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On Aesthetics and Politics: Alisa Ganieva’s The Mountain and the Wall

There’s a facile distinction that’s often drawn between a novel’s aesthetics and its politics, one generally made by those in favor of the former over the latter, as if literature should exist only in some universal, timeless, aesthetic realm and that any political considerations will dilute this Platonic ideal. This argument has a long history, dating at least back to the Aestheticism of nineteenth-century writers like Oscar Wilde and Joris-Karl Huysmans (and also likely well before that), but it’s been dredged up yet again from the dungeon of literary debates as various writers (most recently Bret Easton Ellis) have once more lamented how contemporary novels have become too concerned with politics at the expense of aesthetics. (In his interview with the TLS, Ellis noted that fellow writers Jay McInerney and Mark Danielewski resented The Underground Railroad because they believed it won the Pulitzer “for reasons that were ideological and not aesthetic.”)

But a novel’s politics are of course never truly separate from its aesthetics, something I noticed most recently in Russian writer Alisa Geneva’s debut novel The Mountain and the Wall (published in English in 2015 and translated by Carol Apollonio). Set in Dagestan, one of Russia’s Muslim majority provinces in the Caucasus, The Mountain and the Wall explores issues of Islamic fundamentalism and ethnic tension by imagining a scenario in which the Russain government decides to build a wall dividing Dagestan from the rest of Russia. On the one hand, Ganieva does what any good political novelist does and subsumes her arguments through the lives of individual characters—in particular Shamil, a young reporter who witnesses how rumors of the wall impact the lives of his friends and family in Makhachkala, Dagestan’s capital. But Ganieva is not interested in simply telling a human story with politics as a backdrop. Shamil, after all, is also the name of a real historical figure from Dagestan, Imam Shamil, who in the late-nineteenth century led a resistance movement against Russia expansion and whose legacy is contested by different people within the novel. Thus, it’s clear that Ganieva’s characters are not just individuals but also larger political symbols, whose very names contain complex social commentaries.

The most striking way, however, that Ganieva fuses aesthetics and politics is through the various texts that appear periodically throughout the novel, several of which Shamil finds and reads: there’s a Soviet-era schoolbook that tells a story glorifying modernity and collectivization; there’s an anachronistic love poem about the post-Perestroika period written in an exaggeratedly pastoral style; there’s a romantic novel about Dagestan’s traditional mountain culture; and finally, there’s a political pamphlet written by Islamic fundamentalists. Beyond these texts, there are also long, digressive sections of dialogue between minor characters, such as a series of excessively nationalist speeches by members of one of Dagestan’s ethnic minority groups, or an extended and farcical debate between a Sufi and a Salafi over whether it’s appropriate to twitch a finger during prayer. Each of these inserted texts and digressions has its own distinct aesthetic, and through them Ganieva not only presents differing visions of Dagestan’s history but also makes a political argument about her country’s fragmentation.

Beyond this, The Mountain and the Wall also serves as a metacommentary on the relationship between politics and aesthetics. In an interview she gave with Olivia Capozzalo and Smith Freeman for the She’s in Russia podcast, Ganieva describes how her writing has sometimes been criticized for being too ironic and postmodern. But in fact, it’s this postmodern style, through which she adopts various aesthetics and voices, that allows her to show how every aesthetic, whether its the Soviet schoolbook or the romanticized historical novel or the Islamic fundamentalist pamphlet, carries with it a political subtext.

Ganieva’s forthcoming novel Offended Sensibilities has a similar approach to politics and aesthetics. As she describes in her podcast interview, the novel centers on an unnamed Russian provincial town and explores a controversial law that criminalizes offending the sensibilities of religious believers. “I’m writing,” Ganieva says, “about traditional and absurd models of life being resurrected in our reality, in the 21st century, when gossip, reporting, denouncing each other, and snitching on each other is becoming popular and fashionable again.” An excerpt from the novel, translated by Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler and published in the literary journal Apofenie, demonstrates how once again Ganieva is able to fuse politics and aesthetics, in this case using the aesthetics of a detective novel to satirize the legal system and ideas of patriotism.

Ultimately, the truth is that every aesthetic has its political dimension—even the supposedly-apolitical pure aestheticism, which beneath all its pretensions is really just a form of political conservatism. With his 1884 novel Against Nature, Huysmans imagined he could reject the political style of his nineteenth-century Naturalist contemporaries like Emile Zola and write a work of pure aestheticism—but, a hundred years later, his decadence has become the inspiration for the xenophobic and reactionary politics of French writer Michel Houellebecq, whose Islamophobic novel Submission makes constant reference to Huysman. And so, as writers, we shouldn’t dismiss politics and imagine we can retreat into a realm of pure aesthetic forms but instead should do as Alisa Ganieva does and consciously use aesthetics as a form for our politics.