ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE
Apotheosis of Groundlessness
An attempt of adogmatic thinking
Zu fragmentarisch ist Welt und Leben.
Too fragmentary is life and the world.
- H. HEINE
The obscure streets of life do not offer the conveniences of the central thoroughfares: no electric light, no gas, not even a kerosene lamp-bracket. There are no pavements: the traveller has to fumble his way in the dark. If he needs a light, he must wait for a thunderbolt, or else, primitive-wise, knock a spark out of a stone. In a glimpse will appear unfamiliar outlines; and then, what he has taken in he must try to remember, no matter whether the impression was right or false. For he will not easily get another light, except he run his head against a wall, and see sparks that way. What can a wretched pedestrian gather under such circumstances? How can we expect a clear account from him whose curiosity (let us suppose his curiosity so strong) led him to grope his way among the outskirts of life? Why should we try to compare his records with those of the travellers through brilliant streets?
The law of sequence in natural phenomena seems so plausible, so obvious, that one is tempted to look for its origin, not in the realities of actual life, but in the promptings of the human mind. This law of sequence is the most mysterious of all the natural laws. Why so much order? Why not chaos and disorderliness? Really, if the hypothesis of sequence had not offered such blatant advantages to the human intelligence, man would never have thought of raising it to the rank of eternal and irrefutable truth. But he saw his opportunity. Thanks to the grand hypothesis, man is forewarned and forearmed. Thanks to this master-key, the future is at his mercy. He knows, in order that he may foreknow: savoir pour prévoir. Here is man, by virtue of one supreme assumption, dictator henceforward of all nature. The philosophers have ever bowed the knee to success. So down they went before the newly-invented law of natural sequence, they hailed it with the title of eternal truth. But even this seemed insufficient. L’appétit vient en mangeant. Like the old woman in the fairy-tale about the golden fish, they had it in their minds that the fish should do their errands. But some few people at last could not stand this impudence. Some very few began to object...
The comfortable settled man says to himself: "How could one live without being sure of the morrow; how could one sleep without a roof over one's head?" But misfortune turns him out of house and home. He must perforce sleep under a hedge. He cannot rest, he is full of terrors. There may be wild beasts, fellow-tramps. But in the long run he gets used to it. He will trust himself to chance, live like a tramp, and sleep his sleep in a ditch.
A writer, particularly a young and inexperienced writer, feels himself under an obligation to give his reader the fullest answers to all possible questions. Conscience will not let him shut his eyes to tormenting problems, and so he begins to speak of "first and ultimate things." As he cannot say anything profitable on such subjects—for it is not the business of the young to be profoundly philosophical—he grows excited, he shouts himself to hoarseness. In the end he is silent from exhaustion. And then, if his words have had any success with the public, he is astonished to find that he has become a prophet. Whereupon, if he be an average sort of person, he is filled with an insatiable desire to preserve his influence till the end of his days. But if he be more sensitive or gifted than usual, he begins to despise the crowd for its vulgar credulity, and himself for having posed in the stupid and disgraceful character of a clown of lofty ideas.
How painful it is to read Plato's account of the last conversations of Socrates! The days, even the hours of the old man are numbered, and yet he talks, talks, talks... Crito comes to him in the early morning and tells him that the sacred ships will shortly return to Athens. And at once Socrates is ready to talk, to argue... It is possible, of course, that Plato is not altogether to be trusted. It is said that Socrates observed, of the dialogues already written down by Plato: "How much that youth has belied me!" But then from all sources we have it, that Socrates spent the month following his verdict in incessant conversations with his pupils and friends. That is what it is to be a beloved master, and to have disciples. You can't even die quietly... The best death is really the one which is considered the worst: to die alone, in a foreign land, in a poor-house, or, as they say, like a dog under a hedge. Then at least one may spend one's last moments honestly, without dissembling or ostentation, preparing oneself for the dreadful, or wonderful, event. Pascal, as his sister tells us, also talked a great deal before his death, and de Musset cried like a baby. Perhaps Socrates and Pascal talked so much for fear they should start crying. It is a false shame!
The fact that some ideas, or some series of ideas, are materially unprofitable to mankind cannot serve as a justification for their rejection. Once an idea is there, the gates must be opened to it. For if you close the gates, the thought will force a way in, or, like the fly in the fable, will sneak through unawares. Ideas have no regard for our laws of honour or morality. Take for example realism in literature. At its appearance it aroused universal indignation. Why need we know the dirt of life? And honestly, there is no need. Realism could give no straightforward justification for itself. But, as it had to come through, it was ready with a lie; it compared itself to pathology, called itself useful, beneficial, and so obtained a place. We can all see now that realism is not beneficial, but harmful, very harmful, and that it has nothing in common with pathology. Nevertheless, it is no longer easy to drive it from its place. The prohibition evaded, there is now the justus titulus possessionis.
Count Tolstoy preached inaction. It seems he had no need. We "inact" remarkably. Idleness, just that idleness Tolstoy dreamed of, a free, conscious idling that despises labour, this is one of the chief characteristics of our time. Of course I speak of the higher, cultured classes, the aristocracy of spirit—"We write books, paint pictures, compose symphonies"—But is that labour? It is only the amusement of idleness. So that Tolstoy is much more to the point when, forgetting his preaching of inaction, he bids us trudge eight hours a day at the tail of the plough. In this there is some sense. Idleness spoils us. We were returning to the most primitive of all the states of our forefathers. Like paradisal Adam and Eve, having no need to sweat for our bread, we were trying to pilfer the fruit from the forbidden tree. Truly we received a similar punishment. Divine laws are inscrutable. In Paradise everything is permitted, except curiosity. Even labour is allowed, though it is not obligatory, as it is outside. Tolstoy realised the dangers of the paradisal state. He stooped to talk of inaction for a moment—and then he began to work. Since in regular, smooth, constant, rhythmical labour, whether it is efficient or whether it merely appears efficient, like Tolstoy's farming, there is peace of mind. Look at the industrious Germans, who begin and who end their day with a prayer. In Paradise, where there is no labour, and no need for long rest and heavy sleep, all temptations become dangerous. It is a peril to live there... Perhaps present-day people eschew the paradisal state. They prefer work for where there is no work there is no smoothness, no regularity, no peacefulness, no satisfaction. In Eden, even the well-informed individuals cannot tell what will come next, savoir pour prévoir does not answer, and everlasting laws are exposed to ridicule. Amongst ourselves also a few of the work-abjurers, the idlers, are beginning to question our established knowledge. But the majority of men, and particularly Germans, still defend a priori judgments, on the ground that without these, perfect knowledge would be impossible, there could be no regulation of the course of natural phenomena, and no looking ahead.
To escape from the grasp of contemporary ruling ideas, one should study history. The lives of other men in other lands in other ages teach us to realise that our "eternal laws" and infallible ideas are just abortions. Take a step further, imagine mankind living elsewhere than on this earth, and all our terrestrial eternalities lose their charm.
We know nothing of the ultimate realities of our existence, nor shall we ever know anything. Let that be agreed. But it does not follow that therefore we must accept some or other dogmatic theory as a modus vivendi, no, not even positivism, which has such a skeptical face on it. It only follows that man is free to change his conception of the universe as often as he changes his boots or his gloves, and that constancy of principle belongs only to one's relationships with other people, in order that they may know where and to what extent they may depend on us. Therefore, on principle man should respect order in the external world and complete chaos in the inner. And for those who find it difficult to bear such a duality, some internal order might also be provided. Only, they should not pride themselves on it, but always remember that it is a sign of their weakness, pettiness, dullness.
The Pythagoreans assumed that the sun is motionless and that the earth turns round. What a long time the truth had to wait for recognition!
In spite of Epicurus and his exasperation we are forced to admit that anything whatsoever may result from anything whatsoever. Which does not mean, however, that a stone ever turned into bread, or that our visible universe was ever "naturally" formed from nebulous puffs. But from our own minds and our own experience we can deduce nothing that would serve us as a ground for setting even the smallest limit to nature's own arbitrary behaviour. If whatever happens now had chanced to happen quite differently, it would not, therefore, have seemed any the less natural to us. In other words, although there may be an element of inevitability in our human judgments concerning the natural phenomena, we have never been able and probably never shall be able to separate the grain of inevitable from the chaff of accidental and casual truth. Moreover, we do not even know which is more essential and important, the inevitable or the casual. Hence we are forced to the conclusion that philosophy must give up her attempt at finding the veritates aeternae. The business of philosophy is to teach man to live in uncertainty - man who is supremely afraid of uncertainty, and who is forever hiding himself behind this or the other dogma. More briefly, the business of philosophy is not to reassure people but to upset them.
When man finds in himself a certain defect, of which he can by no means rid himself, there remains but to accept the so-called failing as a natural quality. The more grave and important the defect, the more urgent is the need to ennoble it. From sublime to ridiculous is only one step, and an ineradicable vice in strong men is always rechristened a virtue.
On the whole, there is little to choose between metaphysics and positivism. In each there is the same horizon, but the composition and coloring are different. Positivism chooses grey, colorless paint and ordinary composition; metaphysics prefers brilliant coloring and complicated design, and always carries the vision away into the infinite in which trick it often succeeds, owing to its skill in perspective. But the canvas is impervious, there is no melting through it into "the other world." Nevertheless, skillful perspectives are very alluring, so that metaphysicians will still have something to quarrel about with the positivists.
The task of a writer: to go forward and share his impressions with his reader. In spite of everything to the contrary, he is not obliged to prove anything. But, because every step of his progress is dogged by those police agents, morality, science, logic, and so forth, he needs always to have ready some sort of argument with which to frustrate them. There is no necessity to trouble too deeply about the quality of the argumentation. Why fret about being "inwardly right." It is quite enough if the reasoning which comes handiest will succeed in occupying those guardians of the verbal highways whose intention it is to obstruct his passage.
The Secret of Pushkin's "inner harmony." - To Pushkin nothing was hopeless. Nay, he saw hopeful signs in everything. It is agreeable to sin, and it is just as delightful to repent. It is good to doubt, but it is still better to believe. It is jolly "with feet shod in steel" to skate the ice, it is pleasant to wander about with gypsies, to pray in church, to quarrel with a friend, to make peace with an enemy, to swoon on waves of harmony, to weep over a passing fancy, to recall the past, to peep into the future. Pushkin could cry hot tears, and he who can weep can hope. "I want to live, so that I may think and suffer," he says; and it seems as if the word "to suffer," which is so beautiful in the poem, just fell in accidentally, because there was no better rhyme in Russian for "to die." The later verses, which are intended to amplify to think and to suffer, prove this. Pushkin might repeat the words of the ancient hero: "danger is dangerous to others, but not to me." Therein lies the secret of his harmonious moods.
- [Of my mad years the vanished mirth and laughter
Affect me like a fume-filled morning-after.
Not so past pain-like wine is it to me
That as the years go by gains potency.
Sad is the path before me; toil and sorrow
Lie on the restless seaways of the morrow.
And yet from thought of death, my friends, I shrink;
I want to live - to suffer and to think,
To taste of care and grief and tribulation,
Of rapture and of sweet exhilaration;
Be drunk with harmony; touch fancy's strings
And freely weep o'er its imaginings...
And love's last flash, its smile of farewell tender
My sad decline may yet less mournful render. - my note A.K.]
The well-trodden field of contemporary thought should be dug up. Therefore, on every possible occasion, in season and out, the generally accepted truths must be ridiculed to death, and paradoxes uttered in their place. Then we shall see...
What is a Weltanschauung, a world-conception, a philosophy? As we all know, Turgenev was a realist, and from the first he tried to portray life truthfully. Although we had had no precise exponents of realism, yet after Pushkin it was impossible for a Russian writer to depart too far from actuality. Even those who did not know what to do with "real life" had to cope with it as best they could. Hence, in order that the picture of life should not prove too depressing, the writer must provide himself in due season with a philosophy. This philosophy still plays the part of the magic wand in literature, enabling the author to turn anything he likes into anything else.
Most of Turgenev’s works are curious in respect of philosophy. But most curious is his Diary of a Superfluous Man. Turgenev was the first to introduce the term "a superfluous man" into Russian literature. Since then an endless amount has been written about superfluous people, although up till now nothing important has been added to what was already said fifty years ago. There are superfluous people, plenty of them. But what is to be done with them? No one knows. There remains only to invent philosophies on their behalf. In 1850 Turgenev, then a young man, thus solved the problem. He ends the Diary—with a humorous postscript, supposed to have been scribbled by an impertinent reader on the last fly-leaf of the MS.
It is obvious Turgenev felt that after a tragedy must follow a farce, and therein lies the substance of his philosophy. It is also obvious that in this feeling he has the whole of European civilisation behind him. Turgenev was the most educated, the most cultured of all Russian writers. He spent nearly all his life abroad, and absorbed into himself all that European learning could offer. He knew this, although he never directly admitted it, owing to an exaggerated modesty which sometimes irritates us by its obviousness. He believed profoundly that only learning, only European science could open men's eyes to life, and explain all that needed explanation. According to this belief he judges even Tolstoy. "The saddest instance of the lack of real freedom," the sixty-year-old Turgenev writes of War and Peace, in his literary memoirs: "the saddest instance of the lack of real freedom, arising from the lack of real knowledge, is revealed to us in Leo Tolstoy's latest work, a work which at the same time, by virtue of its creative, poetic force, ranks almost first among all that has appeared in Russian literature since 1840. No! without culture, without freedom in the widest sense, freedom within oneself, freedom from preconceived ideas, freedom with regard to one's own nation and history, without this, the real artist is unthinkable; without this free air he cannot breathe." Listening to Turgenev one might imagine that he had learned some great secret in the West, a secret which gave him the right to bear himself cheerfully and modestly when other people despaired and lost their heads...
- This MS. was read, and contents thereof
by Peter Zudotyeshin. M. M. M. M.
Dear Sir, Peter Zudotyeshin, My dear Sir.
A year after the writing of the literary memoirs above quoted, Turgenev happened to be present at the execution of the notorious murderer, Tropman. His impressions are superbly rendered in a long article called "Tropman’s Execution." The description produces a soul-shaking effect upon the reader; for I think I shall not exaggerate if I say that the essay is one of the best, at least one of the most vigorous of Turgenev’s writings. It is true that Tolstoy describes scenes of slaughter with no less vigour, and therefore the reader need not yield too much to the artist's power. Yet when Turgenev relates that, at the decisive moment, when the executioners like spiders on a fly threw themselves on Tropman and bore him to the ground—"the earth quietly swam away from under my feet"—we are forced to believe him. Men respond only faintly to the horrors that take place around them, except at moments, when the savage, crying incongruity and ghastliness of our condition suddenly reveals itself vivid before our eyes, and we are forced to know what we are. Then the ground slides away from under our feet. But not for long. The horror of the sensation of groundlessness quickly brings man to himself. He must forget everything, he must only get his feet on earth again. In this sense Turgenev proved himself in as risky a state at sixty as he was when, as a young man, he wrote his Diary of a Superfluous Man. The description of Tropman’s execution ends with these words: "Who can fail to feel that the question of capital punishment is one of the urgent, immediate problems which modern humanity must settle? I shall be satisfied...if my story will provide even a few arguments for those who advocate the abolition, or at least the suppression of the publicity of capital punishments." Again the mountain has brought forth a mouse. After a tragedy, a farce. Philosophy enters into her power, and the earth returns under one's feet.
I emphasize and repeat: Turgenev is not alone responsible for his attitude. With his lips speaks the whole of European civilisation. On principle all insoluble problems are rejected. During her thousand years of experience, the old civilisation has acquired the skill which allows her children to derive satisfaction and benefit out of anything, even the blood of their neighbour. Even the greatest horrors, even crimes are beneficial, properly construed. Turgenev was, as we know, a soft, "humane" man, an undoubted idealist. In his youth he had been through the Hegelian school. And from Hegel he learned what an enormous value education has, and how supremely important it is for an educated man to have a complete and finished—most certainly a "finished" philosophy.
To praise oneself is considered improper, immodest; to praise ones's own sect, one's own philosophy, is considered the highest duty. Even the best writers have taken at least as much trouble to glorify their philosophy as to found it, and have always had more success in the former case than in the latter. Their ideas, whether proven or not, are the dearest possession in life to them, in sorrow a consolation, in difficulty a source of counsel. Even death is not terrible to ideas; they will follow man beyond the grave, they are the only imperishable riches. All this the philosophers repeat, very eloquently repeat and reiterate concerning their ideas, not less skillfully than advocates plead their cases on behalf of thieves and swindlers. But nobody has ever yet called a philosopher "a hired conscience," though everybody gives the lawyer this nickname. Why this partiality?
Certain savage tribes believe that their kings need no food, neither to eat nor to drink. As a matter of fact, kings eat and drink, and even relish a good mouthful more than ordinary mortals. So, having no desire, even for the sake of form, to abstain too long, they not infrequently interrupt the long-drawn-out religious ceremonies of their tribes, in order to command refreshment for their frail bodies. But none must witness, or even be aware of this refreshing, and so while he eats the king is hidden within a purple pall. Metaphysicians remind one of these savage kings. They want everyone to believe that empiricism, which means all reality and substantial existence, is nothing to them, they need only pure ideas for their existence. In order to keep up this fiction, they appear before the world invested in a purple veil of fine words. The crowd knows perfectly well that it is all a take-in, but since it likes shows and bright colors, and since also it has no ambition to appear too knowing, it rarely betrays that it has caught the trick of the comedy. On the contrary, it loves to pretend to be fooled, knowing by instinct that actors always do their best when the audience believes implicitly in what happens. Only inexperienced youths and children, unaware of the great importance of the conventional attitude, now and then cry out in indignation and give the lie to the performance: like the child in Andersen's story, who so unexpectedly and inopportunely broke the general, deliberate illusion by calling out—"But the king is naked."
Of course everybody knows without telling that the king is naked: that the metaphysicians not only are unable to explain anything, but that hitherto they have not been able to present even a single hypothesis free from contradiction. It is necessary to pretend to believe that kings eat nothing, that philosophers have divined the secrets of the universe, that arbitrary theories are more precious than empirical harvests, and so on. There remains only one difficulty: grownups may be won over to the conventional lie, but what about the children? With them the only remedy is the Pythagorean system of upbringing, so glorified by Hegel. Children must keep silent and not raise their voice until they realise that some things may not be talked about. This is our method. With us pupils remain silent, not only for five years, as the Pythagoreans recommended, but for ten or more—until they have learned to speak like their masters. And then they are granted a freedom which is no longer any good to them. Perhaps they had wings, or might have had them, but they have crawled all their life long in imitation of their masters, so how can they now dream of flight? To a well-informed man, who has studied much, the very thought of the possibility of tearing himself away from the earth, even for a moment, is horrifying: as if he knew beforehand what the result would be.
The best, the most effective way of convincing a reader is to begin one's argument with inoffensive, commonplace assertions. When suspicion has been sufficiently lulled, and a certainty has been begot that what follows will be a confirmation of the reader's own accepted views - then has the moment arrived to speak one's mind openly, but still in the same easy tone, as if there were no break in the flow of truisms. The logical connection is unimportant. Consequence of manner and intonation is much more impressive than consequence of ideas. The thing to do is to go on, in the same suave tone, from uttering a series of banalities to expressing a new and dangerous thought, without any break. If you succeed in this, the business is done. The reader will not forget - the new words will plague and torment him until he has accepted them.