Ghosts

Vasily Grossman (1905–64) is one of the leading literary figures of the Soviet era. The Road, a collection of short fiction and essays edited by Robert Chandler, is published by MacLehose Press and NYRB Classics.

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What is human follows its fate

The victorious Soviet forces, after annihilating the army of Fascist Germany, removed paintings from the collection of the Dresden Art Gallery and took them to Moscow. These paintings were then locked away for ten years.

In the spring of 1955 the Soviet government decided to return these paintings to Dresden. First, though, they were to be exhibited in Moscow for three months.

And so, on the cold morning of 30 May, 1955, I walked along the Volkhonka, past the lines of policemen controlling the huge crowds who wanted to see the works of the Old Masters. I entered the Pushkin Museum, climbed the stairs to the first floor and went up to the Sistine Madonna.

As soon as you set eyes on this painting, you immediately realize one thing, one thing above all: that it is immortal.

I realized that I had, until this moment, been careless in my use of this awesome word "immortal". I had confused the powerful life of some particularly great human achievements with immortality. Now, however, it came home to me that – for all the admiration I feel for Rembrandt, Beethoven and Tolstoy – there was no work of art other than the Sistine Madonna, no other work created by brush, chisel or pen, no other work that had conquered my heart and mind, that would continue to live for as long as people continued to live. And should people die, then whatever other creatures might replace them on earth – wolves, rats, bears or swallows – would also walk or wing their way to look at this Madonna.

Raphael reveals the mystery of maternal beauty. But the secret of the painting's inexhaustible life lies elsewhere. The secret of the painting's life, of the Madonna's great beauty, is that the young woman's body and face are – in fact – her soul. In this visual representation of a mother's soul lies something inaccessible to human consciousness.

We know about thermonuclear reactions during which matter is transformed into an enormous quantity of energy, but we cannot as yet conceive of a reverse process – the transformation of energy into matter. Here, though, a spiritual force – motherhood – has been crystallized, transmuted into a meek and gentle Madonna.

The Madonna's beauty is closely tied to earthly life. It is a democratic, human and humane beauty. It is a beauty that lives in every woman: in the cross-eyed, in hunchbacks with long pale noses, in golden-skinned Asians, in black-skinned Africans with curly hair and full lips. It is a universal beauty. This Madonna is the soul and mirror of all human beings, and everyone who looks at her can see her humanity. She is the image of the maternal soul. That is why her beauty is forever interwoven and fused with the beauty that lies hidden, deep down, indestructible, wherever life is being born – be it in cellars, attics, pits or palaces.

I believe that this Madonna is a purely atheistic expression of life and humanity, without divine participation.

There have been moments when I have felt that this Madonna expresses not only all that is human but also something that is a part of earthly life in a still broader sense, something that is present in the animal world as a whole. I have felt that the Madonna's miraculous shadow can be glimpsed in the brown eyes of a horse, dog or cow that is feeding its young.

The child in the Madonna's arms seems more earthly still. His face is more adult than that of his mother.

His gaze is sad and serious, focused both ahead and within. It is the kind of gaze that allows one to glimpse one's fate.

Both faces are calm and sad. Perhaps they can see Golgotha, and the dusty rocky road up the hill, and the hideous, short, heavy, rough-hewn cross lying on a shoulder that is now only little and that now feels only the warmth of the maternal breast.

Yet neither anxiety nor pain grips our hearts. Instead, we feel something new, something we have never experienced. It is a human feeling, a new feeling, and it seems as if it has just arisen from the salty and bitter depths of the sea. Here it is – and its newness and unfamiliarity make your heart beat faster.

Here lies yet another unique quality of the painting.

It engenders something new, as if an eighth colour has been added to the seven colours of the spectrum that we already know.

Why is there no fear on the mother's face? Why have her fingers not fastened around her son's body so tightly that even death cannot untwine them? Why does she not wish to keep her son from his fate?

Rather than hiding her child, she holds him forward to meet his fate.

And the child is not hiding his face in his mother's breast. Any moment now he will climb down from her arms and walk forward on his own little bare feet to meet his fate.

How are we to explain this? How are we to understand it?

They are one – and they are separate. They see, feel and think together. They are fused, yet everything says that they will separate from one another, that they cannot not separate, that the essence of their communion, of their fusion, lies in their coming separation.

There are bitter and painful moments when it is children who amaze adults with their good sense, their composure and their acceptance of fate. Peasant children dying in years of famine have shown these qualities – as did the children of Jewish craftsmen and shopkeepers during the Kishinyov pogrom, as have the children of coalminers when a wailing siren proclaims to a panic-stricken settlement that there has been an explosion down the mine.

What is human in man goes to meet its fate, and in every epoch this fate is peculiar, distinct from the characteristic fate of the preceding epoch. What these various fates have in common is that all are painful and difficult. But even when a man was crucified on a cross or tortured in a prison, what is human in him continued to exist. What is human in man survived in quarries, in lumber camps in the taiga where the temperature was fifty degrees below freezing, in the flooded trenches of Przemysl and Verdun. What is human in man continued to live on in the monotonous existence of clerks, in the joyless labour of women factory workers, in the wretched lives of cleaners and washerwomen, in their hopeless and exhausting struggle against poverty.

The Madonna with the child in her arms represents what is human in man. This is why she is immortal.

Continues in the print edition. Order now.

Translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, with Olga Mukovnikova.

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