All Things are Possible  —  Apotheosis of Groundlessness —  Part II


The Spartans made their helots drunk as an example and warning to their noble youths. A good method, no doubt, but what are we of the twentieth century to do? Whom shall we make drunk? We have no slaves, so we have instituted a higher literature. Novels and stories describe drunken, dissolute men, and paint them in such horrid colors that every reader feels all his desire for vice depart from him. Unfortunately only our Russians are either too conscientious or not sufficiently rectilinear in their minds. Instead of showing the drunken helot as an object of repugnance, as the Spartans did, they try to describe vice truthfully. Realism has taken hold. Indeed, why make a fuss? What does it matter if the writer's description is a little more or less ugly than the event? Was justice invented that everything, even evil, should be kept intact? Surely evil must be simply rooted out, banned, placed outside the pale. The Spartans did not stand on ceremony with living men, and yet our novelists are afraid of being unjust to imaginary drunken helots. And, so to speak, out of humane feeling too... How naive one must be to accept such a justification! Yet everybody accepts it. Tolstoy alone, towards the end, guessed that humanitarianism is only a pretext in this case, and that we Russians have described vice not only for the purpose of scaring our readers. In modern masters the word vice arouses not disgust, but insatiable curiosity. Perhaps the wicked thing has been persecuted in vain, like so many other good things. Perhaps it should have been studied, perhaps it held mysteries... On the strength of this "perhaps" morality was gradually abandoned, and Tolstoy remained almost alone in his indignation. Realism reigns, and a drunken helot arouses envy in timid readers who do not know where to put their trust, whether in the traditional rules or in the appeal of the master. A drunken helot an ideal! What have we come to? Were it not better to have stuck to Lycurgus? Have we not paid too dearly for our progress?

Many people think we have paid too dearly - not to mention Tolstoy, who is now no longer taken quite seriously, though still accounted a great man. Any mediocre journalist enjoys greater influence than this master-writer of the Russian land. It is inevitable. Tolstoy insists on thinking about things which are nobody's concern. He has long since abandoned this world—and does he continue to exist in any other? Difficult question! "Tolstoy writes books and letters, therefore he exists." This inference, once so convincing, now has hardly any effect on us: particularly if we take into account what it is that Tolstoy writes. In several of his last letters he expresses opinions which surely have no meaning for an ordinary man. They can be summed up in a few words. Tolstoy professes an extreme egoism, solipsism, solus-ipseism. That is, in his old age, after infinite attempts to love his neighbour, he comes to the conclusion that not only is it impossible to love one's neighbour, but that there is no neighbour, that in all the world Tolstoy alone exists, that there is even no world, but only Tolstoy: a view so obviously absurd, that it is not worth refuting. By the way, there is also no possibility of refuting it, unless you admit that logical inferences are non-binding.

Solipsism dogged Tolstoy already in early youth, but at that time he did not know what to do with the impertinent, oppressive idea, so he ignored it. Finally, he came to it. The older a man becomes, the more he learns how to make use of impertinent ideas. Fairly recently Tolstoy could pronounce such a dictum: "Christ taught men not to do stupid things." Who but Tolstoy could have ventured on such an interpretation of the gospels? Why have we all held - all of us but Tolstoy - that these words contained the greatest blasphemy on Christ and His teaching? But it was Tolstoy's last desperate attempt to save himself from solipsism, without at the same time flying in the face of logic: even Christ appeared among men only to teach them common sense. Whence follows that "mad" thoughts may be rejected with an easy conscience, and the advantage, as usual, remains with the wholesome, reasonable, sensible thoughts. There is room for good and for reason. Good is self-understood; it need not be explained. If only good existed in the world, there would exist no questions, neither simple nor ultimate. This is why youth never questions. What indeed should it question: the song of the nightingale, the morning of May, happy laughter, all the predicates of youth? Do these need interpretation? On the contrary, any explanation is reduced to these. The proper questions arise only on contact with evil. A hawk struck a nightingale, flowers withered, Boreas froze laughing youth—and in terror our questions arose. "That is evil. The ancients were right. Not in vain is our earth called a vale of tears and sorrow." And once questions are started, it is impossible and unseemly to hurry the answers, still less anticipate the questions. The nightingale is dead and will sing no longer, the listener is frozen to death and can hear no more songs.

The situation is so palpably absurd that only with the intention of getting rid of the question at any cost will one strive for a sensible answer. The answer must be absurd - if you don't want it, don't question. But if you must question, then be ready beforehand to reconcile yourself with something like solipsism or modern realism. Thought is in a dilemma, and dare not take the leap to get out. We laugh at philosophy, and, as long as possible, avoid evil. But nearly all men feel the intolerable cramp of such a situation, and each at his risk ventures to swim to shore on some more or less witty theory. A few courageous ones speak the truth—but they are neither understood nor respected. When a man's words show the depth of the pain through which he has passed, he is not, indeed, condemned, but the world begins to talk of his tragic state of soul, and to take on a mournful look fitting to the occasion. Others more scrupulous feel that phrases and mournful looks are unfitting, yet they cannot dwell at length on the tragedies of outsiders, so they take on an exaggeratedly stern bearing, as if to say, "We feel deeply, but we do not wish to show our feeling." They really feel nothing, only want to make others believe how sensitive and modest they are.

At times this leads to curious results, even in writers of the first order of renown. Thus Anatole France, the inventor of that most charming smile which is intended to convince men that he feels everything and understands everything, but does not cry out, because that would not be fitting, in one of his novels takes upon himself the noble role of advocate of the victims of a crime, against the criminal. "Our time," he says, "out of pity to the criminal forgets the sufferings of his victim." This, I repeat, is one of the most curious misrepresentations of modern endeavour. It is true we in Russia talk a good deal about compassion, particularly to criminals, and Anatole France is by no means the only man who thinks that our distinguishing characteristic is extreme sensitiveness and tender-heartedness. But as a matter of fact the modern man who thinks for himself is not drawn to the criminal by a sense of compassion, which would incontestably be better applied to the victim, but by curiosity, or if you like, inquisitiveness. For thousands of years man has sought to solve the great mystery of life through a God-conception—with theodicy and metaphysical theories as a result, both of which deny the possibility of a mystery. Theodicy has long ago wearied us. The mechanistic theories, which contend that there is nothing special in life, that its appearance and disappearance depend on the same laws as those of the conservation of energy and the indestructibility of matter, these look more plausible at first sight, but people do not take to them. And no theory can survive men's reluctance to believe in it.

In a word, good has not justified the expectations placed on it. Reason has done no better. So overwrought mankind has turned from its old idols and enthroned madness and evil. The smiling Anatole argues, and proves—proves excellently. But who does not know what his proofs amount to?—and who wants them? It may be our children will take fright at the task we have undertaken, will call us "squandering parents," and will set themselves again to heaping up treasures, spiritual and material. Again they will believe in ideals, progress, and such like. For my own part, I have hardly any doubt of it. Solipsism and the cult of groundlessness are not lasting, and, most of all, they are not to be handed down. The final triumph, in life as in old comedies, rests with goodness and common sense. History has known many epochs like ours, and gone through with them. Degeneration follows on the heels of immoderate curiosity, and sweeps away all refined and exaggerately well-informed individuals. Men of genius have no posterity - or their children are idiots. Not for nothing is nature so majestically serene: she has hidden her secrets well enough. Which is not surprising, considering how unscrupulous she is. No despot, not the greatest villain on earth, has ever wielded power with the cruelty and heartlessness of nature. The least violation of her laws—and the severest punishment follows. Disease, deformity, madness, death what has not our common mother contrived to keep us in subjection?

True, certain optimists think that nature does not punish us, but educates us. So Tolstoy sees it. "Death and sufferings, like animated scarecrows, boo at man and drive him into the one way of life open to him: for life is subject to its own law of reason." Not a bad method of upbringing. Exactly like using wolves and bears. Unfortunate man, bolting from one booing monster, is not always able in time to dodge into the one correct way, and dashes straight into the maw of another beast of prey. Then what? And this often happens. Without disparagement of the optimists, we may say that sooner or later it happens to every man. After which no more running. You won't tear yourself out of the claws of madness or disease. Only one thing is left: in spite of traditions, theodicy, wiseacres, and most of all in spite of oneself, to go on praising mother nature and her great goodness. Let future generations reject us, let history stigmatise our names, as the names of traitors to the human cause—still we will compose hymns to deformity, destruction, madness, chaos, darkness. And after that—let the grass grow.


Astrology and alchemy lived their day and died a natural death. But they left a posterity—chemistry inventing dyes, and astronomy accumulating formulae. So it is. Geniuses beget idiots: especially when the mothers are very virtuous, as in this case, when their virtue is extraordinary. For the mothers are public utility and morality. The alchemists wasted their time seeking the philosopher's stone; the astrologers swindled people telling fortunes by the stars. Wedded to utility these two fathers have begotten the chemists and astronomers... Nobody will dispute the genealogy. Perhaps even none will dispute that, from idiotic children one may, with a measure of probability, infer genius in the parents. There are certain indications that this is so though of course one may not go beyond supposition. But supposition is enough. There are more arguments in store. For instance - our day is so convinced of the absolute nonsense and uselessness of alchemy and astrology that no one dreams of verifying the conviction. We know there were many charlatans and liars amongst alchemists and astrologers. But what does this prove? In every department there are the same mediocre creatures who speculate on human credulity. However positive our science of medicine is, there are many fraudulent doctors who rob their patients. The alchemists and astrologers were, in all probability, the most remarkable men of their time.

I will go further: in spite of dye-stuffs and formulae, even in our nineteenth century, which was so famous for its inventions and discoveries, the most eminent, talented men still sought the philosopher's stone and forecast the destinies of man. And those among them who were possessed of a poetic gift won universal attention. In the old days, consensu sapientium, a poet was allowed all kinds of liberties: he might speak of fate, miracles, spirits, the life beyond indeed of anything, provided he was interesting. That was enough. The nineteenth century paid its tribute to restlessness. Never were there so many disturbing, throbbing writers as during the epoch of telephones and telegraphs. It was held indecent to speak in plain language of the vexed and troubled aspirations of the human spirit. Those guilty of the indecency were even dosed with bromides and treated with shower-baths and concentrated foods. But all this is external, it belongs to a history of "fashions" and cannot interest us here. The point is that alchemy and astrology did not die, they only shammed death and left the stage for a time. Now, apparently, they are tired of seclusion and are coming forward again, having pushed their unsuccessful children into the background. Well, so be it. A la bonne heure!...


Man comes to the pass where all experience seems exhausted. Wherever he go, whatever he see, all is old and wearyingly familiar. Most people explain this by saying that they really know everything, and that from what they have experienced they can infer all experience. This phase of the exhaustion of life usually comes to a man between thirty-five and forty - the best period, according to Karamzin. Not seeing anything new, the individual assumes he is completely matured and has the right to judge of everything. Knowing what has been he can forecast what will be. But Karamzin was mistaken about the best period, and the "mature" people are mistaken about the "nothing new can happen." The fact of spiritual stagnation should not be made the ground for judging all life's possibilities from known possibilities. On the contrary, such stagnation should prove that however rich and multifarious the past may have been, it has not exhausted a tittle of the whole possibilities. From that which has been it is impossible to infer what will be. Moreover, it is unnecessary—except, perhaps, to give us a sense of our full maturity and let us enjoy all the charms of the best period of life, so eloquently described by Karamzin.

The temptation is not overwhelming. So that, if man is under the necessity of enduring a period of arrest and stagnation, and until such time as life re-starts is doomed to meditation, would it not be better to use this meditating interregnum for a directly opposite purpose from the one indicated: that is to say, for the purpose of finding in our past signs which tell us that the future has every right to be anything whatsoever, like or utterly unlike the past. Such signs, given a good will to find them, may be seen in plenty. At times one comes to the conclusion that the natural connection of phenomena, as hitherto observed, is not at all inevitable for the future, and that miracles which so far have seemed impossible, may come to seem possible, even natural, far more natural than that loathsome law of sequence, the law of the regularity of phenomena. We are bored stiff with regularity and sequence - confess it, you also, you men of science. At the mere thought that, however we may think, we can get no further than the acknowledgment of the old regularity, an invincible disgust to any kind of mental work overcomes us. To discover another law - still another - when already we have far more than we can do with! Surely if there is any will-to-think left in us, it is established in the supposition that the mind cannot and must not have any bounds, any limits; and that the theory of knowledge, which is based on the history of knowledge and on a few very doubtful assumptions, is only a piece of property belonging to a certain caste, and has nothing to do with us others - und die Natur zuletzt sich doch ergründe.

What a mad impatience seizes us at times when we realise that we shall never fathom the great mystery! Every individual in the world must have felt at one time the mad desire to unriddle the universe. Even the stodgy philosophers who invented the theory of knowledge have at times made surreptitious sorties, hoping to open a path to the unknown, in spite of their own fat, senseless books that demonstrate the advantages of scientific knowledge. Man either lives in continuous experience, or he frees himself from conclusions imposed by limited experience. All the rest is the devil. From the devil come the blandishments with which Karamzin charmed himself and his readers... Or is it the contrary? Who will answer! Once again, as usual, at the end of a pathetic speech one is left with a conjecture. Let every man please himself. But what about those who would like to live according to Karamzin, but cannot? I cannot speak for them. Schiller recommended hope. Will it do? To be frank, hardly. He who has once lost his peace of mind will never find it again.


Ever since Kant succeeded in convincing the learned that the world of phenomena is quite other than the world of true reality, and that even our own existence is not our real existence, but only the visible manifestation of a mysterious, unknown substance (substantia)—philosophy has been stuck in a new rut, and cannot move a single millimetre out of the track laid out by the great Königsbergian. Backward or forward it can go, but necessarily in the Kantian rut. For how can you get out of the counterposing of the phenomenon against the thing-in-itself? This proposition, this counterposing seems inalterable, so there is nothing left but to stick your head in the heavy draught-collar of the theory of knowledge. Which most philosophers do, even with a glad smile, which inevitably rouses a suspicion that they have got what they wanted, and their "metaphysical need" was nothing more than a need for a harness. Otherwise they would have kicked at the sight of the collar. Surely the contraposition between the world of phenomena and the thing-in-itself is an invention of the reasoning mind, as is the theory of knowledge deduced from this contraposing. Therefore the freedom-loving spirit could reject it in the very beginning—and basta! With the devil one must be very cautious. We know quite well that if he only gets hold of the tip of your ear he will carry off your whole body. So it is with Reason. Grant it one single assumption, admit but one proposition— and finita la commedia. You are in the toils. Metaphysics cannot exist side-by-side with reason. Everything metaphysical is absurd, everything reasonable is—positive.

So we come upon a dilemma. The fundamental predicate of metaphysics is absurdity: and yet surely many positive assertions can lay legitimate claim to that self-same, highly respectable predicate. What then? Is there means of distinguishing a metaphysical absurdity from a perfectly ordinary one? May one have recourse to criteria? Will not the very criterion prove a pitfall wherein cunning reason will catch the poor man who was rushing out to freedom? There can be no two answers to this question. All services rendered by reason must be paid for sooner or later at the exorbitant price of self-renunciation. Whether you accept the assistance in the noble form of the theory of knowledge, or merely as a humble criterion, at last you will be driven forth into the streets of positivism. This happens all the time to young, inexperienced minds. They break the bridle and dash forward into space, to find themselves rushing into the same old Rome, whither, as we know, all roads lead: or, to use more lofty language, rushing into the stable whither also all roads lead. The only way to guard against positivism - granting, of course, that positivism no longer attracts your sympathies - is to cease to fear any absurdities, whether rational or metaphysical, and systematically to reject all the services of reason.

Such behaviour has been known in philosophy; and I make bold to recommend it. Credo quia absurdum comes from the Middle Ages. Modern instances are Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. Both present noble examples of indifference to logic and common-sense: particularly Schopenhauer, who, a Kantian, even in the name of Kant made such daring sallies against reason, driving her into confusion and shame. That astounding Kantian even went so far, in the master's name still, as to attempt the overthrow of the space and time notions. He admitted clairvoyance—and to this day the learned are bothered whether to class that admission among the metaphysical or the ordinary absurdities. Really, I can't advise them. A very clever man insists on an enormous absurdity, so I am satisfied. Schopenhauer's whole campaign against intellect is very comforting. It is evident that, though he set out from the Kantian stable, he soon got sick of hauling along down the cart—ruts, and having broken the shafts, he trotted jauntily into a jungle of irreconcilable contradictions, without reflecting in the least where he was making for. The primacy of will over reason; and music as the expression of our deepest essence; are not these assertions sufficient to show us how dexterously he wriggled out from the harness of synthetic judgments a priori which Kant had placed upon every thinker. There is indeed much more music than logic in the philosophy of Schopenhauer. Not for nothing is he excluded from the universities. But of course one may speak of him in the open; not of his ideas, naturally, but of his music. The European market is glutted with ideas. How neat and nicely-finished and logically well-turned-out those ideas are.

Schopenhauer had no such goods. But what lively and splendid contradictions he boldly spreads on his stall, often even without suspicion that he ought to hide them from the police. Schopenhauer cries and laughs and gets furious or glad, without ever realising that this is forbidden to a philosopher. "Do not speak, but sing," said Zarathustra, and Schopenhauer really fulfilled the command in great measure. Philosophy may be music - though it doesn't follow that music may be called philosophy. When a man has done his work, and gives himself up to looking and listening and pleasantly accepting everything, hiding nothing from himself, then he begins to "philosophise." What good are abstract formulae to him? Why should he ask himself, before he begins to think: "What can I think about, what are the limits of thought?" He will think, and those who like can do the summing up and the building of theories of knowledge. What is the earthly use of talking about beauty? Beautiful things must be created. Not one single aesthetic theory has so far been able to guess what direction the artists’ mind will next take, or what are the limits to his creative activity. The same with the theory of knowledge. It may arrest the work of a man of learning, if he be himself afraid that he is going too far, but it is powerless to pre-determine human thought. Even Kant's counterposing of things-in-themselves to the world of phenomena cannot finally clip the wings of human curiosity. There will come a time when this unshakeable foundation of positivism will be shaken. All gnosiological disputes as to what thought can or cannot achieve will seem to our posterity just as amusing as the disputes of the schoolmen seem to us. "Why did they argue about the nature of truth, when they might have gone out and looked for truth itself?" the future historians will ask. Let us have an answer ready for them. Our contemporaries do not want to go out and seek, so they make a great deal of talk about a theory of knowledge.


"Trust not thyself, young dreamer." - However sincerely you may long for truth, whatever sufferings and horrors you may have surpassed, do not believe your own self, young dreamer. What you are looking for, you won't find. At the utmost, if you have a gift for writing you will bring out a nice original book. Even - do not be offended - you may be satisfied with such a result. In Nietzsche's letters relating to the year 1888, the year when Brandes discovered him, you will find a sad confirmation of the above. Had not Nietzsche struggled, sought, suffered?—and behold, towards the end of his life, when it would have seemed that all mundane rewards had become trivial to him, he threw himself with rapture on the tidings of first fame, and rushed to share his joy with all his friends, far and near. He does not tire of telling in dozens of letters and in varying forms the story of how Brandes first began his lectures on him, Nietzsche, how the audience consisted of three hundred people, and he even quotes Brandes’ placard announcement in the original Danish. Fame just threw him a smile, and forgotten are all the horrible experiences of former days. The loneliness, the desertedness, the cave in the mountain, the man into whose mouth the serpent climbed all forgotten, every thought turned to the ordinary, easily-comprehensible good. Such is man.
Mit gier’ger Hand nach Schätzen gräbt
Und froh ist wenn er Regenwürmer findet.


When a man is young he writes because it seems to him he has discovered a new almighty truth which he must make haste to impart to forlorn mankind. Later, becoming more modest, he begins to doubt his truths: and then he writes to convince himself. A few more years go by, and he knows he was mistaken all round, so there is no need to convince himself. Nevertheless he continues to write, because he is not fit for any other work, and to be accounted a "superfluous" man is so horrible.


A very original man is often a banal writer, and vice versa. We tend so often to write not about what is going on in us, but of our pia desideria. Thus restless, sleepless men sing the glory of sleep and rest, which have long been sung to death. And those who sleep ten hours on end and are always up to the mark must perforce dream about adventures and storms and dangers, and even extol everything problematical.


When one reads the books of long-dead men, a strange sensation comes over one. These men who lived two hundred, three hundred, three thousand years ago are so far off now from this writing which they have left on earth. Yet we look for eternal truths in their works.


The truth which I have the right to announce so solemnly to-day, even to the first among men, will probably be a stale old lie on my lips to-morrow. So I will deprive myself of the right of calling such a truth my own. Probably I shall deprive no one but myself: others will go on loving and praising the self-same truth, living with it.


A writer who cannot lie with inspiration - and that is a great art, which few may accomplish - loves to make an exhibition of honesty and frankness. Nothing else is left him to do.


The source of originality.—A man who has lost all hope of rooting out of himself a certain radical defect of character, or even of hiding the flaw from others, turns round and tries to find in his defect a certain merit. If he succeeds in convincing his acquaintances, he achieves a double gain: first, he quiets his conscience, and then he acquires a reputation for being original.


Men begin to strive towards great ends when they feel they cannot cope with the little tasks of life. They often have their measure of success.


A belch interrupts the loftiest meditation. You may draw a conclusion if you like: if you don't like, you needn't.


A woman of conviction.—We forgive a man his "convictions," however unwillingly. It goes without saying that we balk at any individual who believes in his own infallibility, but one must reconcile oneself with necessity. It is ugly and preposterous to have corns on one's hands, but still, they can't be avoided in this unparadisal earth of sweat and labour. But why see an ideal in callosities? In practical life, particularly in the social political life to which we are doomed, convictions are a necessity. Unity is strength, and unity is possible only among people who think alike. Again, a deep conviction is in itself a strong force, far more powerful than the most logical argumentation. Sometimes one has only to pronounce in a full, round, vibrating chest voice, such as is peculiar to people of conviction, some trifling sentence, and an audience hitherto unconvinced is carried away. Truth is often dumb, particularly a new truth, which is most shy of people, and which has a feeble, hoarse voice. But in certain situations that which will influence the crowd is more important than that which is genuine truth. Convictions are necessary to a public man; but he who is too clever to believe in himself entirely, and is not enough of an actor to look as if he believed, he had best give up public work altogether.

At the same time he will realise that lack of convictions is not profitable, and will look with more indulgence on such as are bound to keep themselves well supplied. Yet all the more will he dislike those men who without any necessity disfigure themselves with the coarse tattoo marks. And particularly he will object to such women. What can be more intolerable than a woman of conviction. She lives in a family, without having to grind for her daily bread - why disfigure herself? Why willfully rub her hands into corns, when she might keep them clean and pretty! Women, moreover, usually pick up their convictions ready-made from the man who interests them most at the moment. And never do they do this so vigorously as when the man himself seems incapable of paving the way to his ideas! They are full of feeling for him; they rush to the last extremities of resource. Will not their feeble little fists help him? It may be touching, but in the end it is intolerable. So it is much pleasanter to meet a woman who believes in her husband and does not consider it necessary to help him. She can then dispense with convictions.


Emancipation of women.—The one and only way of mastering an enemy is to learn the use of his weapons. Starting from this, modern woman, weary of being the slave of man, tries to learn all his tricks. Hard is slavery, wonderful is freedom! Slavery at last is so unendurable that a human being will sacrifice everything for freedom. Of what use are his virtues to a prisoner languishing in prison? He has one aim, one object—to get out of prison, and he values only such qualities in himself as will assist his escape. If it is necessary to break an iron grating by physical force, then strong muscles will seem to the prisoner the most desirable of all things. If cunning will help him, cunning is the finest thing on earth. Something the same happens with woman. She became convinced that man owed his priority chiefly to education and a trained mind, so she threw herself on books and universities. Learning that promises freedom is light, everything else darkness. Of course, it is a delusion, but you could never convince her of it, for that would mean the collapse of her best hopes of freedom. So that in the end woman will be as well-informed as man, she will furnish herself with broad views and unshakeable convictions, with a philosophy also - and in the end she may even learn to think logically. Then, probably, the many misunderstandings between the sexes will cease. But heavens, how tedious it will be! Men will argue, women will argue, children will probably be born fully instructed, understanding everything. With what pain will the men of the future view our women, capricious, frivolous, uninformed creatures, understanding nothing and desiring to understand nothing. A whole half of the human race neither would nor could have any understanding! But the hope lies there. Maybe we can do without understanding. Perhaps a logical mind is not an attribute, but a curse. In the struggle for existence, however, and the survival of the fittest, not a few of the best human qualities have perished. Obviously woman's illogicality is also destined to disappear. It is a thousand pities.


All kinds of literature are good, except the tedious, said Voltaire. We may enlarge the idea. All men and all activities are good, except the tedious. Whatever your failings and your vices, if you are only amusing or interesting all is forgiven you. Accordingly, frankness and naturalness are quite rightly considered doubtful virtues. If people say that frankness and naturalness are virtues, always take it cum grano salis. Sometimes it is permissible and even opportune to fire off truth of all sorts. Sometimes one may stretch oneself like a log across the road. But God forbid that such sincere practices should be raised into a principle. To out with the truth at all times, always to reveal oneself entirely, besides being impossible to accomplish, never having been accomplished even in the confessions of the greatest men, is moreover a far more risky business than it seems. I can confidently assert that if any man tried to tell the whole truth about himself, not metaphorically, for every metaphor is a covering ornament, but in plain bare words, that man would ruin himself for ever, for he would lose all interest in the eyes of his neighbours, and even in his own eyes. Each of us bears in his soul a heavy wound, and knows it, yet carries himself, must carry himself as if he were aware of nothing, while all around keep up the pretence. Remember Lermontov:
Look! around you, playfully
The crowd moves on the usual road.
Scarce a mark of trouble on the festive faces,
Not one indecent tear!
And yet is barely one amongst them
But is crushed by heavy torture,
Or has gathered the wrinkles of young age
Save from crime or loss.
These words are horribly true—and the really horrible should be concealed, it frightens one off. I admit, Byron and Lermontov could make it alluring. But all that is alluring depends on vagueness, remoteness. Any monster may be beautiful in the distance. And no man can be interesting unless he keep a certain distance between himself and people. Women do not understand this. If they like a man, they try to come utterly near to him, and are surprised that he does not meet their frankness with frankness, and admit them to his holy of holies. But in the innermost sanctuary the only beauty is inaccessibility. As a rule it is not a sanctuary but a lair where the wounded beast in man has run to lick his wounds. And shall this be done in public? People generally, and women particularly, ought to be given something positive. In books one may still sing the praise of wounds, hopelessness, and despair—whatever you like, for books are still literature, a conventionality. But to strip one's anguish in the open market, to confess an incurable disease to others, this is to kill one's soul, not to relieve it. All, even the best men, have some aversion for you. Perhaps in the interest of order and decorum they will grant you a not-too-important place in their philosophy of life. For in a philosophy of life, as in a cemetery, a place is prepared for each and all, and everyone is welcome. There also are enclosures where rubbish is dumped to rot. But for those who have as yet no desire to be fitted into a world-philosophy, I would advise them to keep their tongue between their teeth, or like Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, take to literature. To a writer, in books and only in books, all is permitted provided he has talent. But in actual living even a writer must not let loose too much, lest people should guess that in his books he is telling the truth.


Pushkin asserts that the poet himself can and must be the judge of his own work. "Are you content, exacting artist? Content, then let the mob revile." It is needless to argue against this, for how could you prove that the supreme verdict belongs not to the poet himself, but to public opinion? Nor, for that matter, can we prove Pushkin right. We must agree or disagree, as we like. But we cannot reject the evidence. Whether you like it or not, Pushkin was evidently satisfied with his own work, and did not need his reader's sanction. Happy man! And it seems to me he owed his happiness exclusively to his inability to pass beyond certain limits. I doubt if all poets would agree to repeat Pushkin's verse quoted above. I decidedly refuse to believe that Shakespeare, for instance, after finishing Hamlet or King Lear could have said to himself: "I, who judge my work more strictly than any other can judge, am satisfied." I do not think he can even have thought for a moment of the merits of his works,- Hamlet or King Lear. To Shakespeare, after Hamlet, the word "satisfied" must have lost all its meaning, and if he used it, it was only by force of habit, as we sometimes call to a dead person. His own works must have seemed to him imperfect, mean, pitiful, like the sob of a child or the moaning of a sick man. He gave them to the theatre, and most probably was surprised that they had any success. Perhaps he was glad that his tears were of some use, if only for amusing and instructing people. And probably in this sense the verdict of the crowd was dearer to him than his own verdict. He could not help accusing his own offspring - thank heaven, other people acquitted it.

True, they acquitted it because they did not understand, or understood imperfectly, but this did not matter. "Use every man after his desert, and who should scape a whipping?" asked Hamlet. Shakespeare knew that a strict tribunal would reject his works: for they contain so many terrible questions, and not one perfect answer. Could anyone be "satisfied" at that rate? Perhaps with Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, or even Richard III—but after Hamlet a man may find rest only in his grave. To speak the whole truth, I doubt if Pushkin himself maintained the view we have quoted till the end of his days, or even if he spoke all he felt when he wrote the poem in 1830. Possibly he felt how little a poet can be satisfied with his work, but pride prevented his admitting it, and he tried to console himself with his superiority over the crowd. Which is undeniably a right thing to do. Insults—and Pushkin had to endure many—are answered with contempt; and woe to the poor wretch who feels impelled to justify his contempt by his own merits, according to the stern voice of conscience. Such niceness is dangerous and unnecessary. If a man would preserve his strength and his confidence he must give up magnanimity, he must learn to despise people, and even if he cannot despise them he must have the air of one who would not give a pin's head for anybody. He must appear always content... Pushkin was a clever man and deep nature.


Metaphysics against their will.—It often occurs to us that evil is not altogether so unnecessary, after all. Diseases, humiliations, miseries, deformity, failure, and all the rest of those plants which flourish with such truly tropical luxuriance on our planet, are probably essential to man. Poets sing plentifully of sorrow.

"Nous sommes les apprentis, la douleur est notre maître," said de Musset. On this subject everybody can bring forth a quotation, not only from the philosophers, who are a cold, heartless tribe, but from tender, gentle, or sentimental poets. Doubtless one knows many instances where suffering has profited a man. True also, one knows many cases of the direct opposite. And these are all cases of profound, earnest, outrageous, incredibly outrageous suffering. Look at Chekhov's men and women—plainly drawn from life, or at any rate, exceedingly life-like. Uncle Vanya, an old man of fifty, cries beside himself all over the stage, "My life is done for, my life is done for," and senselessly shoots at a harmless professor. The hero in A Tedious Story was a quiet, happy man engaged in work of real importance, when suddenly a horrible disease stole upon him, not killing him, but taking him between its loathsome jaws. But what for? Then Chekhov's girls and women! They are mostly young, innocent, fascinating. And always there lies in wait for them round every corner a meaningless, rude, ugly misery which murders even the most modest hopes. They sob bitterly, but fate takes no notice. How explain such horrors? Chekhov is silent. He does not weep himself—he left off long ago, and besides it is a humiliating thing for a grownup person to do. Setting one's teeth, it is necessary either to keep silent or—to explain.

Well, metaphysics undertakes the explanation. Where common sense stops, metaphysics must take another stride. "We have seen," it says, "many instances where at first glance suffering seemed absurd and needless, but where later on a profound significance was revealed. Thus it may be that what we cannot explain may find its explanation in time. ‘Life is lost,’ cries Uncle Vanya, ‘Life is done for,’ repeat the voices of girls innocently perishing—yet nothing is lost. The very horror which a drowning man experiences goes to show that the drowning is nothing final. It is only the beginning of greater events. The less a man has fulfilled in experience, the more in him remains of unsatisfied passion and desire, the greater are the grounds for thinking that his essence cannot be destroyed, but must manifest itself somehow or other in the universe. Voluntary asceticism and self-denial, such common human phenomena, help to solve the riddle. Nobody compels a man, he imposes suffering and abstinence on himself. It is an incomprehensible instinct, but still an instinct which, rooted in the depths of our nature, prompts us to a decision repugnant to reason: renounce life, save yourself. The majority of men do not hear or do not heed the prompting. And then nature, which cannot rely on our sensibility, has recourse to violence. She shows glimpses of Paradise to us in our youth, awakens hopes and impossible desires, and at the moment of our supreme expectation she shows us the hollowness of our hope.

Nearly every life can be summed up in a few words: man was shown heaven - and thrown into the mud. We are all ascetics—voluntary or involuntary. Here on earth dreams and hopes are only awakened, not fulfilled. And he who has endured most suffering, most privation, will awaken in the afterwards most keenly alive." Such long speeches metaphysics whispers to us. And we repeat them, often leaving out the "it may be." Sometimes we believe them, and forge our philosophies from them. Even we go so far as to assert that had we the power we would change nothing, absolutely nothing in the world. And yet, if by some miracle such power came into our hands, how triumphantly we would send to the devil all philosophies and lofty world-conceptions, all ideals and metaphysics, and plainly and, simply, without reflection, abolish sufferings, deformities, failures, all those things to which we attach such a high educational value, abolish them from the face of the earth. We are fed up, oh, how fed up we are with carrying on our studies. But it can't be helped. Faute de mieux, let us keep on inventing systems, thinking them out. But let us agree not to be cross with those who don't want to have anything to do with our systems. Really, they have a perfect right.

Orphus system

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