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“The decadents” on Batiushkov: On reading Soviet criticism

July 18, 2010

Here is the very end of section 5 of chapter 1 of N. V. Fridman’s Поэзия Батюшкова (Moscow, 1971), pp. 41-51:

In the early twentieth century, dissipated decadent tendencies had a very harmful effect on the study of Batiushkov’s work. In this one could see the evolution of bourgeois literary criticism toward a reactionary valorization of intuition that was organically linked to its search for the divine. Thus, in the article on Batiushkov that begins his collection Silhouettes of Russian Writers, Iu. Aikhenval’d examines all of Batiushkov’s work as evidence for and the result of a struggle between Christianity and paganism in the poet’s internal world. An equally mystical interpretation of Batiushkov’s work is given in M. O. Gershenzon’s article “Pushkin and Batiushkov.” Taking his own far-fetched ideas as a point of departure, Gershenzon reproaches Batiushkov for his “formalism and abstraction,” as well as for not having “his own ideas about the world beyond.” (50-51)

In 1971 Fridman is harsh toward modernism/decadence (more than would have been necessary in the 1980s), but manages to include a characterization of the views of two politically questionable critics, including the exile Aikhenval’d (as would probably have been impossible before 1953).

Here I’m pretty sure Fridman uses a critical tone as cover to smuggle in Aikhenval’d and Gershenzon so that his readers know more about the range of opinions about Batiushkov. But I wonder if I can trust my intuitions as much as I once thought I could, never having been to the Soviet Union and knowing a non-representative sample of émigrés. It might be too easy to say every orthodox political phrase should be ignored (as ritual language that readers of the time knew to edit out), or taken as its opposite (if the author seems to be a covert dissident), or seen as proof that the author is sincerely a loyal Soviet subject.

Now I’m afraid that to understand a Soviet scholar’s real views, one has to know the subject better than the author, to be able to realize what has been left out or mischaracterized, and also to remember exactly how strict censorship conditions were, not just by decade but by year. Also, with the neutral language of “scientific” criticism, I have to read a lot of pages to form a (possibly incorrect) intuition about what a scholar actually thinks.

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