On Philosophy and Hope

I've always had a soft spot for the anonymous man James Boswell once ran into as he water-skied along behind Dr. Johnson's big-bottomed coat-tails, trying to remember everything that bobbed up in the Great Cham's vast wake. Well, this guy bobbed up somewhere en route. And when he was asked for his occupation, he said, "I always wanted to be a philosopher, but somehow cheerfulness always kept breaking in."

Now cheerfulness is not a major problem these days as far as most philosophizers about Russia are concerned. For them it's business-as-usual: gloom all round, what with the Boss' heart and the army strapped for cash; murder and mayhem and all that malarkey. But a chance encounter on a plane between Kiev and St. Petersburg -- as well as some time spent with my daughter Kseniya -- has suddenly made me feel insanely cheerful about the future. And that cheerfulness, as you will see, has not a little to do with philosophy.

The chance encounter on the airplane was with a well-dressed young Russian who had -- yes -- set out in life wanting to be a philosopher. But in his case, he told me, it was the need for money that kept breaking in. So instead of signing up for Moscow University's philosophy or philology faculty (like my daughter Kseniya), he took a law degree and is now busily sorting out, as a lawyer, problems of the atomic energy industry.

These problems -- cash flow, bankruptcies, aging equipment etc. -- are vast, he said. But that's not the point. The point is that Igor plainly believed in what he was doing. He was patriotic, thoughtful, well-mannered and extremely well-read. He knew Berdayev, Bunin and Bakhtin -- to name only the B's -- he was extremely interesting and entertaining company.

Which brings me to Kseniya -- and to her boyfriend Oleg. Now Kseniya -- or Ksiyusha, as she's generally known -- is a post-graduate student at Moscow University. But she also works, for an occasional pittance, for a small literary publisher called Gnosis, and for Logos, the philosophy journal that it produces. Oleg sits on the editorial board; and he, she and a group of young friends are forever involved in locating and translating (from French, German and English) an endless stream of texts which have not before appeared in Russian: Heidegger and Wittgenstein, Yakobson, Lacan, Husserl and so on. (Gnosis has also published some of Ksiyusha's poetry, but that's another story.)

The point here is that -- like the young lawyer on the plane -- Oleg, Ksiyusha and the rest are in love with learning, with language, with Russian philosophy, even (dare one say it?) with Russia itself. They have no intention of living anywhere else. And even though they travel, they regard Russia as both their responsibility and their font. And if you think that makes them a bunch of city-bred sober-sides, then you should know that Oleg for example, comes from a Siberian village -- and, boy, you should hear them party!

"Delight in life," I suppose, is the phrase that comes most readily to mind when I'm with them or think of them -- just as it was in the case of the young lawyer on the plane. Yes, they're serious, of course. Oleg is writing about Heidegger for his thesis; and Ksiyusha is translating Yeats' poetry and writing an introduction to T.S. Eliot for a Catholic journal. But through them and in them, I think, is being born a new kind of Russian intelligentsia: not the eventually murderous, forever leftward-splitting one of the late 19th century, but something like the one that existed briefly in St. Petersburg just before World War I: the time of the young Mandelstam, Gumilyev and Akhmatova, of experiment, cabarets, love affairs and joy.

Of course there are any number of people their age who have become hoods and biznesmeni, hookers, wastrels and thieves. (Four law students were arrested the other day -- along with their professor -- for holding up cars somewhere near Moscow.) Some of Ksiyusha's friends have gone abroad, like Dasha to study art history -- and marry -- in France; and Sveta to become a nurse in America. But they'll come back -- they come back now to visit -- and Russia will be the better for them. They'll know the world, as Akhmatova and Mandelstam did, as Pasternak did, before he and the rest of Russia were so rudely interrupted.

In the meantime -- while we're all waiting -- here's my advice, based on the anonymous man memorialized forever by Boswell: If cheerfulness fails to break in, then why not try philosophy? Buy a copy of Logos. It'll raise your spirits tremendously.