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Revolution And Other Essays - Foma Gordyeeff Post by :PeacefulWarrior Category :Essays Author :Jack London Date :April 2011 Read :1314

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Revolution And Other Essays - Foma Gordyeeff

"What, without asking, hither hurried WHENCE?
And, without asking, WHITHER hurried hence!
Oh, many a Cup of this forbidden Wine
Must drown the memory of that insolence!"

"Foma Gordyeeff" is a big book--not only is the breadth of Russia in
it, but the expanse of life. Yet, though in each land, in this world
of marts and exchanges, this age of trade and traffic, passionate
figures rise up and demand of life what its fever is, in "Foma
Gordyeeff" it is a Russian who so rises up and demands. For Gorky,
the Bitter One, is essentially a Russian in his grasp on the facts of
life and in his treatment. All the Russian self-analysis and
insistent introspection are his. And, like all his brother Russians,
ardent, passionate protest impregnates his work. There is a purpose
to it. He writes because he has something to say which the world
should hear. From that clenched fist of his, light and airy
romances, pretty and sweet and beguiling, do not flow, but realities-
-yes, big and brutal and repulsive, but real.

He raises the cry of the miserable and the despised, and in a
masterly arraignment of commercialism, protests against social
conditions, against the grinding of the faces of the poor and weak,
and the self-pollution of the rich and strong, in their mad lust for
place and power. It is to be doubted strongly if the average
bourgeois, smug and fat and prosperous, can understand this man Foma
Gordyeeff. The rebellion in his blood is something to which their
own does not thrill. To them it will be inexplicable that this man,
with his health and his millions, could not go on living as his class
lived, keeping regular hours at desk and stock exchange, driving
close contracts, underbidding his competitors, and exulting in the
business disasters of his fellows. It would appear so easy, and,
after such a life, well appointed and eminently respectable, he could
die. "Ah," Foma will interrupt rudely--he is given to rude
interruptions--"if to die and disappear is the end of these money-
grubbing years, why money-grub?" And the bourgeois whom he rudely
interrupted will not understand. Nor did Mayakin understand as he
laboured holily with his wayward godson.

"Why do you brag?" Foma, bursts out upon him. "What have you to
brag about? Your son--where is he? Your daughter--what is she?
Ekh, you manager of life! Come, now, you're clever, you know
everything--tell me, why do you live? Why do you accumulate money?
Aren't you going to die? Well, what then?" And Mayakin finds
himself speechless and without answer, but unshaken and unconvinced.

Receiving by heredity the fierce, bull-like nature of his father plus
the passive indomitableness and groping spirit of his mother, Foma,
proud and rebellious, is repelled by the selfish, money-seeking
environment into which he is born. Ignat, his father, and Mayakin,
the godfather, and all the horde of successful merchants singing the
paean of the strong and the praises of merciless, remorseless laissez
faire, cannot entice him. Why? he demands. This is a nightmare,
this life! It is without significance! What does it all mean? What
is there underneath? What is the meaning of that which is

"You do well to pity people," Ignat tells Foma, the boy, "only you
must use judgment with your pity. First consider the man, find out
what he is like, what use can be made of him; and if you see that he
is a strong and capable man, help him if you like. But if a man is
weak, not inclined to work--spit upon him and go your way. And you
must know that when a man complains about everything, and cries out
and groans--he is not worth more than two kopeks, he is not worthy of
pity, and will be of no use to you if you do help him."

Such the frank and militant commercialism, bellowed out between
glasses of strong liquor. Now comes Mayakin, speaking softly and
without satire:

"Eh, my boy, what is a beggar? A beggar is a man who is forced, by
fate, to remind us of Christ; he is Christ's brother; he is the bell
of the Lord, and rings in life for the purpose of awakening our
conscience, of stirring up the satiety of man's flesh. He stands
under the window and sings, 'For Christ's sa-ake!' and by that chant
he reminds us of Christ, of His holy command to help our neighbour.
But men have so ordered their lives that it is utterly impossible for
them to act in accordance with Christ's teaching, and Jesus Christ
has become entirely superfluous to us. Not once, but, in all
probability, a thousand times, we have given Him over to be
crucified, but still we cannot banish Him from our lives so long as
His poor brethren sing His name in the streets and remind us of Him.
And so now we have hit upon the idea of shutting up the beggars in
such special buildings, so that they may not roam about the streets
and stir up our consciences."

But Foma will have none of it. He is neither to be enticed nor
cajoled. The cry of his nature is for light. He must have light.
And in burning revolt he goes seeking the meaning of life. "His
thoughts embraced all those petty people who toiled at hard labour.
It was strange--why did they live? What satisfaction was it to them
to live on the earth? All they did was to perform their dirty,
arduous toil, eat poorly; they were miserably clad, addicted to
drunkenness. One was sixty years old, but he still toiled side by
side with young men. And they all presented themselves to Foma's
imagination as a huge heap of worms, who were swarming over the earth
merely to eat."

He becomes the living interrogation of life. He cannot begin living
until he knows what living means, and he seeks its meaning vainly.
"Why should I try to live life when I do not know what life is?" he
objects when Mayakin strives with him to return and manage his
business. Why should men fetch and carry for him? be slaves to him
and his money?

"Work is not everything to a man," he says; "it is not true that
justification lies in work . . . Some people never do any work at
all, all their lives long--yet they live better than the toilers.
Why is that? And what justification have I? And how will all the
people who give their orders justify themselves? What have they
lived for? But my idea is that everybody ought, without fail, to
know solidly what he is living for. Is it possible that a man is
born to toil, accumulate money, build a house, beget children, and--
die? No; life means something in itself. . . . A man has been born,
has lived, has died--why? All of us must consider why we are living,
by God, we must! There is no sense in our life--there is no sense at
all. Some are rich--they have money enough for a thousand men all to
themselves--and they live without occupation; others bow their backs
in toil all their life, and they haven't a penny."

But Foma can only be destructive. He is not constructive. The dim
groping spirit of his mother and the curse of his environment press
too heavily upon him, and he is crushed to debauchery and madness.
He does not drink because liquor tastes good in his mouth. In the
vile companions who purvey to his baser appetites he finds no charm.
It is all utterly despicable and sordid, but thither his quest leads
him and he follows the quest. He knows that everything is wrong, but
he cannot right it, cannot tell why. He can only attack and
demolish. "What justification have you all in the sight of God? Why
do you live?" he demands of the conclave of merchants, of life's
successes. "You have not constructed life--you have made a cesspool!
You have disseminated filth and stifling exhalations by your deeds.
Have you any conscience? Do you remember God? A five-kopek piece--
that is your God! But you have expelled your conscience!"

Like the cry of Isaiah, "Go to, now, ye rich men, weep and howl for
your misfortunes that shall come upon you," is Foma's: "You blood-
suckers! You live on other people's strength; you work with other
people's hands! For all this you shall be made to pay! You shall
perish--you shall be called to account for all! For all--to the last
little tear-drop!"

Stunned by this puddle of life, unable to make sense of it, Foma
questions, and questions vainly, whether of Sofya Medynsky in her
drawing-room of beauty, or in the foulest depths of the first chance
courtesan's heart. Linboff, whose books contradict one another,
cannot help him; nor can the pilgrims on crowded steamers, nor the
verse writers and harlots in dives and boozingkens. And so,
wondering, pondering, perplexed, amazed, whirling through the mad
whirlpool of life, dancing the dance of death, groping for the
nameless, indefinite something, the magic formula, the essence, the
intrinsic fact, the flash of light through the murk and dark--the
rational sanction for existence, in short--Foma Gordyeeff goes down
to madness and death.

It is not a pretty book, but it is a masterful interrogation of life-
-not of life universal, but of life particular, the social life of
to-day. It is not nice; neither is the social life of to-day nice.
One lays the book down sick at heart--sick for life with all its
"lyings and its lusts." But it is a healthy book. So fearful is its
portrayal of social disease, so ruthless its stripping of the painted
charms from vice, that its tendency cannot but be strongly for good.
It is a goad, to prick sleeping human consciences awake and drive
them into the battle for humanity.

But no story is told, nothing is finished, some one will object.
Surely, when Sasha leaped overboard and swam to Foma, something
happened. It was pregnant with possibilities. Yet it was not
finished, was not decisive. She left him to go with the son of a
rich vodka-maker. And all that was best in Sofya Medynsky was
quickened when she looked upon Foma with the look of the Mother-
Woman. She might have been a power for good in his life, she might
have shed light into it and lifted him up to safety and honour and
understanding. Yet she went away next day, and he never saw her
again. No story is told, nothing is finished.

Ah, but surely the story of Foma Gordyeeff is told; his life is
finished, as lives are being finished each day around us. Besides,
it is the way of life, and the art of Gorky is the art of realism.
But it is a less tedious realism than that of Tolstoy or Turgenev.
It lives and breathes from page to page with a swing and dash and go
that they rarely attain. Their mantle has fallen on his young
shoulders, and he promises to wear it royally.

Even so, but so helpless, hopeless, terrible is this life of Foma
Gordyeeff that we would be filled with profound sorrow for Gorky did
we not know that he has come up out of the Valley of Shadow. That he
hopes, we know, else would he not now be festering in a Russian
prison because he is brave enough to live the hope he feels. He
knows life, why and how it should be lived. And in conclusion, this
one thing is manifest: Foma Gordyeeff is no mere statement of an
intellectual problem. For as he lived and interrogated living, so in
sweat and blood and travail has Gorky lived.

November 1901.

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