An Outline of Russian Literature
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The reason of this has been luminously stated by Professor Br?ckner: “To the intelligent Russian, without a free press, without the liberty of assembly, without the right to free expression of opinion, literature became the last refuge of freedom of thought, the only means of propagating higher ideas. He expected of his country’s literature not merely ?sthetic recreation; he placed it at the service of his aspirations… Hence the striking partiality, nay unfairness, displayed by the Russians towards the most perfect works of their own literature, when they did not respond to the aims or expectations of their party or their day.” And speaking of the criticism that was produced after 1855, he says: “This criticism is often, in spite of all its giftedness, its ardour and fire, only a mockery of all criticism. The work only serves as an example on which to hang the critics’ own views… This is no reproach; we simply state the fact, and fully recognize the necessity and usefulness of the method. With a backward society, … this criticism was a means which was sanctified by the end, the spreading of free opinions… Unhappily, Russian literary criticism has remained till to-day almost solely journalistic, i. e. didactic and partisan. See how even now it treats the most interesting, exceptional, and mighty of all Russians, Dostoyevsky, merely because he does not fit into the Radical mould! How unjust it has been towards others! How it has extolled to the clouds the representatives of its own camp!” I quote Professor Br?ckner, lest I should be myself suspected of being partial in this question. The question, perhaps, may admit of further expansion. It is not that the Russian critics were merely convinced it was all-important that art should have ideas at the roots of it, and had no patience with a merely shallow ?stheticism. They went further; the ideas had to be of one kind. A definite political tendency had to be discerned; and if the critic disagreed with that political tendency, then no amount of qualities – not artistic excellence, form, skill, style, not even genius, inspiration, depth, feeling, philosophy – were recognized.
Herein lies the great difference between Russian and Western critics, between Sainte-Beuve and Belinsky; between Matthew Arnold and his Russian contemporaries. Matthew Arnold defined the highest poetry as being a criticism of life; but that would not have prevented him from doing justice either to a poet so polemical as Byron, or to a poet so completely unpolitical, so sheerly ?sthetic as Keats; to Lord Beaconsfield as a novelist, to Mr. Morley or Lord Acton as historians, because their “tendency” or their “politics” were different from his own. The most biassed of English or French critics is broad-minded compared to a Russian critic. Had Keats been a Russian poet, Belinsky would have swept him away with contempt; Wordsworth would have been condemned as reactionary; and Swinburne’s politics alone would have been taken into consideration.At the present day, almost ten years after Professor Br?ckner wrote his History of Russian Literature, now that the press is more or less free, save for occasional pin-pricks, now that literary output is in any case unfettered, and the stage freer than it is in England, the same criticism still applies. Russian literary criticism is still journalistic. There are and there always have been brilliant exceptions, of course, two of the most notable of which are Volynsky and Merezhkovsky; but as a rule the political camp to which the writer belongs is the all-important question; and I know cases of Russian politicians who have been known to refuse to write, even in foreign reviews, because they disapproved of the “tendency” of those reviews, the tendency being non-existent – as is generally the case with English reviews, – and the review harbouring opinions of every shade and tendency. You would think that narrow-mindedness could no further go than to refuse to let your work appear in an impartial organ, lest in that same organ an opinion opposed to your own might appear also. But the cause of this is the same now as it used to be, namely that, in spite of there being a greater measure of freedom in Russia, political liberty does not yet exist. Liberty of assembly does not exist; liberty of conscience only partially exists; the press is annoyed and hampered by restrictions; and the great majority of Russian writers are still engaged in fighting for these things, and therefore still ready to sacrifice fairness for the greater end, – the achievement of political freedom.
Thus criticism in Russia became a question of camps, and the question arises, what were these camps? From the dawn of the age of pure literature, Russia was divided into two great camps: The Slavophiles and the Propagandists of Western Ideas.
The trend towards the West began with the influence of Joseph Le Maistre and the St. Petersburg Jesuits. In 1836, Chaadaev, an ex-guardsman who had served in the Russian campaign in France and travelled a great deal in Western Europe, and who shared Joseph Le Maistre’s theory that Russia had suffered by her isolation from the West and through the influence of the former Byzantine Empire, published the first of his Lettres sur la Philosophie de l’Histoire in the Telescope of Moscow. This letter came like a bomb-shell. He glorified the tradition and continuity of the Catholic world. He said that Russia existed, as it were, outside of time, without the tradition either of the Orient or of the Occident, and that the universal culture of the human race had not touched it. “The atmosphere of the West produces ideas of duty, law, justice, order; we have given nothing to the world and taken nothing from it; … we have not contributed anything to the progress of humanity, and we have disfigured everything we have taken from that progress. Hostile circumstances have alienated us from the general trend in which the social idea of Christianity grew up; thus we ought to revise our faith, and begin our education over again on another basis.” The expression of these incontrovertible sentiments resulted in the exile of the editor of the Telescope, the dismissal of the Censor, and in the official declaration of Chaadaev’s insanity, who was put under medical supervision for a year.
Chaadaev made disciples who went further than he did, Princess Volkonsky, the authoress of a notable book on the Orthodox Church, and Prince Gagarin, who both became Catholics. This was one branch of Westernism. Another branch, to which Belinsky belonged, had no Catholic leanings, but sought for salvation in socialism and atheism. The most important figure in this branch is Alexander Herzen (1812-1870). His real name was Yakovlev; his father, a wealthy nobleman, married in Germany, but did not legalize his marriage in Russia, so his children took their mother’s name.
Herzen’s career belongs rather to the history of Russia than to the history of Russian literature; were it not that, besides being one of the greatest and most influential personalities of his time, he was a great memoir-writer. He began, after a mathematical training at the University, with fiction, of which the best example is a novel Who is to Blame? which paints the g?nie sans portefeuille of the period that Turgenev was so fond of depicting. Herzen was exiled on account of his oral propaganda, first to Perm, and then to Vyatka. In 1847, he left Russia for ever, and lived abroad for the rest of his life, at first in Paris, and afterwards in London, where he edited a newspaper called The Bell.
Herzen was a Socialist. Western Europe he considered to be played out. He looked upon Socialism as a new religion and a new form of Christianity, which would be to the new world what Christianity had been to the old. The Russian peasants would play the part of the Invasion of the Barbarians; and the functions of the State would be taken over by the Russian Communes on a basis of voluntary and mutual agreement – the principle of the Commune, of sharing all possessions in common, being so near the fundamental principle of Christianity.
“A thinking Russian,” he wrote, “is the most independent being in the world. What can stop him? Consideration for the past? But what is the starting-point of modern Russian history if it be not a total negation of nationalism and tradition?.. What do we care, disinherited minors that we are, for the duties you have inherited? Can your worn-out morality satisfy us? Your morality which is neither Christian nor human, which is used only in copybooks and for the ritual of the law?” Again: “We are free because we begin with our own liberation; we are independent; we have nothing to lose or to honour. A Russian will never be a protestant, or follow the juste milieu … our civilization is external, our corrupt morals quite crude.”
The great point Herzen was always making was that Russia had escaped the baleful tradition of Western Europe, and the hereditary infection of Western corruption. Thus, in his disenchantment with Western society and his enthusiasm for the communal ownership of land, he was at one with the Slavophiles; where he differed from them was in accepting certain Western ideas, and in thinking that a new order of things, a new heaven and earth, could be created by a social revolution, which should be carried out by the Slavs. His influence – he was one of the precursors of Nihilism, for the seed he sowed, falling on the peculiar soil where it fell, produced the whirlwind as a harvest – belongs to history. What belongs to literature are his memoirs, My Past and my Thoughts (Byloe i Dumy), which were written between 1852 and 1855. These memoirs of everyday life and encounters with all sorts and conditions of extraordinary men are in their subject-matter as exciting as a novel, and, in their style, on a level with the masterpieces of Russian prose, through their subtle psychology, interest, wit, and artistic form.
Herzen lived to see his ideas bearing fruit in the one way which of all others he would have sought to avoid, namely in “militancy” and terrorism. When in 1866, an attempt was made by Karakozov to assassinate Alexander II, and Herzen wrote an article repudiating all political assassinations as barbarous, the revolutionary parties solemnly denounced him and his newspaper. The Bell, which had already lost its popularity owing to Herzen’s pro-Polish sympathies in 1863, ceased to have any circulation. Thus he lived to see his vast hopes shattered, the seed he had sown bearing a fruit he distrusted, his dreams of regeneration burst like a bubble, his ideals exploited by unscrupulous criminals. He died in 1870, leaving a name which is as great in Russian literature as it is remarkable in Russian history.
Turning now to the Slavophiles, their idea was that Russia was already in possession of the best possible institutions, – orthodoxy, autocracy, and communal ownership, and that the West had everything to learn from Russia. They pointed to the evils arising from the feudal and aristocratic state, the system of primogeniture in the West, the higher legal status of women in Russia, and the superiority of a communal system, which leads naturally to a Consultative National Assembly with unanimous decisions, over the parliaments and party systems of the West.
The leader of the Slavophiles was Homyakov, a man of great culture; a dialectician, a poet, and an impassioned defender of orthodoxy. The best of his lyrics, which are inspired by a profound love of his country and belief in it, have great depth of feeling. Besides Homyakov, there were other poets, such as Tyutchev and Ivan Aksakov. Just as the camp of Reform produced in Herzen a supreme writer of memoirs, that of the Slavophiles also produced a unique memoir writer in the Serge Aksakov, the father of the poet (1791-1859), who published his Family Chronicle in 1856, and who describes the life of the end of the eighteenth century, and the age of Alexander. This book, one of the most valuable historical documents in Russian, and a priceless collection of biographical portraits, is also a gem of Russian prose, exact in its observation, picturesque and perfectly balanced in its diction.
Aksakov remembered with unclouded distinctness exactly what he had seen in his childhood, which he spent in the district of Orenburg. He paints the portraits of his grandfather and his great-aunt. We see every detail of the life of a backwoodsman of the days of Catherine II. We see the noble of those days, simple and rustic in his habits as a peasant, almost entirely unlettered, and yet a gentleman through and through, unswerving in maintaining the standard of morals and traditions which he considers due to his ancient lineage. We see every hour of the day of his life in the country; we hear all the details of the family life, the marriage of his son, the domestic troubles of his sister.
What strikes one most, perhaps, besides the contrast between the primitive simplicity of the habits and manners of the life described, and the astoundingly gentlemanlike feelings of the man who leads this quiet and rustic life in remote and backward conditions, is that there is not a hint or suspicion of anything antiquated in the sentiments and opinions we see at play. The story of Aksakov’s grandfather might be that of any country gentleman in any country, at any epoch, making allowances for a certain difference in manners and customs and conditions which were peculiar to the epoch in question, the existence of serfdom, for instance – although here, too, the feeling with regard to manners described is startlingly like the ideal of good manners of any epoch, although the m?urs are sometimes different. The story is as vivid and as interesting as that of any novel, as that of the novels of Russian writers of genius, and it has the additional value of being true. And yet we never feel that Aksakov has a thought of compiling a historical document for the sake of its historical interest. He is making history unawares, just as Monsieur Jourdain talked prose without knowing it; and, whether he was aware of it or not, he wrote perfect prose. No more perfect piece of prose writing exists. The style flows on like a limpid river; there is nothing superfluous, and not a hesitating touch. It is impossible to put down the narrative after once beginning it, and I have heard of children who read it like a fairy-tale. One has the sensation, in reading it, of being told a story by some enchanting nurse, who, when the usual question, “Is it true?” is put to her, could truthfully answer, “Yes, it is true.” The pictures of nature, the portraits of the people, all the good and all the bad of the good and the bad old times pass before one with epic simplicity and the magic of a fairy-tale. One is spellbound by the charm, the dignity, the good-nature, the gentle, easy accent of the speaker, in whom one feels convinced not only that there was nothing common nor mean, but to whom nothing was common or mean, who was a gentleman by character as well as by lineage, one of God’s as well as one of Russia’s nobility.
There is no book in Russian which, for its entrancing interest as well as for its historical value, so richly deserves translation into English; only such a translation should be made by a stylist – that is, by a man who knows how to speak and write his mother tongue perspicuously and simply.