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52 2 “Very Dangerous!” What could be more innocuous than a placid and well-fed country squire, lounging indolently on his divan, sunk in pleasant reverie? Nothing, and this was precisely the problem, according to the radical young literary critic Nikolai Dobroliubov (1836–61), the tireless advocate of literature’s power to generate new social types. In his review of Mikhail Goncharov’s 1858 novel Oblomov (entitled “What Is Oblomovism ?”), Dobroliubov obligingly answered his own question. Oblomovism (oblomovshchina) is epic inaction accompanied by existential inertia. Oblomov does nothing because he can do nothing because he doesn’t want anything because he doesn’t know how to do anything because he knows nothing. If this were an isolated case, that would be one thing, but Dobroliubov diagnoses a national syndrome. “Oblomovshchina” is an epidemic that knows no boundaries, least of all the one between life and literature, which promiscuously re-infect one another. “This is our native national type . . . repeated several times in the best of our literary productions. . . . Even today there are people who seem to be copies of Onegin, Pechorin , Rudin and the others.”1 In lieu of effort and a productive occupation , Oblomov indulges in “bellicose and heroic” dreams of grandeur (“sometimes he liked to picture himself an invincible general, compared with whom not only Napoleon, but even Veruslan Lazarevich was a “Very Dangerous!” 53 non-entity”), but only dreams. Instead, of compassion and humanity, he nurtures contempt for “the human ant heap,” and worst of all, he is a literary dilettante, but barely even that.2 According to Dobroliubov, Goncharov captured the signature type of an era, the last iteration of the “superfluous man” immortalized by Ivan Turgenev in his 1850 novella Diary of a Superfluous Man. For Dobroliubov, the fact that the Oblomovs’ days were numbered was grounds for guarded optimism: “even today, thousands of people spend their time talking and thousands of others are willing to take this talk for deeds. This is because the time for social activity has arrived or will soon arrive. . . . And that is why we said at the beginning of this essay that we regard Goncharov’s novel as a sign of the times.”3 Yet if Oblomov remained the title character , it was because the new men, and no less important, activity befitting them, did not yet exist. Stolz, Oblomov’s friend and foil, who wins the love of Oblomov’s former fiancée, Olga, is commendably active, “but,” laments Dobroliubov, the deeds of such Stolzes, “whatever they may be, remain a mystery to us.”4 In the end, not Stolz but Olga is the exemplar . She “stuns us with the unusual clarity and simplicity of her logic and the stunning harmony of her heart and will.”5 When it becomes clear that Oblomov will never rise from his divan to become the Oblo­ mov she and Stolz have created in their imaginations, “the Oblomov of the future,” Olga gently and matter-of-factly breaks with him and transfers her affections to Stolz. Dobroliubov concludes that it is Olga who is battle-ready and confidently predicts that “we may expect to hear the word that will consume Oblomovshchina with fire and reduce it to ashes” from her.6 Unlikely as it is that Dobroliubov envisioned Goncharov’s heroine as a future arsonist ready to torch Oblomovshchina (with a word, no less!) Alexander Herzen nonetheless entitled his response to Dobro­ liubov “Very Dangerous!” (in English). Literary-critical polemics were by their very nature dangerous. A form of war by other means, they were the place in which conservatives and progressives pulled no punches in ideological battles waged via the plot, characters, and themes of Goncharov’s or Turgenev’s or whosever’s latest novels. Readers and critics alike imputed to literature an unquestionable reality, discussing situations and characters as if they were real people, albeit often imagined in terms of a social type rather than in terms of psychological nuance. Critics’ interventions not only influenced readers’ reception of the work and its characters, but seemed to usher the characters (in 54 Part One: Enigmas of A-synchrony altered form) into reality itself. As Irina Paperno explains, “A necessary part of this process is the literary critic, who mediates between the literary work and its actualization in reality. The radical school of aesthetics , the real criticism [real’naia kritika] advanced the idea that an author can reveal things in reality (such as future types) that are independent or even contrary of...


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