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The least didactic writers

September 19, 2013

I’m getting to the end of Charles A. Moser’s 1969 Pisemsky: A Provincial Realist (strongly recommended to anyone out there interested in Pisemskii). Take a look at Pisemskii’s thoughts on didacticism in literature… or no, before you do, think of six classic writers of world literature through 1877, six strikingly non-didactic classics. Then read on:

Pisemsky dissented strongly from [his correspondent] Buslaev’s view that didacticism in literature was desirable. From contemporary French, German, and English writers who had set out to instruct the public down to such novels as Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done?, Pisemsky argued, didacticism had always failed to guide people toward better ways, and “all of these instructive works, I should surmise, stand in danger of falling into prompt and eternal oblivion.” The classic writers of world literature—Cervantes, Smollett, Scott, even George Sand, Pushkin, Lermontov—had created with no deliberate intention of instructing the reading public. What they wrote may in fact have been instructive, at least in part, but they allowed the reader to select what was important to him. To cite Pisemsky’s inelegant words, they in effect told the reader: “Here you are, put it in your sack, and when you get home you can figure out what you can use and what not!” Gogol was a sad example of a writer who had been deflected from the strait path by “various advisers” lacking any idea of what literature should accomplish. Even in Dead Souls, Pisemsky wrote, Gogol had attempted didactic flights, and in his Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends he had reached the limit of unrelieved didacticism. (197)

The academic Fedor Buslaev (1818-1897), to whom Pisemskii wrote in 1877

The academic Fedor Buslaev (1818-1897), to whom Pisemskii wrote in 1877

Are those the ones you would have picked? I think I can see why they’re on his list, mostly, though I’m not well-read enough to put Smollett on a list of anything. What gets me is George Sand as the only French writer mentioned as anti-didactic. If Sand’s readers just put a bunch of ideas in a sack, what was the point of the argument between Vikhrov and Nevedomov? How could Pisemskii’s critics use Sand as shorthand for a political position just as they used the Domostroi?

In the book as a whole, I’m surprised how much Moser emphasizes Pisemskii’s short fiction and plays, compared to the six long novels. Also, for better or worse, Moser is completely free of the impulse to present the writer you’re studying in depth as an underrated genius of the first rank – maybe that was the spirit of the time.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 20, 2013 7:52 am

    I had Cervantes and Pushkin on my list; my other choices were Homer, Sterne (I’m surprised he wasn’t on Pisemsky’s list, but I guess the craze for Sterne had subsided by the 1870s), Hoffmann, and pick-a-Gothic-novelist-any-Gothic-novelist. Sand occurred to me, but I rejected her for being, well, didactic.

  2. September 20, 2013 10:19 pm

    I like the idea of Sterne – I think you’re right that the craze had subsided, but maybe he also just wasn’t Pisemskii’s cup of tea. I’m pretty sure Leskov liked Sterne and he was a bit younger.

    Your comment prompted me to do what I should have done in the first place and look up the whole letter, and Pisemskii realizes others consider Sand didactic – here’s the relevant paragraph (full letter here):

    Но не такова судьба больших старых романистов. Беру их на выдержку. Сервантес, вряд ли думавший кого-либо поучать своим “Дон-Кихотом”, явил только картину замирающего рыцарства, и она помнится всем читающим миром. Смолет, описавший морские нравы, дал нам такие из меди литые фигуры, по которым хорошо поймет каждый, какого закала английская раса; Вальтер Скотт запечатлел на веки-веченские в умах человечества старую поэтическую Шотландию; даже Жорж Занд, по-видимому, самая тенденциозная писательница – во времена моей и Вашей молодости, Вы, конечно, это помните, она считалась у нас в России растолковательницей и чуть ли даже не поправительницей евангелия, но в этом случае, мне кажется, на нее совершенно клеветали, – Жорж Занд была не проповедница, а страстная поэтическая натура, она описывала только те среды, которые ее женское сердце или заедали, или вдохновляли. У нас ни Пушкин, создавший нам “Евгения Онегина” и “Капитанскую дочку”, ни Лермонтов, нарисовавший “Героя нашего времени” неотразимо крупными чертами, нисколько, кажется, не помышляли о поучении и касательно читателя держали себя так: “На, мол, клади в мешок, а дома разберешь, что тебе пригодно и что нет!”

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