Magazine article Cross Currents

Why Russians Should Not Read Sartre, or the Search for God in Two Extremities of Europe

Magazine article Cross Currents

Why Russians Should Not Read Sartre, or the Search for God in Two Extremities of Europe

Article excerpt

  "First I admired Dostoyevsky because of what he revealed to me about
  human nature, then I loved in Dostoyevsky the person who lived and
  expressed our historical destiny."
                                                    --A. Camus (1)

I do not know about you but French twentieth century literature puts me in a state of distress. Admiration and repulsion mingle strangely as I read. My admiration is for the witty work of art, the daring intellectual achievement, the twisted narrative behaving like an arrogant provocateur. The repulsion, on the other hand, comes with the "aftertaste," as a hollow feeling inside. One cannot say it better than my beloved Camus: French literature is "exciting but deceiving." (2) Almost entirely negative, French modern literature is a work of destruction directed against its reader, whom writers seek to hurt, shake, insult, and humiliate. It is as if the grandeur and importance of a literary work were measured according to the strength of the shock it produces in the unsuspecting reader. Still, one thing appears particularly strange to me. The tormented writers who produced these dark and provocative pages created all this agitation by themselves alone, as if the authors had not lived in the blessed land of pleasant weather, excellent wine and deliciously smelly cheeses.

The question is, why and how these French literary giants got to be so angry in such a nice climate. Or, in the simple terms of a Soviet-born graduate student of French literature, "what's their problem?" I propose that the answer to this puzzling question, which has tormented generations of French Literature's foreign connoisseurs, lies in Russian literature, itself largely shaped by the French.

In case you do not know, in the nineteenth century, French writers taught the Russian nobility and the intellectual elite many dangerous things, including a new literary genre, the novel. Russian soil turned out to be especially receptive to the import. Not even half a century later, talented indigenous apprentices presented the world with a new type of novel, the Russian novel, which, in turn, would have a great and lasting success in Europe in general, and in France in particular. French twentieth century literature can even be viewed as a response to the challenges set forth by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Roger Martin du Gard declared that the discovery of Tolstoy, whom he considered a master of masters, had the most enduring influence on his future as a novelist: "Compared to his vision, how our vision appears insufficient, superficial and conventional!" (3) Andre Gide also regarded Dostoyevsky as the greatest of all novelists. Camus openly admitted that Russian literature shaped modern French writers to the larger extend than their national literature: "Our production, when worthwhile, can claim the paternity of Dostoyevsky rather than Tolstoy. There are big probabilities though that the real ambition of our writers consists, after the assimilation of The Possessed, in writing one day War and Peace." (4)

However, regardless of all the admiration, Russian literature has also produced a sense of malaise in some disenchanted French souls. Russian writers used the new tool, the novel, for their own goals. The French malaise about Russian literature has been, once again, brilliantly expressed by Camus, the French Dostoyevsky (minus God and Orthodoxy): "In Dostoyevsky the introduction of the supplementary dimension, the spiritual one, is rooted in the notions of sin and holiness. But ... these notions have been declared irrelevant by contemporary writers who retained from Dostoyevsky only the heritage of shadows." (5) Can one really agree with Camus that spirituality is merely a "supplementary dimension," rather than a central one, in Dostoyevsky and by extension in Russian literature? To do so, would be to castrate the work.

In the nineteenth century, the newly born Russian secular literature took upon itself the traditional moral mission, which the reforms of Peter the Great had deprived the Orthodox Church of a century earlier. …

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