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Social and aesthetic aren’t opposites

November 7, 2013

I’ve been thinking more about the dominance of “social-realist” prose in mid-to-late nineteenth-century Russia, following Languagehat, and I wanted to quickly mention three points:

1) There’s a conventional explanation for why social themes were more important in Russian literature than elsewhere, which I’m not sure I’ve heard in the recent discussion. Censorship in tsarist Russia made it difficult to discuss politics openly. This led some people whose main interest was in the government’s policy choices, or political and economic theory generally, to write fiction or even literary criticism. If arguments about abortion had to take the form of book reviews of Margaret Atwood, there would be more and different critics.

2) The division of literature into “social” or “aesthetic” doesn’t work as well as I’ve recently been pretending it does. Nineteenth-century Russian critics may have argued about “civic poetry” vs. “art for art’s sake,” or the Gogolian trend in Russian literature vs. the Pushkinian one, but with the distance we have we can see those categories are artificial. By the late nineteenth century the Gogol (social!) vs. Pushkin (aesthetic) contrast was giving way in the popular imagination to Nekrasov (social) vs. Pushkin (aesthetic). But already then, and certainly through the twentieth century and beyond, it’s been easy to see how you can’t just strip away the social and political aspects of Pushkin writing about Pugachev, or the Decembrists, or the November Uprising in Poland, or the role of the poet. Likewise much of Nekrasov’s poetry is quite personal, and at his most “social” his poems still wouldn’t have interested anyone then or since – they wouldn’t even have made effective rhetoric – if they were not so interesting from an aesthetic point of view. With Gogol it’s hard for people today to take the contemporary social reading seriously.

3) Recently I read Pisemskii’s “The Wood Demon” (Леший, 1853), a story about an overseer who abuses his position to seduce, coerce, or rape several peasant women under his authority, and the policeman who brings him down. It’s “social” in its subject matter, it first appeared in Nekrasov’s The Contemporary, and Pisemskii later altered it to conform to Chernyshevskii’s ideological critiques (see V. A. Malkin’s notes at the end of the text). But its implicit critique of serfdom is not even a little like Languagehat’s pastiche of Radishchev. The aesthetic complexity of the nested narrators’ perspectives and manners of speech (the frame narrator hears the story from the policeman who hears much of it from a peasant woman) strikes me as more interesting than Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin. In general I don’t like to look at the restrictions writers of realist prose placed on themselves (or that critics, readers, and other writers placed on them) as suffocating limitations of their creativity. Here I’m thinking of implicit rules like that dialogue should reflect characters’ psychology and social origin; events should not depend on unlikely coincidences, magic, or the intercession of saints; and so on. However you define these rules, why not think of them as the same kind of aesthetically productive restrictions as Racine’s alexandrines and neoclassical unities, or Shakespeare’s sonnets or blank verse? You have to have some rules to follow or break, or you’re playing tennis with the net down.

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