Revolution, and other essays, by Jack London

Foma Gordyeeff

“What, without asking, hither hurried Whence?

And, without asking, Whither hurried hence!

Oh, many a Cup of this forbidden Wine

Must drown the memory of that insolence!”

“Foma Gordyeeff” is a big book — not only is the breadth of Russia in it, but the expanse of life. Yet, though in each land, in this world of marts and exchanges, this age of trade and traffic, passionate figures rise up and demand of life what its fever is, in “Foma Gordyeeff” it is a Russian who so rises up and demands. For Gorky, the Bitter One, is essentially a Russian in his grasp on the facts of life and in his treatment. All the Russian self-analysis and insistent introspection are his. And, like all his brother Russians, ardent, passionate protest impregnates his work. There is a purpose to it. He writes because he has something to say which the world should hear. From that clenched fist of his, light and airy romances, pretty and sweet and beguiling, do not flow, but realities — yes, big and brutal and repulsive, but real.

He raises the cry of the miserable and the despised, and in a masterly arraignment of commercialism, protests against social conditions, against the grinding of the faces of the poor and weak, and the self-pollution of the rich and strong, in their mad lust for place and power. It is to be doubted strongly if the average bourgeois, smug and fat and prosperous, can understand this man Foma Gordyeeff. The rebellion in his blood is something to which their own does not thrill. To them it will be inexplicable that this man, with his health and his millions, could not go on living as his class lived, keeping regular hours at desk and stock exchange, driving close contracts, underbidding his competitors, and exulting in the business disasters of his fellows. It would appear so easy, and, after such a life, well appointed and eminently respectable, he could die. “Ah,” Foma will interrupt rudely — he is given to rude interruptions —“if to die and disappear is the end of these money-grubbing years, why money-grub?” And the bourgeois whom he rudely interrupted will not understand. Nor did Mayakin understand as he laboured holily with his wayward godson.

“Why do you brag?” Foma, bursts out upon him. “What have you to brag about? Your son — where is he? Your daughter — what is she? Ekh, you manager of life! Come, now, you’re clever, you know everything — tell me, why do you live? Why do you accumulate money? Aren’t you going to die? Well, what then?” And Mayakin finds himself speechless and without answer, but unshaken and unconvinced.

Receiving by heredity the fierce, bull-like nature of his father plus the passive indomitableness and groping spirit of his mother, Foma, proud and rebellious, is repelled by the selfish, money-seeking environment into which he is born. Ignat, his father, and Mayakin, the godfather, and all the horde of successful merchants singing the paean of the strong and the praises of merciless, remorseless laissez faire, cannot entice him. Why? he demands. This is a nightmare, this life! It is without significance! What does it all mean? What is there underneath? What is the meaning of that which is underneath?

“You do well to pity people,” Ignat tells Foma, the boy, “only you must use judgment with your pity. First consider the man, find out what he is like, what use can be made of him; and if you see that he is a strong and capable man, help him if you like. But if a man is weak, not inclined to work — spit upon him and go your way. And you must know that when a man complains about everything, and cries out and groans — he is not worth more than two kopeks, he is not worthy of pity, and will be of no use to you if you do help him.”

Such the frank and militant commercialism, bellowed out between glasses of strong liquor. Now comes Mayakin, speaking softly and without satire:

“Eh, my boy, what is a beggar? A beggar is a man who is forced, by fate, to remind us of Christ; he is Christ’s brother; he is the bell of the Lord, and rings in life for the purpose of awakening our conscience, of stirring up the satiety of man’s flesh. He stands under the window and sings, ‘For Christ’s sa-ake!’ and by that chant he reminds us of Christ, of His holy command to help our neighbour. But men have so ordered their lives that it is utterly impossible for them to act in accordance with Christ’s teaching, and Jesus Christ has become entirely superfluous to us. Not once, but, in all probability, a thousand times, we have given Him over to be crucified, but still we cannot banish Him from our lives so long as His poor brethren sing His name in the streets and remind us of Him. And so now we have hit upon the idea of shutting up the beggars in such special buildings, so that they may not roam about the streets and stir up our consciences.”

But Foma will have none of it. He is neither to be enticed nor cajoled. The cry of his nature is for light. He must have light. And in burning revolt he goes seeking the meaning of life. “His thoughts embraced all those petty people who toiled at hard labour. It was strange — why did they live? What satisfaction was it to them to live on the earth? All they did was to perform their dirty, arduous toil, eat poorly; they were miserably clad, addicted to drunkenness. One was sixty years old, but he still toiled side by side with young men. And they all presented themselves to Foma’s imagination as a huge heap of worms, who were swarming over the earth merely to eat.”

He becomes the living interrogation of life. He cannot begin living until he knows what living means, and he seeks its meaning vainly. “Why should I try to live life when I do not know what life is?” he objects when Mayakin strives with him to return and manage his business. Why should men fetch and carry for him? be slaves to him and his money?

“Work is not everything to a man,” he says; “it is not true that justification lies in work . . . Some people never do any work at all, all their lives long — yet they live better than the toilers. Why is that? And what justification have I? And how will all the people who give their orders justify themselves? What have they lived for? But my idea is that everybody ought, without fail, to know solidly what he is living for. Is it possible that a man is born to toil, accumulate money, build a house, beget children, and — die? No; life means something in itself. . . . A man has been born, has lived, has died — why? All of us must consider why we are living, by God, we must! There is no sense in our life — there is no sense at all. Some are rich — they have money enough for a thousand men all to themselves — and they live without occupation; others bow their backs in toil all their life, and they haven’t a penny.”

But Foma can only be destructive. He is not constructive. The dim groping spirit of his mother and the curse of his environment press too heavily upon him, and he is crushed to debauchery and madness. He does not drink because liquor tastes good in his mouth. In the vile companions who purvey to his baser appetites he finds no charm. It is all utterly despicable and sordid, but thither his quest leads him and he follows the quest. He knows that everything is wrong, but he cannot right it, cannot tell why. He can only attack and demolish. “What justification have you all in the sight of God? Why do you live?” he demands of the conclave of merchants, of life’s successes. “You have not constructed life — you have made a cesspool! You have disseminated filth and stifling exhalations by your deeds. Have you any conscience? Do you remember God? A five-kopek piece — that is your God! But you have expelled your conscience!”

Like the cry of Isaiah, “Go to, now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your misfortunes that shall come upon you,” is Foma’s: “You blood-suckers! You live on other people’s strength; you work with other people’s hands! For all this you shall be made to pay! You shall perish — you shall be called to account for all! For all — to the last little tear-drop!”

Stunned by this puddle of life, unable to make sense of it, Foma questions, and questions vainly, whether of Sofya Medynsky in her drawing-room of beauty, or in the foulest depths of the first chance courtesan’s heart. Linboff, whose books contradict one another, cannot help him; nor can the pilgrims on crowded steamers, nor the verse writers and harlots in dives and boozingkens. And so, wondering, pondering, perplexed, amazed, whirling through the mad whirlpool of life, dancing the dance of death, groping for the nameless, indefinite something, the magic formula, the essence, the intrinsic fact, the flash of light through the murk and dark — the rational sanction for existence, in short — Foma Gordyeeff goes down to madness and death.

It is not a pretty book, but it is a masterful interrogation of life — not of life universal, but of life particular, the social life of to-day. It is not nice; neither is the social life of to-day nice. One lays the book down sick at heart — sick for life with all its “lyings and its lusts.” But it is a healthy book. So fearful is its portrayal of social disease, so ruthless its stripping of the painted charms from vice, that its tendency cannot but be strongly for good. It is a goad, to prick sleeping human consciences awake and drive them into the battle for humanity.

But no story is told, nothing is finished, some one will object. Surely, when Sasha leaped overboard and swam to Foma, something happened. It was pregnant with possibilities. Yet it was not finished, was not decisive. She left him to go with the son of a rich vodka-maker. And all that was best in Sofya Medynsky was quickened when she looked upon Foma with the look of the Mother–Woman. She might have been a power for good in his life, she might have shed light into it and lifted him up to safety and honour and understanding. Yet she went away next day, and he never saw her again. No story is told, nothing is finished.

Ah, but surely the story of Foma Gordyeeff is told; his life is finished, as lives are being finished each day around us. Besides, it is the way of life, and the art of Gorky is the art of realism. But it is a less tedious realism than that of Tolstoy or Turgenev. It lives and breathes from page to page with a swing and dash and go that they rarely attain. Their mantle has fallen on his young shoulders, and he promises to wear it royally.

Even so, but so helpless, hopeless, terrible is this life of Foma Gordyeeff that we would be filled with profound sorrow for Gorky did we not know that he has come up out of the Valley of Shadow. That he hopes, we know, else would he not now be festering in a Russian prison because he is brave enough to live the hope he feels. He knows life, why and how it should be lived. And in conclusion, this one thing is manifest: Foma Gordyeeff is no mere statement of an intellectual problem. For as he lived and interrogated living, so in sweat and blood and travail has Gorky lived.

Piedmont, California.
November 1901.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/london/jack/revolution_and_other_essays/chapter9.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38