The Living Truth - Alexander Herzen

‘Time is money’, say the English. In reality, time is much, much more precious than money: time is ourselves. — Alexander Herzen 

It is difficult to write about Alexander Herzen (1812-1870). Just when you think you’ve got the right idea about him, a central insight, he turns away. One can hardly say the simplest thing about him: he was a Russian aristocratic philosopher, but born a landowner’s illegitimate son who polemicised against Tsarism; an early revolutionary, he cautioned against going too fast, lest Russian society broke under the strain; hailed for denouncing official misrule, ultimately he was scorned by both the Romantic dissenters of the 1840s and the nihilists of the 1860s; once as famous as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Lev Tolstoy, he died in relative obscurity; patient, even unrealistic about people’s real intentions, he could be a bitter critic who engaged in long-running feuds; an attentive and loving family man, he committed adultery and was distraught when his wife fell in love with a minor German poet; trained in the natural sciences at Moscow University, he went on to write philosophy, political essays, socialist polemics, history, fiction and a monumental memoir.

Herzen left no central body of doctrine after his death, was adopted by figures as different as Lenin and Isaiah Berlin, and continues to generate various interpretations about his ‘real’ significance.

One can say one thing with certainty, however: to read Herzen is to get involved in ‘those damned questions’, as Dostoevsky called them. How should we live? Where does human responsibility end and fate, or God, or evil begin? What is freedom – is it a supreme virtue or a crime? Is Utopia attainable or even desirable? Is a ‘better’ society valuable to the present, or a nasty dream, used to deceive today’s freethinkers?

Such questions weren’t idle to many 19th century Russians: instead, they were treated with a seriousness that is easy to caricature (the ‘heart-on-sleeve’ bearded Russian, holding forth about life and death deep into the night, candle on the table, icon on the wall, feverishly smoking a dozen cigarettes), but harder to dismiss.

Moreover, Herzen’s magnum opus – his autobiography My Past & Thoughts – transgresses genres and stylistic registers: it is at once a realistic account of a 19th century life, a biting reflection on Tsarism, a love story with a bitter twist, a historically fascinating analysis of European revolution and counterrevolution, and a searing socialist testament. It rivals Tolstoy’s War & Peace in its impatient ambition to say more than others, in a form shaped around its multifaceted content.

To be frank, this kind of seriousness is astonishing.

Slavic scholar Aileen M. Kelly, a veteran interpreter of Herzen, is acutely aware of how difficult her subject is to describe: one does not doubt how many troubled hours she must have spent getting his life and thought into a coherent shape for her wonderful, sprawling – if ultimately flawed – The Discovery of Chance: The Life and Thought of Alexander Herzen.

Correctly seeing Herzen as an anti-systematiser in an age of grand theories and projects (e.g. Marxism, imperialism and forceful Christianity), Kelly grounds her subject in the natural sciences. She casts him as a humanist par excellence, who nonetheless started with a fierce interest in science, developing into a Darwinian before Darwin, later taking evolutionary theory to be a rich exploration of all that is contingent, messy and disruptive.

On the one hand, Kelly is excellent when she analyses how Herzen argued that time is not a unifying force; that the future isn’t bound by external laws to be better or simpler; that responsibility cannot be deferred; and that one must act with the tools at hand to make the present as just as possible. And yet, for all her intellectual brilliance and elective affinity with Herzen, she focusses too much on the brain, often remaining neutral or silent about the heart, in a way her subject certainly did not.

The Discovery of Chance has a neat structure. It takes us from Herzen’s birth and upbringing to his intellectual awakening; literary career and anti-authoritarian polemics; domestic and foreign exile; marriage and parenthood; political fame as founder and publisher of The Bell (imported into Russia from Herzen’s exile in London, and often credited with single-handedly creating Russian public opinion); later familial and political disappointments; and relatively quiet death.

Nonetheless, despite its traditional construction, each chapter bursts at the seams with learning, restless curiosity and an infectious admiration for its polymath subject. Herzen is present on virtually every page, frequently outthinking both friend and foe, driven to say more, even when he is conscious of the loss of his legal position in Russian society, the support of fellow radicals, political influence, friendships and family members (he fell into deep depression at one tragic point in his life, when his mother drowned and his wife died in close succession).

Kelly is a superb guide, not only aware but fully conversant with Herzen’s explorations of thinkers as diverse as Francis Bacon, Saint-Simon, Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx, Darwin, John Stuart Mill, Proudhon and Bakunin, not to mention the less famous names Herzen either championed or, not infrequently, argued with.

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