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Between Sacrifice and Indulgence

February 8, 2010

The last two posts were 1840s poems by Nekrasov, and here I’d like to discuss an article on Nekrasov as both poet and public figure, an approach that is necessarily weighted toward the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s: Konstantine Klioutchkine’s “Between Sacrifice and Indulgence: Nikolai Nekrasov as a Model for the Intelligentsia,” Slavic Review 66.1 (2007): 45-62.

Klioutchkine starts with two well-known and contradictory views of Nekrasov: as a poet, he was “an exemplar of civic virtue,” whose writings urged “self-sacrificial efforts on behalf of the oppressed,” but as a celebrity, he was “a figure of moral deficiency,” since while preaching self-sacrifice he managed to be “a man of leisure and luxury, an entrepreneur, a compulsive gambler, a womanizer, and a gourmand” (45).

Members of the intelligentsia who admired Nekrasov – both his contemporaries and later generations – tried to resolve this contradiction by deciding “to interpret Nekrasov’s transgressions as either fictional or irrelevant to his true personality and cultural legacy” (45).  Nekrasov scholars also have been prone to treat the poet’s progressive ideas, and the virtuous aspects of his разночинец persona, as the “essential features” of his poetry, and allusions to his faults, which are found in abundance in the poems themselves, as “nonessential” (Klioutchkine attributes such a view to B. O. Korman on “Последние элегии,” 47).  Klioutchkine wants us to reconsider Nekrasov’s “cultural impact,” arguing that readers’ “curiosity about his glamorous ethical failures” mattered just as much as “their veneration of his civic achievements” (47, 46).

Nekrasov and his allies promoted an ethics that was hard to live out in actual practice.  Their ultimate goal may have been pleasure for all of humanity, but this came to mean that they should deny themselves everything inessential in order to help the less fortunate, and should find their own personal pleasure merely in improving themselves and the world (55-56).  (Reading this I was reminded of interpretations of the phrase “pursuit of happiness” in the U.S. Declaration of Independence; the Enlightenment concept is continued in Russian Positivism.)   This was the theory, and in some accounts it produced some secular saints.  Most, however, could not or would not be ascetics, and indulged in pleasures of everyday life that were not comfortably compatible with their progressive ideology.  Klioutchkine finds stories to this effect in Skabichevskii’s memoirs, which portray not only Nekrasov, but also N. K. Mikhailovskii, as living “free from the constraints of the ideology they themselves disseminated” (56-57).

Nekrasov’s failings are on display in all their variety: the poet is attached to his cigar, a symbol of “gentry hedonism,” in “Последние элегии” (46-49); the biographical Nekrasov was known to engage in чернокнижие, “the writing of pornographic poetry” (48-49); Nekrasov suffered from an incurable venereal disease that gave him a raspy voice (49-50); he wrote his poems filled with empathy for the people while he enjoyed comfort and wealth (50-51); he was a hypocrite (53) who showed off his wealth (53-54); he gambled (54); he loved fine food and hosted dinners where hungry, penniless writers who contributed to his journals were offered “expensive French wines” (55).

Klioutchkine is careful to show not merely what Nekrasov did, but what the reading public knew he did (or thought it knew?); he distinguishes between Nekrasov’s biography as it is known to us today and the “discourse about Nekrasov” in the form of “letters, memoirs, journalistic, and scholarly writing of the intelligentsia” (53).  In the case of Nekrasov’s medical condition, I would be curious to see what exactly was said by his sources beyond a doctor’s 1873 allusion to an “‘awkwardness’ (nelovkost’) in the poet’s throat” (50).  Since even Nekrasov and his doctors did not know his condition was caused by a sexually transmitted disease for some years, some readers probably never knew; would a provincial subscriber of Современник?  It’s true his voice was often mentioned by memoirists, but I had the impression there was a legend that it had been ruined by a sickness he had contracted while penniless in a St. Petersburg winter.  This particular trait of the poet was, in my view, likely seen as part of his civic heroism in some quarters, even if from our perspective it seems sooner a symptom of self-indulgence than self-sacrifice.  Different corners of the broad “discourse about Nekrasov” might have treated his disease in different ways.

Be that as it may, Klioutchkine is undoubtedly right that many readers knew about many flaws of Nekrasov’s that appeared to contradict his ideology.  His larger point is about how that knowledge affected those readers.  Intellectuals who shared the poet’s desire for radical social change found themselves in a bind: it proved impossible to change Russia as they desired, and they had to accommodate themselves to an imperfect situation, carving out careers of their own while others suffered (59-60).  Some of them, like the radical critics Chernyshevskii and Dobroliubov, even made their careers by decrying others’ suffering and prescribing changes that could not occur.  They were only too aware that they were, in a sense, profiting by their ideology personally while failing to help the oppressed.  In this the older Nekrasov’s example was relevant, and they were more affected by watching him profit from his ideas, fail to live up to them, and continue to expound them than they were by the ideas directly (58-59).  Indeed, for the intelligentsia as a whole, it was Nekrasov’s contradictions that mattered more than his ideas.  They sensed their own complexity and contradictions, but in the 1860s and 1870s it was hard for them to articulate them.  Nekrasov served as “an early model of the modern self as an embodiment of inherently contradictory personal aspects in an increasingly complex social environment,” and his example helped the intelligentsia make sense of themselves (62).

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