European Diary

Seduced and Abandoned

I was reared in a cultural microcosm that undervalued experience.  More than that, it treated experience as a kind of monstrous blemish upon the face of thought, a defect that was deemed the more unfortunate for being the more noteworthy, unexpected, or rare.  It was as though the threadbare commonness of climbing the Himalayas, or roaming the world as a hired assassin, or sleeping with seven women at once was more glaring than that of shopping for bread and milk.  Experiences alleged to be more substantive or adventurous, went the implicit argument, were more illusory and, hence, distracting, polluting, and generally unsuited to the mind.  And the abiding aim was cultivation of the mind.

Russian culture, ever echoing what, in English culture, had been William Blake’s command to see Heaven in a grain of sand, chimed in with this.  Our writers did travel far and wide; they did fight in wars; they had bizarre love affairs and lost fortunes at cards; but, just as Russia never produced a school of formal philosophy, she never produced the intellectual type of Hemingway, T.E. Lawrence, or Somerset Maugham—wise to the world, allegedly, and proud of it.  Our writers “wanted to travel,” in Andrei Platonov’s phrase, “into the depths of man.”  Not to Arabia.

In retrospect, I cannot but appreciate the inverted cynicism of that approach to reality. ...

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