By Maxim Gorky. A philosophical prose poem first published in “Знание,” 1903.
Today’s post is a little different. It is my translation of Maxim Gorky’s philosophical prose poem called “Man,” first published in 1903. As far as I know, it hasn’t been previously translated.
The poem is an unusual piece in two parts. It’s a sketch of the tragedy of the human condition, the struggle of emotion over reason, as well as a hymn to man, a human being that can rise above its animal nature with the power of pride and reason. Gorky introduces a cast of characters that are all abstract parts of the human condition: Thought, Death, Faith, Love, Deceit, Boredom, Despair, and so on. Man is the battleground for these forces, which all vie for control over him. Man’s only friend is Thought, the most powerful force of all, which is also his weapon against all the others.
A major theme of this struggle is man’s search for meaning, for deciding on what really matters will decide which forces man allows to take over his heart—whether it’s the enjoyment of worldly pleasures, or the pursuit of some “higher,” cerebral ideals—presuming man even has the capacity to decide. Here Gorky gives a Nietzschean answer and picks creativity as his purpose, forgoing power, wealth, and glory, and, dramatically declaring that “death for me is—my reward.” Gorky wrote the poem at the start of the 20th century, when centuries of Western traditions and religion began to fall apart. Their destruction is still ongoing, and the question of what should replace them is as important as it has been in Gorky’s time.
A couple of words about style. The poem is written in prose, but Gorky’s words at times develop a melodious rhythm. In a letter to his publisher, Gorky himself noted this:
Don’t take note of the irregularity of the rhythm, unless it’s too jarring to the ear. I had no intention of writing in rhythmic prose, it happened unexpectedly, brought about, likely, by the theme. I’m not interested in smooth and saccharine verse, and I’m not going to rework the text.
I’ve tried to recreate this quality in my translation, though whether I succeeded or not is not for me to judge.
Another thing to note is that the Russian language oftentimes uses the dash (“—”) in place of “is,” so that a phrase like “my weapon is thought,” can be written in Russian as “my weapon—thought.” This construction is used throughout Gorky’s poem. Because the dash introduces a short pause and a kind of emphasis on what follows, it has a considerable effect on the rhythm. I decided to retain a lot of such dashes in this translation to preserve some of the flow and emphasis of the original, which I don’t think stretches the English conventions too far.
Lastly, a quick word about pronouns, on which there are two points. First, Russian has no distinction between man and human, which are both simply “человек,” and which has no implied gender. I chose to go with “man” in the interests of style. Second, like many other languages, all words in Russian are gendered, meaning that a word like “thought” (“мысль”) is feminine, while “table” (“стол”) is masculine, so that in Russian one would refer to thought as “she” and a table as “he” rather than “it” (although the third neuter gender, “it,” also exists). This feature of the language has the effect of anthropomorphizing expressionist prose, helping to turn abstract forces and ideas into vivid characters. Because in Gorky’s poem forces like Thought, Deceit, Hope, Death, etc., are active participants of the story, I decided to keep the Russian gendered pronouns that refer to them, especially as Gorky calls some of these forces “sisters” or “daughters” (all the forces happen to be feminine).
In the hours of the soul’s fatigue—when memory reanimates the shadows of the past and they begin to chill the heart, when thought, like an impassive autumn sun, lights up the bodeful chaos of the present and circles ominously above the chaos of the day, powerless to rise upwards, to fly forward—in the heavy hours of the soul’s fatigue I summon before me the sublime image of Man.
Man! It is as though a sun is born within my breast, and in its bright light there marches—forward! and—upwards!—the tragically beautiful Man!
I see his proud forehead and his brave, deep eyes, and in them—rays of fearless Thought, that august force, which, in moments of fatigue—creates gods, and in epochs of cheerfulness—disgorges them.
Lost amid the cosmic wastelands, alone upon a tiny piece of earth, rushing with elusive speed somewhere into the depth of immeasurable space, tormented by a painful question—“why does he exist?”—he moves courageously—forward! and—upwards!—on the path to victory over all the mysteries of the earth and the heavens.
He walks, irrigating his difficult, lonely, proud path with the blood of his heart, and from this searing blood he creates—the eternal flowers of poetry; the sad cries of his rebellious soul he fashions skillfully into music; from experience—he makes the sciences, and, adorning life with every step, like the sun’s lavish rays adorn the earth—he moves ever—upwards! and—forward! as the earth’s guiding star…
Armed only with the faculty of Thought, which is, at times, akin to lightning, at times, like a blade, is coldly calm—the free, proud Man walks far afore the people and above life, alone—amid the mysteries of being, alone—amid the crowd of his mistakes… a heavy burden on his proud heart, which injures it, and rends his brain, and fills him with a searing shame that calls him—to destroy them.
He walks! Instincts bellow in his breast; vanity’s repulsive voice whines like a brazen beggar, demanding alms; tenacious fibers of attachments begin enveloping his heart, like ivy, sapping away his blood, demanding loudly concessions to their power… All feelings crave to rule him; all thirst to dominate his soul.
And all the clouds of daily trifles are like the mud upon his road, like toads upon his path.
And like the planets orbiting the sun, Man is encircled by the products of his creative spirit: his ever yearning Love; behind him, in the distance, Friendship is limping; before him walks a wearied Hope; here’s Hatred, seized by Rage, the fetters of restraint ringing upon her hands; and here’s Faith, her dark eyes gazing into his rebellious face, forever ready to accept him into the tranquility of her embrace…
He knows them all in his unhappy entourage—ugly, imperfect and weak are the products of his creative spirit!
Clothed in the rags of worn out truths, poisoned by prejudice, they march malevolently after Thought, unable to keep up with her flight, like a raven cannot keep up with an eagle, arguing with her about supremacy, seldomly merging with her into a single powerful, creative flame.
And so, too, here is Man’s eternal satellite—the mute, mysterious Death, forever ready to kiss that heart of his that blazes with a thirst for life.
He knows them all in his immortal entourage, and, finally, he knows one more—Insanity…
Winged, powerful, like a whirlwind, she watches Man with her aggressive gaze and tempts Thought with her power, luring her into her wild dance…
And it is only Thought who is Man’s friend, it’s only her with whom he’s never parted, it’s only her whose flame illuminates the obstacles upon his path, the riddles of his life, the twilight of the mysteries of nature and the dark chaos within his heart.
Man’s free friend, Thought gazes everywhere with her sharp, keen eye, unsparingly illuminating all:
Love’s guileful, vulgar tricks, her wish to dominate her loved one, her yearning to humiliate and be humiliated and—the dirty face of Sensuality behind her; the timid powerlessness of Hope, and, behind her—Deceit—her own sister, the well-dressed, made-up Deceit, ever ready to console all and always and—to fool them with a beautiful lie.
Thought sees the calculating cautiousness in Friendship’s spineless heart, her cruel, empty curiosity, the rotten spots of envy, the shoots of slander growing over them.
Thought sees the power of black Hatred and knows: should she ever be unfettered, she would annihilate the earth, sparing nothing, not even the tiny sprouts of justice!
In tranquil Faith, Thought sees an evil thirst for total power, a craving to control all sentiments, the hidden claws of zealotry, the powerlessness of her heavy wings, and—the blindness of her vacant eyes.
She enters battle too with Death: she, having created Man from animal, she, having created a multitude of gods, systems of philosophy, the sciences—the keys to all the mysteries of the world—the free, immortal Thought—she deems this force repugnant and belligerent, pointless and senselessly malign.
She sees Death as a peddler of old rags, who rummages backyards in search of the rejected, rotten, useless refuse for her dirty bag, but who, at times, also steals brazenly the healthy and the strong.
Saturated with the odor of decay, wrapped in a shroud of horror, impassive, faceless, mute, forever Death remains a mystery to man, black and severe, but Thought is studying her jealously—creative and bright, like the sun, filled with mad audacity and proud knowledge of immortality…
Thus walks the rebellious Man through the horrifying darkness of the mysteries of being—forward! and—upwards! ever—forward! and—upwards!
He’s tired now, he’s staggering and groaning; his frightened heart seeks Faith, beseeches Love’s gentle caresses.
And three birds born of Weakness—Dismay, Depression and Despair—three black, hideous birds—they circle bodefully over his soul, grimly singing him a song that says that he’s a petty little bug whose consciousness is limited, that Thought is powerless, that sacred Pride is laughable, and that—whatever he might do—he’ll die!
This song, false and malevolent, frightens his tormented heart; doubt’s needles prick his brain, a tear of resentment glistens upon his eye…
And if Man’s Pride does not grow outraged, his dread of Death will drive him straight into the dungeon cell of Faith, and Love, smiling victoriously, will draw him into her embrace, concealing in the loud promises of happiness a doleful powerlessness to be free, and instinct’s greedy despotism…
In unison with Deceit, the timid Hope sings him of the joys of rest, sings of the quiet happiness of acceptance and lulls the drowsy soul with her soft, beautiful words, pushing it into the shadow of sweet Laziness and Boredom’s paws, who is her daughter.
And so, by the suggestion of shortsighted feelings, he hastens to fill his brain and heart with the sweet poison of that cynical Deceit, which teaches openly that Man has no way other than the one that leads into the barnyard of calm self satisfaction.
But Thought is proud, and Man is dear to her—she enters into a ferocious battle with Deceit, upon the battleground that is the heart of Man.
She tracks him like an enemy; like a worm, she wears down his brain; like a drought, she devastates his breast; and, like an executioner, she tortures Man, his heart crushed by her cold yearning for truth, the stern, wise truth of life, which, though it grows slowly, stands clear amid the darkness of delusions, a fire flower born of Thought.
But if Man, poisoned by Deceit, believes incurably and mournfully that there is no happiness on earth beyond the fullness of the stomach and that the soul can have no pleasure higher than satiety, repose and comfortable living, then, imprisoned by sensation, Thought sorrowfully folds her wings and—slumbers, leaving Man under the power of his heart.
And, like an infectious cloud, rotten Vulgarity, the daughter of base Boredom, crawls at Man from every side, her harsh gray dust enveloping his brain, his heart, his eyes.
And through his weakness Man loses his own self, reborn into an animal with neither Pride nor Thought…
But should outrage ignite within him, it would awaken Thought, and—again he marches onward, alone over the thorns of his mistakes, alone amid the burning sparks of doubt, alone amid the ruins of old truths!
August, proud and free, he bravely gazes into the eyes of Truth and tells his doubts:
“You lie in saying that I’m weak, and that my consciousness has limits! It—grows! I know it, I see it and I feel it—it grows in me! This growth I recognize by the amount of my suffering, for if it didn’t grow, I know I wouldn’t suffer more…
“With every step I take I want ever more, I feel more, I see more, and deeper, and this quick growth of my desires—it is my consciousness’s powerful growth! Right now it’s but a spark within me—but so what? For sparks—they’re the mothers of fires! To be a fierce blaze amid the darkness of the universe—that is my fate! My calling is to light the world, to melt the darkness of its secret mysteries, to find the harmony between the world and me, to fashion harmony within myself and, having lit up the whole of life’s dark chaos on this tormented earth, covered, like a skin disease, by a bark of misfortune, sorrow, grief and spite—to sweep away the evil dirt into the graveyard of the past!
“I’m called to solve the tangles of delusions and mistakes, which bind frightened men into a bloody and repulsive clump of beasts, devouring each other!
“I’m made by Thought to overturn, destroy and trample everything that’s old, everything cramped and dirty, everything malign—and to create the new upon the solid foundations forged by Thought: freedom, beauty and—respect for people!
“My opposition to the poverty of human desires is implacable, I want every human to be a Man!
“And all this life, in which the backbreaking, slavish labor of some is gone without a trace to sate the appetites of others with bread and spiritual gifts—it’s senseless, shameful and repulsive!
“Let all the prejudices, biases and habits, which, like a sticky web, wrap people’s brains and lives, be damned. Their oppression of the people hinders life—I will destroy them!
“My weapon’s Thought, and a firm certainty in her freedom, her immortality, her creativity’s eternal growth—she’s the wellspring of my power!
“Thought is my only true, eternal lighthouse in the murkiness of life, a fire amid the gloom of life’s shameful delusions; I see that it burns ever brighter, lighting the depths of mysteries’ abysses, and so I walk in her immortal rays, after her, ever—upwards! and—forward!
“For Thought there are no citadels that cannot be assailed, no steadfast shrines, not here on earth, nor up above! She is the architect of all and so holds an inalienable, sacred right to knock down everything that might impede the freedom of her growth.
“I calmly see that prejudices are the fragments of old truths, and that the clouds of delusions that hover over life are all created from the ashes of old verities, burned by the flame of that same Thought that once created them.
“And I can see that those who win are not the ones who seize the fruits of victory, but only those left standing…
“Creation—in this I see life’s meaning—it’s limitless and self-sufficient!
“I march to burn as brightly as I can and to illuminate life’s darkness. And death for me is—my reward.
“I need no other; power appears to me shameful and dull; riches—burdensome and stupid; and glory—a prejudice born of people’s lack of self-esteem and their slavish habit of self-humiliation.
“Doubts! You are but sparks of Thought, no more. She tries herself with her own power, creating you from an excess of strength, feeding you—with her own might!
“A day will come when in my breast the great, creative flame of my emotions will merge with my immortal Thought, and from my soul this flame will burn away everything dark and evil, and I’ll become akin to gods that were and are the products of my Thought!
“Everything is in Man—everything is for Man!”
And now again, august and free, raising his proud head high, he walks slowly but firmly over the ashes of old prejudices, alone within the gray fog of delusions, behind him—the heavy dust cloud of the past, and ahead—a crowd of mysteries impassively awaits him.
They’re as countless as the stars in the empyrean abyss, and Man’s path is endless!
Thus walks the rebellious Man—forward! and—upwards! ever—forward! and—upwards!