Anatol Lunacharsky: Essay on Gorky

FORTY years in the literary career of a great writer will always cover a large area on the ever-growing map of world culture. It is only at a distance that such a mountain range can be evaluated as a whole.

The results and full significance of Maxim Gorky's work as concerns our epoch and Russian and world culture as a whole, and his relative place on the great map of human achievement will only become clear at a future date. All the more so since the mountain range that is Gorky has not yet been completed, and we hope to see him grow most wonderfully and gigantically for many years to come.

And yet, forty years is a long time. When a person who has worked for forty years looks back from the vantage point to which life has brought him he sees a long and winding river whose source appears as remote as ancient history, while the ribbon itself acquires an integral significance which such a person wants to discover and establish for himself, and sometimes for others as well.

It was approximately after forty years that Goethe, for instance, felt the irresistible need to comprehend the meaning of his life and his work and tell others about it.

I do not know whether Gorky now has a desire to embark on a similar preliminary summing-up of everything he has experienced and accomplished.... He is not devoid of an inclination to autobiography, and it is responsible for a number of books which are truly the pride of Russian literature.

Neither does Gorky lack a sense of retrospection, for what else is the great structure of Klim Samgin if not a very original panorama, a sum-total of his recollections in the course of several decades?

But we cannot wait until Gorky himself gets down to writing his Dichtung und Wahrheit.

The golden bell of the grand fortieth anniversary is ringing, reminding us literary critics of the great Marxist-Leninist school that we as yet do not have a major work which would at least present a series of clear, concise photographs from all the chief angles of the mountain range Gorky has erected in forty years.

Such a work must be written. It must be written soon. I do not know whether this should be done by an individual or by a group of authors. At any rate some preliminary work has been done.

I am far from the thought of presenting in this article, which finds the allotted space too restrictive, a sketch or outline of this likewise preliminary Marxist book on Gorky.

I am merely pointing here to the far horizon, where Gorky's might mountain range rises above the sea level, above the glades and the forests. I am merely pointing most sketchily to its vital foundation, to the elemental deposits from which it 'grew'.

I am merely drawing an outline for the reader to help him recognise the profile of the mountains lost high in the clouds.


Perhaps the great majority of outstanding literary phenomena and significant writers appear as a result of major social changes, of social catastrophes. Literary masterpieces mark these changes.

Lenin, in his magnificent works on Tolstoi, which no Marxist literary critic can afford to ignore, defines the basic elemental, social, unavoidable reason for Tolstoi's appearance, for the existence of Lev Tolstoi per se, for the scope of his talent, his triumph in Russia and throughout the world, for the immortality of his artistic achievement and the poverty of his philosophical and social ideas: this was the colossal catastrophe which shook Russia at the time. The old Russia of peasants and landowners was perishing under the pressure of the relentless onslaught of capital.

The Russian peasant was the hero and, unfortunately, the passive hero of this terrible bloody and tear-drenched drama.

There arose then a great cloud of tears, grief, moans, destitution, cries of despair and anger, passionate, heart-wrenching bewilderment, a searching for a way out; a fiery question mark rose over the land as a terrible nightmare: where was one to find the truth?

While tormenting the peasants, this crisis dealt the landowners a terrible blow as well, sending them down to the bottom. All the old ways began to shake, as things do in an earthquake.

And a man came forth whose background, education, culture, sensitivity and gift for writing made him capable of transforming the peasants' grief and the peasants' bewilderment into works of art. This man was a landowner, and, therefore, there were many scenes of aristocratic life in his works, although the peasant spirit predominated and the peasants' suffering dominated the Count's every thought. This did not divert Lenin's keen insight to a superficial evaluation of Tolstoi as a writer of the nobility. No, Tolstoi's fiery revolutionary spirit, ready to sweep away thrones, altars and the nobility itself, was not of the nobility; nor of the nobility was the essentially noxious and most harmful spirit of submission, patience and non-violence, which for centuries had been the faithful helpmate of every executioner in the heart of the peasant himself.

In like manner, Maxim Gorky signifies a tremendous step forward in the history of our country at a later date.

The bourgeoisie came to power, it asserted itself as the dominant class, though it still shared its power with the lions of the nobility. But these were new noblemen--the very same ones whose first representatives Tolstoi described with such loathing in Anna Karenina.

On the whole, the moneybag now ruled the country. However, it only fulfilled its rather relative cultural and economic role to a very small degree. It was carnivorous and grasping. Naturally, it created something, but; it destroyed much more.

The historical experience of other countries and its own instincts indicated that the stylish European parliamentary dress which fitted the foreign big bourgeoisie so well was not made for it. And though well-fed Russian capitalism would from time to time mutter something unintelligible about a constitution, it relied above all on the gendarme and the priest.

Nevertheless, this capitalism, which oppressed the country both by its maturity and immaturity, was dangerously ill. It was grieved. It was tortured by terrible premonitions. It was full of fear and divarication. It had its connivers, its oppressors and pessimists, but all of them carried the stamp of doom on their faces. This giant in golden armour, but weak of heart, had not been born to a long and happy life.

The further growth of capital continued to oppress the villages mercilessly. But it was not their groans that filled the new and powerful artistic organ and the many organ pipes of the young Gorky.

His social standing made him more familiar with the stagnant, swampy, tortured society of the city petty bourgeoisie, gripped as it was by rigid routine and overflowing with strange characters.

They were Gorky's first subjects. He chose as his theme one of the city's strangest phenomena, the tramps, and then, in time, turned to the proletariat.

As we listen keenly to Gorky's music, from its very inception, we can but laugh as we reject the superficial and, I would say, silly little theories that Gorky was a writer of the lower middle classes.

Following in Lenin's giant footsteps, we can say that Gorky's indomitable, turbulent, rainbow-bright joy of life, which burst forth from his very first lines, was not of the lower middle classes. Nor is his merciless indignation at the ruling evil of the middle class; nor is his firm belief in man, in his mighty culture, in his coming victory; nor is his bold call for courage and his stormy petrel, heralding the coming revolution, of the middle class. None of this is of the lower middle classes--all is of the proletariat. ...


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