Covering the book launch of Vitaly Malkin's
In late spring my office in Berlin asked if anyone wanted to go to Paris for a book event. I said yes because books concern me, and because my girlfriend lives in Paris. My contact info was passed around until I was finally situated with the assistant of a man called Vitaly Malkin, who had written a book called Dangerous Illusions. I was happily surprised by the theme: religious criticism is a passion of mine. I was further intrigued that his press event for the release was to be held at Le Crazy Horse. Sexy women dancing on stage indeed feels apt to celebrate earthly pleasures in opposition to religious dogma.
I arrived in Paris on a Friday and met with my friend Bella, who had introduced me to my girlfriend Sasha last autumn. The three of us had lunch near Sasha's work, at Canal Saint-Martin. Bella and I then went to the Palais du Tokyo to see some art - a mutual interest of ours. It was closed. We wandered through the adjacent museum instead and talked about life, then had an expensive coffee overlooking the Eiffel tower. It rained. My thoughts meandered between the randomness of life, meaningful connections and attractive strangers.
I spent the weekend with Sasha, mostly in her room. Her flatmate was away and we enjoyed the intimacy that binds us. We also spent sunlit hours in parks and visited with friends. We visited the cemetery. We made photographs. I tried to capture her delicate beauty as well as her silly cuteness, shot hundreds of images. No matter how much I try to distance myself from photography, it remains a part of me.
I did some research on Vitaly Malkin: he's a renown Russian, a man of industry and government, having studied medical technology, made his fortune in banking and served in the Russian Federation Council. He has an Israeli passport. He resides in Monaco. I'd suspect some corruption of the soul or otherwise based on such things, but he seems anything but. He's spent the last several years on a book that dismantles the anti-humanism of organized religions. It's full of art history.
On Monday I checked into a hotel in Paris's 8th arrondissement that Vitaly's assistant had arranged. I'd rather have the cash, but it was nice to feel like a legitimate man of business. I worked in the hotel, which consisted mostly of organizing photos, journaling and cursing the terrible internet connection. After an espresso, I walked to the Crazy Horse night club, somewhat excited.
Vincent Cassel was there, sitting in front of me. I thought of some of my favorite movies, like Black Swan and Irreversible, that amazingly confrontational French film, so painful but fantastic. Vitaly chatted with Vincent; they took photos with some of the attractive women in attendance. I wondered about how everyone knew each other. I think people of esteem have a natural inclination toward each other, like a presumed mutual respect and friendship.
I invited Sasha to join. It was fun to watch it as a couple. It didn't feel smutty at all; the seductive aspects were fun for us to experience together - nicer than sitting there as a single man. Single men have such a bad rep, and for fair enough reason. It's easy for lechery and desperation to loom when desire floats around untethered.
A cute young girl sat next to us, and beside her an older businessman. Just as we thought, the girl was Russian, and Sasha dialogued with her in her native tongue. The place was full of Russians, and also French. A great combination. I felt somehow privileged to be there as an American. Something about international crowds, about the glitter and the lights, the general tawdry, glitzy vibe...
Last summer my parents visited Paris and we went to Moulin Rouge together. (It bordered on appropriateness, I suppose, but I'm not shy about such things, and it's certainly not a crass experience.) My dad has always been a fan of such things: pomp, circumstance, stage revues, women. He raised me as an intellectual, an appreciator of the symphony and the New York Times. But he also had a more basic side: Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendars, a stack of Playboy magazines, VHS pornorgraphy. In a way, Vitaly Malkin reminds me of my dad, and I can see myself in each of them: an affinity for life and the pleasures therein. Are we not men?
Crazy Horse was closed for our private event. Meats and cheeses and champagne were in abundance. The room was full of what you might expect: suits, some casual people (press), sexy ladies - the professional partiers that elevate any such situation. Vitaly gave a little speech, in French. Then the dancers took the stage. I felt special with a good view, able to take pictures. It was titilating but tame, not unlike Moulin Rouge. But that one is closer to Cirque du Soleil, while this one feels more grounded in a strip club tradition. It's burlesque, with an emphasis on light effects and perfect physiques. I thought of the documentarian Fredrick Wiseman, whose 2011 film introduced me to this scene. I felt less excited adolescent, more anthropologist.
On Tuesday I went to Vitaly's mansion on the west side of Paris. I was shown in by a series of assistants, one of whom coincidentally knew Sasha. I was offered a coffee, which I drank from a twee golden teacup. It was served with a prepackaged chocolate and sugar, like at a real cafe. Two Danes were finishing an interview with Vitaly for Vice TV, so I waited for a bit, got on the wifi - the password was written on a special golden card. . It was nearing cocktail hour, so our host poured us some whisky. Then we started talking. I recorded our conversation, if you're interested in hearing it:
My chat with Vitaly was casual, like visiting a friend. One story he told me was from back in the day, about a sexy Russian girl who earned pittance stripping. A rich man approached her and offered her an obscene amount of cash for sex, and she turned it down. "I have a boyfriend," she told him. Vitaly seemed full of awe at this. As if having money could get so boring, so predictable to obtain anything you wanted, that a girl who seemed above money was mind-blowing. It's hard to imagine these days, as I struggle as an obscure artist, what I wouldn't do for vast sums of money. So suppose I agree with him. More to the point, we could agree on this: we want genuine experiences, moments in life outside of traditional transactions. How to best arrange this? How to live in the moment?
I think of religion, of Catholics. You sin in life, naturally, then go into confession: Forgive me father, I did this and this. "Do x hail-marys, you are forgiven". Even the most divine is prescribed, rote, defeated. What exactly is sacred? Why do we give our minds, our bodies to such labyrinthine superstitions?
That night I rode a motorbike through Paris and met Sasha for dinner in the 17th. We had burgers and a bit of a couple's fight about nothing, really. I was a bit stressed about my plans to head back to Berlin. She was annoyed by something.. I forget. We were conscious of the cost of our meal, wondered if we should drink or if that would be frivolous, irresponsible of us. We had sex. We slept. She was still tired in the morning as she went off to work, slightly annoyed by the daily grind. Such is life.
Seven questions for Vitaly Malkin:
K: What do you make of Nietzsche’s quote: “Life is suffering; to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering” ? Your book celebrates human pleasures. But would you agree with philosophers and religious doctrines that take suffering to be a
fundamental aspect of life?
VM: I do not see any contradiction. Suffering is inherent and obligatory part of our life. We all sooner or later go through it! Yes, “life is suffering”! But inherent suffering highlights the beauty of pleasures and reinforce them! Nietzsche meant the necessity of “positive”, secular asceticism - the vital part of the life of those who managed to distinguish themselves in sport, politics, artistic creation… In opposite way, religions imposed on us an senseless asceticism, asceticism without human goal - suffering to please cruel, demanding and envious Gods. Mortification of our only treasure - human life.
K: What is your opinion of marriage? Would you recommend it?
VM: First of all let me remind you that ancient civilizations looked at marriage as the tool of reproduction and assignation of wealth. Maximum 7% of romans, prosperous ones, were married. So, for reasonable people marriage had nothing to do with love and fidelity (those two - pure religious comprehension of marriage). Monogamy - sure, absolutely anti human, idealistic conception! Exists, so, in natural and healthy way when people are in love. Monogamy without love - crime against yourself and humanity in general! My recommendation? Better listen not to my recommendation, a simple human being, but to recommendation of recognized genius ( Socrates): “Marry, and you will regret it; don’t marry, you will also regret it; marry or don’t marry, you will regret it either way”.
K: Do you have any thoughts on the “new atheism” movement, or about its specific thinkers: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens?
VM: I do not like the word “atheism” - why we call so the presence of sound sense and the quest for proofs? Out of those three names I prefer Sam Harris. And I like the sense of humor and the bile of Hitchens. I would not call them “specific thinkers”- they are nothing more than educated people who had courage to open their mouthes: rational way of thinking is an evidence, let’s call it “mental need” in analogy for “physical needs” (eat, drink, piss…).
K: Are all religions equally bad, or are some beliefs/institutions worse than others?
VM: They swap places: a thousand years ago, in the time of the Crusades, Christianity was worse, Now - Islam. This comparison is not important, will not help us. We need to realize that our civilization is in mortal danger and we do not have any other choice as defend it right now. Sure, fighting against political Islam, against terrorism, we simultaneously destroy the notion of faith in general and the Christianity. So what?
K: What about religion is most detestable? For instance, do you abhor belief in superstition more, or the tyranny of institutional power?
VM: Who cares about superstition? It presents much less danger than romantic perception of the world! Tyranny? A lot of tyrannies that had and have nothing to do with religions! I have given the answer in my book. For me the most detestable is submission and interference in our basic needs, furious attack on our pleasures.
K: Can you offer any thoughts on the current political climate of Putin’s Russia? What role does religion play? (I’m thinking of the anti-homosexuality sentiment there, especially in a place like Chechnya.)
VM: Homosexuality: nobody suppresses it in central, mainstream Russia, God forbid! Religion, to my opinion, plays in today’s Russia much more substantial role than it deserves. I am afraid that this process will get out of control. Political climate: do not over evaluate opposition to Putin: the absolute majority of population support him, they do not care about some limits imposed on the press and so on. Why? Because of stability, patriotism, new infrastructure, Olympic Games in 2014 and World Cup in 2018.
K: What advice do you have for young men who believe in nothing?
VM: I never met people who believe in nothing. The belief in themselves is also sufficient. "Do not judge and you will not be judged!"
K: Which team do you cheer for in the World Cup?
VM: Which plays better. I only support, as Nietzsche, the best! Race, nationality, country -does not matter. Today - Germany, for sure. And Uruguay also - they play very efficiently.