26. Personality and Word

The distinctive feature of the Old World was the inseparability of the individual and the word. This bond has weakened, become elusive, but was still visible under the ‘new order’ and seems to be finally severed now. The unrestricted freedom of speech for all deprives the word of its former power. The word that has been taken away from the badly or well thinking loners and given to the masses — loses its connection with thought and becomes entertainment. Henceforth one need not worry about censorship: in the sea of words all meaning will drown; boots will naturally become ‘higher than Pushkin’. It is only necessary to break the previously unshakable link between the word and the individual, and the word will cease to be a power.

Let’s talk about the roots of culture based on the word and its transformations in the 20th century.

In the Old World, the word nurtured the personality, and it was through the word that the personality was most fully expressed. Contrary to appearances, this is not a Christian trait (nor was the passing world an exclusively ‘Christian’ world), but a Hellenic one. What is this Hellenism? Briefly, a culture that calls the individual to a broad and high development measured in the word.

Here is the essence of Hellenism, as it was formulated by Isocrates:

‘With the ability to convince each other and clearly express any of our thoughts, we not only ended the animal way of life, but also united in society, founded cities, established laws and invented the arts. And in almost everything we have invented, we have had the assistance of the word’.

The word as a power that both defines and expresses personality is a product of pagan culture.  Without literature, poetry — the Greeks could not conceive of education. Werner Jaeger says:

‘[I]t is typical of Greek ideas that the lawgiver is often named beside the poet, and the formulas which define the law are often mentioned beside the wise utterances of the poet: the two activities were essentially akin to each other’.

And on another page:

‘[T]he history of Greek culture coincides in all essentials with the history of Greek literature: for Greek literature, in the sense intended by its original creators, was the expression of the process by which the Greek ideal shaped itself’.

To a large extent this applies to our Old World as well.

Russian history, if not from Peter the Great, then from Catherine the Great, is measured not so much by the names of reigning persons as by the names of poets (calling by this word anyone writing on inspiration). The rise from Derzhavin, the first peak under Pushkin, the breakdown of Gogol (the transition to moral service), the second peak under Konstantin Leontiev, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, the gradual fall of prose and the rise of poetry in the age of Symbolism, the lonely hill of Rozanov and, finally, the third peak — Russian thought (not to use the word ‘philosophy’, which has lost its credit) of the first, White, Russian emigration. Then there is the dreary plain of ‘Soviet literature’ without thought or passion; and finally, the lowlands of the shameful literature of ‘heel-tickling’.

It may seem that in speaking of language as a measure of personal development, in referring to Russian literature as a witness to the personal development of the generations that created it, I am falling into the usual Russian exaggeration, or, to be more precise, substitution: substituting the development of the nation for the development of literature.

Rozanov once spoke of this: since Gogol we have invested more energy in literature than in life; life has weakened, literature has blossomed. Something similar happened in America with cinema. The cinema there substituted for life, or rather, interpreted it wonderfully: it smoothed out contradictions, hid weaknesses, highlighted strengths. Russian literature acted in the opposite direction. In a country where life was both full and fairly free (since the Great Reforms), and which was moving towards wealth rather than poverty for as many people as possible — this literature depicted the inferior, the weak and the poor. It did this from moralistic considerations, of which we have more than once said. ‘To make as many people as possible feel shame’ was the driving force not only of Christianity, but of the secular social movements that succeeded it.

However, literature (or any other art) should not substitute for life, be a ‘mirror’ to it — a crooked or prescriptive one. Literature has no moral or ethical obligations at all. But at the same time it is created by highly developed personalities and, by the power of things, creates new personalities. Literature is a school; the poet is a teacher.

The natural development of literature and personality, i. e. the path to ‘blossoming complexity’ and richness, was complicated in Russia by local peculiarities.

With our craving for the ‘popular’, understood as the simple, also the virtue of literature was seen in its ‘closeness to the simple people’. The virtue of speech, however, in its content. The most rich in thoughts Russian writer — Dostoevsky — wrote in a language not at all ‘popular’, and is not at all ‘popular’ or simple in content. The same is true of Pushkin. They listened to the popular language, no more. Nekrasov, Lieskov (partly) may be called ‘popular’, but these writers did not leave any thoughts behind them. [1]

To talk about literature in our country, we must first of all clear away the debris left by the ‘liberation movement’, starting with the words of Dobroliubov: literature is a service power, whose value consists in propaganda, and its virtue is determined by what and how it propagandises. This unnatural understanding reigned for a long time, leading in the end to fatigue, satiety, and the belief that all values should be alien to literature, i. e. to nihilism, the last conclusion of the ‘new order’. The Russian literature that had come out from under its tutelage began to make fun of everything it had written before, rejoicing at being rid of its propagandistic and moralising role. However, this drunken binge does not eliminate reflection on the true meaning of literature. This meaning is educational; before all morality, before all propaganda. Education is deeper and subtler than morality and politics; its task is to cultivate the individual, not to teach manners or beliefs…

With this role Russian literature coped the better, the less it cared about the correction of the world or man, i. e. the less there was in it morality. Beginning with Gogol, our literature wanted the One Truth and took the path of offensive moralism, i. e. the Christian or ‘leftist’ path.

Which, if not predetermined, then justified future events. If historically the Russian revolution was an accident — the day of 8 March 1917 could indeed, as Sergei Melgunov says, pass without incident — then it was a prepared accident. One cannot beckon people with impunity with a ‘truth’ on the horizon or beyond the horizon without being prepared to show this truth up close. One cannot nurture a thirst for ‘heaven in diamonds’ in free adults who can apply their strength and abilities to their chosen labour. And the freedom of this generation surpassed anything that came afterwards — under the ‘new order’.

Offensive moralism is the core of both leftist and biblical worldviews. Its point is to make as many people as possible feel guilty, and its root is the belief that ‘world lieth in wickedness’ and must be transformed, with ‘wickedness’ being an external force in relation to the Creator or History. Evil is always external, in the devil or in the past.

There is, of course, a hidden contradiction here. The Creator is good, but the world He created is constantly, from all eternity, ‘lying in wickedness’. History is good, but all its creations, from the beginning to the present day, are retrograde and abominable, except only the most recent. Who is to blame? Christians shift the responsibility to the devil. Socialists have a harder time. ‘Classes and Masses’ are not the devil, ‘the slanderer from the beginning’. (It is true that National Socialism found the devil in the very people who invented it, and thereby made it easier to interpret world history.)

In practical application — the ethical worldview in both kinds creates a human type ready to fight and full of hopes; the only difference is on which side of death, here or hereafter, these hopes will be fulfilled. This is the type, so to speak, of the ‘doctrinaire’ believer or the doctrinaire Socialist. Far from extremes, the majority, both in Socialism and Christianity, are not averse to sighing for a ‘sky in diamonds’, but are not prepared to make the effort for it.

As far as society and the arts are concerned, the imposition of the ever more pressing yoke of enforced righteousness distorts human relations and kills art, which in its foundations is nourished by things immoral or extra-moral: love, pleasure, joy; the same fate awaits all free thought. ‘The ethical worldview’ demands that people first think about ‘how we can be quite good’ and then live and act. Nothing good, fruitful, warm, and leaving traces in posterity is known to come out of this. The ethical worldview also harms the relationship with the divine. It makes either punishment or reward out of every life event, and likens a person to a student of a parochial school, waiting for encouragement or punishment.

It must be said that even in antiquity — the ethical worldview, in its later Greek incarnation, came to a dead end early on. Already the Stoics realised that if the deity is one and good, then this goodness cannot be understood by man: it remains to be comforted by the fact that everything in the world goes to some unknown goal, including this human life. The Christians made the question easier by creating the devil. In the 20th century A. D., it became almost universally accepted to believe that if someone is in charge of the affairs of the world, it is most likely the devil. Mikhail Bulgakov expressed this belief in his famous novel.

Like Christianity, Socialism (a leftist idea) needs the devil, and finds him in people belonging to an alien class, nation, or biological sex. The leftist worldview needs the devil like air — because it believes in the goodness of history. Evil is always in the past and from the past; the new, the ‘advanced’ is always good; the source of evil is outside of modernity, outside of ‘progress’.

Here is a summary of the average, ordinary ‘progressive pamphlet’ since Russian man, together with the whole of Europe, under the influence of Hegel, has believed in History as Christians believe in their God. ‘The advanced worldview’ is Christianity, in which God is replaced by History. Hegel can be called without exaggeration the last great European theologian, if not directly the creator of a new religion.

It would be a mistake to say that this ‘religion’ directly led to the failure of Russian culture in 1917. The Christianity that was faithfully embraced — ‘My kingdom is not of this world, for world lieth in wickedness’, not counterbalanced by a powerful pagan heritage, not undermined by the Renaissance — was no less dangerous. Especially since Christianity had long been the only cultural force in Russia. Other bases of culture appeared in our country very late, already under the Romanovs, and eventually could not compete with the all-equalising Christian idea. ‘We don’t need complexity, we need equality!’

And ‘equality’ came. Of course, it turned out not to be equality, but an equalisation, i. e. a reduction to one level. This equation immediately affected the development of language and personality.

What is a language under ‘normal’ conditions? It is a multi-storey house, from the basement to the tower on the roof. In this house there are no common, equally understandable and necessary rules from the basement to the roof — because the ‘basement’ and the ‘roof’ have no common needs. They need language for different purposes. The first use it, as a rule, occasionally adding something from themselves; the second, from generation to generation, create it, purify it, make it more complex and clearer. For the former, language is a given; for the latter, it is an instrument of personality, but also a shape on which the personality is moulded. Under ‘normal’conditions, the state does not interfere in the life of language, giving the people — from cabbies to poets — its development. For reference: in old Russia, the author was given very wide freedom to apply the rules, up to the point of inventing new spellings (in Romanian letters, for example, or ‘without yat (ѣ)’). Books written in such spellings were safely passed through censorship and found their readers.

From the point of view of the ‘new order’, language, like everything else in the state, is something to be managed and organised. The true relationship between language and the people who speak it is, of course, quite different. We belong to the element of language as much as it belongs to us; it is even possible that the power of language over us is greater than our power over it. That is why it is so important to master the right, i. e. rich, ways of expressing thoughts. Poor ways of expression lead with necessity to poverty of thought. It is no accident that the Russian revolution rushes to break the language shortly after its victory. It is too complex for its mental structure, it is simply not suitable for expressing its thoughts.

However, language does not think and does not prescribe any thoughts by itself. It is the imprint of the thinking of generations. Breaking with historical forms of expression always breaks with the content of thought as such. If thought is a stream, written language is its channel. One cannot think something for which there is no means of expression.

So the ‘new order’ set about ordering language in the same way it had ordered everything else. ‘Only what is prescribed is allowed’. Every dozen years (and in the first twenty years after the coup, much more often), the Academy issued new detailed and exhaustive ‘scientific spelling rules’. Some of them remained only in draft, like the imposition of the Latin alphabet — ostensibly for the best possible fusion with the advanced proletariat of the West. ‘Legislomania’ of this kind lasted until about 1956, then almost stopped, but at times revived in the form, for example, of the sudden prohibition of hyphens in some words.

The imposition of ‘scientific punctuation’ under the new order was ridiculous: the conventional Rosenthal (author of popular grammar reference books) derived rules for the use of commas by referring to new editions of the classics, the commas in which were arranged anew by the proofreaders of the new era, with reference to the same Rosenthal. The confirming value of these examples from allegedly Tolstoy and Gogol is zero, since they wrote and printed quite differently.

‘Scientific’ spelling, ‘scientific’ (i. e. rigid, templated, averaged, depriving the author of freedom) punctuation — naturally followed from the new understanding of things. Nothing was to ‘grow’, ‘develop’, live according to its own laws. Everything was to be prescribed — firstly, and secondly — depersonalised and simplified. ‘A telegraph pole is a well-edited tree’, sadly joked those who wrote under the ‘new order’. Speech deprived of complex forms brought up whole generations deprived of complex thoughts. A vague desire for complexity, however, remained — hence falsely scholarly nonsense like the following: ‘Impressionistic activity of the subtextual-associative level of the text appeals to the archetypal primordial sources of the national mentality…’

At the same time, the ‘new order’ did not break definitively with the culture based on the word. The rulers encouraged rhetorical exercises (if possible, those that had no thought behind them), but most actively supported a culture that did not need words to express itself and therefore did not form a personality. This non-verbal, technical culture is what survived the ‘new order’.

Yes, the ‘new order’ introduced the masses to the word, but the meaning of the word was taken away from it. Thought was replaced by rhetoric. The depth of culture and the personality formed by it diminished as its scope grew. The end of the matter was a culture without eternal or at least lasting content, existing simply so that the masses trained to read would not be left without books.

If it were really a question of introducing the ‘people’ to culture (and not semi-enlightenment)! The people, really introduced to culture,  from a creature of tutelage would become a creature of freedom, thinking and feeling, and having thought, would want poetry and religion. This was not the intention of the ‘new order’. The people were taught to read not so that they would think about what they read; on the contrary, they were taught to believe what they read.

It should not be thought that even now, with ‘universal secondary’ and almost universal higher education, the ‘masses’ are included in the circle of enlightenment. The masses stand further away from it than ever before. They are given sport and the low passions associated with it to fill their lives — instead of the customs and religion that filled the lives of their great-grandfathers. At the same time they are sure of their enlightenment; they are ‘literate’ (i. e. they can read and, as a rule, cannot write two words without a mistake); they are ‘above” these great-grandfathers, since they do not believe in gods, hate kings, are convinced that the past was in every way worse than the present… These three ‘fatal virtues’ they share with the intelligentsia.

An important question: what is the purpose of ‘enlightenment’? ‘To bring as many people as possible to knowledge’, they used to say. ‘To get as many competent and labouring employees as possible’, [2] they began to say under the new order. But why do those who can’t think need knowledge? Only to perform more or less unskilled but ‘clean’ jobs that do not require physical labour. Much of this work has no value and is only needed to keep the ‘educated’ busy. It does not get any closer to the desired goal of spreading self-awareness and the ability to think.

Education has limits. Let us ask ourselves a question: do all people need the ability to think — and for what purpose? Is it possible to introduce everyone to a culture based on the word, and what quality would such a universal culture be? The answer is known. The name of such a culture is semi-education. The semi-educated imitates the educated, doing all the same actions as the latter (for example, writing articles), but there is no thought behind these actions. Thus, education has a limit beyond which the quantity of thought and the quality of mental labour begin to diminish — if not directly turn to zero.

‘Culture is essentially the province of the rich and powerful’, said Vasily Maklakov. Culture is aristocratic. It is not good for ‘everyone’, and not ‘everyone’ always needs it. Culture is competition and selection, therefore it is for the strong and capable. But how can we know in advance who is strong and capable? Our age answers: we cannot. Let us bring everyone to culture, and then — as it turns out. It turns out to be a monstrous lowering of the level; a word without personality; the power of a template, pretending to be a boiling of mental forces. There is no need to go far for examples, the culture created by the ‘new order’ is in front of our eyes.

The measure of enlightenment is not visiting museums; it is a passive pastime that requires no activity, just like reading or listening to music. And at the sunset of the ‘new order’ the masses in Russia read more than ever. Real enlightenment is manifested in creative labour, in the style of the epoch — as Art Nouveau manifested itself in everything from street lamps and window shapes to the peculiarities of fonts and typographic vignettes.

Architecture, typography flourish where they are means of expressing thought, like music and words. There is nothing to express where there is no personality. Semi-enlightenment produces an age that is styleless, purely utilitarian. Things cease to speak to man; or, what is the same, man ceases to put his soul into things.

We are accustomed from childhood to the ugliness of all aspects of life, beginning with architecture and continuing with book publishing. The poetry and elegance of the font become inaccessible; the experience of the beauty of the written word (still alive in Japan, for example) is no longer known to us. Where a building and a barn differ only in size — the external appearance of the word seems to be something completely unimportant. And the word… the word itself is not sacred. One can study all the words, but not see their meaning and use them at random, as Gogol’s Petrushka put the letters together: ‘at any moment there might launch itself from the page some devil-sent word whereof he could make neither head nor tail’.

In the field of thought, the new order developed the art of ‘looking past things’. The mind became accustomed not to see the original, most important concepts: religion, nation, tradition, spirit; but always and everywhere it found fictitious or secondary ‘classes and masses’ and the questions connected with them. The mind that looks past things, no matter how much it labours, never reaches the primary, fundamental questions, because it works on appearances.

Instead of ‘studying’ classical Russian thought (i. e., the thought of the late Romanov era and its crown, the thought of the White Emigration, the brilliant afterword to Romanov Russian culture), it is necessary to learn to think from it — ‘immersing oneself in the subject’, as Ivan Ilyin said, working on deep, primordial questions.

The most important difficulty on this path is the detachment of the educated stratum from the transparent and deep literary language (replaced by jargon) and, inevitably, the incompleteness of personality, since it is impossible to think about oneself and one’s place in the world ‘in jargon’. Vulgarity does not provide the means for expressing depth; and the so-called ‘language of humanitarian science’ in Russia is just condensed vulgarity, a set of common phrases and foreign words, devoid of any definite meaning, more suited for incantation than for thinking and expressing thoughts. Paper tolerates everything. It is much easier to write some ‘functioning of an individual as an autochthonous chronotope’ than to realise the meaning of what is written, let alone to define one’s place in the universe. There is no such thing as self-knowledge, self-awareness ‘in the jargon’.

The barracks mindset, the habit to everything averaged, ordinary, common — have survived the ‘new order’. But the idea of ‘one truth’ has come to complete bankruptcy in Europe. I say ‘in Europe’ because the United States, it seems, is just stepping on the path that Europeans have travelled to the end.

It is not only the Socialist ‘new truth’ that has gone bankrupt in the 20th century. The biblical ethical worldview is also under threat. After all, the basic idea of ethical monotheism is that the world is a reasonably and morally ordered enterprise with a wise Master at its head. This is the most vulnerable point of Christian philosophy, and therefore a favourite target for criticism. It is impossible to defend a rationally and morally ordered world. How much effort has been spent debunking the belief in the rationality of the universe… In doing so, the debunkers are confident that they are fighting ‘religion in general’, when in reality they are challenging one of the possible theologies.

Christianity, in alliance with the great sages of antiquity, bet on a world with a single purpose, a single meaning, a single Master. The bet was lost. Modern atheism has nothing to say about gods and the divine, but it never tires of justifiably attacking the idea of ‘one truth’. The atheist does not fight ‘religion in general’, but only one of its possible varieties: the one that sees one power, one meaning, one purpose in the world.

Speaking of debunkers: the ‘new order’ demanded a break with the Bible, being entirely in its shadow; whereas the only effective break with the biblical worldview would mean stepping out of that shadow. This is the way atheism works: it fights against the Old Testament worldview with true Old Testament fervour…

However, the bankruptcy of the ‘one truth’ does not mean yet the bankruptcy of Hellenism, with which we began this conversation. On the contrary, by remaining faithful to the Hellenic beginning, we can return to a world of competing truths. Not in the sense of silly ‘tolerance’, of course. ‘Tolerance’ presupposes that some truths (the truths of an aggressive minority) are more true than others, i. e. the very beginning of competition is removed from it. The ‘tolerant’ truths are the ones who are not willing to compete, because they know in advance that they will lose the competition.

Twilight is part of the interval between the old day and the new day. We are in an intermediate age, a twilight age. We should preserve the values of the passing day in order to pass them on to the new. For the rest, let us remember the Hellenes again. As W. Jaeger says of the Greek poet:

‘He calls to his will to rise up from the whirlpool of desperate sufferings in which it is sunk, to stand firm and boldly resist the enemy. “Neither exult openly in victory, nor lie at home lamenting in defeat; but take pleasure in what is pleasant, yield not overmuch to troubles, and understand the rhythm which holds mankind in its bonds’.

[1] I do not want to say that Lieskov has no thoughts. He has a certain artistically expressed worldview — it seems to be ‘conservative’, and at the same time extremely hostile to the Russian spirit, the representative of which is often seen in Lieskov. It is not for nothing that the young Chekhov referred to the latter as ‘half-French, half-monk’. Lieskov’s ‘enchanted wanderer’, despite his marvellous name, is a genius destroyer, walking through life by touch and destroying everything he touches. There are few works whose title is in such contradiction with the content!

[2] Nadezhda Krupskaya: ‘The aim of our school is to educate a useful member of society, cheerful, healthy and able to work’.

Timofey Sherudilo.
From the book Twilight Time.

Back to Twilight Time

Views: 44