Lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living

“Boredom is the threshold to great deeds”

As the audience for a high-school comedy that presents detailed debates within Marxism is probably limited to, well, me, I guess The Trotsky is the closest we’re likely to get. And it’s a pretty good film, although of course I am disappointed by the limited engagement with the details of Bolshevik theory within the film. The biggest limitation is that no-one in the film seems to have any conception of anything left of liberalism, union representation and some kind of fuzzy humanitarian conception of “social justice.” Nonetheless, the adding of even the trappings of socialist politics to a high-school film is entertaining, and there are various minor moments in the film that are interesting.

The film concerns a Montreal teenager, Leon Bronstein, who, discovering that he has the same name as Trotsky, comes to the conclusion that he is the reincarnation of Trotsky, which he interprets as meaning that his life will follow Trotsky’s in quite some detail. What’s interesting is how the film shows Leon responding to this destiny: he takes it as an opportunity to throw himself into the role of Trotsky completely, even though, as we see at the beginning of the film, he believes this means he will eventually be assassinated and, as we see at the end of the film, he believes the relationship to which he is at that point completely committed (as a result of fortuitously meeting an older woman with the same name as Trotsky’s first wife) will inevitably end fairly soon.

I was hoping this would be taken as a springboard for a discussion of the role of determinism within Marxism, particularly as this is a particular point of tension within Bolshevik theory. It would have been great if the film had ended with Leon discovering that, as his own historical moment is different from Trotsky’s, his life, even as a reincarnation of Trotsky’s, would necessarily be different, that is, with him discovering that the theory of permanent revolution applied to his own life. Still, the way Leon responds to determinism with activity rather than fatalism is a genuinely charming feature of the character, and I think is part of what makes the performance, which could easily be caricature, quite sympathetic.

The other interesting theme that pops up in a few points in the film is Leon’s defense of boredom.

Wondering whether his fellow students are bored or apathetic, Leon concludes that they are bored, and that this is a good thing: where apathy is a withdrawal from engagement, boredom is engagement in its potential rather than actual state. Here he seems to be channeling not Trotsky but Benjamin:

We are bored when we don’t know what we are waiting for. That we do know, or think we know, is nearly always the expression of our superficiality or inattention. Boredom is the threshold to great deeds.—Now, it would be important to know: What is the dialectical antithesis to boredom? (Arcades, D2,7)

Boredom is a warm gray fabric lined on the inside with the most lustrous and colorful of silks. In this fabric we wrap ourselves when we dream. We are at home then in the arabesques of its lining. But the sleeper looks bored and gray within his sheath. And when he later wakes and wants to tell of what he dreamed, he communicates by and large only this boredom. For who would be able at one stroke to turn the lining of time to the outside? Yet to narrate dreams signifies nothing else. And in no other way can we deal with the arcades—structures in which we relive, as in a dream, the life of our parents and grandparents, as the embryo in the womb relives the life of animals. Existence in these spaces flows then without accent, like the events in dreams. Flânerie is the rhythmics of this slumber. In 1839, a rage for tortoises overcame Paris.  One can well imagine the the elegant set mimicking the pace of this creature more easily in the arcades than on the boulevards. (Arcades, D2a,1)