Bouncing off a theme from Kurt Newman in his recent post about Bob Dylan and the Old and New Left, I’ve been thinking about two pieces of writing lately, E.L. Doctorow’s stunning novel The Book of Daniel (1971), and Alain Badiou’s idea of “the passion for the real” in his short work The Century (2007).
The Book of Daniel is a fictional account of the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and the fallout from it, especially its effect on their children. Doctorow names the condemned couple Paul and Rochelle Isaacson. Their children are Susan and Daniel. The novel is fractured, jumping around between periods in time, from before the Isaacson’s arrest on conspiracy to commit treason, to the trial and its immediate aftermath, to years later in 1967 when the New Left and the counterculture had reached national notoriety. Daniel and Susan, because of the infamy of their parents, encounter New and Old Left in ways that collapse the two into certain common tendencies of the radical imagination. After moving around from relatives and then to an orphanage, the children are eventually adopted by a liberal couple named the Lewins. Susan and Daniel have taken adoptive parents’ names and live in anonymity, haunted by their birth parents’ infamous death at the hands of the American state.
Daniel, the character from whose perspective the novel primarily appears, also happens to be a graduate student studying history at Columbia. He is writing an idiosyncratic history of his family and the Old Left. One of the novel’s conceits is that the text, “The Book of Daniel” is his doctoral dissertation. (It’s as if Daniel were writing in the genre of the New Journalism or something.) The reader gets certain glimmers of formal historical writing, but mostly as flashes of insight amid attempts to explain what befell his parents and more immediately, his sister Susan. The formal historical analysis interrupts the narrative here and there, appearing as fragments.
Both children have been damaged by their parents’ death, but each take different paths. Susan, who was the younger of the two, and whose memories are far more fragmentary than those of her brother, is a full-throated supporter of the Isaacsons, believing them innocent. With a trust established by the Old Left supporters of her parents, she tries to start an organization dedicated to revolutionary causes in their names. Daniel, who remembers much more about his parents, is less sanguine about Susan’s cause, and the two split ways over it. A central crisis in the novel comes when Susan tries get support for her idea from a countercultural figure named Artie Sternlicht (a kind of Abbie Hoffman/Jerry Rubin type) and he rejects her out of hand. She then drowns in despair. The New Left has no need for the Old and the martyrdom of her parents. She attempts suicide, and dies slowly in a mental institution, refusing to live. As she lingers, Daniel attempts to understand his birthright and the conditions that led Susan to choose death.
With Badiou’s help, the novel might also be read as a story of show trials and their meaning. In the form of a question: why were the Isaacsons put to death, and more importantly, why, at that particular moment, was their death an example of what Badiou calls the twentieth century’s “passion for the real?” This passion for the real is the basic subjectivity of the twentieth century, the way the century thought itself. It involves a “non-dialectical” interplay between rupture in the form of novelty and the need for definitive endings, between will and necessity. Certain forms of artistic representation or certain conceptual moves in “pure” mathematics and the sciences evidence it, so do ideologies in the twentieth century. Badiou describes ideology as:
a discursive figure whereby the representation of social relations is effectuated, an imaginary montage that nevertheless re-presents a real. In this sense there is indeed something almost theatrical about ideology. Ideology stages figures of representation that mask the primordial violence of social relations (exploitation, oppression, anti-egalitarian cynicism)…ideology organizes a consciousness separated from the real that it nevertheless expresses…The very concept of ideology is the crystallization of the “scientific” certainty whereby representations and discourses must be read as masks of the real that they both denote and conceal…representation is a symptom (to be read or deciphered) of a real that it subjectively localizes in the guise of misrecognition. The power of ideology is nothing other than this power of the real inasmuch as the latter is conveyed by this misrecognition (48-9).
Theater and the theatrical is very important here, because ideology works like theater. Consider any kind of ideological analysis of “the system” or the like. There is some “primordial violence” in social relations that capitalism masks. To unmask is to stage the masks, to represent its workings as say, “false consciousness”—its semblances. For Badiou, this same tendency happens in avant garde art—it “wants to exhibit its own process…visibly idealize its own materiality” (50). The avant garde theater’s concern with mise en scene is critical here because the setting, everything around the story conveyed, emphatically stages semblances. What appears on its face to be a play of masks or contrivances, by bringing the technique to the fore, only exposes further the passion for the real.
From that vantage point, Badiou asks a disarmingly direct and even obvious question about the Moscow show trials under Stalin in 1936 and 1938. If the trials are understood along the general pattern of Stalin’s purges, then why was the public show necessary? Why not kill the main figures like so many countless others who had been put to death and then consigned to bureaucratic oblivion? He writes:
After all, in these trials it is purely and simply a matter of killing people, of liquidating a significant part of the communist establishment. We are in the realm of pure, real violence. The Bolshevik Old Guard, as it was called by Trotsky (its supposed linchpin and himself the victim of assassination) must be annihilated.
Why then stage trials in which pre-designated and most often resigned victims will be forced to recount utterly far-fetched things? Who would ever believe that throughout their whole lives people like Zinoviev and Bukharin were Japanese spies, Hitler’s puppets, hirelings of the counter-revolution and so forth? What is the point of this gigantic sham? Of course, rational hypotheses can be formulated about the need, in Stalin’s eyes, to eliminate all these people. But it is far more difficult to establish the necessity of the trials, especially since a large number of high-ranking officials, particularly among the military, were eliminated in the basements of the secret service without the slightest public performance. For these trials are pure theatrical fictions. The accused themselves, who had been carefully prepared, by torture if necessary, had to conform to a role whose performance had been rehearsed and pretty much scripted in the punitive corridors of the regime. In this regard it is very instructive to read the transcript of Bukharin’s trial, in which a significant slip momentarily unsettled the entire mise en scene, as though the real of semblance had come to perturb its functioning (52).
Badiou’s interpretation here gets him to a central question: “What is the function of semblance in the passion for the real, this passion that places politics beyond Good and Evil?” (52)
It follows that “the passion for the real is also, of necessity, suspicion” (52). This is so because at bottom, the real, “conceived in its contingent absoluteness” can never be real enough not to suspected of being merely semblance. So why stage show trials that on their face don’t seem necessary? They are necessary because the real must be pursued at all costs:
All the subjective categories of revolutionary, or absolute politics—“conviction.” “loyalty,” “virtue,” “class position,” “obeying the Party,” “revolutionary zeal,” and so on—are tainted by the suspicion that the supposedly real point of the category is actually nothing but semblance. Therefore, the correlation between a category and its referent must always be publically purged, purified. This means purging the subjects among those who lay claim to the category in question, that is, purging the revolutionary personnel itself. Furthermore, this must be carried out in accordance with a ritual that teaches everyone a lesson about the uncertainties of the real. Purging is one of the great slogans of the century. Stalin said it loud and clear: “A party becomes stronger by purging itself.” (53)
As part of his Columbia thesis, Daniel Lewin echoes some of these conclusions:
Bukharin provided the most interesting defense of the Purge Trial of 1938. He pleaded guilty and went out of his way on several occasions to affirm his responsibility for the sum total of crimes committed by the defendant block of “rightists and Trotskyites,” of which he was considered a leader. He vehemently agreed that he was guilty of conspiracy, treason, and counterrevolution. And having agreed, he took exception during the trial to every specific charge brought against him. Under duress to testify on cue, he nevertheless contrived to indicate with the peculiar kind of overtone characteristic of Soviet voices under Stalin, that he and Russia as well were being victimized. And what good did it do him except that he became a hero in a novel and an image of sorrowful nobility to Sovietologists (53).
Unlike Badiou, Daniel entertains rational explanations for the trials, dutifully citing other historians to the effect that Stalin needed to purge the party to complete a transition to revolutionary nationalism, to either prepare Russia for its pact with Hitler, or prepare it for war with the Nazis. The last explanation makes little sense to Daniel seeing how Stalin eliminated high-ranking military officials too.
So what is this fragment doing there? Doctorow and with him Daniel Lewin (Isaacson) know well enough that his parent’s trial was not like the Stalinist purges, yet the reader now has to imagine the analogy or consider the underlying logic that connects them. In a similar way, Badiou’s questions about the Moscow Trials do conceptual work that further distills the subjectivity of the century. He doesn’t mean to make a sui generis case about totalitarianism and its horrors. He means for the idea to run deeper than that.
So Badiou asks why the Moscow show trial was needed when murder was obviously the ultimate aim. A central feature of the twentieth century, in his view, is the unreconciled “non-dialectical” relation between total novelty and the definitive end. This is the source of its horrors. A definitive ending to war meant better war that would end all wars. The creation of a “new man” meant the destruction of the old, treating human beings as mere material to be discarded. Stalin certainly meant to destroy the old and bring on the new, but the passion for the real meant that the show had to go on too.
In the Isaacsons’ case, Daniel asks not only why their trial was necessary, but why their deaths were necessary. The Isaacsons were allowed to mount a defense, but it was futile and the outcome was never really in doubt, yet at bottom the American state of the Cold War was certainly not the Soviet state of the 1930s. The U.S. government didn’t systematically and on the order of thousands simply disappear human beings. It ruined lives, but it didn’t efface them from the historical record, or force people to obey a prearranged script in public. Is Doctorow’s staging of the Isaacson’s trial another example of Badiou’s passion for the real? The book was published in 1971, so Doctorow wrote it during the active years of the New Left. For that reason alone it should fall within the parameters of Badiou’s century.
Later in the novel there’s a brief shift in voice where Paul Isaacson speaks rather than Daniel. In keeping with the conceit, actually Daniel ventriloquizes his dead father to recreate the past—it’s unclear. Paul/Daniel thinks, “When the ruling class inflicts death upon those they fear they discover that death itself can live. It is a paradox. Ma Ludlow is alive. Joe Hill is alive. Crispus Attucks is alive. Even Leo Frank, why do I think of Frank swinging from a tree in Georgia, but all right, Frank. The two Italians speak and stir and smile and raise their fists in the mind of history. I am their comrade, they talk to me, Sacco makes his statement to me” (183-4).
This voice of ideology (Paul/Daniel) continues to consider how trials work, their function:
Law, in whatever name, protects privilege. I speak of the law of any state that has not achieved socialism. The sole authority of the law is in its capacity to enforce itself. That capacity expresses itself in Trial. There could be no law without trial. Trial is the point of the law. And punishment is the point of the trial—you can’t try someone unless you assume the power to punish him. All the corruption and hypocritical self-service of the law is brought to the point of the point in the verdict of the court. It is a sharp point, an unbelievably sharp point. But there is fascination for the race in the agony of the condemned. That is a law, a real law, that rulers can never overcome—it is fixed and immutable as a law of physics.
Therefore the radical wastes his opportunity if he seriously considers the issues of his trial. If he is found guilty it is the ruling power’s decision that he cannot be tolerated. If he is found innocent it is the ruling power’s decision that he need not be feared. The radical must not argue his innocence, for the trial is not of his making; he must argue his ideas (184).
The voice of the ideologue here shows pretty clearly the passion for the real in the American Old Left, representing the montage of semblances at the center of the law, its “corruption” and “hypocritical self service.” Paul/Daniel reveals its masks in order to purify it at “the point of the point.” The agony of the condemned further purifies on the order of pure science, as “fixed and immutable as a law of physics.”
But if we follow Badiou’s argument, the American state should also have had a passion for the real when it put the Isaacsons on trial. This is why Doctorow has Daniel repeat in fragmentary form, the historical reading of Bukharin’s 1938 Trial. Daniel means to establish some equivalence between the two at a deeper conceptual level. He comes to believe that his parents never really had a chance at trial. They were prosecuted under conspiracy to commit espionage, so only evidence of a conspiracy was needed rather hard documentary evidence. While his parents could not be tried for treason since the United States was not officially at war with the Soviet Union, his mother Rochelle for one, recognizes that the state intends to put them to death. She makes a list of the prosecution’s uses of forms of the word treason for her lawyer: “traitors traitorous treacherous treasonous betrayal treachery…” and Daniel interprets it: “Implications of treason are fed like cubes of sugar to the twelve-headed animal which is Justice” (201).
It was a “show trial” to be sure, but the Isaacsons made a miscalculation. Had they done what the chief witness for the prosecution had done—a character name Selig Mindish (the David Greenglass stand-in)—and named more names to continue the cycle, then they might have emerged alive and the purge could have continued. The need for suspicion in the passion for the real had to be satisfied.
But how, following Badiou, was this trial a ritual designed to train people in the uncertainty of the real? In an attempt to get at the moral tenor of the Old Left, its symbols and icons, Doctorow has Daniel repeat an old refrain amidst a depiction of a party rally in the 1930s, “COMMUNISM IS THE TWENTIETH CENTURY AMERICANISM!” (194) The Isaacson’s trial was meant to show the uncertainty of this slogan, to purge that particular “category from its referent” to use Badiou’s language. The communists had to be purged to purify Americanism, but Americanism was always radically uncertain. The American case was fascinating because the state widened suspicion to liquidate the Old Left. It inverts Badiou’s reading of the Soviet case somewhat, where the Stalinist state murdered “counterrevolutionary” elements while the show trials’ fictions satisfied the passion for the real’s appetite for suspicion about the real.
The refusal of the Isaacsons to name a wider conspiracy in effect made them master criminals in the eyes of the state and in the gaze of a historical moment that demanded scapegoats. They fit the bill for any number of reasons. They were Jewish Communists first and foremost. That they were also relatively obscure, poor Jewish Communists only accomplished the aims of the state, to make clear that the enemy lived among all the rest, thus feeding the suspicion and with it the passion for the real.
Paul and Rochelle refused the show and so they had to die. They chose death and martyrdom and became historically significant. Had either turned on the other or had one decided to shoulder the blame entirely, then at least one parent might have survived to raise the children. Daniel is haunted by this idea that both parents, by refusing to betray their principles, orphaned their children. He’s also angry at the state that executed them. This is the conceptual space of the novel, between the distance created by historical infamy and heroism and the intimacy of a family destroyed by the state and by the radical imagination. Daniel’s sister Susan’s choice to die is a revolutionary act meant to underscore the obsolescence of her parent’s martyrdom. Having written them all off not unlike Stalin’s erasure of so many from the record, she dies in obscurity.
I’ll finish with something from a nonfiction essay Doctorow wrote a few years after The Book of Daniel.
“Consider those occasions–criminal trials in courts of law–when society arranges with all its investigative apparatus to apprehend factual reality. Using the tested rules of evidence and the accrued wisdom of our system of laws we determine the guilt or innocence of defendants and come to judgment. Yet the most important trials in our history, those which reverberate in our lives and have the most meaning for our future, are those in which the judgment is called into question: Scopes, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Rosenbergs. Facts are buried, exhumed, deposed, contradicted, recanted. There is a decision by the jury and, when the historical and prejudicial context of the decision is examined, a subsequent judgment by history. And the trial shimmers forever with just that perplexing ambiguity characteristic of a true novel…”
Doctorow suggests that our passion for the real reveals itself in fictions, whether in show trials or novels. At the very least, it’s an interesting way to read the American century.
 Doctorow, E.L. ‘False Documents’. Essays and Conversations. Ed. Richard Trenner, New York: Ontario Review, 1983. 23.