Living My Life
by Emma Goldman
New York: Alfred A Knopf Inc., 1931.
THE 11TH OF NOVEMBER WAS APPROACHING, THE ANIVERSARY of the Chicago martyrdoms. Sasha and I were busy with preparations for the great event of so much significance to us. Cooper Union had been secured for the commemoration. The meeting was to be held jointly by anarchists and socialists, with the co-operation of advanced labour organizations.
Every evening for several weeks we visited various trade unions to invite them to participate. This involved short talks from the floor, which I made. I always went in trepidation. On previous occasions, at German and Jewish lectures, I had mustered up courage to ask questions, but every time I would experience a kind of sinking sensation. While I was listening to the speakers, the questions would formulate themselves easily enough, but the moment I got up on my feet, I would feel faint. Desperately I would grip the chair in front of me, my heart throbbing, my knees trembling --- everything in the hall would turn hazy. Then I would become aware of my voice, far, far away, and finally I would sink back in my seat in a cold sweat.
When I was first asked to make short speeches, I declined; I was sure I could never manage it. But Most would accept no refusal, and the other comrades sustained him. For the Cause, I was told, one must be able to do everything, and I so eagerly wanted to serve the Cause.
My talks used to sound incoherent to me, full of repetitions, lacking in conviction; and always the dismal feeling of sinking would be upon me. I thought everyone must see my turmoil, but apparently no one aid. Even Sasha often commented on my calm and self-control. I do not know whether it was due to my being a beginner, to my youth, or to my intense feeling for the martyred men, but I never once failed to interest the workers I had been sent to invite.
Our own little group, consisting of Anna, Helen, Fedya, Sasha, and I, decided on a contribution - a large laurel-wreath with broad black and red satin ribbons. At first we wanted to buy eight wreaths, but we were too poor, since only Sasha and I were working. At last we decided in favour of Lingg: in our eyes he stood out as the sublime hero among the eight. His unbending spirit, his utter contempt for his accusers and judges, his will-power, which made him rob his enemies of their prey and die by his own hand --- everything about that boy of twenty-two lent romance and beauty to his personality. He became the beacon of our lives.
At last the long-awaited evening arrived --- my first public meeting in memory of the martyred men. Since I had read the accounts in the Rochester papers of the impressive march to Waldheim --- the five mile line of workers who followed the great dead to their last resting place --- and the large meetings that had since been held all over the world, I had ardently looked forward to being present at such an event. Now the moment had at last come. I went with Sasha to Cooper Union.
We found the historic hall densely packed, but with our wreath held high over our heads we finally managed to get through. Even the platform was crowded. I was bewildered until I saw Most standing next to a man and a woman; his presence made me feel at ease. His two companions were distinguished-looking people; the man radiated friendliness, but the woman, clad in a tight-fitting black velvet dress with a long train, her pale face framed in a mass of copper hair, seemed cold and aloof. She evidently belonged to another world.
Presently Sasha said: "The man near Most is Sergey Shevitch, the famous Russian revolutionist, now editor-in-chief of the socialist daily Die Volkszeitung; the woman is his wife, the former Helene von Donniges." "Not the one Ferdinand Lassalle loved --- the one he lost his life for?" I asked. "Yes, the same; she has remained an aristocrat. She really doesn't belong among us. But Shevitch is splendid."
Most had given me Lassalle's works to read. They had impressed me by their profound thought, force, and clarity. I had also studied his manifold activities in behalf of the incipient workers' movement in Germany in the fifties. His romantic life and untimely death at the hands of an officer in a duel fought over Helene von Dönniges had affected me deeply.
I was repelled by the woman's haughty austerity. Her long train, the lorgnette through which she scrutinized everybody, filled me with resentment. I turned to Shevitch. I liked him for his frank, kindly face and the simplicity of his manner. I told him I wanted to put our wreath over Lingg's portrait, but it was hung so high that I would have to get a ladder to reach it. "I'll lift you up, little comrade, and hold you until you have hung your wreath," he said pleasantly. He picked me up as if I were a baby.
I felt greatly embarrassed, but I hung the wreath. Shevitch set me down and asked why I had chosen Lingg rather than some one of the other martyrs. I replied that his appeal was strongest to me. Raising my chin gently with his strong hands, Shevitch said: "Yes, he was more like our Russian heroes." He spoke with much feeling.
Soon the meeting began. Shevitch and Alexander Jonas, his coeditor on the Volkszeitung, and a number of other speakers in various languages told the story I had first heard from Johanna Greie. I had since read and reread it until I knew every detail by heart.
Shevitch and Jonas were impressive speakers. The rest left me cold. Then Most ascended the platform, and everything else seemed blotted out. I was caught in the storm of his eloquence, tossed about, my very soul contracting and expanding in the rise and fall of his voice. It was no longer a speech, it was thunder interspersed with flashes of lightning. It was a wild, passionate cry against the terrible thing that had happened in Chicago - a fierce call to battle against the enemy, a call to individual acts, to vengeance.
The meeting was at an end. Sasha and I filed out with the rest. I could not speak; we walked on in silence. When we reached the house where I lived, my whole body began to shake as in a fever. An overpowering yearning possessed me, an unutterable desire to give myself to Sasha, to find relief in his arms from the fearful tension of the evening.
My narrow bed now held two human bodies, closely pressed together. My room was no longer dark; a soft, soothing light seemed to come from somewhere. As in a dream I heard sweet, endearing words breathed into my car, like the soft, beautiful Russian lullabies of my childhood. I became drowsy, my thoughts in confusion.
The meeting . . . Shevitch holding me up . . . the cold face of Helene von Dönniges . . . Johann Most . . . the force and wonder of his speech, his call to extermination - where had I heard that word before? Ah, yes, Mother - the Nihilists! The horror I had felt at her cruelty again came over me. But, then, she was not an idealist! Most was an idealist, yet he, too, urged extermination. Could idealists be cruel? The enemies of life and joy and beauty are cruel. They are relentless, they have killed our great comrades. But must we, too, exterminate?
I was roused from my drowsiness as if by an electric current. I felt a trembling, shy hand tenderly glide over me. Hungrily I reached for it, for my lover. We were engulfed in a wild embrace. Again I felt terrific pain, like the cut of a sharp knife. But it was numbed by my passion, breaking through all that had been suppressed, unconscious, and dormant.
The morning still found me eagerly reaching out, hungrily seeking. My beloved lay at my side, asleep in blissful exhaustion. I sat up, my head resting on my hand. Long I watched the face of the boy who had so attracted and repelled me at the same time, who could be so hard and whose touch was yet so tender. Deep love for him welled up in my heart - a feeling of certainty that our lives were linked for all time. I pressed my lips to his thick hair and then I, too, fell asleep.
The people from whom I rented my room slept on the other side of the wall. Their nearness always disturbed me, and now in Sasha's presence it gave me a feeling of being seen. He also had no privacy where he lived. I suggested that we find a small apartment, and he consented joyfully. When we told Fedya of our plan, he asked to be taken in. The fourth of our little commune was Helen Minkin. The friction with her father had become more violent since I had moved out, and she could not endure it. She begged to come with us. We rented a four room flat on Forty-second Street and we all felt it a luxury to have our own place.
From the very first we agreed to share everything, to live like real comrades. Helen continued to work in the corset factory, and I divided my time between sewing silk waists and keeping house. Fedya devoted himself to painting. The expense of his oils, canvases, and brushes often consumed more than we could afford, but it never occurred to any one of us to complain. From time to time he would sell a picture to some dealer for fifteen or twenty-five dollars, whereupon he would bring an armful of flowers or some present for me. Sasha would up braid him for it: the idea of spending money for such things, when the movement needed it so badly, was intolerable to him. His anger had no effect on Fedya. He would laugh it off, call him a fanatic, and say he had no sense of beauty.
One day Fedya arrived with a beautiful blue and white striped silk jersey, considered very stylish then. When Sasha came home and saw the jersey, he flew into a rage, called Fedya a spendthrift and an incurable bourgeois, who would never amount to anything in the movement. The two nearly came to blows, and finally both left the flat. I felt sick with the pain of Sasha's severity. I began to doubt his love. It could not be very deep or he would not spoil the little joys that Fedya brought into my life. True, the jersey cost two dollars and a half. Perhaps it was extravagant of Fedya to spend so much money. But how could he help loving beautiful things? They were a necessity to his artist's spirit. I grew bitter, and was glad when Sasha did not return that night.
He stayed away for some days. During that time I was a great deal with Fedya. He had so much that Sasha lacked and that I craved. His susceptibility to every mood, his love of life and of colour, made him more human, more akin to me. He never expected me to live up to the Cause. I felt release with him.
One morning Fedya asked me to pose for him. I experienced no sense of shame at standing naked before him. He worked away for a time, and neither of us talked. Then he began to fidget about and finally said he would have to stop: he could not concentrate, the mood was gone. I went back behind the screen to dress. I had not quite finished when I heard violent weeping. I rushed forward and found Fedya stretched on the sofa, his head buried in the pillow, sobbing. As I bent over him, he sat up and broke loose in a torrent - said he loved me, that he had from the very beginning, though he had tried to keep in the background for Sasha's sake; he had struggled fiercely against his feeling for me, but he knew now that it was of no use. He would have to move out.
I sat by him, holding his hand in mine and stroking his soft wavy hair. Fedya had always drawn me to him by his thoughtful attention, his sensitive response, and his love of beauty. Now I felt something stronger stirring within me. Could it be love for Fedya, I wondered. Could one love two persons at the same time? I loved Sasha. At that very moment my resentment at his harshness gave way to yearning for my strong, arduous lover. Yet I felt Sasha had left something untouched in me, something Fedya could perhaps waken to life. Yes, it must be possible to love more than one! All I had felt for the boy artist must have really been love without my being aware of it till now, I decided.
I asked Fedya what he thought of love for two or even for more persons at once. He looked up in surprise and said he did not know, he had never loved anyone before. His love for me had absorbed him to the exclusion of anyone else. He knew he could not care for another woman while he loved me. And he was certain that Sasha would never want to share me; his sense of possession was too strong.
I resented the suggestion of sharing. I insisted that one can only respond to what the other is able to call out. I did not believe that Sasha was possessive. One who so fervently wanted freedom and preached it so wholeheartedly could never object to my giving myself to someone else. We agreed that, whatever happened, there must be no deception. We must go to Sasha and tell him frankly how we felt. He would understand.
That evening Sasha returned straight from work. The four of us sat down, as usual, to our supper. We talked about various things. No reference was made to Sasha's long absence and there was no chance to speak to him alone about the new light that had come into my life. We all went to Orchard Street to a lecture.
After the meeting Sasha went home with me, Fedya and Helen remaining behind. In our flat he asked permission to come to my room. Then he began to talk, pouring out his whole soul. He said he loved me dearly, that he wanted me to have beautiful things; that he, too, loved beauty. But he loved the Cause more than anything else in the world. For that he would forgo even our love. Yes, and his very life.
He told me about the famous Russian revolutionary catechism that demanded of the true revolutionist that he give up home, parents, sweetheart, children, everything dear to one's being. He agreed with it absolutely and he was determined to allow nothing to stand in the way. "But I do love you," he repeated. His intensity, his uncompromising fervour, irritated and yet drew me like a magnet. Whatever longing I had experienced when near Fedya was silent now. Sasha, my own wonderful, dedicated, obsessed Sasha, was calling. I felt entirely his.
Later in the day I had to meet Most. He had spoken to me about a short lecture tour he was planning for me, but though I did not take it seriously, he had asked me to come to see him about it.
The Freiheit office was crowded. Most suggested a nearby saloon, which he knew to be quiet in the early afternoon. We went there. He began to explain his plans for my tour; I was to visit Rochester, Buffalo, and Cleveland. It threw me into a panic. "It is impossible!" I protested; "I don't know a thing about lecturing." He waved my objections aside, declaring that everybody felt that way in the beginning.
He was determined to make a public speaker of me, and I would simply have to begin. He had already chosen the subject for me and he would help me prepare it. I was to speak on the futility of the struggle for the eight-hour workday, now again much discussed in labour ranks. He pointed out that the eight-hour campaigns in '84, '85, and '86 had already taken a toll far beyond the value of the "damned thing." "Our comrades in Chicago lost their lives for it, and the workers still work long hours." But even if the eight-hour day were established, there would be no actual gain, he insisted. On the contrary, it would serve only to distract the masses from the real issue - the struggle against capitalism, against the wage system, for a new society. At any rate, all I would have to do would be to memorize the notes he would give me. He was sure that my dramatic feeling and my enthusiasm would do the rest. As usual, he held me by his eloquence. I had no power to resist.
When I got home; away from Most's presence, I again experienced the sinking feeling that had come upon me when I had first tried to speak in public. I still had three weeks in which to read up, but I was sure I never could go throu with it.
Stronger than my lack of faith in myself was my loathing for Rochester. I had completely broken with my parents and my sister Lena, but I yearned for Helena, for little Stella, now in her fourth year, and for my youngest brother. Oh, if I were really an accomplished speaker, I would rush to Rochester and fling my accumulated bitterness into the smug faces of the people who had treated me so brutally. Now they would only add ridicule to the hurt they had given me. Anxiously I waited for the return of my friends.
How great was my astonishment when Sasha and Helen Minkin grew enthusiastic about Most's plan! It was a marvellous opportunity, they said. What if I would have to work hard to prepare my talk? It would be the making of me as a public lecturer, the first woman speaker in the German anarchist movement in America! Sasha was especially insistent: I must set aside every consideration, I must think only of how useful I would become to the Cause. Fedya was dubious.
My three good friends insisted that I stop work to have more time for study. They would also relieve me of every domestic responsibility. I devoted myself to reading. Now and then Fedya would come with flowers. He knew that I had not yet spoken to Sasha. He never pressed me, but his flowers spoke more appealingly than anything he could have said. Sasha no longer scolded him for wasting money. "I know you love flowers," he would say; "they may inspire you in your new work."
I read up a great deal on the eight-hour movement, went to every meeting where the matter was to be discussed; but the more I studied the subject, the more confused I became. "The iron law of wages," "supply and demand," "poverty as the only leaven of revolt" --- I could not follow it all. It left me as cold as the mechanistic theories I used to hear expounded in the Rochester Socialist local. But when I read Most's notes, everything seemed clear. The imagery of his language, his unanswerable criticism of existing conditions, and his glorious vision of the new society awakened enthusiasm in me. I continued to doubt myself, but everything Most said seemed irrefutable.
One thought took definite shape in my mind. I would never memorize Most's notes. His phrases, the flower and spice of his invective, were too well known for me to repeat them parrot-like. I would use his ideas and present them in my own way. But the ideas --- were they not also Most's? Ah, well, they had become such a part of me that I could not distinguish how far I was repeating him or to what extent they had been reborn as my own.
The day of my departure for Rochester arrived. I met Most for a last talk; I came in a depressed mood, but a glass of wine and Most's spirit soon lifted the weight. He talked long and ardently, made numerous suggestions, and said I must not take the audiences too seriously; most of them were dullards, anyway. He impressed upon me the need of burnout. "If you can make people laugh, sailing will be easy." He told me that the construction of my lecture did not matter much. I must talk in the way I related to him my impressions of my first opera. That would move the audience. "For the rest, be bold, be arrogant, I am sure you will be brave."
He took me to the Grand Central in a cab. On the way he moved close to me. He yearned to take me in his arms and asked if he might. I nodded, and he held me pressed to him. Conflicting thoughts and emotions possessed me; the speeches I was going to make, Sasha, Fedya, my passion for the one, my budding love for the other. But I yielded to Most's trembling embrace, his kisses covering my mouth as of one famished with thirst. I let him drink; I could have denied him nothing. He loved me, he said; he had never known such longing for any woman before. Of late years he had not even been attracted to anyone. A feeling of growing age was overcoming him, and he felt worn from the long struggle and the persecution he had endured. More depressing even was the consciousness that his best comrades misunderstood him. But my youth had made him young, my ardour had raised his spirit. My whole being had awakened him to a new meaning in life. I was his Blondkopf, his "blue eyes"; he wanted me to be his own, his helpmate, his voice.
I lay back with my eyes closed. I was too overpowered to speak, too limp to move. Something mysterious stirred me, something entirely unlike the urge towards Sasha or the sensitive response to Fedya. It was different from these. It was infinite tenderness for the great man-child at my side. As he sat there, he suggested a rugged tree bent by winds and storm, making one supreme last effort to stretch itself towards the sun. "All for the Cause," Sasha had so often said. The fighter next to me had already given all for the Cause. But who had given all for him? He was hungry for affection, for understanding. I would give him both.
At the station my three friends were already waiting for me. Sasha held out an American Beauty rose to me. "As a token of my love, Dushenka, and as a harbinger of luck on your first public quest."
Precious Sasha; only a few days before, when we went shopping on Hester Street, he had protested strenuously because I wanted him to spend more than six dollars for a suit and twenty-five cents for a hat. He would not have it. "We must get the cheapest we can," he reiterated. And now --- what tenderness there was under his stern exterior! Like Hannes. Strange, I had never before realized how much alike they were. The boy and the man. Both hard; one because he had never yet tasted life, and the other because it had struck him so many blows. Both equally unyielding in their zeal, both so childlike in their need for love.
The train sped on towards Rochester. Only six months had passed since I had cut loose from my meaningless past. I had lived years in that time.
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