an American's Reflections - Stephen Lapeyrouse’s website

Argument with an Arch-Slavophile

Wisdom lies solely in truth – this is a saying which is associated with Goethe. I, having lived for years in the luxuriant growth of California’s idealisms (leftist, hippie, new age, etc.), was over time forced to the kindred, but more prosaic formulation: the world must be deeply, correctly, and well understood, before it can be saved. Neither European socialist utopian visions, nor California spiritual dreams of a pending paradisiacal “Age of Aquarius”, have revealed themselves to have much of anything to do with “reality” – the realities of mankind (good and evil), history, society, nature, …

Man cannot live without meaning, without ideas – the English word “meaning”, like the words “man” and “mind”, root in the Indo-European mens-, thought, to think (from whence Russian мудрость also) – even if the creature tries to, with “bread alone”, with, currently, television, Hollywood, hedonism, drugs, wealth, or utopian visions, living “naturally”, etc.

When I wrote my book Towards the Spiritual Convergence of America and Russia – American Mind and Russian Soul, American Individuality and Russian Community, and the Potent Alchemy of National Characteristics (1990) – which belongs in the Romantic historical and philosophical tradition, and joins, among other works, that of Walter Schubart’s Russia and Western Man (1938), I wrote that I wished that I knew the “Russian Soul” more than the limited experience I had been able to have as a tourist. When I at first experienced it, in the Soviet time still, it – the “Russian Soul” – could, at times, reveal intense flaming emotions; it sometimes revealed intriguing flights of fascinating insights, ideas, imaginations, pictures, intuitions, etc., . . . many quite different from the often much more profoundly prosaic reasoning and ideas common to the “Western” mind. To those of us “Westerners” who could appreciate it, the “Russian Soul” was indeed strange, intriguing, mysterious and, at times, even magical; the possible unreality, or fantasy character of the “Russian Soul” and its ideas, we perhaps tended in part to understand as a sort of psychological compensation for the heavy, dour, dull, routine and controlled life under the Soviet system. Whether it was like a prison, a vast underground labor camp (Brodsky), or a sort of enforced socialist “monastery” here at that time, the oft-mentioned and -heralded “inner freedom” had to exist in some world…and that often seemed to be a world of inner idealism and fantasy.

Perhaps, as I now see it more clearly with five years experience, no outer world or life is satisfactory to the “Russian Soul” – for those in whom it is fulsome: if the idealized “Old Holy Russia” is acceptable, perhaps not the state-control of the Soviet Union, and surely not the new “happiness” offered Hollywood and McDonald’s culture. Dante was said to walk the streets of his city-of-exile Ravenna, with a stern, solitary, unhappy mien. It seems to me that some of the more ardent “Slavophiles” can only accept and endure a society composed of “Dantes”; either that, or they demand life to be a “paradiso”, or an “inferno”! But if the realities of humanity and life are nice (nescience, no knowledge) and mediocre (medius + ocris “half way up the mountain”), … what can a purist Russophile or Slavophile do but reject it as … vulgar? (пошлость?), offensive?, inadequate?, empty?, base?, bourgeois?, etc.

If, as in the nineteenth-century, the Slavophiles critiqued of the European West that the mind there tended to be rational, soulless, abstract, individualized, materialistic, . . . I have, at times, noted an exaggerated, reality-rejecting emotional effusiveness, in the late twentieth century, in which the “Russian Soul” seems to prefer its own glorious, righteous indignation (these days against the “barbarism” of American culture and imperialism, rather than e.g. the bourgeois life of Western Europe), to much of any serious acceptance of the ambiguities, the admixtures of good and evil, moral and immoral, divine and earthly, noble and ignoble, great and trivial, … of the real world and man – Western and Russia.

Here it, in some aspects, tends to being “Oriental” – as, for example, in the Hindu denial of any other than an ephemeral passing nature of life and this world (maya), and the desire and escape into the stable, permanent and pure world of the ultimate Transcendental Self (Brahman) – rather than “Occidental” – as in the seminal Zoroastrianism, wherein the struggle between the divine and demonic, light and dark, good and evil, in man, takes place in daily, incarnated existence in the world. As Goethe wrote in a line in his poem “Legacy of Old Persian Lore”: Difficult duty daily done (Schwerer Dienste tägliche Bewahrung).

The point I wish to make is that if the “Russian Soul” does not want to be merely emotionally satisfying and satisfied, in its righteous indignation and clever condemnation of . . . (in this time) Washington, D. C.’s imperialism, Harvard’s economics, or Hollywood’s “culture”, of the growing businessman’s global civilization, values and lifestyle – earlier London was to blame? – then it should attempt to come to a more realistic understanding and assessment of the ambiguous realities of the world, among the first of which could be a realistic acceptance that the great majority of Russians seldom have much, or perhaps want much, of the “Russian Soul”, and Slavophile visions. The majority of Russians, as now seems clear to me to see, prefer American movies and McDonald’s, to Russian social austerity or monasteries. They are passive, dormant, almost children. Putting one’s hopes in the good, noble, pure Russian masses – is illusory, as the foundation of some ideal vision of a possible society.

A realistic recognition of their condition is needed. And if they prefer the bourgeois life, McDonald’s, Hollywood, etc. – to noble striving, social justice and solidarity, austerity, etc., then what is the reality of any post-Soviet neo-Slavophile vision of society? To speak about the wonderful, essentially pure Russian people – as if they were merely corrupted by some “fifth column”, or the machinations of America, or the Freemasons, is not a sufficiently realistic assessment of the situation. I repeat what I have said and written often before: the “Grand Inquisitor” was, and is, a good psychologist, and the desire of and satisfaction with Hollywood and Disneyland shows this!

And your “leadership” here in Russia is so criminal – they make the US Congress look like virtuous saints! These are the hard facts of life, over which Slavophiles have little control at all. Some Russians claim, and have been said by others in the West, to be at core a Christian people. Well, the “intelligentsia”, in its ideas to reconstitute the good, moral, ideal society, should recall Golgotha, and the words: My Kingdom is not of this world. But this is not Hindu – it is sacrifice for the higher life in this world. (Sacrifice is from Latin for “to make sacred”.)

We have an expression in America for people with illusory ideas, ideals, and solutions to problems: they have their head in the clouds (or sky). I have heard ardent, intelligent Slavophiles, whose emotions were so strong that the mere structures and facts of the reality they were critiquing – and correcting! – were distorted, forgotten, bent, manipulated, etc. It is, as we say in the USA, “a free world” – Slavophiles can live in as self-satisfying an inner fantasy, critical insight, and emotional philosophy of mankind, Russian society and people, etc., as California’s “new age gurus”. It is a much more “difficult duty” to have a realistic assessment, and life!, amidst the realities of the world and man. Again: the world must be deeply, correctly, and well understood, before it can be saved.

This is something of what I, as an American, would say to those Russians who carry the “Russian Soul” strongly. Glorious, righteous, deep, and clever emotions and insights are not enough, nor adequate. Or this is my argument; and why I wrote in my book of “Russian Soul” and “American Mind” – as two parts of the whole human being, needing “convergence”.

And I want to say it this way: we all live sub specie aeternitatis, and sic transit gloria mundi.

Those Slavophiles and Russophiles, who tend to a mostly emotional critique and self-righteous condemnation of the West – be that the USA, the banks and business, etc., – seem to me to have no realistic alternative idea of man and society, and thus may be said to be in this sense “Oriental”. It is an escape into their reality- and world-transcending ideal society. Which reminds me of a line from V. S. Solovyov’s poem “Ex Oriente Lux” concerning Russia: what kind of Orient do you wish to be/the Orient of Xerxes or that of Christ?

A noble, incarnated life, exemplarily lived (and not with one’s heated head in the sky) sub specie aeternitatis. As John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson on December 3, 1813, quoting Horace (Epistulae, I. 6. 67): If you know of anything better than these maxims, candidly share them. I am an American in Russia who seeks, and probably fails, to understand Russia, and sometimes doesn’t even believe (Tyutchev) in Russia – but this seems to me now, as a solitary but serious independent scholar, to be the position which the “intelligentsia” can take in this troubled world. Such will hardly invent a new telephone, pay the rent, nor even philosophically raise a baby – but man is the creature that cannot live without meaning, and I have not been able to uncover any other, than is the essence of these sincere, if inadequate, words.


2001 (unpublished)