LEV SHESTOV \ Speculation and Revelation

Mikhail Gershenzon

In Memory of Mikhail Osipovich Gershenzon

And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.


Published in "Sovremenniye zapiski", no. 24 (1925)


     It is difficult, enormously difficult, to write and speak about a man who yesterday was still among us but who today, by an inscrutable law of fate, is no longer in our midst and whom we are therefore compelled to call dead. The ancient words of farewell, "de mortuis aut nihil, aut bene," are of no help. To eulogize is not difficult - especially when the departed was such an outstanding man and accomplished so much as Mikhail Osipovich Gershenzon. But conscience does not permit us to eulogize; conscience tells us ever again that men have devised their memorial addresses and this kind of procedure in relation to the dead only in order not to have to concern oneself with them any more, in order to have the right no longer to remember them, and in order to bury not only their mortal remains but their spirit as well. Whenever you would like to express a word of praise, something restrains you. It seems that you feel directed at yourself the reproachful glance of the departed who, as it were, wordlessly says: you, too, have accepted the obviousness; you, too, have resigned yourself to it and extol, in order not to dispute them, my merits, that which has remained behind me, while you deliver me to the power of death and annihilation.

     If one could write a requiem, this would not be so offensive to the deceased! But it is given to only a few to compose requiems. Should one attempt to carry on conversations with the dead? M.O. Gershenzon has left behind him his books. One can grasp these, listen to his voice anew. And, perhaps, one can dare even more: one can attempt to guess what he now says, what he now thinks, about that which disturbed and agitated him when he was still, like ourselves, separated through the limitation of his mortal being from the final mystery. This is the only tribute which the deceased, if all things do not deceive us, would agree to accept from us without anger in place of a requiem. And indeed not because we shall guess his new thoughts. We shall hardly guess them - we who so badly penetrate even into the thoughts of those who still live among us. But we hope that he will forgive us our ineptitude - even if only because we did not consent to deliver him to the power of death.

     I read through again, I listened again to three small books of the deceased: Klyuch Veri (Key to Faith), Golfstrem (Gulfstream), and Perepiska iz Dvukh Uglov (Exchange of Letters From Two Corners of a Room). All three books were written at almost the same time, in the last years of his life. All three are also on the same theme. Exchange of Letters is the earliest and smallest of them; here Gershenzon appeared only as author by half, insofar as he responded to letters addressed to him by Vyacheslav Ivanov. Nevertheless the ten or so letters of Gershenzon printed in this little book give us immeasurably much; they teach us how to read both Key to Faith and Gulfstream. Perhaps they will also teach us how to read other books dealing with the first and last things.

     The exchange of correspondence was initiated by Ivanov. The first words of his first letter would seem at once to define the theme of the epistolary exchange. Ivanov writes, "I know, dear friend and neighbor in the corner of our common room, that you have been assailed by doubts about personal immortality and a personal God." It must be assumed that Ivanov had "sufficient grounds" to address such words to his roommate. Surely they began to correspond with one another after they had conversed much and long and only when they became convinced that it was impossible to converse any longer.

     Why was it impossible? Perhaps for the same reason that, in Dostoevsky, Shatov and Kirilov could not speak to one another: after all, the Bolshevist sanatorium was only slightly different from that American barn in which these heroes of The Possessed lived. But, as we shall see immediately, not only because of this. Gershenzon replies to Ivanov, "No, I do not doubt personal immortality and I know, just like you, that personality is a vessel of true reality. But it seems to me that one should neither speak nor think about these things."

     Ivanov cannot agree with this. He defends with conviction and persistence his right not only to think but to speak about everything. However, the more and better he speaks - and Ivanov is a master of eloquence - the more obdurately does Gershenzon refuse to listen to him. Now and again it seems that he is on the point of betraying the vow of restraint he has taken upon himself and, as Verlaine once did, crying out aloud: "Prends l'éloquence et tords lui son cou." In the last letters the mutual irritation of the friends and neighbors in the room already becomes perfectly obvious. Whatever Ivanov may say, Gershenzon answers, "No, that is not the thing. Beautiful, marvelously expressed, but that is not the thing. Not this is what I will remember in the hour of death and Not this will I need in the difficult, fateful moments of life." With such "criteria" in his soul does Gershenzon listen to the enchanting speeches of Ivanov - and the magic evaporates, the magical wand loses its wonder-working power. Ivanov cannot forgive his friend for his "obstinacy" and begins finally to abuse him; he calls him a "Russian intellectual," "one who runs away" (all these are very powerful swear words in lvanov's mouth), reproaches his "lack of memory," etc. Herewith ends the exchange of letters: the friends cannot come to an agreement on anything.


     Exchange of Letters Between Two Corners of a Room dates from the year 1920. And in the year 1922 the two books I have already mentioned, Key to Faith and Gulfstream, appeared. If the friends again found themselves in the sanatorium in 1922 and it occurred to them to continue their correspondence, Ivanov had to repudiate the most important points - indeed, all points - of his accusation. Gershenzon, as it turns out, had a memory - indeed, a superb memory. Ivanov reached back only to ancient Egypt; it appeared to him as the boundary behind which history ends for man. But Gershenzon, basing himself on the data of philology, endeavored to penetrate still further into deep antiquity, i.e., into so-called prehistorical times.

     Gershenzon also turns out to be not guilty of "Rousseauism;" far from striving for the adoption of the "simple life," he appears before us fully armed with modern scholarship and speaks with true love about his own "ideas" and those of others. Ivanov, who proudly declared about himself that he was just as much a European as a Russian, had to recognize his opponent of not long before as like-minded. And this would perhaps have been for him the supreme triumph; after all he thought only of forcing, or as he cautiously said, of bringing his friend to a "voluntary acceptance" of those ideas that he had worked out during the long years of his literary activity.

     Ivanov is a patient man (not for nothing does he call himself a European); he is always prepared to grant his friend freedom in the choice of ideas. The only thing that was unbearable for him was Gershenzon's readiness "to throw himself into Lethe, so that the remembrance of all religions and philosophical systems, of all sciences, art, and poetry would slip away without a trace from his soul." Ivanov cannot forgive Gershenzon such a striving.

     It is not only with Ivanov, I think, that matters are so; no person of Contemporary culture will permit this kind of freedom to his neighbor. Indeed, is this actually freedom? Even more: was such freedom necessary to Gershenzon? Was Ivanov not justified in saying to Gershenzon, pointing to Key to Faith and Gulfstream, "You who dreamed of freeing yourself from philosophical systems, sciences, arts, have returned to all of them and cling to them just as firmly as I, to whom you do not wish to listen"?

     Key to Faith is an attempt to make the Bible accessible to modern man; Gulfstream is an attempt to bring modern thought into connection with one of the oldest philosophical systems, that of Heraclitus. Gershenzon knows that not only the Bible but Heraclitus as well are only splendid ruins for the person who stands at the height of the newest results of science - ruins that one can well marvel at from a distance but that, at the first contact with the "strict" demands of criticism, crumble into dust. And that, consequently, if one did not give Heraclitus a new interpretation and if one did not adapt the Bible to the experiences and demands of our thinking, no one would begin to take them into consideration. However, one must under all circumstances compel men to take into consideration not only Heraclitus but also the Bible and even the God of the Bible. But if so, it is necessary to "justify," to demonstrate that the Bible, as well as the God of the Bible, do not offend those conceptions about the true and the good that are proposed among us as eternally immutable. "I would like to relate," Gershenzon declares to us already at the end of the first chapter of Key to Faith, "how, in the form of the Old Testament God, the universal God of mankind lived, suffered, and completed His world-embracing work."


     We leave Heraclitus aside; in a brief essay there is no possibility of dealing exhaustively with everything that Gershenzon thought about in the last years of his life. Especially as even one who reads in haste may easily note that Gershenzon's fundamental theme, his most cherished thoughts and deepest expectations, no matter how highly he revered Heraclitus, are connected with the God of the Bible. And so I now ask: What must come of these thoughts when, as Gershenzon expresses himself, what is needed is to see and demonstrate in the God of the Old Testament the universal God of mankind? We heard from him that when he was living in the sanatorium, the importunate demands of the contemporary truths that he had absorbed disturbed and irritated him above all else. He accepted nothing of that about which Ivanov told him so eloquently, because he felt that in the fateful moments of his life he would not need this and that in the hour of death he would not remember it.

     Is it possible that he forgot this, is it possible that it seemed to him he would remember in the hour of death the "universal God of mankind," i.e., the biblical God who so transformed Himself that everyone at every time and every place is always able to recognize Him? And that, above all, contemporary man, who, as is known, does not and will not think about the hour of death and does not believe in the pathos of fateful experiences, will know God and, as people today are accustomed to say, find Him a God who corresponds to his ideals?

     The most striking thing is this: Gershenzon, this superb expert in history, appears in no way to notice that, when he sets himself the goal of transforming the biblical God into a "universally human God," he only continues an enterprise begun long ago, very long ago, by men. Already from the first centuries of our era, i.e., from the moment the Bible became the property of the Greco-Roman world of culture, educated men strove to transform the biblical God into a universally human God, i.e., to remove from His image all those traits that are not compatible with the ideas of cultured men about the all-perfect being. This striving obtained a special sharpness and a unique expression in the doctrine of the Gnostics, mainly in the doctrine of Marcion.

     Marcion directed all of the power of his immense intellect and extraordinary talent to the end of persuading the young Christian church that was then in process of formation to renounce the Old Testament. He taught that the God of the Old Testament is not the real God and that the world created by Him is not the real world. Marcion's efforts, as is known, were not crowned with success; the church did not reject the Old Testament. Nevertheless, his ideas left profound traces in history. In the invisible, hidden, innermost recesses even of believing souls the suspicion lodged itself that the Old Testament ought not to be included in Holy Scripture and that the God of the Old Testament must sooner or later be rejected.

     In our days this fact that remained secret for so long became manifest. Not long ago there appeared a book by one of the foremost experts in the history of Christianity, Adolph von Harnack - that same Harnack who spoke so much and was so indignant about the "hellenizing of Christianity" i.e., about the triumph of the Hellenic spirit over the biblical in Christianity. However, in this book, dedicated to Marcion, Harnack began to speak quite differently. He declares publicly that Marcion was right and that if the church rejected him in the first centuries this was the result of historical necessity. if the Reformation likewise did not accept him, a decree of fate must be seen in this. If, however, the Protestants of our time do not follow him, then a paralysis of their religious will comes to expression therein.

     Harnack demands that the Protestants exclude the Old Testament from the canonical books of Holy Scripture. For, repeating Marcion's "Hellenic" criticism, he explains that the Old Testament speaks of a God who does not correspond to the conceptions of cultured people about a "supreme principle." Harnack, instructed in this by Marcion, refuses, as you see, to make the God of the Bible "more agreeable" through interpretation. He demands, in opposition to Pascal, that every man should openly declare that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not God and that God must be sought where, according to our conviction, the truth may be found - among the scholars, philosophers, moralists, but not in the old book that was so carefully preserved through the course of centuries by a small, ignorant people standing at a side from the great highway of history.


     It may at first glance appear that Gershenzon strove for the same thing as Harnack. In Key to Faith he seems to busy himself with one thing only: to tell about the Bible in such a way that all people shall be convinced that Yahweh was a "universal God," a God who may be justified before the tribunal of our reason. In the first chapters of Key to Faith he relates, no worse than Marcion, how little the God of the Pentateuch corresponds to the conceptions of a perfect being. It is true - and this must not be overlooked, for it reveals to us the meaning of Key to Faith - that we do not hear in his criticism of the Old Testament that tone of agitation, indignation, and even contempt in which Marcion's pathos came to expression and which also breaks through in Harnack, despite the fact that the latter endeavors in every way to preserve the impartiality of the learned historian. Gershenzon loves with his whole heart and his whole soul the God Yahweh whom he subjects to such strict criticism. Nevertheless, when he appears before the public with his Key to Faith, he is constrained to admit that his love insufficiently "justified" God, that it is still necessary that "reason" - what we, following Marcion and his Hellenic teachers, call reason - should justify God.

     So, for instance, remembering the myth of Jacob's struggle with God, Gershenzon writes: "I do not venture to explain individual characteristics of this myth - let everyone look at them himself." But now, immediately after these reverential words, he comments on Exodus 4:24 - 26: "In these cyclopean images of the ancient folk fantasy the kernel of the Jewish religion lay hidden as in a hard shell; when the shell disintegrated, the kernel sprouted." When you read these lines you immediately guess what will come of this, you feel how the Hellenic "criteria" stole imperceptibly into Gershenzon's consciousness and slowly but surely began their work of destruction. When it could not be otherwise, the "criteria" also seduced Gershenzon to an inexact exposition of the biblical narrative. In the Bible it is said, "You may eat freely of every tree in the garden. But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat; for on the day that you eat thereof you will surely die" (Genesis 2:16 - 1 7). So it is said in the Bible; but reason, which will never reconcile itself to the idea that the fruits of the knowledge of good and evil, i.e., its own fruits, are death-bringing, suggests to the author of Key to Faith that God also "forbade" eating of the fruits of the tree of life. Without this distortion, without the assumption that God not only took away from man the knowledge of good and evil but also closed to him the sources of life, it is impossible to carry through a "rational" criticism of Holy Scripture. Therefore, Gershenzon does not dwell on the account of the fall into sin but only touches it in passing, as if he wished thereby to emphasize our right to choose from the Eternal Book only what appears to us comprehensible and acceptable and to abandon or reinterpret what presents itself as incomprehensible and unacceptable. And he continues this way so long until it begins to appear to him that the old book is already completely cleansed from "prejudices" and "superstitions" and may venture in this form to step before the tribunal of contemporary man.

     Thus Gershenzon writes in explanation of the first lines of Psalm I, "Happy is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the wicked": "The believing man is distinguished from the unbelieving by the character of his spiritual life; in the believer spiritual life takes place according to law; that is why every feeling and every thought of his is real, compact, concrete - and all of them are settled in a harmonious order, so that externally also beauty and success result." When Gershenzon speaks about Jeremiah, who (6:19) calls the destruction brought by God upon the Jews "the fruit of their devices," or when he speaks about the punishments with which Joshua (23:12-13) threatened Israel, he considers it necessary to bring forth explanations of the following kind: "It is immediately clear to us how these people understood the law of retribution; without any doubt, in their primordial, pure form, before folk superstition settled itself as a crust over it, this belief was thoroughly transparent. It expressed nothing other than a psychological law drawn from experience and comprehensible to all. God's punishment does not fall upon the sinner from outside - it arises in the sinner himself... Punishment is not a miracle but the natural fruit of the spirit darkened by godlessness." Or when he dwells on such expression of the Bible as "to fear God," "to walk before the countenance of God," he proposes the following interpretation: "The meaning of all these terms is one: renunciation of personal will. God requires only one thing - self-renunciation... On the contrary, the only sin of man is to live according to his own will." And, as a conclusion from all this: "Such is God's unalterable will - in other words, such is the preestablished law of the world... Personality as arbitrary will must be extinguished and become the recipient and executor of the divine commandment." And still more: "The world will, in any case, finally conquer personality, i.e., perfectly inculcate its will in man; the triumph of objective reason over personal consciousness and self-will is inevitable. And this will be the Kingdom of God on earth that was proclaimed by the prophets."

     At the very end of the book - as if in summation of all the foregoing reflections - we read: "That which is is phantom and falsehood, only the momentary view of the becoming, mysteriously predetermined life; in that which is it is not the given but the tendency, the ought, that is real. Hence, the world is a regularly and unalterably self-realizing design, or, in the terminology of the old myth, the design of God." The closer he comes to the end of the book the more Gershenzon's thinking merges with "universally human thinking," i.e., precisely with that in which Ivanov also perceived the last word of wisdom. Everyone who is even only slightly familiar with the newest philosophical tendencies will easily recognize in the above-quoted extracts from Key to Faith (I have italicized the expressions that are especially characteristic), as well as in Ivanov's letters addressed to Gershenzon, traits of Fichte's ethical idealism that rules so unrestrainedly over the minds of our contemporaries - the Fichte who, as is known, in order to please his Hellenic teachers, laid all of Holy Scripture into the first verse of the Fourth Gospel.

     When Ivanov offered Gershenzon an ethical idealism clothed in self-made but very lovely state garments, Gershenzon turned away from his preaching in rage and called him a siren. But when he himself had to come forth in the capacity of a teacher, he submitted meekly to his fate and began to interpret the Bible with such words as if Harnack's prophecies were already fulfilled and as if the right to the authentic interpretation of Holy Scripture belonged to Marcion alone. To put it differently: all "religions, philosophical systems, sciences, arts, etc.," the memory of which so oppressed his soul and of which, upon listening to the splendid speeches of his friend and comrade in the sanatorium, he sought so passionately to rid himself, again obtained power over him.

     Key to Faith, if one takes it literally, stands in "glaring contradiction" to those thoughts that Gershenzon expressed in Exchange of Letters. Usually glaring contradictions disturb us and incite in us a suspicious attitude toward the person who is "exposed" in them. And it may be that a future historian of literature who will have to clarify Gershenzon's world outlook will, with sorrow or perplexity or - in case he is inimically disposed toward him, with gloating triumph - set Key to Faith over against Exchange of Letters. But for us, once we make the effort to listen to Gershenzon now, when he is no longer in our midst, contradictions acquire a different meaning and a different value. We recall the feeling words of Ecclesiastes: "The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it" (12:17). The earthly way of teaching will remain on earth, and on earth the Bible will be read under the guidance of the Hellenic wise men and the Marcions, Fichtes, and Harnacks who came forth from them.

     Here on earth, as Mikhail Osipovich Gershenzon wrote to Vyacheslav Ivanov, one "must neither speak nor think" about the real Bible. For if you begin to speak or even to think - thinking, after all, as Plato taught, is an inaudible conversation of the soul with itself - then that rut in which persons who have tasted the fruits of the forbidden tree move is under no circumstances to be avoided. But there, whither Gershenzon has now returned, one must both reflect and speak about everything. There he will also read the Bible as it was read in ancient times. There his impulse, which appears to everyone so uncultured and therefore blameworthy and even senseless, to wash out our knowledge from the soul and to come out on the shore naked, like the first man - there this impetuous impulse, which may perhaps also be called the presentiment of a clairvoyant, will find its justification or, to say it better, has already found it. After all, the first man, who still had not tasted the fruits of the tree of knowledge, was free of all our rational criteria without whose blessing we do not dare to accept God, even when we love Him with our whole heart and our whole soul, as the deceased Mikhail Osipovich loved Him.

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