Ethics and Aesthetics in Isaak Babel''s Red Cavalry: A View though Theodor Adorno's "Commitment"

Dunja Popovic, Princeton University

Isaak Babel''s 1926 collection of short stories Red Cavalry is well known for including extremely chilling accounts of physical violence and cruelty. The fact that these descriptions are hardly ever accompanied by an outright moral condemnation has led to accusations that Babel' was "too concerned with artistic effects to bother about philosophic content or social commentary" (Norman Davies) and that he is "a brilliant stylist," but "lacking in moral seriousness" (R.W. Hallet). Such evaluations of Red Cavalry subscribe to a commonplace view that ethics and aesthetics are opposed to each other. Basing my argument on Theodor Adorno's 1962 essay "Commitment," I will propose that ethics and aesthetics are actually fused in this collection of stories. As Adorno argues for the works of Beckett and Kafka, I will attempt to show that Red Cavalry, in communicating the experience of violence on a formal, aesthetic level, is in fact a more ethical than "committed" works of art, containing open moral condemnations of brutality. "Committed" art wraps accounts of violence into a conventional narrative padded with commonplace outpourings of moral outrage, thus "transfiguring" the violence—i.e. aestheticizing it in a way that seeks to make it comprehensible and assimilate it into a cultural heritage. "Committed" art thus glosses over the incomprehensible horror the victims experienced. Babel', on the other hand, avoids "transfiguration" of violence. I will examine three techniques Babel' uses to represent violence without "transfiguring" it and to induce horror and anxiety in the reader: the grotesque mixing of stylistic elements and overturning of the hierarchy of logical categories; aestheticization of violence that is so hyperbolic that it becomes shocking, resulting in a "transfiguration" that undoes itself; and the displacement of the affect one would expect to accompany descriptions of violence. The first two techniques produce anxiety in relation to the text. By means of the third, Babel' inscribes within the formal aspects of the text the experience of the victim's trauma: he arouses horror in the face of the event in a manner that avoids characterizing it directly and in this way acknowledges its unintelligibility. If some readers find Babel' lacking in moral seriousness, they miss one main point of his artistic project: to subvert the kind of literature that makes us complacent in the face of brutality.