Isaiah Berlin: Herzen the Great

Alexander Herzen, like Diderot, was an amateur of genius whose opinions and activities changed the direction of social thought in his country. Like Diderot too, he was a brilliant and irrepressible talker. He talked equally well in Russian and French to his intimate friends and in the Moscow salons, and later in his life in Russian, German, French, in Paris, Nice, London, Geneva—always in an overwhelming flow of ideas and images; the loss to posterity (as with Diderot) is probably immense; he had no Boswell, no Eckermann, to record his conversation, nor would he have suffered such a relationship. His prose is essentially a form of talk, with the vices and virtues of talk: eloquent, spontaneous, liable to the heightened tones and exaggerations of the born storyteller unable to resist long digressions which themselves carry him into a network of intersecting tributaries of memory or speculation, but always returning to the main stream of the story or the argument. Above all, his prose has the vitality of spoken words—it appears to owe nothing to the carefully composed formal sentences of the Frenchphilosophes whom he admired or to the terrible philosophical style of the Germans from whom he learned. We hear his voice—almost too much—in the essays, the pamphlets, the autobiography, as much as in the letters and scraps of notes to his friends.
Civilized, imaginative, self-critical, Herzen was a marvelously gifted social observer; the record of what he saw is unique, even in the articulate nineteenth century. He had an acute, easily stirred, and ironical mind, a fiery and poetical temperament, and a capacity for vivid, often lyrical, writing—qualities that combined and reinforced one another in the succession of sharp vignettes of men, events, ideas, personal relationships, political situations, and descriptions of entire forms of life in which his writings abound. He was a man of extreme refinement and sensibility, great intellectual energy and biting wit, easily irritated amour propre, and a taste for polemical writing; he was addicted to analysis, investigation, exposure; he saw himself as an expert “unmasker” of appearances and conventions, and dramatized himself as a devastating discoverer of their social and moral core. Tolstoy, who had little sympathy with Herzen’s opinions, and was not given to excessive praise of his contemporaries among men of letters, especially among his countrymen, said toward the end of his life that he had never met anyone with “so rare a combination of scintillating brilliance and depth.” These gifts make a good many of Herzen’s essays, political articles, day-to-day journalism, causal notes and reviews, and especially letters written to intimates or to political correspondents, irresistibly readable even today, when the issues with which they were concerned are for the most part dead and of interest mainly to historians.
Although much has been written about Herzen, and not only in Russian, the task of his biographers has not been made easier by the fact that he left an incomparable memorial to himself in his own greatest work—translated by Constance Garnett as My Past and Thoughts—a literary masterpiece worthy of being placed by the side of the novels of his contemporaries and countrymen, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky. Nor were they altogether unaware of this. Turgenev, an intimate and life-long friend (the fluctuations of their personal relationship were important in the lives of both; this complex and interesting story has never been adequately told) admired him both as a writer and as a revolutionary journalist. The celebrated critic Vissarion Belinsky discovered, described, and acclaimed his extraordinary literary gift when they were both young and relatively unknown. Even the angry and suspicious Dostoevsky excepted him from the virulent hatred with which he regarded pro-Western Russian revolutionaries, recognized the poetry of his writing, and remained well-disposed toward him until the end of his life. As for Tolstoy, he delighted both in his society and his writings: half a century after their first meeting in London he still remembered the scene vividly.1
It is strange that this remarkable writer, in his lifetime a celebrated European figure, the admired friend of Michelet, Mazzini, Garibaldi, and Victor Hugo, long canonized in his own country not only as a revolutionary but as one of its greatest men of letters, is, even today, not much more than a name in the West. The enjoyment to be obtained from reading his prose—for the most part still untranslated—makes this a strange and gratuitous loss.
ALEXANDER HERZEN was born in Moscow on April 6, 1812, some months before the great fire that destroyed the city during Napoleon’s occupation after the battle of Borodino. His father, Ivan Alexandrovich Yakovlev, came of an ancient family distantly related to the Romanov dynasty. Like other rich and well-born members of the Russian gentry, he had spent some years abroad, and, during one of his journeys, met, and took back to Moscow with him, the daughter of a minor Württemberg official, Luise Haag, a gentle, submissive, somewhat colorless girl, a good deal younger than himself. For some reason, perhaps owing to the disparity in their social positions, he never married her according to the rites of his own Church. Yakovlev was a member of the Orthodox Church, she remained a Lutheran.2 He was a proud, independent, disdainful man, and had grown increasingly morose and misanthropic. He retired before the war of 1812, and at the time of the French invasion was living in bitter and resentful idleness in his house in Moscow. During the French occupation he was recognized by Marshal Mortier, whom he had known in Paris, and agreed—in return for a safe conduct enabling him to take his family out of the devasted city—to carry a message from Napoleon to the Emperor Alexander. For this indiscretion he was sent back to his estates and only allowed to return to Moscow somewhat later.
In his large and gloomy house in the Arbat he brought up his son Alexander, to whom he had given the surname Herzen, as if to stress the fact that he was the child of an irregular liaison, an affair of the heart. Luise Haag was never accorded the full status of a wife, but the boy had every attention lavished upon him. He received the normal education of a young Russian nobleman of his time, that is to say, he was looked after by a host of nurses and serfs, and taught by private tutors, German and French, carefully chosen by his neurotic, irritable, devoted, suspicious father. Every care was taken to develop his gifts. He was a lively and imaginative child and absorbed knowledge easily and eagerly. His father loved him after his fashion: more, certainly, than his other son, also illegitimate, born ten years earlier, whom he had christened Yegor (George). But he was, by the 1820s, a defeated and gloomy recluse, unable to communicate with his family or indeed anyone else. Shrewd, honorable, and neither unfeeling nor unjust, a “difficult” character like old Prince Bolkonsky in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Ivan Yakovlev emerges from his son’s recollections a self-lacerating, grim, shut-in, half-frozen human being, who terrorized his household with his whims and his sarcasm. He kept all doors and windows locked, the blinds permanently drawn, and, apart from a few old friends and his own brothers, saw virtually nobody. In later years his son described him as the product of “the encounter of two such incompatible things as the eighteenth century and Russian life”—a collision of cultures that had destroyed a good many among the more sensitive members of the Russian gentry in the reigns of Catherine II and her successors.
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