Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Fedor Dostoevskii in Britain: The Tale of an Untalented Genius

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Fedor Dostoevskii in Britain: The Tale of an Untalented Genius

Article excerpt

When, in 1911, Constance Garnett was commissioned by the publisher William Heinemann to undertake the translation of the complete works of Fedor Dostoevskii, she was reticent about engaging in such a risky enterprise. Both she and the publisher were worried that Dostoevskii's works would not appeal to the British public's taste. Constance Garnett in particular found it very difficult to translate Dostoevskii, an 'obscure' and 'careless' writer, as she wrote, and although she carried her project through, she manifested her reservations till the end. (1) That these reservations were a symptom of a persisting mistrust of Dostoevskii's artistic abilities is confirmed by the reviews of his works published in the major literary journals of the period (Academy, Athenaeum, Times Literary Supplement, Westminster Review, Spectator, Saturday Review, etc.). Dostoevskii was generally presented as a 'genius', whose talent, however, resided in something other than his artistic accomplishments. Dostoevskii the Nihilist, the philosopher, the prophet, the epileptic, etc. prevailed for a long time over Dostoevskii the artist, with no small consequences for the manner of his reception in Britain and in Europe generally. The characterization of a 'genius' without talent might seem to be a contradiction in terms, but this can be shown not to be the case if one examines the development of the modern concept of 'genius'.

Genius vs. Artistic Talent

It is in the eighteenth century that a modern concept of genius develops and becomes the object of philosophical investigation. Initially, the term indicated no more than an attitude, but subsequently it assumed spiritual traits. As Theodor Adorno writes:

in that epoch [late eighteenth century] any individual could become a genius to the extent that he expressed himself unconventionally as nature. Genius was an attitude to reality, 'ingenious doings', indeed almost a conviction or frame of mind; only later [...] did genius become a divine blessing. (2)

In this passage Adorno stresses a fundamental difference, between a concept of genius that emphasizes the 'productive' moment and one in which the spiritual element prevails. In the former, genius manifests itself mainly in 'ingenious doings', while in the latter genius reveals its presence independently of the 'doings' themselves.

The oscillation from one moment to the other is already discernible in Immanuel Kant's distinction between 'academically trained talent', which concerns scientists or skilful men, and 'natural talent', which concerns the man of genius. For Kant, 'Genius is the innate mental disposition (ingenium), through which Nature gives rule to Art.' He clarifies the relation in which Art, Nature, and rules stand:

every art presupposes rules which are laid down as the foundation which first enables a product, if it is to be called one of art, to be represented as possible. The concept of fine art, however, does not permit of the judgement upon the beauty of its product being derived from any rule that has a concept for its determining ground, and that depends, consequently, on a concept of the way in which the product is possible. Consequently fine art cannot of its own self excogitate the rule according to which it is to effectuate its product. But since, for all that, a product can never be called art unless there is a preceding rule, it follows that nature in the individual (and by virtue of the harmony of his faculties) must give the rule to art; i.e. fine art is only possible as a product of genius. (3)

Therefore, rules precede, indeed they are the conditio sine qua non of the artistic product, and are to be found in nature. Genius is 'nature in the individual'; it is that added gift thanks to which the possibility of fine art is given. Genius is a 'natural talent', a 'natural endowment', which cannot be learnt by anyone precisely because it 'requires to be bestowed directly from the hand of nature upon each individual' (p. …

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