A while back when reading the new translation of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic, I made mental notes about the way the Brothers Strugatsky had the whole apparatus of Soviet censorship to push against when trying to get their work done. They avoided some of the worst axe blades falling on their necks, in big part because science fiction was considered far less potentially subversive than other kinds of writing, but they still had their work nitpicked to pieces in some of the most inexplicable ways. (The new translations of their work undo the damage, and include some entrancing discussion of what was cut and why.)
At one point I entertained the idea that it was these constraints that made their work so interesting. Because they had more to push against — ideologically, intellectually, what have you — than their Western counterparts, they accomplished more. When constraints exist in freer societies, the ways they are defied are often jejeune and juvenile, contrarian instead of constructive.
So went the argument, although by the time I finished turning it over in my head, I realized it was essentially a romanticizing argument. The point of the Strugatskys doing the best they can despite the conditions around them is not that we need to be crushed in order to be inspired to do great things. Aside from being factually wrong, it inspires the wrong plan of action. Beating the kids to give them discipline is like shouting at the tomatoes on a vine "Ripen, already!"
... there is a distinction here that needs to be drawn, between the courage of a man who chooses to face hardship for a good purpose, and the courage of a man who is simply doing the best he can, under the circumstances.
Wilfrid Sheed, an American novelist who is crippled by polio, once discussed this distinction in a Newsweek essay. He is sick and tired, he wrote, of being praised for his "courage," when he did not choose to contract polio and has little choice but to deal with his handicaps as well as he can. True courage, he suggests, requires a degree of choice.
The Strugatskys did not choose to be born in Soviet Russia, but they most definitely chose to write SF. Speculations about whether they could have emigrated to write more freely are pointless, and more than a little mean. They wrote to reach the audience they felt they could reach best, their own native audience, and they did it to maybe get that audience to see things a little less inflexibly.
Discipline does indeed create things that didn't exist without it. I wrote this blog post in about an hour, and I told myself I had an hour to put it together and get it out there. That's a large part of why this post exists at all. But look at the discipline in question: it's self-imposed. The best discipline is the kind you choose for yourself, impose on yourself, and set an example for the use of — not the kind you inveigle others to receive from you, or which you make it your mission to inflict on others.
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