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Steiner, Lina. For Humanity's Sake: The Bildungsroman in Russian Culture.

STEINER, Lina. For Humanity's Sake: The Bildungsroman in Russian Culture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011. 284 pp. Cloth, $65.00--In the nineteenth century, the novel of educational growth and maturation was perhaps the most typical vehicle of philosophical literature. It was widely spread, since beyond the openly "evolutionary" novels, many others were Bildungsromane in disguise, for instance, a number of the historical novels of Scott and social novels of Thackeray. In any case, in German, and even in French literature, it went without saying that at least the subtext of a good, serious, piece of fiction had as backbone the story of the intellectual development of a young man or woman. There are relatively few examinations of the same process (or genre) in Russian literature, so this book is welcome in filling a gap.

Steiner's study is divided into two large parts. The first is an overview of the philosophical foundations of Russian literature in general and of the genre chosen for exploration in particular. The second is a somewhat detailed analysis of three important nineteenth century novels. (Perhaps this is the appropriate place to mention that about one third of the book is constituted of end-notes, bibliography, index and the like.) Of these the first part is particularly useful and instructive.

It is generally known that, whereas Russian intellectual life in the nineteenth century can hardly boast of a major philosophical thinker, many minor figures are lively and substantial. It is equally well known that, broadly speaking, we distinguish between followers of Hegel (who usually placed themselves on the Left) and of Schelling (who usually can be placed on the Right). It is here that Steiner's study is perhaps most helpful. She takes a step back and explains that a better separation is the one between the tradition of Rousseau and the tradition of Herder. While Rousseau proposed a general and sentimental educational model, Herder focused on diversity, on local personality and autonomy; additionally, he had been born inside the then Russian empire. The theories of Herder were eagerly embraced and adapted in Eastern and in Central Europe for a number of decades.

Steiner selected two major thinkers to analyze as continuators of Herder. One of them is hardly known in the West; it is Apollon Grigoryev (1822-1864), who was fairly influential in his lifetime and an active participant in the literary and intellectual discussions of his day. He was an editor, translator, poet, and critic who placed himself ideologically halfway between the "Westernizing" Belinsky and the "Slavophile" Khomiakov. In the wake of Herder, he accepted modernization for Russian culture and integration in the family of European orientations (or humanity as a whole), but maintained also the need for an autonomous personality of Russian thinking.

From there, Steiner skips to the twentieth century theoretician Yurii Lotman (1922-1993), a professor at the University of Tartu, who developed a semiotical philosophy of culture and who may have been to some extent influenced by both Herder and Grigoryev. Steiner insists particularly on Lotman's concept of "semiosphere." This concept is defined (simplifying somewhat) as a broad "realm of constant intellectual development and growth."

Together, Grigoryev's reconciliation of universal humanism with local culture and Lotman's framework of semiotic increase provide Steiner's foundation for understanding the specific features of the Russian Bildungsroman--a narrative in which the young individual manages to contribute values and behaviors of the general civilization to the society in which he was born and in which he lives.

In the second part of the book, the three examples chosen by Steiner are useful and judiciously selected, but their actual analysis is not always ingenious or original. Unquestionably Pushkin is the most perfect and characteristic example of a successful blend between the European and the Russian ingredients. Yet Steiner's attempt to distance "The Captain's Daughter" from its Scottian prototype is less then convincing. Her discussion of Tolstoy's "War and Peace" as a kind of symphonic composition in which at least a triple evolutionary growth is depicted (Pierre Bezukhov, Andrei Bolkonsky, and Nikolai Rostov) is interesting and contributes to a substantial understanding of the great novel. The chapter devoted to Dostoevsky's "Adolescent," could have been better embedded in the matrix of the initial categories proposed. As it stands, it seems a good, but separate piece, an essay somehow outside the book.

Occasional errors (for example, the peasant Platon's prayers in "War and Peace" are far from "nonsensical") can be overlooked. Steiner's extended grasp of "dialogism" on the cultural and psychological level is quite welcome. Her emphasis of the search for the organic in Russian culture and society is correct. The overview of the emergence of modern Russian literature and intellectual debate is excellent in its clarity and coherence.--Virgil Nemoianu, The Catholic University of America.
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Author:Nemoianu, Virgil
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2012
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