God building of God seeking? Maksim Gor'kij's Ispoved'

Barry P. Scherr, Dartmouth College

Most commentators on Gor'kij's A Confession (Ispoved') have concentrated on the "God building" aspects of the novel (cf. Clowes, The Revolution of Moral Consciousness; Sesterhenn, Das Bogostroitel'stvo bei Gor'kij und Lunacharskij bis 1909). This is, after all, the work where Gor'kij coined that term. It appears in the latter portions of the novel and is used by the character named Iegudiil, a former priest and monk, who expresses the chief theses of God-building in the course of a single long passage. Certain aspects of this notion appear sporadically in earlier works by Gor'kij (e.g. The Lower Depths, 1902; Mother, 1906) but among all of Gor'kij's fictional writings only in Ispoved' are the elements brought together to express a coherent world view.

That passage and subsequent references to God-building, however, occupy only a relatively small portion of the novel. The first person narrator, Matvej, travels about Russian seeking the fulfillment of his spiritual longings; over the course of some years he meets many people and has a series of adventures, but he is constantly on the path of finding a religious identity. While the presentation of the Russian Orthodox church is sufficiently negative that church authorities requested that the book be banned, Gor'kij's attacks on organized religion are hardly more than those of his erstwhile acquaintance, Tolstoj. In fact, when Ispoved' was first published, it was embraced by several Russian symbolists (most notably Blok and Belyj) who had criticized Gor'kij in the past. Their approval was based on the sense that this novel embraced a religious sensibility not all that different from their own. My contention is that this initial response and the aspects of the novel on which it was based have been overshadowed both in the West by the attention paid to its God-building elements and in the former Soviet Union by the tendency to downplay the religious side of Gor'kij's writing. A fresh look at Ispoved', and at some of the passages in the works that led up to this novel, reveal a deeply religious sense on Gor'kij's part, one that can hardly be fully explained by his flirtation with God building and which shows a surprising degree of the God-seeker in this supposedly Marxist writer.