For Humanity's Sake: The Bildungsroman in Russian Culture

Article excerpt

Lina Steiner. For Humanity's Sake: The Bildungsroman in Russian Culture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011. x, 284 pp. Index. $65.00, cloth.

In this original and wide-ranging intellectual history, Lina Steiner situates Herder's view of culture ("as a spiritual organism whose growth depends on dialogue with other cultures" [p. 35]) at the core of a tradition of personal and national character formation in Russia. This tradition is explored in two parts: the first isolates a stream in Russian critical theory which unites Apollon Grigor'ev's organic criticism with Iurii Lotman's semiosphere; the second outlines a history of the Russian bildungsroman from Aleksandr Pushkin's The Captain's Daughter to Lev Tolstoi's War and Peace and then to Fedor Dostoevskii's The Adolescent. The conception of cultural growth as an organic process embraced by these thinkers and artists, Steiner maintains, provides an alternative to the neat syntheses of dialectical models of progress by emphasizing "personal and national evolution [...] as a perpetual expansion of the horizon that forecloses on all attempts to bring about some kind of absolute, identifying closure" (p. 53).

An engaging historical introduction goes a long way to open up the topic to the general reader, providing glosses on such phenomena as the Decembrists and the Westernizer / Slavophile controversy. With discussion of cultural figures as diverse as Petr Chaadaev, Mikhail Pogodin, Nikolai Π, and Sergei Uvarov, the author brings an immense breadth of knowledge to an absorbing portrait of Russia's volatile adolescence. This prepares us for the book's central contribution: the avenue of cultural exploration, elegantly drawn and substantiated, which extends from Herder to Grigor'ev to Lotman.

The book's protagonist is Grigor'ev, whose theory of culture Steiner distinguishes by its "intrinsic heterogeneity, tolerance, and openness toward differences" (p. 33). Thus, unlike some of the adherents of his "pochvennichestvo" (native soil) movement, Grigor'ev-following Herder-"carefully avoided binary oppositions, keeping his cultural nationalism from turning into a militant theory of national exclusivity" (p. 37). In the theoretical section, Steiner provides an excellent discussion of the critic's emergence from his socio-cultural milieu and traces the trajectory of his view of culture to Lotman's organic "semiosphere" in which growth emerges from the meeting of "mutually opaque, untranslatable codes" (p. 46). By contextualizing Lotman in the Herder-Grigor'ev tradition, Steiner helps to distinguish his semiosphere from some of the contemporary mechanistic notions with which, as the author shows, it has often been conflated.

One of Steiner's more daring conceits, implicit throughout, is that personal and national development in Russia can be approached as analogous processes-both subsumed within the concept of bildung. …