Hodgson II: The Convergence.

More from the Introduction to Hodgson’s wonderful little Butkov book (see this post):

It is, of course, well known that during the second half of the century frequent open clashes occurred between the critics and the creative writers to whom they dictated. One might mention Turgenev’s break with The Contemporary (Sovremennik) in the 1850′s, or Dostoevsky’s polemics with Chernyshevsky in the 1860′s. The covert confrontation between imaginative fiction and utilitarian criticism which took place in the forties, however, was far more significant for the subsequent development of Russian realism and more revealing of its internal tensions. It was a confrontation between two opposing literary aesthetics which had been largely isolated from each other for over a hundred years. One of these was an imported literary sensibility, formed in the eighteenth century, and fostered by the cultivated intelligentsia up through the Golden Age of Russian poetry. The other reflected the tastes and values of an older popular tradition of narrative fiction. The 1830′s had witnessed a decline of poetry and the collapse of the aesthetic standards which had shaped serious letters since the eighteenth century. Consequently, within a decade, the “legitimate” and the popular layers of literary activity converged. The first professional critics began to grapple with the issue of the “democratization” of literature which was then being raised abroad by the Romantics, and writers began to address themselves to a single, broad-based reading public. The great realistic Russian novels owe their power and originality to the tension between these two precipitously united currents. Belinsky’s views were not just a progressive Westernizer’s infatuation with the new “scientific” methods of the French physiologie. His program for literature, though it bears the marks of German Idealism, can be traced directly to the utilitarianism of Saint Simon, and is an extension of similar didactic views of literature which had dominated “legitimate” literature in Russia since the Petrine reforms. By the same token, Gogol’s stylistic resources were not simply a quaint holdover from the popular chapbook fiction of the 1830′s. “The Nose” is an extreme manifestation of a baroque undercurrent in Russian fiction which went back nearly two centuries. (p. 11)

Belinsky and the progressive Westernizers equated realism with seamy urban settings and sociological determinism. Just as they failed to see the incompatibility between naturalism and the native prose traditions which were being reasserted by Gogol and Dostoevsky, they failed to appreciate the “natural school’s” heavy commitment to Romantic conventions—from Sentimentalism to gothic melodrama. It requires a modernist approach, like Bakhtin’s, to help us see that the half century of aesthetic thinking which separates Karamzin and Belinsky is a consistent development toward stricter didacticism. … As Ortega y Gasset wrote, “seen from the vantage point of our day, Romanticism and Naturalism draw closer together and reveal their common realistic root.” Not Romanticism, but modern art, “which exists alongside reality, but does not want to take its place,” is the first genuine pendulum swing away from the prerequisite for didacticism—allegorization—since the Baroque. (p. 16)

This is a take on literary history that makes a lot of sense to me, and I wish I’d run into it several decades ago. Never too late to learn!


  1. Frye describes a more complicated progression or rather cycle, both logical and historical, with five stages: myth > romance > high mimetic > low mimetic > ironic > myth.

    In myth, the hero is superior in kind to other people and the natural environment: he is a god.

    In romance, the hero is superior in kind to other people, but not the natural environment.

    In high mimetic, the hero is superior in degree to other people. Epic and classical tragedy fit here.

    In low mimetic, the hero is equal to other people, especially the audience: this is “realism”.

    In irony, the hero is inferior to other people including the reader: we look on him as a puppet.

    (All these terms have other meanings, of course.)

  2. Well, it’s much easier to present grand schemes when you’re casting a lordly eye over all of recorded literature; when you get down to the nitty-gritty of, say, Petersburg in the 1840s, it becomes harder to see what’s going on. Hodgson has read, and cites, the grand theorists, but he’s primarily concerned with finding approaches that illuminate that specific time and place (or chronotope, to get all Bakhtinian about it). That’s what’s exciting to me: I love theory as long as it helps me think about what I’m actually reading.

  3. I agree. I have been known to describe Anatomy of Criticism as a technical reference manual for literature (one of the well-written ones, like The C Programming Language).

  4. Hodgson cites the grand theorists and it’s pretty cool, but the cited passages come short on examples from the period he’s supposedly covering.

    What does he mean when he writes that The 1830′s had witnessed a decline of poetry and the collapse of the aesthetic standards which had shaped serious letters since the eighteenth century? And who is he directing his polemics against with the statement that “Gogol’s stylistic resources were not simply a quaint holdover from the popular chapbook fiction of the 1830′s” – are we like really supposed to think otherwise?

    Griboyedov and Pushkin freely meshed lowly and funny detail with the didactic, direct speech with high style narration, and vignettes of the high social classes with the low. Straight Romanticism, IMVHO, doesn’t (briefly) become the prevailing current in the Russian literature until the turn of the 1840s, with late Lermontov and Gogol’s Taras Bulba? Straight Naturalism, I suspect, is an even later phenomenon.

    Perhaps with better examples I could see Hodgson’s point about convergence better … right now I just can’t see how it could describe the development of Russian literature in the 1830s-1840s. Later on, perhaps… but 1830s?

  5. There are lots of examples (and footnotes with references to more) in the book, but I can only copy out so much! I’m trying to present suggestive passages (and remember, this is just the introduction), but if you’re interested I highly recommend seeing if a library near you has a copy of the book (which some publisher should reprint).

  6. It may help for context (for these and other excerpts) to note that his overarching point seems to be that Butkov was one of a group of what he calls “reluctant naturalists” who inherently wanted to continue the playful “popular” tradition but were forced by the temper of the times to try to be realists/naturalists (following the Belinskian misunderstanding of Gogol). I’ll know more, of course, as I read further.

Speak Your Mind