The telegraph hammers all over Europe, but it tells hardly a word of the glory fc that once was Messina. The vulgar words of the news-telegrams acquire the force of ancient Italian chronicles; but from Etna columns of yellow smoke are escaping. Sicily continues to tremble, and we cannot appease her tremors.
Is it really necessary to be optimistic in the face of these facts? And is it really necessary to be a pessimist or a superstitious person in order to point out that the flag of culture can always be lowered whenever the distant thunder of approaching storm is heard.
The earth has been shaken by underground ferments more than once. And more than once have we celebrated our infirmity before the plague, before hunger and rebellion, before the coward. What sort of frightful vindictiveness has been accumulated in us down the centuries? Human nature becomes more and more rigid, mechanized, more and more resembles a gigantic laboratory in which the vengeance of the elements is prepared. Science flourishes in order to subjugate the earth; art flourishes in order – like a winged day-dream, a mysterious aeroplane – to fly away from the earth; industry flourishes in order that people may part company with the earth.
Every promoter of culture is a demon, cursing the earth and devising wings in order to fly away from it. The heart of the advocate of progress breathes vengeance on the earth, on the elements; on the earth’s crust not yet sufficiently hardened; vengeance for all its difficult times and endless spaces, for the rusty onerous chain of cause and effect, for the injustice of life and the injustice of death. Persons of culture, advocates of progress, choice intellectuals, foaming at the mouth, construct machines, move science forward in secret spite, trying to forget and not to hear the rumbling of the elements, subterranean and terrestrial, which are stirring, now here now there. Only sometimes they awake and look around them and see the same earth – cursed, yet with its tranquil moments – and look upon it as upon some theatrical performance, some absurd, attractive tale.
There are others for whom the earth is not a tale but a wonderful and enduring fact, who know the elements and know themselves as having come forth from them. They are ‘elemental people’. They are tranquil, like the earth, but for a while their activity is similar to the first faint rumblings of subterranean jolts. They know that ‘to everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the sun: a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill and a time to heal; a time to break down and a time to build up.’ (Ecclesiastes.)
Some practical profession is more necessary and appropriate to them than industry and culture.
They also live in a dream. But their dream is unlike our dreams, in the same way as the fields of Russia are unlike the brilliant bustling of the Nevsky avenue. We see in our dreams and we dream in reality, how we may fly away from the earth in a plane, how, with the help of radium, we may explore the bowels of the earth, and of our body, how we may reach the north pole, and, through the last synthetic energy of our intellect, how we may subordinate the universe to a single, supreme law.
They, the elemental people, dream and create legends about the earth. They dream of temples, dispersed over the earth’s face; of monasteries, where stands, behind a curtain, unseen by anyone, the statue of Nikolay, the worker of miracles; of the wind which sways the rye in the night – ‘she who dances through the rye’; of the planks which rise to the surface from the bottom of a jeep pond – fragments of foreign ships, because the pond is ‘a ventilator of the geean’. The earth is one with them and they are one with the earth, indistinguishable from it. It seems now and then that the hill is animate, and the tree is animate, and the church is animate, as the peasant himself is animate. Only, everything in this plain still sleeps but, when it stirs – everything as it stands trill go: the peasants will go, the groves and the churches will go, and the incarnate Mothers of God will go forth from the hills, and the lakes will overflow the banks, and the rivers will flow backwards, and the whole earth will go. »
* * *
[…] Between the two fires of infuriated vengeance, between two camps, we are living. Therefore it is so frightful. What kind of fire is it which breaks out into the light from under the ‘crusted lava’? Is it such as devastated Calabria, or is this – a purifying fire?
Whichever it is, we are living through a terrible crisis. We still do not know exactly what.events await us, but, in our hearts, the needle of the seismograph is already deflected. Already we see ourselves, as if against the background of a glow, flying in a light, rickety aeroplane, high above the earth; but beneath as is a rumbling and fire-spitting mountain, and down its sides, behind clouds of ashes, roll streams of red-hot lava.
Nature and culture was read as a paper to the Religious-Philosophical Society in St Petersburg on 30 December 1908.