Shestov or the Purity of Despair

There was once a young woman by the name of Sorana Gurian. She emigrated to Paris in the 1950s from her native Rumania after adventures about which, she felt, the less said the better. In Paris her life of poverty as a refugee did not particularly disturb her. In fact of the group of students, young writers, and artists among whom she lived she was the first to make her way; a good publisher, Juillard, accepted her first and second novels. Then, all of a sudden (how could it have happened if not all of a sudden?), she discovered that she had breast cancer. An operation followed, then another. Although cases of recovery are rare, they do occur; after the second operation, her doctors were optimistic. Whether Sorana had complete confidence in them I do not know. In any case, one battle was won. Being a writer she had to write about what concerned her most, and she wrote a book about her illness—a battle report on her fight against despair. That book, Le Rйcit d'un combat, was published by Juillard in 1956. Her respite, however, lasted only a year or two.

I met Sorana shortly before her death; through mutual friends she had expressed a wish to meet me. When I visited her in her small student hotel on the Left Bank, she was spending most of the day in bed with a fever. We talked about many things, including writers. She showed me the books on her night table; they were books by Shestov in French translation. She spoke of them with that reticent ardor we reserve for what is most precious to us. 'Read Shestov, Milosz, read Shestov.' The name of Sorana Gurian will not be preserved in the chronicles of humanity. If I tell about her, it is because I cannot imagine a more proper introduction to a few reflections on Shestov.

Lev Shestov (pen name of Lev Isaakovich Schwarzman) was born in Kiev in 1866. Thus by the turn of the century he was already a mature man, the author of a doctoral dissertation in law, which failed to bring him the degree because it was considered too influenced by revolutionary Marxism, and of a book of literary criticism (on Shakespeare and his critic Brandes). His book Dobro v uchenii grafa Tolstogo i Nitsshe— filosofia i proponed' (The Good in the Teaching of Count Tolstoy and Nietzshe: Philosophy and Preaching) was published in 1900. In the same year he formed a lifelong friendship with Nikolai Berdyaev, one that was warm in spite of basic disagreements that often ended in their shouting angrily at one another. His friendship with Berdyaev and Sergei Bulgakov places Shestov in the ranks of those Russian thinkers who, about 1900, came to discover a metaphysical enigma behind the social problems which had preoccupied them in their early youth. Shes-tov's philosophy took shape in several books of essays and notes written before 1917. His collected works (1911) can be found in the larger American libraries. The fate of his writings in Russia after the revolution, and whether their meaning has been lost for new generations, is hard to assess. In any case Shestov expressed himself most fully, it seems to me, in his books published abroad after he left Russia in 1919 and settled in Paris, where he lived till his death in 1938. These are Vlast' klyuchei: Potestas Clavium (The Power of the Keys), 1923 and Na vesakh Iova (In Job's Balances), 1929; those volumes which first appeared in translation, Kierkegaard et la philosophie existentielle, 1938 (Russian edition, 1939), and Athиnes et Jйrusalem: un essai de philosophie religieuse, 1938 (Russian edition, 1951); lastly those posthumously published in book form, Tol'ko veroi: Sola Fide (By Faith Alone), 1966, and Umozreniпe i otkroveniпe: religioznaya filosofia Vladimira Solovyova i drugiпe stat'i (Speculation and Revelation: The Religious Philosophy of Vladimir Solovyov and Other Essays), 1964. [1]

Shestov has been translated into many languages. Yet in his lifetime he never attained the fame surrounding the name of his friend Berdyaev. He remained a writer for the few, and if by disciples we mean those who 'sit at the feet of the master,' he had only one, the French poet Benjamine Fondane, a Rumanian Jew later killed by the Nazis. But Shestov was an active force in European letters, and his influence reached deeper than one might surmise from the number of copies of his works sold. Though the quarrel about existentialism that raged in Paris after 1945 seems to us today somewhat stale, it had serious consequences. In The Myth of Sisyphus—a youthful and not very good book, but most typical of that period—Albert Camus considers Kierkegaard, Shestov, Heidegger, Jaspers, and Husserl to be the philosophers most important to the new 'man of the absurd.' For the moment it is enough to say that though Shestov has often been compared with Kierkegaard he discovered the Danish author only late in his life, and that his close personal friendship with Husserl consisted of philosophical opposition—which did not prevent him from calling Husserl his second master after Dostoevsky.

I am not going to pretend that I have 'read through' Shestov. If one is asked whether one has read Pascal, the answer should always be in the negative, no matter how many times one has looked at his pages. In the case of Shestov, however, there are obstacles other than density. His oeuvre is, as Camus defined it, of 'admirable monotony.' Shestov hammers at one theme again and again, and after a while we learn that it will emerge inevitably in every essay; we also know that when the theme emerges, his voice will change in tone and sustain with its usual sarcasm the inevitable conclusion. His voice when he enters an argument is that of a priest angry at the sight of holy vessels being desecrated. Convinced that he will not be applauded because his message seems bizarre to his contemporaries, he does nothing to diminish our resistance, which is provoked most of all by what Lйvy-Bruhl, in a polemic with him, called 'hogging the covers.' Shestov was often reproached for finding in Shakespeare, in Dostoevsky, and in Nietzsche much that is not there at all, and for too freely interpreting the opinions of his antagonists (numerous, for these included practically all the philosophers of the past three thousand years). He dismissed the reproach with a laugh: he was not such a genius, he would say, that he could create so many geniuses anew. Yet the reproach is not without validity.

He knew he was not understood; probably he did not want to be overly clear. But the difficulty in assimilating him is not caused by any deviousness on his part or by any levels of ironic meaning or aphoristic conciseness. He always develops a logical argument in well-balanced sentences which, especially in their original Russian, captivate the reader with their scornful vigor. Shestov is probably one of the most readable philosophic essayists of the century. The trouble lies in his opposition to those who separate the propositions of a given man from his personal tragedy—to those who, for instance, refuse to speak of Kierkegaard's sexual impotence or of Nietzsche's incurable disease. My guess is that Shestov, too, had his own drama, that of lacking the talent to become a poet, to approach the mystery of existence more directly than through mere concepts. And although he does not mix genres, or write "poetic prose," one feels that at a given moment he falls silent and leaves much unsaid because the border of the communicable has been crossed. That is why in self-defense he sometimes quotes Pascal: "Qu'on ne nous reproche donc plus le manque de clartй, puisque nous en faisons profession"—"Then let people not blame us any more for our lack of clarity, since we practice this deliberately."

To associate Shestov with a transitory phase of existentialism would be to diminish his stature. Few writers of any time could match his daring, even insolence, in raising the naughty child's questions which have always had the power to throw philosophers into a panic. For that reason such questions have been wrapped in highly professional technical terms and, once placed in a syntactic cocoon, neutralized. The social function of language is, after all, both to protect and to reveal. Perhaps Shestov exemplifies the advantages of Russia's "cultural time lag": no centuries of scholastic theology and philosophy in the past, no university philosophy to speak of—but on the other hand a lot of people philosophizing, and passionately at that, on their own. Shestov was a well-educated man, but he lacked the polite indoctrination one received at Western European universities; he simply did not care whether what he was saying about Plato or Spinoza was against the rules of the game—that is, indecent. It was precisely because of this freedom that his thought was a gift to people who found themselves in desperate situations and knew that syntactic cocoons were of no use any more. Sorana Gurian after all was an agnostic, largely beyond the pale of religious tradition, and not a philosopher in the technical sense of the word. Whom could she read? Thomas Aquinas? Hegel? Treatises in mathematical logic? Or, better still, should she have tried solving crossword puzzles?

What does a creature that calls itself "I" want for itself? It wants to be. Quite a demand! Early in life it begins to discover, however, that its demand is perhaps excessive. Objects behave in their own impassive manner and show a lack of concern for the central importance of "I." A wall is hard and hurts you if you bump against it, fire burns your fingers; if you drop a glass on the floor, it breaks into pieces. This is the preamble to a long education the gist of which is a respect for the durability of "the outside" as contrasted with the frailty of the "I." Moreover, what is "inside" gradually loses its unique character. Its urges, desires, passions appear to be no different from those of other members of the species. Without exaggeration we may say that the "I" also loses its body: in a mirror it sees a being that is born, grows up, is subject to the destructive action of time, and must die. If a doctor tells you that you are dying of a certain disease, then you are just another case; that is, chance is a statistical regularity. It is just your bad luck that you are among such-and-such a number of cases occurring every year. ...

Czeslaw Milosz - Shestov or the Purity of Despair


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