I pass over an interval of almost two months. The reader need not be uneasy, everything will be clear from the latter part of my story. I start again from the 15th of November, a day I remember only too well for many reasons. To begin with, no one who had known me two months before would have recognized me, externally anyway, that is to say, anyone would have known me but would not have been able to make me out. To begin with I was dressed like a dandy. The conscientious and tasteful Frenchman, whom Versilov had once tried to recommend me, had not only made me a whole suit, but had already been rejected as not good enough. I already had suits made by other, superior, tailors, of a better class, and I even ran up bills with them. I had an account, too, at a celebrated restaurant, but I was still a little nervous there and paid on the spot whenever I had money, though I knew it was mauvais ton, and that I was compromising myself by doing so. A French barber on the Nevsky Prospect was on familiar terms with me, and told me anecdotes as he dressed my hair. And I must confess I practised my French on him. Though I know French, and fairly well indeed, yet I’m afraid of beginning to speak it in grand society; and I dare say my accent is far from Parisian. I have a smart coachman, Matvey, with a smart turn-out, and he is always at my service when I send for him; he has a pale sorrel horse, a fast trotter (I don’t like greys). Everything is not perfect, however: it’s the 15th of November and has been wintry weather for the last three days, and my fur coat is an old one, lined with raccoon, that once was Versilov’s. It wouldn’t fetch more than twenty-five roubles. I must get a new one, and my pocket is empty, and I must, besides, have money in reserve for this evening whatever happens — without that I shall be ruined and miserable: that was how I put it to myself at the time. Oh, degradation! Where had these thousands come from, these fast trotters, these expensive restaurants? How could I all at once change like this and forget everything? Shame! Reader, I am beginning now the story of my shame and disgrace, and nothing in life can be more shameful to me than these recollections.
I speak as a judge and I know that I was guilty. Even in the whirl in which I was caught up, and though I was alone without a guide or counsellor, I was, I swear, conscious of my downfall, and so there’s no excuse for me. And yet, for those two months I was almost happy — why almost? I was quite happy! And so happy — would it be believed — that the consciousness of my degradation, of which I had glimpses at moments (frequent moments!) and which made me shudder in my inmost soul, only intoxicated me the more. “What do I care if I’m fallen! And I won’t fall, I’ll get out of it! I have a lucky star!” I was crossing a precipice on a thin plank without a rail, and I was pleased at my position, and even peeped into the abyss. It was risky and it was delightful. And “my idea?” My “idea” later, the idea would wait. Everything that happened was simply “a temporary deviation.” “Why not enjoy oneself?” That’s what was amiss with my idea, I repeat, it admitted of all sorts of deviations; if it had not been so firm and fundamental I might have been afraid of deviating.
And meanwhile I kept on the same humble lodging; I kept it on but I didn’t live in it; there I kept my trunk, my bag, and my various properties. But I really lived with Prince Sergay. I spent my days there and I slept there at night. And this went on for weeks. . . . How this came to pass I’ll tell in a minute, but meanwhile I will describe my little lodging. It was already dear to me. Versilov had come to see me there of himself, first of all after our quarrel, and often subsequently. I repeat, this was a period of shame but of great happiness. . . . Yes, and everything at that time was so successful and so smiling. “And what was all that depression in the past about?” I wondered in some ecstatic moments, “why those old painful self-lacerations, my solitary and gloomy childhood, my foolish dreams under my quilt, my vows, my calculations, even my ‘idea’? I imagined and invented all that, and it turns out that the world’s not like that at all; see how happy and gay I am: I have a father — Versilov; I have a friend — Prince Sergay; I have besides . . . but that ‘besides’ we’ll leave.”
Alas, it was all done in the name of love, magnanimity, honour, and afterwards it turned out hideous, shameless and ignominious.
He came to see me for the first time three days after our rupture. I was not at home, and he waited for me. Though I had been expecting him every day, when I went into my tiny cupboard of a room there was a mist before my eyes, and my heart beat so violently that I stopped short in the doorway. Fortunately my landlord was with him, having thought it necessary to introduce himself at once, that the visitor might not be bored with waiting. He was eagerly describing something to Versilov. He was a titular counsellor, a man about forty, much disfigured by small-pox, very poor, and burdened with a consumptive wife and an invalid child. He was of a very communicative and unassuming character, but not without tact. I was relieved at his presence, which was a positive deliverance for me, for what could I have said to Versilov? I had known, known in earnest that Versilov would come of his own prompting — exactly as I wanted him to, for nothing in the world would have induced me to go to him first, and not from obstinacy, but just from love of him; a sort of jealous love — I can’t express it. Indeed, the reader won’t find me eloquent at any time. But though I had been expecting him for those three days, and had been continually picturing how he would come in, yet though I tried my utmost, I could not imagine what we should say to one another at first, after all that had happened.
“Ah, here you are!” he said to me affectionately, holding out his hand and not getting up. “Sit down with us; Pyotr Ippolitovitch is telling me something very interesting about that stone near the Pavlovsky barracks . . . or somewhere in that direction.”
“Yes, I know the stone,” I made haste to answer, dropping into a chair beside him. They were sitting at the table. The whole room was just fourteen feet square. I drew a deep breath.
There was a gleam of pleasure in Versilov’s eyes. I believe he was uncertain, and afraid I should be demonstrative. He was reassured.
“You must begin again, Pyotr Ippolitovitch.” They were already calling each other by their names.
“It happened in the reign of the late Tsar,” Pyotr Ippolitovitch said, addressing me nervously and with some uneasiness, anxious as to the effect of his story. “You know that stone — a stupid stone in the street, and what use is it, it’s only in the way, you’d say, wouldn’t you? The Tsar rode by several times, and every time there was the stone. At last the Tsar was displeased, and with good reason; a rock, a regular rock standing in the street, spoiling it. ‘Remove the stone!’ Well, he said remove it — you understand what that means —‘remove the stone!’ The late Tsar — do you remember him? What was to be done with the stone? They all lost their heads, there was the town council, and a most important person, I can’t remember his name, one of the greatest personages of the time, who was put in charge of the matter. Well, this great personage listened; they told him it would cost fifteen thousand roubles, no less, and in silver too (for it was not till the time of the late Tsar that paper money could be changed into silver). ‘Fifteen thousand, what a sum!’ At first the English wanted to bring rails, and remove it by steam; but think what that would have cost! There were no railways then, there was only one running to Tsarskoe-Selo.”
“Why, they might have smashed it up!” I cried, frowning. I felt horribly vexed and ashamed in Versilov’s presence. But he was listening with evident pleasure. I understood that he was glad to have the landlord there, as he too was abashed with me. I saw that. I remember I felt it somehow touching in him.
“Smash it up! Yes, that was the very idea they arrived at. And Montferant, too — he was building St. Isaak’s Cathedral at the time. — Smash it up, he said, and then take it away. But what would that cost?”
“It would cost nothing. Simply break it up and carry it away.”
“No, excuse me, a machine would be wanted to do it, a steam-engine, and besides, where could it be taken? And such a mountain, too! ‘Ten thousand,’ they said, ‘not less than ten or twelve thousand.’”
“I say, Pyotr Ippolitovitch, that’s nonsense, you know. It couldn’t have been so . . . .”
But at that instant Versilov winked at me unseen, and in that wink I saw such delicate compassion for the landlord, even distress on his account, that I was delighted with it, and I laughed.
“Well, well then,” cried the landlord, delighted; he had noticed nothing, and was awfully afraid, as such story-tellers always are, that he would be pestered with questions; “but then a Russian workman walks up, a young fellow, you know the typical Russian, with a beard like a wedge, in a long-skirted coat, and perhaps a little drunk too . . . but no, he wasn’t drunk. He just stands by while those Englishmen and Montferant are talking away, and that great personage drives up just then in his carriage, and listens, and gets angry at the way they keep discussing it and can’t decide on anything. And suddenly he notices the workman at a distance standing there and smiling deceitfully, that is, not deceitfully though, I’m wrong there, what is it . . .?”
“Derisively,” Versilov prompted him discreetly.
“Derisively, yes, a little derisively, that kind, good Russian smile, you know; the great personage was in a bad humour, you understand: ‘What are you waiting here for, big beard?’ said he. ‘Who are you?’
“‘Why, I’m looking at this stone here, your Highness,’ says he. Yes, I believe he said Highness, and I fancy it was Prince Suvorov, the Italian one, the ancestor of the general. . . . But no, it was not Suvorov, and I’m so sorry I’ve forgotten who it was exactly, but though he was a Highness he was a genuine thorough-bred Russian, a Russian type, a patriot, a cultured Russian heart; well, he saw what was up.
“‘What is it,’ says he. ‘Do you want to take away the stone? What are you sniggering about?’
“‘At the Englishmen, chiefly, your Highness. They ask a prodigious price because the Russian purse is fat, and they’ve nothing to eat at home. Let me have a hundred roubles, your Highness,’ says he; ‘by to-morrow evening we’ll move the stone.’
“Can you imagine such a proposition? The English, of course, are ready to devour him; Montferant laughs. But that Highness with the pure Russian heart says: ‘Give him a hundred roubles! But surely you won’t remove it?’ says he.
“‘To-morrow evening, your Highness, we’ll have it on the move,’ says he.
“‘But how will you do it?’
“‘If you’ll excuse me, your Highness, that’s our secret,’ he says, and in that Russian way, you know. It pleased him: ‘Hey, give him anything he wants.’ And so they left it. What would you suppose he did?”
The landlord paused, and looked from one to the other with a face full of sentiment.
“I don’t know,” said Versilov, smiling; I scowled.
“Well, I’ll tell you what he did,” said the landlord, with as much triumph as though it were his own achievement, “he hired some peasants with spades, simple Russians, and began digging a deep hole just at the edge of it. They were digging all night; they dug an immense hole as big as the stone and just about an inch and a half deeper, and when they dug it out he told them to dig out the earth from under the stone, cautiously, little by little. Well, naturally, as they’d dug the earth away the stone had nothing to stand upon, it began to overbalance; and as soon as it began to shake they pushed with their hands upon the stone, shouting hurrah, in true Russian style, and the stone fell with a crash into the hole! Then they shovelled earth on it, rammed it down with a mallet, paved it over with little stones — the road was smooth, the stone had disappeared!”
“Only fancy!” cried Versilov.
“The people rushed up to be sure, in multitudes innumerable; the Englishmen had seen how it would be long before; they were furious. Montferant came up: ‘That’s the peasant style,’ says he, ‘it’s too simple,’ says he. ‘That’s just it, that it’s so simple, but you never thought of it, you fools!’ And so I tell you that commander, that great personage, simply embraced him and kissed him. ‘And where do you come from?’ says he. ‘From the province of Yaroslav, your Excellency, we’re tailors by trade, and we come to Petersburg in the summer to sell fruit.’ Well, it came to the ears of the authorities; the authorities ordered a medal to be given him, so he went about with a medal on his neck; but he drank himself to death afterwards, they say; you know the typical Russian, he has no self-restraint! That’s why the foreigners have got the better of us so far, yes, there it is!’
“Yes, of course, the Russian mind . . . .” Versilov was beginning.
But at this point, luckily, the landlord was called away by his invalid wife, and hastened off, or I should have been unable to restrain myself. Versilov laughed.
“He’s been entertaining me for a whole hour, my dear. That stone . . . is the very model of patriotic unseemliness among such stories, but how could I interrupt him? As you saw, he was melting with delight. And what’s more, I believe the stone’s there still, if I’m not mistaken, and hasn’t been buried in the hole at all.”
“Good heavens, yes!” I cried, “that’s true! How could he dare! . . .”
“What’s the matter? Why, I believe you’re really indignant; he certainly has muddled things up. I heard a story of the sort about a stone when I was a child, only of course it was a little different, and not about the same stone. That ‘it came to the ears of the authorities!’ Why, there was a paean of glory in his heart when he uttered that phrase ‘it came to the ears of the authorities.’ In the pitiful narrowness of their lives they can’t get on without such stories. They have numbers of them, chiefly owing to their incontinence. They’ve learnt nothing, they know nothing exactly, and they have a longing to talk about something besides cards and their wares, something of universal interest, something poetic. . . . What sort of man is this Pyotr Ippolitovitch?”
“A very poor creature, and unfortunate too.”
“Well, there, you see, perhaps he doesn’t even play cards. I repeat, in telling that foolish story he was satisfying his love for his neighbour: you see, he wanted to make us happy. His sentiment of patriotism was gratified too; they’ve got another story, for instance, that the English gave Zavyalov a million on condition that he shouldn’t put his stamp on his handiwork.”
“Oh, goodness, I’ve heard that story too.”
“Who hasn’t heard it, and the teller of it knows, too, that you have heard it, but still he tells it, INTENTIONALLY supposing that you haven’t. The vision of the Swedish king, I believe, is a little out of date with them now, but in my youth it used to be repeated unctuously, in a mysterious whisper. And so was the story of some one’s having knelt in the Senate before the Senators at the beginning of last century. There were lots of anecdotes about Commander Bashutsky, too, how he carried away a monument. They simply love anecdotes of the court; for instance, tales of Tchernyshev, a minister in the last reign, how when he was an old man of seventy he got himself up to look like a man of thirty, so much so that the late Tsar was amazed at the levées . . . .”
“I’ve heard that too.”
“Who hasn’t heard it? All these anecdotes are the height of indecency; but, let me tell you, this kind of indecency is far more deeply rooted and widely spread than we imagine. The desire to lie with the object of giving pleasure to your neighbour one meets even in Russian society of the highest breeding, for we all suffer from this incontinence of our hearts. Only anecdotes of a different type are current among us; the number of stories they tell about America is simply amazing, and they’re told by men even of ministerial rank! I must confess I belong to that indecent class myself, and I’ve suffered from it all my life.”
“I’ve told anecdotes about Tchernyshev several times myself.”
“You’ve told them yourself?”
“There’s another lodger here besides me, marked with smallpox too, an old clerk, but he’s awfully prosaic, and as soon as Pyotr Ippolitovitch begins to speak he tries to refute him and contradict. He’s reduced Pyotr Ippolitovitch to such a point that he waits on the old fellow like a slave, and does everything to please him, simply to make him listen.”
“That’s another type of the indecent, one even perhaps more revolting than the first. The first sort is all ecstasy! ‘You only let me lie,’ he seems to say, ‘you’ll see how nice it will be.’ The second sort is all spleen and prose. ‘I won’t let you lie,’ he says, ‘where, when, in what year?’— in fact a man with no heart. My dear boy, we must always let a man lie a little. It’s quite innocent. Indeed we may let him lie a great deal. In the first place it will show our delicacy, and secondly, people will let us lie in return — two immense advantages at once. Que diable! one must love one’s neighbour. But it’s time for me to be off. You’ve arranged the place charmingly,” he added, getting up from his chair. “I’ll tell Sofia Andreyevna and your sister that I’ve been here and found you quite well. Good-bye, my dear.”
Could this be all? This was not at all what I wanted. I was expecting something different, something important, though I quite understood that this was how it must be. I got up with a candle to light him down the stairs. The landlord would have come forward, but without Versilov’s seeing it I seized him by the arm and thrust him back savagely. He stared with astonishment, but immediately vanished.
“These staircases . . .” Versilov mumbled, dwelling on the syllables evidently in order to say something, and evidently afraid I might say something, “I’m no longer used to such stairs, and you’re on the third storey, but now I can find the way. . . . Don’t trouble, my dear, you’ll catch cold, too.”
But I did not leave him. We were going down the second flight.
“I’ve been expecting you for the last three days,” broke from me suddenly, as it were of itself; I was breathless.
“Thank you, my dear.”
“I knew you’d be sure to come.”
“And I knew that you knew I should be sure to come. Thank you, my dear.”
He was silent. We had reached the outer door, and I still followed him. He opened the door; the wind rushing in blew out my candle. Then I clutched his hand. It was pitch dark. He started but said nothing. I stooped over his hand and kissed it greedily several times, many times.
“My darling boy, why do you love me so much?” he said, but in quite a different voice. His voice quivered, there was a ring of something quite new in it as though it were not he who spoke.
I tried to answer something, but couldn’t, and ran upstairs. He stood waiting where he was, and it was only when I was back in the flat that I heard the front door open and shut with a slam. I slipped by the landlord, who turned up again, and went into my room, fastened the latch, and without lighting the candle threw myself on my bed, buried my face in the pillow and cried and cried. It was the first time I had cried since I was at Touchard’s. My sobs were so violent, and I was so happy . . . but why describe it?
I write this now without being ashamed of it, for perhaps it was all good, in spite of its absurdity.
But didn’t I make him suffer for it! I became frightfully overbearing. There was no reference to this scene between us afterwards. On the contrary, we met three days later as though nothing had happened — what’s more, I was almost rude that evening, and he too seemed rather dry. This happened in my room again; for some reason I had not been to see him in spite of my longing to see my mother.
We talked all this time, that is throughout these two months, only of the most abstract subjects. And I can’t help wondering at it; we did nothing but talk of abstract subjects — of the greatest interest and of vast significance for humanity, of course, but with no bearing whatever on the practical position. Yet many, many aspects of the practical position needed, and urgently needed, defining and clearing up, but of that we did not speak. I did not even say anything about my mother or Liza or . . . or indeed about myself and my whole history. Whether this was due to shame or to youthful stupidity I don’t know. I expect it was stupidity, for shame I could have overcome. But I domineered over him frightfully, and absolutely went so far as insolence more than once, even against my own feelings. This all seemed to happen of itself, inevitably; I couldn’t restrain myself. His tone was as before, one of light mockery, though always extremely affectionate in spite of everything. I was struck, too, by the fact that he preferred coming to me, so that at last I very rarely went to see my mother, not more than once a week, especially towards the latter part of the time, as I became more and more absorbed in frivolity. He used always to come in the evenings, to sit and chat with me, he was very fond of talking to the landlord too, which enraged me in a man like him.
The idea struck me that he might have nowhere to go except to see me. But I knew for a fact that he had acquaintances, and that he had, indeed, of late renewed many of his old ties in society, which he had dropped the year before. But he did not seem to be particularly fascinated by them, and seemed to have renewed many of them simply in a formal way; he preferred coming to see me.
I was sometimes awfully touched by the timid way in which he almost always opened my door, and for the first minute looked with strange anxiety into my eyes. “Am I in the way?” he seemed to ask, “tell me, and I’ll go.” He even said as much sometimes. Once, for instance, towards the end he came in when I had just put on a suit, brand new from the tailor’s, and was just setting off to Prince Sergay’s, to go off somewhere with him (where, I will explain later). He sat down without noticing that I was on the point of going out; he showed at moments a remarkable absence of mind. As luck would have it, he began to talk of the landlord. I fired up.
“Oh, damn the landlord!”
“Ah, my dear,” he said, getting up, “I believe you’re going out and I’m hindering you. . . . Forgive me, please.”
And he meekly hastened to depart. Such meekness towards me from a man like him, a man so aristocratic and independent, who had so much individuality, at once stirred in my heart all my tenderness for him, and trust in him. But if he loved me so much, why did he not check me at the time of my degradation? If he had said one word I should perhaps have pulled up. Though perhaps I should not. But he did see my foppery, my flaunting swagger, my smart Matvey (I wanted once to drive him back in my sledge but he would not consent, and indeed it happened several times that he refused to be driven in it), he could see I was squandering money — and he said not a word, not a word, he showed no curiosity even! I’m surprised at that to this day; even now. And yet I didn’t stand on ceremony with him, and spoke openly about everything, though I never gave him a word of explanation. He didn’t ask and I didn’t speak.
Yet on two or three occasions we did speak on the money question. I asked him on one occasion, soon after he renounced the fortune he had won, how he was going to live now.
“Somehow, my dear,” he answered with extraordinary composure.
I know now that more than half of Tatyana Pavlovna’s little capital of five thousand roubles has been spent on Versilov during the last two years.
Another time it somehow happened that we talked of my mother.
“My dear boy,” he said mournfully, “I used often to say to Sofia Andreyevna at the beginning of our life together, though indeed I’ve said it in the middle and at the end too: ‘My dear, I worry you and torment you, and I don’t regret it as long as you’re before me, but if you were to die I know I should kill myself to atone for it.’”
I remember, however, that he was particularly open that evening.
“If only I were a weak-willed nonentity and suffered from the consciousness of it! But you see that’s not so, I know I’m exceedingly strong, and in what way do you suppose? Why just in that spontaneous power of accommodating myself to anything whatever, so characteristic of all intelligent Russians of our generation. There’s no crushing me, no destroying me, no surprising me. I’ve as many lives as a cat. I can with perfect convenience experience two opposite feelings at one and the same time, and not, of course, through my own will. I know, nevertheless, that it’s dishonourable just because it’s so sensible. I’ve lived almost to fifty, and to this day I don’t know whether it’s a good thing I’ve gone on living or not. I like life, but that follows as a matter of course. But for a man like me to love life is contemptible. Of late there has been a new movement, and the Krafts won’t accommodate themselves to things, and shoot themselves. But it’s evident that the Krafts are stupid, we, to be sure, are clever — so that one can draw no parallel, and the question remains open anyway. And can it be that the earth is only for such as we? In all probability it is; but the idea is a comfortless one. However . . . however, the question remains open, anyway.”
He spoke mournfully and yet I didn’t know whether he was sincere or not. He always had a manner which nothing would have made him drop.
Then I besieged him with questions, I fell upon him like a starving man on bread. He always answered me readily and straightforwardly, but in the end always went off into the widest generalizations, so that in reality one could draw no conclusions from it. And yet these questions had worried me all my life, and I frankly confess that even in Moscow I had put off settling them till I should meet him in Petersburg. I told him this plainly, and he did not laugh at me — on the contrary, I remember he pressed my hand.
On general politics and social questions I could get nothing out of him, and yet in connection with my “idea” those subjects troubled me more than anything. Of men like Dergatchev I once drew from him the remark that “they were below all criticism,” but at the same time he added strangely that “he reserved the right of attaching no significance to his opinions.” For a very long time he would say nothing on the question how the modern state would end, and how the social community would be built up anew, but in the end I literally wrenched a few words out of him.
“I imagine that all that will come about in a very commonplace way,” he said once. “Simply un beau matin, in spite of all the balance-sheets on budget days, and the absence of deficits, all the states without exception will be unable to pay, so that they’ll all be landed in general bankruptcy. At the same time all the conservative elements of the whole world will rise up in opposition to everything, because they will be the bondholders and creditors, and they won’t want to allow the bankruptcy. Then, of course, there will follow a general liquidation, so to speak; the Jews will come to the fore and the reign of the Jews will begin: and then all those who have never had shares in anything, and in fact have never had anything at all, that is all the beggars, will naturally be unwilling to take part in the liquidation. . . . A struggle will begin, and after seventy-seven battles the beggars will destroy the shareholders and carry off their shares and take their places as shareholders, of course. Perhaps they’ll say something new too, and perhaps they won’t. Most likely they’ll go bankrupt too. Further than that, my dear boy, I can’t undertake to predict the destinies by which the face of this world will be changed. Look in the Apocalypse though . . .”
“But can it all be so materialistic? Can the modern world come to an end simply through finance?”
“Oh, of course, I’ve only chosen one aspect of the picture, but that aspect is bound up with the whole by indissoluble bonds, so to speak.”
“What’s to be done?”
“Oh dear, don’t be in a hurry; it’s not all coming so soon. In any case, to do nothing is always best, one’s conscience is at rest anyway, knowing that one’s had no share in anything.”
“Aië, do stop that, talk sense. I want to know what I’m to do and how I’m to live.”
“What you are to do, my dear? Be honest, never lie, don’t covet your neighbour’s house; in fact, read the Ten Commandments — it’s written there once for all.”
“Don’t talk like that, all that’s so old, and besides . . . it’s all words; I want something real.”
“Well, if you’re fearfully devoured by eunui, try to love some one or something, or at any rate to attach yourself to something.”
“You’re only laughing! Besides, what can I do alone with your Ten Commandments?”
“Well, keep them in spite of all your doubts and questions, and you’ll be a great man.”
“Whom no one will know of.”
“‘There is nothing hidden that shall not be made manifest.’”
“You’re certainly laughing.”
“Well, if you take it so to heart you’d better try as soon as possible to specialize, take up architecture or the law, and then when you’re busy with serious work you’ll be more settled in your mind and forget trifles.”
I was silent. What could I gather from this? And yet, after every such conversation I was more troubled than before. Moreover I saw clearly that there always remained in him, as it were, something secret, and that drew me to him more and more.
“Listen,” I said, interrupting him one day, “I always suspect that you say all this only out of bitterness and suffering, but that secretly you are a fanatic over some idea, and are only concealing it, or ashamed to admit it.”
“Thank you, my dear.”
“Listen, nothing’s better than being useful. Tell me how, at the present moment, I can be most of use. I know it’s not for you to decide that, but I’m only asking for your opinion. You tell me, and what you say I swear I’ll do! Well, what is the great thought?”
“Well, to turn stones into bread. That’s a great thought.”
“The greatest? Yes, really, you have suggested quite a new path. Tell me, is it the greatest?”
“It’s very great, my dear boy, very great, but it’s not the greatest. It’s great but secondary, and only great at the present time. Man will be satisfied and forget; he will say: ‘I’ve eaten it and what am I to do now?’ The question will remain open for all time.”
“You spoke once of the ‘Geneva ideas.’ I didn’t understand what was meant by the ‘Geneva ideas.’”
“The ‘Geneva idea’ is the idea of virtue without Christ, my boy, the modern idea, or, more correctly, the ideas of all modern civilization. In fact, it’s one of those long stories which it’s very dull to begin, and it will be a great deal better if we talk of other things, and better still if we’re silent about other things.”
“You always want to be silent!”
“My dear, remember that to be silent is good, safe, and picturesque.”
“Of course. Silence is always picturesque, and the man who is silent always looks nicer than the man who is speaking.”
“Why, talking as we do is no better than being silent. Damn such picturesqueness, and still more damn such profitableness.”
“My dear,” he said suddenly, rather changing his tone, speaking with real feeling and even with a certain insistence, “I don’t want to seduce you from your ideals to any sort of bourgeois virtue, I’m not assuring you that ‘happiness is better than heroism’; on the contrary ‘heroism is finer than any happiness,’ and the very capacity for it alone constitutes happiness. That’s a settled thing between us. I respect you just for being able in these mawkish days to set up some sort of an ‘idea’ in your soul (don’t be uneasy, I remember perfectly well). But yet one must think of proportion, for now you want to live a resounding life, to set fire to something, to smash something, to rise above everything in Russia, to call up storm-clouds, to throw every one into terror and ecstasy, while you vanish yourself in North America. I’ve no doubt you’ve something of that sort in your heart, and so I feel it necessary to warn you, for I really love you, my dear.”
What could I gather from that either? There was nothing in it but anxiety for me, for my material prosperity; it betrayed the father with the father’s kindly but prosaic feelings. Was this what I wanted by way of an idea for the sake of which any honest father would send his son to face death, as the ancient Roman Horatius sent his sons for the idea of Rome?
I often pressed him on the subject of religion, but there the fog was thicker than ever. When I asked him what to do about that, he answered in the stupidest way, as though to a child:
“You must have faith in God, my dear.”
“But what if I don’t believe in all that?” I cried irritably once.
“A very good thing, my dear.”
“How a good thing?”
“It’s a most excellent symptom, dear boy; a most hopeful one, for our atheists in Russia, if only they are really atheists and have some little trace of intelligence, are the best fellows in the whole world, and always disposed to be kind to God, for they’re invariably good-humoured, and they’re good-humoured because they’re immensely pleased at being atheists. Our atheists are respectable people and extremely conscientious, pillars of the fatherland, in fact . . . .”
This was something, of course, but it was not what I wanted. On one occasion, however, he spoke out, but so strangely that he surprised me more than ever, especially after the stories of Catholicism and penitential chains that I had heard about him.
“Dear boy,” he said one day, not in my room, but in the street, when I was seeing him home after a long conversation, “to love people as they are is impossible. And yet we must. And therefore do them good, overcoming your feelings, holding your nose and shutting your eyes (the latter’s essential). Endure evil from them as far as may be without anger, ‘mindful that you too are a man.’ Of course you’ll be disposed to be severe with them if it has been vouchsafed to you to be ever so little more intelligent than the average. Men are naturally base and like to love from fear. Don’t give in to such love, and never cease to despise it. Somewhere in the Koran Allah bids the prophet look upon the ‘froward’ as upon mice, do them good, and pass them by — a little haughty, but right. Know how to despise them even when they are good, for most often it is in that they are base. Oh, my dear, it’s judging by myself I say that. Anyone who’s not quite stupid can’t live without despising himself, whether he’s honest or dishonest — it makes no difference. To love one’s neighbour and not despise him — is impossible. I believe that man has been created physically incapable of loving his neighbour. There has been some mistake in language here from the very first, and ‘love for humanity’ must be understood as love for that humanity which you have yourself created in your soul (in other words, you have created yourself and your love is for yourself)— and which, therefore, never will be in reality.”
“Never will be?”
“My dear boy, I agree that if this were true, it would be stupid, but that’s not my fault, and I was not consulted at the creation. I reserve the right to have my own opinion about it.”
“How is it they call you a Christian, then?” I cried. “A monk in chains, a preacher? I don’t understand it!”
“Why, who calls me that?”
I told him; he listened very attentively, but cut short the conversation.
I can’t remember what led to this memorable conversation; but he was positively irritated, which scarcely ever happened to him. He spoke passionately and without irony, as though he were not speaking to me. But again I didn’t believe him. He could not speak on such subjects seriously to anyone like me.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:49