LEV SHESTOV \ Speculation and Revelation

Vassili Rozanov by Leonid Selivestrov


Published in Put, no. 21 (1930)

I shall attempt, so far as it is possible to do this briefly, to "evaluate" the literary legacy of this great writer - more correctly, of this tireless battler. I say of this battler, for Rozanov was, like almost all great Russian writers, first of all a battler. His matchless literary talent was for him only a weapon in the struggle against an eternal and terrible enemy - an enemy, moreover, with whom reconciliation, a compromise, even only a temporary armistice is impossible. Whoever is not with him is against him. Whoever is not against him is with him. This enemy Rozanov saw in Christianity. Or more correctly: this enemy Rozanov called Christianity.

     But, strangely, Rozanov, who always attacked Christianity so unrestrainedly and passionately, once said about himself, using the words of Feodor Karamazov: "Even though I am a piglet, God still loves me." As coarse and cynical as this may sound - in his writings Rozanov reached the extreme of coarseness and cynicism, and precisely when he was so coarse and cynical he revealed himself most of all - as coarse and cynical as this may sound, in these words there is a great truth about Rozanov. It is true that he was a "piglet," but it is also true that God loved him. Beyond this, although he did not express it, still another truth is hidden in these words: Rozanov himself loved God, loved Him with his whole heart and his whole soul, as the first commandment requires. And if all things do not deceive me, in this lies the key to the solution of his animosity toward Christianity. He could also have repeated the words of another hero of The Brothers Karamazov, the words of Mitya that he addressed to his younger brother: "I am sorry for God, Alyosha."

     I think that for anyone who has read Rozanov's works carefully, one thing is clear: he attacked Christianity because he felt, even though he was a piglet, that God loved him, because he felt that he loved God more than everything in the world, and that he "was sorry for" God, the God whom Christianity killed. How it came about that for Rozanov the idea of Christianity was connected with the idea of atheism - to this question we will obtain no answer in Rozanov's writings. He himself, apparently was not completely aware, or, at least, never said distinctly, that for him Christianity was in any way connected with the idea of the death of God. But already his first and, in a certain sense, most remarkable work, his commentary to Dostoevsky's "Legend of the Grand Inquisitor," serves as a sufficient guarantee that, for Rozanov, to be a Christian means to renounce God.

     If I had this book of his at hand and, what is the chief thing, if an analysis or even only the most superficial exposition of this book did not require far too much time, it would, of course be necessary and very worthwhile to dwell on it. But I am compelled to be brief and I cannot abuse your patience; therefore instead of speaking about Rozanov's commentary to the "Grand Inquisitor," I propose to all of you that you listen to a page of Hegel's Philosophy of Religion. Do not be afraid - this is one of those rare pages of his work in which he speaks not in Hegelian but in generally comprehensible, human language. I have recalled it because, in my view, it explains to us not only Rozanov but also Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor and, at the same time, leads us to one of the most difficult and painful problems of our time.

     Here is the passage from Hegel:
"It may indeed be that the belief in a religion begins with miracles; but Christ himself spoke against miracles and insulted the Jews for demanding miracles of him and said to his disciples: the spirit will lead you into all truth. The belief that begins in such an external way is still formal, and in its place the true belief must appear. If this does not happen, then one expects of a person that he believe in things in which, at a certain point of education, he can no longer believe... The belief that is so demanded is a belief in a content that is finite and accidental, i.e., that is not the true one; for the true belief has no accidental content... Whether at the wedding at Cana the guests received more or less wine is altogether a matter of indifference, and it is likewise accidental whether the withered hand of a certain man was healed: for millions of people walk around with withered hands and crippled limbs that no one heals. So it is told in the Old Testament that at the exodus from Egypt red marks were made on the doors of the Jewish houses so that the angel of the Lord could recognize them: should this angel not have recognized the Jews without the mark? This belief has no interest for the spirit. Voltaire's bitterest gibes are directed against the demands of such a belief. He says, among other things, that it would have been better if God had given the Jews instruction about the immortality of the soul rather than teaching them to go to the lavatory ("aller Ó la selle"). Latrines thus become a content of belief." (Deuteronomy 23:13-15)
     So Hegel speaks, but so thinks not Hegel; so think "at a certain degree of education" all people or, to put it better, almost all people. For them Cana of Galilee is an object of horror and disgust, just like the healing of paralytics and the resurrection of Lazarus. "The miracle," Hegel continues, "is only a violence upon natural connections and, with it, only a violence upon the spirit." Here, of course, it is permissible to doubt the legitimacy of the Hegelian "with it." Violence upon the natural connections of phenomena is a thing in itself, and spirit is also a thing in itself. It is a different matter to say that almost all people at a certain degree of education cannot believe that it is given to anyone, even God Himself, to break through what we are accustomed to call the natural connections of phenomena. But precisely only "almost" all people. Pascal, for example, although he found himself at that degree of education of which Hegel speaks, was not afraid to proclaim: "The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - and not the God of the philosophers." And he "believed" in a God who dares and is able to break through the natural connections of phenomena, to change water into wine, to heal paralytics, to resurrect the dead.

     Pascal would most likely not have been frightened by the malicious sarcasms of Voltaire and would in no way have agreed with Hegel that a miracle is violence upon the spirit. On the contrary, he felt with his whole soul that the impossibility of breaking through the natural connection of phenomena, if one succeeded in establishing it definitively and forever, would be a violence, and indeed the greatest violence, upon the spirit. But - this is Pascal, and there are not many Pascals in the world. Dostoevsky also thought the same way as Pascal - we shall have occasion to speak of this later on - but Dostoevskys also must be sought with lanterns on earth.

     The overwhelming majority of "educated people" think like Hegel. For them the natural connection of phenomena is the limit of both human and divine possibility. That is why the candid and honest Epictetus, whom Pascal so revered, asserted that the beginning of philosophy is the consciousness of one's own weakness and impotence before necessity. Hegel, in his capacity as a person who had attained a certain degree of education, thought in the same way as Epictetus. But he refused to confess his weakness and impotence. He preferred a pia fraus or what seemed to him a pious deception - Voltaire's sarcasms appeared to him an incontrovertible argument, just as the power of necessity appeared to him the final, supreme power on earth. Correspondingly, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whom the winds as well as the sea obey, seemed to him a foolish fabrication from which Christianity must first of all be purified, or as he himself says, "the belief in a God who works miracles presents no interest for the spirit."

     Hegel, I repeat, was absolutely right in one thing: educated people cannot and do not believe in the biblical God. But he was to an equal degree mistaken when he asserted that Christianity as a religion would remain a religion if, in the place of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, one set that religion of the "spirit" which he proposed. One can, of course, renounce the living God; educated people in all lands before Hegel and without Hegel renounced God, but, when they speak of Cana in Galilee, they cannot but recall the malicious mockeries of Voltaire, his "aller Ó la selle," etc. However, Christianity without God is no longer Christianity: this Hegel could not and would not understand. But Rozanov, when it was "revealed" to him that the Christian God is just as weak and feeble before the face of necessity as Epictetus or any mortal you please, could no longer be a Christian.

     That "worship in spirit and truth" that Hegel left as a portion to "educated" people, he offered by referring to Holy Scripture and he asserted that super hanc petram religion would be supported far better without any God than on God. The Hegelian God, i.e. that God who alone is acceptable to educated people, already brought Dostoevsky into a rage. All of his work, as he himself repeatedly declared on behalf of himself and through the heroes of his numerous novels, had for its source horror at the notion that the God of "educated people" ought to occupy the place of the God of Holy Scripture. Rozanov was also an "educated man." He, like all of us, went through the gymnasium and the university and was himself later a teacher of history in a gymnasium. He even wrote a huge work on the purely philosophical theme of "understanding," which, however, no one ever read, because at the time Rozanov acquired a reputation in Russia it became a bibliographical rarity. And, as an educated man, he was also deeply convinced that - whether he wished it or not - he had to climb super hanc petram, that rock which Hegel so eloquently described. But when he had climbed the Hegelian rock, the sight that disclosed itself to him shook his entire being. Like Nietzsche before him, he felt that God "had died," but, indeed - and in this he is distinguished both from Nietzsche, whom he probably knew only superficially from bad Russian translations, and from Dostoevsky, under whose influence he grew up and was formed spiritually - he did not notice or suspect that "we ourselves" had killed God. He came to believe that God died a "natural death" or, even more than this, that God's natural condition is death.

     Boris de Schloezer in his essay "V. Rozanov," (La Nouvelle Revue Franšaise, No. 194, 1 November, 1929), quotes some remarkable words of Rozanov's which are worth repeating: "God in the coffin - what a horrible mystery! God looks at man out of his coffin. The eyes of believing Christians shine with endless joy; in their glance there is something heavenly, final, radiant, something that almost takes your breath away. But in reality it is simply a coffin." And, indeed, Rozanov is right. Hegel considered himself a Christian and was an exponent of what he called the "spirit of the time" - but what do his words that were quoted above mean other than that "God is in a coffin?" A God who does not dare to break through the natural connection of phenomena created not by him and not for him, a God who cannot even turn water into wine - is this not a dead God, a God in a coffin, a God who either has already died or who never lived? The "natural connection of phenomena" was, for Rozanov, the boundary beyond which his thinking never flew, that wall which, according to his deep conviction, it is not given to any human power to pierce. In this respect he was an orthodox Hegelian, as all of us are, both those who have studied Hegel and those who have never even read a few lines of his books. But while Hegel bowed down before this wall and accepted it not only as unavoidable but as something supreme and longed for, bringing man final, definitive tranquility and therefore fully substituting for the absolute religion or, as he says, expressing the spiritual meaning of Christianity, Rozanov never accepted such a Christianity, could not and would not accept it. If He does not exist of Whom it is written, "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; God is not a God of the dead but of the living," then the Bible is one complete fabrication and falsehood, and Christianity is not the absolute religion but a repulsive delusion from which one ought to awaken as quickly as possible.

     It is necessary to choose: either to forget Christianity or to dare to struggle against the "Hegelian law," against the natural "connection of phenomena." Rozanov could not definitively decide to do the first, but he also never had enough audacity to undertake, following Dostoevsky's example, an open and obviously hopeless struggle against those principles that were revealed to mankind as the result of the thousand-year work of its most intensive thought. How can an "educated" man believe in Cana of Galilee, believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at whose command both the world and the living person who lives in the world were created? Hegel "rose" to the point where he considered it shameful to love that God whom Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob worshipped. Cana of Galilee associated itself in his conception with Voltaire's "aller Ó la selle." Rozanov was not inspired by Voltaire's mockery of Holy Scripture, but - I repeat - before the Hegelian "natural connection of phenomena" he bowed down will-lessly. And here lies the explanation for all his desperate attacks on Christianity. If the wall comes before God, then every religion is only the work of human hands and, therefore, rests on outrageous deception.

     Rozanov's teacher Dostoevsky knew this. But when Dostoevsky - and here is revealed to us what separated Dostoevsky from Rozanov - arrived at the conviction that a wall stands between God and man, that the natural connection of phenomena takes God away from man, he felt that for him there was no other way out. Whether it is given man to break through the natural connection of phenomena, to pierce the wall, he did not know and was unable to say. But one thing he did know: that to the end of his life he would struggle against the wall, even if he had to beat against it with his own head - even if everything indicated that it is not given us to get the better of this wall.

     I shall quote Dostoevsky's own words, which will serve, as it were, as an answer to the passages quoted by me earlier from Hegel's Philosophy of Religion. Hegel speaks in the name of all - Dostoevsky in his own name; Hegel leans on reason, common sense, history and reality - Dostoevsky has nothing on which to lean. Hegel, of course, conquered in "history" - all remember and know his words; Dostoevsky's words, however, all forgot, even Rozanov forgot them. And yet, if one wakened Dostoevsky to life again, he would not resign himself before his failure and would again begin his totally unpromising struggle with that "wall" - so he called the natural connection of phenomena, which all of us, along with Hegel, sincerely consider the boundary of human and divine possibilities and hypocritically designate with the great word "truth." If we always hear Hegel and listen to him, we must at least now and then lend an ear to Dostoevsky. "Before the wall," he writes, "spontaneous people give up. For them the wall is not a rejection as, for example, for us, not a pretext for turning back from the road. No, they give up in all sincerity. The wall for them has something calming, something morally decisive and final, perhaps even something mystical." And again: "I continue about people with strong nerves... Although these gentlemen, in other cases, bellow like an ox, at the top of their voices, although this brings them, let us assume, the greatest honor, nevertheless before impossibility they immediately submit. Impossibility - means a stone wall. What kind of a stone wall? Well, of course, the laws of nature, the conclusions of the natural sciences, mathematics. As soon as they prove to you, for instance, that you descend from the monkey, it is no use making a wry face, you must accept it as it is... Excuse me, they will shout to you, it is not allowed to fly in the face of things; this is two times two makes four. Nature does not ask your advice; it does not care about your wishes, whether its laws please you or do not please you. You are obliged to accept nature as it is and, consequently, also all its results. A wall means and is a wall, etc., etc... But, good Lord, what do I care about the laws of nature and arithmetic, when these laws and two times two makes four do not for some reason please me? It goes without saying, I shall not breach such a wall with my head if in fact I shall not have the strength to do so, but I will also not reconcile myself to it only because it is a stone wall and I have not sufficient strength. As if such a stone wall were really a calming and really contained any word at all of peace only because it is two times two makes four! O absurdity of absurdities! How much better to understand everything, to recognize everything, all the impossibilities and stone walls, and not to resign yourself to a single one of these impossibilities and stone walls if it disgusts you to resign yourself."

     I think that Dostoevsky's words require neither commentary nor explanation. I think also that Dostoevsky well understood that he, with his homemade sling "it disgusts me," would not so easily stand up to single combat with the Goliath Hegel, armed from head to foot with all the newest inventions of art and science. Nevertheless, he went forth against Hegel. There was no other way out for him: he had either to kill God, to place God in a coffin, as Rozanov did, or he had, without looking ahead at what would happen, without counting on anything, to undertake the great and final struggle against those impossibilities and walls in which Hegel and all people at a certain degree of education see the final source both of truth and of being.

     Rozanov lacked that unrestrained audacity which inspired Dostoevsky in his creation. Is it permissible to reproach Rozanov for this? Who of us would dare to throw the first stone at him because he could not bring himself to renounce the stability that provides connection with all and sought rest and peace in the super hanc petram offered to him by the thinking of his time? Rozanov loved God, Rozanov sought God, but he did not find in himself that mustard seed of faith for which the divine "nothing will be impossible for you" is promised to men, and he told about this truthfully. And this true story about the deceased God will give people more than a sham confession of truths that say nothing to the soul. Not without reason did Luther say that at times curses and blasphemies sound sweeter to God's ear than the most solemn hallelujahs. It is permissible to think that Rozanov was not mistaken when he applied the words of old Karamazov to himself. Although he renounced God, and although he uttered terrible words, nevertheless, for these words and this renunciation, God, to whom the abysses and mysteries of the human soul are open, loved him.

   home    intro    texts    links    biblio ToC