Monday, October 4, 2010

Herzen in Paris, 1848


After watching a Lithuanian production, Mistras, I found myself looking for some perspective on Paris in 1848 and found Herzen's section of his time in Paris from 1847-1852 in My Past and Thoughts.  What a fascinating time!  While the play focuses mostly on Adam Mickiewicz, Herzen takes in a broader section of the revolutionary ferment, noting how Mickiewicz had fallen under the influence of TowiaƄski and had become much too religion for his taste. Herzen's sympathies laid more with persons like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who tried to keep a respectable paper going in the face of mounting governmental censorship, while being held in jail.

Herzen was one of the more famous Russian emigres in Paris.  He was great friends with Turgenev and sat with him when Turgenev felt he had come down with cholera, which was sweeping Paris at the time.  Fortunately for Turgenev he had a much lesser malady and was able to recover after a fortnight.

As Issiah Berlin noted in the forward, I was one of many who was well aware of Herzen but had never read him.   I'm glad to have finally overcome that shortcoming.  Herzen is fascinating to read, not only for the time he covers in his Memoirs, but the immediately accessible way in which he writes.  Berlin noted that Herzen was a master of observation and one of the few writers to successfully capture a conversational tone of voice in his writing.  Well acquainted with so many leading political and cultural figures of his time, Herzen provides invaluable insights into their characters, not least of which Mickiewicz, who he felt had outlived his time and become a caricature of himself.

Herzen's sharp, often acerbic comments reflect his skepticism with the Revolutionary fervor of the time.  He was a strong believer in individual liberty and didn't like the way so many persons were falling in lockstep behind movements, fearing that many of the mistakes from the earlier French revolution were being repeated. He couldn't understand why Mickiewicz would idolize Napoleon to the point of doffing his hat each time he passed his statue.  Herzen eventually found solace in Switzerland, after being unceremoniously deported from Paris for funding Proudhon's efforts.
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The photograph by Sergei Lvovich dates from after this time.

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