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Englishman and Russian

It has been my conviction for many years that the Russian and the Englishman are as it were the complementary halves of a man. What the Russian lacks the Englishman has; what the Englishman lacks, that has the Russian. The works of Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoievsky, Tolstoi, Tchekov—the amazing direct and truthful revelations of these masters—has let me, I think, into some secrets of the Russian soul, so that the Russians I have met seem rather clearer to me than men and women of other foreign countries. For their construing I have been given what schoolboys call a crib. Only a fool pretends to knowledge—the heart of another is surely a dark forest; but the heart of a Russian seems to me a forest less dark than many, partly because the qualities and defects of a Russian impact so sharply on the perceptions of an Englishman, but partly because those great Russian novelists in whom I have delighted, possess, before all other gifts, so deep a talent for the revelation of truth. In following out this apposition of the Russian and the Englishman, one may well start with that little matter of "truth." The Englishman has what I would call a passion for the forms of truth; his word is his bond—nearly always; he will not tell a lie—not often; honesty, in his idiom, is the best policy. But he has little or no regard for the spirit of truth. Quite unconsciously he revels in self-deception and flies from knowledge of anything which will injure his intention to "make good," as Americans say. He is, before all things, a competitive soul who seeks to win rather than to understand or to "live." And to win, or, shall we say, to maintain to oneself the illusion of winning, one must carefully avoid seeing too much. The Russian is light hearted about the forms of truth, but revels in self-knowledge and frank self-declaration, enjoys unbottoming the abysses of his thoughts and feelings, however gloomy. In Russia time and space have no exact importance, living counts for more than dominating life, emotion is not castrated, feelings are openly indulged in; in Russia there are the extremes of cynicism, and of faith; of intellectual subtlety, and simplicity; truth has quite another significance; manners are different; what we know as "good form" is a meaningless shibboleth. The Russian rushes at life, drinks the cup to the dregs, then frankly admits that it has dregs, and puts up with the disillusionment. The Englishman holds the cup gingerly and sips, determined to make it last his time, not to disturb the dregs, and to die without having reached the bottom.

These are the two poles of that instinctive intention to get out of life all there is in it—which is ever the unconscious philosophy guiding mankind. To the Russian it is vital to realise at all costs the fulness of sensation and reach the limits of comprehension; to the Englishman it is vital to preserve illusion and go on defeating death until death so unexpectedly defeats him.

What this wide distinction comes from I know not, unless from the difference of our climates and geographical circumstances. Russians are the children of vast plains and forests, dry air, and extremes of heat and cold; the English, of the sea, small, uneven hedge-rowed landscapes, mist, and mean temperatures. By an ironical paradox, we English have achieved a real liberty of speech and action, even now denied to Russians, who naturally far surpass us in desire to turn things inside out and see of what they are made. The political arrangements of a country are based on temperament; and a political freedom which suits us, an old people, predisposed to a practical and cautious view of life, is proving difficult, if not impossible, for Russians, a young people, who spend themselves so freely. But what Russia will become, politically speaking, he would be rash who prophesied.

I suppose what Russians most notice and perhaps envy in us is practical common sense, our acquired instinct for what is attainable, and for the best and least elaborate means of attaining it. What we ought to envy in Russians is a sort of unworldliness—not the feeling that this world is the preliminary of another, nothing so commercial; but the natural disposition to live each moment without afterthought, emotionally. Lack of emotional abandonment is our great deficiency. Whether we can ever learn to have more is very doubtful. But our imaginative writings, at all events, have of late been profoundly modified by the Russian novel, that current in literature far more potent than any of those traced out in Georg Brandes' monumental study. Russian writers have brought to imaginative literature a directness in the presentation of vision, a lack of self-consciousness, strange to all Western countries, and particularly strange to us English, who of all people are the most self-conscious. This quality of Russian writers is evidently racial, for even in the most artful of them—Turgenev—it is as apparent as in the least sophisticated. It is part, no doubt, of their natural power of flinging themselves deep into the sea of experience and sensation; of their self-forgetfulness in a passionate search for truth.

In such living Russian writers as I have read, in Kuprin, Gorky, and others, I still see and welcome this peculiar quality of rendering life through—but not veiled by—the author's temperament; so that the effect is almost as if no ink were used. When one says that the Russian novel has already profoundly modified our literature, one does not mean that we have now nearly triumphed over the need for ink, or that our temperaments have become Russian; but that some of us have become infected with the wish to see and record the truth and obliterate that competitive moralising which from time immemorial has been the characteristic bane of English art. In other words, the Russian passion for understanding has tempered a little the English passion for winning. What we admire and look for in Russian literature is its truth and its profound and comprehending tolerance. I am credibly informed that what Russians admire and look for in our literature is its quality of "no nonsense" and its assertive vigour. In a word, they are attracted by that in it which is new to them. I venture to hope that they will not become infected by us in this matter; that nothing will dim in their writers spiritual and intellectual honesty of vision or tinge them with self-consciousness. It is still for us to borrow from Russian literary art, and learn, if we can, to sink ourselves in life and reproduce it without obtrusion of our points of view, except in that subtle way which gives to each creative work its essential individuality. Our boisterousness in art is too self-conscious to be real, and our restraint is only a superficial legacy from Puritanism.

Restraint in life and conduct is another matter altogether. There Russians can learn from us, who are past-masters in control of our feelings. In all matters of conduct, indeed, we are, as it were, much older than the Russians; we were more like them, one imagines, in the days of Elizabeth.

Either similarity, or great dissimilarity, is generally needful for mutual liking. Our soldiers appear to get on very well with Russians. But only exceptional natures in either country could expect to understand each other thoroughly. The two peoples are as the halves of a whole; different as chalk from cheese; can supplement, intermingle, but never replace each other. Both in so different ways are very vital types of mankind, very deep sunk in their own atmospheres and natures, very insulated against all that is not Russian, or is not English; deeply unchangeable and impermeable. It is almost impossible to de-Anglicise an Englishman; as difficult to de-Russianise a Russian.


(1916).

John Galsworthy

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