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Russia’s Most Literate Revolutionary

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Alexander Herzen, via Wikimedia Commons.

In The New Criterion, Gary Saul Morson about ‘Russia’s most literate revolutionary,’ Alexander Herzen:

Perhaps the best way to understand the psychology of radicals is to read accounts of former believers. In that classic collection of essays by disillusioned communists—The God That Failed—six major writers evoke what passionate belief feels like and analyze the kinds of thinking that sustain it. In the opening selection, Arthur Koestler describes the heady moment when ‘the new light seems to pour from all directions across the skull; the whole universe falls into pattern like the stray pieces of a jigsaw puzzle assembled by magic at one stroke. There is now an answer to every question, doubts and conflicts are a matter of the tortured past’ when one still lived among ‘those who don’t know.’ One has at last achieved complete serenity and assurance, except for the ‘occasional fear of losing faith again, losing thereby what alone makes life worth living.’

The most important lesson Koestler learned was what might be called ‘preemptive refutation,’ a series of techniques guaranteed to handle any counter-evidence. When, as a novice reporter for a communist paper, he pointed out that every word of a major story was false, the editor explained that Koestler still had the ‘mechanistic’ outlook instead of the proper dialectical one revealing what was ‘objectively’ happening. Once you have assimilated dialectics, Koestler explains, ‘you were no longer disturbed by facts,’ which fell automatically into place. The only remaining difficulty was adjusting to a rapid shift in the party line. Then you had to search your memory to convince yourself that you had always accepted the new truth. It’s just what Orwell describes in Nineteen Eighty-Four: ‘Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.’ The whole process reminded Koestler of the croquet game in Alice in Wonderland ’in which the hoops moved around the field and the balls were live hedgehogs. With this difference, that when a player missed his turn and the Queen shouted ‘Off with his head,’ the order was executed in earnest.’

Dostoevsky, the only nineteenth-century thinker to foresee what we have come to call totalitarianism, drew on his own experience as a former revolutionary to represent the radical mindset from within. He asked himself: what would Russian intellectuals do if they ever gained power? And he realized that, although his generation was not as bloodthirsty as the radicals to follow, they, and he himself, could be drawn into committing horrible crimes in the sincere conviction that they were pursuing justice. The relative moderates, who above all want to dissociate themselves from the conservatives, can always be shamed into going along with anything. It is a mistake to think that the decent people we know would never endorse, let alone commit, vile deeds. ‘And therein lies the real horror,’ Dostoevsky explains. In Russia, and eventually everywhere, ‘the purest of hearts and the most innocent of people can be drawn into committing . . . the foulest and most villainous act without being in the least a villain! . . . The possibility of considering oneself—and sometimes being, in fact—an honorable person while committing obvious and undeniable villainy—that is our whole affliction today!’

Dostoevsky learned a great deal from Russia’s most literate revolutionary, Alexander Herzen (1812–70), who died just a century and a half ago. Unlike Koestler, Herzen never renounced his faith in revolution, but he came to see its glaring flaws and ever-present dangers. His ironic dissections of revolutionary thinking and behavior cut to the heart of delusions that, in spite of all his insight, he never surrendered. Clinging to radical faith, he acutely probed his own mindset to show what made it so irresistible. ‘There are few diseases so intractable as idealism,’ he wrote. For him, revolution was the God that flickered.

In other news: John Mullan A. N Wilson’s The Mystery of Charles Dickens: “Those with high literary standards have often enjoyed Dickens against their better judgment. In The Mystery of Charles Dickens, Wilson sides with the gaping yokels. He confesses the he has read Dickens with ‘obsessive rapture’ since his childhood, but had to overcome the presumption, later educated into him, that his writing was insufficiently deep or sophisticated. ‘The death of Paul Dombey is so schmaltzy that we simply refuse to be moved, but then, damn it, we read and the tears well down our cheeks.’ For Wilson, Dickens is an irresistible performer. One chapter of his book is devoted to ‘The Mystery of the Public Readings’, in which Dickens drove himself to near collapse (and made huge amounts of money) by touring America as well as Britain to perform readings from his work. In 1869, he had a stroke on stage in Chester, but still refused to stop the readings, partly because of the money but mostly because he was addicted to the instant responsiveness of his audience.”

During the cold war, the CIA called Dr. Zhivago “strategic (long-range) propaganda,” which may seem simplistic, but , Randy Boyagoda writes in his review of Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War: “Pasternak emerges as one of the book’s most impressive, if tragic, figures. He wrote his novel knowing it would anger Soviet authorities, but he did not anticipate how Western powers would wield it against his country. The CIA, Dutch intelligence, and the Vatican conspired to provide Russian-language editions of the novel to Russians visiting the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. The CIA regarded it and similar titles as ‘strategic (long-range) propaganda.’ The irony, of course, is that Doctor Zhivago appealed precisely because it wasn’t written as propaganda. As White observes, ‘The lead character, Zhivago, a doctor and a poet, refuses to engage with politics, and it was this, [the CIA] argued, that was “fundamental”’ to its meaning. The CIA, whose earliest analysts included people with serious literary training and interests, saw Zhivago as a challenge to the idea that ­politics is the first and last context for ­meaningful ­experience. In this sense, they believed, the book was efficaciously opposed to the first principles of Marxist and Stalinist thought and practice.”

in Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea: “For all Charles Arrowby’s faults – and they are numerous – he knows the restorative power of a good lunch. The protagonist of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea (1978)who sequesters himself to live in isolation, dismisses the ‘tedious’ processes of ordinary cooking in favour of a remarkably voguish assemblage of ingredients and the unsupervised sort of preparation involved in soaking dried apricots overnight or leaving apples to stew in hot tea. I have more in common with Charles now than I did when I read The Sea, The Sea the first time around, having taken leave of London a few years ago to move to the coast. Today I read Murdoch’s lush descriptions of the minutiae of Charles’s life with a bittersweet acknowledgement of the things we have in common, namely theatrical self-obsession and a humdrum, quotidian variety of greed. As I re-read the novel shortly after the lockdown began, I found myself skipping over the preposterous parts where he receives guests, to linger instead over his descriptions of climbing in and out of the water, scraping his knees on rocks, and especially over the meals that he prepares for himself.”

Jane Ridley The Edwardians and Their Houses: The New Life of Old England: “Sir John Lubbock was an exemplary Edwardian Liberal. Growing up under the influence of Charles Darwin, who lived in the same village as him, he had a scientific mind. A truly good man and a philanthropist, he gave us bank holidays and early shop closing. His father-in-law was the great archaeologist Augustus Pitt Rivers, and Lubbock took up archaeology as well; he introduced the first legislation for the protection of ancient monuments. His crowning achievement was to commission Kingsgate Castle on the Isle of Thanet. Kingsgate is a mock Tudor castle with towers and courtyards, built on the ruins of a Georgian folly created by Lord Holland, the father of Charles James Fox. Lord Avebury, as Lubbock had become, died there in 1913, content that he had created a place on the Kentish coast for holidaymakers to enjoy. He is the hero of this book. Timothy Brittain-Catlin lived in a flat at Kingsgate Castle as a child. An astonishing number of Liberal politicians before 1914 built houses for themselves, and the boom in house building by such figures forms the core of this fascinating book.”

Why : “I remember the exact words with which I was first introduced to The Waste Land while still at school. ‘This isn’t a poem you read. It is a poem you will live with.’ Everything in the years since has proved those words true. And not just with that work, but with all of T.S. Eliot—the Four Quartets above all. It seems to be the same for many people. He is the modern poet whose lines come to mind most often. The one we reach for when we wish to find sense in things. And certainly the first non-scriptural place we call when we consider the purpose or end of life. His contemporaries, by contrast, all seem to have grown smaller. W.H. Auden has perhaps three-quarters of his reputation still. But most of the other figures who dominated English poetry in the last century look diminished in the rear-view mirror. Which makes it even more striking that Eliot seems to grow.” Has Auden grown smaller? I don’t know. I have a few other quibbles, but .

Photo: in Annaba, Algeria

Poem: Marc Alan Di Martino,

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about the author

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Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on .

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