, first and foremost are the ideas and circumstances surrounding its foundation. If you're not a historian, stick with me here. No other revolution, before or since, has been more ideologically driven than the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917. Of course there were everyday, бытовые reasons which paved the way: no bread, death in an unpopular war, idiot tsar followed by indecisive provisional government. But most of all, the Bolsheviks just saw this time as an opportune moment to seize control. Their new experimental nation was supposed to signal both the beginning and the end of history, and the glorious era when injustice would perish, and utopia would finally, finally prevail. (They were all philosophy majors.)

It's funny that in the early days, the Bolsheviks actually used the word "utopia" to describe their bright, socialist future, considering the word's etymology (no place) and the fact that no truly "utopian" society had ever, in human history, survived for a significant period of time. Of course, we know how it all turned out--revolution immediately followed by a bloody civil war, immediately followed by 30 years of history's cruellest mustache, millions of deaths, disillusionment, stagnation, quagmire, and dissolution. The fact remains, however, that behind each major state decision was a vision of paradise.

In this world aspiring to perfection, the artist, and especially the writer, was king. Literature and sloganry were among the most powerful tools employed in order to accomplish whatever the state needed: patriotism, enmity, espousal of new ideas, subjugation. And for better or for worse, the Soviets were incredible at it. Good writers are respected everywhere, but in the USSR, wordsmiths were gods. As quoted above, Stalin called them the "engineers of the human soul," which pronouncement carries hefty connotations. A writer doesn't just interpret the soul or enliven it. He creates it, teaches it how to be a soul. Besides, engineers were important in early Soviet society, and nothing is more precious to a Russian than his soul. If I didn't ruffle too many feathers (or starve), I could have scored a meaningful job in the Soviet Union.

I don't live in the Soviet Union.

My design/marketing class last week was all about storytelling--how to use words, and specifically characters and plotlines, to sell products and persuade people. The professor was lively and convincing. She told how the human brain is wired to remember and learn from stories, not facts or logic. She gave examples from business, as well as support from cognitive psychology and other fields. She didn't have to tell me, though. I already knew. But as I glanced around the room, I beheld a strange and startling sight. My class of 44 students, almost all Stanford MBAs, stared blankly ahead. They didn't get it. They didn't remember the powerful story from the class before--only the numbers that came after. They asked really stupid questions. It was as though their human brains had been re-wired. From the back of the room, I reluctantly lifted my hand time and time again to address the softball, supposedly human, questions because nobody else could.

In this current era of relative material stability, people seek stories more than anything else. They seek to contextualize themselves, to surround themselves with beauty, to feel like protagonists in a narrative that makes sense, and is moving toward a resolution. Literature isn't dead, but magazines, newspapers, literary journals, and other organizations touting the real, but invisible power of words and stories are dying off by the day. The Soviet Union went out of business in 1991. Alas, after all this time, the soul remains unquantifiable.

If my classmates of today are going to be my bosses of tomorrow, I may have some more explaining to do about how a writing background and humanities degrees make me a smart hire. I thought it seemed clear.

3 responses:

Chess said...

Oh dear it's so true. I'm staying with my aunt for a couple weeks, and she's a brilliant woman. She was telling me about her work, etc. etc. but it wasn't until she was telling me about her late husband and how they had met and how that tied into her career that I actually sat up and listened. Now it all makes sense! Well, I hope one day you get a boss (or you're your own boss) that has managed to balance both the facts and the fairytale!

貂蝉 said...

Great post Jeff! I'd hire you. Unfortunately, I've signed up to spend the next ten years as a peon at a NY/DC sweatshop. The position of peon does not include responsibility for personnel decisions.

Audrey said...

If anything, I think all your years in the humanities gives you the skills to talk or write yourself into a meaningful job. The MBAs will need someone to make their companies succeed and resonate with people. It would be nice to be a wordsmith god though.