I thought of this the other night after watching The Last Station. Based on the novel by Jay Parini, the film tells a tale of Leo Tolstoy's latter days, the commune he started, and the clash between his spouse and the Tolstoyan movement.
Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), the leader of the Tolstoyans -- a sort of anarcho-pacifist society -- is the most chaste character in the flick. You get the impression that he's one of the few followers of Tolstoy who actually lives the ascetic side (celibacy, vegetarianism) of Tolstoyan doctrine to the letter.
Giamatti's Chertkov is rigid, humorless, doctrinaire -- and one of the only characters in the film who doesn't get a little (or a lot) on the side. In this, he's more Tolstoyan than Tolstoy (who doesn't himself obey the no-sex rule).
But Chertkov is guilty of one sin: he's against private property -- at least in the form of copyrights. He convinces Tolstoy to sign his work into public domain -- so that, as he puts it, it belongs to the peasants.
This enrages Sofya (Helen Mirren), Tolstoy's spouse, who worries about her family's estate. By contrast to Chertkov, Mirren's character is lusty, earthy and cosmopolitan. Needless to say, she has no truck with the more otherworldly beliefs of her husband or his acolytes.
So the film draws a line in the sand. On one side, the ascetic revolutionary. On the other, the sensualist, in favor or private property -- and Capitalism. The stiff and serious versus the spontaneous and pleasure-loving. Where have we seen this before?
The Ascetic vs. the Aesthetic
Check out this clip from Silk Stockings, the 50s Cold War Musical film, where the same contrast is played to romantic comdedic effect. In it, Fred Astaire serenades the Russian Communist Cyd Charisse:
Also interesting here is the debate about aesthetics. The "decadent bourgeois" Astaire recommends doing something "just for the hell of it" (art about nothing) -- while the Bolshevik Charisse insists on purpose, utility -- meaning! In retrospect, it's not hard to see why "the West" won this particular battle of images.
And (alas), it appears such demarcations were not only the work of propaganda. This is how Slavoj Zizek describes the "absolute classic of literary Stalinism", the Socialist Realist novel How the Steel Was Tempered, by Nikolai Ostrovsky:
"Pavka, a Bolshevik fully engaged first in the Civil War and then, during the 1920s, in the construction of steel mills, ends his life in dirty rags and totally crippled, immobilized, deprived of limbs, thus reduced to an almost nonbodily existence. In such a state, he finally marries a young girl named Taya, making it clear that there will be no sex between them, just companionship, with her function being to take care of him. Here, in a way, we encounter the 'truth' of the Stalinist mythology of the Happy New Man: a dirty, desexualized cripple, sacrificing everything for the construction of Socialism." (p.119)
Aside from the Cold War heritage, the battle over copyrights in The Last Station made me think of more contemporary revolutions. The so-called "Internet Revolution" has, of course, ignited an ongoing struggle between the "information wants to be free" and the "information wants to be expensive" folks.
This fight is probably still too young to have generated its own stereotypes. Yet there are some accounts of web utopias that also seem as suspicious of bodily things as the examples above.
One of the more extreme of such fantasies, according to Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget, involves the possibility of (post?) human immortality. Some "cybernetic totalists" as Lanier dubs them, envision the possibility of uploading memories, and whole minds, into virtual reality, where they could live forever. This, unfortunately, would involve people "dying in the flesh" -- and becoming bodiless in deference to a super machine. (pp. 24-6)
What this heaven shares with the old one, of course, is the fact that few worldly types would want to actually live there.