I post here a few short pieces by Vatslav Vorovsky, who was the first director of Gosizdat (State Publishing House).
Sclavus saltans (Dancing slave)
V.V. Vorovsky. (signed as: 'P. Orlovsky'), Odessa Review, January 8, 1909.
There is a good custom of summarizing the past year at the beginning of the year and thus check the passed stage of development ... or decline.
And, following this good custom, today I want to invite the reader to pay attention to one feature that very vividly characterizes the past year.
This trait – is laughter.
If we observe in a person or in some society, so to speak, the history of his laugh – how he laughs, with what he laughs, when he laughs – we will get the richest material for studying his psychology.
This time we will limit ourselves to one sphere of laughter – the literary sphere.
We, pious Russians, did not have much literary laughter. Satire and caricature never could develop well in our country "for reasons, beyond the control of the editorial board".
The short period of the 60s, when satire and caricature were nearly strengthened in literature, passed too quickly.1
The only satirist we had was Saltykov-Shchedrin.
Humor fared no better. The best comedians – Gogol, Chekhov, Novodvorsky2 – laugh so much (especially the last two) that they want to cry from their laughter.
We did not, and still do not know the healthy, sincere laugh at an ugliness accountable for itself. Because our ugliness has always expressed an alien will and could not account for itself.
The situation seemed to have changed three years ago.
The humorous and satirical press blossomed in full color, and for the first time notes of a sincere, free laugh sounded in it.
It was felt that people got not only an opportunity, but also a desire to laugh "over what seems ridiculous".
However, this urge to laugh was short-lived too. Magazines began to die suddenly, and with that, the laughter.3
But there remains one literary heritage from this period.
The need for laughter created a demand for laughter; just like a market-demand, that exists for bright fabrics or fashionable furs.
Under the influence of this demand, a whole profession of laughing to amusing writers, usually called small feuilletonists, was created.
Each self-respecting newspaper necessarily began to acquire such ridiculers – those who were richer, supported two, three. Finally, a special Monday newspaper was created, which gave only laughter.
After a week of politics, literature, science and boredom, the reader was overwhelmed with an entire issue of laughter.
But laughter is only a determined relation toward some object. Objects were needed on which laughter could be refined.
In theories of literature it is usually explained that the comedic is created then, when stupid, bad, harmful is done in the sincere belief that it is smart, good and useful. Well, but our whole social life from this point of view is extremely comical. So it would seem that there should not be a shortage of objects.
But, unfortunately, the authors of the comedic in [real] life possessed the magical power of not allowing the comedic in literature. The scope of laughter was narrowed, its circle limited.
But laughter as a profession did not cease to exist. There was a whole caste of people who adapted and got used to express all their emotions with laughter: joy and grief, indignation and delight, fun and tears. They were professionals of laughter, just as their colleagues were professionals in politics, theater, and literary criticism. They lived with this and were not adapted to anything else.
To all their doubts and perplexities they answered one thing: "laugh, clown!"
And they came to laugh. Gloom and doom reigned all around, but they laughed. Social life was driven into a narrow circle, where, apart from literature and art, nothing was left for her, but they all laughed.
And when they had nothing to laugh at, they pounced on graceful literature and began to laugh at it. They wrote parodies, cartoons, caricatures. Both about that which deserved laughter, and that which was worth tears. Both about the pretentious parrots of fashionable geniuses, and about the blood of the heart of the suffering artist.
For it was necessary to live, and to live, it was necessary to work, and they could work only with laughter.
And this miserable picture of a dancing slave, when the abomination of desolation reigns around him, especially brightly stood out in the past year.
What this year will be like – we don’t know whether it will be any good, but that the past year was the most gloomy, is indisputable. And among this darkness, perhaps the darkest spot – thanks to its unnecessary loudness – was this laugh at itself.
Probably many of these dancing slaves realize that they do this only by force of sad necessity. But, it seems, there are those who seriously imagine that they are doing a smart, good and useful matter.
The criterion of the comedic would also be applicable to them, if they were not simply pathetic.
Oh, if together with the old year had gone into eternity this sad heritage of it!
1In the 1860s, under the influence of the liberation movement in Russia, satire journalism flourished. The satirical magazines Svistok (Whistle), an appendix to Sovremennik, edited by N. Dobrolyubov, and Iskra, headed by the poet V. Kurochkin, were distinguished by political acuity.
2Novodvorsky Andrej O. (pseudonym A. Osipovich) - writer-populist.
3In 1905-1907 in Russia there were many satirical-humorous magazines, newspapers, leaflets; some of them were confiscated by the tsarist authorities from the first issue.