Before 1989: Literature as a Criticism of Ideology in the Slavic World and Serbian Literature

By Palavestra, Predrag | Serbian Studies, Summer-Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Before 1989: Literature as a Criticism of Ideology in the Slavic World and Serbian Literature


Palavestra, Predrag, Serbian Studies


A new and significant cultural phenomenon took place in the Slavic world of the former Eastern Europe at the end of the twentieth century. In the course of two decades (1968-89), before the fall of communism, in some Slavic literatures a new literary style emerged--the literature of critical resistance, of demystification and dissatisfaction. All those Slavic literatures--Russian, Polish, Serbian, and Czech--have been exposed to the influence of Marxist aesthetics and the literary ideology of socialist realism for a longtime. It was from that part of Europe that many great and important works of modern literature reached the West, completing and altering the general poetics of postmodernism. Contrary to the Western ideas of the absurd and alienation, the search for the essential, and everlasting existential topics--cosmic anxiety and flight from politics into a pure and self-enclosed world--the radical consciousness of the Slavic world of Eastern Europe has bred a subversive style: literature of defiance and critical non-acceptance of the ruling ideology and Party culture.

The forefathers of such a literary style and intellectual ethics were the "outsiders," writers rejected and banned by the Bolshevik revolution, and unrecognized and censored authors read in secrecy. Their books, rewritten in hiding and copied by laymen, were distributed underground. Thus it was precisely those that the official administration wished to destroy and eradicate, those who in Russia became the first true creators of critical spirit, the proponents of an alternative culture of resistance. Without that culture, at the end of the twentieth century, socialism could not be conceived. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Varlaam Shalamov, Joseph Brodsky, Vladimir Voinovich, or Alexander Zinoviev could be considered natural heirs to the moralism of Nikolai Berdyayev, Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Boris Pasternak.

That specific and significant literary phenomenon--that glasnost' in Slavic literatures--became apparent in Yugoslavia after World War II as well. The strong resistance of the Yugoslav authorities to Joseph Stalin and Comminform in 1948 soon resulted in a bold duel between dogmatism (in the abandonment of the imposed theory of reflections) and the comprehensive criticism of socialist realism, a movement that manifested itself in forced and artificial optimism. The movement included the black-and-white contrasting of values of crude, one-sided pedagogical realism and rigid ideological indoctrination. Serbian post-war literature, which had preserved a strong democratic tradition of aesthetic and stylistic pluralism from the period of modernism and avant-garde at the beginning of the twentieth century, readily accepted such a spirit of resistance and succeeded in quickly melting the icy layers of ideology. In reality it never completely rejected Stalinism and its unhealthy ideological suspicions, with which the ruling Party bureaucracy always "welcomed" the cultural initiatives of the critical intelligentsia. For a certain period of time the official cultural policy supported creative trends toward freedom of artistic expression, trying to use this intellectual movement for its own political and pragmatic purposes. Thus freedom was not completely achieved, although it strengthened Serbian alternative literary thought. Arts and sciences reached the values and heights of Western civilization. Broader and freer vistas were opened, placing Serbian and Yugoslav cultures almost at the same level with Europe.

Resistance to the vulgar forms of the aesthetic theory and creative practice of socialist realism had two quite different stages, and the change in relation to realism was reflected in the changes that occurred in the very structure of the literary text. The first stage of that initially quiet, wary, arid, and hidden resistance to the dogmatic pressure of political and Party bureaucracy upon literature was marked by the idea of an escape from reality, by a yearning for isolation in the sterile and safe space of so-called "pure art," which was attained through high professionalism and mastery of aestheticizing. …

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