Saturday, December 01, 2018

'Her Own Story, Her Own Mystery'

Here is the first stanza of Boris Dralyuk’s translation from the Russian of Zinaida Gippius’ “The Passerby”:

“Each person who may chance to pass you by,
even just once — only to disappear —
has her own story, her own mystery,
her luckiest and her most bitter year.”

I bought Henri Troyat’s biography of Tolstoy from the Book of the Month Club the year it was published, 1968. I had previously read an abridged paperback edition of War and Peace and was interested in the person who could write so great a book, even in the mutilated version I had read. Most knowledge, as opposed to facts, is acquired incrementally. Most of us don’t master differential equations or irregular French verbs in a single setting. Only time and application do the trick. But in reading Troyat’s life of Tolstoy I acquired an insight that arrived with the force of revelation: Other people will forever remain mysteries to us. I’ll never know precisely what you’re thinking or feeling, and you’ll return the favor. I don’t remember if this knowledge derived from a single passage or, more likely, if it came from Troyat’s cumulative understanding of Tolstoy and his work. What I’m certain of is that my sixteen-year-old self had never before realized he was surrounded by mysteries, and that he too was a mystery, even to himself.

It took many years for me to understand that this knowledge is both humanity’s blessing and curse. Each of us is autonomous, and that’s a good thing. Our separateness is sacred, not to be violated. But this understanding also suggests that we are condemned to blundering through life, forever misunderstanding other people, even those we are closest to and love the most. As Boris writes of “The Passerby”:

“Gippius opens with an expression of extreme, overwhelming empathy, but ends on a shocking note of megalomania. I read the poem as an acknowledgement of the awesome responsibility of omniscience and omnipotence, powers that belong in the hands of deities, not those of mere mortals.”

And yet, Gippius’ poem, like Troyat’s biography, suggests a way to at least partially alleviate our unhappy state. Through art, specifically literary art, we can acquire some knowledge of that much embattled thing, human nature. From Chekhov and Proust we can learn how others might be thinking, that others are just that -- other, though a lot like us, not case studies or demographic stereotypes . That’s one of the things literature, especially novels and stories, does best, certainly better than psychology, sociology or the other pseudo-sciences. Joseph Epstein puts it like this in “A Literary Education”:

“A literary education teaches that human nature is best, if always incompletely, understood through the examination of individual cases […]. It provides an enhanced appreciation of the mysteries and complexities of life that reinforces the inestimable value of human liberty — liberty especially of the kind that leaves us free to pursue that reality from which we all live at a great distance and run the risk of dying without having known.”

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