Inside the Revolutionary Mind
I just had the pleasure of reading Tolstoy’s “God’s Way and Man’s.” It’s one of the most compelling portraits of revolutionary psychology I’ve ever read. “God’s Way and Man’s” is a complex tale, but the last half focuses on imprisoned Russian revolutionary Mezhenetsky. After seven years in virtual solitary confinment, Mezhenetsky remains physically strong and ideologically determined. But transfer to milder conditions breaks him:
As he was a criminal of special importance, he [Mezhenetsky] was conveyed separately, and not allowed to communicate with others; and it was only in the prison at Krasnoyarsk that he first succeeded in having some intercourse with other political prisoners who were also sent to penal servitude… They were all young people of a new type unfamiliar to Mezhenetsky. They were Revolutionists of a newer generation – his successors – and therefore of special interest to him. Mezhenetsky expected to find them following in his footsteps, and therefore valuing very highly what had been done by their forerunners, and especially by himself, Mezhenetsky. He was prepared to treat them with kindness and condescension, but he had the unpleasant surprise of discovering that these young people not only did not regard him as a pioneer and teacher, but treated him with something like condescension, evading and excusing his superannuated opinions. According to the views of these new Revolutionists, all that Mezhenetsky and his friends had done – all their attempts to rouse the peasants, and especially their terroristic methods and their assassinations… had been a series of mistakes. They had all merely contributed to the triumph of reaction under Alexander III, which put society back almost to the days of serfdom…
For two days and the greater part of two nights the disputes between Mezhenetsky and his new acquiantances hardly ceased. Especially one of them, their leader, Roman… pained and grieved Mezhenetsky by his unwavering assurance of being right, and by a contemptuous and even sarcastic rejection of all the old methods of Mezhenetsky and his comrades.
I won’t give away the end, but Rand might have approved.
Mar 27 2007 at 9:57am
I immediately jumped on your link to your earlier Rand posting, the piece comparing Rand and Hugo, which I had not seen.
I enthusiastically share your fondness for Hugo and decry those who express displeasure at his “florid” and “flamboyant” prose, i.e., his perfection of the Romantic style.
I disagree, however, that Rand improved upon Hugo in this regard. I even suspect she might agree, given her praise of Hugo and her incorporation of some of his devices (Gwynplaine’s speech to the House of Lords in “The Man Who Laughs” was the inspiration for Galt’s speech in “Atlas Shrugged”).
Below is a favorite piece from Hugo, an example of his literary powers, a height that few attain.
A Storm Always Knows What It’s Doing
(The following excerpt is from Victor Hugo’s “Ninety-Three,” the great Romanticist’s (“Les Miserables,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”) last novel, published in 1874, nearly a century after the French Revolution, which served as the background for the book.
It is not, strictly speaking, a historical novel, one that attempts to take the reader back into a moment in history. Rather, Hugo uses that specific conflagration to develop characters and a plot in the interest of a universal theme, one that applies not only to the French Revolution but to subsequent wars, including the present.
The excerpt is a conversation between two leaders. Although Cimourdain, an ex-priest, and Gauvain, whom he had tutored, both fought to overthrow the monarchy and establish a republic, their visions for that republic were vastly different. Their discussion represents two different aspects of the revolutionary spirit and echoes themes heard in modern political debate.)
During that supper, Gauvain ate and Cimourdain drank, a sign of calm in the former and of agitation in the latter.
There was a kind of terrible serenity in the cell. The two men talked.
“Great things are beginning to take shape,” said Gauvain. “What the Revolution is doing now is mysterious. Behind the visible work there’s the invisible work. The visible work is fierce, the invisible work is sublime. I can see everything very clearly now. It’s strange and beautiful. It has been necessary to use the materials of the past. Hence this extraordinary ’93. Beneath a scaffolding of barbarism, a temple of civilization is being built.”
“Yes,” replied Cimourdain, “from this provisional situation will come the definitive one. By the definitive one I mean parallel rights and duties, proportional and progressive taxes, obligatory military service, a leveling process without deviations, and above everyone and everything, that straight line, the law. The republic of the absolute.”
“I prefer the republic of the ideal,” said Gauvain. He paused, then continued: “O my master, in everything you’ve just said, where do you place devotion, self-sacrifice, abnegation, the magnanimous interlacing of benevolences, love? To put everything in balance is good, to put everything in harmony is better. Above the scales there’s the lyre. Your republic weighs, measures and regulates man; mine sweeps him up into the blue sky; it’s the difference between a theorem and an angel.”
“You’ve become lost in the clouds.”
“And you in calculations.”
“There’s a certain amount of dreaming in harmony.”
“And also in algebra.”
“I wish man had been made by Euclid.”
“And I’d like him better if he’d been made by Homer,” said Gauvain.
Cimourdain’s stern smile came to rest on Gauvain, as though to hold his soul fast.
“Poetry. Beware of poets.”
“Yes, I know the saying. Beware of breezes, beware of sunbeams, beware of fragrances, beware of flowers, beware of the constellations.”
“None of those things can feed anyone.”
“How do you know? Ideas are food too. To think is to eat.”
“No abstractions. The Republic is two and two make four. When I’ve given everyone what’s coming to him…”
“You’ll still have to give everyone what’s not coming to him.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I’m referring to the immense reciprocal concessions which each owes to all, which all owe to each, and which are the whole of social life.”
“Outside of strict law, there’s nothing.”
“I see only justice.”
“I look higher.”
“What is there above justice?”
Now and then they stopped, as those gleams were passing by.
“I challenge you to be specific.”
“Very well. You want obligatory military service. Against whom? Against other men? I don’t want any military service. I want peace. You want to help the poor, I want to eliminate poverty. You want proportional taxes, I don’t want any taxes at all. I want common expenditures reduced to their simplest expression and paid by the social surplus.”
“What do you mean?”
“This: first eliminate parasitisms—the parasitism of the priest, of the judge, of the soldier. Then make use of your riches. You throw manure into the sewer; throw it into the fields instead. Three-quarters of the land is lying fallow. Cultivate the soil of France, do away with useless pastures, divide the communal lands. Let each man have a piece of land, and let each piece of land have a man. You’ll increase the social product a hundredfold. France now gives her peasants meat only four times a year; well cultivated, she could feed three hundred million people, all of Europe. Utilize nature, that immense neglected helper. Make every wind work for you, every waterfall, every magnetic emanation. The earth has an underground network of veins; in that network there’s a prodigious circulation of water, oil and fire; tap the veins of the earth and bring forth that water for your fountains, that oil for your lamps, that fire for your hearths. Consider the movement of the waves, the ebb and flow of the tides. What is an ocean? An enormous wasted force. How foolish the earth is, not to use the oceans!”
“You’re in the midst of a dream!”
“In other words, in the midst of reality …And woman? What will you do with her?”
Cimourdain answered, “I’ll leave her what she is: man’s servant.”
“Yes, on one condition.”
“What is it?”
“That man also be woman’s servant.”
“Are you serious?” cried Cimourdain. “Man a servant? Never! Man is the master. I acknowledge only one kind of royalty: that of the home. A man is king in his own home.”
“Yes, on one condition.”
“What is it?”
“That woman be queen there.”
“In short, between men and women you want…”
“Equality! You can’t mean it. Man and woman are two different creatures.”
“I said equality. I didn’t say identity.”…
Gauvain spoke with the composure of a prophet. Cimourdain listened. The roles were reversed; it now seemed that the pupil was now the master. …
Cimourdain looked at the floor of the cell and said, “And in the meantime what do you want?”
“You absolve the present time?”
“Because it’s a storm. A storm always knows what it’s doing. For every oak struck by lightning, how many forests are made healthy! Civilization was in the grip of a pestilence and this great wind is curing it. The wind may not be selective enough, but could it do otherwise? It has such hard work to do! Before the horror of the miasma, I understand the fury of the wind. Furthermore, what does the storm mean to me if I have a compass, and what do events matter to me if I have my conscience!…
“If you add something to nature, you will necessarily be greater than nature; to add is to increase, and to increase is to grow. Society is nature made sublime. I want everything that’s lacking in beehives and anthills: mountains, art, poetry, heroes, geniuses. To bear eternal burdens is not the law of man. No, no, no more pariahs, no more slaves, no more convicts, no more damned! I want each attribute of man to be a symbol of civilization and a pattern of progress; I want liberty in front of the mind, equality in front of the heart, fraternity in front of the soul. No, no more yokes! Man is made not to drag chains, but to spread his wings. No more of man as a reptile! I want the transfiguration of the larva into the butterfly; I want the earthworm to change into a living flower and fly away; I want…”
He stopped. His eyes flashed.
His lips moved. He ceased talking. …
Cimourdain, pale, listened. Gauvain did not hear.
His reverie was becoming deeper and deeper. He was so attentive to what he saw beneath the visionary vault of his brain that he seemed to have stopped breathing. He occasionally started slightly. The gleam of dawn in his eyes grew brighter.
Mar 27 2007 at 12:39pm
Whenever I begin to tire of right-wingers bashing France, remembering how much better our revolution was than theirs sets me right.
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