The Social Functions of Literature: Alexander Pushkin and Russian Culture

Article excerpt

Paul Debreczeny. The Social Functions of Literature: Alexander Pushkin and Russian Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997. 282 PP.

This is a scholarly work by a literary historian who uses theory as explication rather than purpose and allows the exigencies of history and the availability of research materials to shape his presentation. Upon first consideration it might seem to be a random assemblage stitched together from previous articles. History seldom obliges, and the sheer bulk of materials yielded by history ensures complexity. Part One, The Reader's Response to the Text, is divided into three chapters: The Writer as Engineer of Human Souls; Literature and the Formation of Self; and Catharsis. Each chapter in its turn is subdivided by topic, and the same organization pattern shapes Part Two, Social Determinants of Aesthetic Norms: Social Groups and Their "Strategies for Living"; Measurements of Popularity; Mass Culture and the Literary Elite and Part Three: The Myth of a Poet: The Elevation of Pushkin to Sainthood; and Pushkin Lives.

The subject of this work-the reception of Pushkin in his time and since-is logically developed, and the significantly large corpus of information derived from research has been made to work with, rather than against, this logic. Historicity has been served by the condition that the work was subjected to criticism in its previous forms. The earlier versions have matured and now become chapters or contributions to parts of chapters. The reader obtains an overall rather than partial view. As the title states, Debreczeny is concerned with the social function of literature in a nationalcultural framework. He argues that aesthetic responses are conditioned by social environment, which in its turn is shaped by individual psychological needs for meaning and beauty.

The logic that shapes Debreczeny's historical approach is predicated on identification of possible kinds of reader reception. The kinds of reception he identifies are treated dualistically. First, Pushkin's perception of himself-how he received his own works and the process by which he created them-is paired with the ways he hoped or strove to be received by others. Important to an understanding of his view of himself are his relationships to the "crowd," to "fashion," to romantic conventions, to the reading public as he judged or hoped it to be, both in his time when it grew from scant to estimably large and in the future when posterity would grant him the immortality he sought. Countered to this self-perception are the ways Pushkin was actually received. As Debreczeny shows, the "in" status of his sophisticated literary aristocrat allies enabled them to decode the subtle devices that passed others by. The Decembrists received an equally selective, but quite different "radical" Pushkin. For his imitators Pushkin provided models on the story level where they could change his characters and plots to satisfy literary conventions (or their perceptions of them). Important here are the romantic conventions that made his early works popular because he abided by them, and which in his later works he worked to disappoint. …

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