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Esthetics as Nightmare
Russian Literary Theory, 1855â"1870
By Charles A. Moser
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1989 Princeton University Press
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The Disputants and Their Journals
The year 1855 was a crucial one, for Russian history generally as well as for the development of Russian intellectual and literary life. Not only did that year witness the death of Nicholas I and the beginning of the reign of Alexander II; it also saw the issuance of two publications which intensified a relatively calm discussion of esthetic matters into what could be characterized as a debate or controversy over art and literature which would rage for some fifteen years before subsiding to a more reasonable level. It was no chance matter that the book which supplied the intellectual foundations for the radical arguments in that dispute was a discursive piece of literary and artistic scholarship: an essay presented by Nikolay Chernyshevsky (1828–89) to the faculty of St. Petersburg University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of master of arts. Its title: The Esthetic Relations of Art to Reality. And it was also appropriate that the publication which inspired the so-called "esthetic" critics should have been the first relatively complete edition of the works of Russia's greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin, which appeared in six volumes (with a further volume to come subsequently) under the editorship of the critic, scholar, and memoirist Pavel Annenkov (1813–87). The differing natures of these two publications very aptly symbolized the divergent viewpoints which the radical and esthetic critics would advance in the years following.
The 1850s: Defining Positions
Nikolay Chernyshevsky — who, like a number of his intellectual allies, came from a clergy family and studied in church schools before decisively rejecting religion — arrived in St. Petersburg from Saratov in May of 1853. Before that point he had taught for a time in Saratov, and also acquired a family, which he had to find a means of supporting in the capital. By January 1854 he had obtained a teaching position in St. Petersburg too, but was disturbed very little when he retained it for less than a year since his real ambition was to become either a scholar or a journalist. To this end he had begun publishing in St. Petersburg newspapers and periodicals before 1853 was out, and within a mere month of his arrival had called upon the eminent Slavist Izmail Sreznevsky in order to begin the process of earning his master's degree at St. Petersburg University. He successfully passed his examinations in late 1853 and early 1854, then turned to the writing of his master's essay under the supervision of Professor Alexander Nikitenko. Nikitenko (1804–77), a self-made intellectual born a serf, a historian of Russian literature, and for many years an enlightened censor, had himself written a dissertation some twenty years earlier on a subject from esthetics (On Creative Force in Poetry), and thus was an appropriate mentor for Chernyshevsky.
Chernyshevsky worked very rapidly at his essay. He had begun writing by late July or early August of 1854 and produced only one text, which he did not revise. Thus he had completed his writing by September, and Nikitenko approved his thesis late that same month. The larger academic bureaucracy would not be hurried, however, and approved the text only some six months later, in April 1855. The thesis was printed on May 3 and publicly defended on May 10. Evidently the word spread that this was no ordinary master's essay, for a number of leading intellectual and literary figures of the day attended the defense. Among them were Pavel Annenkov — who had a way of being present on important literary occasions in Russian history — and Nikolay Shelgunov (1824–91), who had met Chernyshevsky soon after the tatter's arrival in St. Petersburg and who left a detailed description of the occasion. Before this prominent audience Chernyshevsky uncompromisingly defended the major points of his argument, rather to the discomfiture of certain of his professors, who disagreed with his approach. As Chernyshevsky himself recalled the occasion afterward, he had expected to discuss substantive matters, but in fact the defense lasted only about an hour and a half and dealt with "trivialities." Nikitenko alone among his professors asked sensible questions, he thought, and the whole event was rather a formality. After the defense, despite its doubts, the faculty recommended that Chernyshevsky be awarded his degree, but the minister of education at the time refused to accept their recommendation and withheld it. A new minister of education did confer it three years later, but by that time Chernyshevsky had abandoned all thought of a scholarly career and did not bother to accept it. It mattered little to him whether his contributions were officially recognized, for by 1858 he knew that the radical intelligentsia, the people he cared about, regarded itself as virtually obliged to accept the arguments he made in his essay: the volume had acquired something like the force of intellectual law, as an unsympathetic commentator noted in 1866. Chernyshevsky could scarcely have hoped to exert a more powerful influence on Russian society than he in fact did through this short work.
The intellectual power of Chernyshevsky's essay sprang from the simplicity of its basic principles, and that simplicity in turn derived from his monistic, unitary approach. Chernyshevsky rejected from the start of his argument any notion of philosophical dualism, any true division between the natural and the supernatural, the real and the ideal. His thought is permeated by the monistic assumption: truth is unitary; there cannot be different ways of perceiving truth, and by extension reality: there can be only one way, to which the force of reason must ultimately bring everyone. Thus when Chernyshevsky turned to the subject of art, his first concern was the elimination of dualism from esthetic thought.
Dualism in esthetic thought could manifest itself in the dichotomy of form and content, or the notion of embodying a particular idea in a certain material form, an important element in the then dominant Hegelian doctrines of esthetics as elaborated, for example, by Friedrich Theodor Vischer, who published his monumental Aesthetik oder Wissenschaft des Schönen in six volumes between 1846 and 1857. Chernyshevsky chose Vischer as his chief opponent, even though the Aesthetik had not appeared in its entirety at the time Chernyshevsky wrote.
Chernyshevsky rejected the Hegelian argument that "the beautiful is the perfect correspondence, the perfect identity between idea and image," along with the related definition of the sublime as the "preponderance of the idea over the form": both these definitions provided excellent examples of philosophical dualism. But then Chernyshevsky could also be inconsistent, as when he accepted the dualistic Hegelian definition of the comic as the "preponderance of the form over the idea." Chernyshevsky lacked a sense of humor himself, and found the idea of the comic so uninteresting that he devoted but one brief paragraph to it in his essay.
To the dualistic Hegelian definition of beauty, Chernyshevsky counterposed a monistic definition, one simple enough to become a political slogan, as it in fact did: "The beautiful is life." By equating the beautiful with life, and by extension with reality, Chernyshevsky laid the groundwork for a consistently monistic esthetic.
And yet, although Chernyshevsky^ fundamental esthetic principle is monistic, dualism reappears as soon as he departs from that basic notion to grapple with the ideal, for then he writes: "That creature is beautiful in which we see life as it should be in accordance with our conceptions of it." In fact the kernel of the entire esthetic controversy of 1855–70 is contained in the contradiction between Chernyshevsky's two definitions of the beautiful: "the beautiful is life," in which case we must understand "life as it actually is"; and "the beautiful is life as it should be," in which he introduces the notion of an ideal. This is a dichotomy which has plagued all systems of monistic esthetics before and since, down to the officially propagated Socialist Realist doctrine of the Soviet Union in our century.
To this it must be added, however, that Chernyshevsky carefully distinguishes his notion of an ideal from any Platonic conception of an abstract ideal. He insists that an ideal must be firmly grounded in reality, and must also therefore be logically inferior to reality:
It can be mathematically demonstrated that a work of art cannot stand comparison with a living human face where the beauty of the features is concerned: everyone knows that execution in art is always immeasurably lower than the ideal which exists in the artist's imagination. But this ideal itself cannot possibly be higher in terms of beauty than those living persons whom the artist has happened to see. (2:56)
At most, Chernyshevsky goes on to say, an artist can effect a mechanical combination of the best features of various individuals he has met in reality, and any such mechanistic approach leads to an impermissible dissolution of naturally created organic wholes. Or, as he puts it in another place, "the beauty of a statue cannot be greater than the beauty of a living individual, just as a photograph cannot be more beautiful than the original" (2:57).
From this it follows that the ideal is to be sought in reality, or at least in reality as it might conceivably be, and not in some unrealistically beautiful work of art. "A person with uncorrupted esthetic feeling," Chernyshevsky writes, "obtains full enjoyment from nature and does not find it lacking in beauty" (2:59). The demand for artistic perfection springs from human vanity and overheated patriotism: "Just as each particular nation exaggerates the virtues of its poets," he maintains, "so human beings in general exaggerate the Importance of poetry in general" (2:72). Chernyshevsky does admit that art may serve as a surrogate for reality: we may content ourselves with a seascape if we cannot live at the seashore, or with a portrait of a beautiful woman if we cannot have her in actuality. But if a normal person is asked to choose between the image of an apple and a genuine apple, Chernyshevsky holds, then he will always select the latter.
Chernyshevsky does confess that art has certain uses, either as a surrogate for reality, as we have just seen, or as a means of generalization. Thus it is difficult for many people to analyze the actions or character of an actually existing individual because only a few can know him well enough for that, but a great many people can deal with the psychology of the hero of a novel because he is easily accessible to all who are interested in him. That in turn enables us to "explain life," as Chernyshevsky puts it, which is no mean accomplishment. However, if one is to explain life as depicted in art, one must have a vantage point from which to judge it, and an artist who truly passes judgment on reality, Chernyshevsky writes, "becomes a thinker and the work of art, while remaining within the sphere of art, takes on scientific significance" (2:86). A bit later he elaborates on this point, saying that "art should approach life in precisely the same way history does" (2:87), and ending with his famous dictum that art should cheerfully admit that it is inferior to reality, just as science does.
Although Chernyshevsky does not say so clearly, the implicit thrust of his argument is that in the ideal society of the future art would merely describe reality much as history does, or such forms of contemporary history as journalism or sociology. At the very beginning of the Esthetic Relations he momentarily asks whether it is even worth our while to discuss esthetics, and later adds that "for a fully developed intellect there is only the true, and no such thing as the beautiful" (2:7), despite the fact that he purports to be dealing with the science of the beautiful. But this generally negative view of art runs through his essay. Thus in the midst of it, after concluding a lengthy critique of beauty in art, he remarks that a "broad and limitless field is open to anyone who wishes to demonstrate the weaknesses of all works of art in general" (2:52), and later, while speaking of poetry, he comments that "a larger number of details, or what in bad literary works is called 'rhetorical diffusion,' is essentially all that distinguishes a work of poetry from a precise description" (2:68).
Thus at the time Chernyshevsky wrote the Esthetic Relations, he evidently believed that in the perfect human society of the future there would no longer be any distinction between the real and the ideal, and therefore there would be no more need of literature to embody an ideal. In 1855, though, he had to write in terms most of his readers could accept. The initiated among his disciples understood his meaning quite well, however.
A few other observations might be made about the Esthetic Relations. For one thing, the bulk of the essay has to do with painting and sculpture. They were highly representational arts at the time, offering actual images in paint, marble, wood, and other materials which could be directly compared with the reality upon which they were based (the idea of nonrepresentational art never occurred to Chernyshevsky, or probably to anyone else of that day). He includes a brief section on music, but music makes him uncomfortable theoretically because it cannot easily be linked to "reality." Since the chief such linkage is the human voice, Chernyshevsky ranks singing above instrumental music, and values musical instruments to the degree they resemble that voice (a music critic of the time in the Chernyshevskian tradition, Vladimir Stasov, always promoted "program music" and became disturbed if music moved away from the naturalistic representation of such things as storms or bumblebees). And although Chernyshevsky's essay had by far its greatest influence in the realm of literature, Chernyshevsky devotes relatively little space to it. For literature can evoke images of reality only through the "fantasy" of the reader, who must translate words on the printed page into images in his imagination. Chernyshevsky argues that literature provides nothing more than a pale copy of reality, and therefore is distinctly inferior to it.
With the exception of the comic, as we have already noted, Chernyshevsky applies his monistic approach to esthetics quite consistently. He rejects the dualistic Hegelian notion of the sublime as the "preponderance of idea over form" and defines the sublime as simply "that which is very much larger than anything with which we compare it." And since he does not believe in the ancients' concept of a supernatural fate — what we have regarded as fate is merely chance, he says — as an essential element of the tragic, he defines the tragic as merely "the horrible in human life."
Chernyshevsky thus held with unusual consistency to the central tenet of his essay ("the beautiful is life") and applied it to esthetic notions across the board. His intellectual audacity was breathtaking, and his work appeared at precisely the right time, at the point when the budding radical intelligentsia, nurtured on the ideas of the late Vissarion Belinsky but oppressed by the censorship since 1848, was thoroughly prepared to accept his theories and disseminate them widely. The unitary nature of his thought gave it singular power among those who sought unquestioned truth and looked for a secular ideal to be realized in the society of the future, and his followers remained extraordinarily faithful to his doctrines: they simply repeated them, without devising any significant variations upon them.
The Esthetic Relations of Art to Reality was immediately recognized as a work of importance, and not just by those who crowded the hall in May of 1855 to hear its author defend it against a cluster of hostile academics whose teaching he rejected. All those who dealt seriously with such matters realized from the start that this was a work to be reckoned with. As early as August 1855 Apollon Grigorev published a theoretical article in the journal Moskvityanin (The Muscovite) in which he referred to Chernyshevsky's "astounding doctrine" of art. And Evgeny Edelson, who would be a major spokesman for the esthetic viewpoint in years to come, wrote an extensive review of the Esthetic Relations for Moskvityanin, although for various reasons it did not appear at that time. Though Edelson apparently claimed to be pleased by the appearance of an entire theoretical study devoted to esthetic problems, he dedicated his article to a careful discussion and defense of Hegelian esthetics. Edelson ended by concluding that Chernyshevsky's theory was "not successful" because his viewpoint derived from the already outmoded "Natural School" of the 1840s. As time passed, however, Edelson realized how much damage that "unsuccessful theory" was causing in Russian intellectual life. Some twelve years later he spoke of Chernyshevsky's approach as one of "obvious and total contempt for any artistic activity at all," although he still recognized the contribution Chernyshevsky's essay had made to the discussion of esthetics which began at that time. Ivan Turgenev condemned Chernyshevsky's ideas from the very start, terming the Esthetic Relations "false and harmful" in private correspondence with Vasily Botkin and Nikolay Nekrasov dating from the late summer of 1855 (Pis'ma, 2:300–01). And the editor and critic Stepan Dudyshkin (1820–66) did not care for Chernyshevsky's essay at all.
Excerpted from Esthetics as Nightmare by Charles A. Moser. Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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