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Biography & Memoirs

The Living Truth

by André van Loon

‘Time is money’, say the English. In reality, time is much, much more precious than money: time is ourselves.
— Alexander Herzen

It is difficult to write about Alexander Herzen (1812-1870). Just when you think you’ve got the right idea about him, a central insight, he turns away. One can hardly say the simplest thing about him: he was a Russian aristocratic philosopher, but born a landowner’s illegitimate son who polemicised against Tsarism; an early revolutionary, he cautioned against going too fast, lest Russian society broke under the strain; hailed for denouncing official misrule, ultimately he was scorned by both the Romantic dissenters of the 1840s and the nihilists of the 1860s; once as famous as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Lev Tolstoy, he died in relative obscurity; patient, even unrealistic about people’s real intentions, he could be a bitter critic who engaged in long-running feuds; an attentive and loving family man, he committed adultery and was distraught when his wife fell in love with a minor German poet; trained in the natural sciences at Moscow University, he went on to write philosophy, political essays, socialist polemics, history, fiction and a monumental memoir.

Alexander Herzen, c. 1867; snippet of a painting by Nikolai Ge (public domain; source; Wikimedia Commons)

Alexander Herzen, c. 1867; snippet of a painting by Nikolai Ge (public domain; source; Wikimedia Commons)

Herzen left no central body of doctrine after his death, was adopted by figures as different as Lenin and Isaiah Berlin, and continues to generate various interpretations about his ‘real’ significance.

One can say one thing with certainty, however: to read Herzen is to get involved in ‘those damned questions’, as Dostoevsky called them. How should we live? Where does human responsibility end and fate, or God, or evil begin? What is freedom – is it a supreme virtue or a crime? Is Utopia attainable or even desirable? Is a ‘better’ society valuable to the present, or a nasty dream, used to deceive today’s freethinkers?

Such questions weren’t idle to many 19th century Russians: instead, they were treated with a seriousness that is easy to caricature (the ‘heart-on-sleeve’ bearded Russian, holding forth about life and death deep into the night, candle on the table, icon on the wall, feverishly smoking a dozen cigarettes), but harder to dismiss.

Moreover, Herzen’s magnum opus – his autobiography My Past & Thoughts – transgresses genres and stylistic registers: it is at once a realistic account of a 19th century life, a biting reflection on Tsarism, a love story with a bitter twist, a historically fascinating analysis of European revolution and counterrevolution, and a searing socialist testament. It rivals Tolstoy’s War & Peace in its impatient ambition to say more than others, in a form shaped around its multifaceted content.

To be frank, this kind of seriousness is astonishing.

Slavic scholar Aileen M. Kelly, a veteran interpreter of Herzen, is acutely aware of how difficult her subject is to describe: one does not doubt how many troubled hours she must have spent getting his life and thought into a coherent shape for her wonderful, sprawling – if ultimately flawed – The Discovery of Chance: The Life and Thought of Alexander Herzen.

Correctly seeing Herzen as an anti-systematiser in an age of grand theories and projects (e.g. Marxism, imperialism and forceful Christianity), Kelly grounds her subject in the natural sciences. She casts him as a humanist par excellence, who nonetheless started with a fierce interest in science, developing into a Darwinian before Darwin, later taking evolutionary theory to be a rich exploration of all that is contingent, messy and disruptive.

On the one hand, Kelly is excellent when she analyses how Herzen argued that time is not a unifying force; that the future isn’t bound by external laws to be better or simpler; that responsibility cannot be deferred; and that one must act with the tools at hand to make the present as just as possible. And yet, for all her intellectual brilliance and elective affinity with Herzen, she focusses too much on the brain, often remaining neutral or silent about the heart, in a way her subject certainly did not.

The Discovery of Chance has a neat structure. It takes us from Herzen’s birth and upbringing to his intellectual awakening; literary career and anti-authoritarian polemics; domestic and foreign exile; marriage and parenthood; political fame as founder and publisher of The Bell (imported into Russia from Herzen’s exile in London, and often credited with single-handedly creating Russian public opinion); later familial and political disappointments; and relatively quiet death.

Nonetheless, despite its traditional construction, each chapter bursts at the seams with learning, restless curiosity and an infectious admiration for its polymath subject. Herzen is present on virtually every page, frequently outthinking both friend and foe, driven to say more, even when he is conscious of the loss of his legal position in Russian society, the support of fellow radicals, political influence, friendships and family members (he fell into deep depression at one tragic point in his life, when his mother drowned and his wife died in close succession).

Kelly is a superb guide, not only aware but fully conversant with Herzen’s explorations of thinkers as diverse as Francis Bacon, Saint-Simon, Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx, Darwin, John Stuart Mill, Proudhon and Bakunin, not to mention the less famous names Herzen either championed or, not infrequently, argued with.

The book is also a joy to read in terms of its style. On the one hand, Kelly quotes from Herzen generously. The thinking on display is resonant, memorable and (to use an unfashionable, but apt term) profound:

“To deny false gods is necessary, but not sufficient: one must look beneath their masks for the reason for their existence.”

“One must live philosophy through, not assimilate it formally…One must abandon the pleasant thought of engaging at a certain time of day in conversation with philosophers to educate the mind and decorate the memory. Terrible questions cannot be avoided: wherever the unfortunate one turns, they are before him, written in fiery letters by the prophet Daniel.”

“Man can least of all be reconciled to the precariousness, the fragility, of all the most precious things that he possesses. It’s a simple matter: the more stable a thing, the more like stone, the more removed it is from our affections…because what is lasting is unmoving, unfeeling, while what is fragile is process, movement, energy, das Werden.”

“The oligarchic pretension of the have-nots to possess a monopoly on suffering in society is as unjust as all forms of exclusiveness and monopoly.”

The writing is forceful (‘necessary’, ‘must’, ‘fiery’) and yet delicate (‘precariousness’, ‘fragility’, ‘precious’); other-worldly (‘gods’, ‘prophet’) and yet prosaic (‘have-nots’, ‘suffering’).

It is also impatient with staying within tight boundaries (one is reminded of Henry James’ dismissal of Tolstoy’s novels as “loose, baggy monsters”, which he thought said too much, thereby sacrificing “economy and an organic form’; Tolstoy, like Herzen, fundamentally disagreed with being too well-ordered, instead prioritising writing that said things that mattered; albeit with vigour and beauty).

Kelly is not cowed by Herzen’s anger or attempts to recast Russian philosophy and politics in a more forceful style. Her own style is restrained, but not excessively withdrawn; careful, not reticent (it is, though, as unmistakably English as Herzen’s is Russian). Essentially, Kelly is a good listener, following her subject throughout his polemics, pointing out to us what is a continued argument against an old foe, what is new, or (with the benefit of hindsight) what is the embryo of a larger argument yet to come.

Also, Kelly is wonderfully free from academic obscurity or pedantry – her biography is not exactly easy reading, but it is deeply engaging, written for an interested, if not necessarily specialist audience.

It also impresses how willing Kelly is to show us Herzen at his most politically ineffectual. In his later life, he was bitter about his growing irrelevance to Russian debates, now carried on by a younger, nihilistic generation he felt little sympathy with, and which in turn largely ignored him. Less than two months before his death, left to his own devices, he wrote “I know myself to the extent of self-disgust. I’ve taken to drink and regret that I cannot get drunk [too much] because it makes my head ache.”

Herzen, to understate it, was not an easy man, least of all towards himself. He did not suffer fools gladly and could find fault in every position. He was a gifted friend and confidant, but also made plenty of enemies. His life was essentially one long story of large gains and frequently larger losses.

Kelly does not shy away from this. She does not put her subject on a political pedestal, but presents him warts and all.

Kelly’s conception of Herzen is compelling and of lasting value. And yet, one cannot help but feel an essential gap in her presentation of him. In the chapter ‘The Two Princesses’ from Herzen’s My Past & Thoughts, one reads:

“Princess Marya Alexeyevna Khovansky, my father’s sister, was a stern, forbidding old lady, stout and dignified, with a birthmark on her cheek and false curls under her cap; she used to screw up her eyes as she spoke, and to the end of her days, that is till she was eighty, used a little rouge and powder. Whenever she caught sight of me she persecuted me; there was no end to her lecturing and grumbling; she would scold me for anything, for a crumpled collar, or a stain on my jacket, would declare that I had not gone up to kiss her hand properly, and make me go through the ceremony again.”

The tone is unmistakably Herzen, and yet, this is also stylistically realistic rather than philosophical or political. It is this feeling, observant and reflective Herzen, attuned to other people on the level of their sensibility, that Kelly does not engage with adequately. The irony of the quotation is that it is from a translation by Constance Garnett, published in different editions but selected and introduced by Kelly for Oxford University Press in 1985. Certainly, Kelly knows this ‘from the heart’ Herzen as well as anyone, but the disappointment of The Discovery of Chance is its relative quietness, even silence, about this empathetic, feeling, sensing man.

Herzen, just as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, was hardly a one-sided writer; he lived and felt his ideas, but he also perceived different personalities on the level of their sensibility, mood and prosaic behaviour.

And so, one comes to the conclusion that The Discovery of Chance is a superlative study of Herzen, deeply researched and well-written, attuned to the different strains in its subject’s thinking, that yet prioritises the intellectual over the feeling man – a book that follows its subject throughout his gargantuan literary output, yet mostly leaves him behind when he walks through an empty house, no candles burning, looking for someone to drink tea with or to look at, for the simple or perverse joy of feeling together – or annoyed.

Aileen M. Kelly: The Discovery of Chance: The Life and Thought of Alexander Herzen
Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass.), 2016.
ISBN: 9780674737112
Hardcover, 608 pages, US$39.95

André van Loon reviews literary fiction and biography for publications including Review31, Litro, The London Magazine and We Love This Book. Andre graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MA (Joint Honours) in English Literature & Russian Studies.  He lives in London.

(c) 2016 The Berlin Review of Books.

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