Who was Alexander Herzen (1812-1870)? Why has this most important and courageous Russian thinker remained among the least famous, the least read? Yet he figures at the centre of Tom Stoppard’s magnificent trilogy of plays, The Coast of Utopia, is fundamental to Isaiah Berlin’s thought, and now is the subject of Aileen Kelly’s magisterial new biography. Herzen, like John Dewey, was witness to the complexities of his century; a man whose ideas constantly evolved, at the centre of often tragic family and extramarital relationships, the author of far-reaching essays and an autobiography, My Past and Thoughts, generally acknowledged to be a masterwork of Russian prose and one of the great autobiographies of all time. Kelly offers us a new Herzen to consider – not the last of the Romantics, or the radical Russian exile, but the man inspired since boyhood by science and the natural world. Tracing Herzen’s thought through this lens, she places Herzen firmly and unexpectedly within a line of thinkers from Francis Bacon to Charles Darwin.
Along the way, Kelly depicts Herzen’s fascinating early years. Drawing on an impressive array of scholarly and archival materials, she forges a vivid account of the University of Moscow of the day. His friendship with an eccentric cousin known as The Chemist inspired Herzen, surprisingly, to enrol in the Faculty of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, a decision that shaped his thought. Thus Kelly understands his subsequent disillusionment with the upheavals of 1848 as being partly rooted in his sustained interest in science and the natural world rather than simply reflecting a rejection of Romantic political ideals.
Herzen lived primarily in exile – in Italy, France, England and Switzerland; he left Russia at 34, having spent six years in prison and internal exile, never to return. Eventually his complex political opinions alienated him from contemporary Russian writers such as Ivan Turgenev, Vissarion Belinsky, Nikolai Chernyshevsky and Fyodor Dostoevsky, although an admiring Leo Tolstoy wrote, “Our Russian lives…would have been different if this writer had not been hidden from the young generation.” Kelly demonstrates how Herzen’s From the Other Shore anticipates principles affirmed a decade later by Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. She situates Herzen within a “demythologizing tradition in European humanism”. His passionate attack on “philosophies of progress” and his “interest in scientific modes of inquiry and their relevance to the study of history” made him among the first to appreciate Darwin’s discovery of the role of chance in evolution as a “momentous step toward dismantling teleological systems that misrepresent the world and humans’ place in it”. He wrote to his son Sasha about his admiration for Darwin’s relegation of causes that science did not yet understand to a “black box”: “Now there’s an honest thinker…whereas others, as soon as they come up against something they can’t solve, invent a new force, such as a soul.”
Nevertheless, Herzen loved the Gospels, which he said “schooled him in morality rather than religious faith”. Even as Kelly explores the indelible effects of the Darwinian revolution on Herzen’s thought, she traces the painful wellsprings of his personal life, including his guilt over family rifts. “Only in the public arena do I have significance. As a family man I am worthless.” Luckily, he was spared the terrible knowledge of his daughter’s suicide several years after his death.
Robin Feuer Miller is Edytha Macy Gross professor of humanities, Brandeis University.
The Discovery of Chance: The Life and Thought of Alexander Herzen
By Aileen M. Kelly
Harvard University Press, 608p, £29.95
Published 26 May 2016