Russians have bragged to themselves about their souls for ages, but for the past hundred years or so – roughly since Nietzsche discovered Dostoevsky, Henry James discovered Turgenev, H. G. Wells discovered Tolstoy, and the assorted Bloomsbury folk discovered Chekhov – other European nations, Britain foremost, have been pitching in as well. The dubious outcome of it all is that, alongside bast shoes, pinewood tar, marsh cranberries, dancing bears, and submachine guns, the Russian soul has become an internationally recognized commodity, in no way less distinctive than the cigars exported by Cuba or the wine made by the French.
The intellectual fraud that has been thereby perpetrated on the public is nothing short of epochal, as a clear implication of the Russians having a patent on the soul is that other European nations, Britain foremost, have but inchoate, miasmic, vaporous substances in imitation of the hallmarked original to animate their people. Obviously, this deeply absurd, yet by now deeply ingrained, perception makes it difficult for Christians to believe in the immortality of what is at best a cheap Korean product, a Brummagem knockoff, rendering them impotent against every sort of spiritual deviation.
The truth of the matter is that the Russian language does not have a special word meaning “soul.” What we use is a cognate of “spirit,” which ultimately means nothing more specific than “breath.” In other words, having a soul, in the Russian mind, is what distinguishes a living human being from a cadaver – and that, ladies and gentlemen, I regret to say is all there is to it. How any literary, philosophical, or theological edifice could have been erected, and made to stand upright for a millennium, upon this gaping abyss of a semantic void is quite beyond me. It makes me think of Mark Twain, who, reflecting that the French language does not have a word meaning “home,” concluded that a Frenchman’s home is where another man’s wife is.
In English, by contrast, the Saxon word “soul” is a separate, autochthonous semantic universe into which the attentive traveler hardly needs any philosophical or theological means of locomotion to be transported – astounded, illuminated, and perhaps reborn. Like the German Seele, it is, in fact, an Indo-European cognate of the Russian word sila, meaning “power, force, strength,” a sense surviving in the English “resilience.” Unlike its Slavic counterpart, the Saxon “soul” is not merely a physiological distinction between the quick and the dead. It is the articulation of a moral lesson, a sermon – a warning and a benediction.
The extent of a man’s possession of a soul, goes the intuitive logic of the Saxon, is measured by his ability or willingness to resist. Resist what, one may well ask in 2014. It doesn’t matter, is the answer, because the world – today no less than all those thousands of years ago when these languages were first being made – bears down upon the individual in a myriad different ways, and to try and enumerate, predict, or catalogue them would be futile.
To remain unbowed in the face of these physical or spiritual pressures – renouncing your faith for fear of lions in the Coliseum would be one example, but surely each and every one of us can think of political or social situations closer to home – is what makes the inchoate, miasmic, vaporous substance within us worthy of being called a soul. I say so, which may be neither here nor there, but so says the language I’m proud to speak.
Andrei Navrozov, born in Moscow, lives in Palermo and is European editor for Chronicles. The former publisher of the Yale Lit, he is a widely published author and translator. His Italian Carousel: Scenes of Internal Exile was published by Peter Owen Publishers.