The Forerunners (Romain Rolland)/X

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Petrograd, end of December, 1916.

My dear and valued comrade Romain Rolland,

WILL you be good enough to write a biography of Beethoven, suitable for children? I am simultaneously writing to H. G. Wells, whom I ask to let me have a life of Addison; Fridtjof Nansen will do the life of Christopher Columbus; I shall myself deal with the life of Garibaldi; the Hebrew poet Bialik will write the life of Moses. With the aid of the leading authors of our day I hope to produce a number of books for children, containing biographies of the leaders of mankind. The whole series will be issued under my editorship.…

You know that in these days nothing needs our attention so much as young people. We grown-ups, we whose course is nearly run, are leaving a poor inheritance to our children, are bequeathing to them a sad life. This foolish war is a striking proof of our moral weakness, of the decay of civilisation. Let us, then, remind our children that men have not always been so weak and so bad as we are. Let us remind them that in all the nations there have been and still are great men, fine spirits. Now, above all, should we do this, when savagery and brutality are rife.… I beseech you, my dear Romain Rolland, to pen this biography of Beethoven, for I am convinced that no one can do it better than yourself.…

I have read and reread the articles you have published during the war, and I take this opportunity of telling you that they have inspired me with profound respect and love for you. You are one of the rare persons whose soul has remained unaffected by the madness of this war. It is a delight to me to know that you have continued to cherish the best principles of humanity.… Allow me, from a great distance, to clasp you by the hand, dear comrade.

Maxim Gorki.

At the end of January, Remain Holland replied, accepting the proposal that he should rewrite the life of Beethoven for young people, and asking Gorki to indicate the length and the method of treatment. Was the book to be a causerie, or a plain statement of facts? Rolland suggested additional names for the series of biographies: Socrates; Francis of Assisi; representative figures of Asia.

… Will you permit me to make a friendly remark? I am a trifle uneasy as to some of the names mentioned in your letter, uneasy as to the effect upon children's minds. You propose to put before them such formidable examples as that of Moses. Your aim, obviously, is to impress on them the importance of moral energy, which is the source of all light. But it is not a matter of indifference whether this light be turned towards the past or towards the future. There is no lack of moral energy to-day. The quality abounds, but it is devoted to the service of an obsolete ideal, an ideal which oppresses and kills. I must admit that I am somewhat estranged from the great men of the past, considered as examples for the conduct of life. For the most part I am disappointed in them. I admire them on aesthetic grounds, but I cannot endure the intolerance and the fanaticism they so often display. Many of the gods whom they worshipped have to-day become dangerous idols. Mankind, I fear, will fail to fulfil its lofty destiny unless it can transcend these earlier ideals, unless it prove able to offer wider horizons to the coming generations. In a word, I love and admire the past; but I wish the future to excel the past. It can; it must.…

Maxim Gorki answered as follows:—

Petrograd, March 18 to 21, 1917.

I hasten to reply, dear Romain Rolland. The book on Beethoven should be written for young people from thirteen to eighteen years of age. It should be an objective and interesting account of the life of a man of genius, of the development of his mind, of the chief incidents in his career, of the difficulties he overcame and of the triumphs he achieved. It should contain as much as can be learned concerning Beethoven's childhood. In young folk we wish to inspire love for life and trust in life; to adults we wish to teach heroism. Man has to learn that he is the creator and the master of the world; that his is the responsibility for all its misfortunes; that his, too, is the credit for all that is good in life. We must help man to break the chains of individualism and nationalism. Propaganda on behalf of universal union is absolutely essential.

I am delighted with your idea of writing the life of Socrates, and I hope you will carry it out. I suppose your description of Socrates will be placed on a background of classical life, on the background of the life of Athens?

Most penetrating are your observations on the question of a life of Moses. I am entirely with you as far as concerns the disorganising influence which religious fanaticism exercises upon life. But I choose Moses simply as a social reformer. This will be the theme of his biography. I had thought of Joan of Arc. But I am afraid that the treatment of this topic would lead the writer to talk of "the mystical soul of the people," and of similar matters, which pass my understanding, and which are particularly unwholesome for Russians.

The life of Francis of Assisi is another story. It would be excellent, it would be extremely useful, if the writer of this biography were to aim at displaying the profound difference between Francis of Assisi and the holy men of the east, the saints of Russia. The east is pessimist; it is passive. The Russian saints do not love life; they repudiate it and execrate it. Francis is an epicure of religion; he is a Hellene; he loves God as the work of his own creation, as the fruit of his own soul. He is filled with love for life, and he is free from a humiliating fear of God. A Russian is a man who does not know how to live, but knows how to die.… I am afraid that Russia is even more oriental than China. We have a superabundant wealth of mysticism.… What we chiefly need to inspire men with is the love of action; we must awaken in them respect for the intelligence, for man, for life.

My sincerest thanks for your cordial letter. It is a great solace to know that somewhere, afar off, there is one who suffers the same sufferings as oneself, a man who loves the same things. It is good to know this in these days of violence and madness.… Warmest greetings.

Maxim Gorki.

PS.—This letter has been delayed by recent happenings in Russia. Let us rejoice, Romain Rolland, let us rejoice with all our hearts, for Russia is no longer the mainspring of reaction in Europe. Henceforward the Russian people is wedded to liberty, and I trust that this union will give birth to many great souls for the glory of mankind.

"demain," Geneva, July, 1917.