- On Pushkin. Letter to G. M. Fridlender, 8 April 1938
One would have to write an entire dissertation to answer your theoretical question. I am not sure if I can succeed in briefly laying out my “ideas,” as you wish to call them.
For a long time now, we have had two ways of approaching Pushkin. Some have categorized him as a progressive writer of the bourgeois-democratic epoch (“enlightenment,” rationalism, abstract love of freedom, a similarly abstract historical optimism, folkish democratic ideals, and so forth). Except, as it turns out, Pushkin was “not particularly towering” in all of these regards, his nature was conflicted—he had his good moments as an enlightener, but otherwise did some rubbish on the sly. Meanwhile, others, who are today the majority, have been nudging Pushkin into the mold of a democratic enlightener, or at the very least a liberal, contrary to all patent evidence. Both of these tendencies converge around the same conclusion. Both the vulgar-sociological perspective and the vulgar-humanist one can only come up with just one kind of conception of positive heritage, just one type of criterion for judging a writer’s progressiveness and spiritual depth. However, Chernyshevsky’s, or rather Belinsky’s genius (since Chernyshevsky was his follower), was to understand absolutely clearly that Pushkin’s epoch was singular and finished, and that any demands of democratic enlightenment were inapplicable to it. In other words, theirs was precisely a dialectical understanding of a qualitatively different nature of a phenomenon, as opposed to the vulgar mind’s attempts to look for all kinds of Allmählichkeiten, all sorts of minor quantitative transitions, measured through terms like “underestimation,” “overestimation,” etc.
Belinsky in his later period and then especially Chernyshevsky did indeed reject Pushkin’s method as outdated, but this is irrelevant. They actually left Pushkin untouchable. In fact, they were the first to determine and to place limits on his singularity. This is why we should respect these great enlighteners for rejecting Pushkin—they did so as a result of a far [End Page 75] deeper understanding of the Pushkinian principle than the one elicited by the various publicists debating the Pushkinian direction (there were already quite a few such people in the latter half of the nineteenth century).
Today, any schoolboy can argue that the great enlighteners were mistaken, that the Pushkinian principle did not die off permanently, that it still has a future. All the sparrows on the roof are chirping away about this right now. However, an unhackneyed understanding of the true significance of the Pushkinian “renaissance” (more desirable than actual) must include the perspective of Belinsky and Chernyshevsky. The future indeed belongs to poetry of the Pushkin type, and that is the case not merely despite, but precisely because such poetry is not locked into a bourgeois-democratic framework. I would repeat a formula, for which many cannot forgive me—“art is dead! Long live art!” One must thoroughly understand the first half of this formula, so that the second half does not devolve into pointless babble. I maintain that to smooth out the acuteness of Belinsky’s and Chernyshevsky’s judgment is to rob ourselves of an opportunity to draw truly culturally enriching conclusions from the Pushkin problem.
It seems to me that the truth of the great enlighteners’ appraisal—their argument that “artfulness”1 is the key idea of Pushkin’s poetry—cannot be doubted. In any case, Belinsky and Chernyshevsky had a better view of [End Page 76] it. If enlightenment and democracy in Russia could have been promoted directly by means of Pushkin’s poetry without any caveats, if this poetry could have led a direct assault on “unreasonable reality,” then the great enlighteners would not have bothered with all the ceremonies regarding Russia’s first poet. No, they were not mistaken. It is historically impossible that people of their stature could have misunderstood something like this. The great enlighteners obviously saw clearly that enlightenment is not essential to Pushkin, that his “art exists not for the sake of Ivan and Sidor’s liquidation of illiteracy.” It is true that Pushkin’s verses, his poems too...