Lesley Chamberlain’s book The Philosophy Steamer, picked up in a cheapie bin a few months ago in our throwaway diamonds and shit culture, reminds me of writers I’ve read [Nabokov, Bunin, Trotsky, Zamyatin], writers I’ve never wanted to read [Lenin], thinkers I’ve heard of, more or less vaguely [Jacobsen, Sorokin], writers I’ve always thought I should read [the Mandelstams, Akhmatova], as well as bringing to my attention such figures as Berdyaev, Frank and Aikhenvald, Russians all, and all profoundly affected by the formation of the Soviet state. It’s much more though than an invocation of names and personalities.
The book is part history, part multibiography, part philosophical meditation. It tells the tale of the forced emigration of a group of intellectuals – writers, poets, philosophers, scientists, academics and activists – in the early twenties, when the hard-headed Lenin briefly held sway after the post-revolution civil war. Most of them were Christians, and that itself seems to have been enough for Lenin, whose materialist ideology was dismissive of all spiritual and metaphysical speculation and argy-bargy. So in the name of efficiency he arranged for their departure from their homeland, the land of their ideals and their reality, an arrogant decision with far-reaching consequences for all of them. Mind you, if they’d stayed, their irrepressible individualism would surely have ‘forced’ the even more ruthless Stalin to knock them over like so many skittles.
There are tragic as well as inspiring individual stories here, but what is most interesting about the book are the larger issues explored. In banishing this small, disparate band of intellectuals, Lenin was seeking to impose a kind of discipline upon his new state, according to Chamberlain’s plausible thesis. As a devotee of Marxian materialism, he seems to have genuinely wished to found a society on ‘scientific’ economic principles, and this would only happen if all those out-dated, spiritually infected bourgeois individuals fell into line. Banishing a few here, imprisoning a few there, and shooting the odd hopeless recalcitrant would surely do the trick. Chamberlain interestingly argues that this ‘anti-metaphysical state’ being pursued by the Bolsheviks was an extreme, and extremely crass, version of what was happening westwards in Europe. She cites Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus [published in 1921, and spawning a great deal of interest in the definition and limits of science, and the ruling out of mere metaphysics] as emerging from the same zeitgeist as Lenin’s earlier Materialism and Empiriocriticism [a point she doesn’t push too far]. Both books deal with the nature of reality and how we should understand it, with a particular concern about dividing sense from nonsense. Of course Lenin’s book had a scarily practical political purpose, but the logical positivists who followed Wittgenstein also felt they were engaging in a practical cleaning-up process. The difference being that logical positivism had a mercifully brief heyday, foundering on a multitude of contradictions and methodological problems, and in any case having little impact on the wider cultural community, while Bolshevism turned the Soviet state into a cultural minefield and a political death camp for seventy long years.
The two ‘philosophy steamers’ that sailed from Petrograd in the autumn of 1922 with about seventy intellectuals and their families, formed part of a more general, if trickling, Russian exodus. All they had in common was their Russianness. It wouldn’t even be right to say they had disillusionment in common. Some felt themselves victims of a colossal mistake that would eventually be put right. Others were completely at odds with everything the Bolsheviks stood for. There was plenty of dissension and mistrust amongst them, a fear of spies, rats in the ranks, as well as the usual ideological differences. There was also for some time a sense, heartbreaking in retrospect, that their exile was surely temporary, that they would outlast the ideological nitwits and nitpickers who had hijacked their country. The rise of Stalin no doubt put paid to that dream.
Of course, many maintained and nursed an obsession with the country that formed them. Many had left family and friends behind, and they were generally much more informed about the goings on in the new Soviet Union than were western liberals. Their exasperation at western attitudes was profound, but they suffered the typical fate of exiles – many western intellectuals, especially of the left, simply discounted their views as those of embittered losers in a largely ideological battlefield.
This is an affecting book for anyone who has an appreciation of a lost heritage, and for anyone who has suffered an exile of any kind. It has made me, at least, want to return to the work of two writers I’ve read before, now armed with new knowledge and understandings. They are Vladimir Nabokov, who left Russia with his family in 1919, and Nina Berberova, who left with her poet boyfriend in 1922, though not on the steamer. I’ve just started rereading Berberova’s collection The Tattered Cloak, which I’ll no doubt review later, and I’m particularly interested in reading Nabokov’s The Gift, his last novel written in Russian, and a leave-taking of sorts. The book tells the story of a young Russian writer, Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, who is writing a book about the nineteenth century radical author of What is To Be Done?, Nicolai Chernyshevsky, and his impact. Chernyshevsky was the favourite author of Lenin [who wrote a book with the same title]. Chamberlain quotes this revealing passage from The Gift:
Suddenly [Godunov-Cherdyntsev] felt a bitter pang – why had everything in Russia become so shoddy, crabbed and grey...? Or had the old urge ‘toward the light’ concealed a fatal flaw, which in the course of progress toward the objective had grown more and more evident, until it was revealed that this ‘light’ was burning in the window of a prison overseer, and that was all? When had this strange dependence sprung up between the sharpening of the thirst and the muddying of the source? In the forties? In the sixties? And ‘what to do’ now? Ought one not to reject any longing for one’s homeland...? Some day, interrupting my writing, I will look through the window and see a Russian autumn.
The dependence mentioned here between the sharpening of the thirst and the muddying of the source could well be worth speculating upon, in relation to metaphysics in general. However muddy it all is, metaphysics doesn’t look like evaporating in the near future. Chamberlain opens the third, summarizing section of The Philosophy Steamer with these lines from Barry Stroud’s 2000 book The Quest for Reality:
Sixty years ago metaphysical theorizing was declared meaningless on the sweeping grounds that its results were neither true by virtue of meaning alone nor confirmable or disconfirmable by experience. But metaphysical theorizing of the proscribed kind was involved in reaching that very conclusion. It proved to be essential to philosophy then just as it is today.
I’m not entirely sure what to make of this claim, and maybe that’s the point somehow. Something always tantalizingly eludes us....