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Taras Shevchenko

Encyclopedia of the life and works



Taras Shevchenko

From this diffuse and florid letter I learned, first of all, that my artist was a highly noble and gentle man as a true artist should be. Ordinary people cannot get so sincerely and selflessly attached to such a wretchedly poor man as the late Demski who was abandoned by everyone. I do not see anything special in this remarkable, selfless attachment; it is the natural consequence of mutual empathy to everything that is beautiful both in learning and in man. We all should be like that by our nature and by the behest of our Divine Teacher. But alas! only a miserably few of us have abided by his sacred behest and preserved their divine nature in love and chastity. A miserably few! That is why we regard a man who loves selflessly and is truly noble as someone out of the ordinary. We look at such a man as at a comet. And after having had our fill looking at him and lest our dirty, selfish nature be all too strikingly apparent to ourselves, we begin to sully the good name of that clean man, first by covert, then by overt slander, and if this does not work, we condemn him to poverty and suffering. It is fortunate for him, if we incarcerate him in a lunatic asylum, because we can simply hang him like a vile criminal. Though bitter, it is alas! the truth.

I have, however, let my tongue run away with me inopportunely. Secondly, I learned from the stilted letter of my favourite that he, poor chap, unaware of it himself, was head over heels in love with his pretty, flighty pupil. It is quite natural. It is good, even necessary, the more so for an artist, because under other conditions his heart might get encrusted with insensitivity over the academic studies. Love is a life-giving fire in the soul of man. Everything he creates under the influence of this divine feeling bears the mark of life and poesy. All that is wonderful, were it not for one predicament. Those fiery souls, as Libelt calls them, are amazingly indiscriminating in matters of love. Frequently it happens that a true and enormously rapturous worshipper of beauty is fated to adore a morally ugly idol that deserves no more than the smoke of the kitchen hearth, while he, the simpleton, offers it the purest of incense.

Only a very few of these fiery souls were fated to live in harmony. From Socrates to Berghem and right to our days there was one and the same contemptible in consonance in their daily lives. To the great sorrow these fiery souls do not fall in love like cavaliers, but much worse than the most wretched foot soldiers, that is, for life. This is what I cannot understand and what I am afraid of in my artist. It looks as if he, after the example of the world’s men of genius, will tie his gentle, receptive heart in slavery to some satan in a skirt. It will be a good thing if he, just like Socrates and Poussin, will get rid of the domestic satan with a joke and follow his own way, because otherwise he will have to say farewell to art, learning, poesy, and to everything charming in life forever. The vessel breaks, the precious myrrh is spilled and polluted with dirt, and the radiant lampion of a peaceful artistic life is extinguished by the poisonous breath of the domestic snake. Oh, if only those world luminaries could do without family happiness, how wonderful it would have been! How many great works would not have drowned in the domestic slough, but would have remained in the world for the edification and enjoyment of mankind. But alas! both for the men of genius, probably for our brother as well, the hearth and family circle are necessary. It is so because a soul, feeling and loving everything lofty and beautiful in nature and in art, needs spiritual rest after it has derived supreme delight in this charming harmony. And the sweet soothing effect for the weary heart can be found only in the circle of children and a kindly, loving wife.

Blessed, a hundred times blessed is the man and the artist whose life, so unjustly termed as prosaic, has been illuminated by the beautiful muse of harmony. His bliss has no bounds then just like the world of God. In my observations on family happiness I have noticed the following. My comment refers to people in general, but especially to the inspired worshippers of everything good and beautiful in nature. Precisely these poor fellows are the wretched victims of the idol they adore – beauty, for which they cannot be blamed, because beauty, in general, and the beauty of woman, in particular, have an all-destructive effect on them. It cannot be otherwise, for this is exactly the turbid source which poisons everything beautiful and great in life. “How is that?” the vociferous young men might exclaim. “A beautiful woman is created by God solely to delight our life that is filled with tears and trepidation.”

That is true. It is the purpose given her by God. But it is she, or rather we, who have contrived to change her highly divine purpose, making a soulless, lifeless idol out of her. In her, one feeling has absorbed all the other beautiful feelings. This is egoism, the result of woman being conscious of her all-destructive beauty. Back in her childhood we make her realize that she is a future breaker and incendiary of our hearts. Truth is, we only hint it to her, but she grasps it so quickly, understanding and sensing her future power so deeply, that from that fateful day onward she turns into an innocent coquette worshipping her own beauty to her grave; the mirror becomes the one and only companion in her pitiable, lonely life. No education in the world can change her. So deeply is implanted the seed of selfishness and incurable coquetry we let fall by accident. Such is the result of my observations of the beauties, in general, and of the privileged beauties, in particular. A privileged beauty cannot be anything else but a beauty. Neither can she be a loving, meek wife, nor a kindly tender mother, let alone a passionate mistress.

She is a wooden beauty, and nothing else. And it would be foolish for our part to demand anything more of wood. That is why I advise admiring these beautiful statues at a distance, not courting their intimacy, the more so marrying them, which goes especially for artists and people who have dedicated themselves to the sciences or the arts. If an artist needs a beauty for his favourite art, so for this purpose there are models, dancing girls and other women skilled in their respective trades. In his home, however, he, like an ordinary mortal, needs a kind, loving woman, but by no means a privileged beauty. She, as a privileged beauty, will light up the peaceful abode of God’s favourite with bright, dazzling rays of joy only for a fleeting moment, after which the momentary joy disappears, without leaving a trace like the flash of a sudden meteor. A beauty, similarly to a true actress, needs throngs of worshippers – whether genuine or fake, it makes no difference to her – as was the case with the ancient idols: the worshippers must be there, because without them, just like an idol of long ago, she is no more than a beautiful marble statue. As a proverb goes, “All bread is not baked in one oven,” and there are exceptions among beauties as well, for nature is amazingly diverse. I believe deeply in such an exception but take it for a most unusual occurrence; that is why I am so cautious in my belief, since having lived among respectable people for over half a century, I did not happen to see such a wonderful occurrence.

I cannot say that I belong to the category of misanthropes or brazen slanderers of everything beautiful. On the contrary, I am the most over-enthusiastic admirer of the beautiful both in nature and in divine art.

Not so long ago I happened by chance to vegetate for quite some time in a place that was remote from respectable or civilized society. It was truly an uninhabited out-of-the-way place. Into it there came flying, not by chance, though, a beauty of society – at least that is what she called herself eventually. So I made her acquaintance, and, I must say, I do it rather eagerly. Well, we got acquainted, I began watching the ways of my beauty of an acquaintance, and – oh, wonder of wonders! – there was not a trace of semblance in her of the beauties I had seen before. I must have become wild in these backwoods, I thought. But no, she was a wonderful woman in every respect – clever modest, even well read, and without the slightest shade of coquetry. I became ashamed of my watchfulness, cast all distrust to the winds, and became not so much her admirer – I fail in this pursuit – as her good, sincere companion. I do not know why, but she, too, took a liking to me, and we became almost friends. I was so carried away by the delight of my discovery that in my old heart there stirred something more than a usual simple attachment and I was on the point of playing the role of the old fool from a vaudeville. An accident saved me. It was an altogether typical accident. Once early in the morning – I was accepted in their home as one of the family and frequently invited for morning tea – I noticed her hair being plaited into small braids right over the back of her head. I did not like this discovery. I had thought that she had natural curls at the back of her head, but it proved otherwise. Precisely this discovery stopped me from my declaration of love to her. I became simply her good companion once again. Speaking with her of literature, music and other arts practically every day, I thought it unbefitting to gossip with an educated woman after all. During these conversations I noticed, and only during the second year of our acquaintance, that she was very perfunctory and spoke rather indifferently both of the beautiful in art or in nature.

That shook my faith somewhat. Also, there was not a book in German or Russian in the world she had not read, but did not remember any of them. I asked the reason why. She referred to some woman’s ailment which had damaged her memory back during her maidenhood. I believed her simple-mindedly. Yet I noticed that some of the vulgar rhymes she had read during her maidenhood she recited by heart to this day. After that I was ashamed to discuss literature with her. Shortly after I noticed that she and her husband did not keep a single book in their home, except for a notebook for the current year. During the winter evenings she played cards, if there were enough guests to make a party. This she did to observe the proprieties, so to speak, but I did not notice that she was in a terribly bad mood whenever she failed to get a party together. Right then she would have a terrible headache. But if her husband was at a game, she would sit at the table without ceremony and look into the players’ hands as if they were her own, which pleasant occupation lasted well after midnight. The moment this banal scene began I left their home right away. It is disgusting to see a young beautiful woman engaged in such a senseless pastime. I was completely disappointed by then, and she seemed to me a polyp, or rather a truly privileged beauty.

If her life in solitude had gone on for another year or two in this out-of-the-way place without bloodthirsty admirers, that is, without lions and onagers, I am sure she would have become stupid or turned into a veritable idiot. She had already reached the condition of being a semi-idiot. What a duffer I was! I had imagined that I had discovered El Dorado at last, while this El Dorado was simply a wooden doll I could not look at without disgust afterward.

Reading through this stern maxim invoked to the beauties, some may think that I am another Buonarotti. Nothing of the sort. I am exactly the same admirer as any other leopard, and probably even more untamed in comparison. But I like to express my convictions in all their nakedness, regardless of rank and title. Besides, I am doing it now solely for the sake of my artist friend, without intending to see my opinion on beauties in print. God forbid me from committing such a stupidity. In this case my own sister would be prepared to hang me as a treacherous Judas on the first aspen tree she came across. By the way, she is no beauty, so I have nothing to fear.

Where does this evil take its root? This is where: in upbringing. If God has blessed affectionate parents with a beauty of a daughter, they themselves begin spoiling her and preferring her to other children. As regards the education of their favourite, this is what they think and even say: “Why destroy a child over a senseless book? She will achieve a brilliant career without books and even without a dowry.” And the beauty really achieves a brilliant career. The forecast of the parents comes true, so what else is there to wish? That is the beginning of the evil. Its continuation (incidentally, I do not assert it, I only assume) rests in the following.

Our kind Slavic race, though being attached to the Caucasian family, is by its outward appearance not far removed from the Finnish and Mongolian races. Consequently, a beauty with us is a rather rare occurrence. And no sooner is this rare occurrence out of diapers than we begin filling it with our ridiculous raptures, selfishness, and other rubbish. In the end, we make a wooden doll on hinges out of her, like the one painters use for drapery. In the countries where God has blessed a race with beautiful women, they must remain ordinary women. As for me, an ordinary woman is the best.

Why then have I delivered such a lengthy sermon about the breakers of human hearts, mine included? For the edification of my friend, I suppose. But I think it will be absolutely superfluous for him. Besides, I could only conclude from his description that his vestal virgin will hardly be capable of penetrating much deeper into the heart of the artist who feels so wonderfully and understands everything of the supremely beautiful in nature as does my friend. She must be a quick-eyed, snub-nosed little rogue, very much like a seamstress or a smart housemaid. Such characters are no rarity, and they are absolutely harmless.

As regards her silky auntie, they are not rare characters either, but they are extremely dangerous. Her auntie, although he describes her sweetly, reminds me of Gogol’s matchmaker, who in response to the bride seeker’s question on whether she will arrange his marriage, answers: “Oh, I’ll marry you off all right, my dearie! I’ll make it so deftly you won’t even hear when it happens.” My friend, of course, has nothing in common with Gogol’s hero, and in this respect I almost have no misgivings about his future. The fire of first love, though much hotter, is on the other hand more brief in duration. But on second thought, misgivings still creep over me, because these strange marriages, when one of the partners is unaware of what happens, very often involve not only clever but even cautious people. As regards my friend, I do not see much of caution in him. This virtue does not distinguish my artist. To be on the safe side, I wrote him a letter which was not of a didactic nature, of course (God forbid me from writing such moralizing messages). I wrote him in a friendly and candid way about my apprehensions and what he should be careful about. Without any ceremony I drew his attention to the nice auntie as o the principal and most dangerous trap. I did not receive any response to the letter, however: he must not have liked it. This was a bad sign. Oh well, he was busy with his program work throughout the summer, so he just might have forgotten about my letter.

Summer passed and so did September and October, but my friend had not written me a single word. Reading in the Severnaya pchela newspaper the exhibition review written by Kukolnik’s sprightly pen perhaps, I learned that my friend’s Vestal Virgin was praised to the skies, whereas there was not a word about his program work. What could that mean? Could he have really failed? I wrote him another letter and asked him to explain his obstinate silence, but I did not write a single word about the program or his occupations, since I knew from experience how unpleasant it was to answer a friend’s query “How is the work going?” when it was going badly. Two months later I received a response to my letter. It was laconic and extremely incoherent. He seemed to be ashamed or afraid of telling me frankly what was tormenting him, and there was something that tormented him terribly. In his letter he hinted at some failure by the way (probably his program) which almost brought him to his grave. If he still existed in this world, so he wrote, it was due to his kindly neighbours who displayed the liveliest and sincerest compassion to his existence; he was practically doing nothing now, suffering spiritually and physically, and did not know what would be the end of it all. I took the entire information as an exaggeration, of course. Young people are usually unreasonably sensitive: they always make a mountain out of a molehill. I wanted to find out something in greater detail about his situation. Something made me anxious for him. But how could I find it out and from who? I would not be able to learn anything coherent from him anyway. So I turned to Mikhailov, asking him to write me everything he knew about my friend. The obliging Mikhailov did not let me wait long for his distinct and candid message. Here is what he wrote:

“Brother, your friend is a fool. And what a fool! There has not been such a wretched fool since the creation of the world. You see, he failed in his program, so what do you think he did from despair? You won’t guess it for anything: he got married. Honest to God – he got married. And do you know who he married? His vestal virgin! Her being pregnant into the bargain!

What fun! A pregnant vestal virgin. As he said himself, her pregnancy was the reason he married her. Don’t think, however, that he himself was the reason of this sin. Nothing of the sort. It’s that rogue of a midshipman who did the dirty trick. She herself confessed it. A fine show that midshipman put up. He played the dirty trick on her and made himself scarce to Nikolayev as if nothing had happened. Your magnanimous fool, though, has a pretty kettle of fish on his hands. Where can she go now? he says. Where can she find refuge now, poor thing, if her dear aunt is chasing her out of the house? So he went and gave her refuge. Well, tell me, have you ever seen such a fool in this big wide world? That’s right, you haven’t even heard of a fool like him. To tell the truth, it’s an unexampled magnanimity or, rather, an unexampled foolishness. But this is nothing yet. Here’s the funniest point of the whole mess: he painted the Vestal Virgin of her when she was pregnant. And you should have seen how he did it! It’s simply a beauty. I haven’t seen such a naïve chaste beauty either in a painting or in nature yet.

At the exhibition the crowd could not tear itself away from it. With the public it was a rage comparable to Tyranov’s A Girl with a Tambourine, as you might well remember. A magnificent piece of art! Karl Pavlovich himself stopped many times before it. That means quite something. A rich nobleman bought it for a good price. The copies and lithographs from it are in all the stores, on every crossing. In a word, it’s a booming success. And he, that fool, had to go and get married. The other day I visited him and found a somewhat unpleasant change in him. The auntie must have taken him in hand. He never visits Karl Pavlovich, probably being ashamed to. He started painting a madonna and child from his wife and a child that is not his own.

If he finishes it just as well as he has begun it, the painting will surpass the Vestal Virgin. The expressivity of the child and mother are astonishingly good. I just wonder how he failed to fulfil his program work. Neither do I know whether as a married man he will be admitted to the competition next year. I don’t think he will. This is everything I can tell you about your stupid friend! Farewell. Our Karl Pavlovich is feeling unwell; in spring he intends to work in St. Isaac’s Cathedral.

Yours M.”