Dostoevsky and English Modernism 1900-1930 & English Literature and the Russian Aesthetic Renaissance.
English Literature and the Russian Aesthetic Renaissance. By Rachel Polonsky. Cambridge: CUP, 1998. Pp. xii + 249. [pound]45.00.
These two excellent studies on English-Russian literary reception cover overlapping periods of exceptional artistic innovation, only from opposite and asymmetric perspectives. Peter Kaye focuses on the responses of seven English modernist novelists - D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Arnold Bennett, Joseph Conrad, B. M. Forster, John Galsworthy and Henry James - 'who were most affected by their readings' (p. 3) of one Russian writer, Dostoevskii. Rachel Polonsky's is the first full-length study on the contribution of an array of English writers to the literary life of fin-de-siecle Russia. Both scholars securely position their studies within their historical and cultural contexts and thus provide fresh viewpoints on the seminal movements of English Modernism and Russian Symbolism.
As Polonsky notes, Russia has long been a receiver culture and this was rarely more true than at the end of the nineteenth century when Russia witnessed an aesthetic renaissance, defined 'as a historical moment of intense assimilativeness to foreign ideas and artistic forms' (p. 5). Polonsky's primary topic is 'the poetic aspect' of Russia's aesthetic renaissance and her theoretical approach is largely based on Iurii Lotman's and Hans Robert Jauss's ideas on the dialogic nature of cultural receptivity Her aim is to 'reveal the dynamic of a double receptivity at work in the prevailing aesthetic attitude of the turn-of-the-century period; a renewed receptivity to foreign literatures that led to a receptivity towards a variety of rediscovered pasts, Russia's own past among them' (p. 5). In her first chapter, 'Museum People', Polonsky traces how Symbolism developed as a reaction of the young generation against the positivist 'fathers'. However, it was they who, in the early 1870s, established comparative literat ure as an academic subject and through their extensive historical, literary scholarship, laid the foundations for the Russian aesthetic renaissance.
Polonsky's study is then divided into two parts: 'The Barbaric Renaissance' and 'The Aesthetic Renaissance'. Both were markedly influenced by English aesthetic ideas, styles and achievements. The 'barbaric renaissance' grew out of a pervasive feeling that the culture of books and artefacts had become confining, burdensome, sealed off from life and the common man. This led to a search for cultural regeneration, for a purer vision in Russia's primitive past as expressed in poetry, song, dance, myth and ritual, and hence to the mythologizing of Russia's past. As Polonsky demonstrates, the 'barbaric renaissance' was considerably nourished by ideas current in Victorian England when English writers were looking to the past, to myths, folklore and the primitive, for inspirational aesthetic models. In this process the works of folklorists, mythologists and ethnographers such as James Frazer and Max Muller as well as Nietzsche's ideas on history played a prominent role. The main agents of cross-cultural mediation wer e translators, publishers, critics and scholars, especially the leader of the Symbolists, the scholar poet Viacheslav Ivanov, and the critic Evgenii Anichkov.
The Russian 'aesthetic renaissance' drew heavily on the English 'renaissance of the Renaissance' which took its inspiration from the Italian Renaissance as interpreted by the German art historian, Richard Muther, and propagated by Walter Pater and Matthew Arnold. In Russia, as in England, the guiding idea was the 'art would no longer passively reflect life but infuse it with the aesthetic' (p. 186). The translator Zinaida Vengerova, who acquainted Russians with the ideas of John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites, was a central mediator. Throughout her study, Polonsky opens up new or little-explored English-Russian connections. Among them are Konstantin Bal'mont's translations of Shelley which bear the imprint of his immersion in Vedic texts at Oxford, the immense importance of Edgar Allen Poe for the poetic practice and theories of poetic language of Bal'mont, Valerii Briusov, Andrei Belyi, Aleksandr Potebnia and Velimir Khlebnikov, the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites on Vladimir Soloviev's sophiological lyric s and the impact of John Ruskin's forebodings about the course of the modern world on Aleksandr Blok's apocalyptic premonitions. There is a fine chapter on Oscar Wilde's popularity in Russia and a concluding one on the Russian fascination with the type of the English 'dandy' which influenced Mikhail Kuzmin's style. What prominently emerges from this study is the Russians' remarkably creative receptivity of foreign cultural forms and ideas.
If the Russians enthusiastically embraced foreign cultural ideas, the British, as Kaye shows in his discussion of the modernist novelists' reactions to Dostoevskii, were more reserved. Dostoevskii, with his exposures of the dark and irrational depths of the human soul, was generally seen as a 'disruptive presence in the English house of fiction' (p. 6). However, Dostoevskii was a writer they could not ignore; he forced them to clarify and confront their own literary values and their own visions of modernism that was then sweeping over Europe. Whilst their responses ranged from admiration to denigration, they all conspicuously failed to see Dostoevskii as a conscious artist working within the European literary tradition, and this, Kaye argues, led to some serious misperceptions. Lawrence had the most violent reaction, based in part on his hostility to the 'life-denying' aspects of Christianity, and on his perception of Dostoevskii as a rival prophet. Thus, Lawrence's occasional insights jostle with downright misreadings, e.g., his wrongheaded insistence that Dostoevskii was on the side of the Grand Inquisitor. Conrad, not surprisingly, was hostile to all things Russian. His few comments on Dostoevskii were negative, e.g., The Brothers Karamazov was nothing more than 'fierce mouthings from prehistoric ages' (p. 26). Nevertheless, only with Conrad can we speak of creative receptivity. Kaye detects a rivalrous, productive but ultimately exhausting 'sullen struggle' with Dostoevskii in Conrad's fiction, especially in Under Western Eyes, after which his fiction greatly diminished in output and literary quality' (p. 154). Conrad and Lawrence are prime examples of the 'anxiety of influence'; they had to misread Dostoevskii, remarks Kaye, 'in order to protect their own creative identities' (p. 8). Woolf's attitude was ambivalent; on the one hand, Dostoevskii represented freedom from the complacencies of class, an example of 'modernist liberation' and experimentation when she was trying to break new ground in the novel. O n the other, Dostoevskii, with his 'seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms' (p. 26) was ultimately too disruptive and lacking 'harmonious order' (p. 8) and she remained, finds Kaye, fully within the conventions of the English novel. Bennett was the most sympathetic reader and promoter of Dostoevskii, but he too, according to Kayc, 'distorted' him while enlisting him in his quarrel with modernism (p. 98). However, Dostoevskii would have shared Bennett's anxieties about modernism, and Bennett, better than the others, understood the primacy of Dostoevskii's moral concerns. Kaye groups the remaining three English novelists under the telling term 'the gentlemen-writers'. Forster made some perceptive remarks about Dostoevskii and especially appreciated his moral values and prophetic gifts, but found his 'emotional explicitness' too uncomfortable (p. 8). Galsworthy saw in Dostoevskii an expression of the chaos of the modern world, and thus an anarchic threat to gentlemanly codes and decorum. James regarded Dostoev skii as a corrupting influence in 'the sanctuary of novelistic artistry', a purveyor of 'monstrous excess' (p. 9). He took particular exception to Dostoevskii's religious, philosophical and ideological preoccupations, which he thought had no place in the novel. Not surprisingly, the responses of the English writers often tell us more about their own aesthetic practice and convictions than about Dostoevskii. Yet, the cultural dialogue works both ways: as our understanding of the modernists' aesthetic principles, filtered through their responses to Dostoevskii, becomes more informed, our perceptions of Dostoevskii become sharper as we realize what he is not. Thus, one of the principal pleasures of this study, as of all successful comparative studies, is that we receive a double insight. Another lies in Kaye's astute explanations of the personal, social and historical factors shaping the English modernists' reception of Dostoevskii.
Those interested in English Modernism will find in Kaye's admirable study a new and vivifying angle on the modernist novel. Dostoevskii fans and scholars will find much to stimulate their thinking from seeing him dialogically pitted against the responses of a quite different cultural tradition. Scholars of Russian Symbolism and the Silver Age, as well as comparativists of Russian/English literary reception will greatly benefit from Polonsky's elegantly written study, both as a rich source of information and as a model of how such comparative studies may be pursued. Many will want to read both.
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|Author:||THOMPSON, DIANE OENNING|
|Publication:||Journal of European Studies|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2001|
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