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The Friendly Literary Society

January 30, 2010

A. F. Merzliakov

The Friendly Literary Society (Дружеское литературное общество) was a literary circle that met for five months in 1801.  Founded by Andrei Turgenev and Aleksei Merzliakov, its members also included Vasilii Zhukovskii.  Andrei Turgenev wrote little and died young, but gave an influential speech to the group in March 1801.  This speech anticipated literary discussions that took place some 20 years later, including pointing the way toward the concept of народность.

David L. Cooper, in his clear and informative “Narodnost’ avant la lettre? Andrei Turgenev, Aleksei Merzliakov, and the National Turn in Russian Criticism,” Slavic and East European Journal 52.3 (2008): 351-69, refines established ideas about who was responsible for the key ideas of the Friendly Literary Society and how these ideas were transmitted to critics active in the 1820s.  He argues that scholars from Iurii Lotman (353) to Filipp Dziadko (364) tend to ascribe all the programmatic statements of the society to A. Turgenev, underestimating the role of Merzliakov, whose reputation as a behind-the-times classicist makes it hard to imagine him influencing the Decembrists and others.

Cooper goes through the key points of A. Turgenev’s speech (called “О русской литературе,” and beginning by questioning the very idea of Russian literature) and ties them, as Lotman also had, to a diary entry by Turgenev that includes almost all the same arguments but portrays them as a position he and Merzliakov took in a discussion with their friend Zhukovskii.  There were a few changes made as the diary entry was transformed into the speech, and Cooper emphasizes that these softened the Turgenev-Merzliakov joint position, in particular qualifying criticisms of Karamzin (358-59).  The strongest criticism of Karamzin, then, and the strongest link to future Decembrist arguments, may well have belonged to Merzliakov, with Turgenev feeling the need to back away slightly.

The call for народность (avant la lettre) in Andrei Turgenev’s speech centers on his complaint that Russian theater imitates French models in a derivative way, populating the Russian stage with French people who are Russian only in their names.  French Classicists, on the other hand, had transformed their own source material, so that characters with Greek and Roman names became French in essence (355-56).  Cooper traces how Merzliakov continued to express variations on this theme long after the Friendly Literary Society (in addition to perhaps deserving partial credit for its presence in Turgenev’s speech in the first place).  When in 1824 Viazemskii repeats Turgenev’s “opening two rhetorical moves in order,” questioning whether there is any such thing as Russian literature and asserting that the Россияда has no national quality other than in the names used in it (365), he may not have gotten it directly from Turgenev’s 1801 speech, but through Merzliakov’s “mediation” of Turgenev’s message as a critic, lecturer, and professor at Moscow University (360-67).

Cooper compares his argument in this article to what Tynianov did in “Архаисты и Пушкин”: the idea that Merzliakov was ahead of his time in preaching the need for народность, taken up by anti-Classicist Romantics and revolutionary Decembrists, constitutes a paradox similar to the links Tynianov elucidates between younger archaists like Kiukhel’beker and the conservative Shishkov (366-67).

In the near future I hope to have a post on a poem by Merzliakov; in addition to Cooper’s article, I’ve been reading M. L. Gasparov on Merzliakov’s translation of classical meter.  Apparently, he translated poems in quantitative meter both in the usual way (long syllable in Latin = stressed syllable in Russian) and in an entirely different way (stressed syllable in Latin = stressed syllable in Russian).  If I’m not mistaken, Gasparov says he alternates between the two methods within one poem…!

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