Living Is an Art: Some Recent Books on Russian Modernism

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From the early nineteenth century until the end of the Soviet period, Russian literature has been distinguished not merely by its high seriousness, but by its obsession with what Irina Paperno terms, in her introduction to Creating Life: The Aesthetic Utopia of Russian Modernism, 'one of the "accursed questions" in modern Russian culture - the relations of art and life' (p. 1). To rephrase Wilde, the general principle informing Russian culture has not so much been that Russian Life imitates Russian Art far more than Russian Art imitates Russian Life (though the fact that such a tendency exists is certainly noteworthy), or even that both imitations occur simultaneously in complex processes of mutual influence and contamination, but rather that concerted attempts have been made by Russian artists to erase the distinction between the two. Earlier references by Russian critics of the phenomenon of 'life-creation' (zhiznetvorchestvo) largely focused on the Romantic period, and revealed that the self-fashioning of Russian Romantic writers owed much to European Romanticism, and German Romanticism in particular. In that the term zhiznetvorchestvo comes from Russian Symbolist aesthetic theory and practice, such references are perhaps anachronistic, but they indicate that very different periods in Russian culture share a desire to fuse art and life. In one such reference to Russian Romanticism Lidiia Ginzburg defined zhiznetvorchestvo as the 'deliberate construction in life of artistic images and of aesthetically organized sequences of events' (O psikhologicheskoi proze (Leningrad, 1977), p. 27; English translation, Lydia Ginzburg, On Psychological Prose (Princeton, NJ, 1991), p. 20). Less attention has been paid, however, to the other side of the coin in earlier examples of Russian zhiznetvorchestvo: not only did they entail a 'contrived theatricalization of life' (Ginzburg, On Psychological Prose, p. 20) (making life into art), but, more significantly, they attributed to art the power to transform life (making art both the way of achieving, and an essential component of, an ideal life). Whether the writer viewed this transformation as a spiritual process (Gogol') or a sociopolitical process (Gogol' as interpreted by Belinskii) mattered less than the fact that the greatest Russian writers and the Russian public began to make the highest demands upon art. These tendencies manifested themselves in different ways. For example, many young Russians (especially in the 1840s) lived key moments in their lives according to models taken from German (usually Hegelian) philosophy. Critics and readers alike commonly viewed certain literary creations not just as types to be met with in real life (the various 'superfluous men', for example), but actually as real people. Nekrasov's famous lines that 'You don't have to be a poet, but you are obliged to be a citizen' symbolize the fact that in the second half of the nineteenth century 'life' came to be the dominant partner in the relationship, and the reaction against art (including even 'art' that was 'for life's sake') influenced even those best equipped to oppose utilitarian and materialist ideas. Hence, in part at least, Tolstoi's renunciation of his art and Dostoevskii's belief that his writings could reveal the beauty that would 'save the world'. Yet for all that, an underlying belief that the truest art could only come from an authentic fusion of art and life was never totally absent from the major literary texts of the period.

The messianic conception of the artist, the belief in his ability to transform the world through a fusion of art and life, reached its apogee in the age of Russian Modernism. Given that Russian literature's desire to change the world, its emphasis on the claims of the ideal, its mission to teach one how to live - in short, its moral, sometimes moralizing, and to some 'hypermoral' nature - are the features which seem to make it so attractive to specialists and 'common readers' alike, studies of the period in which these features are most prominent should be of interest to a wide audience. …