Two favourite passages from ‘On the Cause’ in From Paris to St. Petersburg: Selected Diaries of Zinaida Hippius, trans. Temira Pachmuss. I had never expected to find it in a library, and I’m gutted that I didn’t have time to finish it before leaving the country for four months, but it’s nice to think that I’ll still have some left, something new – words of Gippius’ I don’t already know – waiting for me when I return.
Three things, one silly and two proper:
One: While reading the first diary in the book, ‘Contes d’amour’, and as she recounted her many involvements with other men but made no mention of Merezhkovsky, I found myself wondering just when it was that the two of them had got married. At first I said to myself ‘oh, my mistake – she must have married later than I thought’, and a little later, as the diary progressed through the 1890s – ‘she’s still not married? I know less than I thought’. Finally, as the diary reached the turn of the century and still she had made no mention of Merezhkovsky, I looked it up – and it turns out they wed in 1889, so that she’d been his wife the entire time. Good grief.
Two: One of the reasons I adored ‘On the Cause’ so much in particular is because of the way in which it reads just like a novel. I wish I could quote to give examples but of course I won’t have it to hand until Christmas, but I think this is evident in the two passages above (and that’s why I had liked them so much). All her actions are so serious and every word, every gesture (a kiss, for example) imbued with such a profound level of meaning. I find myself thinking again of the way in which Teffi wrote about her, her surprise at the fact Gippius and Merezhkovsky were real people who spoke of everyday things and loved crime novels. How does Gippius manage to put forward in ‘On the Cause’ a life that is so fictional? How does she imbue everything with such drama, everything a little beyond what we might expect of a person, and how are her relationships with Merezhkovsky and Filosofov portrayed with such intensity, as if we might watch them in a brooding period film? Is she simply leaving out everyday matters, and only writing very selectively? To a certain extent I think so, and that this is natural; she is, after all, setting out to write only about her C/church and its conception – we shouldn’t expect to find everything here. And yet I wonder, reading her, if we might all seek such things – the profound, the spiritual – in our own lives; that they are there, but we do not know it, we are not used to looking. All our emotions have depth and perhaps Gippius is simply better at getting to those depths than us, and therefore able to better write of them and put forward her life, faith, and actions in a particular way. If this is so, that perhaps we aren’t as attuned to such things as she, I believe it’s because…
Three: …one of the things I draw from most in Gippius’ writing is the way in which she seems to know herself; and again I wish I could quote to prove it, but those who have read her might know what I mean. It is, to me, one of the most admirable of qualities, and one I always strive for. How can we expect to write about others – and therefore understand others – if we are not ready to try and understand ourselves? How can those who write find the words to best describe others if we do not know the words we would use for ourselves?
To me Gippius is very good at this grappling with oneself, trying to understand oneself, as much as a struggle as it may often be. If her emotional, spiritual, and sexual convictions change – and they often do! – they are while she holds them clear and ardent, and she is able to not only articulate them with astonishing eloquence but chart their developments, crises, and contradictions with great honesty.
I’m afraid of not being able to articulate what I mean and that my thoughts about it end up not being about Gippius any longer at all; yet perhaps it’s important that we are then able to ‘go forward’ with what a text has taught us and begin to apply it elsewhere. So: I think such an ability to look into oneself (rather than at oneself – for I think there is a difference) without fear might offer more than just ‘practice’ for the writer; we might use it to enrich our own lives and to heal. By its greater insight, seeking to so deeply ‘know’ ourselves might spare us pain and confusion; for though she is able to regard her perceived shortcomings with certain objectivity, reading Gippius I see also an acknowledgement of the reality (for I hate the word ‘validity’!) of her emotions, as well as a great respect for them. Rather than hiding from certain feelings, and refusing to examine why we hold certain beliefs, we might be able to more readily confront them: if we can say ‘I feel like x, because of y, and I know it and admit it’ then perhaps it becomes a little easier to say ‘if I wish to change this, I must seek to do z.’ – and be kinder to ourselves about everything: ‘I feel x, but this was caused by y, so it’s only natural my response should be z and I shouldn’t punish myself for it.’
We are always with our selves, so we must learn to understand them in order to live with them; seeking such a level of introspection and understanding of the self as Gippius’ might, I believe, allow us all a greater degree of compassion and self-love.