author of The Ecstasy of Michaela and assorted stories and essays
Epigraph/epitaph: "He has been a sick man all his life. He was always a seeker after something in the world that is there in no satisfying measure, or not at all."
Turgenev’s whole life and art amounted to a refusal to be apocalyptic; and in the age which produced Proudhon and Marx and Zola, to say nothing of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, that was itself a most unusual attitude for a writer and an ideological figure. He was especially impatient with those prophets of doom and despair who, while urging the need for a total clean sweep in Russia, to be replaced by some millennial vision of social justice, were at the same time wholly contemptuous about Europe and its capitalist civilization. Turgenev liked to point out that this desire and conviction of doom, proclaimed at times even by the civilized and rational émigré Herzen, was nothing more than what Isaiah Berlin has called ‘the dramatization of private despair’.
But sympathy we cannot have. Wisest Fate says no. If her children, weighted as they already are with sorrow, were to take on them that burden too, adding in imagination other pains to their own, buildings would cease to rise; roads would peter out into grassy tracks; there would be an end of music and of painting; one great sigh alone would rise to Heaven, and the only attitudes for men and women would be those of horror and despair. As it is, there is always some little distraction—an organ grinder at the corner of the hospital, a shop with a book or a trinket to decoy one past the prison or the workhouse, some absurdity of cat or dog to prevent one from turning the old beggar’s hieroglyphic of misery into volumes of sordid suffering; and thus the vast effort of sympathy which those barracks of pain and discipline, those dried symbols of sorrow, ask us to exert on their behalf, is uneasily shuffled off for another time. Sympathy nowadays is dispensed chiefly by the laggards and failures, women for the most part (in whom the obsolete exists so strangely side by side with anarchy and newness), who, having dropped out of the race, have time to spend upon fantastic and unprofitable excursions….
There is, let us confess it (and illness is the great confessional), a childish outspokenness in illness; things are said, truths blurted out, which the cautious respectability of health conceals. About sympathy, for example—we can do without it. That illusion of a world so shaped that it echoes every groan, of human beings so tied together by common needs and fears that a twitch at one wrist jerks another, where however strange your experience other people have had it too, where however far you travel in your own mind someone has been there before you—is all an illusion. We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest in each; a snowfield where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown. Here we go alone, and like it better so. Always to have sympathy, always to be accompanied, always to be understood would be intolerable.
The concept of human rights goes back some two hundred years, but it reached its greatest glory in the second half of the 1970s. Alexander Solzhenitsyn had just been exiled from his country, and his striking figure, adorned with a beard and handcuffs, hypnotized Western intellectuals sick with a longing for the great destiny that had been denied them. It was only thanks to him that they started to believe, after a fifty-year delay, that in communist Russia there were concentration camps; even progressive people were now ready to admit that imprisoning someone for his opinions was not just. And they found an excellent justification for their new attitude: Russian communists violated human rights, in spite of the fact that these rights had been gloriously proclaimed by the French Revolution itself!
And so, thanks to Solzhenitsyn, human rights once again found their place in the vocabulary of our times; I don’t know a single politician who doesn’t mention ten times a day “the fight for human rights” or “violations of human rights.” But because people in the West are not threatened by concentration camps and are free to say and write what they want, the more the fight for human rights gains in popularity, the more it loses any concrete content, becoming a kind of universal stance of everyone toward everything, a kind of energy that turns all human desires into rights. The world has become man’s right and everything in it has become a right: the desire for love the right to love, the desire for rest the right for rest, the desire for friendship the right to friendship, the desire to exceed the speed limit the right to exceed the speed limit, the desire for happiness the right to happiness, the desire to publish a book the right to publish a book, the desire to shout in the street in the middle of the night the right to shout in the street.
Yes, it is beautiful to strive for happiness (or love, or justice, and so on), but if you are in the habit of designating your striving with the word “fight,” it means that your noble striving conceals the longing to knock someone to the ground.
If I could believe that going to a barricade would affect man’s fate in the slightest I would go to that barricade, and quite often I wish that I could, but it would be less than honest to say that I expect to happen upon such a happy ending.