2. The Inner Person

There are two opinions about the past and the present, both false: that there were no evils in the past that are known to modernity, and that all evils remain in the past. The latter belief goes so far as to identify evil and history (a disease of the liberal mind). In fact, past and present are woven from the same material; the question is the ratio of the parts. Another misconception says: there is only one past, which we must accept. This is incorrect. The past, contrary to grammatical appearances, is not singular. There are many pasts. For the living, it is not a question of ‘accepting the facts’ but of choosing an inheritance, a line of succession. The past transmits to the present (and the present to the future) a whole bundle of such lines. And whoever is concerned about his future must choose his past correctly.

One of such ‘multiple pasts’ is the old world, which ceased to exist around 1917, and then (at least in Russia) was artificially etched out of memory, along with all its features, starting with its spelling. [1] Its image has disintegrated, although all (or almost all) of its components have remained in place. Now we can judge about the whole only by individual surviving parts, mainly books.

The bygone era was first and foremost the era of the book, although (a contradiction for the modern view) both writing and reading were accessible only to an educated minority. The book, the relationship of the book to the human personality and the human personality itself, was given an extraordinary importance by the ‘old world’, which is not clear to everyone now. Let us take a closer look at this recent, but without a trace of a bygone time. More precisely, to its relationship with the person and the book. I will talk about the ‘old world’ in general, but first of all — on the example of Russia.

What, first of all, distinguished the ‘old world’ from the new? Its inwardness, its attention to the inner man, developed by Christianity. Subsequently, the revolution turned the world inside out, making the external the main thing and the internal the secondary.

Personality in that world had a much higher value than it does now, and not a service value (the value of a servant, executor, subordinate, employee — even if he or she were an academician), but an independent one. These days, unfortunately, the self-value of personality, its development is an empty set of words. The ‘new’ world knows a personality ‘useful’ (to the state or another master), ‘prospering’ materially (the same usefulness, only gilded), but its content is not important for anyone, first of all for itself.

Close attention to the inner life is peculiar to Russian literature in the only great and worthy of interest part of it — created before the end of the old world and immediately after it, in emigration. This literature is thoroughly psychological, concerned from beginning to end with the personality, the human being, and not with ‘ideas’, ‘state tasks’, or the entertainment of the reader.

The ‘psychologism’ of literature was a reflection of the ‘psychologism’ of religion. Christianity taught to be attentive to one’s states of mind. As a religion, it is as much ‘about man’ as it is ‘about God’. An artist’s work is always a reflection of his religion, that is, of his basic ideas about the world and his place in it.

But what about, the modern reader may ask, the works of irreligious artists? How could I offend them?! After all, the denial of any mystery, the belief that the world is exhausted by the thin skin of the surface visible to the eye — in our time is a privilege, which is dangerous to encroach upon. To this I would say that the personal religiosity of the creator can be close to zero or negative, as, say, in Chekhov. The circle of values of such a writer is still determined by the atmosphere of the world in which he grew up. The atmosphere was Christian; the ‘inner man’ of whom the Apostle Paul wrote and his condition were its centre.

This does not mean that the conditions for creativity in old Russia were unusually favourable. It is difficult for a writer everywhere, even in a society built around the Book (the nationally known Bible) and living by books (in its enlightened part). But there was one fundamental difference in the position of the creator in the old world.

Yes, Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky were booed, Nikolai Danilevsky, Constanin Leontiev, Leo Tikhomirov were not noticed. They did not know how to appreciate thought, except for the notorious ‘brave and honest’, i. e. publicism, and this inability survived the revolution. But the creator (artist, thinker, poet) had a powerful defence: respect not for mental work, but rather for the inner man, for his life. The fundamental right of the poet, the writer to deal with the most important issues for the inner man was not denied. If it was difficult for Rozanov to publish his ‘Leaves’, it was because of their, as it seemed to the publishers, excessive intimacy, mixing diary with philosophy and journalism. There was a great tolerance towards the very themes of ‘Leaves’ — in spite of all the old world socialism and liberalism (belief in the external and only the external).

And this tolerance, curiously enough, no one spread it forcibly. ‘Tolerance’, which is planted in Russia today, is a dogma of a certain sect, a reason for division; in the real sense — ‘tolerance for ‘us’ and hatred for ‘them’’. While tolerance in the West is a lordly attitude to things, which has managed to penetrate into the people, coming not from some abstract idea, but from the consciousness of one’s own power and respect, if not outright approving curiosity, for other people’s eccentricities… However, we were talking about something else.

A whole set of reasons has produced in the old world a culture linked, on the one hand, to the book and, on the other hand, to the individual. I have written many times about the characteristics of this culture and have never attempted to give a general definition. I will try to do so now.

‘Culture’ — in the sense we are now talking about — is the totality of the means of communicating one’s inner state to others, as well as the space in which this communication takes place. Sound and, at the same time, the air in which sounds are communicated. In other words, culture is a language, and the rule applies to it: the complexity of thought expressed in some language is limited by the complexity (expressive possibilities) of that language.

Moreover, language influences thinking inversely, catching out of the sea of thoughts not embodied in words and embodying only those thoughts that the mind can express verbally. Form determines — not the content of speech, of course, but the limits of complexity, lower and higher, for the thought expressed in this form. Speech will not express a thought more complex than the chosen form allows; but the form also prevents the thought from being relegated to the primitive level of ‘Mum washes the frame, Masha likes porridge’. Complex forms force thought to labour, but also give it wings. This, by the way, has a direct consequence: by destroying complex forms of thought expression, we destroy thought. [2]

So, culture is a language for expressing the inner man, and the forms of culture are not just appearances, they also influence the content of thought and feeling, just as language inversely influences thinking. Language not only names things, but also describes their relationships, establishes the rules by which the world it describes lives. ‘There is no action without an actor’, ‘there is no phenomenon without a sign’ — these laws are what language tells us. Culture-language tells us about the laws of our nature; it takes man out of his loneliness, places him in a regular sequence. He who knows the language of culture cannot see himself and his circumstances as an empty accident. Only by seeing meaning in life can one write fruitfully about it — and ‘honour oneself’ thrown into the circumstances of this life. In essence, the understanding of one’s own worth and the capacity for fruitful cultural labour are inseparable.

All this does not cancel the question: do people need this richness of expression of the shades of inner life, and inner life itself? From the point of view of the ‘new world’ — neither of them is needed. Rockets and dams (the worn-out pattern of Soviet times) or personal welfare (and this is already the West or the era of Russian ‘freedom’) are more necessary. But as experience shows, rockets, dams and worldly goods in the end leave a great void in the middle — where in the old world there was a personality with its external make-up and inner content…

Not everyone feels this inner emptiness, and those who do feel it try to drown it out with external adventures. The goals of the ‘new world’ (speaking of the masses) are boyish, the goals of the adolescent: striving not for oneself, but from oneself, the desire to lose oneself in external things, so that nothing reminds a man of his inner mystery… This last urge is, of course, unconscious. The mind and feeling simply want to have fun and are attracted to any kind of alignment, any kind of solid form — it takes maturity to appreciate them.

And the existing world, next to the old one, looks like the world of children. Its ‘leftism’ in everything is not accidental; its confidence that all ‘reforms’ are good, and that ‘new’ is better than ‘old’; its pursuit of novelty instead of goodness. The striving outwards, away from oneself, and the loss of connection with the past are phenomena of the same order. Conversely, there is a subtle connection between inwardness and rootedness in the past, “conservatism”. Self-knowledge and the past in general are closely connected. Generalisations, conclusions, self-identification and self-evaluation are linked exclusively to past events. The past is what gives meaning to the present.

And thought is always ‘conservative’ — or it doesn’t exist. Where there is a focus on the inner man, where there is culture, there is a focus on the past as the eternal ground for all that is new. The ‘Right’ knows the person; the ‘Left’ knows an idea, a whole set of ideas. Actually, there is a continuous series of concepts: culture — knowledge of man — inability to be seduced by ‘ideas’. At least, that’s how it used to be…

Having said that, it should also be said that the ‘old world’ was a world of multiple components. All the components of the ‘new world’ were already present in it, including the belief in exclusively external activity, interest only in what can be ‘studied’ and not ‘understood’ (socialism and science). The basis of its richness is a moving equilibrium of mutually negating principles. After all, everything great (in the realm of statehood, personality, creativity) is based on insoluble internal contradictions. Hence the fruitlessness of utopias. Utopian thought wants to destroy contradictions, to smooth out angles, to bring the whole world out of one root, but a one-foundation worldview is unfruitful. A complex, highly organised mind is produced only by the cooperation and struggle of several value systems, whose possessions are delimited, so that it rarely comes to an open clash…. 

The struggle of these principles corroded the old world from within. The Middle Ages and socialism were the two dawns in its sky, morning and evening, and man could contemplate them at the same time without harm to himself; science seemed (but was no longer) a purely service force without pretensions to the place of legislator of thought and morality… But the ratio of parts in the atmosphere changed, the unstable unity broke up.

Culture, as understood above, has gone as a living and acting force. In the world created by the revolution, its departure was instantaneous — whole generations of living and gifted people were forced into silence or banished. Then the revolution made peace with the old creators of culture, from Pushkin to Dostoevsky, without lifting the ban on the newest ones — and still suppressing all expression of the inner man, all cultural forms more complex than poems for public holidays…

We must honestly admit that the revolutionary years in Russia, from the point of view of national culture — not to be confused with literacy, technology and science, they are very loosely connected with culture in the above sense — can be looked upon as lost. Lost, however, does not mean ‘in vain’. In the final count, nothing is in vain, everything serves self-knowledge — if there is a desire to recognise mistakes and learn. If the desire to be proud of those times, which should have been reflected on, prevails, there will be neither experience nor self-knowledge, only a bad continuation of not at all brilliant years…

Let us look around us. On one side is science, to which man is not important and uninteresting; on the other side are the masses, to whom both science and (all the more so) culture are alien in the above sense. The ideal of enlightenment, that is, the gradual enlightenment and rise of the masses to the level of the highest stratum, has been abandoned. What will happen? Will the complex forms of the language of culture return? I don’t know. I only know that self-understanding or at least attention to one’s own personality, the path of inner growth and complication, is the only thing that can be offered to a person without fear that satiety and boredom will befall him. Not everyone needs it. But by the forces of a thin layer of those who need it, the development of the nation is moving. Or rather, it has been moving. And it is possible that it will move again.

[1] Changed without sufficient grounds and in a way most hostile to the external image and internal logic of the language. See the article of one of the members of the Orthographic Commission, Nikolai Kulman, ‘On Russian Spelling’.

[2] Prince Sergei Volkonsky was quite right: ‘We have always been told that content is more important than form, and therefore any education of form was considered an unnecessary luxury, aristocracy, and even considered harmful. <…> In this inability to appreciate the educational value of form, as it determines the clarity and therefore the greater value of content, one should look for the reasons for the ease with which our scientific authorities went to change the spelling’.

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