Monday, 23 January 2017

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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Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Leo Tolstoy and the Origins of Spiritual Memoir

TWO THINGS ARE TRUE about Leo Tolstoy in 1879. First, he had mostly given up on fiction, having published his two titanic novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. The latter book exhausted him physically and morally: not long after its appearance, he termed his saga of adultery “an abomination.” He found novel writing to be a poor substitute for confronting religious issues and his existential lot. Second, because of his early literary acclaim and the immoral lifestyle it had spawned and enabled, he was miserable. He was so ashamed of himself that post-Karenina his ambivalent atheism collapsed and he sought a new relationship to the “truth.” He abdicated the throne of novelist and took up the mantle of religious critic — on the side of Christianity and against it.

Raised in the Russian Orthodox Church, Tolstoy lost his religion at 18. After a life of debauchery, in his early 50s, he wanted religion — or some source of intellectual security — back. In 1882, he published his Confession, a retrospective analysis of the previous five years in which his midlife crisis of faith unbalanced his literary and philosophical bearing. It is among the oddest of Christian tell-alls, a treatise searching for its own focal truth. Throughout, he hungers for spiritual fortitude: “Is there any meaning in my life that wouldn’t be destroyed by the death that inevitably awaits me?” Readers note that the title has no “a” or “the” attached. (There are no articles in Russian, but this particular absence in English is meaningful.) The singular noun by itself emphasizes its currency.

Early on in the book, he asserts, in defiance, that “Christian teaching plays no part in life; one never comes across it in one’s relations with others and one never has to deal with it in one’s own life.” He pegs believers as “stupid, cruel, and immoral people who think themselves very important.” He tags unbelievers as the finest people he knows: they have “[i]ntelligence, honesty, uprightness, goodness of heart, and morality.” He renounces religion in favor of “reading and thinking” — in essence, reason — and recalls that five years prior “my only real faith […] was a faith in self-perfection.”

Of course, reason means progress, and progress, for an egoist like Tolstoy, entails an unchecked liberality in one’s behaviors. At this, the young Tolstoy, an aristocrat and braggart, more than excelled. Here’s part of his resume:
I killed people in war, I challenged people to duels in order to kill them, I lost at cards, I consumed the labor of peasants, I punished them, I fornicated, I deceived. Lies, theft, adultery of every kind, drunkenness, violence, murder. … There was no crime I did not commit, and for all this my contemporaries praised me and thought me a relatively moral man, as they still do.
But the hyper-observant and self-obsessed Tolstoy suffers, despite his ego, a debilitating paranoia. He believes that people ridicule him because of his alcoholic, adulterous, and arrogant excesses. He has often imagined he’s dying: the darkness is drawing close, and he must find a purpose, because soon, for him, “nothing will remain but stink and worms.” (The death-obsessed Russian lived another 30 years after Confession.) At times, despair clings to his words like a rose vine: “You can only live as long as you’re drunk with life; but when you sober up, you can’t help but see that all this is just a fraud, and a stupid fraud. Precisely that: there’s nothing even amusing or witty about it; it’s simply cruel and stupid.” He says he doesn’t know why the universe exists. He is tortured by the question. He wants it answered; he can’t bear living in an untended and unintended cosmos.

By mid-book, Tolstoy’s searching starts to change — not just his focus but his sensibility. To unburden his longing, he quotes Bible passages, an Indian sage, and nuggets from the saints and the martyrs, honoring what he said earlier were useless “teachings of faith.” He wonders if to feel secure all we need is the wisdom of the ancients. These teachings have, he argues, lasted this long. His disclosures work him into a lather, and he declares that a pure belief in reason, without room for God as ultimate mystery, leads to insanity and suicide. A worrywart, Tolstoy plunges on with the tone of a querulous depressive. Moreover, he shifts, as it suits his gain, the blame for who should tow his anguish: from pagan nihilists to scientific rationalists to Orthodox dogmatists to jurisprudent bureaucrats — these last, the Ivan Ilyiches of the world. The only blameless one, he decides, is he who lives as Jesus lived. And yet, he counters, who can? It’s impossible.

Tolstoy decides that no faith is truer than the Christian peasant’s, whose “irrational knowledge” paves the road to happiness. Irrational knowledge is faith, he posits. Peasants should know. They are (though he aspires to join up, Tolstoy is definitely not one of them) the “great mass of people, the whole of mankind” — the nonindividuated mass, whom he lauds but who also rise, in his characterization, no higher than type. Uniformly, he writes in Chapter VIII, they believe God is “one and three,” father, son, spirit, “creation in six days, devils and angels and everything I couldn’t accept as long as I didn’t go mad.” That odd admission, with its tortuous grammar and emphatic final clause — as long as I didn’t go mad — is a performative leap away from his natural inclinations. He needs to believe something that transcends his inherent, incessant self-questioning, and he decides to do so. For him, peasant certainty is true because he, the great literary arbiter of truth, has arrived at it, not because Christianity has told him to accept it.

Thus, with a thunderclap, Tolstoy’s short and intensely self-defensive polemic turns into a classic Christian conversion story, worthy of Augustine’s tale of tribulation. After weighing all the possibilities, mad or not, Tolstoy drapes the crucifix around his neck. As one of his best biographers, Martine de Courcel, writes, he has, rather Christianly, “admitted his sins and proclaimed his faith.” Saved, he declares that his actions from now on will embody his intentions — he will attend church, participate in sacraments, live frugally, leave his bourgeois habits, love God and peasant equally. But wait. Opening faith’s creaking door hardly calms his restlessness. Though Tolstoy says he erred “not so much because I thought wrongly as because I lived badly,” the insight is not enough. He cannot settle his thoughts. Try as he might, Tolstoy, a self-cleansing fanatic, cannot rid himself of his deviant past or his disputatious nature. He can neither forgive himself nor stop analyzing the demands of Christian belief. As long as he keeps writing pages, he’s not sure about Christ as savior or about divine intervention. His belief demands more and more tuning.

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Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Mikhail Bulgakov's The Heart of a Dog still bites

Mikhail Bulgakov was 33 years old, a former doctor and an up-and-coming playwright and short-story writer when he invited a group of people to a reading of his new novella, The Heart of a Dog. He had held a similar soiree the previous year to launch another novella, The Fatal Eggs, and though the earlier reading had gone well, it had made him anxious enough to muse in his diary: “Is it a satire? Or a provocative gesture? … I’m afraid that I might be hauled off … for all these heroic feats.”

His premonition proved right. Among the 50 or so people who gathered in the Moscow apartment in March 1925 to be introduced to Sharik, the humanoid dog, and the arrogant surgeon who created him, was an informer who took violent exception to his send-up of Soviet society. Bulgakov’s flat was searched and the manuscript seized. Though it was returned to him four years later, and was widely read in samizdat, it would not be officially published in Russian until 1987, nearly half a century after Bulgakov had died.

Sharik makes his first appearance as a mangy mongrel, cringing in a blizzard after being douched with boiling water by a cook. Out of a brightly lit shop walks a man (“definitely a citizen, not a comrade, or perhaps even – most likely – a gentleman”) with a nasty smell of hospital and cigars. Philip Philipovich also smells of the sausage he has just bought to lure Sharik back to his apartment, a seven-room suite in a building that has been requisitioned by a committee of zealous young revolutionaries.

This opening scene conveys so much about the early Soviet Union as Bulgakov saw it: the State Food Store selling cheap horsemeat sausage, the middle-aged professional “gentleman” hanging on to his privileges in an edifice that has been turned over to a proletarian command and which struggles to keep the boilers working and the galoshes from being stolen from the communal hallway.

Into the middle of it all bounds the cat-hating Sharik, who literally shatters the glass between the two orders of society before being hauled on to an operating table and subjected to Philip Philipovich’s latest experiment, described in gruesome medical detail: to see what happens when a dog is implanted with the testicles and pituitary glands of a human.

The creature that emerges from the operation walks on two legs, drinks, smokes, and is “familiar with every known Russian swearword”. Issued with identity papers in the name of Polygraph Polygraphovich Sharikov, he is placed “in charge of the Moscow Cleansing Department responsible for eliminating vagrant quadrupeds (cats, etc)”, but not before he has stolen from gentlemen and comrades alike, brought vagrants in from the street and attempted to have his wicked way with the women of the house while they slept.

A year before the fateful reading of The Heart of a Dog, Trotsky published an essay collection, Literature and Revolution, which argued for a people’s art capable of creating “a higher social biologic type, or … superman”.

But if Bulgakov the political commentator was sending up Soviet theories of human perfectibility though communism, Bulgakov the former physician was also poking fun at the western Europeans who were flocking to Paris-based celebrity quack Serge Voronoff in the belief that he could restore virility with an injection of monkey glands. These are the crumple-necked ladies, the men with green hair or heads as bald as dinner plates who Sharik woozily observes stripping off in Philipovich’s consulting room in the hope that their old money will buy them new vigour.

In Bulgakov’s own formulation, his novella is both satire and provocative gesture. Its genius is that its sights are multi-directional, so 92 years and many regime changes later it still seems freshly defiant.

It is also a riotous science-fiction comedy that anticipates the current vogue for political dystopias. It also harnesses the archetype of the overreaching scientist to the task of lampooning vanities that are too easily recognised in the age of cosmetic surgery and cryonics.

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