Sanine by Mikhail Petrovich Artzybashev
"Come to my place, and we will hold a memorial service for the departed," said Ivanoff to Sanine. The latter nodded his acceptance. On the way, they bought vodka and hors d'oeuvres, and overtook Yourii Svarogitsch, who was walking slowly along the boulevard, looking much depressed.
Semenoff's death had made a confused and painful impression upon him which he found it necessary, yet almost impossible, to analyse.
"After all, it is simple enough!" said Yourii to himself, endeavouring to draw a straight, short line in his mind. "Man never existed before he was born; that does not seem to be terrible nor incomprehensible. Man's existence ends when he dies. That is equally simple and easy to comprehend. Death, the complete stoppage of the machine that creates vital force, is perfectly comprehensible; there is nothing terrible about it. There was once a boy named Youra who went to college and fought with his comrades, who amused himself by chopping off the heads of thistles and lived his own special and interesting life in his own special way. This Youra died, and in his place quite another man walks and thinks, the student, Yourii Svarogitsch. If they were to meet, Youra would not understand Yourii, and might even hate him as a possible tutor ready to cause him no end of annoyance. Therefore, between them there is a gulf, and therefore, if the boy Youra is dead, I am dead myself, though till now I never noticed it. That is how it is. Quite natural and simple, after all! If one reflects, what do we lose by dying? Life, at any rate, contains more sadness than happiness. True it has its pleasures and it is hard to lose them, but death rids us of so many ills, that in the end we gain by it. That's simple, and not so terrible, is it?" said Yourii, aloud, with a sigh of relief; but suddenly he started, as another thought seemed to sting him. "No, a whole world, full of life and extraordinarily complicated, suddenly transformed into nothing? No, that is not the transformation of the boy Youra into Yourii Svarogitsch! That is absurd and revolting, and therefore terrible and incomprehensible!"
With all his might Yourii strove to form a conception of this state which no man finds it possible to support, yet which every man supports, just as Semenoff had done.
"He did not die of fear, either," thought Yourii, smiling at the strangeness of such a reflection. "No, he was laughing at us all, with our priest, and our chanting, and tears. How was it that Semenoff could laugh, knowing that in a few moments all would be at an end? Was he a hero? No; it was not a question of heroism. Then death is not as terrible as I thought."
While he was musing thus Ivanoff suddenly hailed him in a loud voice.
"Ah! it's you! Where are you going?" asked Yourii, shuddering.
"To say a mass for our departed friend," replied Ivanoff, with brutal jocularity. "You had better come with us. What's the good of being always alone?"
Feeling sad and dispirited, Yourii did not find Sanine and Ivanoff as distasteful to him as usual.
"Very well, I will," he replied, but suddenly recollecting his superiority, he thought to himself, "what have I really in common with such fellows? Am I to drink their vodka, and talk commonplaces?"
He was on the point of turning back, but he felt such an utter horror of solitude that he went along with them. Ivanoff and Sanine proffered no remarks, and thus in silence they reached the former's lodging. It was already quite dark. At the door, the figure of a man could be dimly seen. He had a thick stick with a crooked handle.
"Oh! it's Uncle Peter Ilitsch!" exclaimed Ivanoff gleefully.
"Yes! that's he!" replied the figure, in a deep, resonant voice. Yourii remembered that Ivanoff's uncle was an old, drunken church chorister. He had a grey moustache like one of the soldiers at the time of Nicholas the First, and his shabby black coat had a most unpleasant smell.
"Boum! Boum!" His voice seemed to come out of a barrel, when Ivanoff introduced him to Yourii, who awkwardly shook hands with him, hardly knowing what to say to such a person. He recollected, however, that for him all men should be equal, so he politely gave precedence to the old singer as they went in.
Ivanoff's lodging was more like an old lumber-room than a place for human habitation, being very dusty and untidy. But when his host had lighted the lamp, Yourii perceived that the walls were covered with engravings of pictures by Vasnetzoff, and that what had seemed rubbish were books piled up in heaps. He still felt somewhat ill at ease, and, to hide this, he began to examine the engravings attentively.
"Do you like Vasnetzoff?" asked Ivanoff as, without waiting for an answer, he left the room to fetch a plate. Sanine told Peter Ilitsch that Semenoff was dead. "God rest his soul!" droned the latter. "Ah! well, it's all over for him now."
Yourii glanced wistfully at him, and felt a sudden sympathy for the old man.
Ivanoff now brought in bread, salted cucumbers, and glasses, which he placed on the table that was covered with a newspaper. Then, with a swift, scarcely perceptible movement, he uncorked the bottle, not a drop of its contents being spilt.
"Very neat!" exclaimed Ilitsch approvingly.
"You can tell in a minute if a man knows what he's about," said Ivanoff, with a self-complacent air, as he filled the glasses with the greenish liquid.
"Now gentlemen," said he, raising his voice as he took up his glass. "To the repose of the departed, &c.!"
With that they began to eat, and more vodka was consumed. They talked little, and drank the more. Soon the atmosphere of the little room grew hot and oppressive. Peter Ilitsch lighted a cigarette, and the air was filled with the bluish fumes of bad tobacco. The drink and the smoke and the heat made Yourii feel dizzy. Again he thought of Semenoff.
"There's something dreadful about death," he said.
"Why?" asked Peter Ilitsch. "Death? Ho! ho!! It's absolutely necessary. Death? Suppose one went on living for ever? Ho! ho!! You mustn't talk like that! Eternal life, indeed! What would eternal life be, eh?"
Yourii at once tried to imagine what living for ever would be like. He saw an endless grey stripe that stretched aimlessly away into space, as though swept onward from one wave to another. All conception of colour, sound and emotion was blurred and dimmed, being merged and fused in one grey turbid stream that flowed on placidly, eternally. This was not life, but everlasting death. The thought of it horrified him.
"Yes, of course," he murmured.
"It appears to have made a great impression upon you," said Ivanoff.
"Upon whom does it not make an impression?" asked Yourii. Ivanoff shook his head vaguely, and began to tell Ilitsch about Semenoff's last moments. It was now insufferably close in the room. Yourii watched Ivanoff, as his red lips sipped the vodka that shone in the lamplight. Everything seemed to be going round and round.
"A--a--a--a--a!" whispered a voice in his ear, a strange small voice.
"No! death is an awful thing!" he said again, without noticing that he was replying to the mysterious voice. "You're over-nervous about it," observed Ivanoff contemptuously.
"Aren't you?" said Yourii.
"I? N--no! Certainly, I don't want to die, as there's not much fun in it, and living is far jollier. But, if one has to die, I should like it to be quickly, without any fuss or nonsense."
"You have not tried yet!" laughed Sanine.
"No; that's quite true!" replied the other.
"Ah! well," continued Yourii, "one has heard all that before. Say what you will, death is death, horrible in itself, and sufficient to rob a man of all pleasure in life who thinks of such a violent and inevitable end to it. What is the meaning of life?"
"It has no meaning," cried Ivanoff irritably.
"No, that is impossible," replied Yourii, "everything is too wisely and carefully arranged, and--"
"In my opinion," said Sanine, "there's nothing good anywhere."
"How can you say that? What about Nature?"
"Nature! Ha, ha!" Sanine laughed feebly, and waved his hand in derision. "It is customary, I know, to say that Nature is perfect. The truth is, that Nature is just as defective as mankind. Without any great effort of imagination any of us could present a world a hundred times better than this one. Why should we not have perpetual warmth and light, and a garden ever verdant and ever gay? As to the meaning of life, of course it has a meaning of some sort, because the aim implies the march of things; without an aim all would be chaos, But this aim lies outside the pale of our existence, in the very basis of the universe. That is certain. We cannot be the origin nor the end of the universe. Our role is a passive, and auxiliary one. By the mere fact of living we fulfil our mission. Our life is necessary; thus our death is necessary also."
"How should I know?" replied Sanine, "and, besides, what do I care? My life means my sensations, pleasant or unpleasant; what is outside those limits; well, to the deuce with it all! Whatever hypothesis we may like to invent, it will always remain an hypothesis upon which it would be folly to construct life. Let him who likes worry about it; as for me, I mean to live!"
"Let us all have a drink on the strength of it!" suggested Ivanoff.
"But you believe in God, don't you?" said Ilitsch, looking at Sanine with bleared eyes. "Nowadays nobody believes in anything--not even in that which is easy of belief."
Sanine laughed. "Yes, I believe in God. As a child I did that, and there's no need to dispute or to affirm any reasons for doing so. It's the most profitable thing, really, for if there is a God, I offer Him sincere faith, and, if there isn't, well, all the better for me."
"But on belief or on unbelief all life is based?" said Yourii.
Sanine shook his head, and smiled complacently.
"No, my life is not based on such things," he said.
"On what, then?" asked Yourii, languidly. "A--a--a! I mustn't drink any more," he thought to himself, as he drew his hand across his cold, moist brow. If Sanine made any reply he did not hear it. His head was in a whirl, and for a moment he felt quite overcome.
"I believe that God exists," continued Sanine, "though I am not certain, absolutely certain. But whether He does or not, I do not know Him, nor can I tell what He requires of me. How could I possibly know this, even though I professed the most ardent faith in Him? God is God, and, not being human, cannot be judged by human standards. His created world around us contains all; good and evil, life and death, beauty and ugliness--everything, in fact, and thus all sense and all exact definition are lost to us, for His sense is not human, nor His ideas of good and evil human, either. Our conception of God must always be an idolatrous one, and we shall always give to our fetish the physiognomy and the garb suitable to the climatic conditions of the country in which we live. Absurd, isn't it."
"Yes, you're right," grunted Ivanoff, "quite right!"
"Then, what is the good of living?" asked Yourii, as he pushed back his glass in disgust, "or of dying, either?"
"One thing I know," replied Sanine, "and that is, that I don't want my life to be a miserable one. Thus, before all things, one must satisfy one's natural desires. Desire is everything. When a man's desires cease, his life ceases, too, and if he kills his desires, then he kills himself."
"But his desires may be evil?"
"Well, what then."
"Then ... they must just be evil," replied Sanine blandly, as he looked Yourii full in the face with his clear, blue eyes.
Ivanoff raised his eyebrows incredulously and said nothing. Yourii was silent also. For some reason or other he felt embarrassed by those clear, blue eyes, though he tried to keep looking at them.
For a few moments there was complete silence, so that one could plainly hear a night-moth desperately beating against the window-pane. Peter Ilitsch shook his head mournfully, and his drink-besotted visage drooped towards the stained, dirty newspaper. Sanine smiled again. This perpetual smile irritated and yet fascinated Yourii.
"What clear eyes he has!" thought he.
Suddenly Sanine rose, opened the window, and let out the moth. A wave of cool, pleasant air, as from soft wings, swept through the room.
"Yes," said Ivanoff, in answer to his own thought, "there are no two men alike, so, on the strength of that, let's have another drink."
"No." said Yourii, shaking his head, "I won't have any more."
"I never drink much."
The vodka and the heat had made his head ache. He longed to get out into the fresh air.
"I must be going," he said, getting up.
"Where? Come on, have another drink!"
"No really, I ought to--" stammered Yourii, looking for his cap.
As Yourii shut the door he heard Sanine saying to Ilitsch, "Of course you're not like children; they can't distinguish good from bad; they are simple and natural; and that is why they--" Then the door was closed, and all was still.
High in the heavens shone the moon, and the cool night-air touched Yourii's brow. All seemed beautiful and romantic, and as he walked through the quiet moonlit streets the thought to him was dreadful that in some dark, silent chamber Semenoff lay on a table, yellow and stiff. Yet, somehow, Yourii could not recall those grievous thoughts that had recently oppressed him, and had shrouded the whole world in gloom. His mood was now of one tranquil sadness, and he felt impelled to gaze at the moon. As he crossed a white deserted square he suddenly thought of Sanine.
"What sort of man is that?" he asked himself.
Annoyed to think that there was a man whom he, Yourii, could not instantly define, he felt a certain malicious pleasure in disparaging him.
"A phrase-maker, that's all he is! Formerly the fellow posed as a pessimist, disgusted with life and bent upon airing impossible views of his own; now, he's trifling with animalism."
From Sanine Yourii's thoughts reverted to himself. He came to the conclusion that he trifled with nothing but that his thoughts, his sufferings, his whole personality, were original, and quite different from those of other men.
This was most agreeable; yet something seemed to be missing. Once more he thought of Semenoff. It was grievous to know that he should never set eyes upon him again, and though he had never felt any affection for Semenoff, he now had become near and dear to him. Tears rose to his eyes. He pictured the dead student lying in the grave, a mass of corruption, and he remembered these words of his:
"You'll be living, and breathing this air, and enjoying this moonlight, and you'll go past my grave where I lie."
"Here, under my feet, like human beings, too," thought Yourii, looking down at the dust. "I am trampling on brains, and hearts, and human eyes! Oh!... And I shall die, too, and others will walk over me, thinking just as I think now. Ah! before it is too late, one must live, one must live! Yes; but live in the right way, so that not a moment of one's life be lost. Yet how is one to do that?"
The market-place lay white and bare in the moonlight. All was silent in the town.
Never more shall singer's lute Tidings of him tell.
Yourii hummed this softly to himself. Then he said, aloud: "How tedious, sad, and dreadful it all is!" as if complaining to some one. The sound of his own voice alarmed him, and he turned round to see if he had been overheard. "I am drunk," he thought.
Silent and serene, the night looked down.