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A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950, Volume 7: German, Russian, and Eastern European Criticism, 1900-1950 (review)

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 20, Number 1, April 1996
pp. 259-260 | 10.1353/phl.1996.0030

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Philosophy and Literature 20.1 (1996) 259-260

Book Review

A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950, Volume 7: German, Russian, and Eastern European Criticism, 1900-1950

A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950, Volume 7: German, Russian, and Eastern European Criticism, 1900-1950, by René Wellek; xvii & 458 pp. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991, $42.50.

The seventh volume of René Wellek's history of modern criticism may well be the most interesting of his eight-volume monumental oeuvre. Devoted to German, Russian, and Eastern European criticism between 1900 and 1950, it exemplifies most strikingly Wellek's personal battles with critics who were roughly his contemporaries and closest to his own European background. "I should like to think of my History as 'elucidatory,' as not 'argumentative' or 'polemical'" (v, xxi), Wellek writes, but he does not shrink from expressing his own critical perspective usually in a gentlemanly humorous or ironical, but occasionally also quite harsh and stubborn fashion. He insists on the importance of individual value judgments in critical analysis, particularly when they are his own: "I do not believe that . . . my views and those of my contemporaries will be replaced by completely different assumptions" ("Reflections on my History," The Attack on Literature, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982, p. 145).

Since Wellek rejects the idea of a historical determinism and thinks that "an evolutionary history of criticism must fail" (The Attack, p. 144), he provides less a history than a collection of essays in which he offers succinct appraisals of writers, thinkers and critics both as individuals and as participants in the broader literary movements of the century. He presents "portraits" (p. xv), which he also calls "doxographies" (The Attack, p. 143), containing a vast amount of quotations carefully selected to support the authority of his own views or to let them speak for themselves when he would rather not comment.

More than any previous work, this volume embodies Wellek's will and determination to carry on against all odds even when he can no longer do so on his own. An accident in 1986 left him bedridden and dependent on students and secretaries to help him with his research and writing. He was able to draw on a wealth of previously published essays, some of which had been written more than three decades ago. There are some arguable inaccuracies and shortcomings (his canon includes obscure writers but not Adorno and again no women writers), and problems with his bibliographies and references. Yet Wellek's unique talent to assemble in one volume half a century of critical commentary on the literatures of half a dozen different cultures appears intact. So do his well-known critical positions.

Among his most interesting essays are those on Spitzer, Auerbach, Ingarden, Bakhtin, and Benjamin, highly erudite men in whose company Wellek enjoys moving. On the other hand, some extraordinarily fertile minds and their enormous influence on the post-1950 critical discourse are often quickly dismissed or treated with unnecessary condescension. Young Roman Jakobson "should be forgotten" (p. 372). Freud's psychoanalysis "seems forced and mistaken" (p. 79). Heidegger "often ascribes a meaning which seems to me absent in the text itself" (p. 89). Wellek's low tolerance of any but his own interpretation of Dostoevsky appears repeatedly in this volume: Thomas Mann's views are called "strange" and "distorted" (p. 12), Freud's "deeply flawed" (p. 79), Bakhtin's "simply wrong" (p. 357), and Lukács's "simply . . . [those] of Communism" (p. 232). Wellek's anti-historicism is dramatized in essays on Auerbach and his "historical perspectivism" (p. 132), vs. Spitzer who "always saw that there is a point at which historicism must fail" (p. 144). The vacuum of German criticism during the Nazi period is hauntingly demonstrated. The essays on Walter Benjamin, Bertholt Brecht, and in particular György Lukács reveal best Wellek's notorious feuds with Marxists. Wellek indulges in a sarcastic critique of the Marxist Lukács's "doctrinaire limitations" (p. 245) and attempts, wrongfully, to "prove" the Hungarian philosopher's "exaltation of Socialist Realism" (p. 244). When in the mid-eighties and after much encouragement Wellek finally writes an essay on the early Luk&aacute...

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