Saturday, September 11, 2010

we exist only in order to teach some great lesson

The other day I was telling a friend about a book by Petr Chaadaev (described as "a major figure in Russian cultural history") and assumed it was still available at the link where I once blogged it. But, like much of the material that at one time was free for all to share, it's now gone, occluded, presumably, behind some mercantile copyright bulwark. Chaadaev's book was sufficiently displeasing to the regime that he was eventually distinguished with the honor of being adjudicated insane.

The portion of the book in which it has found its way into English is excised (along with much else) from Google Books. (We decry control of "free"speech, but support its effects everywhere.)

This "path" the Web is taking is really not so different from the itinerary Chaadaev describes in this fragment of letter 1: "We move through time in such a singular manner that, as we advance, the past is lost to us forever."

Here's what's left, from here:

It is one of the most deplorable traits of our strange civilization that we are still discovering truths that are commonplace even among peoples much less advanced than we. This is because we have never moved in concert with the other peoples. We are not a part of any of the great families of the human race; we are neither of the West nor of the East, and we have not the traditions of either. We stand, as it were, outside of time, the universal education of mankind has not touched us.
Look around you. Everyone seems to have one foot in the air. One would think that we are all in transit. No one has a fixed sphere of existence; there are no proper habits, no rules that govern anything. We do not even have homes; there is nothing to tie us down, nothing that arouses our sympathies and affections, nothing enduring, nothing lasting. Everything passes, flows away, leaving no trace either outside or within us. In our homes, we are like guests; to our families, we are like strangers; and in our cities we seem like nomads, more so than those who wander our steppes, for they are more attached to their deserts than we are to our towns...
Our memories reach back no further than yesterday; we are, as it were, strangers to ourselves. We move through time in such a singular manner that, as we advance, the past is lost to us forever. That is but a natural consequence of a culture that consists entirely of imports and imitation. Among us there is no internal development, no natural progress; new ideas sweep out the old, because they are not derived from the old but tumble down upon us from who knows where. We absorb all our ideas ready-made, and therefore the indelible trace left in the mind by a progressive movement of ideas, which gives it strength, does not shape our intellect. We grow, but we do not mature; we move, but along a crooked path, that is, one that does not lead to the desired goal. We are like children who have not been taught to think for themselves: when they become adults, they have nothing of their their own--all their knowledge is on the surface of their being, their soul is not within them. That is precisely our situation
Peoples, like individuals, are moral beings. Their education takes centuries, as it takes years for that of persons. In a way, one could say that we are an exception among peoples. We are one of those nations, which do not seem to be an integral part of the human race, but exist only in order to teach some great lesson to the world.

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Blogger jonhusband said...

Beautifully written passage, and oh so bleak and full of wonder.

9/20/2010 4:12 PM  

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