Commentary Magazine


The Apocalypse of Our Time and Other Writings, by Vasily Rozanov

Rozanov

The Apocalypse of Our Time and Other Writings.
by Vasily Rozanov.
Translated by Robert Payne and Nikita Romanoff. Edited with an introduction by Robert Payne and an afterword by George Ivask. Praeger. 301 pp. $10.95.

A western reader should not be surprised if the name of Vasily Rozanov evokes in his mind only the faintest of echoes. With one or two exceptions, those writers or poets who achieved fame in Russia too close to the great divide of 1917 to have been publicized worldwide by the Russian reading public have never become well-known in the West on their own. Rozanov was born in 1856—four years before Chekhov. But Chekhov was already hailed as a writer of genius by the 1880’s, while Rozanov did not come into full bloom until well into the 1900’s.

When Chekhov died in 1904, an article summing up his achievement was titled “Creativity Out of Nothing.” Chekhov had never written a novel—it would have been too “organized,” too “literary.” Rozanov, a true post-Chekhovian, never wrote a single work of “literature” of any kind. He penned digressions within digressions, whispered confessions, soliloquies—he was more “out of nothing” than Chekhov, and he was sometimes more Chekhovian than Chekhov, combining as he did the fearless sincerity of Russian literature with its impeccable manners. No Russian had a subtler touch in prose—none a lighter “breath of the soul.”

For Rozanov, the very act of publishing spelled a loss of privacy and uniqueness. Even the most private writings of the most private writer, once published, were defined by him as “cold prostitution” (for a price, he wrote, “I give to everyone what is most intimate”). Yet the fact is that from this “cold prostitution” Rozanov did very well in old Russia—“ten people were sitting down at my table, including the servants,” he once ascertained with pride by counting up the galoshes in the hall after dinner. For in that golden age a new piece by Chekhov or Rozanov brought 100 times as much as, for instance, a Sherlock Holmes installment in Russia.

For their present collection, Payne and Romanoff have chosen from Rozanov’s vast literary legacy, much of which is still scattered over innumerable back issues of magazines, four works, or, as Rozanov would have called them, “baskets.” Two “baskets” are entitled “Fallen Leaves”—not books, but collections of pieces shed by the writer as a tree sheds its foliage. Still another “basket” is entitled Solitaria. All three were written, published, and reverently read before 1917. The fourth and last item, The Apocalypse of Our Time, was created in the chaos of the destruction of old Russia, shortly before Rozanov’s death in 1919.

Not that this last work is more profound than the other three. Rozanov’s genius had long lain in his ability to impart an apocalyptic depth of vision to what the less endowed would call the trivia of private life. When something apocalyptically vast did happen—the destruction of the only civilization in which he and many others could exist—his vision remained fixed on the same divine trifles. He was a fiercely private man; trying to examine a terrible public event, he was like that goldfish which he was fond of describing, out of the cozy, murkiness of its aquarium.

In my childhood, it was still held by a surviving literary group, the “Nothings,” that a writer is an idiot in the original Greek sense of the word, the sense which lingered in English up to the 18th century: a private person, a layman. Political, social, legal, religious, or professional life is not for such idiots—of whom Rozanov was one. He once engaged in a magazine polemic concerned with a social subject, and when it was his turn for the final rebuttal (crucial forensically, as every polemicist knows), he wrote: “Ah, go to the devil, I am sleepy.” On another occasion it was found that he had been writing articles for both warring political sides. He could not understand the resulting uproar.

At the time of the Beilis case (1911—13), the Russian public was divided between, on the one side, those convinced that the Jew Mendel Beilis was guilty, as charged, of murdering a Christian to use his blood for ritual purposes and, on the other side, those no less convinced that the charge, based on a nightmarish medieval fantasy, had been trumped up by the authorities in order to foment anti-Semitism. However, two intellectuals did not join either camp. One was Vladimir Jabotinsky, who refused—so he wrote in a brilliant article—to feel guilty, as a Jew, just because another Jew had been charged with the crime of murder. The second nonaligned intellectual was Rozanov, who (although not a Jew himself) seized the occasion to rhapsodize ecstatically about the superiority of Judaism to Christianity and about the “infinite mystical depth of the Jews,” the “only religious nation left.” In a series of essays, Rozanov extolled the unique contribution of Jews to religion and literature—but without troubling to repudiate the monstrous blood libel that lay at the heart of the Beilis case. On the contrary, he seemed to accept the possibility that the charge against Beilis was valid—perhaps further evidence, in his eyes, of the deep and precious ritual mysteriousness of Judaism.

Both camps were confused and enraged by the irresponsibility (to say the least) of Rozanov’s position. Some called him anti-Christian; others (including Lenin and Trotsky) called him an anti-Semite of an especially perverse kind. Rozanov did feel remorse over the damage he may have done, but he felt it in his own way: he asked that after his death, any of his writings that might be thought harmful to the Jews be burned. My mother, who worshipped Rozanov, and at the age of seventeen had been a fierce pro-Beilis militant, once commented wanly: “Anti-Semite? Oh no. Dostoevsky was one. But Rozanov was just an idiot. A real Nothing.”

Russia has never produced a single thinker like Plato, Kant, or William James. But Russia produced Rozanov, some Russians of my milieu would say. Western culture, they would press on, has been fascinated by the machine ever since Plato. Form, system, concept, structure, sonata—are these not sublimations of the machine? Everything is organized, a Westerner might say, music, mathematics, novels, and the movement of stars. To this, Rozanov says no; there is only a “salty cucumber at the end of June, with a tiny thread of fennel on it (it should not be removed).” Or: “My soul is woven of filth, tenderness, and sadness.”

In the West, Rozanov is still unknown, except to specialists. In Russia, after 1917, within those tiny islands of invisible privacy into which Russian culture had become pulverized, Rozanov was always known, and “by heart”—a distinction we confer on all good prose or verse, as though fearful that the days of private printing presses are numbered everywhere and only what lives in personal memory will survive. Now I read the Payne-Romanoff collection in the West, and I see a Western reader leafing through these pages with well-justified annoyance. Rozanov did not have to compete for space, and his leisured readers were supposed to wander through some leaves of nothingness before stumbling unaware upon a cluster of revelations. Perhaps it will someday be worthwhile to gather all these revelations from all his numberless baskets of fallen leaves. In the meantime, the Western reader can perhaps find the leisure to watch them falling timelessly one by one.

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