I remember, when I took a film course as an undergraduate, studying with a professor named Don Kerr. When we watched The Birth of a Nation he read to us from the local newspaper in Saskatoon, an article dating back to the film’s release there. I still recall the amusement shared by all when the author claimed that henceforth, people could not longer criticize films for the decline in morality — “Films like this one can educate!” the article claimed — and that demon liquor was to blame. Huh? Social ills coming from either booze of movies? At a remove of several generations, it was clear to us that great evil could come of films, but not just the fun and entertaining kind: the racism that was inherent in The Birth of a Nation was as staggering to us as the fact that, as our professor pointed out, this racism was commonly tolerated in thee city. (He noted that in the phone directory for that year, the Ku Klux Klan actually had a Saskatoon contact number listed, directly after the Kiwanis Club.)
The reason I bring this up is not because we watched several Russian films in that course, but because of the discussion of history and its depiction that ensued for the hour following my professor’s reading this article to us. Depiction is a slippery enough thing in fiction: in the writing of history, it is even more complex, challenging, and even dangerous.
The cover of the book shows that Rick Geary, too, is aware of this. Indeed, the images on the cover, taken from the first few pages of the book, show Trotsky as others saw him: as a sort of St. George slaying the top-hat-wearing “dragon of capitalist repression.” The following picture is of Trotsky as a kind of devil figure, horned and sitting upon a bone-pile, “the ruthless and Satanic purveyor of bloody rebellion, the cold, detached theorist gone mad with power.” Geary’s following lines are the telling ones: “In truth, he fitted neither of these images. He was a writer, a thinker, and a nation builder — albeit a reluctant one — with deep roots in his Russia’s agricultural heartland.” This, then, is the “real” Trotsky.
A slippery thing, the “real Trotsky”: Geary’s list of texts for “further reading” includes six authors, one of them Trotsky himself. Doubtless those authors are good authorities on Trotsky. Yet one cannot help but wonder how much the text of Geary’s book actually represents the “real Trotsky.” Now, I am not one of those sorts of people who are convinced that to talk of the “real Trotsky” or the “real Wyndham Lewis” or the “real Ezra Pound” or indeed the “real Gord Sellar” is to talk of airy nothingness. Some will insist there is no “reality” to any of those figures, except in context and in whatever roles they happen to be playing in a social sense. I think there is such a thing as real persons, and while authenticity is a complex issue, we I’ve found that the brightest people around me can, like me, immediately sense when someone is being inauthentic and, like me, they tend to react negatively to it.
When we are discussing historical figures, of course, the problem is a little more complex: Trotsky and most everyone he knew is now dead. Trotsky no longer exists, and we cannot compare depictions of him — depictions filtered through individuals’ perceptions, filtered through individuals’ politics, and filtered through individuals’ feelings about the world in general.
In the light of this, I much appreciated Geary’s unspoken attempt to remain neutral much of the time. When, for example, Tortsky’s wife was arrested and Trotsky fled to hide out in Finland for six months, only to return when the revolution of 1905 was in full swing, Geary makes no excuses, but also issues no condemnations. We are left wondering what his contemporaries, and indeed his wife, would have thought of this, but Geary leaves it for us to wonder. While the author does, of necessity, tell us the story somewhat from the point of view of Trotsky — comments like, “Trotsky later described this as…” or “Trotsky would later say that…” about crucial moments in his life — he also often uses quotations when he puts words into Trotsky’s mouth, and even cleverly uses his approach to depiction to avoid lending misleading inferences to the images he uses to tell Trotsky’s story. (See, for example, the image of Trotsky reunited with Natalia after her imprisonment, on page 33: their backs are turned to the reader, and instead of dialog simple facts are narrated about her release are narrated.)
Of course, a story cannot be told completely in this way, or in the space of a hundred pages, it will grow plain unreadable. There are villains in this tale: as anyone who knows anything of Trotsky’s life would imagine, Stalin is one of them, and some of the depictions of Stalin — like the one on page 84, with his back turned to the reader, but his face still visible, what looks like an evil smile hidden by his moustache and shoulder, as he looks back over his shoulder at Trotsky (and the reader) with a giant knife in his hand, a thumb caressing the blade. This is pure silent film villainy, and one can almost hear the piano music in the background when gazing upon this image. Far be it from me to object to the any such depiction of Stalin, of course: it is widely agreed that the man was a literal monster, in what he did to his nation. But it still pays to be aware of the techniques of depiction being used, the kinds of narrative they engender, and so on. Stalin was Trotsky’s rival. Stalin looking like a silent film villain, by the logic of silent films, implies that Trotsky is Stalin’s inverse, the hero of the tale. Well, and we are each the heroes and heroines of our own lives, but history is not a silent film. It is easily possible that Trotsky was less a hero, and less the inverse of Stalin, than the image suggests. (We cannot know what Trotsky might have done had he ended up in the position Stalin eventually took, can we?)
This is not to criticize Geary — I point out these issues not to discredit his book, but because it is of interest to see what a difficult task he faced in writing and drawing it: too much absolute neutrality, and the book would have been not only impossible to draw, but also quite unbearable to read. On the other hand, too little neutrality and the book would have become a useless hagiography. There are times when Geary seems to be quite impressed with Trotsky, and seems to want his readers to be as well — “In service to the revolution, his energy was limitless,” Geary writes on page 55, paraphrasing Trotsky’s own recollection of his “hidden reserve of nervous energy” that kept him going through the “whirl of mass meetings” (all page 55) — but then, he was impressed enough by Trotsky to take on a book-length project about the man’s life, and the hero of that book necessarily must be Trotsky himself. I think he does an admirable job of balancing the need to tell a story, and the task of depicting history fairly, in the end.
On a less analytical note, this book reminded me of the Value Tales books I read during my own childhood. Remember those? The illustrated kids’ books that told the story of one historical figure, usually accompanied by a cute animal or object sidekick? Harriet Tubman, Ben Franklin, Florence Nightingale… eachh character’s life was narrated, and then analyzed, the the character finally being held up as an exemplar of a specific value: courage, patience, dedication, sacrifice, imagination, and so on. It’s been so long I barely recall them, but I do wonder what I’d see if I set the same analytical eye on those books that I have on this one. I suspect the liberties taken were far broader, and that respect for the ambiguities and problems of these historical figures’ lives was much less than what we see in Geary’s book. In any case, Hill and Wang (the publisher of Geary’s Graphic Biography) seem to be taking on some of the characters that the Value Tales might not have handled so well, like Trotsky and Malcolm X. Maybe these are the Value Tales of the 21st century, and of teenagers and adults alike?
As for me, I think sometime I may check out the Malcolm X book. Maybe not soon… these little books are pricey, as enjoyable as they might be. But sometime.