Sunday, March 23, 2008

Introduction (post mortem)

Did you know that a certain Mr. Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky had a blog? He did I tell you; and this is how he introduced it...

On the twentieth of December I learned that everything had been settled and that I was the editor of The Citizen. This extraordinary event—extraordinary for me at least (I don’t wish to offend anyone)—came about in a rather simple fashion, however. On the twentieth of December I had just read in the Moscow News the account of the wedding of the Chinese emperor; it left a strong impression on me. This magnificent and, apparently, extremely complex event also came about in a remarkably simple fashion: every last detail of the affair had been provided for and decreed a thousand years ago in nearly two hundred volumes of ceremonial. Comparing the enormity of the events in China with my own appointment as editor, I felt a sudden sense of ingratitude to our Russian practices, despite the ease with which my appointment had been confirmed. And I thought that we, that is, Prince Meshchersky and I, would have found it incomparably more advantageous to publish The Citizen in China. Everything is so clear over there….On the appointed day we both would have presented ourselves at China’s Main Administration for Press Affairs. After kowtowing and licking the floor, we would rise, raise our index fingers, and respectfully bow our heads. The Plenipotentiary-in-Chief for Press Affairs would, of course, pretend to take no more notice of us than he would of an errant fly. But the Third Assistant to the Third Secretary would rise, holding the warrant of my appointment as editor, and would pronounce in an impressive but gentle voice the admonition prescribed by the ceremonial. It would be so clear and so comprehensible that we both would be immensely pleased to hear it. Were I in China and were I stupid and honest enough, when taking on the editorship and acknowledging my own limited abilities, to experience fear and pangs of conscience, someone would at once prove to me that I was doubly stupid to entertain such feelings and that from that very moment I would have no need of intelligence at all, assuming I had had any in the first place; on the contrary, it would be far better if I had none at all. And without a doubt, this would be a most pleasant thing to hear. Concluding with the fine words: “Go thou, Editor; henceforth thou mayest eat rice and drink tea with thy conscience newly set at rest,” the Third Assistant to the Third Secretary would hand me a beautiful warrant printed in gold letters on red silk. Prince Meshchersky would pass over a substantial bribe, and the two of us would go home and immediately put out such a magnificent edition of The Citizen as we could never publish here. In China we would put out an excellent publication.

I suspect, however, that in China Prince Meshchersky would certainly have tricked me by inviting me to be editor; he would have done it mainly so that I could stand in for him at the Main Administration of Press Affairs whenever he was summoned to have his heels beaten with bamboo sticks. But I would outsmart him: I would at once stop publication of Bismarck and would myself commence writing articles so excellent that I would be summoned to the bamboo sticks only after every other issue. I would learn to write, however.

I would be an excellent writer in China; here, that sort of thing is much more difficult. There, everything has been anticipated and planned for a thousand years ahead, while here everything is topsy-turvy for a thousand years. There I would have no choice but to write clearly. So that I’m not sure who would read me. Here, if you want people to read you it’s better to write so that no one understands. Only in the Moscow News do they write column-and-a-half editorials and—to my astonishment—they are written clearly, even if they are the products of a well-known pen. In The Voice such editorials go on for eight, ten, twelve, and even thirteen columns. And so you see how many columns you must use up in order to win respect.

In Russia, talking to other people is a science; at first glance, at least, it seems just the same as in China. Here, as there, there are a few very simplified and purely scientific techniques. Formerly, for instance, the words “I don’t understand a thing” meant only that the person who uttered them was ignorant; now they bring great honor. One need only say, proudly and with a frank air, “I don’t understand religion; I don’t understand anything about Russia; I don’t understand anything about art,” and immediately you place yourself above the crowd. And it’s especially good if you really don’t understand anything.

But this simplified technique proves nothing. In essence, each one of us in Russia, without thinking much about it, suspects that everyone else is ignorant and never asks, conversely, “What if I’m the one who’s ignorant, in fact?” It’s a situation that ought to please us all, and yet no one is pleased and everyone gets angry. Indeed, sober thought in our time is all but impossible: it costs too much. It is true that people buy ready-made ideas. They are sold everywhere, and even given away; but the ones that come free of charge prove to be even more expensive, and people are already beginning to realize that. The result is benefit to none and the same old disorder.

We are, if you like, the same as China, but without her sense of order. We are barely beginning the process that is already coming to an end in China. No doubt we will reach that same end, but when? In order to get a thousand volumes of ceremonial so as at last to win the right not to think deeply about anything, we must experience at least another thousand years of sober thought. And there you have it—no one wants to hasten this term because no one wants to think.

Something else that is true: if no one wants to think, then, it would seem, so much the easier for the Russian writer. Indeed, it really is easier; and woe to the writer and publisher who in our time begins to think soberly. It’s even worse for one who decides to study and to understand things on his own, and still worse for one who makes a sincere declaration of his intention. And if he declares that he has already managed to understand a tiny smidgen and wants to express his ideas, then everyone quickly drops him. The only thing he can do is to seek out some suitable individual, or even hire one, and simply talk to him and to him alone. Perhaps he can publish a magazine for that one individual. It’s a loathsome situation, because it amounts to talking to yourself and publishing a magazine only for your own amusement. I strongly suspect that for a long time yet The Citizen will have to talk to itself and appear only for its own amusement. Remember that medical science considers talking to oneself a sign of predisposition to insanity. The Citizen certainly must speak to citizens, and that is precisely its whole dilemma!

And so this is the sort of publication with which I have become involved. My situation is as uncertain as it can be. But I shall talk to myself and for my own amusement, in the form of this diary, whatever may come of it. What shall I talk about? About everything that strikes me and sets me to thinking. If I should find a reader and, God forbid, an opponent, I realize that one must be able to carry on a conversation and know whom to address and how to address him. I shall try to master this skill because among us, that is to say, in literature, it is the most difficult one of all. Besides, there are different kinds of opponents: one cannot strike up a conversation with every one. I’ll tell you a story I heard the other day. They say it is an ancient fable, perhaps even of Indian origin, and that’s a very comforting thought.

Once upon a time the pig got into a quarrel with the lion and challenged him to a duel. When the pig came home he thought the matter over and lost his nerve. The whole herd assembled to consider the matter and announced their decision as follow: “Now then, brother pig, there is a wallow not far from here; go and have a good roll in it and then proceed to the duel. You’ll see what happens.”

The pig did just that. The lion arrived, took a sniff, wrinkled up his nose, and walked away. And for a long time thereafter the pig boasted that the lion had turned tail and fled the field of battle.

That’s the fable. Of course we don’t have any lions here—we don’t have the climate for them and they’re too grand a thing for us in any case. But in place of the lion put an honest person, such as each of us is obliged to be, and the moral comes out the same.

Apropos of that, I’ll tell you another little story.

Once when speaking with the late Herzen I paid him many compliments on his book From the Other Shore. To my great pleasure, Mikhail Petrovich Pogodin heaped praise on this same book in his excellent and most curious article about his meeting abroad with Herzen. The book is written in the form of a dialogue between Herzen and his opponent.

“What I especially like,” I remarked in passing, “is that your opponent is also very clever. You must agree that in many instances he backs you right to the wall.”

“Why that’s the essence of the whole piece,” laughed Herzen. “I’ll tell you a story. Once when I was in St. Petersburg, Belinsky dragged me off to his place and sat me down to listen to him read an article, ‘A Conversation Between Mr. A and Mr. B,’ that he had written in some heat. (You can find it in his Collected Works.) In this article, Mr. A., who is Belinsky himself, of course, is made out to be very clever, while his opponent, Mr. B., is rather shallow. When Belinsky had finished reading, he asked me with feverish anticipation:

“‘Well, what do you think?’

“‘Oh, it’s fine, very fine, and it’s obvious that you are very clever. But whatever made you waste your time talking to a fool like that?’

“Belinsky threw himself on the sofa, buried his face in a pillow, and shouted, laughing for all he was worth:

“‘Oh, you’ve got me there, you really have!’”

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