Vasily Rozanov, from Solitaria and Fallen Leaves

I’ve mentioned Rozanov, in passing, and an aphorism of his is here on the masthead, but I haven’t really written about him yet.  I will, but in lieu of that, this post shares some of his wonderful writing.  The translations are all by Robert Payne and Nikita Romanoff, from the book The Apocalypse of Our Time, and Other Writings.  Note: the one he refers to as his “friend” is his second wife and the mother of his children.  “Granny” or “grandmother” is his second wife’s mother.  Without further delay, Rozanov . . .

§    §    §

About three years before 1911 my nameless and faithful friend, to whom I owe everything, said:

“I feel I shall not live very long.  Let us live those few years well” . . .

My heart sank within me.  In a scarcely audible voice I said: “Oh, yes, yes!”

But in fact the “yes” was never realized.

§    §    §

At the age of fifty-six I possess 35,000 rubles.  But my friend is ill . . .  And it all seems so useless.

§    §    §

Her “friend,” after all, is only myself: and only in me are the tears flowing, flowing, and I cannot stop them . . .

Children . . .  How little they need their parents when they are growing up.  Their friends, their own lives, their future – all these things excite them so . . .

When my mother died, I suddenly realized I could now smoke cigarettes openly.  I lit a cigarette at once.  I was thirteen.

§    §    §

On November 27, at the age of eighty-five, there died in Eletz “our granny,” Alexandra Andrianovna Rudnev, née Zhdanov.  Throughout all her seventy years she labored for others – having at the age of fifteen made up her mind to embark on a marriage advantageous to a young brother who was in her care.  Both were orphans.  She was always merry, “running to church,” teaching local children “to read and write, serve God, the Tsar, and the country.”  Like the undying candle in the catacombs, she illuminated, warmed, caressed, labored, cried – cried a great deal – and only at “church services” did she dry her eyes (consolation).  Let this book be dedicated to her, and along with her – to my own poor mother, Nadezhda Vasilievna Rozanov.

§    §    §

My mother was quite different.  Always tormented by helplessness and storms of confusion . . .  She did not know that when she slipped quietly out of bed, where I was sleeping with her (about the age of six – seven – eight), I was not yet asleep and saw her praying for all of us, at first silently, then whispering . . . louder, louder . . . until her prayers came like a kind of (slight) hissing.

In the daytime she was again stern, always stern.  Throughout our house I never remember her smiling.

§    §    §

Monotonously but not loudly, the fan hums in the little corridor.  I (almost) wept:  “Just to hear it, I want to live longer, and above all my friend must live longer.”  Then the thought came to me:  “Is it possible that she (my friend) won’t hear the fan in the next world?” and I was seized by the hair with such a longing for immortality that I almost fell to the floor.  (Late at night)

§    §    §

How God loves me that He has given “her” to me.  (December 19, 1911)

§    §    §

I have finished the Christmas article.  My friend has fallen asleep . . .  Nearly five in the morning.  And there is Good Friday in my soul.  (December 23, 1911)

§    §    §

A great love of one makes it unnecessary to love many.  Even uninteresting . . .

§    §    §

What does “when I die” mean?

There will be a vacant apartment on Kolomenskaya Street, and the landlord will rent it to a new tenant.

What else?

Bibliographers will sort out my books.

And I myself?

Myself? – nothing.

The undertakers will receive 60 rubles for the funeral, and at the end of the quarter these 60 rubles will go into “the account.”  And there it will all be merged with other funerals: no name, no sigh.

How horrible!

§    §    §

The essence of prayer consists in the acknowledgement of one’s profound helplessness, profound limitations.  Prayer is where “I cannot”; where “I can,” there is no prayer.

§    §    §

The society all around you detracts from the soul instead of increasing it.

“What increases the soul” is the most intimate and rarest sympathy, “soul with soul,” “one mind.”  You can only find one or two like this in a lifetime.  The soul blossoms through them.

Seek it.  But flee the crowd, or pass warily by.  (Drinking tea in the morning)

§    §    §

And so my friend and I shall die, and our children, after feeling sorry, will go on living.  Nothing in the world will change; we alone will suffer the terrible transformation.  “The end,” “finished.”  That “finished” – not as regards details but as regards the whole, everything – this is terrible.

§    §    §

To say that Shperk is no longer in the world is impossible.  In the Platonic sense, the “immortality of the soul” may perhaps be an error, but for my friends it is by no means an error.

It is not that “Shperk’s soul is immortal,” but his little beard cannot die; his “Byzov” (the name of his friend) is waiting for him outside the gate, and he himself is talking about taking a streetcar to visit me in Pavlovskaya Street.  Everything as it was.  As for his “soul,” whether it is immortal or not – I neither know nor want to know.

Everything is immortal.  Eternal and living.  Right down to the small hole in his boot, which doesn’t get any larger, nor does it get “patched up” from the time when it first appeared.  This is better than the “soul’s immortality,” which is dry and abstract.

I want to arrive “in the other world” with my handkerchief, nothing less.  (May 16, 1912)

§    §    §

How terrible that man (the eternal philologist) has discovered a word for it – “death.”  Can it possibly be named?  Can it have a name?  A name is already a definition.  It means, “We know something.”  But certainly we know nothing about it.  And when we say the word “death” in conversation, it is as if we were dancing in blancmange at dinner, or asking, “What is the time in a tureen of soup?”  Cynicism.  Nonsense.

§    §    §

Is it possible for a positivist to burst into tears?

As strange as imagining “riding piggyback on a man in armor.”

This brings to an end my discussion with him.  I leave him forever, an eternal parting.

§    §    §

Paganism is morning.  Christianity is evening.

Of each individual thing and of the whole world.

Will the morning not come?  Can this be the last evening? . . .

§    §    §

What I could never believe and what is impossible for me to believe exists in reality.  All our errors, sins, evil thoughts, and evil actions even from our earliest childhood, youth, etc., each has a correspondence in our mature age and especially in our old age.  A life (our biography) is, thus, an organism, and not at all “separate acts.”

A life (biography) is organic.  Who could have believed this?!  We always consider that life is a “chain of separate acts,” which I can “turn in whatever direction I like” (i.e. that life is like that).

What were my feelings about my own family?  I had none.  I never saw my father, and therefore I have no feeling about him, and I never think of him (I naturally cannot “remember” what is not within my “memory”).  But even for my mother I began to feel, “when it was all over” (†), an aching feeling.  While she was alive I had no feeling for her and did not love her.  We children were so silly and understood her so little that we once wanted to complain about her to the police (we talked about it, while sitting “on logs”; timber had been cut down nearby).  Only after it was all over and I began to grow up, and especially – when I myself began to feel my first miseries (biography) – I “summoned up her ghost from the grave” and became fearfully attached to her.  She was rather dark, small, “of the noble family of the Shishkins” (of which she was very proud), always irritable, always sad, always tired, terribly tired (I realized this only much later):  In actual fact she worked terribly hard and was ill during the last two years of her life.  True, she never talked to us about anything and did not play with us.  But she had no time for such things; and she was physically aware of our estrangement from her, which amounted almost to hostility.  Naturally, she “gave up talking to such fools.”  Only afterward (from her letters to our eldest brother, Kolya) I saw, or rather learned, that she was constantly thinking about us and looking after us, only “she did not talk to fools” because they “understood nothing.”  And, of course, we “understood nothing,” with our “idea of going to the police.”  And then there is also the memory of her prayers at night (in the dark), and the fat prayer book, with brown-yellow stains (from spilled oil), and how I used to read to her (when I was seven, or eight, or even five?) from The School of Piety.  I remember reading to her the story of “Gury, Samon, and Aviva.”  I liked those stories very much – they were short and easy to understand.  And mother liked them too.

What a gentle light might a burning icon-lamp have spread over our “unhappy home.”  But we had none.  (There was no money for the oil or for the lamp.)

And the whole house was somehow – ough! ough! – dark and sinister.  And we were all unhappy.  That “we were unhappy” I realized only later.  At the time I only wanted “to be angry with everyone.”  (Examining my coins)

§    §    §

Until I got to know my “grandmother’s” house (from which I took my second wife), I knew no harmony, decency, or kindness in life.  The world to me was not a Cosmos (Kosmeo – I beautify), but Ugliness, and in desperate moments just a Hole.  It was simply incomprehensible to me why people were alive and why I was alive, and what was life and what was it for? – so cursed, stupid, and utterly useless to anyone.  To think, think, think (to philosophize, On Understanding [Rozanov’s first, mostly ignored, book] – that I always wanted, that came “of itself”; but what was taking place in the realm of action or of “life” generally was just chaos, torment, and damnation.

And suddenly I came upon that little house with four little windows, near the Church of the Presentation of Our Lady (in Yeletz), where everything was noble.

Life was very poor, and the people were very poor.  But there was no anguish, no gloom, no complaints.  There was something “blessed” in this house, in its wooden walls, in its little window on the passageway, overlooking Beyond the Pine Trees (a part of the town).  Even the silly fat Maria (the servant), whom they endured even though she was silly, was shown kindness by everyone.

No one was unkind to anyone in that blessed house.  No one showed anger, and this is something I do not remember happening in any other Russian home.  Here there was no envy – “Why do others live better?”  “Why are they happier than we are?”  That is what they say in every Russian home.

I was astounded.  My “new philosophy,” no longer of “understanding” but of “life,” came about as a great surprise . . .

“How can there be synthetic judgments a priori?”  This question is the basis of Kant’s philosophy.  But my new “philosophy” of life had its beginning not in a question, but rather in wonderment at what I saw around me – how life can be noble and therefore, and for this reason alone, happy; how people may be in need of everything, “of a herring for dinner,” “of wood by the first of the month,” and yet live nobly and happily, live with painful, sad, infinitely sad memories, and yet be happy for the reason that they sin against no one (envy no one), and are not guilty before anyone.

Neither the little granddaughter, Sanyusha, who was seven; nor the young woman of twenty-seven, her mother; nor her mother, the grandmother, who was fifty-five, was ever envious.

And I fell in love with it all.  (I am too tired to continue writing.)  But in this way my new life had its beginning.  (Examining my coins)

§    §    §

Perhaps there is no such thing as the concept of the immortality of the soul, but there is a feeling of the soul’s immortality, and this springs from love.  Thus I rejected and “was not interested” in the immortality of the soul, because I had so little love for my mother.  I pitied her – but this is something different from love, not quite the same thing . . .  If I had loved her more keenly, more ardently, if I had felt more pain and fear that “she was no more,” then there would have been “immortality of the soul,” “eternal life,” “life beyond the grave.”  But is this perhaps the “hypothesis of love”?  Why a “hypothesis,” when I “eat bread” and shall die if I don’t “eat”?  “Eating” is like “the rotation of the earth round the sun” and other cosmic phenomena.  So from the great cosmological anguish at parting, brought about by death (for the anguish is cosmological), there results “we shall meet beyond the grave.”  This is like “water runs,” “fire burns,” and “bread nourishes.”  So the “soul does not die when the body dies, but is only torn from the body,” separated from the body.  Why this must be so cannot be proved, but we are all aware of it; we all know that it is so.  To the number of all these eternal “truths,” on which the world hangs together, belongs also the eternity of the “I,” of “my sorrow,” of “my joy.”  This concept – or more exactly the feeling that unites all of us who are alive – is so noble, sublime, and tender that the “State Duma” or the “Lena Miners’ Strike” or the asinine “I propose that we all stand up” (at news of someone’s death) are as nothing . . .  And yet this concept, this feeling, is rejected in our world:  Our world does not want it, does not know it, laughs at it.  Does this not mean that “our world” (with its concepts) is something so transitory, so ephemeral, and so useless even to the generations coming after us that it is terrible to think about.  Women’s bustles!

“Women used to wear bustles.”

“What?  What did you say?”

“I said bustles.”

“Well, what of it?  We don’t see them any more.”

“That’s just the point – ‘we don’t see them.’ ”

So tomorrow we won’t see the whole of “our time,” with its parliaments, its Darwin, its strikes.  And this might happen because of this trifling thing – that “our time” had no use for “the immortality of the soul . . .”

This tender idea will outlive iron laws.  Rails will break apart.  Engines will break down.  But for men “to weep” at the mere threat of “eternal separation” – this will never break down, this will never come to an end.

O people, believe in tender ideas.  Throw away iron:  It is only a cobweb.  True iron is tears, sighs, agony.  Only what is noble is true and will never be destroyed.

§    §    §

Live by it.  (April 21)

§    §    §

Sex is a mountain of light: a high, very high mountain, and lights shine down from it and spread out over the whole earth, suffusing the whole earth with a new and most noble significance.

Believe in that mountain.  It stands simply on four wooden legs (iron or any other hard metal is impermissible, as well as “wounding” nails).

I have seen.  I testify.  I will stand by it.

§    §    §

Yes, “egotism,” but what it has cost!

From this comes Solitaria, an attempt to emerge from behind a terrible “curtain.”  It is not that I did not want to emerge from behind it, but I could not.

It was not a physical wall but a spiritual one – and oh, how much more terrifying this is than a physical one.

From this also comes my attachment, or more accurately a sort of mysterious dependence on my friend . . .  In whom alone I found something that was necessary to me . . .  Whereas the essence of the “wall” lies in the fact that I am not necessary – “not necessary to me”     . . .  This “not necessary” is so terrifying, sad, lamentable; it is such a metaphysical void in which it is impossible to live; in which, like carbonic acid gas, “everything chokes.”

In spite of this, I “breathe.”  My friend gave me the possibility to breathe.  And Solitaria is an attempt to expand my breathing and to break through to people, whom I sincerely and profoundly love.

I love, but I have no feeling for people.  I love, but there is only air.  It is as though I wanted to speak, but the void does not echo the sound.

It is a fact that I was never able to imagine the reader (advice from Strakhov).  I knew they read me.  But it was as though they were not reading me.  “They don’t read,” “not one single person reads,” and this is more alive and real to me that the statement that many read.

And I hurry along and publish my works.  I count the money.  That means I know “they read”; but a moment later something changes in front of my eyes, in my thoughts and – “they don’t read,” and “there is absolutely nothing.”  As though my eye (spirit) is level with the top of the table.  The surface is extremely thin.  It trembles: and I can see under the table – everything is quite different from what is on the table.  The line of sight has shifted only a millimeter – “on the table” there is our life, “they read,” “I work.”  “Under the table” there is absolutely nothing whatsoever, or else there is a completely different situation.

§    §    §

Reading is satisfactory only when you live through the book.  Reading “for pleasure” doesn’t count.  Reading “something useful” doesn’t count.  You learn more “on your feet” – by simply living and working.

I lived through Konstantin Leontiev and – to some extent – the Talmud.  I started to live through Maeterlinck, reading eight pages a week, and after every eighth line I would stop and think for an hour (I read in the streetcar).  Finally I put the book aside, because the burden of living it, magnificent as it was, was too exhausting.

Why I “read” other works, I don’t know.  Nothing new, nothing striking.

Pushkin . . . I devoured him.  I always knew every page, every scene: and went on rereading: It was my food.  His works entered into me, ran through my blood, invigorated my brain, cleansed my soul of sin.  Pushkin’s

When for mortal man the long day
ends in silence

is equal to the Fifty-first Psalm (“Have mercy upon me, O God”).  It is just as great, just as overpowering, just as full of religious feeling.  The same truth lies in it.

§    §    §

When he is sorrowful, a man becomes a Christian.  When happy, he is a pagan.  All this goes back through the ages, to the very beginning of time.  These ideas were not “given to us,” they come “from us.”  They are ourselves in our different aspects.  The left hand has recovered from sickness and “asks for the ancient gods.”  The right hand falls sick and seeks Christ.

How can we weep before the ancient gods?  “Those positive gods,” and all their jokes and lies!  But then “the back hurts”: and there is no longer any place for jesting, but instead – “Help me!  Help me!”  It is impossible to say to Jupiter:  “Grant me solace.”  But when great sorrow fell over mankind:  “Grant me solace” – Christ appeared.

“Grant us solace!  Protect us!  Save us!”  In the suffering of mankind there is something more significant, darker, deeper, more terrible, more portentous, but without doubt it is deeper than any joy.  However great the mystery of birth, its sweetness and delight – if I saw a sick person and “a joyful mother” feeding her baby, then I would rush to the sick person.  Or to put it another way:  Compare a sick old man (or worse, a sick old woman) with a young woman about to give birth.  Suddenly you have to make the decision:  If the woman does not give birth, then the old person will be healed; but if the young woman gives birth, the old woman will die.  And all mankind shouts out, “Let the old woman be healed, and let the young woman wait to give birth.”

That is the victory of Christianity.  It is in fact a victory over positivism.  The ancient world, in spite of its beauty, was positivist.  But sickness destroyed positivism, crumbled it to dust:  “I want a miracle, O God, give me a miracle!”  This cry is Christ.

He wept.

He is revealed only in tears.  The one who never weeps never sees Christ.  But the one who weeps will not fail to see Him.

Christ – He is the tears of mankind, that once opened upon an amazing story, an amazing event.

§    §    §

Who solved the mystery of tears?  Some people do not weep over any misfortune.  Others weep over relatively small things.  The soul of a woman rests on tears.  A woman’s soul differs from a man’s.  This world of tears –what is it then?  It is female (to some extent), and it is suffering (also to some extent).  It belongs to the eternal categories.  And Christianity is eternal.

Christianity is gentler, more refined, and more profound than paganism.  All the fertile “Abrahams” are not worth one weeping woman.  Here there is no more question of the Rachels and the Leahs, one alternating with the other.  There is a splendor of the soul that overcomes everything – the future, “birth,” the positivist universe.  This is the “beauty” of the soul, and we pause before it and say, “No more, let there be no more, because we have seen the best and there will be nothing greater.”  This is the final and ultimate end:  Birth itself ceases.

I know the ecstasies of delight.  How could I forget them?  I was very happy (for twenty years), and involuntarily fell into paganism.  A happy person is naturally a pagan.  It is natural for the sun to shine, for the plants to be green, for the child to be sweet, ignorant, inexperienced.

The child will grow up, as I grew up.

Could I return to paganism?  If she recovers completely and remains in good health always, then it could happen.  Surely the essential thing is that we get sick and die: and surely we get sick, surely we die, in order that Christ may be revealed to all of us?

In order that mankind may not remain without Christ.  A terrifying weave of ideas.  How confused the world is!  What an unfathomable well it is!  (In the stillness of the night)

§    §    §

In the next world, if you go to heaven, they will feed you watermelons.  (Eating a watermelon)

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This entry was posted in Rozanov, Vasily, Russian literature, Russian religious philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Vasily Rozanov, from Solitaria and Fallen Leaves

  1. Julian says:

    I was looking for this book and it is almost nowhere to be found. Thank you!

  2. Habib C. Malik says:

    The Russians are so wonderful, so human, especially with all their paradoxes and passions. Christ loves them a great deal, I’m sure.
    Habib C. Malik, Lebanon

  3. Pingback: He is Revealed Only in Tears | hisperic

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