An Infinite Indifference: Andreyev’s “Lazarus”

08 Jun

There are times when two writers are such opposites that I wish I could shut them into a very small room together. And before I shut them in, I would bug the room in order to enjoy the conversation. Richard Weaver and Frederick Niezsche, for example. Or Shakespeare and Karl Marx. Or Leonid Andreyev and G.K. Chesterton.

Andreyev, a Russian who lived during the last years of the tsars, was mainly a playwright, although I first encountered him through his short story “Lazarus.” Included in an anthology of Russian short stories, it immediately stood out to me as different. The Russian distinctives that characterized the rest of the tales in the anthology was gone, and in its place was a heavily symbolic story set in the Near East.

Most of us who have read about Lazarus’s resurrection in John 11 have probably wondered what happened to him afterward. Andreyev seems to have wondered the same thing, but his conclusions are beyond anything suggested by the Scriptural text.

When Lazarus rose from the grave, after three days and nights in the mysterious thraldom of death,  and returned alive to his home, it was a long time before any one noticed the evil peculiarities in him that were later to make his very name terrible.

Lazarus has seen “the great unfathomable There,” and he has lost the joy that Christ so loved. Something horrible, cold, and indifferent lurks in his eyes, and most of those who look at him lose the joy of life and soon the will to live. Mary and Martha forsake Lazarus, as do all his neighbors, for fear of him. He lives alone in the desert, still wearing the festal garments with which he had been dressed on the day he rose from the dead, but he is utterly indifferent to them, and to everything else.

A Roman sculptor named Aurelius goes to visit Lazarus, hoping that seeing a man who had risen from the dead would revitalize the talents that (he feels) are inadequate. He spends the night in Lazarus’s hut and returns to Rome to make his masterpiece. The “masterpiece,” however, is disordered and ugly.

At last Augustus Caesar himself hears of the great disturbance that Lazarus is causing, and he asks that Lazarus be brought to Rome. He, too, looks into Lazarus’s eyes:

“Cease,” commanded the Emperor. Already the accent of indifference was in his voice. His arms hung powerless, and his eagle eyes flashed and were dimmed again, struggling against overwhelming darkness. “You have killed me, Lazarus,” he said drowsily.

Augustus is saved by his realization that he cannot live according to the knowledge of the There in Lazarus’s gaze. He chooses to focus on living. Death holds the promise of the coldness and horror of Lazarus’s eyes, but Augustus has an empire to rule. To protect his people against that horror, he burns out Lazarus’s eyes before sending him back to Judea.

In his later years Andreyev focused on tales of the supernatural, many of them with the same focus as “Lazarus”—a fear of the unknowable. But in “Lazarus,” what the unknowable holds is less horrible than what it lacks.

Only a few moments passed before the sage realized that the knowledge of the horrible is not the horrible, and that the sight of death is not death. And he felt that in the eyes of the Infinite wisdom and folly are the same, for the Infinite knows them not. And the boundaries between knowledge and ignorance, between truth and falsehood, between top and bottom, faded and his shapeless thought was suspended in emptiness.

Andreyev drew heavily on Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy of pessimism. Against Kant, who held that ultimate reality is not comprehensible, Schopenhauer argued that humans understand ultimate reality. Their understanding leads to disillusionment rather than enlightenment, however. Man’s wishes are infinite and cannot be satisfied. The world is therefore broken, and salvation is to be found by finding various means to escape it. Where Schopenhauer suggested escape through art, compassion, and asceticism, Andreyev believed that escape can only be found through death. And coming back from the dead, as “Lazarus” suggests, is no solution to the ultimate problem.

There are few in the 20th century who opposed that sort of ideology more than G. K. Chesterton. Chesterton recognized a difference between pessimism about outcomes and the philosophical pessimism of men like Andreyev and Schopenhauer. The philosophic pessimist must not be confused with someone who merely opposes the way the world is going (Chesterton’s example is of someone who opposed the Boer War because he believed it would harm England). That sort of patriotic pessimism springs from love, the real opposite of which is not hate, but rather detachment. And philosophic pessimism is nothing if not detached: “The evil of the [philosophic] pessimist,” wrote Chesterton in Orthodoxy, “is, then, not that he chastises gods and men, but that he does not love what he chastises—he has not this primary and supernatural loyalty to things.”

Andreyev and Schopenhauer rightly realized that this world is broken, and that our desires cannot be satisfied within the walls of the world. But the Christian answer—that the God who lives beyond the walls of the world is living and working within it in order to save it from brokenness caused by man—was acceptable to neither. Instead, they suggest salvation through escape. Andreyev’s story “Lazarus” suggests the importance of enjoying the world, but Augustus, one of the few men who manages to look in the eyes of Lazarus and retain the will to live, does so only by trying to block death from his mind. The paradoxes of Christianity—life after death, healing in brokenness—do not exist in the world created by Andreyev. Even as Andreyev’s characters attempt escape, they find nothing of any substance to escape to.

Chesterton agreed that living like Augustus did is one way of managing the struggles of the world, but he argued that “getting on” can never help the world itself.

No one doubts that an ordinary man can get on with this world: bit we demand not strength enough to get on with it, but strength enough to get it on. Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? Can he look up at its colossal good without once feeling acquiescence? Can he look up at its colossal evil without once feeling despair? …In this combination, I maintain, it is the rational optimist who fails, the irrational optimist who succeeds.

We do not value the world because it is perfect: it is ours, it is broken, and we broke it. Yes, what we desire is beyond what the world can give us. But our seemingly infinite desires are not beyond the truly infinite God who entered our broken world and took the worst of our brokenness on Himself. Even now He is here, loving our world and hating it, and constantly working to redeem it. Indifference is inexcusable.


Posted by on June 8, 2012 in Short Stories


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6 responses to “An Infinite Indifference: Andreyev’s “Lazarus”

  1. MikeSopes

    June 8, 2012 at 6:10 pm

    Well, I guess Jesus might as well have just left him dead for his own sake.

    • A. Carroll Crowe

      June 12, 2012 at 7:06 pm

      In Andreyev’s imaginary world…probably so. 😉 Thanks for commenting, Mike.

  2. Laughter of Lowly Things

    June 9, 2012 at 5:08 am

    Not sure I should thank you for getting me to go read this story…it was horrible. I’d like to hear what Chesterton and Andreyev would say to one another, too. Thanks for piecing together some of what Chesterton’s response would have said.

    I doubt whether you do justice to Augustus, or are correct in saying that Andreyev suggests salvation through escape. There was an element of escapism, perhaps because the courage required was too desperate and impossible–even for Augustus–without some turning away of the eyes from that unfathomable “There,” but the “sharp, redeeming pang” he felt also has to be accounted for. It didn’t just give him the realization that he couldn’t live by the knowledge of “There,” and must hide from it to go on fulfilling his duties. It did show him something that transcended the “There” (just barely, perhaps) and gave him the will to live. That was important, I think.

    Ugh, I want to read more about the author, and the standard internet sources have disappointingly little to say about him.

  3. A. Carroll Crowe

    June 11, 2012 at 6:39 pm

    I would have given Andreyev a better review, except that my encyclopedia (Collier’s, from the ’70’s) did have quite a bit to say about him. If I was going by the story alone, I would have thought that he might not be such a pessimist after all–in fact, the story initially confused me, because it seemed like it might have a very positive meaning. And perhaps Andreyev was trying to suggest a bit of “light at the end of the tunnel.” But Andreyev’s overall perspective on life seems to have been pretty dark, as was Schopenhauer’s, and knowing the beliefs that colored the rest of Andreyev’s writings changed my initial view of “Lazarus.”

  4. Laughter of Lowly Things

    June 11, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    Ah, I see. I defer to your superior knowledge of the author’s background–although I was not suggesting that there was anything particularly optimistic about the story’s ending. Chesterton’s grandfather (I think it was) criticized the Schopenhauer-ian view so popular around that time, with something along the lines of “If I was a damned soul, I would still thank God for my creation,” and it seemed possible that Andreyev was–in an extremely desperate fashion–trying to affirm the same sort of thing. But maybe he couldn’t manage quite that much gratitude in the face of such despair.

    Do you know if there was anything in particular that contributed to Andreyev’s deep pessimism?

  5. A. Carroll Crowe

    June 12, 2012 at 6:24 pm

    Interesting tidbit…. I know that Andreyev became particularly pessimistic after the Bolshevik Revolution (he fled to Finland), but that happened only a few years before his death. He wasn’t an artist who seemed to have suffered particularly, as I recall–the writing community embraced him quickly when he was still a young man.


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