Essays on Russian Novelists/Artsybashev

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VIII

ARTSYBASHEV

Not the greatest, but the most sensational, novel published in Russia during the last five years is Sanin, by Artsybashev. It is not sensational in the incidents, though two men commit suicide, and two girls are ruined; it is sensational in its ideas. To make a sensation in contemporary Russian literature is an achievement, where pathology is now rampant. But Artsybashev accomplished it, and his novel made a tremendous noise, the echoes of which quickly were heard all over curious and eclectic Germany, and have even stirred Paris. Since the failure of the Revolution, there has been a marked revolt in Russia against three great ideas that have at different times dominated Russian literature: the quiet pessimism of Turgenev, the Christian non-resistance religion of Tolstoi, and the familiar Russian type of will-less philosophy. Even before the Revolution Gorki had expressed the spirit of revolt; but his position, extreme as it appears to an Anglo-Saxon, has been left far behind by Artsybashev, who, with the genuine Russian love of the reductio ad absurdum, has reached the farthest limits of moral anarchy in the creation of his hero Sanin.

In an admirable article in the Westminster Gazette, for 14 May 1910, by the accomplished scholar and critic, Mr. R. C. Long, called The Literature of Self-assertion, we obtain a strong smell of the hell-broth now boiling in Russian literature. "In the Spring of 1909, an exhibition was held in the Russian ministry of the Interior of specimen copies of all books and brochures issued in 1908, to the number of 70,841,000. How many different books were exhibited the writer does not know, but he lately came upon an essay by the critic Ismailoff, in which it was said that there were on exhibition a thousand different sensational novels, classed as 'Nat Pinkerton and Sherlock Holmes literature,' with such expressive titles as 'The Hanged,' 'The Chokers,' 'The Corpse Disinterred,' and 'The Expropriators.' Ismailoff comments on this as sign and portent. Russia always had her literature of adventure, and Russian novels of manners and of psychology became known to Westerners merely because they were the best, and by no means because they were the only books that appeared. The popular taste was formerly met with naïve and outrageous 'lubotchniya'-books. The new craze for 'Nat Pinkerton and Sherlock Holmes' stories is something quite different. It foreshadows a complete change in the psychosis of the Russian reader, the decay of the literature of passivity, and the rise of a new literature of action and physical revolt. The literature of passivity reached its height with the (sic) Chekhov. The best representative of the transition from Chekhov to the new literature of self-assertion is Maxim Gorki's friend, Leonid Andreev. . . .

"These have got clear away from the humble, ineffectual individual, 'crushed by life.' Full of learned philosophies from Max Stirner and Nietzsche, they preach, in Stirner's words, 'the absolute independence of the individual, master of himself, and of all things.' 'The death of "Everyday-ism,"' the 'resurrection of myth,' 'orgiasm,' 'Mystical Anarchism,' and 'universalist individualism' are some of the shibboleths of these new writers, who are mostly very young, very clever, and profoundly convinced that they are even cleverer than they are.

"Anarchism, posing as self-assertion, is the note in most recent Russian literature, as, indeed, it is in Russian life."

The most powerful among this school of writers, and the only one who can perhaps be called a man of genius, is Michael Artsybashev. He came honestly by his hot, impulsive temperament, being, like Gogol, a man of the South. He was born in Page:Phelps - Essays on Russian Novelists.djvu/267 Page:Phelps - Essays on Russian Novelists.djvu/268 Page:Phelps - Essays on Russian Novelists.djvu/269 Page:Phelps - Essays on Russian Novelists.djvu/270 Page:Phelps - Essays on Russian Novelists.djvu/271 Page:Phelps - Essays on Russian Novelists.djvu/272 Page:Phelps - Essays on Russian Novelists.djvu/273 Page:Phelps - Essays on Russian Novelists.djvu/274 Page:Phelps - Essays on Russian Novelists.djvu/275 Page:Phelps - Essays on Russian Novelists.djvu/276 and fair fight; they ought to welcome it as a complete unmasking of the foe. If the life according to Sanin is really practicable, if it is a good substitute for the life according to the Christian Gospel, it is desirable that it should be clearly set forth, and its working capacity demonstrated. For the real test of Christianity, and the only one given by its Founder, is its practical value as a way of life. It can never be successfully attacked by historical research or by destructive criticism—all such attacks leave it precisely as they found it. Those who are determined to destroy Christianity, and among its relentless foes have always been numbered men of great courage and great ability, must prove that its promises of peace and rest to those who really follow it are false, and that its influence on society and on the individual is bad.