D. S. Mirsky 1934
Author: D. S. Mirsky;
First published: 1934 in Literary Heritage 16-18;
Translated by: Anton P.
One of the main tasks of Soviet literary criticism is to promote the development of critical accumulation by readers “of what is of value in the more than two thousand years of development of human thought and culture” (Lenin) in his special area, fiction. To do this, a literary critic must, firstly, know what is valuable in past literature, and secondly, be able to isolate this valuable from a specific inheritance and bring it closer to the socialist reader, eliminating everything that prevents the correct perception of this valuable. To single out and separate the valuable from the non-valuable does not mean at all to close our eyes to the real unity in which the work of the writer of the past appears to us. On the contrary, it means explaining and showing the historical necessity of such a duality, as well as the greatest variety of that dead weight, without which even the best art of the former ruling classes cannot do. For example, when dealing with Goethe, it is necessary to clearly distinguish between the inherited traits of the Frankfurt patrician, privileged bourgeois of the feudal era, complicating the image of Goethe as a poet of the rising bourgeoisie, and his organic limitations precisely as a bourgeois poet. But when showing and explaining these complicating, disfiguring and weakening elements, one must always keep in mind the main task: to make Goethe more accessible not only for historical understanding, but also for aesthetic perception, to promote the development of his work by socialist society.
Excessive “historicity”, trying to connect each work of the writer with the topical events of his time or with the curves of bread prices, overlooking the main task of the overall assessment of a given writer, creates an impassable chasm between the reader and the writer of the past. Excessive protrusion of such a “historical” approach is just as alienating the classics from the Soviet reader as superphilological translations, understandable only to those who know the original well. Such interpretations even more obscure the matter if they are incorrect and arbitrary. It is completely unfounded, for example, the assertion that very personal passages from the (barely begun) poem Taurida are an act of submission to the autocracy as a direct reflection of the developing agricultural crisis. But even if such an explanation was more justified, it would have value only insofar as it would contribute to highlighting what is valuable in Pushkin’s work and evaluating him as a poet.
Marx wrote that it is much easier to explain the origin of Greek art, than to explain why it continues to provide us with artistic pleasure. A modern literary critic, trying to be a Marxist-Leninist, wisely limits himself to an easy task, and, completely forgetting about the practical requirements, is engaged in virtuoso “clarification” and “deepening” of his explanations. However, Marxist-Leninist literary criticism, if it wants to rightfully bear this name, has no right to shirk the second task, the one that Marx recognized as the most difficult.
We can find a lot of controversial and incorrect in the assessments of A. V. Lunacharsky, but his greatest merit before our cultural revolution is that he did not shy away from this task, that he always raised the question of the classics and literary heritage in practical terms, in terms of their real critical assimilation by the masses of working people. More than ever it is high time to abandon the attitude to the study of the classics as a kind of art for art and bring it onto the high road of the immediate tasks of the cultural revolution.
The question of Pushkin cannot be divorced from the general question of the classics and their mastery. “Pushkin studies” does not constitute any special discipline with its own specific methods and tasks. The very term “Pushkin studies” would have to be archived. It was inherited from the time when the “Pushkinists”, following the general tendency of bourgeois culture towards maximum specialization and maximum separation of “pure science” from the masses, sought to close themselves into a special caste, making Pushkin the subject of their monopoly exploitation. Whatever the motives for this selection, it in every possible way contributed to that excessive detail that forgets about the forest behind the trees. At the same time, tearing Pushkin away from comparison with other writers has turned him from a living personality into a faceless god. Of course, the worst aspects of the old Pushkin studies are alien to “Pushkinologists”, who received Marxist-Leninist training. But the vestiges of the old guild, the old narrowness and the old opposition to the profane remain. It is time to get rid of this, and at the same time from the word “Pushkin studies” which has become meaningless and superfluous. It is time to get involved in the lively work of critical assimilation of Pushkin, the first step towards which should be a thoughtful assessment of Pushkin, a detailed answer to the question of whether he was a great poet and, if so, from what it can be seen.
An attempt to give such an assessment was recently made by one of the Soviet Pushkin scholars, Dmitry Blagoy, in his article The Significance of Pushkin (in the collection Three Centuries, 1934). But this attempt clearly reveals his impotence to pose the question of what makes the poet complete and great. In Blagoy’s article, the timidity of thought is striking, which so sharply distinguishes the writings of many of our current literary critics not only from the classics of Marxism-Leninism, but also from such old fighters for communist culture as M. N. Pokrovsky or A. V. Lunacharsky. The specific narrowness of Pushkin scholarship is striking as well, which manifests itself in the complete disregard for a number of basic provisions of Marxist-Leninist science, as soon as the author goes beyond the limits of Lenin’s statements about literature that have already become traditional. So, for example, it is argued that the program of reorganization from above, put forward by Catherine II, was a stage in the defeudalization of Russian reality. But the ignorance of historical science by the majority of literary scholars is so widespread that it would be unfair to blame only Blagoy for it.
Blagoy locates he answer to the question about the significance of Pushkin with a repetition of the truths of dialectics about the theory of reflection. Then there are also very indisputable indications of the fundamental significance of Lenin’s articles about Tolstoy. From these articles, the conclusion is drawn that what is important in an artist is not his ideology, but exclusively the reality that he reflects. All shades of noble ideology, as well as bourgeois ideology, are not only alien to us, but also directly hostile. Having dealt in this way with Bacon and Spinoza, with Helvetius and Diderot, with Rousseau and Hegel, Blagoy hastens to dissociate himself from any suspicion of aestheticism. Pushkin, he says, was one of Lenin’s favorite writers. It cannot be explained only by some kind of artistic dope, hypnosis of great talent, and Pushkin’s remarkable formal skill. Of course, no Marxist can explain the essence of the phenomenon in such a way. Magnificent are these dope and hypnosis, which replace the specificity of artistic creativity, this stern contempt for formal skill, this confident statement on behalf of all Marxists. N. K. Krupskaya speaks somewhat differently on the question of Lenin’s attitude to Pushkin: Most of all he [Vladimir Ilyich] loved Pushkin. But he appreciated not only the form. For example, he loved Chernyshevsky’s novel “What Is To Be Done?”, despite its naive form of small art.. We have several evidences that Lenin was by no means so deaf to what D. D. Blagoy calls dope and hypnosis. Sensing the direct impact of art, Lenin could very clearly realize the hostility and political harmfulness of this art. A. M. Gorky has an interesting record of how Lenin spoke about Beethoven’s “Apassionata”: Amazing, inhuman music. I am always proud, maybe naive, I think: these are the kind of miracles people can do ... But often I can’t listen to music, it gets on my nerves, I want to talk cute nonsense and pat people on the head who, living in a dirty hell, can create such beauty. And today you can’t pat anyone on the head. It turns out that the question of the impact of alien class art is not as simple as D. Blagoy imagines, who of course would never allow himself such an “idealistic” word as “beauty”. But Lenin was proud of humanity for creating “such beauty” and at the same time knew how not to obey its dope and not pat on the head when it was politically unacceptable.
Further, having mechanistically simplified Lenin’s propositions to the formula the meaning of Tolstoy is directly proportional to the reality reflected by him, Blagoy naively reduces the role of the artist to the role of some simple perceiving membrane. He does not even pose such a question to himself: after all, it was not only Tolstoy who reflected the reality of the “era after 1861 and before 1905” Indeed, arguing in this way, any person who described October or 1930-1934 is already immeasurably higher than Tolstoy, for the theory of reflection does not apply to artists alone. All this is a vivid illustration of the impotence of many of our young literary critics to link their Marxist-Leninist education with the specifics of the field in which they work.
It would seem, however, that, not being able to logically connect the theory of reflection with the specifics of artistic creativity, Blagoy, having proclaimed that Pushkin’s significance lies solely in the fact that he reflected contemporary reality, he should have shown how Pushkin did it, that is, to show: this was the reality, and this is how Pushkin portrayed it. Instead, Blagoy confines himself to an outline of the evolution of Pushkin’s class position. There is much that is correct in this essay. This is hardly even the most acceptable of the schemes of Pushkin’s class evolution proposed so far (along with this, however, there are old sins: the “six hundred year old nobility”, having lived up to the eighth hundred years, still cannot die). Blagoy connects the social evolution of Pushkin with his stylistic evolution, and although disputes are possible here, the controversial value of these rapprochements is undeniable. But all this answers precisely the question rejected by Blagoy – about the ideology of Pushkin, about his assessment of his contemporary reality – which proves that Pushkin was a great poet. However, Blagoy still answers this last question without asking it, and his answer is that in all world literature there will not be another writer who so swiftly passed from one creative form to another, who contained almost all possible types of verbal creativity, which has created equally great masterpieces in all areas. It is essential in this way that Pushkin “swiftly passed” from an “equally great masterpiece” of one type to an “equally great masterpiece” of the next type, until he finally exhausted “almost all possible” types of such masterpieces. And that the “masterpieces” were “the greatest” is simply declared. But it is interesting for us to know whether the masterpieces were really the greatest and what made them the greatest?
I must emphasize that in criticizing Blagoy, I criticize the shortcomings of our literary criticism in that part of it, which devoted itself to the study of the classics. Blagoy is not worse, but better than the majority. He has a direct understanding of artistic creation and a broad knowledge of contemporary Pushkin literature. Many of his works are certainly valuable. But like many of our junior literary critics who work on the past of literature – unlike the classics of Marxism and the old Bolsheviks who wrote about literature – he is incapable of Marxist comprehension of his aesthetic assessments, and yet the next tasks of cultural construction require precisely a politically and scientifically conscious aesthetic assessment of that. The literary legacy to which the proletariat, which is building socialism, begins to assert its rights in the most concrete way, is no longer in the future, but in the present.
One of the conditions that hinder the development of our literary criticism, and in particular the understanding of Pushkin, is the peculiar national narrowness of the historians of Russian literature, which stands in such striking contrast to the unlimited historical horizons of the founders of Marxism. Here the traditional scholarly division of literary history into “Russian” and “world” plays a role, which may have some justification in the practical convenience of teaching, but which could be elevated to a principle only from some Slavophile or “Eurasian” point of view, but not in any way with the Marxist-Leninist one. We do not have a single history of European literature, which would include Russian, not a single history of Russian literature, which would consider it as part of European. This state of affairs is supported by the principled attitude of many historians of Russian literature to approach it as a closed, self-sufficient organism that can be studied, distracting from all other countries (this approach was vividly reflected in the issue of Literary Heritage dedicated to the 18th century). Workers in those sectors of literary criticism that are in closer contact with contemporary reality are much freer from this deficiency. The critic working on contemporary Soviet literature quite often knows not only Hasek, Dos Passos and Shaw, but also Goethe, Balzac and Shakespeare and understands their place in the history of culture better than our Pushkin scholar knows Voltaire and Byron. What would we say about a Marxist historian who could not see Pugachevism in the light of the German peasant war or the Ukrainian Cossack uprisings, or who could not compare the course of the industrial revolution in Russia with that in England or Germany? And where is that Pushkin scholar who could say something meaningful about the relation, say, of Pushkin’s place in Russian literature to Goethe’s place in German literature? To hear something Marxist and sensible on this question, one would have to turn again either to the old Bolshevik cultural workers, or to young critics working in areas where the immediate demands of practice are felt more vividly.
And practice insistently demands an answer to the question, can great art be created by a reactionary and decadent class? When the progressive class has already entered the stage of history and laid the foundation for its culture, can the forces that resist it create art that the future will need and from which the artists of the revolutionary class will learn? Were the great national poets of the past – Dante, Shakespeare, Pushkin – exponents of decaying feudalism, or were they forces working to free themselves from the feudal night? If we assume that Dante was, as today’s Thomists and other lackeys of Catholic fascism assert, the highest expression of the medieval world outlook, that Shakespeare was the poet of perishing feudalism, or that Pushkin was the spokesman for the corvee nobility doomed to destruction, it becomes easier to assert that the imperialist bourgeoisie also creates great art, from which proletarian writers should learn and which survives in a classless society. The question of Dante, Shakespeare and Pushkin is essentially one question: where does great art grow from? From the rot of the decaying old or from the forces of the growing new, and is there a connection between the highest achievements of artistic creativity and the struggle to free mankind from slavery to man and nature?
Every revolutionary force grows in the depths of the old one against which it fights, and bears its birthmarks. Only the revolutionary proletariat, represented by the leaders of its vanguard, could create a revolutionary ideology free of these birthmarks and taking what it needed from the old only in the light of all-pervading revolutionary criticism. But outside of Marxism-Leninism, the advanced ideologies and movements of the past, regardless of their class limitations, were more or less heavily contaminated with old slag, which could sometimes be painted in very bright and noticeable colors. Assessing these ideologies, we cannot of course be distracted from this slag, which is essentially inevitable and important for understanding all the pre-communist achievements of human thought. But it is not these tails of the old that are important to us, but the shoots of the new. In Robespierre, it is not the cult of the Supreme Being that is important, but the implementation of the revolutionary dictatorship. What is important in Spinoza is not the theological dress that he gave to his philosophy, but its materialistic essence. In Hegel, it is not the absolute spirit that is important, but the dialectic. Fighting, like Engels fought for Dante, like the Soviet public fights for Shakespeare, is how we should fight for Pushkin, we do not want to invent classics in our image and likeness, we do not at all tell them, like the famous deacon in the anecdote, “pig, turn to crucian carp.” If there were no elements of a progressive liberating world outlook in them, it would not be worth fighting for them. We are not fighting for Joseph de Maistre or Konstantin Leontiev. But these elements are visible to the naked eye. The only question is what is essential in them and what is secondary: the liberating new or the rotting old? And the decisive answer to the question of the main and the secondary in them can be given only from the point of view of the struggle of the revolutionary proletariat for communism. And from this point of view, these great national poets, no matter how they behave at other stages of the class struggle, no matter how they run away from it, like Goethe, no matter how they kneel before a temporarily triumphant reaction, like Pushkin, no matter what utopian hopes in limited and relative sense, the bearer of the interests of humanity.
The nature of the work of these great poets as artists is closely connected with the liberation from the feudal dungeon. Shakespeare is first of all great as the creator of unprecedentedly alive and unprecedented individual persons, and the establishment of the individual and its liberation from the darkness of clericalism, from the shackles of feudalism and the blocks of the guild was the greatest cultural task of the bourgeoisie at the best stage of its development. With all his style, the caressing flexibility of his verse, the unrestrained freedom of his pathos, the ignorance of everything heavenly, Pushkin is intimately connected with rebirth, the “greatest progressive revolution” in the history of human thought.
The general character of his work was perfectly understood, and the question of him was put on an absolutely correct plane by Count Benckendorff. The rule you have adopted, he wrote to Pushkin in 1826, as if enlightenment and genius serve as the exclusive foundation for perfection, is a rule dangerous for general peace, which lured you to the edge of the abyss and plunged into it a small number of young people. Obviously, the “practice” that Benckendorff was engaged in sharpened the class instinct so that it allowed the chief of the gendarmes to define the nature of Pushkin’s ideology with a clarity that the Soviet “Pushkin scholars” who have been working on this issue for years are very far from. “The rule of genius and enlightenment” is the most important, it is of course a bourgeois “rule” that reflects the best stage in the cultural life of the bourgeoisie, the age of Voltaire and Goethe.
There are complications in all this. Not only “birthmarks” but by no means an involuntary admiration of the “proud head” in front of the idols who turned out to be idols on feet of clay. These complicating points play a greater role in Pushkin than in Shakespeare or Goethe. To understand these complicating moments, it is necessary to understand the era of Pushkin and comprehend it in the light of common history. Peculiarities of Pushkin (not only these “complicating moments”, but also many other things) are inseparable from the peculiarities of the decomposition of feudalism in Russia in comparison with other countries.
The history of Russia is the history of a country that is passing from a monstrous backwardness to an exceptionally fast pace of development. When Pushkin was born, a capitalist society within the feudal one was just beginning to be created in Russia, and at the same time it was only eighty years away from the end of capitalism. In this regard, the stages in the development of Russian culture turned out to be unusually close. When Russia was just embarking on the bourgeois path, Europe had half a millennium of bourgeois development behind it, from the first embryos of manufacturing capitalism in Tuscany and Flanders to the French Revolution and the industrial revolution in England. The release from the feudal prison took place with extraordinary speed. True, 18th century feudal lords themselves, in their unbridled predatory expansion, partly shattered this prison, and the ideological atmosphere in Russia in the 18th century, open to the winds from the neighboring West, was not quite similar, at least on the top floor, to the night of the Middle Ages. Despite this, the generation of Pushkin was faced with tasks that arose in the West over the course of several centuries. A contemporary of the romantics, Heine and Balzac, he had to solve the problems solved in the West by the contemporaries of the “Tatar yoke”. So in the history of Russian verse he takes the place occupied in Italy by Dante, in England by Spencer, a contemporary of Shakespeare. The role that Belinsky defined as the realization of the idea of artistry was played in the West by the people of the Renaissance. But at the same time, as a pioneer of Russian realism, he occupies a place in his literature that, on a European scale, corresponds to the role of his somewhat older contemporary Walter Scott.
This, of course, is associated with the rapid genre and stylistic evolution, which is noted in Pushkin by Blagoy. It is not this evolution that makes Pushkin a great poet, although only a great poet was able to do it. Pushkin coped with his historical task brilliantly, and this makes him a paramount literary figure. But it does not follow from this that he was a great poet and classic. So in France, some of the tasks facing Pushkin were solved – and also brilliantly – by a group of writers, from Malerba to Voiture, who left an indelible stamp on the entire subsequent development of French verse and literary language, but whose work is at best very secondary. To evaluate Pushkin as a poet and a classic, it is important not what and how he solved the problems, but what in the process of solving these problems he created, what is in his work, using the words of Lunacharsky, which can count, if not for eternity, then for longevity and “arouse artistic pleasure” in the builders of socialism.
In answering the last question, Lunacharsky himself draws on the famous words of Marx about the reasons for the continued effectiveness of Greek art. We affirm, he writes, that Pushkin appeared for our country (by analogy) in the same way that, according to Marx, ancient art is for mankind. This analogy is, of course, clearly wrong. Of course, it is impossible to talk about the “childhood of mankind” in Pushkin. It is precisely that freshness of the first invention of sciences and arts, the first sensation of the human personality, the first exit on the free paths of human existence, which distinguishes the culture of the Greek slave owners, among the contemporaries of the disintegration of feudalism in the last centuries. Nevertheless, Lunacharsky’s mistake is only relative. Just as the beauty of the Greek art is due to the fact that they were the first to grow out of a semi-animal infancy into receptive, inquisitive, inventive and educated (raised by themselves) childhood, so the beauty of that early bourgeois art that Pushkin gave Russia is largely due to the fact that it is a new stage on the same path of liberation of mankind from social and religious slavery. Based on the metaphor of Marx, this art can be called the expression of the youth of mankind. Pushkin was the poet of the youth of Russian bourgeois culture. But this youth was far from being as “normal” as Greek childhood or as bourgeois youth in Italy and England. The youth of Russian bourgeois culture was disfigured by the fact that the decaying feudal body on which it developed was especially ugly. It was ugly because of the exceptional intensity of feudal exploitation, the close ties of the emerging cultural stratum with the class of serf-owners, and finally, the enormous strength of the apparatus of feudal statehood, headed by the leader of the feudal reaction of the whole world. The time of Pushkin’s life was a time when the grasp of the dead over the living was especially painful and especially distorted the normal development of Russian “youth”.
The life and work of Pushkin goes through two stages. During the first, the only bearer of political and cultural progress is the social group to which he himself belonged and the unity with which he very vividly felt: the progressive nobility. He was its indisputable and direct spokesman. Pushkin was not a Decembrist. But Pushkin was the leader of the cultural revolution, parallel to the political revolution of the Decembrists. The advanced part of the nobility “climbed into tiers-etat”, and Pushkin created for them poetry on Russian soil, saturated with the entire artistic heritage of the early bourgeois culture of the West. The victory of Nicholas and the agrarian crisis, which drove the landowners into a dead end, confused all the cards. As Pokrovsky pointed out, this period of the blackest political reaction was not a period of either economic or cultural stagnation. The slow but steady growth of capitalist industry, accompanied by a protracted agrarian crisis, accelerated the growth of the share of capitalism on both sides. At the same time, the advanced groups of the Russian intelligentsia have come a long way from the superficially perceived “enlightenment” of the 18th century. to left Hegelianism and Saint-Simonism, a path that took Germany almost three quarters of a century.
But the seemingly clear path of noble free-thinking gave way to dark and hidden corridors. The republican noble (or constitutionalist) and free-thinker ceased to be the main bearer of bourgeois progress. The social group of Pushkin, decapitated and scattered, was pushed aside from the main historical path. Tsarism dressed up in Peter’s rags and encouraged the industrial bourgeoisie. Satisfied with Nicholas’ economic policy, it became quite loyal. The new enlightenment, focusing no longer on France and England, but on Germany, also abandoned active political opposition. The average landowner returned to the corvee, but the corvee fed him poorly. Everywhere in the city a new bourgeoisie grew up, everywhere and in everything it affirmed the principle of sale and purchase, full of bourgeois arrogance, but completely devoid of class dignity.
In this situation, Pushkin went astray. The peculiarity of the second stage of his work is that this time of confusion and blindness was for him at the same time a period of tremendous artistic growth. This combination finally deprives his creativity of the character of “normalcy”, which Marx found among the Greeks and which can be found among the Italians and Shakespeare. But at this extremely complicated and “abnormal” stage, Pushkin ultimately remains the poet of the bourgeois cultural revolution, the ideologist of enlightenment and genius.
The fact that Pushkin capitulated to the autocracy does not in itself in any way refute his role as a pioneer of the bourgeois cultural revolution. If the political leaders of the bourgeois revolution could often show genuine adherence to principles, if participation in the revolutionary cause gave heroic firmness even to such socially typical nobles as Lunin and Yakushkin, for a bourgeois ideologist and poet a certain meanness, a certain servility before the existing masters was not uncommon. Hegel glorified the Prussian state as the highest embodiment of the absolute spirit. Goethe with solemn seriousness dealt with the most insignificant deeds and menus plaisirs of the most insignificant German court (Engels), even Diderot flattered Catherine II. But in Goethe and Hegel, their servility, distorting and disfiguring the main line of their creativity, does not reject it. In Pushkin, servility penetrates deeper, into the very core of his work, dictates to him poems equal in strength to the best of his achievements, eg. his rebellion against his own servility is painted in the fantastic colors of the “six hundred year old nobility.” In this depth of Pushkin’s servility, as well as in that exorbitant secular snobbery, which in his personal life was the main reason for his death, one cannot, of course, see an individual accident. The roots of these phenomena are, of course, in the fact that Pushkin was still very close to noble-feudal, serfdom, much closer, than Goethe or Hegel. The growth of bourgeois culture in Russia was faster, but precisely because the rapid growth did not allow the remnants of the old to disappear in time. And in the next generation, the most advanced representatives of the noble intelligentsia, who stepped immeasurably farther than Pushkin and were directly connected with the international revolutionary movement, were still far from free of these birthmarks – let us recall at least Bakunin’s Confessions.
With Pushkin, this was much deeper and more organic, and in the work of his last years it is impossible to separate the “already stinking” nobleman from the great poet of bourgeois liberation. They live together, intertwined in an inextricable struggle, “embracing more tightly than two friends.”
The struggle is going on within the poet and within his individual works. We have a particularly striking example of such a struggle, which remains unresolved, in The Bronze Horseman. There is a struggle here for each image. None can be fully comprehended from one point of view. Each understanding opens the door to another and none can be accepted as final. The poem remains ambiguous to the end. At first glance, this is the glorification of Peter. The least difficult introduction of the poem, where “Peter’s creation” is glorified as the capital of Russian tsarism. But further behind the image of Peter the Autocrat, Peter as Nicholas, the image of the revolutionary Peter is revealed, “who reared Russia on its hind legs,” an image much closer to Napoleon than to Nicholas (by the way, as far as I know, The Bronze Horseman never approached with L’Idole by Barbier, written just a year earlier; there is an undeniable similarity in the images of the two poems), and Petersburg from a symbol of victorious autocracy is turning into a symbol of culture, a symbol of bourgeois construction, into a kind of Holland, reclaimed from the sea. But, on the other hand, the “Finnish waves” are opposed to St. Petersburg, the Tsarist capital. The image of a flood as a symbol of revolution was widespread in Russian poetry of the 1830s (the Pecherin mystery, Lermontov’s poem And the day has come). Pushkin mobilizes all his poetic means to give the impression of the enormous power of the waves. Depicting the mechanism of the flood (But by the force of the wind from the bay and the following. the clearest example of Pushkin’s protocol accuracy, preserved at the height of the most intense lyricism), Pushkin’s verse reaches its ultimate strength and effectiveness. At the same time, the impotence of St. Petersburg in the fight against the waves is emphasized. The introduction ends with an incantation calling for the goodwill of the waves, where although their “malice” is called “vain”, this epithet sounds very unconvincing. But the scene with the “late Tsar”, powerlessly, with “mournful eyes” looking at the “evil calamity” is very convincing. The Tsar is powerless to save his capital from the “element of God”, and all his hope is that God will eventually remove his element; he is powerless to save his subjects from this element, and the generals (Count Miloradovich and General-Adjustant Benckendorff, busily explains the note), embarking on a dangerous path to save the drowning people at home, are given in a comic tone. This comedy is muted, but it comes out quite clearly when the appearance of the next brilliant character echoes it: Count Khvostov with his “immortal poems”. So ambiguous and dubious is the poem, even apart from the main conflict between Peter and Eugene. Here again, at first glance, Peter defeats Eugene. Peter is grandiose. Eugene is pathetic. But Eugene’s line is sustained without the slightest hint of irony, in the pure tonality of “bourgeois drama.” They talk about Eugene, and they rightly say, as the ancestor of Akaki Akakievich and Makar Devushkin and all the “philanthropic” literature of bourgeois realism. But in comparison with Evgeny, Akaki Akakievich and even Makar Devushkin are almost clowns. If we consider the degree of liberation from the obligation to portray people of the lower class as comic as a measure of the democratization of art, The Bronze Horseman stands immeasurably further along this path than Gogol and Dostoevsky. The conflict between the pitiful crazy ragamuffin and the ruler of the half-world was already ready-made material for the comic. To avoid in the most decisive way the slightest hint of comedy meant thereby to admit the equality of Eugene with Peter, to admit the defeat of the former as accidental and temporary. Eugene, in spite of his outward pity, grows into a tragic hero and his death is aroused not by contemptuous pity, but by “horror and compassion.” And the very semi-deification of Peter, giving him the features not so much of a god as of a demon, contributes to raising Eugene to the degree of a “fighter against God,” and turns Peter into an evil external force hostile to man, the fight against which, even without hope, only exalts the fighter.
The Bronze Horseman is rightly considered one of the pinnacles of Pushkin’s creativity. Only a great poet could turn the chaos and confusion of his historical views and his mystical doubts and hesitations, in which every true motive was replaced by a false one, into a harmonious system of images, into a deep and complex image of a struggle that does not receive resolution.
But at the same time, The Bronze Horseman reveals Pushkin’s national limitations. In all his appearance, Pushkin is much more cosmopolitan and European than Gogol or Tolstoy. Nevertheless, Pushkin remains a narrowly national poet, a classic only for his compatriots, while Gogol and Tolstoy are part of the common literary treasury of mankind. Pushkin was, as it were, a focus that absorbed the vast artistic experience of the entire previous development of bourgeois mankind and reincarnated it for the emerging Russian bourgeois culture. This is the meaning of the notorious “all-humanity” found in him by Dostoevsky. But from this it follows that in his work there is nothing fundamentally new in comparison with the early bourgeois literature of the West. On a world-historical scale, Pushkin is not a stage.
However, solving this very broad and generalized task of re-creating for Russia what was created in the older countries, Pushkin treated with the greatest sensitivity to each specific turn of contemporary Russian history. Many people here think that such an acute sensitivity to the topical is a self-sufficient quality. If in the seemingly innocent poems of Sumarokov there are encrypted hints of the struggle between the Prussian and Austrian parties at the court of Elizabeth Petrovna, our literary critic does not hesitate to count this as a plus for Sumarokov. This is, of course, a gross distortion of the basic Marxist position that an artist should be the son of his time. Susceptibility to the spite of the day is different.
Pushkin’s sensitivity to contemporary history was deeply subjective. First of all, he perceived it from the point of view of his individual adaptation to it. This is true both in a crudely biographical and ideological sense. Events were perceived by Pushkin primarily as somehow changing his own position and interpreted by him from this point of view. The historical theories of Pushkin are deeply subjective and “relevant”: they are always called upon to answer the question about Pushkin’s place in contemporary society. This trait is again characteristic of a nobleman who has something to lose and does not want to lose anything.
Likewise, The Bronze Horseman is a lyrical expression of Pushkin’s reflections on what the reality of Nicholas’ era promises him. This is a lyrical treatment of one’s own confusion in front of a narrowly specific and (as Pushkin did not guess) a relatively ephemeral coincidence of circumstances. For the Russian reader, this “coincidence” is part of his “historical memory” (or, less figuratively, part of his “general education”); we know what Pushkin is facing in painful confusion and what his thoughts are about. The non-Russian reader does not know this. For him, the unifying meaning is taken out of the poem. He sees only a series of magnificent paintings and a very mysteriously formulated conflict between figures, the content of which is not clear to him.
The almost simultaneous works of Gogol are quite another matter. The Inspector General or Dead Souls do not suffer from national narrow-mindedness, because, while portraying the Russian serf reality with more realistic concreteness than Pushkin, Gogol at the same time portrayed it in a much more generalized way, choosing from it what was typical in the broad historical scale, giving both a portrait (“crooked face”), and a generalizing image of the serf reality in the struggle against which the Russian revolution arose. Pushkin never could, nor did he strive to give such a generalizing image. Gogol provides generalizing knowledge about serf Russia, Pushkin assumes it in his reader. This makes Pushkin nationally limited, while Gogol is alien to this limitation.
All these are complicating elements in Pushkin’s work. This is not the main point. The main thing is that Pushkin created for Russia what was created for the older bourgeois nations by their classics from the Renaissance to the beginning of the 19th century. It is in this light that the main line of study of Pushkin should proceed.
Three main tasks faced Pushkin as a poet of early bourgeois Russian culture, which had to catch up with the West: to raise poetry to the level of a perfect art, possessing a weapon worthy of it; to give a subjective expression to a bourgeois personality striving to escape from a feudal prison and to assert his right to privacy as one of the elements of bourgeois freedom; to create ways of objectively depicting a concrete living individuality and concrete historical reality.
Speaking of Pushkin as the founder of Russian realism, one should not forget that the word realism has two different meanings. First, it is a certain literary style that arose in the struggle against classicism and is based on the correct reproduction of concrete reality, in its immediate appearance, regardless of a deeper understanding of this appearance. A completely different matter is realism in Engels’ sense, which implies, in addition to the “truthfulness of details” (a sign of a realistic style), also “the fidelity of the transmission of typical characters in typical circumstances,” in other words, the transmission of the real meaning of images of reality, for typicality is, first of all, the placement of a phenomenon in the correct historical perspective. Gogol was such a realist in the Engels sense. That which with Gogol it was still completely naive and unconscious (or rather even counterconsciously), with the next generation of Russian realists, brought up by Belinsky, it became a conscious attitude. Russian realism deliberately set itself the task of conveying typical characters in typical circumstances. It cannot be said that Pushkin was completely alien to this task. But he did not have an integral view of Russian reality, neither naively direct, like Gogol, nor deliberately thought out, like Turgenev or Shchedrin. Pushkin’s view of Russian reality is topical and subjective, and is entirely colored by that egocentrism, which in artistic terms could be transformed into lofty lyricism, but in terms of everyday life it turned into vulgar opportunism.
Extremely characteristic in this respect is the change in Tatiana’s image throughout Eugene Onegin. In the beginning, Tatyana is given as an awakening personality, opposed, on the one hand, to the philistine environment of the district landowners, and on the other, to the mature Eugene. This Tatiana is closely connected with the spring of the progressive nobility, whose singer during these years was Pushkin. By the time of the eighth chapter, Pushkin no longer needs such a Tatiana, and the fate of her character is now determined by the needs of that adaptation to the Nicholas-era nobility, which was the next task for Pushkin. The Tatiana of the eighth chapter, on the one hand, is the apotheosis of a high society lady, the highest expression of the nobility to which Pushkin had to adapt, on the other, a moral model of a faithful wife for Natalya Nikolaevna, who, being “given” to Pushkin, treated him just as coolly as Tatyana treated her general, but whose future conjugal behavior was an essential element in Pushkin’s adaptation to the “higher circle.” Pushkin’s hopes for her as a means of such an adaptation were sublimated in the high lyricism of the eighth chapter. The image of Tatiana as a whole turned out to be completely changed by the new “needs of the time”, changed to such an extent that the original idea was completely hidden from the reader’s consciousness. That in this final image there is also a cognitive (“typical”) value, Belinsky showed brilliantly, interpreting the whole image in the light of the original design and in the light of his knowledge of Russian reality. But in order to get to this realistic (in the Engels sense) image of Tatyana, it is necessary to overcome all the lyricism of the later part of the novel, that is, all its most effective side of it. As a result of this peculiar “efficiency” of Pushkin’s points of view and the power of lyricism, Tatiana turned from a living person of noble Russia into a kind of curve of the politically-determined moods of her creator, and her image, shown from fundamentally different points of view, was torn apart, like in a cubist picture.
The role of Pushkin in the history of Russian realism is determined not by the “correct transmission” of the typical in Engels’ sense, but by a huge step in the depiction of concrete appearance. In the depiction of a concrete, Pushkin achieved a great deal and – here one cannot but agree with Blagoy – in extremely diverse forms. The first chapter of Onegin, the scene in the tavern near the Lithuanian border, the character of Savelich, completely regardless of their true typicality, are masterpieces of the realistic style, completely different from each other.
The only thing all three have in common is their stylistic freshness. Pushkin does not have those “superfluous details” that later realism heaps up. The well-known parsimony of means, giving few details, but giving them with maximum artistic expressiveness, connects Pushkin’s realistic style with his role as a “poet-artist”. The methods of Pushkin’s realistic writing are comparatively uncomplicated and easily distinguishable. Their appeal is undeniable. That they are more intelligible than the prevailing methods, A. Arkhangelsky showed with amazing acuteness. His transcription of an excerpt from The Captain’s Daughter in the manner of Valentin Kataev, Gabrilovich, Fadeev and Artyom Vesely speaks better than any reasoning about the superiority of Pushkin’s skill over the skill of contemporary fiction writers. The fact of this superiority is striking: Pushkin’s prose, if limited to short sections, undoubtedly gives the Soviet reader more artistic pleasure than the prose of Soviet writers. But a concrete analysis and explanation of this fact is not so simple, and at the present stage of our literary thought it is even very difficult.
Craftsmanship is by no means a simple linear function of the development of art. Marx pointed out the uneven development of art in relation to the material base. It can be argued that within art, craftsmanship develops unevenly in relation to art as a cumulative phenomenon. There were moments in the history of human culture when the artistic form acquired a kind of self-sufficient meaning and the creation of beauty became the main task of art. These are the moments when the struggle for a beautiful human body against the spirituality and asceticism of the feudal-monastic religion, for a beautiful spoken language against church incantations, theological dryness and abracadabra of feudal legalists, for the excellent rational proportions of geometry against the irrationalism of traditional guild and church forms, they were promoted to the first place in the struggle for liberation from the feudal-church prison. Unlike other eras, when pure art served as a refuge for cowards, decadents and reactionaries, in these eras, especially during the Italian Renaissance, the struggle for beauty itself was a necessary part of a huge “progressive revolution.” The role of such verbal art in the formation and stabilization of the national language attached particular importance to the struggle for excellent verbal art in the native language, and not in the church-priest’s language. This moment in the history of Russian culture was expressed by Pushkin. Belinsky had this in mind, calling him an exponent of the idea of artistry and a poet-artist for the most part.
For our time, these questions of form, skill, beautiful language do not have the relatively self-sufficient significance that they had for the early youth of bourgeois culture. Created by the artists of that time, it is still alive for us. It is alive, by the way, because in this type of art, more than in any other, the victorious solution of the problem is fixed in tangible artistic facts and becomes immediately effective. Such art is a particularly visual school of quality. And in Russian literature, the only representative of such art is Pushkin.
In our time, when the question of the quality and rise of the Soviet literary word to a height worthy of the epoch becomes the next, this side of Pushkin’s creativity acquires especially great, one might say, political, significance. Pushkin’s work must be re-evaluated and revised in the light of the tasks of socialist culture. The decisions given by Pushkin retain their enormous effectiveness for our time. His verse continues to be the highest achievement of the Russian poetic language. But socialist literature can no longer simply reproduce these decisions. On the contrary, the critical use of Pushkin along this line should contribute to the development of new solutions necessary for our era. In the verse and style (in the narrow sense) of Pushkin, it is especially fruitful to study the highest aesthetic achievements of the ruling classes simultaneously from the point of view of the beauty they achieved and from the point of view of its class conditioning, limitation and parasitism. For there are elements of parasitism in every aristocratic art, and Pushkin’s art, like all the art of the Renaissance, is deeply aristocratic.
The task of a concrete stylistic study of the classics from the point of view of their aesthetic effectiveness and, at the same time, from the point of view of class limitations is a huge task facing Marxist-Leninist literary criticism, a task for the solution of which very little has been done. Here we will have to build in a clean place, since what was done in this direction by the formalists and their students is nothing more than raw material, not only because they separated art from society, but also because they essentially denied evaluation. At the same time, this is an area very remote from the central themes of Marxism-Leninism, an area where quotations are of little help and where we will have to work our own brains on our own. This work can be fruitful only if it is carried out in the light of the contemporary tasks of cultural construction.
There is one feature of the Pushkin style that sharply distinguishes it from most contemporary Western poets, as well as from most of the Renaissance poets. This is what can be called the rationalism and sobriety of his style. In Pushkin’s poems, the poetic meaning does not distort the prosaic. Becoming an instrument of aesthetic influence, the word in no way ceases to be an exact exponent of meaning. In this Pushkin was the direct heir of classicism, especially in its later bourgeois, Voltaire stage. Almost of all poets, Pushkin used metaphor least of all. His metaphors are always of the kind that could have been used not in artistic presentation. At the same time, unlike classicism, he knows how to achieve the greatest concreteness not by naming one object instead of another, but by the exact name of the object itself. When Pushkin brings objects closer together, he brings them closer not through metaphor, but through comparison, not merging them, but clearly distinguishing them in the very closeness. There is also a weakness in Pushkin’s stylistic rationalism: it is alien to that violent energy of feeling and imagination, which we found, in normal form, in the Renaissance poets (especially in Shakespeare) and in the less normal one in Goethe and some romantics. But it also has a strong side: it reminds us that the convergence of “distant” ideas is not a necessary attribute of poetry. High poetry is achieved without any break with a reasonable rational approach to the world – the simple ability to give words and their combinations maximum expressiveness, the ability to give expression to the power of feeling, the ability to make things see in their concrete clarity. This aspect of Pushkin’s creativity is of the greatest practical importance for our time. It can help a modern writer (especially a novice writer) to get rid of the idea that an “image” is a metaphor and that in order to achieve artistic quality, it is necessary to call every thing by a false name. A poetic image is a maximally adequate reflection of an object in verbal expression, and by no means a substitution of one object for another. The metaphorical style is associated with certain types of worldview, one way or another infecting the petty bourgeoisie that followed the proletariat, but deeply alien to the proletariat building socialism. Pushkin’s worldview was, of course, also alien to the proletariat. But his style was formed under the strongest influence of the progressive currents of bourgeois thought of the 17th-18th centuries. and to the end this influence remained dominant with him.
The third of the tasks solved by Pushkin – the task of giving a subjective expression of the liberating bourgeois personality – also brings him closer to us, although less than his role as a “poet-artist” or as a pioneer of the realistic style in Russia. The poetry of bourgeois subjectivism is more alien to socialist humanity than many other achievements of bourgeois art, and Pushkin’s lyric poetry attracts more by the perfect beauty of the work of the “poet-artist” than by the content of the expressed feelings. But historically, this side of Pushkin is of great importance, since it is this who most closely connects him with his contemporaries in the West, the poets of the final awakening of the bourgeois personality from Burns and Goethe to Byron. It is this side of Pushkin that brings him into the great historical channel of the cultural currents of his time to the greatest extent.
His relationship with Byron is especially important. Much has been written about this, some of it has a preparatory meaning for us as well (for example, the work of Zhirmunsky), but we have no Marxist coverage of these relations. Unfortunately, the question of Byron is greatly confused by our Western literary scholars and requires a radical revision. The role of his aristocratic origin (some even speak of feudal origin!) Is ridiculously exaggerated. Coats of arms and titles have such a hypnotic power over our literary critics. But it is especially necessary to protest against attempts to replace Byron, a representative of the high road of European bourgeois literature, in the history of Pushkin’s development, with some kind of backyard of “precisely Russian” literature for terrifying novels.
Speaking about the effectiveness of Pushkin in our days, one cannot evade the question of the basic mood of his poetry. Cheerfulness: this is how Lunacharsky formulated it, and one can agree with this. But accepting cheerfulness as the basis of Pushkin’s creativity, we must equally emphasize that cheerfulness does not mean either the blessing of being, or optimism, or Olympianism, or reconciliation with reality. Pushkin’s cheerfulness is a thirst for life, earthly and fleshly life, with complete neglect of “that world.” This is attachment to the earth, not to the sky. It is of the same quality as in Shakespeare and many other people of the Renaissance. Least of all it means reconciliation with reality: Pushking was always a great seeker of reconciling with reality, but this reconciliation was always reflected in his work by a lowered tone of cheerfulness. Reconciliation is a two-sided act, and Pushkin too soon had to feel that he somehow put up with “reality”, but it did not put up with him. The most cheerful piece by Pushkin, the most independent is Gabrieliad, the most depressed are the works of the most reconciled year of his life, 1830.
It was precisely the reconciliation with reality in an era when this reality revealed contradictions that were hopeless for Pushkin that dealt the death blow to his cheerfulness. Pushkin retained this worldly, organic incapacity for religion until the end of his life, and this, of course, removes at least one obstacle between Pushkin and the proletariat.
But one cannot speak of cheerfulness in relation to the last period. The main motive of these years is the motive of hopeless contradiction, descending to gloomy decadence and rising to the height of the tragic. The motive of retribution, the motive of the inevitable consequences of human actions, is characteristic of this period. Pushkin’s tragedies – using this word not in the genre sense, but in the sense of content – like all of his work in recent years, are deeply ambiguous. The first meaning in them is usually reactionary: punishment for the sins of a proud and sensual youth. Behind this meaning, as in The Bronze Horseman, others are revealed, none of which can be stopped. History played a much less ambiguous tragedy with Pushkin. The death of Pushkin was a tragically inevitable consequence of his opportunistic “reconciliation” with Tsarism.
But the tragedy of retribution was also the tragedy of redemption. The death of Pushkin at the hands of the secular rabble led by Nicholas washed away from him in the eyes of the progressive part of Russian society the shame of his betrayals and vacillations. In the person of Belinsky, who fiercely fought against Pushkin, an aristocrat and courtier of the 1830s, Russian democracy recognized Pushkin as a fighter of the cultural revolution, which it continued with greater class consciousness and freer from the “birthmarks” of serfdom. The historical assessment made by Belinsky has stood the test of history and is largely confirmed by Marxist-Leninist science. The aesthetic assessment, made by him, is outdated in many details, but in general it turns out to be consonant with the assessment of the era that is building socialism. We need Pushkin primarily as a “poet-artist”.