Humani nihil a me alienum puto
For days I’ve been thinking about how to respond to Languagehat’s post on Russian prose before Belinskii. It’s excellent and so is the comment thread. I agree that, beginning around 1840, Russian literature was expected to be socially useful and not “merely” aesthetic; this closed off or redirected certain lines of development that LH is finding by reading Narezhnyi, Pogorelskii, Vladimir Odoevskii, Vel’tman, and other writers from early in the century. Belinskii was influential and so were his successors, but whether he is the cause or the visible manifestation of a change in attitudes toward literature, the change is real enough. That’s true even if LH’s commenter Bill Walderman is right that Russia is part of a Europe-wide trend.
So what is it that doesn’t quite sit right with me? Oddly, the treatment of “national character.”
When I was 20, studying in St. Petersburg, I asked a guest lecturer, who had made a rhetorically effective distinction between nationalism and patriotism, what he thought the difference was, my voice shaking with cosmopolitan fury as much as shyness. And I’m pretty fascinated by all languages and cultures, not just Russian. With that to establish my anti-nationalist credentials, here’s LH:
[Belinsky] says of Pushkin that any European poet could have written “Prisoner of the Caucasus,” “The Fountain of Bakhchisarai,” or “The Gypsies,” but only a Russian could have written “Eugene Onegin” and “Boris Godunov”: “Absolute national character [narodnost’] is available only to people free from foreign influences” [Безотносительная народность доступна только для людей, свободных от чуждых иноземных влияний]. This was, of course, an expression of the spirit of nationalism that was spreading all over Europe at the time, and it might have been harmless enough as a passing fancy, like the philosophy of Schelling which was so popular in those days; unfortunately it took root to such an extent that it’s never really been dislodged, and combined with the insistence on socially useful literature espoused by Belinsky and his fellow radical critics Dobrolyubov and Chernyshevsky, it created an entirely new environment for Russian writers, one in which that brilliant fantast Gogol was pressed into service as an analyst of social ills and every new novel was scrutinized for its service to the cause of the People.
And a bit later:
And the whole nationalist issue is stupid anyway; no amount of “foreign influences” will change the fact that a Russian writer will always be a Russian and write Russian books. […] And anyway, who cares? What’s important is that it be human, and that it be good art. The rest is pettiness.
I react to the last two sentences as people do to beliefs they haven’t completely let go of. Now I say, give me a cosmopolitanism that embraces all things instead of leveling them to a gray humanness. I think Belinskii’s pursuit of national character is compatible with that kind of universality.
In a world where “the rest is pettiness,” I wouldn’t feel drawn to reading in other languages. Growing up, I learned the language of Faulkner, Joyce, Austen, Shakespeare, Dickens… I’ll never run out. Why read Dostoevskii if all good art is good?
For me it’s not just a search for the very best authors, in whatever languages they might be hiding. It’s trying to cross a cultural divide, always failing but never totally. The older I get, the less I want to read translations of one Russian novel, one German, one Japanese, and then some transcribed oral stories from a stateless people I’d never heard of and claim some connection with humanity as one mass. Instead I want to study one language and culture in depth. Given enough lifetimes, I’d learn the next one and the next.
I now think you can’t skip to the universalist moral of Culture until you fight with the messiness of specific cultures – any cultures, not just the ones with impressive written canons, but not all cultures at once. (To clarify, I don’t think there’s some hierarchy of which literatures are most worthwhile. The literary talent pool, and the resources put into creating and preserving literature over time, matter for the size of the phenomenon of Chinese or Polish or Aztec or Nunga literature, but not their intrinsic goodness.)
If we take Belinskii as a purist making a futile effort to stamp out intercultural influence, sure, he’s silly. But he seems wiser if we see him as calling for distinctive features of Russian culture to be celebrated, not suppressed in a rush to imitate allegedly superior cultures.
It’s obvious from his blog that LH believes in studying cultures and learning languages. But the anti-nationalist formula “that it be human, and that it be good art” seems at least as problematic to me as Noam Chomsky claiming one can figure out how human language works by looking at English alone.
Different cultures are different and that matters. And this gets subjective, but doesn’t it seem as if subsequent literary history has vindicated part of what Belinskii said? I can’t disentangle Leskov, Dostoevskii, and Pisemskii from Russian language, thought, and realia, while I can’t forget the foreign analogues of Radishchev or Sumarokov. I know which set I read more often and more willingly. Yes, there’s plenty to object to in that statement, but I’ll go to my grave thinking it’s the conviction that humanity is human and cultures interchangeable that makes Enlightenment novels boring.