Academic journal article American Studies International

The Ideologem of Loss in Chekhov and James

Academic journal article American Studies International

The Ideologem of Loss in Chekhov and James

Article excerpt

My experience as a university teacher of comparative literature and American Studies at a Russian provincial university makes me think that scholars in Eastern Europe do approach American Studies differently than their colleagues in the West, because of their specific backgrounds and the different cultural contexts which have shaped the Eastern European variety of American Studies.

My research is focused on the rise of interest in Russian literature in the United States in the late 19th century. This historic period seems is remarkably fruitful for the study of Russian-American literary interrelations, which gained enormous impetus after the Crimean War in Russia and during the Civil War in the USA. First translations of Turgenev and Tolstoy published in the United States resulted in great interest in Russia, which eventually led to a real breakthrough of Russian literary thought into American cultural consciousness.

Examples of Russian literary influence on American literature are highly valuable and relevant for present-day Russian scholarship. The current political and social situation in this country compels Russian scholars to search for new methods and approaches. In order to support the young Russian democracy, to protect it from dictatorship and dogmatic thought it is very important for us to understand what a real dialogue is (the term "dialogue" here implies not just an "exchange of views," but a certain philosophical method of interpreting reality) and to be able to understand alien cultural discourses, to make openness the main principle of social life. A focus on Russo-American cultural dialogue seems to be extremely useful and illuminating for present-day Russian students. It seems absolutely necessary for the younger generation in this country to comprehend that American culture is not only mass culture. Indeed, the danger of this aberration becomes more and more threatening due to the thoughtless politics of mass media. It is no less important in these days of economic and cultural crisis for Russian youth to remember how powerful Russian culture always used to be, its influence on the American realistic writing at the end of the 19th century being a brilliant example. So, my project can be viewed as a contribution to the vital controversy over national cultural identity, an identity problematized by the situation in which Russians now exist.

One of the main problems for American Studies in Russia arises from the need to newly evaluate the correlation of ideology and aesthetics in modern literary/cultural studies. It is especially important for ex-communist countries where ideological bias used to dominate literary research. As for the study of American literature in the USSR, the ideological approach worked to form the special "Soviet canon" of American authors, which marginalized artists who seemed either too distant from the vital problems of the "socialist construction" or too eulogistic about the capitalist system. The current situation in American culture studies is marked by a rich variety of poststructuralist research methods. When one looks for a harmonious balance of ideology and aesthetics in modern American cultural and literary studies, one finds that research methods are no less ideological in the United States than they used to be in this country. Again, the choice of authors and problems is made in full accordance with the dominant ideology-for example, multiculturalism, i.e. the recent idea of American culture as a "patchwork" of different ethnic and gendered voices. Ergo, much American Studies scholarship, both Russian and U.S., tends to oversimplify the interrelations of art and contemporary ideologies. While ideology cannot be neglected in literary research, neither can culture be studied for merely ideological purposes, nor can the value of a literary work be treated as directly dependent on its conformity with the dominant social and political ideas. Of great help here may be the distinction of Russian and Western concepts of ideology highlighted by the Russian scholar Ilya Ilyin: for the mentality of the Russian intelligentsia of the 20th century genuine art starts where official ideology disappears. …

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