Monday, June 28, 2010

From the Other Shore

by Alexander Herzen, again a Russian nineteenth century nonfiction intellectual project.

Highly intense, with very strong prose. More than many of the things I read, there’s an appeal to this work simply in seeing how effectively the author can turn a phrase, with some very vivid and beautiful phrasing that doesn’t just make one sit back and admire the writing eloquence but pulls them into the statement. This writing is also in the service of some pretty strong ideas, involving a passionate statement in favor of revolution, pushing against autocracy and capitalism for a more just world. The arguments very much bear the stamp of the time, but they’re still relevant and very interesting. The elements that struck me the most were the anger at the revolutions of 1848 failing and the strong rebuke for the notion of an inherent progressive pattern to history.

It also has all the coherence and basic emotional sense of the text’s relevance that Chaadayev drifted around. Not that this is a definitive book of answers or that it lacks ambivalence, by any means. There is a lot of debate and different positions expressed, with main lines of tension existing between the viability of revolution, and more generally the worth versus decadence of Europe. The need for a strong change is definitely present, but there also appears to be varying judgements on the replacement system as an indvidiualist versus a communal project, with some arguments concerning anarchism and socialism that show a difficult balacning at point. The essays in the collection range across over a decade, and development in the political thought is to be expected, but there also seems a contradiction in the political proposals built in. Unlike with a lot of thinkers of the time, however, I find this a creative tension rather than a fatal one, and Herzen is best read as an opening approach to further study than as a definitive political philosophy. Certainly his own viewpoint of challenge and continual questioning in itself promotes such a stance.

I didn’t entirely love this work in reading, though looked at retrospectively I’m hard-pressed to point of real flaws. It’s certainly meaningful and deserves to be studied, and has aged remarkably well in grounds of both quality and ideas. If there’s a weakness it’s in a tendency to exclude the middle ground in arguing, jumping to extremes of exhalation or despair, total revolution or continuede status quo. That’s an issue built alongisde the basis of this type of appeal, but after a bit I did find it somewhat wearying.

Better than: Philosophical Letters by Peter Chaadayev
Worse than: Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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