Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Russian Gloom

Jaspers wrote "[there] exists a solidarity among men as human beings that makes each co-responsibile for every wrong and every injustice in the world...If I fail to do whatever I can to prevent [crimes], I too am guilty.  If I was present at the murder of others without risking my life to prevent it, I feel guilty in a way not adequately conceivable either legally, politically or morally.  That I live after such a thing has happened, weighs upon me as indelible guilt."

"Dostoevsky was convinced that there was not a "villain or scoundrel among the Russians that did not know that he was disgusting and vile," whereas among other peoples a person who does evil congratulates himself and pretends he is a flower of civilization."  David Satter.

[Chaadaev wrote that] "there is in Russians a lack of stability, a lack of a certain consistency in mind, a certain logic.  The Western syllogism is to us alien.  In our minds there is something worse than superficiality.  The best ideas, in the absence of connections and consistency, like sterile outbreaks, paralyze in our brains."

[According to Chaadaev,] "Alone in the world we gave the world nothing and took nothing from the world.  We did nothing to assist the movement forward of human reason, and everything we received from this movement we distorted."  David Satter.

Having recently overcome a small health crisis, I have felt a little more gloomy than usual.  Looking at my DVR memory, which consists of dozens upon dozens of different crime shows, I wondered if I shouldn't consider turning toward some more cheerful entertainment.  Watching 30 Rock helped, but I eventually realized that twentieth century Russian history doesn't contribute to cheerfulness.  David Satter's sophisticated book on historical guilt, It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past, was particularly depressing, even by the high standards of modern Russian historiography.  As mentioned previously, the book is a catalog of criminal state activity, including mass executions, man-made famines, and the sometimes random violence of the great purges.  The author's conclusion of present-day Russia is equally depressing.  As Satter writes:  "The passivity on the part of ordinary Russians, combined with a seeming inability to make moral judgements, gives Russia's rulers the conviction that they never will be held to account."  Of course, if both the recent past and present are closed, one can and should start reading 19th century Russian history and literature.  This is what I've done.  I'm reading Oblomov and finishing Henri Troyat's biography of Gogol as a start.  Reading the classics of Russian literature soothes the soul, although it's sad to think that the chicanery of Gogol's Chicharev and the laziness of Goncharov's Oblomov are dependent on serfdom.  How is it that even a country's tranquil century is predicated on slavery, to say nothing of imperialism, war, famine, and social turmoil?  At any rate, Gogol and Goncharov are funny and so a lot to lighten one's mood.  Here are a couple samples from Gogol's letters, as translated by his biographer, Troyat.

Here is Gogol's advice to a young acolyte:

"For the love of God, don't sit in one place for more than an hour and a half at a time, and don't lean over the tables:  you have a weak chest, you must know it.  Try always to be in bed by half past eleven.  And do not dance at all, especially not these wild dances!  They stir up the blood but do not allow the body to move enough, and you are not light enough on your feet.  You are not pretty.  Are you quite sure you know that?  You are only pretty when your face expresses some elevated emotion.  Your features were patently made to express the nobility of your soul;  as soon as you lose that expression, you become plain.  Therefore, give up all social functions, however modest.  You must see that society can give you nothing.  Keep your childlike innocence;  that is worth more than everything else."

Here are his reflections on his pilgrimage to the Holy Land:

"What have all these Stations of the Cross of Our Savior got to say to us know;  the Holy Sepulcher, Golgotha, the place where Christ was shown to the people by Pontius Pilate, the residence of the High Priest, where he was taken, the site of the Holy Cross--when all these places have been fathered together under the roof of a single church?  What is there for artist or poet in the landscapes of Judea with their monotonous hills, like the gray waves of the sea in a gale?  No doubt, it was all very picturesque in the Savior's lifetime, when Judea was nothing but gardens and every Jew sat in the shade of the tree he had planted himself;  but today, when you met five or six olive trees straggling up the mountain slope, gray and dusty as the rocks themselves, when a thin membrane of moss and a few tufts of grass showed green in the middle of a barren, irregular plain strewn with stones, when after five or six hours' travel you saw some tiny Arab hut glued somewhere to the hillside, looking less like a human habitation than a terra-cota pot, an oven, or some animal's lair--where in this could you see the land of milk and honey?"

No comments:

Post a Comment