Killing and Empathy in Early Soviet Culture

Christopher J. Gilman, University of Southern California

This paper takes as its starting point the provocative central claim of Margaret Bourke's 1999 study An Intimate History of Killing: that close-contact killing was and remains the most important act of warfare, that for its participants it is a pleasurable and intimate experience comparable to sex.

Disregarding the appropriateness of this model for the historiography of war in and of itself, especially in the modern era when proportionately few killers actually see their victims, the present study instead focuses on its potential contribution to cultural history. Bourke is discussing close-contact killing as a prototypical or "best-case" act which plays out, ultimately, in recorded narrative and collective memory, rather than on a battlefield. Using a number of interrelated approaches from linguistics and the cognitive sciences, I will focus on this particular "best-case" type of event narrative within a given socio-cultural context, the Soviet Union of the 1920s-30s. By identifying markers of point of view (from Uspenskij (1973), empathy, as understood by Kuno (1987), as well as proto-thematic roles proto-agent, proto-patient (from Dowty (1991)) in relevant verbal and visual narratives of killing, I hope to clarify the cognitive mechanisms by which representations of killing shaped and influenced the minds of its early Soviet spectators. Taking the origins of point-of-view theory in interdisciplinary cultural history, especially Uspenskij's landmark A Poetics of Composition as justification, I have broadened the scope of investigation beyond the normal boundaries of linguistic investigation to include material of artistic and scientific literature, art, cinema and public performance.

In its subject matter, the study makes a comparison between scripted killings, such as summary executions (Babel', Sholoxov), sacrifices (LÈvi-Strauss), bull-fights (Ejzenshtejn, Hemingway), and butchery (Gerasimov), where the outcome is predetermined, and others where the outcome is indeterminate, such as hand-to-hand combat (Erenburg, Ejzenshtejn). Special accounting is made for hypothetical killings which figure prominently as "arbitrary" linguistic examples (such as the farmer kills the duckling, etc.) in the work of Jakobson, Boas, Sapir and others. In each case visual or verbal narratives are examined for traces of empathy (the identifying of oneself with another) or lack thereof, whether it be in the position of the killer, the killed, both, or neither.