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Leskov’s “organic worldview”

June 17, 2013

A couple years ago I read some but not all of Irmhild Christina Sperrle’s The Organic Worldview of Nikolai Leskov (2002), but I didn’t remember what she meant by an “organic worldview.” So, while I have the book in front of me thanks to interlibrary loan, here’s the answer:

Writers have long used metaphors like a plant growing from a seed or a human body to talk about, say, works of art. This sort of “organic” metaphor is handy for talking about Leskov’s worldview too, but instead of those common examples, the critical one is the stomach, meaning the whole digestive system (24-26). Sperrle takes organic images from Leskov’s letters and articles, derives from them one grand image of a stomach that must be partially open to the world and must transform what it takes in, and uses this image to make his fiction seem consistent and comprehensible. According to Sperrle, Leskov thinks people should make their minds like their stomachs. The mind should take in material and transform it into a byproduct that can fertilize others’ ideas (26-35, 68). A closed mind can take in no food, transforms nothing, and is no good to anyone; this is death in life, and it’s the state of people, from nihilists to Tolstoyans, who live by a fixed set of beliefs (34, 40, 48, 54-57, 67). It’s also bad to have an overly open mind, just as it’s unwise to allow all possible substances in any amount into one’s stomach (35). People need a “mental belt” that lets them reject unwholesome ideas before they sicken the mind, but also allows nourishment in (29, 35-36, 59, 62).

Leskov’s ideal is the heretic, the Christian who prefers the “living word” to the “dead letter,” even the contrarian nihilist (36-38, 41, 48, 61-63). When something unexpected happens, such people spontaneously do good, and this goodness in the moment is worth more than anything (36-37). A key example is the thief next to Christ on the cross whose verbal good deed at the very end lets him into paradise (41). Evil is real but evil and good are always mixed (66-69). People should offer their fellows “gentle criticism,” where “love includes respect as well as a dose of ‘disrespect’ — criticism” (45).

Much of this — evil catalyzing good, goodness revealed in spontaneous acts in unexpected situations, the importance of learning and changing rather than staying on a set path — comes together in “The Entertainer Pamphalon” (Скоморох Памфалон, 1887):

[…] in Tolstoy’s story “Family Happiness” (Семейное счастье [1859]), evil is the catalyst of the good as well, but the exception (or disruption)—in this case the almost illicit affair—only confirms the previous position, namely, marriage. The woman was a wife before and simply becomes a “better wife” in the Tolstoyan sense. The exception—the lover—disappears and supposedly leaves no trace; the exception has confirmed the rule. In contrast, when Leskov illustrates disruptions of preconceived notions, the so-called exceptions, he points out that these confirm the rule only for those who hypocritically insist on their positions, but in reality they temporarily invalidate and break it. Thus, in his story “The Entertainer Pamphalon,” Pamphalon’s plan for a better life—his notion of salvation—consisted in saving up money and leaving his debauched environment for a “clean” life. This plan gets disrupted by a woman in need. By giving away his savings, his own plan for salvation is shattered—it is invalidated—and the reader is told that, in fact, salvation for this character consists not in leaving his environment but, on the contrary, in remaining in it. In other words, the disruption did not confirm but rather reinterpreted Pamphalon’s view of salvation. (41-42, Cyrillic backtransliterated, link added)

This Tolstoi/Leskov contrast is a preview of chapter 2, which is all about how late Leskov did not resemble, and certainly did not follow, late Tolstoi as much as many imagine.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 18, 2013 3:22 am

    IIRC, Pamfalon is one of a series of tales Leskov wrote based on stories from a Byzantine “synaxarion” (misleadingly called ПрОлог in Russian) – a compendium of saints’ lives and moral tales of common people. Leskov’s interpretations are idiosyncratic but I suspect he sensed correctly that the original Greek tales were not quite straightforward. You might also want to read Mikhail Kuzmin’s stories influenced by Leskov’s style.

    “[L]ate Leskov did not resemble, and certainly did not follow, late Tolstoi as much as many imagine.” Not so many, I suspect – the difference is obvious as Tolstoy often lapsed into simplistic moralizing like an abstinence preacher. Both became vegetarians though.

    • June 18, 2013 11:10 am

      IIRC, Pamfalon is one of a series of tales Leskov wrote based on stories from a Byzantine “synaxarion” (misleadingly called ПрОлог in Russian) – a compendium of saints’ lives and moral tales of common people.

      Yes, you’re right.

      Not so many, I suspect – the difference is obvious as Tolstoy often lapsed into simplistic moralizing like an abstinence preacher. Both became vegetarians though.

      Well, no one is going to mistake one for the other (the word “simplistic” couldn’t apply to Leskov’s style), but Sperrle was reacting to a conventional wisdom, now perhaps gone, that Leskov was a follower of Tolstoi’s in those last years. For example: “On April 20, 1887, Leskov had his first meeting with Lev Tolstoy, the man who for the rest of his days was to be his beacon, his guide, the fountainhead of his most cherished ideas.” That’s from p. 515 of Hugh McLean’s 1977 Nikolai Leskov: The Man and His Art, in which pp. 515-641 are “Part IV: Together with Tolstoy (1887-1895).” I don’t think this view is idiosyncratic to McLean; rather it develops ideas from Russian Leskov scholarship. Everyone agrees Tolstoi and Leskov are different in style, and Sperrle is contesting the alleged similarity in ideas as well.

      Thanks for the tip on Kuzmin! I’ve read some of his prose and I know he adored Leskov, but I don’t think I’ve read the stories you’re talking about.

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