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Humani nihil a me alienum puto

June 8, 2013

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 NarezhnyiPogorelskii, 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.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 8, 2013 5:52 pm

    I agreed with this whole post – except for the very end; I do love me some Enlightenment books (actually, my favorite book of all time comes from the French Enlightenment period…)

    Anyway, have you read anything by Victor Pelevin? SOOOO Russian. Thankfully, the English versions usually have lots of notes, otherwise I wouldn’t get half of what he was saying. Actually that’s not true, I probably still only understand half of what he’s getting at with the notes. But so yeah, culture matters.

    • June 9, 2013 2:41 pm

      I was being unfair at the end. I’m sure there’s plenty of good Enlightenment art out there, and if I knew more of it I’d appreciate it better. How about this: when Enlightenment novelists are boring, they’re boring in a shared way that transcends national and cultural boundaries.

      I’ve read a little Pelevin – The Yellow Arrow (Желтая стрела) and maybe one or two other things. A Russian teacher of mine used to say that Pelevin did nothing but teach Buddhism in the form of fiction, so it’s interesting to hear that he can also come across as so very Russian. He strikes me as someone who’s interacting with international pop culture (The Yellow Arrow was the first Russian book I read with an explicit allusion to Fleetwood Mac) and many Russian and non-Russian strains of high culture.

      If you like contemporary Russian literature, you should be reading Lizok’s Bookshelf, if you aren’t already!

      • June 9, 2013 6:13 pm

        I was not. Thanks for making me aware of Lizok’s Bookshelf! I can’t say I ‘like’ Pelevin because he is, kind of fundamentally unlikeable I think (somewhat depressing) but I think probably his most ‘Russian’ story I’ve read is Oman Ra, which does have a lot of double-entendres that probably only really make sense in the original language. I think my favorite stories by him though are Zatvornik and Shestipali, and probably The Life and Adventures of Shed Number XII.
        I haven’t read The Yellow Arrow, but the Buddhism thing wouldn’t really surprise me, although honestly I had no idea he was into that – I thought he was just a solipsist.

        I like the boring Enlightenment novelists idea! That’s awesome. 🙂

  2. June 9, 2013 9:39 am

    Now I say, give me a cosmopolitanism that embraces all things

    But that’s exactly what I’m talking about. My opposition to nationalism is not that I want “leveling …to a gray humanness” (god forbid!); it’s precisely that one of the essential components of nationalism is a rejection of everything foreign (“Absolute national character [narodnost’] is available only to people free from foreign influences”). As I hope is obvious from my blogging, I revel in cultural and linguistic differences, and I wouldn’t want Russian novels to be just like French or American ones. But they can’t be! Whether it’s Bryusov writing Ognenny angel about 16th-century Germany or Grin setting his stories in an entirely imaginary “Grinlandia” or Limonov writing scathing accounts of low life in New York City, it’s all as Russian as can be. But people who demand that Russian literature be Russian (or mutatis mutandis for any other nationality) aren’t talking about that; they want national motifs, national plots, and ultimately nationalist history. That’s why they loved Yuri Miloslavsky so much: it wasn’t just a ripping yarn, it let you root for good Russians defeating evil Poles! That’s what I dislike, and I think it’s a far more immediate threat than some gray internationalist soup. But rest assured that if the latter becomes a clear and present danger, I’ll rail against it!

    • June 9, 2013 2:32 pm

      I realized as I was writing this post that it was ridiculous to think that you, Languagehat, might not “revel in cultural and linguistic differences,” and I hope that came through. The last thing I want to do is defend those who want “nationalist history” and stories with “good Russians defeating evil Poles.” In 2013 I’ll agree that kind of nationalism is a more immediate threat. But I don’t want to equate Belinskii and other 1830s proponents of народность in literature with present-day jingoist cheerleaders.

      The Westernizers’ and Slavophiles’ personal attitudes toward other countries are ironic (Belinskii disliking spending time abroad and wanting to return to Russia, Tiutchev writing anti-Western, pro-Russian screeds in French from some diplomatic perch), but I think Belinskii was willing enough to see positive aspects of foreign systems. I should look at his articles again before saying too much, but I think we have to take his call for specific national elements in literature as part of a reaction against eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Neoclassicism, a call to write less like Sumarokov and more like Pushkin.

      I take your point that Russian writers can’t help producing Russian writing, whether they set out to imitate foreign models or purge themselves of all foreign influence. And again, I hope I’m not repeating primitive nationalist fallacies. But there’s a whole line of criticizing, say, Russian drama before Griboedov and Gogol (and excepting Fon-Vizin) as being French characters in French situations, with only Russian names grafted on. You’re no doubt right that the most imitative playwright who wrote in Russian was still making Russian plays, and wasn’t truly a second-rate Molière, but the ones whose goal was to be Russian Molières and Corneilles strike me as rather dully internationalist. (On the flip side I think you can see a lot of Molière in Gogol if you look, but part of his genius is that he doesn’t come across as even slightly imitative.)

  3. June 9, 2013 4:12 pm

    I meant to add that your post title is one of my very favorite mottoes.

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