Speech to the First All-Union
Congress of Soviet Writers
Moscow, August 1934

Translated by David Powelstock

presented by    
"...what I had thought
to be my treasure was
in fact my poverty."

n every person there is bad and there is good. I cannot believe there could be such a man who would not understand what it is to be vain, or a coward, or an egoist. Every person is capable of feeling within himself the sudden appearance of any sort of double you please. In the artist this manifests itself especially vividly, and in this resides one of the surprising characteristics of the artist: the experiencing of others' passions.

In each person are planted the seedlings of the most various passions--both light and dark. The artist is capable of stretching these seedlings out and transforming them into trees. If the most precious flowerings in Lev Tolstoy are Platon Karataev and Captain Tushin, then in Tolstoy the artist's soul, such terrible pictures as the seduction of Father Sergius by the short-legged imbecile Maria grow no less easily and are experienced with full sensuousness. One cannot describe a third person without becoming, at least for a moment, that third person. In the artist live all vices and all virtues.

The artist is often asked, "How do you know? Did you think this up yourself?" Yes, the artist thinks everything up himself. Of course, it is impossible to think anything up that is not in nature. But the artist's relationship with nature is such that nature reveals to him some of its secrets; nature is on better terms with him than with others. I can create the image of a coward on the basis of exceptionally trivial recollections of childhood with the help of my memory, in which there is preserved a hint, a trace, a contour of some action, perhaps barely begun, whose impetus was cowardice.

One could write a book entitled, The Transformation Machine, that would recount the artist's work, showing how certain lived impressions or other are transformed in the artist's consciousness into the images of art. This is an unstudied area, an area that seems mysterious because it has not yet been understood.

The work of this machine--the transformation machine--is acutely felt by the [artist's] entire organism. Its workings do not proceed without cost to the organism, and from this stems the difficulty of being an artist.

The artist's relation to good and bad, to vices and virtue, are exceptionally far from simple. When you depict a negative hero, you yourself become negative, you raise up from the bottom of your soul what is bad, what is sordid; that is, you confirm for yourself that it exists within you--this badness, this sordidness--and therefore take upon your consciousness a very heavy psychological burden.

Goethe once said, "I wanted to read Macbeth one more time, but did not dare. I was afraid that in my state at the time this reading would kill me."

An image can kill the artist.

Six years ago I wrote the novel Envy. The central character of this story was Nikolai Kavalerov. I was told that there was much of myself in Kavalerov, that this type was autobiographical, that Kavalerov was I myself.

Yes, Kavalerov looked at the world through my eyes. Kavalerov's tints, colors, images, comparisons, metaphors and mental judgments belonged to me. And these were the freshest, brightest tints I could see. Many of them came from my childhood, retrieved from a most cherished nook, from my repository of unrepeatable observations.

As an artist, I expressed in Kavalerov the purest power, the power of the primary thing, the power of retelling primary impressions. And right away it was said that Kavalerov was a vulgar and worthless individual. Aware that much in Kavalerov came from me personally, I took this accusation of worthlessness and vulgarity to apply to me, and it astounded me.

I did not believe it, and I kept it to myself. I could not believe that a person with fresh perceptions and the ability to see the world in his own way could be a vulgar and worthless individual. I said to myself, this means that all this ability, all that is your own, all that you yourself consider to be powerful--is worthless and vulgar. Is this so? I wanted to believe that the comrades who criticized me (these were communist critics) were right, and I believed them. I began to think that what I had thought to be my treasure was in fact my poverty.

In this way there arose in me the idea of the pauper. I imagined myself as a pauper. I imagined a very difficult, sorrowful life--the life of a person from whom everything has been taken away. The artist's imagination came to my aid, and its breath transformed the naked thought of social irrelevance into invention; and I decided to write a story about the pauper.

Well, once I was young; I had a childhood and a youth. Now I live, unneeded by anyone, vulgar and worthless. What am I to do? And I am becoming a pauper, a pauper in the truest sense. I stand on the steps of the pharmacy begging for alms, and they call me "the writer."

This is a terribly touching story to tell oneself; one terribly enjoys feeling sorry for oneself.

Having descended to the very bottom, barefoot, in a quilted jacket, I walk across the country and pass over construction sites. The towers of the construction, the fire--and I continue on, barefoot. One strange morning, in the purity and freshness of the morning, I walk past walls. Sometimes it happens that in a field, not far from a populated area, there stands a half-destroyed wall. The meadow, a few trees, some thistle, a fragment of the wall, and the wall's shadow on the meadow--these are more sharply defined, more rectilinear than the wall itself. I begin walking away from the corner and I see that there is an archway in the wall--a narrow entrance rounded in the form of an arch at the top, like the kind in Renaissance paintings. I approach this entrance, I see the threshold. There are steps in front of it. I peer in and see extraordinary greenness.... Perhaps there are goats. I step over the threshold, enter, and then I look at myself and see something. It is youth. My youth has returned.

Suddenly, for no apparent reason, my youth has been returned to me. I see the young skin of my hands; I'm wearing a t-shirt; I have become young--I am sixteen years old. Nothing more is wanted; all doubts, all torments are gone. I have become young. All of life lies before me.

I wanted to write such a story. I thought about it. I analyzed it and realized that my foremost dream was the dream of retaining the right to the colors of my youth; my foremost dream was to preserve the righteousness of my youth, to defend freshness from the assertion that it is irrelevant, from the assertion that freshness is vulgar, worthless.

I am not to blame that my youth was spent at a time when the world surrounding us was dreadful.

I realized that the reason behind this idea was the desire to show that I possessed the power of colors inside me, and that it would be absurd not to make use of these colors. I did not write this story about the pauper. I did not understand at the time what was happening, why I could not write it. I came to understand it later. I realized that it was a matter not of what was inside me, but of what surrounded me. I had not lost my youth. It was not necessary for me to think about its return, because I am an artist. But any given artist can write only that which he is in the position to write.

While I was considering the theme of the pauper, searching for youth--the country was constructing factories. This was the first Five-Year Plan for the creation of Socialist industry. This was not my theme. I could travel to a construction site, live at the factory among the workers, describe them in an essay, or even a novel--but this was not my theme; it was not a theme rooted in the circulation of my blood, in my breathing. In this theme I was not a real artist. I would have been lying, making things up; I would not have had what one calls inspiration. It is difficult for me to grasp the worker type, the revolutionary hero type. I cannot be them.

It was beyond my powers, beyond my understanding. That is why I was not writing about such things. I grew alarmed and began to think that I was useful to no one, that there was nothing to which my peculiar abilities as an artist could be applied; and this is why the terrible image of the pauper arose in me, an image that was killing me.

But meanwhile the country was growing younger. There are already young people who are 17 years old and who do not possess a single thought that connects them to the old world.

At that time, composing "The Pauper," I peered through that fairy-tale archway and failed to understand the most important thing; I failed to understand that I believe in the youth of [our] country, that I wish not for the return of my own youth, but to see the youth of [our] country, that is, to see new people.

And now I see them. And I have the proud thought that their nascent youth in a certain sense represents the return of my own youth. The most terrible thing is to belittle oneself, to say that I am nothing in comparison to a worker or Komsomol member. How can one say such things and continue to live and work? No, I have enough pride to say, regardless of the fact that I was born in the old world, that within me, in my soul, in my imagination, in my life, in my dreams--there is much that places me on the same level as the worker, as the Komsomol member. And in accepting the worker's and Komsomol member's suggestions as to how I ought to live and work, I know that this is not the kind of conversation in which one speaks and the other remains silent, but a conversation in which two, clinging tightly to one another, discuss how they might find the best solution.

There was much in my youth, in my reveries, in my relationship to the world that I can now depict in my writings as belonging to the person of the new world, the young Komsomol member and worker. The world has become younger. Young people have appeared. I have matured, my thinking has grown stronger, but the colors within have remained the same. Thus came about the miracle I had dreamed of, peering into that archway. Thus did my youth return to me.

This is, of course, a rather grandiose, figurative way of putting it.

It is really much simpler than that. The people who were building factories, the heroes of construction, those who were collectivizing the countryside, those who were doing all these things that seemed inconceivable to me and were turning me into a pauper--these people--Glory to them!--with all their amazing activity, which I had disregarded, have created a government, a socialist country, a motherland!

Under this government the first young generation is growing; the young Soviet person is growing. As an artist, I rush toward him: "Who are you; what colors do you see; do you dream; what do you dream about; how do you perceive yourself; how do you love; what feelings do you have; what do you reject and what do you accept; what is your nature; which predominates in you, feeling or reason; do you know how to cry; are you tender; do you understand what used to frighten me, what I feared; what are you like, young person of socialist society?" I cannot write without finding an analogy between you and myself.

I wish to create the type of the young person, endowing him with the best of what I had in my youth.

I consider that the historical task of the writer is to write books that will arouse in our youth the feeling of emulation, the feeling of the necessity of being better. One must choose what is best within oneself, in order to create the portrait of a person who might serve as a model. The writer must be a nurturer and a teacher.

I, personally, have set for myself the task of writing about young people. I shall write plays and stories in which the protagonists work out problems of a moral character. Somewhere within me lives the conviction that Communism is not only an economic system, but also a moral system, and the first to embody this aspect of Communism will be the young men and women.

My entire sense of beauty, refinement, nobility, my entire way of seeing the world--from the image of a dandelion, a hand, a feather-bed, a leap, to the most complex psychological ideas--I shall strive to embody my vision in these things in such a way as to show that the new socialist relationship to the world represents a human relationship in the purest sense. Such is the return of youth. I have not become a pauper. The treasure I once possessed remains intact; this treasure expresses itself in the knowledge that the world with its grasses, its dawns, its colors--is beautiful, and that what has made it bad is the domination of money, the domination of man over man. Under the domination of money this world was fantastical and distorted. Now, for the first time in the history of culture, it has become real and just.


Translated by David Powelstock
Brandeis University

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