Sunday, November 3, 2013

Alexander Herzen is saved by statistics

The section of My Past and Thoughts about Alexander Herzen’s childhood, I covered that, more or less, just great, and I brushed against the romance that ends the novel, Herzen’s love affair and marriage conducted against what should have been the insuperable obstacle of his political exile.

There is a short piece of that section that shows the downside of a memoir being written like a novel.  Herzen has, or moves toward, an affair with a married woman – this is before he realize how important his cousin, his future wife, is to him – the story of which is told in a series of clichés borrowed from a Balzac novel.  From Balzac if I’m lucky.  Probably something much worse. 

I embraced her and pressed her firmly to my breast.

‘My dear… but go!’  (II.21, 326)

And on that like, although not for too long.  The scene is a curiosity in a book that is otherwise well-written.  Herzen’s imagination fails him, so he finds help where he can.

Most original is Herzen’s account of his arrest, his time in prison, and his exile, written at the distance of twenty years.  At the university Herzen and his friends become radicalized anti-Czarists, opponents of the oppressive Nicholas I.  Their opposition is more intellectual than revolutionary, but that is more than enough to get them into trouble – followed by the secret police, arrested for trivial or false infractions, imprisoned without trial for months (nine months in Herzen’s case), and punished with capricious sentences.  Herzen’s was exile to Russia’s border, not quite to Siberia but as close as possible, to serve as a clerk under a provincial petty tyrant.

The exile was as bad as Herzen had feared.  He was saved by statistics, and by mindless bureaucratic imperatives.

The Ministry of Home Affairs had at that time a craze for statistics: it had given orders for committees to be formed everywhere, and had issued programmes which could hardly have been carried out even in Belgium or Switzerland; at the same time there were all sorts of elaborate tables with maxima and minima, with averages and various deductions from the totals for periods of ten years (made up on evidence which had not been collected for a year before!), with moral remarks and meteorological observations.

All, of course, unfunded.  Herzen turns out to be a master of bureaucratic nonsense, able to quickly write up meaningless statistical gibberish from scratch that is learned enough to sound important but vague enough to avoid trouble.

This passage, however timeless, is a relatively trivial example of the way Herzen uses his own story to address his political concerns.  His own troubles are always small stuff against the other crimes of the autocratic Nicholas and his allies – executions, torture, corruption.

What monstrous crimes are buried in the archives of the wicked, immoral reign of Nicholas!  We are used to them, they were committed every day, committed as though nothing was wrong, unnoticed, lost in the terrible distance, noiselessly sunk in the silent sloughs of officialdom or kept back by the censorship of the police?

Herzen is writing from London, in voluntary exile.  The next volume of the memoirs will tell me how he made that decision.  There should be a lot of good writing along the way.


  1. "Learned enough to sound important but vague enough to avoid trouble." Herzen could have been one of those bloggers who spends three paragraphs summarizing the plot and discussing his/her reactions to the characters without ever once commenting on the intrinsic qualities of the writing!

  2. It is a useful skill! Perhaps they learned how to do it at their own workplace.

  3. Perhaps it's a cliche, and perhaps it's not even true, but it does seem that repressive regimes have a mania for measuring things, for quantification of progress. Maybe all bureaucracy has that mania. Hell, my job title is "budget fiscal analyst" and I produce reports and forecasts all day. Certainly the numbers go a long way in hiding the actual activities.

    "Herzen’s imagination fails him, so he finds help where he can." is a great observation. He had to say something, but he had no idea what, or how, so he fell back upon cliche. I'm tempted to say that he was intimidated by what he really thought and hid behind the hack writing. Maybe.

  4. Yes. I had not thought of that, but yes. Herzen is muddled because there is something he does not want to write. He might not know what it is.

    Herzen is writing at the dawn of the Age of Statistics. His ministers are apparently attending international conferences and seeing French and English presentations - or perhaps they are watching TED talks - about the valuable things that their anti-poverty and clean water commissions have been doing. Alongside this the math is changing rapidly. So the Czar says "Do what they are doing" whether anyone in Russia knows how to do it or not.