Friday, June 21, 2013

The tenderness of a peasant

Mikhaïl Nesterov (1862-1942) -
Russian boy

A few weeks ago, with the character of the humble Sonia, from Crime and Punishment, I wanted to open a new wing of the "Dostoevsky’s memorial" which I have tried modestly to establish for years. After having presented the humbled, the children, the crazy and the rejected, I intend now to present some examples of this “deified” humanity towards which all the work of the great Fyodor leads us. Just this once it will not hurt to break with tradition, the character whom I would like to evoke today does not appear in one of the five great novels of his mature years, but in a short story published in February 1876 in the Writer’s Diary. The peasant Marey – it is both the title of the story and the character's name – recounts a childhood memory of the writer(1).
(…) I remembered the month of August in our country house: a dry bright day but rather cold and windy; summer was waning and soon we should have to go to Moscow to be bored all the winter over French lessons, and I was so sorry to leave the country. I walked past the threshing-floor and, going down the ravine, I went up to the dense thicket of bushes that covered the further side of the ravine as far as the copse. And I plunged right into the midst of the bushes, and heard a peasant ploughing alone on the clearing about thirty paces away. I knew that he was ploughing up the steep hill and the horse was moving with effort, and from time to time the peasant's call "come up!" floated upwards to me. I knew almost all our peasants, but I did not know which it was ploughing now, and I did not care who it was, I was absorbed in my own affairs. I was busy, too; I was breaking off switches from the nut trees to whip the frogs with. Nut sticks make such fine whips, but they do not last; while birch twigs are just the opposite (...) Even as I write I smell the fragrance of our birch wood: these impressions will remain for my whole life. Suddenly in the midst of the profound stillness I heard a clear and distinct shout, "Wolf!" I shrieked and, beside myself with terror, calling out at the top of my voice, ran out into the clearing and straight to the peasant who was ploughing.
It was our peasant Marey. I don't know if there is such a name, but every one called him Marey – a thick-set, rather well-grown peasant of fifty, with a good many grey hairs in his dark brown, spreading beard. I knew him, but had scarcely ever happened to speak to him till then. He stopped his horse on hearing my cry, and when, breathless, I caught with one hand at his plough and with the other at his sleeve, he saw how frightened I was.
"There is a wolf!" I cried, panting.
He flung up his head, and could not help looking round for an instant, almost believing me.
"Where is the wolf?"
"A shout ... someone shouted: 'wolf' ..." I faltered out.
"Nonsense, nonsense! A wolf? Why, it was your fancy! How could there be a wolf?" he muttered, reassuring me. But I was trembling all over, and still kept tight hold of his smock frock, and I must have been quite pale. He looked at me with an uneasy smile, evidently anxious and troubled over me.
"Why, you have had a fright, aïe, aïe!" He shook his head. "There, dear.... Come, little one, aïe!"
He stretched out his hand, and all at once stroked my cheek.
"Come, come, there; Christ be with you! Cross yourself!"
But I did not cross myself. The corners of my mouth were twitching, and I think that struck him particularly. He put out his thick, black-nailed, earth-stained finger and softly touched my twitching lips.
"Aïe, there, there," he said to me with a slow, almost motherly smile. "Dear, dear, what is the matter? There; come, come!"
I grasped at last that there was no wolf, and that the shout that I had heard was my fancy. Yet that shout had been so clear and distinct, but such shouts (not only about wolves) I had imagined once or twice before, and I was aware of that. (These hallucinations passed away later as I grew older.)
"Well, I will go then," I said, looking at him timidly and inquiringly.
"Well, do, and I'll keep watch on you as you go. I won't let the wolf get at you," he added, still smiling at me with the same motherly expression. "Well, Christ be with you! Come, run along then," and he made the sign of the cross over me and then over himself. I walked away, looking back almost at every tenth step. Marey stood still with his mare as I walked away, and looked after me and nodded to me every time I looked round. I must own I felt a little ashamed at having let him see me so frightened, but I was still very much afraid of the wolf as I walked away, until I reached the first barn half-way up the slope of the ravine; there my fright vanished completely, and all at once our yard-dog Voltchok flew to meet me. With Voltchok I felt quite safe, and I turned round to Marey for the last time; I could not see his face distinctly, but I felt that he was still nodding and smiling affectionately to me. I waved to him; he waved back to me and started his little mare.

In a few lines, the writer outlines for us a simple and peaceful man. This hard illiterate peasant is in fact a wise person, a real "Christophoros", a bearer of Christ. It is in the name of Christ that he soothes the terrified boy, and it is with Christ that he sends him back home: "... Christ be with you! Come, run along then..." Such is indeed, for Dostoevsky, the deified man: filled with the divine-humanity of the Saviour.

The narrative is inserted into the writer's reflection on the Russian people, of which he tends to give a somewhat idealized picture. As he writes it, he has just read an article by Constantine Aksakov (1817-1860), one of the intellectual guides of the Slavophiles. Dostoevsky is particularly struck by a sentence of this article. Aksakov writes that "the Russian people have been enlightened and have reached a ‘high degree of culture’ for a long time." Dostoevsky then tells how the memory of the good peasant Marey came to mind when he was deported to Siberia for having attended a revolutionary group(2).

But I think that all these professions de foi are very boring to read, so I am going to tell a story, or rather not, it's not a story, say, just a distant memory that, I do not know why, I just want to report here and now, in conclusion of my essay on the people. I was only nine then... but no, I'm going to start when I was twenty-nine years old. He recalls then an evening in the penal colony, when, exasperated by brawlers and drunken convicts, he lies on his bunk, sullen: Gradually I sank into forgetfulness and by degrees was lost in memories.

Then comes the story of the encounter between the child and the peasant Marey. Finally, at the conclusion of the story, the writer returns to the meaning of the event, and especially of this man who left his mark on his memory.

(…) and all at once now, twenty years afterwards in Siberia, I remembered this meeting with such distinctness to the smallest detail. So it must have lain hidden in my soul, though I knew nothing of it, and rose suddenly to my memory when it was wanted; I remembered the soft motherly smile of the poor serf, the way he signed me with the cross and shook his head. "There, there, you have had a fright, little one!" And I remembered particularly the thick earth-stained finger with which he softly and with timid tenderness touched my quivering lips. Of course any one would have reassured a child, but something quite different seemed to have happened in that solitary meeting; and if I had been his own son, he could not have looked at me with eyes shining with greater love. And what made him like that? He was our serf(3) and I was his little master, after all. No one would know that he had been kind to me and reward him for it. Was he, perhaps, very fond of little children? Some people are. It was a solitary meeting in the deserted fields, and only God, perhaps, may have seen from above with what deep and humane civilized feeling, and with what delicate, almost feminine tenderness, the heart of a coarse, brutally ignorant Russian serf, who had as yet no expectation, no idea even of his freedom, may be filled.

And Dostoevsky concludes his meditation on the people: Was not this, perhaps, what Konstantin Aksakov meant when he spoke of the high degree of culture of our peasantry? And when I got down off the bed and looked around me, I remember I suddenly felt that I could look at these unhappy creatures with quite different eyes, and that suddenly by some miracle all hatred and anger had vanished utterly from my heart. I walked about, looking into the faces that I met. That shaven peasant, branded on his face as a criminal, bawling his hoarse, drunken song, may be that very Marey; I cannot look into his heart.

May we always find, not too far from us, in a clearing, a good peasant Marey to comfort us in difficult times: the wolf, real or imaginary, is never far away.

Fiodor (the other one)

(2) In 1849, members of the Petrashevsky group, that Dostoevsky attends, were arrested and sentenced to death. After a mock execution, the condemned were pardoned and deported to Siberia. Dostoevsky remained there until 1854. He recounts this experience in Memories of the house of the dead.
(3) The story is set in 1830 (Dostoevsky is nine years old) and serfdom will be abolished only in 1861.

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