Dora B. Montefiore 1902
Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. VI No. 6 June 1902, pp. 190-192;
Transcription: Ted Crawford.
HTML Markup: Brian Reid.
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An article from the “Literary Digest” dealing with the writings and ethic of Maxime Gorki, was reprinted in the May number of the “Social Democrat.” The article was mainly composed of extracts from a criticism of Gorki, by Mr. Dillon, which appeared in the “Contemporary Review” for February, and which, like many other criticisms, seems to miss the central point, the inner soul of Gorki’s strident message. “A careful study,” says Mr. Dillon, “of everything which the new Russian poet has given to the world, will convince, the unbiassed, even among his warm admirers, that the net result of his teaching is largely negative.” Is this so, I would ask? Is the message of our Russian comrade an empty one; or is it one which may kindle and inspire, not only the peasantry and the day labourer of his own country, but those also of all Europe; the industrial slaves of many lands, and—lowest and most hopeless class of all—the working woman, the traditional slave of the slave?
I venture to think that, to everyone of these Gorki’s message, his teaching if you will (though he is too great an artist to be aggressively didactic) is never negative. For them he has the deep-souled understanding that comes of knowledge, and the human sympathy without which it would be impossible for him to touch and uncover their pitiful rags and ulcers. He has lived their life, and shared their toil, and tasted the bitterness of their scanty bread, and struggled with them through the deep waters of moral suffering. Not only has he during hungry night vigils communed with the stars “gazing into infinite space, that riddle that haunts the soul”; but he has also watched and absorbed the strength of the ceaseless tides, “those supple, mighty waves, moving, ever moving, in a compact mass, bound together by the oneness of their aim;” and often, very often, has he listened to the murmur of the sad voice of toiling humanity, “pouring forth what seemed to be the whole emptiness and dreariness of its joyless life …. seeking for an outlet for its own half-conscious feelings and thoughts.” These vague murmurings, these sad whisperings, these faint half spiritual, but as yet unconscious aspirations, Gorki with a poet’s intuition, has gathered into his sketches of proletarian life, and with the dramatic power of a genius he has made live again for us the scenes, the personalities and the atmosphere which have bitten into his mentality as acid bites into metal.
And the social pariah, the slave of the slave, when they become vocal that before were “dumb driven cattle,” what is the refrain of their cry? Is it not contempt for what is worthy of contempt? Is it not revolt against that which must and shall be swept away? “Ah! you miserable prisoners!” exclaims the little servant-girl Tanya, to the twenty-six industrial slaves sweating in an underground bakehouse, toiling day in, day out, for a pittance, and with souls and bodies worn down by drudgery. She had made her choice, she had allowed her soul to speak, and, the exercise of that choice had set her free. She had defied, it is true, society’s laws, and shown contempt for its hypocritical institutions; and strong in her girlish revolt she faces the insults of her friends, and throws back at them a jibe reminding them that she, after all, is the free soul, they “the miserable prisoners!”
Malva again voices the mute cry of the unhappy being on whom is laid the double burden of industrial and sex slavery. She is the revolted among peasant women, and she knows and proclaims the value of her freedom. “In the village, whether I wished it or no I should have to marry. And a woman once married, is for ever a slave. She must weave and spin, and look after the animals; and bring children into the world. What is there left for herself? Nothing but blows and abuse from her husband.”
“That’s not true that she gets nothing but blows,” replied Vassili.
“Whilst I am here,” she continued, without listening to him, “I belong to no one. I am as free as a sea-gull! I fly wherever pleases me. No one can stop me and no one can interfere with me.”
Tchelkasch thrusting back into the face of the sordid peasant Gavrilo the proceeds of a night of plunder embodies the contempt of the revolted for that Holy of Holies of Society’s institutions “property,” and Ilia in the later novel of “The Three” spitting on the tomb of the vile old moneylender, for whose murder circumstances had combined to make him responsible—each and all of these outcasts, these voluntary outcasts, plays the role of the, stormy petrel in the marvellous little allegory by the same author, glorying in, and foretelling the coming upheaval, the approaching storm. Gorki’s intuition sees further that the very restless energy for evil, the impatience of constraint, the hardening properties in the lowest circles of life should make of this mass of revolt the sharper and more valuable weapon when the moment comes to use it. Bourgeois ideals and bourgeois ways of life must soften the fibre; but where the struggle, is ever pitiful and strenuous, there real and naked souls will be forged, of whose quality in the hour of trial there will be no question. The maunderings of middle-class critics and writers over Gorki’s works would be comic if they were not despicable. Most of them talk of the “mire” and the “slimes” and one can see them metaphorically holding their noses lest a whiff of the unsavoriness should perchance get into their nostrils. One prurient soul exclaims: “Why give us vulgar vice, when we are, inundated with vice disguised to look decent?” To this up-to-date journalist Zaza is, no doubt, cleaner than Malva, because in the former the characters wear Parisian clothing and talk the gutter talk of the boulevards; whereas, in the latter, their clothing is elemental and their talk is that of peasants and fisher folk. Other critics revel in the epithets “squalid,” and “revolting,” “sordid,” “pessimistic,” “the filth of the swine trough,” and “unpleasant themes,” without stopping to think whether it is not much better for the world that Gorki should have written of what he knew, and had felt, and had lived through, than of the imaginary foibles, loves, and moral lapses of people who live in villas and country houses, instead of those who live in slums and hovels. What is, there intrinsically more unpleasant, in the details of the Orloff menage, than in the revelations of middle class, and aristocratic matrimonial infelicity, as given daily in our family newspapers? One, extra, large-minded critic, in a burst of truthfulness exclaims: “But we must not be pharisaical on the subject, and must recognise the fact that such brutal scenes could easily occur in some of our Whitechapel alleys.” This Chauvinist, it would seem, need scarcely have qualified his remarks with “some” or limited the area to Whitechapel; but Gorki’s lurid picture of Russian slum life is relieved by touches of spirituality, by flashes of aspiration, which we may look for in vain in the pictures of vice “disguised to look decent,” which seem to appeal more to the taste of the day.
What, then, is the, supreme virtue, which Gorki, the poet of the tramp and of the criminal, exalts? It is the virtue of energy; the contempt for danger, the courage to think out one’s thoughts to the bitter end, and, if need be, to act on it. He has no illusions himself about the moral worth or otherwise of the ragged heroes whose epic he sings; but he is able to perceive the mingled strand of good and evil which goes to the make-up of all of us, whether prince or peasant, whether dock labourer or duke. He is pre-eminently a human writer, a St. Francis, in his sense of comradeship, and a Shelley in his power of making us feel that
“To suffer wrongs which Hope thinks infinite,
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night,
To defy power which seems omnipotent;
To love and bear, to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.”
DORA B. MONTEFIORE.