For people he had an open, undisguised contempt–for everyone. Never under any circumstances did he count upon anybody, and I do not remember that he ever applied to any one with any considerable request. He himself did nothing for any one. In his relations with outsiders he demanded one thing only, the observance of the proprieties; les apparences, les convenances made up the whole of his moral religion. He was ready to forgive much, or rather to overlook it, but breaches of good form and good manners put him beside himself, and in such case he was without any tolerance, without the slightest indulgence or compassion. I was rebellious so long against this injustice that at last I understood it. He was convinced beforehand that every man is capable of any evil act; and that, if he does not commit it, it is either that he has no need to, or that the opportunity does not present itself; in the disregard of formalities he saw a personal affront, a disrespect to himself; or a ‘plebeian education,’ which in his opinion excluded a man from all human society.
‘The soul of man,’ he used to say, ‘is darkness, and who knows what is in any man’s soul?’
At thirty, when I returned from exile, I realised that my father had been right in many things, that he had unhappily an offensively good understanding of men. But was it my fault that he preached the truth itself in a way so provoking to a youthful heart? His mind, chilled by a long life in a circle of depraved men, put him on his guard against everyone, and his callous heart did not crave for reconciliation; so he remained on hostile terms with everyone on earth.
Only then did I appreciate all the cheerlessness of his life; I looked with an aching heart at the melancholy significance of this lonely, abandoned existence, dying out in the arid, harsh stony wilderness which he had created about himself, but which he had not the will to change; he knew this; he saw death approaching and, overcoming weakness and infirmity, he jealously and obstinately controlled himself. I was dreadfully sorry for the old man, but there was nothing to be done: he was unapproachable.
Alexander Herzen, My Life and Thoughts
(Thanks, as usual, to A. for the recommendation.)
30 April 2010 at 14:39
I assume you’re reading the Dwight MacDonald edition? Ever since reading it, I’ve wished I could get my hands on an unabridged English copy. The parts of Herzen’s marriage left out of the MacDonald edition are missed. On the other hand, I love the four different sets of footnotes included, since they often conflict. MacDonald vs. the Soviet academicians is reliably delicious.
1 May 2010 at 03:46
I suspect exchange rates and postage will make this a bit more costly for Americans, but Faber have been doing Print-on-Demand versions of their old books, and this includes the 6 volumes of Constance Garnett’s translation of “My Past and Thoughts”
1 May 2010 at 03:59
“I am vainly searching New York for a copy of Alexander Herzen’s memoirs, a book which altered my life and became a point of reference both intellectually & morally.” — I Berlin.
lucky you found one. :)