We are a long way from such sentiments

All of us living at a certain time on this planet together, and together experiencing all its earthly joys and sorrows, seeing the same sky, loving and hating what are, after all, the same things, each and every one of us condemned to suffer the same sentence, the same disappearance off the face of the earth, should really nurture the greatest tenderness towards each other, a feeling of the most heart-rending closeness, and should be literally screaming with terror and pain whenever we are parted by a fate which at any moment is fully capable of transforming every one of our separations, even if only meant to last ten minutes, into an eternal one. But, as you know, for most of the time, we are a long way from such sentiments, and often take leave of even those closest to us in the most thoughtless manner imaginable.

Ivan Bunin, “Long Ago,” 1921 (Sophie Lund, trans.)
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2 thoughts on “We are a long way from such sentiments

  1. Navin Goyal says:

    This quote reminded me of a passage from the autobiography of Bertrand Russell (a bit long but I find it well worth it):

    One day, Gilbert Murray came to Newnham to read part of his translation of
    The Hippolytus, then unpublished. Alys and I went to hear him, and I was
    profoundly stirred by the beauty of the poetry. When we came home, we
    found Mrs Whitehead undergoing an unusually severe bout of pain. She
    seemed cut off from everyone and everything by walls of agony, and the
    sense of the solitude of each human soul suddenly overwhelmed me. Ever
    since my marriage, my emotional life had been calm and superficial. I had
    forgotten all the deeper issues, and had been content with flippant cleverness.
    Suddenly the ground seemed to give way beneath me, and I found myself in
    quite another region. Within five minutes I went through some such reflections as the following: the loneliness of the human soul is unendurable;
    nothing can penetrate it except the highest intensity of the sort of love that
    religious teachers have preached; whatever does not spring from this motive
    is harmful, or at best useless; it follows that war is wrong, that a public school
    education is abominable, that the use of force is to be deprecated, and that in
    human relations one should penetrate to the core of loneliness in each person
    and speak to that. The Whitehead’s youngest boy, aged three, was in the
    room. I had previously taken no notice of him, nor he of me. He had to be
    prevented from troubling his mother in the middle of her paroxysms of pain.
    I took his hand and led him away. He came willingly, and felt at home with
    me. From that day to his death in the War in 1918, we were close friends.

    At the end of those five minutes, I had become a completely different
    person. For a time, a sort of mystic illumination possessed me. I felt that
    I knew the inmost thoughts of everybody that I met in the street, and though
    this was, no doubt, a delusion, I did in actual fact find myself in far closer
    touch than previously with all my friends, and many of my acquaintances.
    Having been an Imperialist, I became during those five minutes a pro-Boer
    and a Pacifist. Having for years cared only for exactness and analysis, I found
    myself filled with semi-mystical feelings about beauty, with an intense interest in children, and with a desire almost as profound as that of the Buddha to
    find some philosophy which should make human life endurable. A strange
    excitement possessed me, containing intense pain but also some element of
    triumph through the fact that I could dominate pain, and make it, as
    I thought, a gateway to wisdom. The mystic insight which I then imagined
    myself to possess has largely faded, and the habit of analysis has reasserted
    itself. But something of what I thought I saw in that moment has remained
    always with me, causing my attitude during the first war, my interest in
    children, my indifference to minor misfortunes, and a certain emotional tone
    in all my human relations.

  2. JSE says:

    That is a startling passage I’d never seen — thanks so much for it!

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