|The Heart of Holy Russia
|"Above Moscow is nothing but the Kremlin; and above the Kremlin is nothing but Heaven." -- Russian Proverb.|
Observers so well, yet so diversely, equipped as Von Moltke and Theophile Gautier, concur in amazement at this city of miracle. As one would expect, the truly original mind of the strategist finds worthier expressions than that of the mere expert in words.
Gautier, writing of St. Basil's, explains himself in such forcible-feeble photography as this: "On dirait un gigantesque madrepore, une cristallization colossale, une grotte a stalactites retournee."
The soldier sums the whole city in a phrase of inner truth: "On se croit transporte dans une de ces villes que l'imagination sait se representer, mais qu'en realite l'on ne voit jamais."
All of us, I hope, and in particular my Lord Dunsany and Mr S. H. Sime, have seen these cities of the imagination; and the more we have travelled the world, the more we have grown content with our disappointments. Delhi, Agra, Benares, Rome, London, Cairo, Naples, Anuradhapura, Venice, Stockholm, all fall short in one way or another of making one exclaim as I exclaimed when my eyes first fell upon the great east wall of the Kremlin, its machicolated red brick crowned by the domes of the cathedrals, its Tartar towers culminating in the glorious Gate of the Saviour, flanked by ineffable St Basil: "A hashish dream come true." There is nothing in de Quincey, Ludlow, or Baudelaire so fantastic-beautiful as the sober truth of Moscow. It has not been planned; it obeys no "laws of art." It is arbitrary as God, and as unchallengable. It is not made in any image of man's mind: it is the creation of mind loosed from the thrall of even so elemental a yoke as mathematics.
It is the imagination incarnate in metal and stone. It is the absurd in which Tertullian believed. It is a storm of beauty, a mad poet's idea of heaven. It mocks human reason. It belongs to no school or period; it could not be imitated or equalled, because the mind of even the greatest artist has limitations, grooves of thought; and in Moscow, it is the unexpected which always happens. Happens: the Kremlin is an accident. The town itself is an accident. There is no particular geographical reason for it being where it is. As to natural advantages, it has none. There is a small river, perhaps half as wide as the Harlem River or the Thames at London Bridge, and a hill no higher than Morningside or Ludgate Hill. Go to the top of Ivan Veliky one clear day and you will see but vastness of plain all ways to the horizon, save for that low mount-line whence Napoleon first saw the city. It has no Vesuvius, no bay of blue, no crested Posilippo. It has no seven hills. It has no mountain setting, no mighty river, no possibility of background but the sky. And there it is, unassailably magnificent, sheer warlock's work. It is the sudden crystallization of one of those "barbarous names of Evocation" of which Zoroaster speaks. It is the efflorescence of a Titan vice, the judgment of the God that turned Lot's wife into a pillar of salt upon a spinthria of the whole race of giants. For, like the Thyrsus around whose spear twist vine tendrils, every dominant form of the Kremlin is a fantasy upon one theme, and that a theme of which the sun himself is but the eidolon. It is the Lord of Life, the Giver of Life, the bountiful, the single, the master of ecstasy, the fulfiller of promise, the witness of the invisible, the viceregent and arbiter of the godhead, the mainspring of manhood, the compeller of destiny, that is commemorated in this wilderness of wonder.
This Basil church (might one not say Basilisk church?) is the solution of the platonic antinomy of the Many and the One. There are no two spires alike, either in color or in form or in juxtaposition. Each asserts that unity is in multiplicity in unity; each is a mathematical demonstration of the identity of being and form.
Here is the arcanum of the Brothers of the Rose and Cross; here the solution of the problem of the alchemists; here the square is circled, here the cube is doubled, here is perpetual motion in unmoving stone; the volatile is fixed, the fixed is volatile, Hermes has laid Christ the cornerstone, and Hiram-abif has set his seal upon the pinnacle of the temple.
And as I gaze in this July full moon, facing the Northern Lights, eternally brightening and never growing brighter, behind the frozen dream, suddenly the rich silence breaks into sound. Incomparable beauty of the bells of Moscow! There are no other bells in the world that can for a moment be compared with them. And they play music. Not tunes vulgarized by cheap association, not imitation of any other music, but melodies all their own, as wonderful to the ear as is the city to the eye. In accord with the miracle of the building, they repeat the great work accomplished in every phantasy of phrase, the lesser bells answering the greater like the nymphs caressing Bacchus.
It is stupendous, unbearable; the consciousness breaks into ecstasy; one becomes part -- that peculiar part which is the whole -- of the choral colossus. There is no more limitation; time, space, the conditions of the ego, disappear with the ego itself in that abyss of eternity, that indivisible and instantaneous point, which is the universe.
Within the churchs is infinite prodigality of gold. Except in St Saviour's, a modern Europeanized bad church, height is always so disproportionate to breadth that one might fancy oneself in the torture chamber of a Sadistic god. Up and up, out of sight, stretch the fierce frescoes, with their snakes and dragons that devour the saints, their gods, bearded as their own popes, and their devils, winged and speared like the horsemen of the steppes that their forefathers feared. All sight, in these dimly-lit shrines, ceases before the shaft of the divine instrument starts from the curves -- slight enough -- of the roof. When these churches were built, the windows had to be minute, because of winter. Ivan the Terrible was ignorant of "chauffage centrale." The effect is unpleasing, the void breaks in upon form and eats it up. It turns the whole edifice into a magic mouth gold-fanged, whose throat sucks up the soul into annihilation.
There is no truly original feature in the art of the frescoes, which recall the Primitives. It is the superb barbaric indifference to balance, which plies gold on gold. Only the faces, hands, and feet in ikons are uncovered; the robes, carved in gold or silver-gilt, or woven in pearl and every other precious stone, cover the canvas. These faces and hands are indecipherable, would be so even in good light. At first, one dislikes the gap in the gold. At second, one gives up criticism and adores. The whole overpowers; nothing else matters. One is in presence of a positive force, making a direct appeal. The lumber of culture goes overboard. Fact, elemental fact, reaching beyond all canons, is with one and upon one. There are the coffins of a hundred Tsars, red copper slightly bronzed, each with name and date in high relief, the simplest ornaments in holy Russia. Above the coffins of the Romanoffs hangs a marvellous golden canopy. Along one side are mighty banners, ikons encased in gold. And the Sanctuary has St Michael, mighty and terrible, slaying the serpent; for this is the Church of the Archangel. The floor is purple with porphyry, rough and uneven blocks on which the squarer never toiled, but polished by millions of devout feet for centuries.
Go into the Church of the Assumption. Here is the fresco of Jonah with his adventures from the casting-overboard to the preaching in Nineveh. And one passes from the corridor direct into a dim sanctuary, its pictures, painted with infinite detail, invisible even by the light of a taper -- and one acquiesces in the eternal truth that invisibility is no drawback to the appreciation of a picture! Further along, a sombre clerestory holds a vast reliquary of gold and silver, the covers half drawn to show most aged bones of saints; here a hand, there a foot, here again a bone which piety has decorated with gold wires.
And through all moves the concourse of many women and some men, prostrating themselves, crossing themselves ceaselessly, kissing the frames of the relics one by one, testifying most notable to the vitality of the faith thus mummied, the faith, which, as Eliphas Levi said, has not inspired a single eloquence since Photius. The popes are the most despised of the people; the cult is bound hand and foot in the winding sheet of a formality one hundred times more costive than the Roman: and yet it tingles and throbs with overwhelming life. Again the antinomy of things is conquered; it is as if "lucus a non lucendo" were recognized as an absolute and irreversible canon of philology.
The secret is in the Russian himself. He is the natural martyr and saint, the artist in psychology. Most people are exquisitely aware that even the commonest Russian regards the sexual act as a serious scientific experiment, with grave concern studying the personal equation in all its details, never admitting enthusiasm until the stage directions so ordain. This principle is carried as far in religion. The people cross themselves when they feel like it, prostrate themselves by no discoverable rule. Each man carries out his cult with no reference to his neighbor. Each is present in order to work himself into religious ecstasy. If he succeeds, he has been to church; if not, he hasn't.
The Russian understands suffering itself as a thing to observe, not to feel. He accepts the hardships of his lot as God's experiment with man. The means is nothing, the end all. Hence the patient longing of his dog-like eyes, and the beautitude glimmering from his pale cheeks. Hence the joy in sorrow and sorrow in joy of his whole mental composition. Hence his long- suffering and his fierceness, his tenderness and his brutality. The Great Mean is realized by the exhaustion of the extremes. It is the Chinese Taoist philosophy in practice, and at the same time the antithesis of that plan of achieving everything by doing nothing.
As instructive as the Russian at prayer is the Russian at debauch. He drinks to get drunk, realizing the agony of the limitations of life as much as Buddha, though the one finds sorrow in change, and the other seeks change as the remedy of sorrow. And so all his gaiety only amounts to a wish that he were dead, or at least mad; he strives to overcome the enemy, life-as-it-is, by entering a realm where its conditions no longer threaten and obsess.
His method is childish, to our supercilious eyes, for we have gone through
the mill of the Renaissance and a hundred other educational crises, while Russia -- with
deadly exception presently to be noted -- has remained a "spring [shut] up, a
All this is Moscow, the heart of holy Russia; whose crown is the Kremlin; it does not apply to Warsaw, with its sordid gangs of Jews and Roman Catholics, or to Petersburg with its constantly increasing taint of sham Parisianism. Paris at its best is a poor thing; unless it is one's own in a most special sense one must be very intimate with artists to escape the commercial gaiety of Montmartre, the ruined boulevards, and the general tawdriness of its second-rate monuments. But the worst elements of Russia have annexed the worst elements of Paris:
"Whose manners still our tardy apish nation
Paris is the Circe that turns Russians into swine.
Were I not resolved to keep politics out of this paper, I could adduce
some singular evidence to this effect.
Then another, lofty, with a straight stripe of red and green. Now comes the main spire, shaped rather like a wine-bottle, fretted with myriad false arches, adorned in red, green, and Naples yellow. Its gland is gold. Then a grey shaft supports a gland trellised with green, yellow diamond pyramids filling the spaces. Last comes a high lingam decorated with false arches, its gland of red and green pyramids set spiral. At the foot is a grey covered balcony; and admission is gained by a quasi-Chinese causeway whose spires are covered with green-grey scales, ribbed with red, white, and green. The whole is further ornamented chiefly with bars of red, white, yellow, orange, and green in various combinations, and the flat spaces with painted flowers in pots, executed in a style somewhat recalling certain phases of post- impressionism.
There is the northern aspect. So ineffective is it to expose the mechanism
of a masterpiece! As one walks round it -- round is a correct term, for the ground plan is
circular, not angled -- new towers swing into view, always fantastically varied, yet never
permitting the impression of the whole to alter by a jot.
to be continued