Anthology of Modern Slavonic Literature in Prose and Verse/My Life
DMITRI MEREZHKOVSKY: MY LIFE.
My father, who is now dead, told me that my great-grandfather, Fyodor Merezhky, was a major in the Cossack army at Glukhov, in Little Russia. My grandfather, Ivan Fyodorovitch, came to Petrograd towards the end of the 18th century in the reign of Paul I., and being a man of title, was admitted into the Ismailov regiment of the guards. It was probably about that time that he changed his Little Russian name Merezhky for the Great Russian Merezhkovsky. Later on my grandfather was transferred from Petrograd to Moscow, and took part in the war of 1812.
My father, Sergey Ivanovitch, was born at Moscow, in 1821, being the son of Ivan Fyodorovitch, and his second wife, née Kurbskaya. He was educated at a private school owned by Madame Liebermann. In 1839 he entered the Civil Service. He served first with Talysin, Governor of Orenburg, as assistant to the head of a department, then in a similar capacity with Count Shavalov, marshal of the Emperor's household, and finally as head of a department in the Court Chancery. He held this position under the minister, Count Adlerberg, during the whole reign of Alexander II. In 1853 he married Varvara Vassilyevna Tchesnokova, a daughter of the chief of the Central Police Bureau at Petrograd.
I came into the world on August 2nd (14th) 1865, at Petrograd, on the Yelagin Island, in an official building belonging to the castle, where my parents used to spend the summer. I still love the melancholy thickets and the ponds in the marshy Yelagin Park, where we children, under the influence of Mayne-Reid and Cooper, used to play at "Indians." The pine-tree in which, hovering like a bird in the airy heights, I used to read and dream, and, far from all mankind, felt like a free "savage," is there to this very day. I can still remember how we would explore the gloomy cellars of the castle, where the stalactites hanging from the damp ceiling sparkled in the candle-light; or how we mounted to the flat green dome of the castle from which we had a view of the sea; and also, how we went boating, and, on the sandy shore of the Krestovsky Island we would light a fire and bake potatoes, and feel more like "savages" than ever.
In winter we used to stay in the old Bauer House, which was built as long ago as the days of Peter the Great. It stands at the corner of the Neva and the Fontanka, by the Pratcheshny Bridge, opposite the Summer Garden. On one side we had the summer palace of Peter I., on the other his "cottage" and the oldest church in Petrograd, the wooden Trinity Cathedral. My father's huge, two-storied official residence had any number of rooms, both for use and for show. They were large and gloomy, the windows faced towards the north, and the decorations were dull and pompous. My father could not bear the children to make a noise and disturb him in his work; we always crept past his study door on tiptoe.
I now believe that my father had many good qualities. But, always morose and harassed by the heavy official duties of those old days, he was a man who never managed to lead a real family life. There were nine of us, six boys and three girls. As children we lived on fairly good terms with each other, but later, each went his own way, for we lacked the spiritual ties which always come from the father.
I was the youngest boy and my mother loved me more than her other sons. If there is any good in me at all, I have to thank her for it. When I was 7 or 8, I nearly died of diphtheria; I owe my life to my mother's devoted care.
My father used to go on long official journeys abroad, and to Livadia in the Crimea, where the invalid Empress was then residing, and he left us children in the care of Amalia Christianovna, the old housekeeper, a German woman from Reval. She was a good-natured, but narrow-minded and shy sort of person. What I felt for her was not so much love, as childlike pity. I also had an old nurse who used to tell me Russian folk-tales and legends of the saints. Even now I can remember the dark corner with the eikon and a lamp burning in front of it, and the never-returning joy of childish prayer. I did not really like going to church; the priests in their ornate dress made me feel afraid.
Sometimes, to please my mother, my father took me with him to the Crimea, where we owned a small estate close to the waterfall of Utchan-Su. It was there that I first became acquainted with the beauty of the south. I still remember the splendid castle at Oreanda, that now lies in ruins. The white marble pillars by the blue sea form my imperishable symbol of ancient Greece.
I was educated at the 3rd High School. It was at the end of the seventies and the beginning of the eighties, during the dull period of strictest classicism. There was no trace of education,—nothing but cramming and drill. Our headmaster, a half-crazy old German, was called Lemonius, and the name suited him well. The teachers were all insignificant place-hunters. I have no pleasant memories of any of them, except Kessler, the old Latin master, author of the well-known grammar. Although he did not do us much good, he did at least have a kindly glance for us.
I rarely mixed with my schoolfellows, for I was shy and unsociable. The only one with whom I was at all intimate was Evgeni Solovyov, who became a journalist and critic (he is no longer alive); the tie between us, however, was not the similarity, but the divergency of our views; he was a sceptic, and I already had mystical leanings.
At the age of 13 I began to write. My first poem opened thus:
"The clouds were scattered, and the heavens
Gleamed joyously, and bright and blue. . . ."
It was an imitation of Pushkin's "Fountain of Bakhtchisarai." It was about this time that my first critical treatise was produced,—a set essay on the Legend of Igor, for which Mokhnatchov, my Russian teacher, gave me full marks. I was prouder of this success than I have ever been in the whole subsequent course of my literary career.
On March 1st, 1881, I was walking up and down in our dining-room composing a poem on a subject from the Koran. The servant-girl came running in from the street, and spoke of a dreadful explosion which she had just heard. Later, my father came home to lunch direct from the castle. He was terribly upset, tear-stained and pale, and told us of an attempt upon the Emperor's life.
"There you have the fruits of Nihilism," he said. "What more do these monsters want? They have not spared even such an angel as that. . ."
My eldest brother, Constantine, a science student (later a well-known biologist), a passionate nihilist, attempted to defend the "monsters." My father flew into a rage, stamped his feet, cursed his son, and drove him out of the house. My mother implored forgiveness for her son, but my father would not hear of it.
This quarrel lasted several years. My mother became ill through fretting about it. About that time she contracted the liver trouble of which she subsequently died. She lives in my memory as a martyr and mediator for her children, but especially for her two favourite sons,—me and my eldest brother.
In the upper classes at school I became a warm admirer of Molière, and founded a "Molière Society." We pursued no political aims, but this did not prevent the political police from summoning us one fine day. An enquiry was instituted, and we lads of 16 and 17 were credited with nothing less than the intention to "overthrow the existing order." It was only my father's position that prevented me from being arrested and expelled. My mother, moreover, had managed to keep the whole affair from reaching my father's ears.
I went on writing verses. My father was very proud of them, had numerous copies made, and showed them to all his acquaintances. In 1879, if I am not mistaken, when I was 14 years old, he once took me to Alupka, to see the 70-year-old Countess, Elisabeth Vorontsov. I did not know then that I had the honour to kiss a hand which had been kissed half a century before by Pushkin.
In 1880, at the house of Countess Tolstoy, the widow of the poet, my father made the acquaintance of Dostoyevsky, and thereupon he took me to see him. I still remember the little apartment in Kolokolnaya Street, the narrow ante-room which was filled with copies of "The Brothers Karamazov," and the equally narrow study where Fyodor Mikhailovitch was sitting and correcting proofs. Turning red and pale, and stammering, I read him my wretched verses. He listened to me in silent annoyance. We had probably disturbed him in his work.
"Bad, very bad! Beneath all criticiem!" he said at length. "To write well it is first necessary to endure much, to suffer much."
"Then he had better not write; I do not want him to suffer," replied my father.
I can still remember the penetrating glance of Dostoyevsky's transparent, pale-blue eyes, and the pressure of his hand when we left. I never saw him again, and soon after that meeting I heard of his death. About the same time I made the acquaintance of an ensign at the military academy, who later was to become the famous poet Semyon Nadson. I loved him like a brother. Even then, he had consumption and was always speaking about death. We had many arguments on religious questions; he denied and I affirmed.
It was Nadson who introduced me to the poet Pleshtcheyev, editorial secretary of the "National Annals." I can still see the gaunt and narrow shoulders wrapped in a plaid, and I can hear the hoarse, hollow cough, and the bellowing voice of Saltykov Shtchedrin, whose quarters were in the editorial sanctum.
My first appearance in public was, if I am not mistaken, in the year 1882, with a poem which was printed in the "Illustrated Review," under the management of Scheller-Mikhailov. My subsequent works were issued in the "National Annals." After I had passed out of the High School in 1884, I entered the historical-philological faculty of Petrograd University. I am scarcely more indebted to the University than to the High School. So that really I grew up without any schooling as well as without fatherly guidance.
During my time as a student I was a warm adherent of positivism—Spencer, Comte, Mill, Darwin. But as from my childhood I had heen religious, I had a dark inkling that positivist philosophy was unsound, I sought a solution, but found none, and was consumed by grief and doubt.
In the students' Historical Society, I debated with the convinced positivist Vodovosov, and endeavoured to prove that a conception of the world which is to assign a meaning to life cannot possibly be based upon the "impenetrable" of Spencer.
Through Pleshtcheyev I became a visitor at Madame Davydov's, the wife of the famous musician and director of the Petrograd Conservatoire. In her house I met Gontcharov, who was already a blind old man, and the poet Maikov and Polonsky, and later Korolenko, Garshin, Mikhailovsky, and Uspensky, who were contributors to the "Northern Messenger," founded by Madame Yevreinovna. I also wrote for this review, and in it I published "Silvia," a dreadfully long and clumay dramatic poem, together with a sympathetic essay on Chekhov, who first appeared about that time, but had not yet attracted anyone's attention.
Mikhailovsky had a great influence on me, not only through his works, which I fairly devoured, but also through his whole noble personality. He commissioned me to write an essay on "The Peasant in French Literature"; when the work was completed, he rejected it; it was too feeble and did not harmonise with the tone of the paper. Mikhailovsky and Uspensky were my first real teachers. I once visited Glyeb Uspensky at Tchudovo, and talked with him all night on questions about which I was most deeply concerned; about the religious meaning of life. He declared that this meaning was to be sought in the conception of life held by the lower classes. He gave me the addresses of various people who were closely acquainted with the life of the people,—village schoolmasters and statisticians, and he advised me to visit these persons. In the summer of the same year I travelled through the Volga and Kama districts, the governments of Ufa and Orenburg, went on foot through the villages, had conversations with the peasants and made notes of my impressions. In the government of Tver I visited the peasant Vassala Syutayev, the founder of a religious sect which has many similarities to the teaching of Tolstoy. Tolstoy had visited Syutayev only a short time before I did, and the peasant told me a great deal about the writer.
The "Confession" of Tolstoy which appeared about that time made a tremendous impression on me. There arose in me a dim suspicion that the positivist nationalism was, after all, not the final truth. For all that, I had the intention, after leaving the University, to go among the people and to become a village schoolmaster. Nikolay Minsky made fun of me and even offered to bet that I would never carry out my intention. Of course, he won the bet.
In my nationalism there was a large admixture of childish folly, but it was entirely sincere, and I am glad that there was such a period in my life, and that it did not pass away without leaving any traces.
It was somewhere about the same time that, under the influence of Dostoyevsky and certain foreign poets such as Baudelaire and Edgar Allan Poe, that I began to be an enthusiastic admirer of modernism, but less of the decadents than of the symbolists (even then I kept the two separate}. A volume of my poems which appeared at the beginning of the nineties, received the title "Symbols"; I believe that I was the first who introduced this word into Russian literature. "What symbols? What are symbols?" I was asked at every turn.
After leaving the University, I went in the summer to the Caucasus. At Borshom, quite by chance, I made the acquaintance of Zinaida Nikolayevna Hippius, and soon afterwards I made her a proposal of marriage. In the following winter I married her at Tiflis, and returned with her to Petrograd.
I will make the rest of this briefer, for I am not writing memoirs, but only an autobiographical sketch. I have neither the intention nor the ability to depict the course of my inner development, which, I believe, is not yet completed.
In the spring after my marriage, my mother died. The death of my mother, a severe illness of my wife, and several other crises in my private life, were the causes of the religious change through which I passed. I am often reproached with having derived my religious ideas schematically and from books. This opinion is false, and is perhaps due to defects in my literary ability.
I can assert with a clear conscience: All religious ideas expressed by me, come neither from books nor from foreign influences, but from my own experiences, for I have experienced them all myself.
In my first collection of critical essays: "On the causes of the decay and on the new tendencies in Russian literature," I endeavoured to establish the doctrines of symbolism not so much from an aesthetic as from a religious point of view.
In the following years I travelled a great deal. I lived for some time in Rome, Florence and Taormina, besides going to Athens and Constantinople. My second collection of essays, "The Eternal Companions," dates back to this period. I also translated a series of Greek tragedies.
In the year 1893 I began the trilogy "Christ and Anti-Christ," at which I worked for nearly 12 years. For a long time I could nowhere dispose of "Julian the Apostate"; no editor would take it. At last, with great difficulty, I had it accepted by the "Northern Herald"; they really took the novel out of pity. Altogether I had an unfriendly reception in Russian literature, and even to-day I have to put up with many hostilities. I might celebrate a 25 years' anniversary of pitiless persecutions on the part of the Russian critics.
Between "Leonardo" and "Peter and Alexey" I wrote my study of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. For a long time I could not get this work accepted anywhere, either. I was on the point of despairing, when finally it was taken by the "Art World," that refuge for all the "persecuted and rejected."
In order to make the preliminary studies for "Peter and Alexis," I undertook a journey to the sectarians and old believers beyond the Volga to Kershets, Semyonov, and to the "Clear Lake," where the legendary "Invisible Town" of Kitesh is situated. In the woods by the shore of the lake I spent St. John's Eve in conversation with the pilgrims and preachers, who on that night flock together there from the whole of Russia. Later I was told that many of them look back with pleasure to their meeting with me.
At the end of the nineties we founded the Religious-philosophical Union. I may mention that the first stimulus proceeded from Zinaida Hippius. She also founded the periodical entitled "The New Path." When the Union was suspended by Pobyednostsev, I visited the Archbishop Antonius (he died quite recently), to appeal for his help in our undertaking. He refused the request, because he said he could undertake nothing against the temporal authority.
During my visit to the archbishop's monastery, I slipped on a dark staircase and fell through a glass roof into a ventilator. I sustained a few injuries, but I might easily have broken my neck. I saw a symbolical meaning im this fall. I realised that my overtures towards the orthodox church could not lead to any good results.
In the summer of 1904 I travelled with my wife to Yasnaya Polyana. Tolstoy received us in a very friendly mnner. We stayed with him overnight and discussed religious questions at great length. When we took our leave, he looked at me searchingly with his good-natured, rather uncanny little bear-like eyes, the eyes of the forest man, Uncle Yeroshka, and said: "I have heard that you do not like me. I am glad that it is not so. . . ."
I already had a feeling that I had not been quite fair to him in my book, and that in spite of the radical variance of our opinions, I am, after all, more fond of Tolstoy than of Dostoyevsky.
Everything that I reflected upon, and above all, that I experienced, in the revolutionary years of 1905-06, was of critical importance in its effect on the course of my inner development. I realised, and, once again, not abstractly, but with body and soul, that in Russia, orthodoxy and the existing order of things are inseparably united, and that before both—autocracy and orthodoxy—are rejected together, a new conception of Christianity must first be arrived at.
After the Moscow revolt I moved with my wife to Paris. Here, conjointly with Dmitri Filosofov, we published the volume "Tsar and Revolution" in French. My drama, "Paul I.," which was composed at Paris in 1908, was confiscated immediately on its appearance. It was not until four years later that the charge against me of "insolent contempt of the Tsar's authority" was dropped. My acquittal was due only to a lucky chance.
In the same year, on my return to Russia, the manuscript of my novel, "Alexander I." was taken away from me at the frontier station of Wirballen.
In Paris I became closely acquainted with several Russian revolutionaries. I was, and still am, of the opinion that they are the best of all the Russians whom I have ever seen in my life. Our mutual advances were based not merely upon political, but also upon religious considerations. In my intercourse with them I saw clearly before my eyes, and touched, as it were, with my hands, the connection between religion and the Russian revolution, and I experienced what I afterwards repeated so often: the possibility of a new religious order of society, the intimate connection between the political liberation of Russia and its religious destinies.