Home » All My Posts » Alexander Herzen: My Past and Thoughts

Alexander Herzen: My Past and Thoughts

Beyond doubt, the most beloved literary monument among all genres in my library. Going through this 700 page abridgement from the original four tomes can only leave you with the desire to read the original Constance Garnett translation of complete four volumes. Its so unfortunate that Dwight MacDonald decided not to include that long essay, ‘A Family Drama’ in this abridgement for editorial reasons.

70069Its very hard that something socio-politically meaningful and interesting can be uttered about Herzen’s memoirs by a South-East Asian reader in 21st century. However, from the perspective of an ardent lover of Russian literary tradition and an admirer of that peculiar milieu, Herzen, at times, comes out as deeply disquieted, hot and bothered reactionary; at other times he is a genius social critic, questioning reactionary zealousness and republicanism with the equal force. But overall, his characterization of bourgeois mentality is the strongest part of contemporary interest that protrudes out of the narrative, with capability to even hook a reader who is not that much aware of Turgenev’s Bazarov — the superfluous man —, Bakunin, Belinsky, or even Mazzini or Garibaldi.

The whole Western-Europe of middle of 19th century comes alive in these memoirs and at times, stares at your face not letting you blink your eyes. There are passages which have unsurpassable literary force in whole classic modern literature; for instance, the angst laden ones such as,

All Italy was awakening before my eyes! I saw the King of Naples tamed and the Pope humbly asking the alms of people’s love – the whirlwind, which set everything in movement carried me, too, off my feet; all Europe took up its bed and walked – in fit of somnambulism which we took for awakening. When I came to myself, it had all vanished; la Sonnambula, frightened by the police, had fallen from the roof; friends were scattered or were furiously slaughtering one another…And I found myself alone, utterly alone, among graves and cradles – their guardian, defender, avenger, and I could do nothing because I tried to do more than was usual.

have the kind of old school nihilistic tinge, which Herzen characterized more fully in his famous letters to Turgenev and the essay titled, The Superfluous and the Jaundiced (1860). However, its in the later years when Herzen developed, and displayed, his true literary and critical acumen beyond just the art of blending the personal with the historical. His musings on relationship between art and bourgeois life are so confounding, as well as accurate that one is forced to pause, reflect and perspire in the process. Here is a passage:

Decorum, that is the real word. The petit bourgeois has two talents and he has the same ones, Moderation and portrait-alexander-herzen-astafievPunctuality. The life of middle class is full of small defects and small virtues; it is self-restrained, often niggardly, and shuns what is extreme and what is superfluous. The garden is transformed into a kitchen garden; the thatched cottage into a little country-town house with an escutcheon painted on the shutters; but everyday they drink tea and eat meat in it. It is an immense step forward, but not at all artistic. Art is more at home with poverty and luxury than with crude prosperity or with comfort when it is an end in itself; if it comes to that, it is more at home with a harlot selling herself than with the respectable woman selling at three times the cost of the work of the starving seamstress. Art is not at ease in the stiff, over-neat thrifty house of the petit bourgeois, and in his house is bound to be such; art feels instinctively that in that life it is reduced to the level of external decoration such as wall paper and furniture, to the level of hurdy-gurdy; if the hurdy-gurdy man is a nuisance he is kicked out, if they want to listen they give him a halfpenny and that’s that. Art which is pre-eminently elegance of proportion cannot endure the yard-measure; a life self-satisfied with its narrow mediocrity is stigmatised in the eyes of art by the worst of blots — vulgarity.

But that does not in the least prevents the whole cultured world from passing into petit bourgeois, and the vanguard has arrived their already. Petit bourgeois is the ideal to which Europe is striving, and rising from every point on the ground. It is the ‘chicken in the cabbage soup,’ about which Henri Quatre dreamt. A little house with little windows looking into the street, a school for the son, a dress for the daughter, a servant for the hard work—all that makes up indeed a haven of refuge—Havre de Grace!

Bourgeoisie, the last word of civilisation, founded on the despotism of property, is the ‘democratisation‘ of aristocracy, the ‘aristocratisation‘ of democracy. In this environment Almaviva is the equal of Figaro—from below everything is straining up into bourgeoisie, from above everything is sinking down into it through the impossibility of maintaining itself. The American States present the spectacle of one class—the middle class—with nothing below it and nothing above it, the petit bourgeois manners and morals have remained. The German peasant is the petit bourgeois of agriculture; the working man of every country is petit bourgeois of future. Italy, the most poetical land in Europe, was not able to hold out, but at once forsook her fanatical lover, Mazzini, and betrayed her husband, the Hercules Garibaldi, as soon as Cavour, the petit bourgeois of genius, the little fat man in spectacles, offered to keep her as his mistress.

And with such kind of incessant, untiring, almost magnetic prose, he continues to take notes around the dying old world and its emerging new forms. As he himself says in a rejoinder to one of his critical interlocutors, he has no solutions to speak of. He was like a man sitting beside a patient on his death bed describing him his disease.

As Isaiah Berlin observes elsewhere, the chief reason for these memoirs being a supreme masterpiece is that the writer does not commit himself to any single thesis with a clear purpose, rejecting all general solutions of his time, may it be the optimism of Bakunin or Marx, or pessimism of Burckhardt or Tocqueville; thereby grasping,

…as very few thinkers have ever done, the crucial distinction between words that are about words, and words that are about persons or things in the real world. Nevertheless, it is as a writer that he survives. His autobiography is one of the great monuments to Russian literary and psychological genius, worthy to stand beside the great novels of Turgenev and Tolstoy.

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