Gorky: Hamlet Awakened

The Critic, April 1905

XLVI-4, pp. 318-320


Events in Russia have brought Maxim Gorky to the front with a bound. For him literature is no pastime. He is, more than Tolstoy, more than Turgenieff, the soul of the Russian people. He not only holds the mirror of his art before them, but he has said: “Now it is time to smash this pretty glass. Let us act.” The philosophy of non-resistance, to him, is the philosophy of cowards. In his stories he has chanted the glories of strength—because he has seen the evils of weakness. “Red Sunday” in St. Petersburg made of Gorky a world-figure. In times that try men’s souls the “safe and sane” fly to cover; and—thank heaven!—Gorky is neither safe nor sane. He typifies the spirit of revolt—has become the Byron of Russia. His writings are the cry of Power from beneath a gag.

What a world he conjures up in his stories!—tramps vestured in the purple of great dreams; Mary Magdalens with battered jaws and contused scalps; bakers who, while kneading the dough, meditate on the Thing-in-Itself; giant Anarchs who have no where to lay their heads; drunken diabolists whose curses sound like prayers and whose prayers sound like curses; Overmen of the slime who are neither shod nor shaven; empty-eyed women whose souls have been drained of joy before they are thirty; pirates thinly disguised as merchants; thieves who toss their swag to their understudies in crime from æsthetic motives—for the sake of the gesture. His characters merely fumble with life, flirt with felicity, and totter to their doom. Here we have regal souls debauched by the commonplace, and commonplace souls vestured in the purple of power; cynics who are sentimentalists, and sentimentalists who play the dirty game of life on ‘Change.

Some souls skulk through life; others walk firmly on the crackling bones of the weak. Gorky wriggled out of the social straitjacket and became a tramp. He soaked himself in rum and sunsets; lay on his back at night and played with Aldebaran and Cassiopeia; drew the plans for his earthly Utopia on the scroll of the heavens and effaced them with cigarette smoke, and in the names of Fate and Bakounin held up the traveller and appropriated his valuables. These human storm-petrels are curious spawn. Some are troubled with Weltschmerz and jaundice; others are anæmics and reununciants out of work. They all tolerate the idea of God and hope for the worst. Pardon is the word to all—except their enemies. To them society is a crazy quilt—streaked with yellow.

Gorky’s gospel is something like this: We are riveted to the rotten, and the chief end of life is to know how to gild the nail-heads. We are battered beati[319]tudes and godless gods. Our weaknesses are called virtues; our cringings, tact. Caliban is thrust into the coal-bin while Ariel is sen-sen breath, reeking in an atmosphere of mephitic boudoir odors, strums the “Rock of Ages” on the parlor piano. We are ruled by an aristocracy of asses. A pusillanimous and purblind pietism—with a copy of Rabelais secreted under its belt—sits in the saddle. Milk and water is called ether. We live on pound cake, dress in pinafores, and wear bibs. Faugh!

Well, life is worth living if only to watch the death of things. Our yawns are a judgment, and we can listen to the soul of man ricochetting through the Void. Or, when we grow tired of that, we can take up metaphysics, and wonder how Hegel turned Something into Nothing (or, was it vice versa?).

The beings that stream forth in lockstep procession from Gorky’s pages are straws caught in a whirlpool, particles hurried hither and thither by the passions and impulses that dominate the soul. They are swathed and shod in old custom, and hustled and harried by the dead. Certain folds in my brain fall thus, and I shall be an imbecile; or, certain folds do not fall thus, and I shall be a genius. My habits reside in my spinal cord, and my philosophy depends on my liver. Every human being is fated to do this or that, and this or that is the necessary product of—that or this. And life is a strenuous pause between two Facts.

Why does the soul continue this ignoble liaison with Circumstance? Gorky cries. We seek a logic in events, we grope for a pre-established harmony that shall tally with a mystic instinct. At bottom we detest the fixed order in which events move, because it is not our fixed order. The instinctive love of the novel is the unconscious groping for this new order. We arise every day in the believe that a miracle must occur to shatter the mould of law that encloses us. Each day the world ends, but we believe it will be recreated to-morrow, and in another series. But life lays on the flail, and we are threshed and thrashed. You think that these time-bitten creatures who stalk across the pages of “Foma Gordyéef,” “Chelkash,” “Orloff and His Wife,” and the shorter stories are responsible things? Nay, says Gorky; these lusts, these crimes, these demons of the dusk, are the leavings of the past, the descendants of those who participated in the orgies of the slimy underworld of prehistoric time. They are great so long as they do not duck or become panel-skulkers.

Circumstance is the incubator that keeps the devil in us alive. The human mind at birth is a palimpsest. The brain-cell is a thesaurus of race experience. It contains unnamable sins, godlike aspirations, degradations unthought of. The child is not a soul, but souls; a bundle of possibilities. Birth is but recomposition. Foma was destined to be Foma from all time. On the skeleton of his innate disposition there were hung the flesh and blood of habit. Heredity sketched the plan; environment filled it in.

Orloff and his wife, no doubt, started their married life bravely. They lacked, like most of us, a complete vision of things. Vulgarly, they could not see beyond their noses. The thieving moments stole upon them and wove the shroud of habit, and each habit contracted hooped in the soul with another limitation. But they will begin anew tomorrow! To-day, like the lotus-eaters, they will recline on flowery beds, where “the poppy hangs in sleep.” They were dupes of time.

This illusion that the will is free damns us all. We count habit something superficial, an outer coat that can be thrown off at pleasure. One may as well attempt to step out of his skin as to seek to rid himself of stratified willing. Habit is the man; and personality itself is but the beads of habit strung on endless desire.

Orloff was a prenatal drunkard. His early respectability was a disguise. The sleeping demon was waiting for the psychologic moment. It came, and the decent, industrious Orloff sloughed off, and ancestral Orloff stepped out. Double or triple personality is not freakish. We are all multiple. Each man is some other [320] man in a different environment. We are all Orloffs and possess his possibilities. The event begets the eventful, and the soul is beleaguered with spirits crying for birth. And many of them are drunkards and lechers.

The individual is so much data. He is a character in a cipher code that nobody can read. In this play of life we neither select our rôles, order the climaxes, nor time our exits. The bell is rung, the curtain goes up, and we are dumfounded to find ourselves on the stage, saying strange things to strange beings. An utterly illogical climax ensues; there are applause or groans, the curtain falls with a thump, and——

The universe is only provisionally rational—a chaos slowly and painfully evolving. From the mouth of Demiurge stream endless currents of life, and the outermost tip of the farthest current is but the last recorded syllable of the Word that still struggles for utterance in the monster’s throat. How many eons has it taken to make this moment? How many eons will it take to unmake it? This great world, with all its activities, existent in an infinitesimal present that is ever vanishing, is but residuum of an infinite past time. This eternal and illusive willing of the individual is but the play of gigantic forces which whirl and swirl before our eyes, and to which we give names in the manner of their affection. Only one thing is certain, asserts Gorky,—the lust for Power.

The world at any given moment is a brain sketch. To say that the individual is master of his destiny is to say that the part is greater than the whole, that the passing moment outweighs in importance all that has been done in the past, when, indeed, it is but the past come to birth and the fathering of the future. Gorky has stood still for a few minutes to report a few facts.

The word “Fate,” to most people, conjures up horrible things. It is thought of as an intangible Something standing just back of us; a Presence, shadowy but dominating, like those nameless, formless figures that nightmare brings to the bedside. Fate is compounded of the trivial; it is constructed of the nothings of the day. The destiny of each soul is present each moment, is whole and undivided each moment; it is the kernel of each act. Given such an ancestry, such a nature, such an environment, and I must shake hands in just the fashion that I do. Occupation, avocation, is Fate. The noble deed I just did is Fate.

The trivial is peddled out to us, and we weep or laugh as our disposition may be. A beautiful action is nothing in itself; it is merely Nature’s plan for neutralizing her villainies. The world flees before our touch, and the good we have not done Nature would not have us do. Conscience is but her pièce de resistance.

It is Gorky’s thesis that we never triumph over environment; we may triumph over an environment, but another instantly closes in on us. The soul of the race creates a prison-house, and the individual is locked in for life. Each generalization we make is but a wider limitation. Sometimes life encloses itself in an incident, and we say we are undone; but the inner self rallies and the obstacle is overcome. We imagine ourselves free, but the soul’s activities are but limitations acting from the other side. Moulds and masks—such are Gorky’s failures.

The crimson domino of Time covers a witless Eternity. Time is a thing of shreds and patches—and we are the shreds and patches. Things are not made or unmade. They are. Everything is cut-and-dried in that noiseless workshop—the Unconscious. And Michael Henchard, Nana, Chelkash, Becky Sharp, Vautrin, Rastignac, Tess, Liza, Bazaroff, Anna Karenina, Arthur Dimmesdale, Orloff, were but the baubles of destiny; they slumped in the making; they were misfits; they were out of tune.

And which of us is not out of tune? Indeed, are we jigging to any tune? Is life nothing but a ghost-dance and what we call laws the tom-toms? And Maxim the Bitter said “Yea.” But the tocsin sounded, and Maxim gave himself the lie. He had found a thing worth while—Battle!