I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around to reading Kropotkin’s Memoirs of a Revolutionist; he’s been one of my heroes for many years. At any rate, it’s finally worked its way to the top of my pile, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it—he gives a picture of the Russia he grew up in that is both unsparing and loving, and his descriptions of people are masterful. I’m currently reading the long chapter on his studies at the Corps of Pages, and I wanted to share his vivid description of the impact Goethe’s Faust made on him:

Toward the end of the winter I asked Herr Becker to lend me a copy of Goethe’s “Faust.” I had read it in a Russian translation; I had also read Turguéneff’s beautiful novel, “Faust“; and I now longed to read the great work in the original. “You will understand nothing in it; it is too philosophical,” Becker said, with his gentle smile; but he brought me, nevertheless, a little square book, with the pages yellowed by age, containing the immortal drama. He little knew the unfathomable joy that that small square book gave me. I drank in the sense and the music of every line of it, beginning with the very first verses of the ideally beautiful dedication, and soon knew full pages by heart. Faust’s monologue in the forest, and especially the lines in which he speaks of his understanding of nature, —

Not only cold, amazed acquaintance yield’st,
But grantest that in her profoundest breast
I gaze, as in the bosom of a friend,” —

simply put me in ecstasy, and till now it has retained its power over me. Every verse gradually became a dear friend. And then, is there a higher æsthetic delight than to read poetry in a language which one does not yet quite thoroughly understand? The whole is veiled with a sort of slight haze, which admirably suits poetry. Words, the trivial meanings of which, when one knows the language colloquially, sometimes interfere with the poetical image they are intended to convey, retain but their subtle, elevated sense; while the music of the poetry is only the more strongly impressed upon the ear.

There’s obviously a certain amount of 19th-century Romantic blather here, but the remarks on reading “poetry in a language which one does not yet quite thoroughly understand” are very true, and express one reason poetry has been one of the main gates through which I’ve entered foreign languages.
The Goethe passage is from the Forest and Cavern section (here translated by George Madison Priest); the original is:

Kalt staunenden Besuch erlaubst du nur,
Vergönnest mir, in ihre tiefe Brust
Wie in den Busen eines Freunds zu schauen.

And the Kropotkin passage in Russian is:

К концу зимы я попросил Беккера дать мне «Фауст». Я уже читал его в русском переводе; прочитал я также чудную тургеневскую повесть «Фауста» и теперь жаждал узнать великое произведение в подлиннике.
— Вы ничего не поймете в нем, сказал мне Беккер с доброй улыбкой, — слишком философское произведе­ние. — Тем не менее он принес мне маленькую квадрат­ную книжечку с пожелтевшими от времени страницами. Философия Фауста и музыка стиха захватили меня все­цело. Начал я с прекрасного, возвышенного посвяще­ния и скоро знал целые страницы наизусть. Монолог Фауста в лесу приводил меня в экстаз, в особенности те стихи, в которых он говорил о понимании природы:
Erhabner Geist, du gabst mir, gabst mir alles,
Warum ich bat Du hast mir nicht umsonst.
Dein Angesicht im Feuer zugewendet… etc.
(Могучий дух, ты все мне, все доставил,
О чем просил я. Не напрасно мне
Твой лик явил ты в пламенном сиянье.
Ты дал мне в царство чудную природу,
Познать ее, вкусить мне силы дал…
Ты показал мне ряд создании жизни,
Ты научил меня собратий видеть
В волнах, и в воздухе, и в тихой роще.)
И теперь еще это место производит на меня сильное впечатление. Каждый стих постепенно стал для меня до­рогим другом. Есть ли более высокое эстетическое на­слаждение, чем чтение стихов на не совсем хорошо зна­комом языке? Все покрывается тогда своего рода легкой дымкой, которая так подобает поэзии. Те слова, которые, когда мы знаем разговорный язык, режут наше ухо не­соответствием с передаваемым образом, сохраняют свой тонкий, возвышенный смысл. Музыкальность стиха осо­бенно улавливается.


  1. Reading Mallarmé again, so concur thoroughly on the profound allure of something precious half-glimpsed through the far fog of incomprehension!

  2. Words, the trivial meanings of which, when one knows the language colloquially, sometimes interfere with the poetical image they are intended to convey […]

    In learning languages I am motivated to no small extent by a desire precisely to strip away the esoteric mists that can afflict words, in particular in philosophy, which are entirely mundane in their source language. Whereupon I have a taste for the homelier sorts of prose, although I am, of course, not one to complain if there are prinsesses involved. (Folk/fairy stories are perfect, yes indeed.)

  3. Ah well, if you insist on subjecting yourself to philosophy, it will of course distort your linguicity. Linguacity? Linguax… Brek-kek-kek-kek, koax, koax… But I digress. I scrupulously avoid all philosophy, enabling me to enjoy a certain amount of mist in my daily diet.

  4. Count Kropotkin: see about him in Chukovsky’s memoir (I think vol.2), where he describes their meeting some time after February Revolution. Chukovsky, who, of course, knew everybody who was anybody, was indisciminately friendly with people like Repin, Koni and Gorky (trusting only his diaries with his honest opinions, and even that only till 1928). Nevertheless, his impression of the count was one of a “salon revolutionary”, his conversation with French accent felt totally irrelevant and somewhat academic…
    Anyway, trying to fish that quote for you, I accidentally came across this book, which I can’t evaluate since haven’t read; but I’m going to – and since I know you don’t mind tangenial comments, I think you’ll like.

  5. As I remember, Kropotkin was a figure of some significance in nineteenth-century geography, environmental studies, etc.
    It’s a pity that Russian Studies was so dominated by the Cold War, because there’s a tremendous amount of Russian writing in scholarly fields that has never been translated.

  6. That Moss book looks great — thanks, T! And I much prefer a “salon revolutionary” to a real (blood on hands) revolutionary. Bakunin was a “real” revolutionary, and a nasty piece of work.
    Zizka, if you can point to a particular work that needs translating (and isn’t too technical), maybe I’ll try my hand.

  7. Ah, if all anarchists were like you, LH!(or how should we call you now since you ate the hat collection?)
    I can collaborate on technicalities on any Russian text (except phylosophy) with you, if Zizka’s paying.

  8. As I remember, Kropotkin was a figure of some significance in nineteenth-century geography, environmental studies, etc.
    Pyotr is in fact very well known for his Mutual Aid, which was a response to evolutionist Thomas Henry Huxley’s “The Struggle for Existence in Human Society,” in which Huxley advances a Hobbesian view of natural selection. Kropotkin averred that cooperation was a more common response among organisms to the problem of survival in a threatening world than was competition.

  9. Oddly, the Russian version (Взаимная помощь) doesn’t seem to be online.

  10. The thing I’d most like to see is Rashid ad-din’s (Persian) history of the Mongols, which I have in Chinese translation (from the Russian). But it’s a long tough book.
    I come across things here and there all the time, but I don’t remember them because I’ll never know Russian. I think that the pre-revolutionary Russian contributions to scholarship tend to be underestimated — it wasn’t just all novels.

  11. According to my geographer brother, Kropotkin is still highly regarded by members of his profession, as essentially the first person to get the physical geography of Asia right. My brother also claims that many geographers do lean toward anarchism, resenting as they do the encumbrances presented by national boundaries and the semi-fictional but all-too-destructive entities that inscribe them on the face of the earth. There was another fairly major, late 19th-century anarchist figure who was a geographer of note, Elisee Reclus – author of the 19-volume La Nouvelle Géographic universelle, la terre et les hommes.

  12. many geographers do lean toward anarchism, resenting as they do the encumbrances presented by national boundaries
    Huh. I never thought of it that way, but it makes perfect sense.

  13. It only makes sense if you exclude minor nuisance of people populating geographical objects.
    Reminds me of one “green” (in all senses- he’s not older than 20) guy in one of the discussions @2blowhards, candidly expressing his wish the Earth will soon return to it’s natural state, with unstoppably multiplying animals crossing irrelevant national borders and absence of corrupting human population…
    And he’s practicing what he preaches, too – commendably: growing organic tomatoes on his West Village window sill and posting the progress on his blog…

  14. I’m afraid I failed to give an adequate sense of my brother’s remark. Of course geographers are interested in human populations, and everything to do with them! But they also see, perhaps more acutely than (say) historians, how arbitrary national boundaries help precipitate needless wars and conflicts, especially in places like Africa where they are so strikingly at odds with either physical or cultural realities. Another point my brother makes: “The themes of mutual aid,
    sense of place, and local expertise entangle anarchism and 20th academic geography as well–for example, Carl Sauer, and many of his school, have always struck me as anarchistic in their focus on the geographic knowledge embedded in local communities, and their disdain for non-local-based systems of governance, economy, and culture.” (Remarks on a list –
    Sorry to stray so far off the language theme here (and for tooting the family horn – not really my intention!).

  15. Straying from the theme is an honored LH tradition. And I’m quite interested in your brother’s take on it; here‘s the direct link to the list discussion.

  16. LH, do you know Zbigniew Herbert’s poem “Gra Pana Cogito” (“Mr. Cogito’s Game”), which begins:
    The favourite amusement
    Of Mr. Cogito
    Is the Kropotkin game
    I’d attempt a translation for you (although it’s quite long and my Polish is not too great), but it might give away too many details about an important episode if you haven’t finished his autobiography (which I’ve never read – and I don’t know too much about the guy).

  17. No I don’t; I’ll look for it. Thanks for the tip!

  18. Well, since I’ve got time to kill today I’ve made a literal translation, so if you can’t find a proper one let me know. The original Polish is online here by the way (with Herbert’s original lineation completely ignored):
    BTW the incident the poem refers to concerns Kropotkin’s stay in a famous Russian prison (more particularly, the ending thereof). So if you haven’t got to that bit in his autobiography, maybe it’s best avoided for now.

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