25 January 2011

A Hero of Our Time

From time to time, pieces of research are published by universities, or statements are made by journalists, suggesting that compassion is a fundamental piece of psychology, hardwired into human behaviour, and that ‘individualism’ overrides the fundamental human need for group solidarity. At the same time, modern novels frequently portray people behaving badly towards one another, although the authors are usually identified with left-wing ideology.

A remarkably realistic portrayal of human psychology is found in a novel by Mikhail Lermontov, a pre-communist Russian writer. Lermontov was probably himself moving towards a socialist position, having sufficiently offended the Tsar by his criticisms of conditions of living in Russia to be sent into exile in the Ukraine. Lermontov was clearly IQ-ful as well as upper-class, having lived on his grandmother’s estate as a boy and made use of the extensive library to read widely, in English, French and German, as well as Russian.

In his novel A Hero of Our Time, the narrator is a Russian officer who, as he passes from place to place, needs at one stage to take lodgings in a certain house in a very poor and rundown village on the seashore. In this house, which has a bad reputation, he finds living an old lady, a blind orphan boy who has been taken in and supported (presumably for his usefulness in fetching and carrying, in spite of his blindness) and a fey and sexy young woman (described as a ‘daughter of the sea’).

The Russian officer becomes curious and inquisitive about what is going on, and discovers that the household is engaged in, and supported by, a contraband operation which involves sea-borne visits from the young woman’s boyfriend. The woman becomes afraid that the Russian officer knows too much and may inform on them, so she tells her boyfriend (Yanko), and the whole smuggling operation breaks up. This is the final conversation between Yanko, his girlfriend, and the blind boy, overheard by the Russian officer in hiding (my translation):

“Listen, blind boy!”said Yanko “Tell ... that I won’t work for him any more. Things have turned out badly and he won’t see me any more. And tell him, if he had paid me better for my hard work, then I might not have left him. He will not be able to find anyone as intrepid as me.”

After a silence Yanko continued: “She [the young woman] is coming with me, she can’t stay here. Tell the old woman from me that it is time for her to die, she has lived a long time, one must know when it is time to end one’s life. She won’t see either of us again.”

“And me?” said the blind boy, in a voice that harrowed me.

“And what are you to me?” was the reply. ... he put something in the boy’s hand and said, “Well, buy yourself a cake.”

“Only that?” said the blind boy.

“What more could you expect?”

I heard coins ring on the stones. The blind boy did not pick them up ... the boat vanished across the sea ... I started to hear what sounded like a person crying, and realised that it was in fact the blind boy crying, and crying, crying ... I was deeply moved.

Then the narrator of the story gets his chance to leave the village where he has been forced to stay. He never knows what became of the old woman or the blind boy. The episode concludes with some disclaimers on the lines of “What business is it of mine to concern myself with human happiness and misfortune ... What fate threw me into a group of honest smugglers whom I obstructed and disturbed like a stone thrown into quiet waters?”

It seems to be a paradoxical feature of modern literature that modern writers, fully aware of the modern socialist ideology which surrounds them, and apparently in complete sympathy with it, simultaneously present human nature in their works of fiction as quite the opposite of compassionate. Their awareness of the unpleasant realities of human psychology seems not to affect their commitment to a world view which depends on believing otherwise, nor indeed to their implicit demand that others commit to it too. In fact, this may appear as a psychological syndrome, in which apparently incompatible features arise from the same underlying motivation.

But Lermontov, in spite of any incipient socialist ideas which he may have had, was living in a pre-communist society. So the psychological syndrome involved in his describing human interactions with such cynical realism was not exactly the same.

Brief analyses such as these should be being expanded into research papers, but this is unlikely to happen unless Oxford Forum is supported.