Friday, February 17, 2012

Sleepless In St. Petersburg

Dostoevsky's writing desk
Dostoevsky wrote from midnight to 6 AM.  Some combination of jet-lag, fellow-feeling (we visited his home yesterday), and garden variety disquiet kept me up most of last night. Among my visitors was the ghostly thought that national movements like the one he advocated for come in many versions but have essentially the same hope and, usually, sadly, the same fate.

Nationalisms start with the perfectly defensible ideal--held up by artists and writers against traditional tyrants and received wisdom--that humanism needs the nation's cultural materials to express universal principles in a particular (hence, poignant) way; that the "people" are the real repository of the necessary moral experience. Nationalisms end with their artists and writers in jail for undermining solidarity in the face of some inevitable threat, their claim to universalism just another way demagogues justify triumphal power.

Dostoevsky's remarks at the memorial to Pushkin are still his most venerated words explaining Russianess. They could have been spoken, with certain changes, by Achad Haam explaining Zionism. All nationalisms are happy in different ways, and unhappy in the same way. Dostoevsky writes:

There had been in the literatures of Europe men of colossal artistic genius -- a Shakespeare, a Cervantes, a Schiller. But show me one of these great geniuses who possessed such a capacity for universal sympathy as our Pushkin. This capacity, the pre-eminent capacity of our nation, he shares with our nation, and by that above all he is our national poet. The greatest of European poets could never so powerfully embody in themselves the genius of a foreign, even a neighbouring, people, its spirit in all its hidden depth, and all its yearning after its appointed end, as Pushkin could. On the contrary, when they turned to foreign nations European poets most often made them one with their own people, and understood them after their own fashion... No, I will say deliberately, there had never been a poet with a universal sympathy like Pushkin’s. And it is not his sympathy alone, but his amazing profundity, the reincarnation of his spirit in the spirit of foreign nations, a reincarnation almost perfect and therefore also miraculous, because the phenomenon has never been repeated in any poet in all the world. It is only in Pushkin; and by this, I repeat, he is a phenomenon never seen and never heard of before, and in my opinion, a prophetic phenomenon, because.. . because herein was expressed the national spirit of his poetry, the national spirit in its future development, the national spirit of our future, which is already implicit in the present, and it was expressed prophetically. For what is the power of the spirit of Russian nationality if not its aspiration after the final goal of universality and omni-humanity? No sooner had he become a completely national poet, no sooner had he come into contact with the national power, than he already anticipated the great future of that power. In this he was a Seer, in this a Prophet.