Without three righteous men no city can stand.
A certain Russian writer was dying before me for the forty-eighth time. He is still alive, just as he went on living after his forty-seven previous deaths, observed by other people and in other circumstances.
He lay before me, alone, splayed out on the boundless sofa and preparing to dictate his last will to me, but instead he began to curse.
I can relate unabashedly how it went and what consequences it led to.
The writer was threatened by death through the fault of the theatrical-literary committee, which was just then killing his play with an unflinching hand. No pharmacy had any medicine against the racking pains inflicted upon the author’s health.
“My soul is wounded and my guts are all twisted inside me,” said the sufferer, gazing at the ceiling of the hotel room, and then, shifting his gaze to me, he suddenly shouted:
“Why are you silent, as if your mouth’s stuffed with devil knows what? You Petersburgers all have some kind of nastiness in your hearts: you never say anything to console a man; he could just as well give up the ghost right in front of your eyes.”
It was the first time I had been present at the death of this extraordinary man and, not understanding his mortal anguish, I said:
“How can I console you? I can only say that everyone will be extremely sorry if the theatrical-literary committee cuts your precious life short with its harsh decision, but . . .”
“No a bad beginning,” the writer interrupted. “Kindly keep talking and maybe I’ll fall asleep.”
“As you wish,” I replied. “So, are you sure that you’re now dying?”
“Am I sure? I tell you, I’m almost gone!”
“Splendid,” I said, “but have you thought well about whether this grief is worth your expiring on account of it?”
“Of course it’s worth it; it’s worth a thousand roubles,” the dying man moaned.
“Right. Unfortunately,” I replied, “the play would hardly bring you more than a thousand roubles, and therefore . . .”
But the dying man did not let me finish; he quickly raised himself on the sofa and cried:
“What a vile way to reason! Kindly give me a thousand roubles and then you can reason all you like.”
“Why should I pay for someone else’s sin? I said.
“And why should I be the loser?”
”Because, knowing how things go in our theaters, you described all sorts of titled persons in your play and presented them each one worse and more banal than the other.”
“Ahh, so that’s your consolation! According to you, one must describe nothing but good people, but I describe what I see, brother, and all I see is filth.”
“Then there is something wrong with your eyesight.”
“Maybe so,” the dying man replied, now thoroughly angry, “but what am I to do if I see nothing but abomination in my own soul and in yours? And thereupon the Lord God will now help me turn from you to the wall and sleep with a peaceful conscience, and I’ll lave tomorrow despising all my naïve land and your consolations.”
And the sufferer’s prayer was answered: he ‘thereupon’ had an excellent night’s sleep, and the next day I took him to the station; but then, as a result of his words, I myself was overcome by a gnawing anxiety.
“Can it be,” I thought, “that in my or his or any other Russian soul there really is nothing to be seen but trash? Can it be that all the goodness and kindness ever noticed by the artistic eye of other writers is simply stuff and nonsense? That is not only sad, it’s frightening. If, according to popular belief, no city can stand without three righteous men , how can the whole earth stand with nothing but the trash that lives in my soul and yours, dear reader?”
That was horrible and unbearable to me, and I went in search of righteous men, vowing that I would not rest until I had found at least that small number of three righteous men without whom “no city can stand.” But wherever I turned, whoever I asked, everyone answered me in the same way, that they had never seen any righteous men, because all men are sinful, but one or another of them had occasionally meet good people. I began taking notes. Whether they are righteous or unrighteous, I thought, I must collect all this and then try to see “what in it rises above the level of simple morality” and is therefore ‘holy to the Lord.’
These are some of my notes . . .