Anton Tchekhov, and Other Essays
AND OTHER ESSAIS
S. KOTELIANSKY AND J. M. MURRY
MAUNSEL AND CO. LTD.
DUBLIN AND LONDON
It is not to be denied that Russian thought is chiefly manifested inthe great Russian novelists. Tolstoi, Dostoevsky, and Tchekhov madeexplicit in their works conceptions of the world which yield nothing indefiniteness to the philosophic schemes of the great dogmatists of old,and perhaps may be regarded as even superior to them in that by theirnature they emphasise a relation of which the professional philosopheris too often careless—the intimate connection between philosophy andlife. They attacked fearlessly and with a high devotion of which weEnglish readers are slowly becoming sensible the fundamental problem ofall philosophy worthy the name. They were preoccupied with the answerto the question: Is life worth living? And the great assumption whichthey made, at least in the beginning of the quest, was that to livelife must mean to live it wholly. To live was not to pass by life onthe other side, not suppress the deep or even the dark passions of bodyor soul, not to lull by some lying and narcotic phrase the urgentquestions of the mind, not to deny life. To them life was the sum ofall human potentialities. They accepted them all, loved them all, andstrove to find a place for them all in a pattern in which none shouldbe distorted. They failed, but not one of them fainted by the way,and there was not one of them but with his latest breath bravely heldto his belief that there was a way and that the way might be found.Tolstoi went out alone to die, yet more manifestly than he had lived,a seeker after the secret; death overtook Dostoevsky in his supremeattempt to wrest a hope for mankind out of the abyss of the imaginedfuture; and Tchekhov died when his most delicate fingers had beenfinally eager in lighting The Cherry Orchard with the tremulous glintof laughing tears, which may perhaps be the ultimate secret of theprocess which leaves us all bewildered and full of pity and wonder.
There were great men and great philosophers. It may be that thiscruelly conscious world will henceforward recognise no man as greatunless he has greatly sought: for to seek and not to think is theessence of philosophy. To have greatly sought, I say, should be themeasure of man's greatness in the strange world of which there will beonly a tense, sorrowful, disillusioned remnant when this grim ordealis over. It should be so: and we, who are, according to our strength,faithful to humanity, must also strive according to our strength tomake it so. We are not, and we shall not be, great men: but we havethe elements of greatness. We have an impulse to honesty, to thinkhonestly, to see honestly, and to speak the truth to ourselves in thelonely hours. It is only an impulse, which, in these barren, bitter,years, so quickly withers and dies. It is almost that we dare not behonest now. Our hearts are dead: we cannot wake the old wounds again.And yet if anything of this generation that suffered is to remain, ifwe are to hand any spark of the fire which once burned so brightly,if we are to be human still, then we must still be honest at whatevercost. We—and I speak of that generation which was hardly man when thewar burst upon it, which was ardent and generous and dreamed dreamsof devotion to an ideal of art or love or life—are maimed and brokenfor ever. Let us not deceive ourselves. The dead voices will never besilent in our ears to remind us of that which we once were, and thatwhich we have lost. We shall die as we shall live, lonely and hauntedby memories that will grow stranger, more beautiful, more terrible,and more tormenting as the years go on, and at the last we shall notknow which was the dream—the years of plenty or the barren years thatdescended like a storm in the night and swept our youth away.
Yet something remains. Not those lying things that they who cannot feelhow icy cold is sudden and senseless death to all-daring youth, din inour ears. We shall not be inspired by the memory of heroism. We shallbe shattered by the thought of splendid and wonderful lives that werevilely cast away. What remains is that we should be honest as we shallbe pitiful. We shall never again be drunk with hope: let us never beblind with fear. There can be in the lap of destiny now no worse thingwhich may befall us. We can afford to be honest now.
We can afford to be honest: but we need to learn how, or to increaseour knowledge. The Russian writers will help us in this; and not thegreat Russians only, but the lesser also. For a century of bitternecessity has taught that nation that the spirit is mightier than theflesh, until those eager qualities of soul that a century of socialease has almost killed in us are in them well-nigh an instinct. Letus look among ourselves if we can find a Wordsworth, a Shelley, aColeridge, or a Byron to lift this struggle to the stars as they didthe French Revolution. There is none.—It will be said: 'But that wasa great fight for freedom. Humanity itself marched forward with theRevolutionary armies.' But if the future of mankind is not in issuenow, if we are fighting for the victory of no precious and passionateidea, why is no voice of true poetry uplifted in protest? There isno third way. Either this is the greatest struggle for right, or thegreatest crime, that has ever been. The unmistakable voice of poetryshould be certain either in protest or enthusiasm: it is silent orit is trivial. And the cause must be that the keen edge of the soulof those century-old poets which cut through false patriotism sosurely is in us dulled and blunted. We must learn honesty again:not the laborious and meagre honesty of those who weigh advantageagainst advantage in the ledger of their minds, but the honesty thatcries aloud in instant and passionate anger against the lie and thehalf-truth, and by an instinct knows the authentic thrill of contactwith the living human soul.
The Russians, and not least the lesser Russians, may teach us thisthing once more. Among these lesser, Leon Shestov holds an honourableplace. He is hardly what we should call a philosopher, hardly againwhat we would understand by an essayist. The Russians, great and smallalike, are hardly ever what we understand by the terms which we victimsof tradition apply to them. In a hundred years they have accomplishedan evolution which has with us slowly unrolled in a thousand. The veryfoundations of their achievement are new and laid within the memory ofman. Where we have sharply divided art from art, and from science andphilosophy, and given to each a name, the Russians have still the senseof a living connection between all the great activities of the humansoul. From us this connection is too often concealed by the tyrannyof names. We have come to believe, or at least it costs us greatpains not to believe, that the name is a particular reality, which toconfuse with another name is a crime. Whereas in truth the energies ofthe human soul are not divided from each other by any such impassablebarriers: they flow into each other indistinguishably, modify, control,support, and decide each other. In their large unity they are real;isolated, they seem to be poised uneasily between the real and theunreal, and become deceptive, barren half-truths. Plato, who firstdiscovered the miraculous hierarchy of names, though he was sometimesdrunk with the new wine of his discovery, never forgot that the unityof the human soul was the final outcome of its diversity; and thosewho read aright his most perfect of all books—The Republic—knowthat it is a parable which fore-shadows the complete harmony of all thesoul's activities.
Not the least of Shestov's merits is that he is alive to this truth inits twofold working. He is aware of himself as a soul seeking an answerto its own question; and he is aware of other souls on the same quest.As in his own case he knows that he has in him something truer thannames and divisions and authorities, which will live in spite of them,so towards others he remembers that all that they wrote or thought orsaid is precious and permanent in so far as it is the manifestationof the undivided soul seeking an answer to its question. To know aman's work for this, to have divined the direct relation between hisutterance and his living soul, is criticism: to make that relationbetween one's own soul and one's speech direct and true is creation.In essence they are the same: creation is a man's lonely attempt tofix an intimacy with his own strange and secret soul, criticism is thesatisfaction of the impulse of loneliness to find friends and secretsharers among the souls that are or have been. As creation drives a manto the knowledge of his own intolerable secrets, so it drives him tofind others with whom he may whisper of the things which he has found.Other criticism than this is, in the final issue, only the criminal andmad desire to enforce material order in a realm where all is spiritualand vague and true. It is only the jealous protest of the small soulagainst the great, of the slave against the free.
Against this smallness and jealousy Shestov has set his face. To havedone so does not make him a great writer; but it does make him a realone. He is honest and he is not deceived. But honesty, unless a man isbig enough to bear it, and often even when he is big enough to bear it,may make him afraid. Where angels fear to tread, fools rush in: butthough the folly of the fool is condemned, some one must enter, lesta rich kingdom be lost to the human spirit. Perhaps Shestov will seemat times too fearful. Then we must remember that Shestov is Russian inanother sense than that I have tried to make explicit above. He is acitizen of a country where the human spirit has at all times been sohighly prized that the name of thinker has been a key to unlock notmerely the mind but the heart also. The Russians not only respect,but they love a man who has thought and sought for humanity, and, Ithink, their love but seldom stops 'this side idolatry.' They willexalt a philosopher to a god; they are even able to make of materialisma religion. Because they are so loyal to the human spirit they willload it with chains, believing that they are garlands. And that is whydogmatism has never come so fully into its own as in Russia.
When Shestov began to write nearly twenty years ago, Karl Marx wasenthroned and infallible. The fear of such tyrannies has neverdeparted from Shestov. He has fought against them so long and sopersistently—even in this book one must always remember that heis face to face with an enemy of which we English have no realconception—that he is at times almost unnerved by the fear that hetoo may be made an authority and a rule. I do not think that thisultimate hesitation, if understood rightly, diminishes in any way fromthe interest of his writings: but it does suggest that there may beawaiting him a certain paralysis of endeavour. There is indeed noabsolute truth of which we need take account other than the livingpersonality, and absolute truths are valuable only in so far as theyare seen to be necessary manifestations of this mysterious reality.Nevertheless it is in the nature of man, if not to live by absolutetruths, at least to live by enunciating them; and to hesitate tosatisfy this imperious need is to have resigned a certain measure ofone's own creative strength. We may trust