Rachel Polonsky. English Literature and the Russian Aesthetic Renaissance. Cambridge Studies in Russian Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. xii, 249 pp. Introduction. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $69.95, cloth.
The Russian Symbolists are often described as having been in reaction against the "positivist" intellectual culture of the late nineteenth century. In her stimulating book, Rachel Polonsky gives this commonplace a closer look than it usually gets, and finds that the Symbolists and their contemporaries in what she calls the "aesthetic renaissance" were in fact heavily indebted to the preceding generation of cosmopolitan academics, especially those in literary historical studies and ethnography. Scholars such as Veselovsky and Storozhenko unearthed and presented the very materials of ancient and primitive culture that created among their younger contemporaries "an awareness of a time in which art belonged to mystery: to ritual, myth and religion" (pp. 13-14). Contemporary critical scholarship stirred up diverse materials that seemed, paradoxically, to attest to a phase of primitive unity in culture. Viacheslav Ivanov would thus be entirely representative of this symbiosis of scholarship and art, unusual only in combining the philologist and poet in a single hypostasis.
Russia was awash in diverse cultural influences by the 1890s. Berdiaev and Anichkov saw the character of the age not in a will towards synthesis but in its breadth and eagerness to confront and assimilate the most diverse styles and traditions, whether classical, medieval, renaissance, Romantic, Japanese or Persian. Polonsky sees the Russian artists' avid search for new influences as the culmination of a debate on cultural borrowing and assimilation that stretches from Chaadaev through Dostoevsky and discerns "a double receptivity at work in the prevailing aesthetic attitude of the turn-of-the-century period: a renewed receptivity to foreign literature which led to a receptivity toward a variety of rediscovered pasts, with Russia's own past among them" (p. 5).
The first watchword of Symbolism was not diversity, however, but synthesis. The early Symbolists found a unifying principle for their extraordinary eclecticism in the concept of "style," and Polonsky argues persuasively that English aesthetics of the second half of the nineteenth century provided an important model for that principle.
Polonsky finds significant influence from English literature and scholarship both in the "barbaric renaissance," as she calls the rediscovery of ancient, primitive and classical cultures, and in the "aesthetic renaissance" or revaluation of aesthetic values that was the defining characteristic of the period. She illustrates her version of the "barbaric renaissance" with several brief accounts of Russian primitivism. After discussing Viacheslav Ivanov's reading of Nietzsche's essay "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life," she compares the parallel careers of Ivanov and the literary historical scholar Evgeny Anichkov. This approach very effectively sets Ivanov's rather well known career in the illuminating context of contemporary Russian scholarship, demonstrating that his erudition and his search for the psychological and anthropological roots of literary forms were not unique even in Russia. The work of Frazer, Andrew Lang and Max Miller in the British tradition of comparative mythology served as the background to investigations by Ivanov, Anichkov and Blok into the primitive sources of literary art.
A separate chapter tells of Balmont's engagement with Shelley and, by way of the English poet, with the mythographer F. Max Miller and the Vedic poems. Polonsky demonstrates the lasting grip that Midler's quickly outmoded ideas exerted on Balmont. In some instances her tracing of sources is inconclusive, but she succeeds in evoking the swarm of influences that accompanied Balmont wherever he went. The final element in the barbaric renaissance is a sketch of the influence of Poe on Symbolist preoccupations with language and the quest for a primal meaning inherent in words. …