Economies of Feeling: Russian Literature under Nicholas I

Economies of Feeling: Russian Literature under Nicholas I

by Jillian Porter


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ISBN-13: 9780810135444
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 06/15/2017
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

JILLIAN PORTER is an assistant professor of Russian in the Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Colorado Boulder. 

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Economies of Feeling

Russian Literature under Nicholas I

By Jillian Porter

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2017 Northwestern University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8101-3545-1


Mad Ambition

Example is contagious.

— Alibert, Physiology of the Passions

AMBITION HAS great narrative potential. Stemming from the Latin ambire — to go round, or more specifically, to go round canvassing for votes — it propels movement through space and time. Seminal texts of the nineteenth-century Russian prose tradition harness this dynamism only to curtail it. In Alexander Pushkin's "The Queen of Spades," a young officer seeks his fortune through gambling and magic. In Nikolai Gogol's "The Diary of a Madman" and Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Double, middle-aged clerks long for promotion in the civil service. In each case, the hero not only fails to achieve his goals, but is ultimately expelled from society and carted off to an insane asylum. These tales of mad ambition articulate evolving cultural understandings of the desire for upward social mobility and exemplify the transnational literary borrowing so essential to the flourishing of nineteenth-century Russian prose. Responding to foreign accounts of the upsurge of ambition in post-Napoleonic Europe, Pushkin, Gogol, and Dostoevsky test out the narrative avenues open to this passion in post-Decembrist Russia.

What is most immediately at stake in Russian tales of social striving from the reign of Nicholas I is the elusive meaning of the words chestoliubie and ambitsiia, the nearest Russian equivalents to English "ambition" or French ambition. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, these Russian words came under pressure from changing social structures and cultural norms both at home and abroad. Political upheavals and literary developments in France had an especially profound impact on Russian literary representations of ambition. Comparing dictionary definitions of ambition, chestoliubie, and ambitsiia, and considering their usage in genres ranging from short stories and novels to psychiatric literature and church sermons, this chapter begins with a comparative conceptual history of French and Russian ambition. I then trace the spread of contagious French clinical and literary discourses on ambition to Russia in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It was in this period that Russian and French understandings of the desire for social elevation came into closest contact,prompting a series of self-consciously transnational ambition narratives that helped set the Russian prose tradition in motion. Highlighting the transmission of French discourse on mad ambition to Russia in the post-Decembrist periodical press and Russian cases of the disorder in stories about ambitious civil servants, I focus on Faddei Bulgarin's "Three Pages from a Madhouse, or the Psychological Healing of an Incurable Disease (The First Extract from the Notes of an Old Doctor)" ("Tri listka iz doma sumasshedshikh, ili Psikhicheskoe istselenie neizlechimoi bolezni [Pervoe izvlechenie iz Zapisok starogo vracha]," 1834), Gogol's "The Diary of a Madman," and Dostoevsky's The Double. The ultimate aim of the chapter is to account for the peculiar narrative tonalities that register the dissonance between conflicting social attitudes toward ambition in Gogol's and Dostoevsky's tales.

Conceptual History: Ambition, Chestoliubie, and Ambitsiia

Ambition entered the French language in the thirteenth century with the meaning of "passionate desire for honors and dignities." In the context of medieval court society, ambition was thus closely associated with the passions, those unruly emotions long considered to arise from the flow of humors inside the body, and with honor, the highest social value of the age. In this understanding, ambition fuses the individual human body with the social collective. By the late eighteenth century, the relationship between ambition, the body, and society would become a topic of pressing concern in early French psychiatric literature. While European theorists of the emotions had long focused on avarice as the most pernicious economic passion, the social upheavals of the Revolutionary era and Napoleon's spectacular rise from obscurity to the heights of power inspired a major wave of ambition in young men, bringing greater attention to the threats this feeling might pose to individuals and society as a whole. As historian Jan Goldstein has shown, ambition and the ambitieux (ambitious man) were ubiquitous in the psychiatric literature of early nineteenth-century France. Noting the high numbers of "lunatics by ambition" in the post-Revolutionary and especially the post-Napoleonic years, pioneers of the French psychiatric profession went so far as to identify "ambitious monomania" (monomanie ambitieuse) as the dominant psychological disorder of the age. The apparent prevalence of pathological ambition among middleclass men in this period led early French psychiatrists such as Philippe Pinel (1745–1826) and Jean-Étienne Dominique Esquirol (1772–1840) to argue that the passions and their imbalances are subject to social determination. Class, gender, and political structures were seen to foster certain passions while discouraging others. Women, for instance, were said to have relatively little ambition because they had few opportunities to pursue careers or participate in public life. By linking the clinical focus on ambition to doctors' efforts to establish the modern science of psychiatry, Goldstein shows that ambition occupied a special place in the history of that field. What female hysteria would be for psychiatrists in the second half of the nineteenth century — namely, a central object of study around which the profession coalesced — male ambition was in the first half.

Nineteenth-century French literature helped to normalize ambition. In such novels as Stendhal's The Red and the Black (Le Rouge et le noir, 1830) and Honoré de Balzac's Lost Illusions (Illusions perdues, 1837–43), ambition is not a delusion of grandeur but a plan of action. Although they contain traces of the earlier clinical discourse on "ambitious monomania," these works present ambition as a pervasive force governing the everyday course of events in post-Napoleonic France. As Peter Brooks has pointed out, Stendhal's and Balzac's plots take shape as the ambitious heroes pursue their goals, and this narrative structure legitimizes ambition by inviting readers to share in the desire for success. This is not to say that Stendhal, Balzac, and other French writers explicitly glorify ambition; in fact, their heroes' behavior often appears morally unsavory, and as often as not they fail to achieve their dreams. And yet in contrast to the Russian works they helped to inspire, French novels of ambition distinguish themselves by their readiness to entertain — over many hundreds of pages — the possibility that this passion might be rewarded. Despite the complexity of its treatment of ambition, French literature ushered this passion out of the madhouse and onto the streets, and it placed readers in a position to hope for its realization.

Comparative analysis of French dictionary definitions of ambition confirms the gradual process of conceptual change that literature helped to effect, whereby a feeling initially considered pernicious was normalized and ultimately celebrated. As seen in the definitional Appendix at the end of this volume, the Dictionary of the French Academy (Dictionnaire de L'Académie française) first defined ambition as "excessive desire for honor and grandeur" (1694), then as an "immoderate desire for honor, glory, elevation, distinction" (1798, 1832), and by the late nineteenth century as simply "desire for honor, glory, elevation, distinction" (1878). Having lost its negative connotation of excess, by the early twentieth century ambition also took on the more active character of a "desire or seeking of honors, glory, elevation, distinction" (1932). In the context of late twentieth-century French consumer capitalism, the once-debilitating ambition had come to be seen as natural and vibrant, as a "lively desire to elevate oneself so as to realize all the possibilities of one's nature" (1986).

In sharp contrast to the successive transformations of French legal and social institutions from 1789 to 1830, which both facilitated and were facilitated by increasing social mobility, Russia witnessed the state repression of French-inspired liberalism in these and subsequent decades. Catherine II was alarmed by the French Revolution and reacted against the radicalization of French Enlightenment ideals. After driving the invading French army out of Russia — and blocking the ambitions of Napoleon himself — Alexander I grew increasingly conservative over the course of his reign. Made cautious by the 1825 Decembrist uprising that was largely inspired by French reform movements, and further unsettled by France's 1830 July Revolution, Nicholas I instituted a series of laws that were fundamentally hostile to ambition. For instance, the new Digest of Laws, which was codified in 1832, reinforced the estate-based (rather than class-based) structure of Russian society more firmly than did any other codex in Russian history. Similarly, in the 1840s the government raised the requirements for entry to both the nonhereditary and the hereditary nobility for the first time since Peter the Great established the Table of Ranks.

And yet the military and civil service did provide significant numbers of men of lower-class origin the means for upward social mobility in the 1830s and 1840s. In fact, the government was unable to curb the number of people who attained nobility because increasing numbers entered secondary schools, the officer corps, and the civil service, each of which offered a potential ladder to that highest of social estates. Clearly this period saw a rising contradiction between the real possibility of social mobility and the government's attempts to hinder it. Rendering ambition still more contradictory was the circulation of competing foreign and domestic understandings of it. Even as Nicholas I's government tried to ward off social unrest by censoring publications dealing with antimonarchic political movements abroad, new ideas about social transformation crept into Russia through periodicals and novels. Contemporary French literature in particular, with its depiction of men of lowly origin refashioning themselves and their country, was viewed with official suspicion but was in wide circulation among Russian readers. Still, there was no strong middle class in Russia that could legitimate or celebrate ambition on a national scale, and such bourgeois values as individualism and parsimony were at odds with Russian cultural ideals like the humility so crucial to Russian Orthodox Christianity and the prodigal generosity that was a source of pride among the nobility.

These conflicting attitudes toward ambition can be glimpsed in Russian dictionary definitions of chestoliubie, ambitsiia, and related words. Chestoliubie appeared in the eighteenth century as a secularized form of the Church Slavic liubochestie, from which it inherited contrasting connotations rooted in Orthodox Christian and aristocratic values. Combining Slavic roots for love (liub-) and honor (chest), liubochestie had been introduced as a calque from the Greek [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (love of honor) in Slavic editions of the scriptures. This older form continued to be used in religious contexts, where it designated a sinful desire for worldly honor, until well into the nineteenth century. In secular contexts, the meaning of liubochestie was often, but not always, colored by the religious notion of its sinfulness. It could also be used in statements designed to uphold noble values, designating a praiseworthy desire to obtain honor for oneself or to confer honor upon others. In this latter meaning, liubochestie comes into close proximity with such noble values as generosity and hospitality: liubochestie could motivate lavish receptions of important guests, for instance. Yet if the appearance of chestoliubie in the eighteenth century indicates a perceived need at this time to liberate the concept of seeking honor from the religious condemnation it had long suffered, the original editors of the Dictionary of the Russian Academy (Slovar' Akademii Rossiiskoi, 1789–94) evidently were not among those who felt this need. They roundly condemn chestoliubie as "a weakness of spirit leading a person to seek in external means and signs the respect and consideration from others that he does not have for himself."

Vladimir Dal's mid-nineteenth-century Dictionary of the Living Russian Language (Tolkovyi slovar' zhivogo russkogo iakyka, 1863–66) softens the Academic dictionary's pointed criticism of chestoliubie, defining it as "pursuit of outward respect, esteem, honors." Dal nevertheless confirms the orientation of chestoliubie to "outward" appearances and superficial markers of favor. This orientation is even more apparent in his definition of a chestoliubets (man with chestoliubie) as someone "passionate about ranks, distinctions, glory, praise and therefore acting not by moral conviction but by the appearance of it." In subsequent decades chestoliubie would not keep pace with the increasingly positive reconceptualization of French ambition. Indeed, following the 1917 Revolution, official emphasis on the collective rendered desire for individual social advancement highly problematic, and over the course of the Soviet period, dictionaries portrayed chestoliubie in an increasingly negative light. Whereas the first edition of the Short Academic Dictionary (Malyi akademicheskii slovar', 1957–61) explains it as a "strong desire to occupy a high, honored position, [or] to have power; striving for honors," the second edition of the same dictionary (1981–84) describes it as "striving to attain a high, honored position, thirst for fame, glory." With its rhetoric of "thirst" (zhazhda), the late Soviet definition suggests not a "lively desire" for personal fulfillment but a physical need for recognition from others.

To be sure, dictionary definitions give but a partial view of a word's history. This is especially true in the case of the highly normative Dictionary of the Russian Academy, which judges chestoliubie rather than accounting for its various connotations. The explicitly normative treatment of this word attests to the energy with which its moral legitimacy was debated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. What dictionaries fail to show, but literature makes clear, is that in this period chestoliubie became closely associated with the Table of Ranks, the system of state-sanctioned signs of social value introduced by Peter I. Establishing a stratified hierarchy of noble civil servants with corresponding ranks in the civilian administration, the military, and at court, the Table of Ranks theoretically afforded men of low birth the possibility to achieve nobility through zealous service to the state. In practice, it also created a series of barriers between men of various ranks, barriers most easily overcome through social connections rather than merit. The legally enshrined administrative designations set forth in the Table of Ranks, an all-pervasive feature of early nineteenth-century Russian society, explains why the state apparatus is more implicated in Russian literary representations of social striving than in French works on the same theme. Whereas Balzac's and Stendhal's ambitious heroes seek success in nongovernmental spheres such as the salons (in The Wild Ass's Skin), the priesthood (in The Red and the Black), or the literary profession (in Lost Illusions), the heroes of Bulgarin's "Three Pages from a Madhouse," Gogol's "The Diary of a Madman," and Dostoevsky's The Double all desire promotion in the government service. In "The Queen of Spades," too, the hero is an officer, and therefore in service to the state.

The understanding of ambition as the passionate pursuit of rank inflects literary representations of chestoliubie with a particularly complex ideological valence. On one hand, the operations of the government actually depended to a large extent on men's active striving for promotion. On the other hand, if sufficiently widespread, the desire for elevation could threaten the stability of Russia's highly stratified society. As we shall see in the case of Bulgarin's "Three Pages from the Madhouse," the words chestoliubie and chestoliubets, when used to describe persons of lower rank, could serve the reactionary purpose of casting a negative moral light on the desire for social elevation. As Gogol's "The Diary of a Madman" will show, however, when used by persons of lower rank to describe their superiors, the same terms could question the merit and patriotic feeling of those in power. Evidently, an accusation of chestoliubie could be made to support or undermine the legitimacy of the social hierarchy.


Excerpted from Economies of Feeling by Jillian Porter. Copyright © 2017 Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures
Note on the Text
Chapter 1. Mad Ambition
Chapter 2. Gogol’s Gift
Chapter 3. Dostoevsky’s Money
Chapter 4. The Miser Never Dies
Works Cited

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