Thursday, 12 December 2013

RUSSIAN LITERATURE

It must have occurred to many of us during the last few weeks to take down our Carlyle or our Taine in the hope of getting, from history, an answer to the question that all the world is asking— the question whether Russia is or is not about to furnish the spectacle of a second Reign of Terror. Probably most of us have found these modern oracles even less satisfactory than ancient inquirers found that of Delphi, we have left the shrine with an evasive or an ambiguous reply ringing in our ears. The condition of Russia to day has undoubtedly many points in common with the condition of France in the years immediately preceding the cataclysm of 1789. It would be easy to discover in the lot of the Russian moujik a close analogue to the lot of the French peasant under the old rĂ©gime; easy to draw any number of ingenious parallels in constitutional matters; easy, perhaps, to liken Louis XVI with the present Czar. But the cases show innumerable differences as well as innumerable resemblances; and anyone who thinks of setting up as a prophet in the matter will do well to take account of both before he finally assumes the oracular tone. One of these differences must have struck everyone who has thought on the subject at all. If we are not mistaken, it is really a vital point.

No account of the French revolution can be anything but hopelessly inadequate if it omits to notice the influence of literature in making ready the soil for that ghastly harvest. It is impossible to say with exactitude when the work of preparation began; whether it was the speculative negations of Descartes of the frank and honest scepticism of Montaigne, or the veiled satire of Rabelais, that sounded the first note of insurrection. At all events, during the half century preceding the Revolution the work went merrily forward carried on by sundry writers in a great diversity of ways. Voltaire the greatest master of persiflage the world has ever seen, heaped ridicule upon all the ancient and venerable institutions. Diderot, and the "philosophes" generally, brought the scientific spirit to bear upon politics and ethics and religion. Helvetius announced in flippant tones the futility of accepted moral ideas. Holbach formulated a grossly materialistic system of philosophy. Montesquieu was never weary of dilating on the contrast between the British Constitution and that of France. Rousseau his waistcoat bedewed with the tears of "sensibility," rhapsodised of an infinitely vague but infinitely attractive "return to nature."   It is not to be supposed that the average French peasant made himself familiar with "Emile" and the "Contrat Social"— though an astonishing number of people certainly did—but their author's doctrines were spread abroad by crowds of energetic journalists and pamphleteers. Bitterly opposed to one another as they were, Voltaire and Rousseau would have agreed in repelling with indignation the idea that they were preaching a revolution of force. But the outcome of their teaching was the same—reason took the place of authority, and the worship of reason was accepted with rapturous enthusiasm as the only religion fit for men. Literature was thus the most conspicuous among the dissolvents of established order in church and state; the fall of the Bastile was merely the visible result of a spiritual emancipation which had been going on for fifty years at least. 

Has there been anything like this in the Russian literature of the past half-century? At first sight it would appear that there has. The chief literary force in Russia is of course the novelist;the severity of the press censorship in that country gives the novel on importance which it can claim no where else; a man may present under the guise of fiction doctrines which he dares not publish in any other dress. And there is no doubt that the Russian novelists as a body have, indirectly and in some cases unconsciously, preached revolution. Gogol, the father of the realists has painted a grimly humorous picture of the provincial land owner and the provincial administrative official. Dostoieffski, himself a communist and for seven years a Siberian exile, has described with inexorable fidelity and with unmistakable power the condition of the rural poor. The novels and stories of Maxime Gorky provide us with a series of brutal pictures of the city "bossiak" —a term for which "larrikin" is perhaps the nearest Australian rendering. The hero of the greatest of Turgenieff's novels is a republican, who dies in Paris at the barricades, in the revolution of '48. It need scarcely be said however, that incomparably the greatest literary force in Russia is, and has been for many years, the influence of Tolstoi. A novelist of the very highest order, Tolstoi is also a born propagandist. The manner of his life, his transparent purity of motive, the high-hearted courage which has never failed him, and the Titanic energy which has enabled him to do single-handed the work of a hundred French pamphleteers — these things have gripped the imagination of his countrymen, and have given him a public compared with which Voltaire's public was a mere coterie. From a little village in the heart of Russia Tolstoi preaches to the nation— with a self-devotion which is beyond all praise and with arguments which are frequently beneath contempt— what Thoreau called "the duty of civil disobedience." That war is an unnecessary evil, that militarism is an abomination, that all government is based on injustice, and that it is every-man's instant and imperative duty to withdraw his support from a Government which makes war and which maintains itself by militarism—these are not the doctrines of a quietest; and it is these doctrines that Tolstoi and his disciples teach in season and out of season.

So far, then, modern Russian literature would seem to be revolutionary in tendency; but only so far. Tolstoi's central doctrine as everyone knows, is the doctrine of non-resistance. Over and over again he has pled for a literal interpretation of Christ's command, "Resist not evil." With ceaseless iteration he has warned his follow countrymen to expect no permanent good from violence. In the long run, he insists, force is always on the side of the ruling class. The whole of his teaching may be summed up in two statements—first, the existing order in church and state is monstrous, and must be swept away; second it can never be swept away by brute force. He preaches resistance as a sacred duty— but it must be moral resistance only. So that where Tolstoi's teaching is accepted in its entirety it is in influence which is bound to make for peaceful reforms rather than a revolution of blood. As for the other writers whom we have named, it may be pointed out, briefly, that whereas French pre-Revolution writers were optimists to a man, the note of Russian literature is a note of profound pessimism; it is a literature of despair. It was not despair, it was radiant hope, that animated the real French Revolutionist the belief in human perfectibility, the thought of an easily attainable golden age. The Russian novelists paint a hideous world, and paint it with unflinching realism; but they do not point, as the French writers pointed, to a way of escape. Their attitude is one of hopeless acquiescence; they voice the Oriental apathy of the Slavic temperament.

 The Argus 25 February 1905,

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