That is a really portentous title to what is a thin little complaint about a moment in an otherwise exciting and fascinating essay on Osip Mandelstam in the New York Review of Books by Jose Manuel Prieto and a similar moment in Marjane Satrapi’s film version of Persepolis. Prieto discusses Mandelstam’s fatal poem Epigram against Stalin in which the poet condemns the dictator and the regime for both its crimes and its mediocrity. This line in particular stood out for me: “Amid a rabble of scrawny necked chieftains, he toys with the favors of such homunculi.” (Translated by Esther Allen from the Spanish translation by Jose Manuel Prieto). Prieto interprets this line as being about the kinds of leaders generated by the Stalinist regime - playthings of the dictator - but also somehow unworthy of being high up in the regime.
In Persepolis, the film - I can’t remember if its in the graphic novel - one of Satrapi’s family members is trying to arrange to fly a very ill uncle to a hospital in Europe or the US perhaps. The family needs to get a certificate of permission or some other official document from a hospital administrator. The administrator is recently appointed as part of the revolutionary regime’s installation of new leaders. It turns out that the administrator was once the gardener to the family (or occupied some similar occupation). The family member who is narrating this event describes dealing with this man as humiliating and blames the man’s lack of credentials as one of the reasons the uncle dies.
All this is true of course - Stalin surrounded himself by thuggish toadies who themselves were always hanging by a thread. The revolutionary regime in Iran may very well have promoted or appointed “unqualified” people to positions of responsibility and which led to accidental or otherwise unnecessary death.
But what is lost in these complaints of Mandelstam or Satrapi’s filmic family is that these regimes were trying to create whole new worlds. And, that the very class status possessed by Mandelstam or, again, the broader Satrapi family was part of an old world in process of being swept away.
I’m not defending such a sweeping away (not least because I would be swept away with them), but I am pointing out the kind of blindness possessed by Mandelstam (according to Manuel Prieto) and the Satrapis that can’t help but see the old criteria and credentials despite the radical transformation that has brought in the new.