Commentary Magazine


On the Horizon: Men and History

“Dr. Zhivago” as a work of literature rather than a topic of the cold war is here discussed by William Phillips. Along with it, he examines the latest book by a leading political novelist of modern times, Ignazio Silone. 

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“Dr. Zhivago,” by Boris Pasternak, the work of a remarkable unpolitical writer who somehow managed to survive Russian history, and The Secret of Luca, the new novel by the important European political writer Ignazio Silone, have so much to do with the state of the world as well as that of literature that it is difficult to approach them simply as works of art. Many of the reviewers of Dr. Zhivago have written about it as though it were primarily a weapon in the cold war; and the effect of the book goes far beyond its literary appeal. As for The Secret of Luca, whose implications are not so fashionable or newsworthy, for they stir up questions about our own morality, it has to be read as a political fable as well as a novel.

Both novels have basically the same theme, the invasion of man’s moral and intellectual being by the gendarmerie of power that attaches itself to and acts in the name of history, justice, equality; and both of them take their meaning from the fate of the socialist and Communist movements in the West as well as behind the iron curtain. Silone, however, has taken the dilemma out of politics and generalized it into a conflict between personal ethics and the laws of expediency. Pasternak, on the other hand, has written what amounts to a saga of the Russian Revolution, but the narrative, large and sprawling like the events themselves, actually describes the destruction of the Western culture-hero, whose precarious combination of integrity, sensibility, and idealism is constantly threatened by the philistines and the barbarians.

Tolstoyan influences have been noted in Dr. Zhivago, and there are clear parallels with Tolstoy’s historical imagination. But I find a more interesting counterpart to The Magic Mountain: the symbolic structure and conception of the hero in Dr. Zhivago follow a pattern similar to that of Mann’s novel, except that it seems to be turned inside out. In The Magic Mountain the stage was set apart from “reality,” but on it were reenacted the ideas and motives of the world below; and before Hans Castorp, “the man of the middle,” could go down again to find his right place, he had to be lifted to a higher level of consciousness, mainly by the debates between Naphta and Settembrini Who represent the two modern forces, democratic humanism and elite authoritarianism. In Dr. Zhivago we see the process in reverse. The scene of the action is in the real world, while the ideal one exists in the memory and consciousness of the protagonist himself, Dr. Zhivago. And the figure of Dr. Zhivago is also a kind of reversal of Hans Castorp, the average man with the unusual experience; for Pasternak’s hero, whose life is quite ordinary, is unique in the purity of his mind. If Dr. Zhivago is not a genius in his own right, he at least stands for the values of genius, that is to say, the values of art and truth, and his tragedy is not merely that he is trampled on by the exigencies of the revolution, but that his qualities are not even recognized by the new plebeianism. Where Hans Castorp, reflecting Mann’s concern with the tension between the creative man and middle-class society, is destroyed in the act of taking his place in the world, Dr. Zhivago on the other hand dies a lonely man, part of the human debris left behind by the sweep of the revolution. Between the two novels, Dr. Zhivago and The Magic Mountain, lies the failure of the socialist revolution in Russia.

The story of Dr. Zhivago is told through a series of episodes from pre-revolutionary days, when we first see him as a boy in Czarist Russia, through the civil war, during most of which he is almost literally a captive of the revolution as he is detached from his family and forced by the Bolsheviks to serve as a doctor. The immediate pathos of the novel is that of a dislocated man, who, however complex his ideological relation to the revolution, cannot become meaningfully involved in it except as a doctor, that is to say, as a technician; and, significantly, toward the end he tries to conceal even the fact that he is a doctor. Zhivago has only two passions that fully engage him, his love for Lara, which is his most selfless human tie, and his writing, which fulfills the aesthetic needs of his own being. But both his love and his writing are amateurish and fortuitous, as though to suggest that his dislocation is so profound as to permit no genuine commitments.

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Though the fate of Zhivago seems to be an integral part of the revolutionary story, as the two are woven together in a straightforward, evenly paced narrative, they are actually two separate forces, each having its own life and meaning. Zhivago is the pre-Communist—or non-Communist—man, and everything that happens to him might be taken as a parable of the unpolitical, creative mind that is opposed to the revolution not on doctrinal grounds but simply because it wants to remain what it is, or as Pasternak might put it, to realize the form of life appropriate to its own content. The revolution, on the other hand, as Pasternak conceives it, is simply part of history; and he has an organic idea of history, reminiscent of earlier cyclic theories, according to which history has its own laws and is biologically self-contained. If it feeds on humanity as it goes through its ceaseless transformations, there is also the hope that an equilibrium favorable to man might sometime be reached.

Theoretically, these attitudes toward history and politics are not impressive, and if they were advanced outside the novel, we would surely be critical of the fuzziness and the teleological implications of Pasternak’s notion of history and of a political position that has no perspective beyond the preservation of certain intellectual and human qualities.

As for Pasternak’s stand on Soviet society, it is philosophical rather than political. He is naturally critical of the lies, the opportunism, the bureaucracy, the mediocrity, but he does not touch on most of the political questions about the nature of the regime that have been raised outside the Soviet Union; nor does he propound any alternative system, unless, of course, we assume it to be implicit in his Christian views of men and history. It is indeed difficult to piece together all the popular theories—and prejudices—in the areas of religion, philosophy, and politics, that have found their way in somewhat scrambled form into Doctor Zhivago. The simple fact is that Pasternak has only an academic awareness of modern ideas and movements; hence he reaches back into earlier myths and traditions to get outside the enveloping Soviet ideology. And this kind of reversion, it seems to me, would account for much of the 19th-century flavor of the novel, including its rather simple but authentic love of country.

Perhaps the most unacceptable ideas in the novel relate to the role of the Jews, who apparently contribute to their own persecution by persisting in the right to exist. “It’s so strange,” says one of the characters, “that these people . . . should be incapable of liberating themselves from their loyalty to an obsolete, ante-diluvian identity.” The isolation of the Jews, which he characterizes as “shame-faced” and “self-denying,” comes partly, he adds, “from a kind of inner senility, a historical centuries-long weariness. I don’t like their ironical whistling in the dark, their prosaic, limited outlook, the timidity of their imagination.” And at another point in the novel it is argued that the existence of the Jews has been anti-climactic ever since their one great contribution to humanity, namely, Christianity. Now, it must be said that in themselves these pronouncements are of course gross, and represent a mélange of myth, theory, and prejudice. Clearly, Pasternak’s opinions on the Jewish question come from such widely different sources as Christian attitudes, Russian nationalism, and folk legend, as well as the socialist tradition, whose assimilationist tendencies, however, are to be distinguished from simple anti-Semitism. And, so far as I know, Pasternak in his personal life chose to live outside the Jewish intellectual community and to assume the identity of a non-Jew. Many questions are raised by Pasternak’s repudiation of Judaism or of his own Jewishness, but these are only marginal to the meaning of the novel; and we should not permit them to obscure the many heroic literary and political implications of the writing of Doctor Zhivago. Besides, we might perhaps, with some humility and charity, appreciate the intellectual plight of a man who in his recoil from historical brutality had to clutch at the remnants of old ideologies, as though he were reconstructing a mind that had been destroyed. Nor do these ideologies take a programmatic form in the novel; they serve merely as a kind of desperate and nostalgic perspective for the tragedy of Doctor Zhivago.

It seems to me that the political interest of Dr. Zhivago lies not in its philosophy, but rather in its confrontation of history by a writer of unquestionable genius and integrity. We should not forget that Pasternak, writing and thinking as an insider, is a unique figure, almost a miraculous one, with no tradition to draw on for his particular kind of dissent, and that only the peculiar and momentary turn of events which led to the thaw made this novel at all possible. But here it is, and we might take Dr. Zhivago to be symptomatic of the underground mood of the Soviet intelligentsia that has so far found only one expression and probably begins to turn in on itself before it is permitted to reach any kind of clarity or authenticity. And this, I think, gives the novel its primary value as a human and historical document.

Sometimes such a document, through the juxtaposition of genius and decisive historical events, can become a literary masterpiece. For both formal and ideological reasons, however, Dr. Zhivago falls short of such achievement. The mode of narration is too casual, too episodic, too low-pitched for so large a theme. The opening section, which provides the pre-revolutionary background, reads too much like a slow, introductory sketch; after that the novel picks up speed, but it is still lacking in the kind of organizing energy needed to fuse theme and story and take them out of the realm of pure narrative. Pasternak’s prose is difficult to judge in translation, but here, too, there is some lack of fictional power as the writing seems to linger over each phrase to give it a poetic exactness. Nor does Dr. Zhivago present a new vision, beyond a nostalgia for the human that is not devoid of hope. One is also tempted to speculate about the kind of intellectual restriction under which the novel was written. Certainly I have the feeling that Pasternak did not let go; this is difficult to establish, but I am struck by such things as the plaintive and introspective mood, the narrow range of the action, the failure to push the development of the characters to their psychological limits (including the almost total absence of sensuality), and a general sense of restraint throughout the novel. The appeal of the novel lies elsewhere: in the remarkable sensibility and clarity of observation Pasternak brings to his story and in the essential tragedy of his predicament. The book may not be a great novel, but it is undoubtedly the work of a great man.

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Unlike Pasternak, Silone does not have a ready-made historical panorama to house his theme. All he has is a reading of modern events. In addition, Silone has always been drawn to the pastoral tale as a vehicle for his moral and political ideas. Hence his new novel, The Secret of Luca, seems like a model, very much reduced in scale, of the general human condition. In this respect, it resembles Silone’s first work, Fontamara, the least complicated and most moving of his novels; and it might appear that Silone is returning full circle to a form of narrative simplification. But there are important differences between Fontamara and The Secret of Luca: where the meanings of the earlier work were fairly explicit and presented a direct, socialist image of economic exploitation, the latest novel is much more oblique and is concerned with moral rather than economic injustice. In this regard The Secret of Luca is more Christian than socialist.

The moral hero—and physical victim—of The Secret of Luca is an old man whose life has been spent in a gesture of defiance, a defiance of all those who would break down the distinction between what is public and what is private. At the opening of the novel, Luca returns to his native village after having spent forty years in jail for a crime he did not commit. His innocence could easily have been established if he had been willing to reveal that the time of the murder was the moment—and the only one—of consummation of a long, morbid, passion between Luca and a married woman he had briefly courted as a young man. And it is the unearthing of this simple fact, buried in the memories of a few frightened people, that makes up the body of the novel. As Andrea, an incorruptible man who sets out to investigate what happened, brings to light more and more of the truth, Luca undergoes a process of moral rehabilitation, until at the end he comes out a saintly figure, whose tight-lipped honesty acts as an antidote to the windy rhetoric of the town’s leading citizens.

Taken literally, Luca’s failure to save himself might be said to be foolish, since his secret involved nothing worse than adultery, and besides, his mistress went mad and found refuge in a convent. But, of course, any principle can be reduced to absurdity if taken literally enough. And the principle here is simply the defense of personal integrity against abstract rules of justice and historical necessity. In this respect, Silone’s attitudes may be said to reflect the political history of our age. Like so many other writers, particularly in Europe, who had once supported the Communists, Silone has maintained his belief in the most basic socialist ideals, but he now questions the uses of power to attain them. In his present phase, Silone is most concerned with the sanctity of the individual, having learned the lesson that human safeguards are to be found in the authenticity of individual men rather than in the movements dedicated to mankind. Thus Silone would seem to be against all ideologies; yet he has actually been drawn to such “ideologies” as anarchism and Christianity, in each case of a rather primitive and pastoral variety. If the hero of The Secret of Luca is a saint, he is a throwback to the ascetic virtues of the early Christians.

I suppose Silone’s position sounds at times like a collection of political homilies. But, after all, a preoccupation with goodness and truth as the basis for human association is bound to be less exciting than some sweeping theory of social change. In fact, the substitution of moral for political issues has had much to do with the waning of political enthusiasm in recent years. Still, in the case of Silone, it is not so much his precepts as his example that moves us, and it must be said that in an era ruled by compromise Silone’s principled stand is most admirable.

As for the novel itself, it is a tribute to Silone’s artistry that the rural innocence and charm with which he tells the story is entirely in keeping with the homespun wisdom embodied in the character of Luca. But The Secret of Luca does not have the singleness of effect that made a novel like Fontamara so memorable, and this, I should say, is because the symbolism of The Secret of Luca has a narrative instead of an intellectual reality, so that while it works as a story, it does not overwhelm us with its meaning.

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It is certainly a piece of historical irony that the best political novel in recent years—and one of the most important novels of any genre—should have come out of that artistic wasteland, the Soviet Union. The most obvious explanation for what seems like a creative miracle lies in the fact that a writer of Pasternak’s genius and strength was alive at the time of the thaw, which brought not only some relaxation of party control of the arts but also carried for the Soviet intelligentsia the hope of further liberalization. In addition, however, such a work as Dr. Zhivago could have come only out of a genuine involvement in the political events of our time and in their moral and intellectual consequences. The political novel in the West, associated with figures like Malraux, Koestler, and Silone in his first phase, belongs to an earlier period. In recent years novelists in Europe and in this country have shied away from political subjects: and quite naturally, as the political situation has had little imaginative appeal for intellectuals, nor has there been any theory or movement to engage their political idealism. Respectable politics today rarely go beyond the cold war, which is really a pseudonym for stalemate; and the effect has been to discourage not only the responsibility of genuine politics but also the irresponsibility of art, both of which were always necessary in the past for the large gestures of affirmation and dissent. And this, it seems to me, is the importance of these two different books: Silone’s small, impractical voice asserts the primacy of the moral act, while Pasternak’s Promethean defiance of history is made in the name of nothing more stable than human creativity.

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