Skip to main content

Prophets With Honor

ISSUE:  Winter 1986
Forgotten Prophet: The Life of Randolph Bourne. By Bruce Clayton. Louisiana.$25.00.
Bulgakov: Life and Work. By Ellendea Proffer. Ardis. $45. 00 cloth, $15. 00 paper.

Many people have heard of Randolph Bourne, but very few are familiar with his writings. Born in Bloomfield, N.J., on May 30, 1886, he was facially scarred and deformed in delivery by a clumsy doctor subsequently rumored to have been a quack. In addition, at age four spinal tuberculosis hunched his back and stunted his growth. His full stature was never more than five feet, John Dos Passos described him as a “tiny sparrowlike man. . . twisted bit of flesh in a black cape.”

When Bourne died in the influenza epidemic of 1918, he left a mark on the culture of his time that we remember today not for its vital affirmation of youthful optimism and idealism as for the fact that he eloquently opposed America’s intervention in World War I. He is remembered as a pacifist, although pacifism as such is not one of the beliefs that distinguished his vigorous, brilliant mind. What did distinguish him, paradoxically, was an energetic Nietzschean faith in the necessity of being at once moral and “contemporaneous.” He believed that the time had come for a transvaluation of values that would confront even the “fundamental fact of our irrationality, ” the very feature which the old rigid prudential morality, in Bourne’s words, had neglected.

It was his “pacifism” of course that destroyed his career and reputation, alienating him from famous friends like John Dewey and Walter Lippmann, who had endorsed and indeed inspired his earlier beliefs, and from such literary associations as the recently launched New Republic, to which he had been a prolific editor-contributor. The tide of militarism had engulfed the liberal intellectual community, leaving Bourne isolated, alone in his unpopularity. The magazines that did continue to publish his work were ill-fated, of brief duration, and the distrust he created extended as far as the federal government. Significantly, the wealthy lady, a Mrs. Rankine, who funded the Seven Arts magazine, killed herself in 1917.

Speaking of John Dewey, he had been circumspect at first during the early months after America’s intervention, yet it was Dewey’s “instrumentalism” that motivated the eager policy of the New Republic: the view that intervention was a “lever” of international reform. The intention of that magazine was to give “ethical” meaning to the war. The irony here is that Dewey had been an idol to Bourne, exceeded only by William James; Bourne confessed in 1917:

To those of us who have taken Dewey’s philosophy almost as our American religion, it never occurred to us that values could be subordinated to technique. . .means always fell into places as contributory. . . Dewey always meant his philosophy to start with values. But there was always the unhappy ambiguity in his doctrine as to just how values were created.

Bourne cogently observed, according to Clayton, that without vision instrumentalism implies tragedy. Clayton goes on to note that, as thinkers like Noam Chomsky observed 50 years later, attacking the pragmatism inherent in America’s struggle in Vietnam, Bourne had placed his finger on the “hidden sore of the pragmatic, liberal mind.”

The truth is that Bourne is best described as a literary radical, a literary intellectual. His inspiration was visionary and poetic, as he himself remarked. Evidently, at no time during the war was Bourne disillusioned with his deepest values, his “poetic vision.” He made a point, as he repeatedly noted, of keeping his mind healthy by occupying it with matters other than war and militarism, matters that were, for the visionary mind, transcendent, or immemorial. And indeed Clayton observes that the war had the opposite effect of making the world safe for democracy; that the war probably ensured the Russian Revolution, plus the rise of Hitler: “the flower of the young generation lost its life in the soil that fertilized European nationalism.” Bourne summed up his feelings to his mother: “It’s like coming out of a nightmare.”

Clayton deals with Bourne as a “forerunner,” a sort of archetype: romantic socialist, Greenwich Village internationalist, feminist, literary bon vivant whose intense feelings of community were embodied in his loquacious, expressive association with a rich diversity of friends, both male and female, many of them distinguished. Indeed, it is above all as a cultural pluralist that Clayton praises Bourne, viewing his essay on “Transnational America” as his most “trenchant” work of social criticism. It was a denunciation of the “melting pot,” in favor of a new American culture revitalizing (he noted that “vital” was one of William James’s favorite words) itself in this century by embracing racial and ethnic pluralism.

Bourne’s quarrel was with so-called high culture, Matthew Arnold’s “the best that has been thought and said.” The phrase itself implied an arbitrary inhibition, repression or limitation of culture; as Nietzsche might have said, the “best” by definition means that which allows a maximum of meaningful effectiveness to the given, living moment, a vision that is idealistic not merely in the sense of Utopian but in Hegel’s sense as well. Arnold, like the Puritanism that enveloped Bourne’s early life, would simply have prevented all this from coming about.

Indeed, the issue of intervention or neutrality in 1917 involved, for Bourne, his passionate dislike of England and the English, plus his considerable sympathy for Germany. Ironically, the pervasive influence of Dewey—the exaltation of functionalism or technique, jeopardizing the status of values—was no doubt partly responsible for this. Indeed, Clayton makes the general cultural point that this was an age in which professionalization as such—the mandarin attitude toward “expertise”—began seriously to take over in all areas of social functioning; the paradox may be that Randolph’s acute sensitivity to the trends of a developing society led him to exaggerate or falsely construe this very circumstance.

Finally, Bourne was—almost uniquely—a creature of progressivism as such; his element was above all time, the temporal world. A more philosophical attitude might soften for us the exigencies of the given moment now in 1985. But this is a first-rate work by Bruce Clayton, brilliantly suggestive both on Bourne and on the perplexities and contradictions of modernity.

Mikhail Bulgakov remarked to his adopted son while dying in 1940: “Be fearless, it’s the main thing.” Bulgakov’s life and experience reflected this advice for a variety of reasons. Born in Kiev in 1891, the grandson of a priest and the son of a theologian, he was in temperament, talent, and endowment (he is generally regarded as the greatest Russian playwright of the post-Revolutionary period) intensely at odds with the prevailing mood and actuality of a revolutionary society. Among other things, his literary gift was irreverent and satirical, with a penchant for surrealism and the grotesque, a circumstance that led to the suppression of much of his major work, fiction as well as plays, in his native country during his lifetime.

During the 1920’s, Stalin and the Stalinists set the stage for his fearlessness. At a time when artists like Mandelstam, Babel, Mayakovsky, Pilnyak, Meyerhold—and subsequently Pasternak, Akhmatova, and Tsvetaeva—were routine casualties of the regime, victims either of murder or self-liquidation, Bulgakov was spared by Stalin not because he was less offensive but because, according to Ellendea Proffer, he was never a part of the Bolshevik system, an outsider, a pre-Revolutionary figure who had indeed, in early life, been active as a White Russian. The theory here is that the oppressor is ruthless mainly in the matter of treachery, or “heresy.” Bulgakov could easily, in accordance with the “code” then operative in the Soviet Union, have been destroyed by the government; and in truth he was consistently put down, censured by the official press, deprived of a livelihood for some time, then given an obscure secondary position in the Moscow Art Theater, to which he was thus allowed to express his devotion.

Bulgakov’s romanticism is conveyed by his belief that a man is incomplete without a woman. He married Elena Sergeevna, the third and most personable of his three wives, and the one most fascinated by his talent, on Oct.4, 1932. Coincidentally, at this time his career had been revived by the whim of Stalin, and his period of great despair had ended. Proffer observes that the playwright was grateful that the tyrant allowed him to continue his work.

One might say that Bulgakov’s virtues were those of the bourgeoisie. Not only was his father a professor of theology, he was himself trained as a physician, having practiced venerealogy before choosing a literary career. His science fiction shows the influence of H. G. Wells in its biological acceptance of living existence as tolerable in its diversity, and above all in its preference for evolution as against revolution. He believed that human nature itself must improve, and it is his satirical approach to science and in particular to science fiction that distinguishes him from the Utopian revolutionaries.

Proffer quotes Mandelstam to the effect that the 19th century was a golden age, “only we didn’t know it.” Bulgakov’s greatest success was a play, Days of the Turbins; it brought fame to the playwright and revitalized the Moscow Art Theater. It was produced in 1926 by Stanislavsky, a liberal but no Bolshevik, according to Proffer, and esthetically conservative, descended as he was from a rich merchant family. Now the Days of the Turbins is Checkovian in its sensibility; the critic Litovsky rather astutely—though very destructively in the immediate context—described the play as The Cherry Orchard of the White movement. “What interest,” he noted, “has the Soviet viewer in the sufferings of internal and external emigres for their destroyed White movement? No interest at all. We don’t need this.” Thus the success of the play became, ironically, a misfortune. The author became not merely famous but overly conspicuous, a target for scurrilous abuse. The result, Proffer observes, was a prevalent identification of the playwright as an overly distinguishable feature of the Soviet scheme, the “internal emigre or fellow traveler.” It is hardly surprising that Bulgakov shivered in his boots at the thought of his confrontation with Stalin some time later, when the dictator telephoned him.

Bulgakov had not only a talent for mystery and mystification (which humanists might interpret as a sense of the inscrutable resourcefulness of living existence); he also had an intense interest in history, Russia’s historic writers such as Pushkin, and world celebrities like Molière. Writing about both these authors, Bulgakov expressed his romantic belief in freedom from political tyranny; history for him, as for so many others, became by. implication a celebration of freedom. His play about Molière, suppressed in Leningrad but a success in the Moscow Art Theater in 1936, had overtones of the prevalent situation in Russia: “a tyrant, a cabal, a destroyed writer.” Significantly, Bulgakov portrayed Molière as an “ordinary” man, pathetic, weak, even cowardly; Molière’s endowment as a human being is strikingly inferior to his talent. But that is the point; the individual as such may be weak and vulnerable to oppression, but the spirit expressed in art and literature succeeds, by its very nature, in transcending oppression. It is innately free.

One must again observe that this is strong stuff. No wonder Bulgakov spoke on his, deathbed of fearlessness as the main thing. No doubt he was even more courageous than he himself knew. What is ironic is that Bulgakov, posthumously praised by many, both in and out of Russia, for his intransigence, regarded compromise as his besetting sin.

A learned, thoughtful, and inspiring book.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading