- Creating Life: The Aesthetic Utopia of Russian Modernism
In describing the history of a country’s literature, one may well be tempted to divide it into separate compartments and so lose sight of the continuity which is, in the final analysis, more worthy of attention. Historians of Russian literature have often succumbed to this temptation and it became almost commonplace to read that in Russia the Realism of the nineteenth century gave way to the Symbolism which began in the twentieth; that Symbolism gave way to Futurism; and that in due course all the earlier “-isms” were swept aside by the Socialist Realism of the Soviet period. For Marxist-oriented Soviet [End Page 371] historians such preoccupation with compartmentalization was obsessive. This makes more than welcome a series of essays which is at pains to emphasize the essential connections and kinship between these various “-isms.”
Four of the seven essays are intended to demonstrate how the Symbolists, while ostensibly breaking with the earlier tradition of positivism (the idea that art’s essential purpose is to help build a better world), were, in a number of important respects, continuing and even reinforcing what they claimed to despise. Thus, regarding art and life as indissolubly linked, they attempted to turn life into art and art into life. Their endeavors frequently led them into behavior that now appears “eccentric, at times even ridiculous” (p. 166). Olga Matich describes how Blok, Bely, Dmitry Merezhkovsky, and Zinaida Gippius attempted to model their sexual relationships on the pattern of the “erotic utopia” described by Vladimir Solov’ev in his seminal The Meaning of Love (1892–94). Joan Delaney Grossman discusses Nina Petrovskaia’s relationships with Bely and Valery Briusov. Michael Wachtel shows how Viacheslav Ivanov attempted to overcome his grief at the death of his first wife by using his creative powers to make contact with her “beyond the grave.”
Irene Masing-Delic traces the Pygmalion myth through Pushkin, Baratynsky, Turgenev, and Chernyshevsky to the Symbolists who were especially attracted by a myth which showed how an artist could create life and even conquer death. In “Andrei Bely and the Argonauts’ mythmaking,” Alexander Lavrov considers the role of the “Argonaut” circle in establishing a Russian Symbolist culture in the first years of the twentieth century. The Argonauts’ credo was “life-creation” rather than “art-creation,” and they claimed to make no distinction between “talent for living” and “talent for writing.” Lavrov argues that the failure of the relationship between Bely and Nina Petrovskaia marked the disintegration of “Argonautism” and the culture they sought to create. It is left to Irina Gutkin in the concluding essay to guide us through the grotesqueries of Futurism into the apparently diametrically opposed, sanitized world of Socialist Realism, by way of Constructivism, Marxism, and Meyerholdian bio-mechanics, leaving us in little doubt that, appearances to the contrary, each of these movements was concerned with turning art into life and using it to create a better world. So ultimately, as she neatly sums up the thesis of the whole collection, “The aesthetic utopian ideal of art creating life, which took shape at the beginning of the twentieth century, was fused with the utilitarian tradition of the 1860s” (p. 181).
I have deliberately reserved for the end comment on Irina Paperno’s introduction and opening article (“The Meaning of Art: Symbolist Theories”) in order to emphasize the manifest contribution she and her co-editor, Joan Delaney Grossman, have made to ensuring the coherence of this admirable collection. Professor Paperno’s clear and concise coverage of her topics makes it evident that she was determined that the book should not turn into the kind of bits-and-pieces patchwork that too many publications of this sort tend to [End Page 372] become without a firm editorial hand at the helm. Her earlier book on Chernyshevsky (Chernyshevsky and the Age of Realism, 1988) and Irene Masing-Delic’s Abolishing Death; a Salvation Myth of Russian Twentieth-Century Literature (1992), form the first two parts of...