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Scholars of Russian Literature have tended to use the words "Nietzschean" and "apocalyptic" with abandon. All too often mey have been prone to glib assertions that the heroes of Dostoevskii, Gor'kii, and others have a special kinship with Zarathustra and other characters of the great German writer and thinker and that—as a "supermen" or "moral monsters"—these heroes necessarily have an "eschatological" view of the world. The scholars, however, have rarely considered the implications of their statements, and in-depth research both on the tie between Nietzsche and Russian writers and on the theme of the Apocalypse in Russian fiction has long been overdue. Happily, two young scholars of Russian studies, Edith Clowes and David Bethea, have successfully traversed what others had feared to tread, and, in so doing, they have accomplished major breakthroughs in the study of modern Russian literature.
In a highly informative and well-written study, Clowes examines the influence of Nietzsche on Russian culture primarily from the vantage point of "reader reception": that is, how writers, critics, and readers responded to Nietzsche's ideas not only in themselves but also as "seedbeds" for their own world views and narratives of "self-determination." As her overriding theses, Clowes argues that (1) the popular reception of Nietzsche in Russia circa 1900 coincided with a shift in the national consciousness away from "social" and "ethical" values to "individualist" and "aesthetic" ones and that (2) the reading of Nietzsche took place amidst a "broad cultural dialog" of new mythic, moral, and aesthetic sensibilities. Clowes' research yields a number of surprises. For instance, she begins her work with a positive reading of Nietzsche. That is, she moves him beyond the icon of a "moral rebel" or "nihilist" who advocated anarchy and the "will to power" and sees him, instead, as a prophet who condemned the malaise of his age and who sought the "transfiguration" of humankind. Clowes shows further how Russian censors, critics, and writers used Nietzsche's image of the sverkhchelovek or "superman" and his ideas of "self-discovery" and "self-determination" for their own highly individualistic (and often oversimplified) ends and how, in so doing, they motivated genuine new readings of Nietzsche's thought and art. On one hand, opponents of Nietzsche—the censors, for example—"vulgarized" (Clowes' word) his "revolution of moral consciousness," fearing that it would lead to dangerous egocentrism, social tumult, and sexual license. On the other hand, Nietzsche's supporters used him to overthrow traditional myths and value systems and to celebrate renewal and change. As Clowes apdy shows, however, Nietzsche's champions understood him in highly divergent ways. Popularizers of Nietzsche—for instance, such middle and lowbrow writers as Andreev, Kuprin, Ropshin—fashioned [End Page 836] Nietzschean "supermen" who yearned for self-transfiguration but who self-destruct in arrogance and hate. The "mystical" Symbolists—Merezhkovskii, Ivanov, Blok, and Belyi—used Nietzsche to put forth their own hopes for a new Christianity founded upon spiritual regeneration and creative release. Finally, the Revolutionary Romantics, Gor'kii and Lunacharskii, looked to Nietzsche to help launch ideas of the "masses" and the "creative will of the people." From a theoretical standpoint, Clowes agrees with critics such as Hans Jauss who claim that readers interpret a narrator's "signs" in terms of meir own experiences, values, and beliefs. Indeed, the Russian appropriation of Nietzsche circa 1900 offers much evidence to legitimate such claims.
David M. Bethea's work nicely complements that of Clowes. As he himself states, Bediea sees as his tasks: (1) to trace the theme of the Apocalypse (specifically, allusions to the Book of Revelation) in five Russian novels: Dostoevskii's The Idiot, Belyi's Petersburg, Platonov's Chevengur, Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, and Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago; (2) to show...