Hodgson IV: Reluctant Naturalism.

I have to return the Hodgson book to the library, so I’ll finish the series (see previous posts: I, II, III) with a series of excerpts that will hopefully give some idea of the main idea of the book, what Hodgson calls reluctant naturalism, and the way he analyzes the literary history it grew out of:

The presence of grotesque in the stories written by Gogol and the young Dostoevsky does not constitute grounds for denying their work a place in the early development of Russian realism. It may place them outside the tradition of Europeanization furthered by Lermontov, Turgenev, and Tolstoy: it indicates that their central concern was not shaping Pushkin’s gallicized literary language into a prose idiom which could easily absorb the techniques of contemporary Western realism. But Gogol and Dostoevsky belong to another and perhaps more important developmental vector in the history of the great Russian novels, one which is closer to native Russian narrative conventions and spiritual values. The locus of their contribution is not the cultural environment where Western techniques and thinking passed easily into the life and art of aristocratic cosmopolites but a more indigenous one. With the collapse of the economic and social framework which had structured Russia’s Europeanization since the middle of the eighteenth century, her literary development was popularized and brought somewhat nearer the pre-Petrine cultural values of the common people. Western realism was introduced amid a babel of literary and sub-literary forms which was further compounded by the undisciplined critical thinking of egalitarian French Romanticism. In the absence of authoritative canons of form and “taste,” the didactic Europeanized tradition of legitimate Russian letters met with energetic resistance from a baroque native current which had previously been suppressed in the subculture. Faced with such unstable conditions, as Tynianov realized, literary historians must think in terms of confrontations rather than cultural borrowing and “influences.”

Gogol and Dostoevsky are the product of a confrontation between two precipitously joined aesthetic currents. The non-mimetic or metaliterary emphasis in their work is important to the history of the Russian novel because it mediates between these antagonistic currents. Mediation, like literary byt, is a primary agent of historical development in transitional periods like the forties, and a metaliterary strategy like stylization, with its attendant grotesquerie, can be studied in this context as a fundamental tool for literary change. It remains, however, to find an immediate literary context for Gogol and Dostoevsky, and the question arises, what mediating factors shaped their own relationships with European realism, with the native subculture, and, in the case of Dostoevsky, with his predecessor? (p. 37)

Belinsky had faltered twice in the course of his thirteen-year career: there was a period of conciliatory resignation to the inequities of society, prompted by an overzealous reading of Hegel; and a burst of optimism and renewed faith in Russian literature as art, precipitated by Dostoevsky’s Bednye ljudi. Except for these brief interruptions, he moved steadily toward an explicitly utilitarian aesthetic. To a degree, naturalism in Russia owes its insensitivity to considerations of craft and its developmental course to this evolution. The influence of Gogol and Dostoevsky in the forties would have been strikingly different were it not for Belinsky’s interpretation of their works, and undoubtedly the fate of many minor figures, including Butkov, was determined largely by the way in which their work accommodated or resisted Belinsky’s sympathies of the moment. Literary history is only now freeing itself from many distorted views of prose fiction in the forties which are attributable to his influence. (p. 48)

Bakhtin provided a way to accommodate both these currents within the forties. He had precisely the forties in mind when he said that “direct auctorial discourse was not possible” in periods which did not command a style. “Such styleless periods either go the way of stylization or revert to extraliterary forms of narration which command a particular manner of observing or depicting the world.” Belinsky and the imitators of the early forties saw the physiological sketch as precisely an extraliterary — in fact, non-aesthetic, scientific — manner of observing reality. Their prose was subject to all kinds of inappropriate influences (including the farce and melodrama) precisely because they thought they were writing what Bakhtin calls “directly intentional discourse,” or straight narrative, and were not on guard against stylistic intrusions. They were imitating, in good faith, the French physiologie, as the preceding generation had imitated the society tale. Most naturalists were innocent of the dangers of pollution from the native farce tradition. Even some of the older writers, like Dal’, seemed to be unaware of their dependence on highly “unscientific” techniques. Consequently most of these attempts to russify the imported sketch failed to come up with a smooth stylistic texture and integrated orientation. (p. 62)

Vinogradov’s extensive work on Pushkin’s prose style provides us with a detailed understanding of the journalistic emphases Butkov was “stylizing.” Pushkin’s language was a balanced, tasteful synthesis of Old Church Slavic elements, French, and the living national vernacular. The features Pushkin found repugnant in the prose styles of Polevoj, Senkovskij, and Dal’ derived from their disproportionate weaknesses for one or another of these elements. Polevoj embodied for Pushkin the bookish, twisted style of the “semi-intelligentsia” ["durnoe obshchestvo"] made up of seminarists, petty bourgeois, merchants, and gentry” …. Senkovskij’s weakness was the “cosmopolitan” glitter of the second rank of Petersburg salons where the Frenchified “idiom of the society lady” purveyed the tasteless excesses of French Romanticism under the July Monarchy. Dal’, the least objectionable of the three, was guilty of the ethnographer’s indiscriminate passion for raw dialect forms. However, as the thirties progressed, the literary sensibility which emerged to dominate journalism and most prose fiction betrayed more serious problems than ingenuousness, or growing pains. It was not simply a matter of exuberant lack of control in the face of mutually antagonistic lexical levels or stylistic postures. Pushkin perceived two deeper, chronic flaws. They lie behind the writing of the forties on a plane which must be considered more remote than Vinogradov’s second plane. …

One of these chronic flaws affected the way the new middle class conceptualized the word, and consequently its understanding of literary style as a component in imaginative literature. … The very concept of style gradually faded from the critical perception of Russian readers, as concern for “problem content” took its place. The word seemed to lose its stylistic and semantic associations, and finally, in the prose of the forties, the word was perceived as a flat label, bearing a one-to-one relationship to some “real” concrete referent. …

Vinogradov treats Pushkin’s second concern under the rubric “Western European thinking” (evropejskoe myshlenie) …. This was the influence of French syntax and lexicon on the literary language, prevalent since the victory of Karamzin’s “new style” in the early part of the century. A by-product of this influence was that Russian prose was committed to a stylistic substructure which derived from the rationalism of the eighteenth century. … Russia’s middle class writers and publicists were caught up in a tradition of humanistic realism they understood at best superficially. When they tried to assimilate it, they produced a prose idiom which was not only officious and tasteless, but informed by a boundless enthusiasm for ratiocinative processes. (pp. 124-5)

It is reasonable to suppose that Dostoevsky would have written “Bednye ljudi” had there been no current of reluctant naturalism, but it is not clear that he would have written “Dvojnik” without the half-decade of stylization which culminates in Butkov’s incipient doubles. Reluctant naturalists exploited the metaliterary emphases in the burlesque of the subculture in order to give expression to the principle of the “double” metaphor which they had perceived in Gogol’s stories. In their stylization of this literary raw material we can see, refracted, the component parts of Dostoevsky’s grotesquerie as well as the specific areas of the naturalistic literary sensibility with which he was concerned. For example, the bread and butter of the vaudeville writer, the pun, is a source of humor. But when it is perceived metaphorically, the pun is an impediment to mathematical clarity, the antithesis of the word-as-label. It undermines the notion that a word bears a one-to-one relationship to some stable referent in non-fictive reality, and thereby discredits the process of allegorization which is essential to perceiving a physiologie, for example, as a daguerreotype. Next, if we consider the glib banter or causerie of the feuilletonist, we discover the raw material which the reluctant naturalists fashioned into the narrative technique called skaz. A skaz narrator is chatty, often semiliterate. His commitments are discredited by his ingenuous pseudosophistication and pseudoscientism, and make a mockery of informative commentary, or serious social satire. He is unaware that his precarious control of his medium is exposing him, and in this he is a personification of the literary subculture. Ultimately, he is a cunningly contrived reflection of his reader. Bakhtin’s analysis of skaz narration as “double-voiced discourse” — whose intonational, syntactic, and other features are to be explained by “the intersecting of two voices and two accents within it” — defines the way this narrative mode functions as a metaphor for the principle of the double. We are dealing with the same intent as that we perceive in the use of empty masks and specious labels, namely, to frustrate allegorization. In this case, the effect is to confound the reader’s attempt to identify the narrative voice with any stable, human referent. (pp. 146-7)

I know that’s a lot of dense text, and at the same time not enough to give any real idea of his argument, but it may inspire someone to track down the book and work through it. I’m not normally a fan of literary theory, but I’m finding this enlightening and helpful as I read Dostoevsky’s Dvoinik (The Double), about which I’ll be posting soon.


  1. It’s very refreshing to see an analysis of literary process of the time in terms of language trends and confrontations rather than in a more traditional approach of the struggle between the slavophiles and the westernisers.

  2. I didn’t know the word rubric existed in English. In French rubrique and in Russian рубрика it roughly corresponds to column in eg newspaper. Is it widely used these days and in what predominant sense?

  3. It means ‘category, classification’, or more literally ‘heading (on a document)’, or in some contexts ‘rules, instructions’. It’s mostly used by academics and ecclesiastics.

  4. It’s very refreshing to see an analysis of literary process of the time in terms of language trends and confrontations rather than in a more traditional approach of the struggle between the slavophiles and the westernisers.

    Yes, exactly! I’m bored to tears with the traditional approach. Whatever juice was in that orange was squeezed out over a century ago.

  5. Obviously, it’s not the sense used in the passage, but I would think that the most common meaning of “rubric” in American English would be “standardized and explicit set of grading criteria,” as described here: http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/teach/rubrics.html

  6. marie-lucie says:

    In French rubrique … roughly corresponds to column in eg newspaper

    Not quite. Une rubrique is not a column as a part of layout, nor as a regular contribution by a “columnist”. It is more a regular though minor feature in a newspaper, especially a local paper which needs to include items of purely local and temporary interest, such as times of religious services, school events, minor accidents, lost pets, and the like.

  7. Well, the examples my dictionaries give seem to indicate it’s more like a regular column than you suggest: “rubrique sportive/littéraire/des spectacles sports/literary/entertainments column.”

  8. marie-lucie says:

    LH, perhaps, but “rubrique” to me does not sound very serious or in-depth. Topics are mentioned rather than discussed or reviewed.

  9. I understand that it is a huge, dense book and LH wouldn’t have time to see how the author corroborates his thesis. But for the future readers / commenters, I’d love ask about more details on the topic of “native baroque current which has been previously been suppressed” – what examples are given for these antecedents / what suppressed them. Presumably Hodgson picked the examples from the fairy-talish and moralistic reading enjoyed by the early XIX c. merchant class? But was it really home-grown / pre-Petrine in stylistics, as opposed to the popular sheets reading of Western and Southern Europe?

    My gut feeling of what changed between Pushkin on one hand and early Dostoyevsky and Gogol’ on the other is that the social fabric of St. Petersburg matured, with the continual growth and entrenchment of the imperial bureaucracy and sustained efforts to educate it – primarily that the broader middle classes got more acquainted with higher quality reading – that where one Nikolai Polevoy stood before, according to Hodgson (who transliterates the journalist / historician’s name as “Polevoj”), now there were Pleiades of aspiring authors, some with far greater talents than the early pioneers of “quality writing for the commoner classes”. Polevoy (who hasn’t been mentioned at LH before AFAIK) was a gifted ethnographer BTW, perhaps best remembered today for his eloquent arguing that Ukrainians were a profoundly distinct ethnicity from the Greater Russians. Pushkin, in criticizing Polevoy’s history of Russia, was understandably incensed by Polevoy’s caustic attacks on Karamzin, the maître and founder of the genre; but Pushkin also appreciated Polevoy’s gift of seeing trends and connections where Karamzin saw disjointed spectacular events and personalities. To Pushkin, this was a promising approach to history, but not quite driven to logical conclusion / still remaining too much dependent on the Western historiographical thought, particularly on then-hot-off-the-presses “Histoire de la civilisation en Europe” by François Guizot:

    Поймите же и то, что Россия никогда ничего не имела общего с остальною Европою; что история ее требует другой мысли, другой формулы, как мысли и формулы, выведенных Гизотом из истории християнского Запада

    [Making the second logical step now] and come to understand that Russia has never had anything in common with the rest of Europe; that its history requires a different idea and a different formula that the idea and and the formula deduced by Guizot from the history of the Christian West

  10. rubrique
    or perhaps section?

  11. marie-lucie: The German Rubrik seems to mean the same as the French rubrique in may respects. In particular it is not necessarily “a column as a part of layout”, as you put it.

    A Rubrik can be the heading of a column in a table or newspaper. It can also be a regular contribution written by a “columnist” in a newspaper, regardless of whether the contribution takes up one or many columns, or merely appears in a box.

    Rubrik also means a category in an off-the-cuff sense. Das gehört für mich in die Rubrik ‘barer Unsinn’ = “I would file that under ‘arrant nonsense’ “.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    Sashura: rubrique : or perhaps section?

    Not quite, since there may be many sections in a newspaper or magazine, while a rubrique is not just one section but one of a particular type.

  13. he, Collins says rubrique is 1/ column. 2/ section. You must be right, Marie-Lucie, there is a subtle difference.

  14. john emerson says:

    I’m back on Musorgsky, and his librettos are in the tradition of Gogol and Dostoevsky — grotesque, dark, but in intention in some way realistic. I think that it’s Musorgsky’s misfortune that operagoers aren’t generally looking for the kinds of operas he writes, and people who would like his operas, specifically the stories as opposed to the music (which is gorgeous) tend not to be operagoers.

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