Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Russian reading room

October 30th 1821 O.S.* (we are using new style dating, an event that occurred on old style dating of October 30th would not be today), saw the birth of Fjedor Mikhajlovič Dostoevskij (Фёдор Миха́йлович Достое́вский), he did not see sixty. The correction calculation, our calendraic adjustment, is to the eleventh of November, an already, busy commemoration.

I had classes with two extra fine professors, Carl Gustavson and Edgar Whan, and I cannot remember, with absolute certainty, which gentleman suggested that each library ought to have a russian reading room. The other would have seconded the motion. Accumulating snow outside, big overstuffed chairs, a fireplace, balalaikas on the wall and a large samovar on the table would add a 19th century air to the room, a couple of lacquered boxes on the mantle and icons of St. George and Our Lady of Kazan, further still, for remember: the phrase was always -- Holy Mother Russia.

I know that not everyone is interested in an education that imparts erudition. Still, an educated man should have familiarity with the fruits of western civilisation. The oeuvre of russian literature is a pearl of great worth that is denied,only, by blockheads.

I enjoy humor, the classic set jokes, the elephant situ. To truncate one: students in a swiss boarding school must write an essay about our elephant, each boy wrote one with a characteristic national interest, the russian boy wrote about the elephant and the cosmos. This is the manner of thought that aspires to know the largest picture, man's role in existence.

Fjedor Mikhajlovič suggested that all of russian literature came from under Gogol's cloak. The comedy of Gogol, in having a poor clerk investing his psyche and worth in cloth, or a nose coming bodily alive to walk in a cathedral, or the selling of dead souls, is humor in profound pathos. Russian humor had gravitas and an edifying aspect. We all are significant beings, but we are in relation to all men and unto God.

In the writings of Lev Nikolajovič Tolstoj we have, above all the panoramic spread of War and Peace, a book so large that one needs a boot with a metatarsal guard to protect the foot from its falling. Now, there are two new english translations. Lev Nikolajovič saw war, he had carried the gun, and became a pacifist. He was so intensely so, that, it led to excommunication from the russian church. Without Tolstoj would we have had all of Gandhi's commitment and without Gandhi would King have been a giant? We follow paths cut by others. An occasional couple of hours, in that reading room, would do us all well.

*To correct the Julian calendar, the Gregorian calendar was introduced in 1582†. The Gregory was Pope Gregory XIII, for this reason certain countries delayed adoption. This led to certain oddities, e.g., Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the same date, they did not die on the same day. In Spain, St George's day, 23 April 1616 N.S. was a Saturday. Ten days later, a Tuesday in England, was 23 April 1616 O.S.. Voltaire, whose pithy and sarcastic, sharp wit is attributed many observations, explains this thusly: "The English mob preferred their calendar to disagree with the Sun than to agree with the Pope". They changed their minds with the Act of 1751, which had the14th of September, 1752 follow immediately after the 2nd. Russia maintained the Julian calendar to the revolution, the russian church still does.

†The day after October 5, 1582 was October 16, 1582.

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