“Those human relationships you’re talking about,” said Anosov to me, “are so complex, painful, and mysterious that at times I wonder: Isn’t solitude a real and thus far the only attainable happiness?”
Up till then we have been talking about the case, sensational at the time, of Makarov, a man who shot his wife out of jealousy. Condemning Makarov, I expressed the opinion that human relationships are simple, and a person who has realized this clarity and simplicity will never become an aggressor.
We were traveling by railroad from Tver to Nizhnii. Our acquaintance took place by accident, near a train-station restaurant. I waited to hear what Anosov would say next. This man’s appearance deserves to be described: with a long full beard, high forehead, dark, big eyes, upright stature, and a perpetual smile that expresses a keen interest in an interlocutor, he produced an impression of an extraordinary man, or, as they say in the provinces, “He intrigued me.” He most likely was fifty to fifty-five years old, although he seemed younger due to the liveliness of his conversation and the absence of gray hair.
“Yes,” continued Anosov slowly in his deep voice, looking out the window and stroking his beard with his big, white, ringed hand, “not everyone is able to live with people, in others’ field of vision, running along in a common harness. In order to endure the overwhelming mass of someone else’s interests, cares, ideas, desires, whims, and caprices, constant lies, envy, insincere kindness, pettiness, ostentatious nobility, or—what’s worse—self-complacent nobility; to tolerate accidental and groundless animosity, or what, due to the imperfection of human language, is called ‘instinctive antipathy’—to endure that, one must have a colossal power of resistance. The torrent of other people’s wills rushes to subjugate, humiliate, and enslave a person. It’s fine if this is a person whose inner eyes are shut, blind like the eyes of a statue; he will stand firmly and whole-heartedly on that little pedestal that life has given him. It is also helpful to be someone with a pagan outlook on the world or to place your pursuit of a distant goal as a barrier between you and other people. That preserves the soul as if in a tin can. But there are people who are extremely sensitive to the absurdity of actions transpiring around them—anti-human, even if they appear most trifling at first glance—and who have such a painfully heightened sense of life’s avarice that they, these people, should be protected. You would not readily identify and understand such a person. Most of them perish, or become embittered, or leave.”
“Yes, such is the law of life,” I said, “and such is the lot of the weak.”
“Of the weak? Not at all!” objected Anosov. “A truly weak person cries and complains because his claws are thin. He would willingly take part in a common brawl because he sees life through the eyes of others. Yet those I’m talking about are people who—alas!—were born too early. To them, human relationships are a source of constant suffering, and the realization that evil is a natural event, strange as it might be, increases this suffering to the utmost degree. Perhaps a thousand years from now, when discoveries in the sphere of the human spirit will be made and it will become possible to hear, see, and feel only that which is needed, but not what any stranger would want to bring into our consciousness by means of persuasion or action, then these people’s lives will get easier, for in their minds they have decided a long time ago that a person’s character and soul are beyond evil’s grasp.”
I argued a little, demonstrating that evil is a relative term, just as good is, but in my heart I agreed with Anosov, although not on all issues; for instance, I thought that such people did not exist.
He heard me out carefully and said:
“That is not the point. An evil man will always say that good is a relative term, but a suffering man will never say the same about evil. Right now we are using very primitive and vague terms. That is all right, because by association we invoke a multitude of ideas that swarm around these two notions. But let us get back to our special people. We all are like them to a degree. Isn’t this the reason why, for example, works like Robinson Crusoe enjoy such vast, such true success—because the idea of a sorrowful, beautiful liberty, of a departure from human vice is combined in them with a special exertion of human spiritual and physical strength. If you remember, the appearance of Friday weakens our interest in the story; the particular charm of Robinson’s life fades, because he is no longer merely Robinson, but is becoming ‘Robinson-Friday.’ What is there to say about the lives of populated countries where at every turn, at any given moment, you are not your own individual person, but a combination of yourself and everyone you come across, who, by the worthless but terrible power of an accidental movement—a smirk, a shrug of the shoulder, a hand gesture—may arrest all of your attention, even though you wish to turn it in a different direction. This is a minor example, but I’m not yet talking about matters pertaining to society as a whole. People live in this state of incredible dependence on each other, but had they fully comprehended it, the without a doubt their words, conversations, gestures, actions, and their attitude towards each other would have become thoughtful, careful; they would have become the actions of a reasoning man.
“Recently, in one of the weekly magazines, I read a story of two adolescents. A young brother and a sister spent a summer together on a small island, in some meadows; the girl played the role of a housewife, and the boy obtained provisions with his fishing rod and a rifle; there was nobody else on the island. The interviewer who visited them was probably biting his lips in order not to smile when the little owners of the island declared that they were having a good life there and that they were quite content. Of course, they were children of rich parents. But I see them just as they were depicted in a picture printed next to the article: they are standing at the water’s edge, holding hands, in the grass, squinting their eyes. I like this picture very much because of a dim idea that it expresses of what is desirable in human relationships.”
He leaned forward, as if asking me with his glance what my thoughts were on the matter.
“I wonder,” I said, “if a different form of protection, other than an island or a monastery, is available.”
“Yes,” said Anosov readily, “but rarely, more rarely than a thunderstorm in early spring, do we come across people who are fully aware of their own human dignity, calm but uncompromising, courageous but remote in their understanding from primeval forms of life. I’ve mentioned their attributes; they, without even thinking to turn the other cheek for a blow, never break off their relationships with people; but a shadow of sorrow that clamped the brave seaman’s heart during the blessed, radiant, sunny days of Robinson’s blooming island, is cast upon them, and they always remain in the shadow. ‘When janissaries, having taken Constantinople, were slashing people under the dome of Hagia Sophia—legend has it—a priest walked up to a wall, and the stones, parted by mysterious power, concealed him from the spectacle of bloody massacre. He will come out when the mosque becomes a temple.’ This is just a legend, but what is not a legend is the fact that sooner or later a day will come for people who stand in the shadow; they will come out of the shadow into the bright light, and nobody will slander them.
As I was pondering his words, I envisioned a sorrowful Robinson on a seashore in the quiet of his thoughts.
Anosov said, “I wish to tell you something. But perhaps you have little interest in the topic?”
“No,” I said, “what can be more interesting than the human soul?”
“In 1911, I had a chance to meet an extraordinary man. I was waiting on Trinity Bridge to continue my journey. I had spent half the night sitting with other people who had no night’s lodging. I, like them, was dozing on a bench on the bridge, with my head drooping down and my hands between my knees.
“Dozing off and on, in a dream I saw all the temptations that fill this world, and my hungry mouth, full of saliva, awakened me. I woke up, stood up, made up my mind and—I confess—I started weeping. I still loved life, yet life was pushing me away with both hands.
“It was terrifying to stand by the railing. It was like being on a deserted scaffolding. The summer night, illuminated by lanterns and stars, surrounded me with cold, indifferent silence. I looked down and thrust myself forward, but, to my great surprise, fell back on the pavement. Then a strong hand, painfully squeezing my shoulder, made me stand up on my feet, released me, and slowly shook its finger at me.
“Stunned, I quietly looked at the shaking finger and then decided to look at the person who was standing between the river and me. It was a bearded and solidly built man with a fatigued, calm demeanor, in a black hooded cloak and hat.
“‘Wait a while,’ he said. ‘I want to talk to you. Are you disappointed?’
“‘And have been for a long time?’
“‘Yes … for two days.’
“‘Come with me.’
“Naturally, I obeyed. He silently walked to the embankment and called a carriage. We sat down and were off. I was just about to introduce myself and explain my situation when, startled, I heard quiet, steady, and deep laughter. My companion was laughing joyfully, from his heart, as adults laugh when they see a child’s amusing trick.
“‘Don’t be surprised,’ he said when he finished laughing. ‘It is funny to me that you and many others would starve when there is so much food and money in the world.’
“‘Yes, in the world, but not in my hands.’
“‘I cannot find work.’
“‘Oh, nonsense! Charity is a word like any other. As long as you don’t have a job, ask—calmly, prudently, and convincingly, without despising yourself. There are two parties involved in any request—a beggar and a giver, and the will of the giver will remain with him—he can give or not give; it is a simple bargain, nothing more.’
“‘Forgive me!’ I retorted with bitterness. ‘But you know how lonely, dumb-witted, cruel-hearted, and malicious towards each other people are.’
“‘What are you talking about then?’
“‘Don’t pay attention to that.’
“The carriage stopped. We crossed the courtyard, went up to the fourth floor, and my benefactor pressed the button of a doorbell. I found myself in a modest, cozy, rather simple, and ordinary apartment. A woman and a dog greeted us. The woman was as calm as her husband, who brought me there. Her face and shape were typical of all healthy, young, pretty women; I am speaking about my impression. A tranquil Newfoundland dog, a tranquil woman, and the tranquil owner of the apartment all seemed to be very happy creatures; that is how it was indeed.
“Calmly, like an old, familiar guest, I sat down at the table with them and ate. The dog too sat down right there, on the floor. Having satisfied my hunger, I got up, and then listened to my rescuer’s explanation of life.
“‘A man needs to always know, Mr. Suicide, that no one needs him in this world except for his beloved woman and a true friend. Consider each of them. You will not find a better friend than a dog. Women—you will not find anyone better than a woman you love. And so, all three are one. Consider that out of all the bliss in the world, you can take so much and at the same time so little—in the eyes of others. Leave the others alone, for in truth, neither they need you, nor you them. This is not egoism, but a sense of self-worth. In the entire world, I have one favorite poet, one artist, and one musician, and each one of them has one work that to me is the best: Godard’s Second Waltz, Edgar Allan Poe’s poem ‘For Annie,’ and Rembrandt’s portrait of his wife. That is enough for me; no one will trade the best for the worst. Now tell me, where is the horror of life? It exists, but it does not touch me. I am in a shell that is more impregnable than an armadillo’s plates. So much is required to attain this that it is available to anyone—one just needs to keep silent. And then no one will offend you and no one will strike you in your heart, because evil is powerless before your wealth. I live on a hundred rubles a month.’
“‘Egoism or not,’ I said, ‘but one first needs to get to that point.’
“‘It is necessary. It is very easy to get lost in the enormous evil of the world, and then nothing will save you. Take ten rubles; I cannot give you any more.’
“And I saw that he truly could not give me more, and simply, as calmly as he gave it to me, I took the money. I left with faith in my ability to stand up against hostile life with silence and composure. Absit omen! Get away!”
By Alexander Grin
translated, from the Russian, by Katya Jordan
Katya Jordan is a Ph.D. candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Virginia. Her research deals with questions of visual perception and instances of intercultural miscommunication. Alexander Grin (1880-1932) was a Russian writer whose work emerged outside Russia’s mainstream literature yet is enjoyed by adolescents and adults alike. His stories and adventure novels are about ordinary people who struggle with loneliness and rejection, dare to dream, and see the exotic in the ordinary.