David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: russia (page 2 of 5)

Alexander Herzen’s Father

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.)

Dostoevsky’s Sequel

James L. Rice in the TLS clues us in to the unwritten second half of The Brothers Karamazov, which sounds like it would have been a good deal better than Gogol’s disappointing sequel to Dead Souls.

Alyosha remains at the end, to face his destiny, uncertain whether it may be for good or evil. His bonding with the adolescent boys in the village, whose leader Kolya is unmistakably a future radical, points the way to the hero’s role in the unwritten sequel.

Dostoevsky discussed his general plan for the Karamazov sequel with a few people close to him, on different occasions with his wife Anna Grigorievna, and the eminent publisher Aleksei Suvorin (a brooding and devoted friend who was later also a confidant of other complex writers, including Vasily Rozanov and Anton Chekhov). The author’s concept found its way not only into their diaries and memoirs published after the Revolution, but also, through rumour “in Petersburg literary circles”, into the front-page report of an ephemeral Odessa daily newspaper on May 26, 1880 – when Book Ten of The Brothers Karamazov had yet to appear. The anonymous correspondent had attended the author’s public reading of bewildering excerpts from the forthcoming instalment. Despite great admiration for Dostoevsky’s genius, the critic complained that most of his characters were mental cases, who sometimes appeared to communicate by psychic means. Rumour in the tsarist capital had it that Alyosha would become the village schoolmaster, and by obscure “psychic processes in his soul” would arrive at “the idea of assassinating the tsar” (ideya o tsareubiistve). Although the Novorossiiskii Telegraf had a circulation of 6,000 and subscribers as far-flung as Kiev, Moscow, Petersburg, Warsaw and Paris, this astounding remark never reached the authorities. It tallies exactly with the diary of Suvorin published forty-three years later (1923), which directly quotes the novelist on Alyosha’s future: “He would be arrested for a political crime. He would be executed” – very nearly the fate of the author himself in his youth. In the sequel there might have been, of course, any number of plots and paths to such a tragic outcome. In one plausible version, Alyosha retreats to the monastery as a clandestine revolutionary.

The surest proof that The Brothers Karamazov was conceived with such a denouement in store is the very name Karamazov: it is very close to that of Dmitry Karakozov, whose point-blank shot at Tsar Alexander II on April 4, 1866, missed its target but heralded an era of terrorism in Russian politics. Karakozov was publicly executed in Petersburg on September 3, 1866. His deed, incidentally, had interrupted serialization of Crime and Punishment – its hero another deranged student dropout with murderous “Napoleonic” ambitions. The Karamazov plot unfolds at the end of August, 1866, so that Dmitry Karamazov’s arrest for the murder of his father occurs at about dawn on September 3, precisely when in real life the would-be assassin Karakozov was led to the scaffold.

Wishful thinking? Rice implies the same wish that I and so many other teenage Dostoevsky readers have had, that he would stop compensating for what really is an obsession with evil and let his books become the ultimate refutation of Christianity and the Good that they so badly want to be. The goodness in them never achieves the grace of, say, this:


Russian Revolution Quotes

Some great quotes from Orlando Figes’ history of the Russian Revolution (endorsed by Communist Eric Hobsbawm, no less!).

Oh, how [the Soviet leaders of the February 1917 revolution] feared the masses! As I watched our ‘socialists’ speaking to the crowds … I could feel their nauseating fear… I felt the inner trembling, and the effort of will it took not to lower their gaze before the trusting, wide-open eyes of the workers and soldiers crowded around them. As recently as yesterday it had been relatively easy to be ‘representatives and leaders’ of these working masses; peaceable parliamentary socialists could still utter the most bloodcurdling words ‘in the name of the proletariat’ without even blinking. It became a different story, however, when this theoretical proletariat suddenly appeared here, in the full power of exhausted flesh and mutinous blood. And when the truly elemental nature of this force, so capable of either creation or destruction, became tangible to even the most insensitive observer — then, almost involuntarily, the pale lips of the leaders’ began to utter words of peace and compromise in place of yesterday’s harangues. They were scared — and who could blame them?

Mstislavsky, Five Days

‘The countryside is falling into chaos, with robberies and arson every day, while you sit doing nothing in your comfortable Petersburg office,’ one Tambov squire wrote to him in April. ‘Your local committees are powerless to do anything, and even encourage the theft of property. The police are asleep while the peasants rob and burn. The old government knew better how to deal with this peasant scum which you call “the people”.

Tambov Squire to Prince Lvov, April 1917

The terrible thing in Lenin was that combination in one person of self-castigation, which is the essence of all real asceticism, with the castigation of other people as expressed in abstract social hatred and cold political cruelty.

Peter Struve, “My Contacts and Conflicts with Lenin”

Sweet Father and Mother,
It was already clear to me about a week ago that there was no way out. Without a doubt the country is heading for a general slaughter, famine, the collapse of the front, where half the soldiers will perish, and the ruin of the urban population. The cultural inheritance of the nation, its people and civilization, will be destroyed. Armies of migrants, then small groups, and then maybe no more than individual people, will roam around the country fighting each other with rifles and then no more than clubs. I will not live to see it, and, I hope, neither will you.

Prince Lvov on the eve of his resignation, July 1917

Lenin and Trotsky do not have the slightest idea of the meaning of freedom or the Rights of Man. They have already become poisoned with the filthy venom of power, and this is shown by their shameful attitude towards freedom of speech, the individual, and all those other civil liberties for which the democracy struggled.

Gorky, Untimely Thoughts, 7 November 1917

Psychologically, the Whites conducted themselves as if nothing had happened, whereas in reality the whole world around them had collapsed, and in order to vanquish the enemy they themselves had to undergo, in a certain sense, a rebirth . . . Nothing so harmed the ‘White’ movement as this very condition of psychologically staying put in previous circumstances, circumstances which had ceased to exist. . . Men with this ‘old regime’ psychology were immersed in the raging sea of revolutionary anarchy, and psychologically could not find their bearings in it… In the revolutionary storm that struck Russia in 1917, even out-and-out restorationists had to turn revolutionaries in the psychological sense: because in a revolution only revolutionaries can find their way.

Peter Struve, 1921

Nonsense, how can you make a revolution without firing squads? Do you expect to dispose of your enemies by disarming yourself? What other means of repression are there? Prisons? Who attaches significance to that during a civil war?

Lenin, October 1917

What is man? He is by no means a finished or harmonious being. No, he is still a highly awkward creature. Man, as an animal, has not evolved by plan but spontaneously, and has accumulated many contradictions. The question of how to educate and regulate, of how to improve and complete the physical and spiritual construction of man, is a colossal problem which can only be conceived on the basis of Socialism. We can construct a railway across the Sahara, we can build the Eiffel Tower and talk directly with New York, but we surely cannot improve man. No, we can! To produce a new, ‘improved version’ of man — that is the future task of Communism. And for that we first have to find out everything about man, his anatomy, his physiology and that part of his physiology which is called his psychology. Man must look at himself and see himself as a raw material, or at best as a semi-manufactured product, and say: ‘At last, my dear homo sapiens, I will work on you.’


From A.R. Luria’s The Mind of a Mnemonist

The Mind of a Mnemonist is about an otherwise ordinary man, S., with an extreme eidetic memory, able to remember completely random strings of numbers and characters for years on end. Though he sometimes omits items in the sequences, he never misremembers or falsely adds one, as he seems to have intuitively developed a memory palace technique based on overwhelming synaesthetic associations. If he misses an item, it’s because it was quite literally overlooked in the visual framework. Here he is explaining how he “overlooked” some words in a list while repeating them:

I put the image of the pencil near a fence .. . the one
down the street, you know. But what happened was
that the image fused with that of the fence and I walked
right on past without noticing it. The same thing happened with the word egg. I had put it up against a
white wall and it blended in with the background. How
could I possibly spot a white egg up against a white
wall? Now take the word blimp. That’s something gray,
so it blended in with the gray of the pavement . . .
Banner, of course, means the Red Banner. But, you
know, the building which houses the Moscow City
Soviet of Workers’ Deputies is also red, and since I’d
put the banner close to one of the walls of the building
I just walked on without seeing it.. . Then there’s the
word putamen. I don’t know what this means, but it’s
such a dark word that I couldn’t see it . . . and, be-
sides, the street lamp was quite a distance away . . .

The cost of his prodigious memory is a verbal literalism that incapacitates his ability to appreciate nuance, abstraction, or multiple meanings. Each word only had one concrete, visual meaning summoned up by his mind immediately upon seeing it. Here he is tripping over some lines from Pasternak:

[It] Smiled at a bird-cherry tree, sobbed, drenched
The lacquer of cabs, the tremor of trees . . .*
  Boris Pasternak

He smiled at a bird-cherry tree. This called up an image
of a young man. Then I realized this was taking place
on the Metinskaya in Rezhitsa .. . He smiled at it. But
right after that there’s the word sobbed. That is, tears
have appeared and are wetting it . . . it means the
lines have to do with grief .. . I remembered how some
woman went to the crematorium and sat there for hours
looking at a portrait. . . That expression the lacquer of
cabs—it’s the lady of the manor driving by in her car-
riage from the mill at Yuzhatov. I look on. What is
she doing? She’s looking out of the carriage, trying to
see what’s wrong there. Why is “he” sad? . . . Then
there’s the expression the tremor of trees [word order
reversed in the Russian]. I can see the tremor and then
the trees, but when the words are reversed like this, I
see a tree and have to make it sway back and forth
to understand the phrase itself. This means a lot of
work for me.

[* The verbs are all in the past tense, masculine singular, but
they apply to rain; it is the spring rain Pasternak ascribes
human emotions to. S. interpreted the content and endings
of the verbs as the action of a masculine subject, whereas the
subject was masculine in a purely grammatical sense. [Tr.]]

So to make space for all of the visual associations that are forced upon him with every word, character, and number, S. lost some other kind of internal mental representation, something that allows for abstraction, metaphor, analogy, and indeterminacy. S. was forever unable to grasp the concept of “infinity”:

. . . Infinity—that means what has always been. But
what came before this? What is to follow? No, it’s impossible to see this . . .

In order for me to grasp the meaning of a thing, I
have to see it. . . Take the word nothing. I read it and
thought it must be very profound. I thought it would
be better to call nothing something . . . for I see this
nothing and it is something . . . If I’m to understand
any meaning that is fairly deep, I have to get an image
of it right away. So I turned to my wife and asked
her what nothing meant. But it was so clear to her
that she simply said: “Nothing means there is nothing.”
I understood it differently. I saw this nothing and felt
she must be wrong. The logic we use, for example. It’s
been worked out on the basis of years of experience.
I can see how it has developed, and what it means to
me is that one has to rely on his own sensations of
things. If nothing can appear to a person, that means
it is something. That’s where the trouble comes in . . .

It’s his sensations, and his inability to evade recollection of them in association with any sort of discourse, that disconnect him from many modes of speaking. Though he was able to be social, I imagine he was in some ways cut off from other people, because he could only ever think that they were talking about one thing in particular with each word or phrase, and if words were to be used in different ways, he would be immediately estranged from such a use. By relying on his own sensations, his language is more private than that of other people. Abstraction is more social than sensation.

[Another Russian note: It’s now thought that famous synaesthete Alexander Scriabin was in fact not synaesthetic, as real synaesthetics such as Messiaen do not have synaesthetic associations that map so neatly onto the western scale.]

Mirsky on Leskov

Leskov is one of those Russian writers whose knowledge of life was not founded on the possession of serfs, to be later modified by university theories of French or German origin, like Turgenev’s and Tolstoy’s, but on practical and independent experience. This is why his view of Russian life is so unconventional and so free from that attitude of condescending and sentimental pity for the peasant which is typical of the liberal and educated serf-owner.

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