Part 6: Western Europe, Section 6

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Part 6: Western Europe, Section 6

This text was taken from the 1st edition of Memoirs of a Revolutionist, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1899.

Part Six

Section VI

     DURING this stay at Paris I made my first acquaintance with Turguéneff. He had expressed to our common friend P. L. Lavróff the desire to see me, and, as a true Russian, to celebrate my escape by a small friendly dinner. It was with a feeling almost of worship that I crossed the threshold of his room. If by his "Sportsman's Notebook" he rendered to Russia the immense service of throwing odium upon serfdom (I did not know at that time that he took a leading part in Hérzen's powerful "Bell"), he has rendered no less service through his later novels. He has shown what the Russian woman is, what treasuries of mind and heart she possesses; what she may be as an inspirer of men; and he has taught us how men who have a real claim to superiority look upon women, how they love. Upon me, and upon thousands of my contemporaries, this part of his teaching made an indelible impression, far more powerful than the best articles upon women's rights.

     His appearance is well known. Tall, strongly built, the head covered with soft and thick gray hair, he was certainly beautiful; his eyes gleamed with intelligence, not devoid of a touch of humor, and his whole manner testified to that simplicity and absence of affectation which are characteristic of the best Russian writers. His fine head revealed a vast development of brain power, and when he died, and Paul Bert, with Paul Reclus (the surgeon), weighed his brain, it so much surpassed the heaviest brain then known, --that of Cuvier,--reaching something over two thousand grams, that they would not trust to their scales, but got new ones, to repeat the weighing.

     His talk was especially remarkable. He spoke, as he wrote, in images. When he wanted to develop an idea, he did not resort to arguments, although he was a master in philosophical discussions; he illustrated his idea by a scene presented in a form as beautiful as if it had been taken out of one of his novels.

     "You must have had a great deal of experience in your life among Frenchmen, Germans, and other peoples," he said to me once. "Have you not remarked that there is a deep, unfathomable chasm between many of their conceptions and the views which we Russians hold on the same subjects,--that there are points upon which we can never agree ?"

     I replied that I had not noticed such points.

     "Yes, there are some. Here is one of them. One night we were at the first representation of a new play. I was in a box with Flaubert, Daudet, Zola. [I am not quite sure whether he named both Daudet and Zola, but he certainly named one of the two.] All were men of advanced opinions. The subject of the play was this: A woman had separated from her husband. She had loved again, and now lived with another man. This man was represented in the play as an excellent person. For years they had been quite happy. Her two children--a girl and a boy--were babies at the time of the separation; now they had grown, and throughout all these years they had supposed the man to be their real father. The girl was about eighteen and the boy about seventeen. The man treated them quite as a father; they loved him, and he loved them. The scene represented the family meeting at breakfast. The girl comes in and approaches her supposed father, and he is going to kiss her, when the boy, who has learned in some way the true state of affairs, rushes forward and shouts, 'Don't dare!' (N'osez pas!)

     "This exclamation brought down the house. There was an outburst of frantic applause. Flaubert and the others joined in it. I was disgusted.

     " 'Why,' I said, 'this family was happy; the man was a better father to these children than their real father, . . .their mother loved him and was happy with him....This mischievous, perverted boy ought simply to be whipped for what he has said.' . . .It was of no use. I discussed for hours with them afterwards; none of them could understand me!"

     I was, of course, fully in accordance with Turguéneff's point of view. I remarked, however, that his acquaintances were chiefly among the middle classes. There, the difference between nation and nation is immense indeed. But my acquaintances were exclusively among the workers, and there is an immense resemblance between the workers, and especially among the peasants, of all nations.

     In so saying, I was quite wrong, however. After I had had the opportunity of making a closer acquaintance with French workers, I often thought of the truth of Turguéneff's remark. There is a real chasm indeed between Russian conceptions of marriage relations and those which prevail in France, among the workers as well as in the middle classes; and in many other things there is a similar difference between the Russian point of view and that of other nations.

     It was said somewhere, after Turguéneff's death, that he had intended to write a novel upon this subject. If he had begun it, the above-mentioned scene must be in his manuscript. What a pity that he did not write it! He, a thorough "Occidental" in his ways of thinking, could have said very deep things upon a subject which must have so profoundly affected him personally throughout his life.

     Of all novel-writers of our century, Turguéneff has certainly attained the greatest perfection as an artist, and his prose sounds to the Russian ear like music,--music as deep as that of Beethoven. His principal novels--the series of "Dmítri Rúdin," "A Nobleman's Retreat," "On the Eve," "Fathers and Sons," "Smoke," and "Virgin Soil"--represent the leading "history-making" types of the educated classes of Russia, which evolved in rapid succession after 1848; all sketched with a fullness of philosophical conception and humanitarian understanding and an artistic beauty which have no parallel in any other literature. Yet "Fathers and Sons"--a novel which he rightly considered his profoundest work--was received by the young people of Russia with a loud protest. Our youth declared that the nihilist Bazároff was by no means a true representation of his class; many described him even as a caricature of nihilism. This misunderstanding deeply affected Turguéneff, and, although a reconciliation between him and the young generation took place later on at St. Petersburg, after he had written "Virgin Soil," the wound inflicted upon him by these attacks was never healed.

     He knew from Lavróff that I was an enthusiastic admirer of his writings; and one day, as we were returning in a carriage from a visit to Antokólsky's studio, he asked me what I thought of Bazároff. I frankly replied, "Bazároff is an admirable painting of the nihilist, but one feels that you did not love him as much as you did your other heroes."

     "On the contrary, I loved him, intensely loved him," Turguéneff replied, with an unexpected vigor." When we get home I will show you my diary, in which I have noted how I wept when I had ended the novel with Bazároff's death."

     Turguéneff certainly loved the intellectual aspect of Bazároff. He so identified himself with the nihilist philosophy of his hero that he even kept a diary in his name, appreciating the current events from Bazároff's point of view. But I think that he admired him more than he loved him. In a brilliant lecture on Hamlet and Don Quixote, he divided the history makers of mankind into two classes, represented by one or the other of these characters. "Analysis first of all, and then egotism, and therefore no faith,--an egotist cannot even believe in himself: " so he characterized Hamlet. "Therefore he is a skeptic, and never will achieve anything; while Don Quixote, who fights against windmills, and takes a barber's plate for the magic helmet of Mambrino (who of us has never made the same mistake?), is a leader of the masses, because the masses always follow those who, taking no heed of the sarcasms of the majority, or even of persecutions, march straight forward, keeping their eyes fixed upon a goal which is seen, perhaps, by no one but themselves. They search, they fall, but they rise again, and find it,--and by right, too. Yet, although Hamlet is a skeptic, and disbelieves in Good, he does not disbelieve in Evil. He hates it; Evil and Deceit are his enemies; and his skepticism is not indifferentism, but only negation and doubt, which finally consume his will."

     These thoughts of Turguéneff give, I think, the true key for understanding his relations to his heroes. He himself and several of his best friends belonged more or less to the Hamlets. He loved Hamlet, and admired Don Quixote. So he admired also Bazároff. He represented his superiority admirably well, he understood the tragic character of his isolated position, but he could not surround him with that tender, poetical love which he bestowed as on a sick friend, when his heroes approached the Hamlet type. It would have been out of place.

     "Did you know Mýshkin?" he once asked me, in 1878. At the trial of our circles Mýshkin revealed himself as the most powerful personality. "I should like to know all about him," he continued.. "That is a man; not the slightest trace of Hamletism." And in so saying he was obviously meditating on this new type in the Russian movement, which did not exist in the phase that Turguéneff described in "Virgin Soil," but was to appear two years later.

     I saw him for the last time in the autumn of 1881. He was very ill, and worried by the thought that it was his duty to write to Alexander III.,--who had just come to the throne, and hesitated as to the policy he should follow,--asking him to give Russia a constitution, and proving to him by solid arguments the necessity of that step. With evident grief he said to me: "I feel that I must do it, but I feel that I shall not be able to do it." In fact, he was already suffering awful pains occasioned by a cancer in the spinal cord, and had the greatest difficulty even in sitting up and talking for a few moments. He did not write then, and a few weeks later it would have been useless. Alexander III. had announced in a manifesto his intention to remain the absolute ruler of Russia.

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January 21, 2017 17:38:06 :
Part 6: Western Europe, Section 6 -- Added to http://www.RevoltLib.com.

September 23, 2017 17:47:42 :
Part 6: Western Europe, Section 6 -- Last Updated on http://www.RevoltLib.com.

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