(All the flowering trees are blooming in New York City: callery pear trees, crabapple trees, eastern redbuds, hawthorns, magnolias, and the knockout kanzan cherry trees, which are so supersaturated and languid a pink that – with the green and dark branches and cement walls – they bring to mind that moment when Marcel helps Albertine take off her coat and, well: “Indeed, overlapping with her grey crepe-de-chine skirt, her grey cheviot jacket made you suppose that Albertine was all in grey. But signaling to me to help her, because her bouffant sleeves needed smoothing down or pulling down for her to get into or out of her jacket, she took the latter off, and since her sleeves were of very soft tartan, pink, pale blue, greeny, dove-colored, it was as if a rainbow has formed in the grey sky.” This Friday will be April’s full moon, called the “pink moon.”)
Everything was there to be experimented with: streetcar routes, child-rearing, life and death, spelling, sleep, calendars, meals, names, Moscow. The whole city was an open question, in a constant state of frantic reinvention. Streetcar stops and furniture moved around with equal alacrity; ceremonies and occupations were invented and discarded. Nothing worked smoothly. Walter Benjamin came to the city in futile pursuit of the director Asja Lacis and a possible new life. Even in maximum sad-sack mode – heartsick, hapless, confused and self-pitying – he never lost his extraordinary power of observation: “I accompanied her home, saddened and silent. The snow that night had the sparkle of stars. (On another occasion, I saw snow crystals on her coat such as probably never occur in Germany.)” And he summed up the city and the moment (the depths of winter, 1926) in a single stroke: “Each thought, each day, each life lies here as on a laboratory table. And as if it were a metal from which an unknown substance is by every means to be extracted, it must endure experimentation to the point of exhaustion.”
Exhaustion: The leaders were sick, sometimes dying, in the mid–1920s, of a phenomenon called “revolutionary exhaustion” – the overload of stress, trauma, paranoia, fear, the relentless grind of “revolution from above.” They were not alone in their “nervous disorders and overexhaustion,” of course, though it was easier to miss in the population at large between typhus, tuberculosis, and malnutrition. As was the spirit of the time, the medical goal in the face of this was never just amelioration of exhaustion and illness – to lower the fever and get more vitamin C – but revolutionary transformation: rejuvenation, immortality. Alexander Bogdanov – early Bolshevik leader, sci-fi author, proto-cybernetic and computational theorist of “tektology” (here he is playing chess with Lenin in Italy in 1909) – saw blood transfusions and exchanges as “physiological collectivism,” a way to share comradely vitality in an act of almost telepathic intimacy. (Among the hardcore communists of his utopian SF novel Red Mars, blood exchange is a crucial social act; Bogdanov himself died of renal and liver failure following a botched exchange with a visiting student in 1928.) Others practiced fountain-of-youth endocrine therapy, with injections of “glandular secretions” and goat hormones and “Steinach” vasectomies to restore energy. “We will remake life anew,” promised Mayakovsky, “right down to the last button of your vest” – and the body beneath it, too.
In Sofia, Bulgaria, unable to reenter Russia, the physicist-biologist Porfirii Bakhmet’ev became curious: how is it that insects do not freeze to death during the winter? How are they able to revive in spring? He discovered and painstakingly documented a state of hibernation into which his moths and butterflies could go, a temperature range where they were seemingly frozen – and capable of remaining so indefinitely – and yet not actually dead, and able to be return to life. He called this state “anabiosis,” not dead nor alive (we now call it, more generally, “cryptobiosis”). Naturally he became curious if mammals, such as humans, could go into an anabiotic state: after all, we can successfully freeze sperm for future use. Many animals can go into a kind of cold metabolic standstill and come back out of it again. And if so, for how long? A season? A decade? A thousand years?
Bakhmet’ev was alight with ideas, and had the ear of the Moscow Refrigeration Institute and a “laboratory of low temperatures.” Could you transport cattle and horses by rail in an anabiotic state, reviving them at their destination, to save on feed, cleaning, and misery? You could ship sturgeon and caviar “live.” If tuberculosis bacteria die at –6°, and a human can be revived from –8°, you could freeze TB victims for perhaps a week and bring them back to life cured. And of course expeditions must be made into the depths of Siberia, to see if creatures have been anabiotically preserved, waiting to be brought back out of the depths of time – that quiet downwasting abyss where Bakhmet’ev all too suddenly joined them, dying in 1913 of (most likely) malaria contracted while in Astrakhan.
It is after the revolution, after the war, that things took a turn. In the bitter winters, the permanent emergency of “war communism,” the prospect seeded by Bakhmet’ev’s work must have been appealing: to be frozen – the right way, for once – and to wake up in some summer hence, when the future has arrived at last. Not many practical experiments could be carried out. Getting kerosene, a tire, some bread, a pair of socks or a deck of cards was hard enough, much less enormous deep-freeze refrigerators and specialized medical equipment. But the idea was everywhere, from popular stories of evil capitalists putting their workforce on ice during downturns, to prevent labor unrest and keep “full employment,” and thawing them when things picked up – all the way to the hushed halls of the Kremlin immediately after Lenin’s death: should we not freeze him? (The embalming faction won that debate, of course.) As Mayakovsky pleads with the scientists in About This, could we not be frozen now and revived in a new age, in the “workshop of human resurrection,” he and Lili both (“she too – / for she loved animals – / will also the / Gardens re-enter …”), gapping the intervening centuries with a long cold sleep? (“Put a heart in me,” he requests, “transfuse blood / to the uttermost vein.”) Going below freezing became the preferred flash-forward dissolve for stories of the future of victory, abundance, and peace.
These were also stories about being dislocated in time, though. “Comrades-in-anabiosis,” the thawed citizens were marooned in history and a world to which they’d become alien (as Bogdanov called himself “a Martian stranded on Earth”), sick with “the disjunction of time” – contemporaries, in other words, of the exhausted revolutionaries, experimenters and endurers of the 1920s. A thousand years in the deep freeze of the Moscow Refrigeration Institute had brought them, shivering, no farther than the barren shores of the present.
Though there’s so much more to this story, so much more to tell – Ettinger, the frozen heads in Arizona, a Norwegian grandfather entombed in a Tuff Shed in Colorado – through it all runs that thread, that feeling: not knowing when you are, only that you’re too soon … or too late.
(With endless thanks to Nikolai Krementsov!)
If My Bloody Valentine wasn’t about sunblind, dazzled ecstasy – music that always feels like falling backwards into clear water – but instead about grief, but was no less addictive and awesome? It would be the new Miserable (aka Kristina Esfandiari) song “Violet,” from her forthcoming album Uncontrollable.
The “Type of Object” dropdown menu from the FBI’s National Stolen Art File search box is the best thing
(Thanks for reading, as ever.)
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