Translator: Y. Ganuskin;
Source: A. Lunacharsky: On Literature and Art Progress Publishers, 1965;
Transcribed: Sally Ryan for marxists.org, January 2002.
THE idea of instituting the annual celebration of "Pushkin's Day" is an excellent one, for what Pushkin means to the Russian people and to Russian literature is beyond assessment.
Of course, the immensity of Pushkin's genius is beyond question. Nevertheless, it is not just a matter of his immense gifts.
"Better be born lucky than rich," the proverb tells us. One might paraphrase it something like this: be born a genius by all means--but the most important thing is to be born at the right time.
Taine asserted that literature was conditioned by race, climate and the moment, thus, apparently, obliterating the part played by the individual. Goethe, in the foreword to his autobiography says: "Had I been born 20 years earlier or later, I would have been quite a different person." We Marxists also contend that the individual personality is, at least to a very, very considerable extent, the reflection of its own time. Of course, a significant moment of time can only be reflected in a significant individual. It is possible to imagine an epoch which failed to produce an individual adequate to express it (although this seldom happens, for the average artistic potential of humanity varies but little from age to age). In such a case, what we would have would be a poet whose work was interesting in content but imperfect in form. It is possible to imagine a great talent in an epoch when nothing much is happening (something which occurs quite frequently). In this case what we have is great perfection of form allied to insignificance of content.
But, the reader will say, surely there was nothing so very great about Pushkin's epoch? Surely it could hardly be called a happy epoch? Why, it is difficult to imagine a duller epoch, and Pushkin found no peace in it, suffered, dreamt of going abroad, died tangled up in the nets of autocracy, of a soulless society, of repulsive literary relationships, etc., etc.
All this is perfectly true. It was a time of early spring, so early that everything was still shrouded in mist and disease-bearing germs were swarming and breeding in exceptional numbers--a windy spring, grey and rather muddy. Yet those who came before Pushkin were too early to catch a glimpse of the spring sun, to hear the gurgling of the streams. Their hearts had not thawed out, their lips were wry and stiff, and they could only mutter indistinctly in the frosty air. Those who came after Pushkin, on the other hand, were In the position of successors, for the most important words had already been said--by Pushkin.
The classic age of any national literature is by no means always the most brilliant in respect of politics, economics or culture. It is the first age of the first stirrings of what I should call the youthful maturity of the educated classes of any given nation. Just as soon as circumstances permit of a nation's being born, of its establishing itself, just as soon as its talents have scope to develop, it immediately begins to forge a language while the medium is still malleable, still responsive. There is no occasion to juggle, to invent, to be clever-clever. It is enough to take with both hands from the treasury of popular speech and to name things with its help, as Adam in the Bible named all the newly created phenomena of the world about him.
The same applies to content. No one has yet expressed one single live, supple, complex feeling. When those feelings have accumulated in the soul, they break out through all dams and obstacles with a reviving freshness, an extraordinary naturalness. This positive, natural, organic quality is the distinguishing mark of the classic. Though you be the wisest of the wise, though your genius exceed the genius of the classical epoch--you will still be nothing but an epigonus, for you will be using the language which the classics used and, already, that language has become the ordinary tongue of everyday speech. Or else--wanting to go further--you will go too far and fall into all kinds of mannerism, exaggeration, pedantry, provincialism, etc., etc. Time itself becomes more complex in content and more profound in significance in the measure in which the passing years gradually accumulate a vast variety of knowledge and experience. However, if we wish to appear original we may not select the most significant features from all this store. It becomes essential to seek refuge in impressionism, that is, to call attention to the fortuitous and passing, because the essential has already been noted; or in deformation, that is, in a tendency to distort natural phenomena because, as they really are, they have already been superbly reproduced and magnified by the giants of the classic period; or in the mists of symbolism, trying to see beyond the object to those "complex" and "mysterious" secrets of which the soul of the post-classic artist is so richly aware.
Epigonous art is a fearful thing. There is no denying that in the ranks of such artists there may be giants of no less stature than the classic author, nor yet that imitative literature may be extremely elegant, powerful, even deeply moving. Nevertheless, people will always look back, in their best moments, to Goethe, to Mozart, or, further, to other classical periods, to Homer, to Kalidasa--and will feel that here is true, untroubled, profound, restful, healing, ennobling beauty and that all later eccentricities, spasms and fantasies although not devoid of value, do not in themselves add up to progress.
It may be that the great flood of social revolution and the entrance on the scene of the proletariat will prove capable of refreshing art down to its very base and up from its foundations. But this question is still very much in the balance and, of course, it is unthinkable that, in the name of this hoped-for renewal, we should reduce ourselves to the state of a naked man on the naked earth.
The proletariat is able to renew the culture of mankind, but in deep-rooted connection with and dependence from the culture of the past. In this connection it may well be that our best hope should be in a hitherto unprecedented phenomenon, not so much in a renaissance as in a Faustian renewal of youth with new strength and a new future--retaining the memory of all that has been, but not feeling it as a drag upon the soul.
Let us leave this question aside for the moment and return to Pushkin. Pushkin was the Russian spring, Pushkin was the Russian morning, Pushkin was the Russian Adam. What Dante and Petrarch did for Italy, the giants of the seventeenth century for France, Lessing, Schiller and Goethe for Germany--Pushkin did for us. He suffered much, because he was the first, although indeed, those writers of Russia who came after him, from Gogol to Korolenko, also, to judge by their own admissions, shouldered no light burden of sorrows. He suffered much because his miraculous, fiery, exquisite genius blossomed in the harsh climate of a Russia where it was still almost winter, almost night. To compensate, he had the "start" on all other Russian writers. He was the firstcomer and, by right of prior claim, took possession of the greatest treasures in all the stronghold of literature.
He took possession of them with a sovereign hand, skilled and tender, so exhaustively, so melodiously, and with such grace did he express the essence of the Russian soul and of feelings common to all humanity that it overwhelms with gratitude the hearts of all those who, in learning the great Russian language, or on sipping their first from the hallowed springs of true art, first taste of Pushkin's verse.
If we compare this greatest artist of our great literature with other founders of other great literatures, with such priceless genii as Shakespeare, Goethe, Dante, etc.--then we shall involuntarily be brought up short before Pushkin's absolute originality--an originality, moreover, very different from what we might reasonably have expected.
But so it is. What was it that made our literature so rich and remarkable later on? Its emotional and moral pathos, its almost pathological pathos. Our literature is devoted to ideas because when such an abyss yawns between the understanding of its bearer--the intelligentsia--and the life about them, it is impossible for literature to avoid thought. It is morbidly sensitive, lofty, noble, anguished and prophetic.
Yet, if we throw a quick glance over Pushkin's work without pausing to analyse or to go into detail, then the first thing which strikes us is the freedom, the lucidity, a kind of dancing grace, a limitless youthfulness, a youthfulness which borders on levity. We seem to hear Mozart's minuets: the brush of Raphael darts over the canvas, conjuring images of harmony. Why is it that Pushkin is, on the whole, so carefree, even in his most solemn moments, so carefree, indeed, that people sometimes say: "After all it isn't Shakespeare and it isn't Goethe, they are much deeper, there is more of the philosopher in them, more of the teacher"?
True, those who talk in this way are not right, or at least, not altogether right, for it is enough to raise the veil of Pushkin's all-enshrouding grace to see into those deeps which foreshadow the further development of Russian literature: Mozart and Salieri, The Feast in the Time of Plague, certain scenes from Boris Godunov, some lyrical outbursts in Yevgeny Onegin, the enigmatic Bronze Horseman and much else besides--all this is like a wide ocean, calling to mind vertiginous depths and glimpses of lofty heights only barely within the range of the great wings of a Dante or a Shakespeare.
Yet these flashes of intuition, these psychological and intellectual treasures acquired with such extraordinary ease and accorded such extraordinarily scant attention by Pushkin himself--such as, for instance, his astonishing Faust where, in one brief scene, he confidently takes his place beside the semigod of Weimar--are all done almost as if by accident, as though the hand of a master, running over the keys of a piano, acquainting himself and his audience with the full range of magic harmonies which it could produce, might occasionally pick out a few chords, or rather discords, which would strike amazement into the hearts of his listeners.
Whence this felicity of Pushkin's in the midst of his unhappy and difficult life? Perhaps it is a purely personal feature? I think not. I think that in this, too, Pushkin was a member, an element, a part of Russian literature in all its organic historical growth.
A hero of olden times had arisen, and his mighty strength was coursing freely through his veins. Already there was a presentiment of bitterness and sorrow, a presentiment of all the depths and anguish of certain problems--but there would be time enough for them later and, at that moment, they must even have been seen as a joyful challenge. Everything was a joy and a delight, for this radiant season of youth was serene in its own strength. In Pushkin the nobleman, it was not just a class which was awakening to a full realisation of its own potential (although to some extent he certainly bore the stamp of his class)--but a whole people, a nation, a historic destiny. It was from these seeds that in the final analysis, there sprung our own bitter and dazzling revolution.
Pushkin was the first representative of milliards of peoples and of many generations, to greet life and being. Through his lips, they first attained to true self-expression.
Even Dante in the 13th century had had behind him a great culture, his own, scholastic Florentine culture and that of the ancient world. But the Russian people awoke late, fresh and barbaric. Of course, Pushkin, with the rapidity of genius, absorbed Moliere and Shakespeare and Byron and, at the same time, Parny and all kinds of other small fry. In this sense he was cultured. But all this lay but lightly upon him, it was not his own past, it was not in his blood. His past, that which lived in his blood, was fresh, Russian barbarity, it was the youth of a waking nation and the dark night of a joyless historical fate, of the heavy, mighty strength of a people which was just beginning to thaw out under the prison-like regime of Nicholas I. And his future was not those few years which he lived out on this earth, nor yet his tragic end, nor even his immortal fame. His future was the future of the Russian people, a vast future which was to decide the fate of humanity from that very mount on which we are now standing, still wreathed in the mists of enigma.
We made a splendid beginning with Pushkin. Fearfully deep and complex, our origin had about it the serene, easy quality of enormous strength. It is a good thing to know Pushkin, for he gives us the most consoling confidence in the strength of our people. It is not patriotism which leads us to this conclusion, but the realisation that, inevitably and of necessity, our people have been singled out, from other fraternal nations to perform a rather particular service.
It is a good thing to love Pushkin, and, perhaps, it is a specially good thing to love Pushkin just now, when a new spring is in the offing, following, as it were, hard upon the heels of an autumn far gone in decay. The Russian bourgeoisie, the whole Russian bourgeois social and economic structure, travelled by the shortest of short cuts to the last convulsions of epigonous culture, to decadence, and from decadence into that artistic merry-go-round of absurdity produced by the exhausted cultures of other nations of the bourgeois West.
The new spring comes in with gales and showers, and it is essential that we should pay art that tribute of attention which was possible for the best people of Russia at the time of Pushkin's spring. As I have said before, our proletarian spring, as it will be when the earth breaks into flower, has much more in common with Pushkin's spring than with the gorgeously shaded counterfeit gold which covered the earth before the onset of these present storms and which, in reality, was nothing but a carpet of dead leaves.