Maxim Gorki - Essay by Stefan Zweig

Alexander Pushkin, the father of Russian literature, came of princely blood; Leo Tolstoy, of very ancient lineage; Turgenev was a landed gentleman; Dostoevsky an official's son but of noble extraction —aristocrats all. For literature, art, all forms of intellectual achievement within the Russian empire in the nineteenth century were prerogatives of aristocracy, as were all other privileges—the land and palaces, rivers and mines, woods and fields, and the living human beings, the enthralled peasants, who tilled them with their sweat. All power, all wealth, all influence, all learning and position were reserved for a scant hundred noble strains, ten thousand individuals in the midst of millions. These alone depicted Russia to the eyes of the world, her wealth, her racial stock, her power and her soul.

A hundred families, ten thousand individuals. But beneath this thin superstratum heaved and moved an infinite, limitless mass of millions, a misshapen, gigantic being: the Russian people. Scattered millionfold over the huge plains of Muscovy, they toiled with millions of hands day and night for the wealth of the great land. They cleared forests, they levelled roads, they pressed out wine and brought up ore from the mines. They sowed and reaped on the black or snow-laden earth, they fought the Czar's battles and, like other European peoples at the same time, they served and evermore served their princes in abnegating toil and steadfast fealty. But one thing distinguished this Russian people from its brother folk: it was still mute; it had no speech. Long ago the other peoples had sent out spokesmen from their midst, orators and scholars, speaking tongues. These millions, however, were not yet able to express their desires in written words; they might not voice their thoughts in the councils of their land; they could not explain themselves, could not express that great and wild spirit which animated them. Stolid, full-lunged but voiceless, impotent with its monstrous strength, this ocean-wide mysterious being of the people stirred on its Russian earth, spirit without speech, being without self-conscious thought. It was only their masters, the aristocrats, the powerful, who spoke for these silent ones. Until the twentieth century we knew of the Russian people only through the voices of their high-born writers—Pushkin, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Dostoevsky.

This will, however, be for all time to the glory and honor of these nobles—that, notwithstanding its speechlessness, its enforced silence, they have never despised the Russian folk, its peasants and laborers, the insignificant man, but, on the contrary, as if from a feeling of mystical guilt, each of them has passionately reverenced the greatness and the spiritual force of the lowly mass. Dostoevsky, the visionary, lifted the conception of the people to a Russian Savior, symbol of the ever-returning Christ, and, bitterly resisting the bourgeois revolutionaries and anarchistic nobles, reverently bowed his head to the Russian earth before the lowest criminal as the representative of a divine power. And still more passionately did Tolstoy, the other aristocrat, humble himself before the silent multitude; he abased himself only to raise the oppressed. "The way we live is wrong, their way is right." He laid aside his noble's dress and donned the muzhik blouse; he tried to copy their simple picturesque speech, their dull religious humility, to submerge, to dissolve himself in this immense life-giving force. All the great writers of Russia have with one voice declared their awe in the presence of the great company; they all have felt the defencelessness, the speechlessness, of their brother millions in the shadow of their own illumined lives as a monstrous, mystical soul-guilt. They all have seen the high significance of their mission in the task of speaking for this dumb, unformed, voiceless being and interpreting to the world its thoughts and ideas.

But suddenly the miracle comes to pass, the unexpected, the unhoped for; suddenly this being dumb for a thousand years himself speaks. He creates lips from his own flesh, a spokesman from his own speech, a man from his midst, and this one man, the poet—his poet and witness—he suddenly thrusts out from his giant body that he may give to the whole of humanity tidings of the Russian people, of the Russian proletariat, of the lowly, the downtrodden and the oppressed. This man, this human being, this messenger, this poet is suddenly here, come into this world sixty years ago, and for thirty years with unswerving fidelity the spokesman and painter of a whole tragic generation of the disinherited and the downtrodden. His parents call him Maxim Peschkov; he names himself Maxim Gorki—the bitter—and, with this self-made name, he is gratefully hailed to-day by the intellectual world and all who feel themselves truly as people among the peoples, because his bitterness has become healing for a whole race, his voice expression for a whole nation, and his advent happiness and blessing to our spirit today. Fate has taken this one unknown human being, Maxim Gorki, from the waste and chaff of humanity to make him a witness for the life of the thwarted, a portrayer of all the misery of the poor of Russia and of the whole world. And that he might be a true and faithful witness, it gave him for his portion every, task, every torment, every renunciation, and every test in his own being so that he might painfully experience each in his own body before he shaped them and further revealed them in literary form. It sent him out to every kind of labor so that he might represent each fairly before the invisible parliament of humanity. It made him for a long time apprentice and bondsman of all suffering before he dare become lord of words and master of form.

It was his lot to go through all the chances and changes of proletarian destiny before he became triumphantly the all-transmuter, the artist. So, in addition to artistic greatness, his rich and powerful work has the peculiarity that nothing was given by life to this poet, but everything was struggled for, was wrested from a miserable existence, and the pure and glorious result appears to have been wrung with bitterness from a malevolent reality.

What a life! What depth before this ascent! A dirty gray suburban street in Niizhny Novgorod gives birth to a great artist; poverty, rocks his cradle; poverty expels him from school; poverty tosses him into the turmoil and into the world. The whole family lives in two cellar rooms, and in order to bring home a little money, a few pitiful kopecks, he, a schoolboy, must crawl around in sewers and dump-heaps, collecting rags and bones in the foul stench, so that his classmates avoid sitting beside the dung collector and sewer-crawler because of the bad smell. Although greedy for knowledge, he cannot finish the primary school, but must with his slight childish figure become helper in a shoe-factory, then house-boy for a draftsman, scullion on a Volga steamer, porter at the docks, night watchman in a fishery, a baker, a letter-carrier, a worker on the railroad, in the country, printer's devil, an eternally hunted day-laborer beyond the pale of law, unhappy, homeless—vagabond on all roads, now in the Ukraine and on the Don, now in Bessarabia, now in Tiflis and in the Crimea. Nowhere can he stop, nowhere is he held. Scarcely has he found shelter under some foul roof when fate like an evil wind lashes him on and again, winter and summer, he scours the streets with burning soles, hungry, ragged, ill, and always, always hunted by poverty. Again and again he changes his work, but it is as if fate had willed these shifts with intention so that he could, with knowledge and experience, bear witness to all sides of the life of the proletariat, the Russian land in its entire breadth, the Russian people in its vast diversity and multiplicity. It was laid upon him—and nobly he stood the test—to know all forms of poverty in order to become the just and proper advocate for all misery; laid upon him also was the fate of all those in Russia who rebelled against the injustice of this scheme of things: to sit in prisons, to be watched by the police, to be spied upon, beset, suspected and hunted by the gendarmer like a rabid wolf. This poet of the Russian people must endure in his defiant soul the lash of spiritual bondage, misrepresentation, for he is called to endure every single form of suffering of his class and kind. He must experience all forms of injustice and despair, even that ultimate and most frightful—the deepest and supreme despair of mankind—when he can no longer endure life and spews it from him like a bitter draught. Even this last abyss is not spared him. In December, 1887, Maxim Gorki bought with his last money a wretched revolver and fired a bullet into his breast. It remains in his lung and has threatened his life for forty years, but—happily —he was saved for the huge labor, which single-handed he has accomplished, of witnessing for his people before the tribunal of humanity.

When this vagabond, this humble day-laborer, this street waif and penniless fellow became a writer no scholarship will ever be able to figure out. For Maxim Gorki was always a poet by right of the alert vision and clear spirit of his generously receptive nature. But to express this poetic material he must first learn speech, writing and spelling, and how laborious was this necessity. No one helped him in it; only his own tenacious will and the unyielding, unshakable primitive force which urged him on. As baker and street cleaner lie eagerly collected by night whatever came into his hands in the way of books, newspapers, printed matter. But his real lesson book was the highway, his real guide his inner genius, for Gorki was a poet long before he had read anything and an artist before he had learnt to spell correctly. At four and twenty he published his first novel; at thirty he is suddenly discovered, already, the best known and, by the people, the most loved artist of Russia, the pride of the proletariat and a glory of the European world. The effect of Gorki's first works was indescribably portentous, like an upheaval, an alarm, a wrench, a breaking. Every one felt that a different Russia from that of the past had here spoken for the first time, that this voice came from the gigantic anguished breast of a whole people. Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Turgenev, to be sure, had long before in noble visions given some inkling of the Russian soul in its breadth and power. But here suddenly the same thing was presented differently, more vividly—not the soul merely, but the whole naked man, the pitilessly clear, authentic Russian reality. In those others Russian destiny floated in a spiritual element, in the stormy spheres of conscience — this wide-spread suffering, tension to the breaking point, the tragic knowledge of the course of world history. In Gorki, however, the Russian man arises not in the spirit but in flesh and blood, the shadowy nameless one takes definite form, becomes compelling reality. Gorki, in contrast to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and Goncharov, has no comprehensive symbolical figures of world literature like, say, the four Karamazovs, like Oblomov, like Levin and Ka-ratejev. It is no diminution of his greatness that Gorki has never sought to form a single symbol of the inward nature of the Russian soul, but has instead placed before us, so that we can seize and touch them, ten thousand living figures of individual men and women with penetration and detail, with incredible veracity and verisimilitude. Born of the people, he has in himself made visible a whole people. From all stages of misery, from all stations in life he has invoked figures—each one of unsurpassed fidelity to life— dozens, hundreds, thousands, an army of the poor and diseased. Instead of a comprehensive vision this glorious eye gives back to the living again in a thousand individual forms each man who met him in life. Therefore, for me, this remembering eye of Gorki belongs to the few genuine marvels of our present world, and I do not know what in the artcraft of our time can be even approximately compared in naturalness and exactitude to bis art of observation. No shadow of the mystic dims this eye, there is no distorting flaw in this wonderful crystalline lens which neither enlarges nor diminishes, which never sees things obliquely or distorted, never falsely perceives them too bright or too dark. This eye sees only truly and clearly, but in unsurpassed truth and unexcelled clarity. What has once passed before this candid and just eye, this clearest and truest instrument of our newer art, remains undistorted, for this eye of Maxim Gorki forgets nothing—it gives purest and justest reality. When Maxim Gorki describes a man I am ready to swear: such was he exactly as Gorki saw and depicted him, exactly so, no greater and no more insignificant; here is nothing added and nothing taken away, nothing glossed over and nothing subtracted; here is caught pure and undistorted the uniqueness of a human being divined and forced into a portrait. There is no picture of Leo Tolstoy among his ten thousand photographs, no account among the ten thousand by his friends and visitors, which to the same degree illuminates his being, discriminatingly, vividly, truly, as the terse sixty pages which Maxim Gorki has dedicated to him in his recollections. And exactly as this greatest of all Russians whom he met, he has depicted with equal truth and justice the most wretched vagabond, the lowest gypsy whom he met on the road. The genius of Gorki's vision has only one name: veracity.

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