Sense and meaning are the two pillars on which Western civilisation and discourse are built. No matter the depths of despair or heights of euphoria onto which history may push us, the first reflex we have is to make sense of them. Rationalisation is one of the pitfalls of this passion as is the fact of calling anyone who does not fit our sense of meaning, mad.
In the past few months Western leaders and pundits, newspaper readers and even writers of chronicles with a twist, have been puzzled about the seeming senselessness of President Putin’s behaviour regarding Ukraine. What is he on about this Putin, what SENSE can we make of his actions? Can he not see that sanctions and low oil prices are running his country into the ground? Is he not afraid of eroding domestic support for his dismal policies? What is the MEANING of his double speak, on one side sticking like glue to the language of international law and treaties in the morning, and on the other, thrashing in the evening the very principles he upholds in front of cameras? He is mad!!!!
Such questions are at the heart of efforts to negotiate peace in Ukraine, which is the scene to a very peculiar kind of theatre of war: Soviet propaganda meets “going to the people” meets hybrid tactics in the field meets manipulation of information on Internet.
What if, only for a moment, we willingly suspended our search for sense and meaning, that is, the way we think of them, as constructive outcomes, and at least a plan for peace and the improvement of the situation for everyone, and recognised the current Russian tactics for what they are: an endless string of moments meant to preserve a present situation, with no end and no future in sight. Currently, the Russian President and his camarilla are at the height of power – shabby and dwindling as its foundations may be – this is a timeless power, much like Vladimir Putin’s face, which for the past 10 years seems to have taken no wrinkles and no blows.
Walter Benjamin said: “fascist regimes are advertising regimes”. Publicity and advertising are the realm of the present par excellence, and what Russia has been serving the world lately is the most exciting ads on the market; with every shot and turn we hold our breath, wondering how we shall be outwitted this time, our attention diffused and distracted by the puppet master. The seeming inevitability of it all obscures even the horror of the growing number of deaths, its direct consequence.
As long as the Western gaze remains trapped in this manner, negotiators will not be able to introduce the key element that could bring things, slowly, to a halt: time. Time is introduced in a conversation only when we look past immediate gestures, and past immediate outcomes. When we start asking “what is the project pursued”? and we are not satisfied with circumstantial answers or the answers that “make sense”.
Perhaps, as others have done recently in order to try to understand Vladimir Putin, we can turn to Dostoyevsky for a clue on a classic Russian take on this: Here is an exchange between the Karamazov brothers;
“I understand too well, Ivan. One longs to love with one’s inside, with one’s stomach. You said that so well and I am awfully glad that you have such a longing for life,” cried Alyosha. “I think everyone should love life above everything in the world.” “Love life more than the meaning of it?” “Certainly, love it, regardless of logic as you say, it must be regardless of logic, and it’s only then one will understand the meaning of it. I have thought so a long time. Half your work is done, Ivan, you love life, now you’ve only to try to do the second half and you are saved.”