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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

the cost of making universal history

Silly fools, it is my glory, for that is where the truth lies…The reason for the Underground is the destruction of our belief in certain general rules. “Nothing is sacred.”
- Dostoevsky, quoted by Aileen Kelly in Irony and Utopia in Herzen and Doestoevsky, the Russian Review,1991.

When the Czar’s police arrested Herzen in 1834, they impounded his papers, including an article on Hoffmann. Many of those papers were lost, but the Hoffmann article eventually was published. In it, Herzen accused Hoffmann of opting for an internal exile to a past that never existed. For Herzen, the perfect Hoffmann anecdote is of the man directing an orchestra in 1812 in Warsaw while Napoleon was invading Russia; Herzen takes a remark he made at the time to mean that he was either ignorant of or indifferent to Napoleon invading Russia.

As I’ve tried to show, this image of Hoffmann, the autistic creepy gnome, is not true. Herzen obviously did not know of Hoffmann’s experience in Dresden, since he couldn't have read Hoffmann's journal - as we can now - and Herzen seems unaware of the essay about the Dresden battlefield. However, Herzen should have known that Hoffmann mounted a fight against political repression as a judge in Berlin in the 1820s that could have landed him in jail. However unfair Herzen's judgment, what is important here is the slant of the criticism, which echoes Heine’s judgment about the second wave of German Romantics. (I get these details from Michel Mervaud's series of articles on Herzen) This was no accident. Just as Hoffmann’s works had an enormous effect on Russian writers – on, most notably, Gogol – Heine’s criticism of what he took to be its political retardation (symptoms: a high degree of fantasy; nostalgia for magic; the elevation of private over public life) also had an effect in Russia.



It seems to be Herzen’s fate in the English speaking world that he is taken up partly because he seems like the anti-Marx – possessing Marx’s genius for polemic while holding out for the place of individual genius in this sublunary world. Thus, Tom Stoppard, Isaiah Berlin, and Aileen Kelly have taken up the cudgels for Herzen while tiptoeing around his words in the preface to From the Other Shore: “Better perish with the revolution than seek safety in the alms-house of reaction.”

The problem of Herzen’s reception is partly one of substituting social contexts. Herzen’s social context was the autocracy of Nicholas I, not the autocracy of Brezhnev. Herzen – and Marx, for these writers – are never treated in terms of the history in which they actually existed, one in which, for instance, the Russian empire was instituting the 19th century’s bloodiest European ethnic cleansing: that of the Turkic peoples in the Caucasus; while the English were looking away from the starvation of the Irish and celebrating as providential the depopulation of their neighboring island, a policy combining “providential” famine and civilized laissez faire that was taken to India as well. It is so distressing, these famines and wars, that, for the most part, the liberal Cold war crowd simply forgot them. And in so do, distorted history to such a degree that, since the sixties, our greatest intellectual task has been simply to get that history back. The cost of making universal history – wasn’t that Foucault’s great theme? Deleuze’s? Derrida’s? The dissidents so attacked by the cold war liberal establishment for dissenting from the agreed upon amnesia.

So, this is the lie in Isaiah Berlin’s cold war liberalism. He is a brilliant philosophical historian, one with a true sense of what he called the Counter-enlightenment. However, he is not a trustworthy writer. He does like to hide things behind his back.

Aileen Kelly is less known than Berlin, and may be less capacious. But she is undoubtedly Herzen’s most brilliant advocate in the English speaking world. I want to engage with her image of Herzen a bit in this thread.

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