In Search of Russian Modernism.

This appears to be the season of Leonid Livak for me. I first wrote about him back in 2015 after reading his How It Was Done In Paris: Russian Emigre Literature & French Modernism, a book I still consult with profit and pleasure; last week I got A Reader’s Guide to Andrei Bely’s Petersburg and wrote about it here, and now Johns Hopkins University Press has sent me a copy of his In Search of Russian Modernism, which I had the good fortune of copyediting a couple of years ago. It’s rare that I reread books I’ve edited, but this is different: its argument was so original, and the discussion so dense, that I can only really appreciate it now that it’s sunk in a bit (and I’ve learned more about the period). I’ll quote some passages from the introduction so you can see what he’s up to (you can also read the JHU Press Blog newsletter post he wrote about it).

He begins by saying “the disintegration of the Soviet empire brought about the implosion of the established vision of twentieth-century Russian cultural history” and “unleashed a Copernican revolution in the study of Russian modernism,” then adds this personal anecdote:

Although this book had been long in the making, the impetus for writing came as I answered a student’s query about my reasons for excluding Leonid Andreev from a course on fin-de-siècle Russian culture. I reflexively justified the omission by the need to prioritize authors, chosen for a semester-long sprint according to their aesthetic, historical, and typological importance. On second thought, that explanation sounded hollow with respect to Andreev. I had to admit, above all to myself, that my choices had been dictated by the biases I had absorbed, in part, from the partisan canon codified by Russian modernists and later espoused by my own teachers as a counterweight to the official Soviet literary canon, and, partly, from that very Soviet canon whose aversion to the modernist sensibility of Andreev’s mature work had relegated him to the literary-historical periphery.

In general, Livak has a disarming willingness, rare in the touchy world of academics, to call attention to his own errors and biases. And I approve of his refusal to aim for totalizing explanations:

To be sure, my book will not propose a coherent revisionist picture of Russian modernist experience, since no overarching historical narrative is possible or indeed desirable, given the state of Russian modernist studies. Instead, I will interrogate the field’s methodological assumptions, removing the aura of certainty surrounding the analytical tools at our disposal and suggesting alternatives to the conventional ways of thinking Russian modernism. Nor do I intend to refute extant interpretations of modernist experience, for I am more interested in exposing their limitations. I will advocate for many “partial truths,” as Virgil Nemoianu puts it with reference to romantic studies, when he proposes “a framework inside which the truths of other scholars could can coexist,” provided one did not treat “romanticism” as “a fixed quantity [but rather] as a cultural process.”

He also deprecates the tendency of academics to treat past artists condescendingly, as if they could not see what is so obvious to us, pointing out that “the modernist artist was, more often than not, aware of the hyperbole and abstraction inherent in her concept of modernity.” He goes on:

It seems more productive to focus our inquiry on the varied uses, rather than the empirical veracity, of claims to the uniqueness of the historical circumstances informing the sensibility of a modernist cultural community, in Russia or elsewhere. Such a pragmatic approach to modernist self-modeling is justified by the fact that we are dealing here with symbolic behavior – “an intervention in the field of the politics of time” – as Peter Osborne calls modernist self-stylization […]. Debunking the rhetoric or specific tropes of modernist identity – be it disruption, impermanence, chaos, degeneration, or eschatological anxiety – as mythical, because unoriginal from a longue durée historical perspective, is a tautological exercise. This is because such critical deflation has been performed repeatedly by our own modernist research objects, who, nonetheless, imbibed the “hypertrophied historicism” of their culture as a mode of cognition. In contrast, exploring the uses and evolution of the imaginative language informing modernist self-fashioning, one ultimately arrives at a pragmatically functional methodology that offers a descriptive alternative to the definition-centered approach hitherto dominant in Russian modernist studies and grounded in the literal reading of self-legitimating practices among the carriers of the modernist sensibility.

I enjoy his casual swipes at leftist pieties: “In the culture of Russian Marxism – the intelligentsia’s fin-de-siècle offshoot that replaced the fetish of narod with the equally mythical figure of ‘the proletariat’…” And as a lover of maps, I approve of his use of cartography as the book’s “controlling metaphor”:

I cannot but agree, then, with Gabriel Josipovici that there is no “true story of modernism” but rather a multiplicity of stories, none of which can be told as a linear succession of significant events. This is because the significance of an event depends on the thematic filter through which we examine a national modernist culture. No story can do justice to life’s complexity. The description of cultural processes is no exception to this truism. Like cartography, which tells white lies about reality in order to produce usable maps, students of Russian modernism must rely on selection, simplification, enhancement, and other mapping tools in order to tell many complementary, and often contradictory, stories about their object of investigation. Each story, or map, would differ in accordance with the thematic filter generating it, making visible some actors, practices, and events, while obfuscating others, even though all such filters are applied to the same material circumscribed in concrete historical time and geographic space.

This is what I propose to do in my book. After a critical revision, in the first three chapters, of the extant terminology and mental cartography of Russian modernism, I will apply to its newly named and outlined “misty lands” two of the many possible thematic filters – those which appeal the most to my own intellectual curiosity thanks to their potential to yield maps that help us see more clearly in Russian modernist culture.

His main point is that in his framework, the “modernist” marker “does not refer to immutable qualities characterizing authors, ideas, practices, and artifacts”:

Calling an author, a text, a practice, or an idea modernist, I signal its place in Russian and transnational modernist culture at a given historical moment – a place that is most often fleeting, because no idea or practice is exclusive to modernism, and few individuals and artifacts retain their central position in a national modernist community throughout its existence.

He has a brief discussion of Bunin, “whose oeuvre has been read as antithetical to modernism” and who allied himself mostly with anti-modernists:

Yet his first poetic collection, Listopad (1901), was published by the modernist publishing house Skorpion, whose milieu Bunin frequented for a while, and where he was accepted, albeit grudgingly and condescendingly, as a figure from the periphery of modernist culture. And the story repeats itself after Bunin leaves Gorky’s faction, in 1906, becoming a contributor to the modernist journals Pereval, Fakely, and Zolotoe runo. Accepted in modernism’s less factionalist circles, Bunin was rejected as not “pure” enough by the militants at the culture’s core (to wit, the publishing house Sirin). It is no wonder that contemporaries struggled to define Bunin’s mercurial place, now excluding him from modernism, now listing him along with its prominent Russian and foreign representatives. The fact remains, however, that during his long artistic career Bunin experimented with a variety of styles and themes in poetry and prose, shuttling in and out of the modernist community in sync with his changing views and in pursuit of professional advantages.

I was particularly pleased to see that because I’ve been reading Bunin lately and marveling at how modern he seems: he’s often thought of as a follower of Chekhov (who in fact said in 1904 “Soon I will die, but as regards my place in Russian literature, I see a worthy successor in Bunin”), but his stories sound nothing like Chekhov’s and occasionally remind me of Pasternak’s prose, especially Detstvo Lyuvers [The Childhood of Luvers], with its focus on nature and its unexpected conjunctions of words, as in Bunin’s story Туман [The fog], where he describes the fog as “тоскливой аспидной мутью, за которой в двух шагах чудился конец света, жуткая пустыня пространства” [like a melancholy slate murk, beyond which the end of the earth seemed two steps away, a terrifying desert of space]. No premodern writer could have written that.

I could go on quoting, but by now you should have a decent idea of what it’s about. If you have any interest in questions like “who was a modernist?” and “is there any real dividing line between symbolism, acmeism, and futurism?” then you’ll want to read this book. My thanks go to Livak for writing it and to Johns Hopkins UP for publishing it (and doing a bang-up job, with no typos I’ve seen and a splendid cover).

Comments

  1. John Cowan says:

    This book surely is part of the Literaturwissenschaft you said didn’t exist (see link below), except in trivial matters.

    Nor do I intend to refute extant interpretations of modernist experience, for I am more interested in exposing their limitations. I will advocate for many “partial truths” […]. There is no “true story of modernism” but rather a multiplicity of stories, none of which can be told as a linear succession of significant events. This is because the significance of an event depends on the thematic filter through which we examine a national modernist culture. No story can do justice to life’s complexity.

    Polysemous meaning as an established fact.

  2. I’ve yet to personally read the entire book but i agree with you 100%

  3. (The above is a spam comment but I approved it after removing the spam link because it’s so cheerful and positive!)

  4. Speaking of spam, there was an era long ago when LH was flooded with supposed designer knockoff handbag spam. About when was that?

    (i agree with Camp Lo 100%)

  5. I had thought it was probably a decade or so ago, but when I did a site search on “prada” I got a hit from 2013.

  6. Right. Speaking of which, are there people who have turned spam into a form of art? I mean, there is a Hemingway of 140 characters, which is close, but not the same.

  7. @D.O.: When I was peripherally involved* with a group of white hat hackers, there was one guy who had a Web site posting bits of Nigerian 419 scam e-mails as “found art.” Unfortunately, I just checked, and the site no longer exists, and I have not been in contact with the proprietor for almost a decade.

    *I earned my membership in this particular white hat group not through any hacking skill. No, I was the guy willing to call up potential scam victims (and sometimes their relatives!) on the phone and try to talk them out of doing something stupid. (It was not easy for a shy person like me, cold calling people and explaining to them that they were being scammed, especially when I was also the primary caretaker for my infant daughter; and yet, somehow, that was the same time period in which I was most productive as a scientific researcher.)

  8. David Marjanović says:

    I’m almost nostalgic for the dead cocoa and GOLD merchants whose heirs wanted to park the inheritance on my bank account and give me a dozen megabucks. Only Mrs. Aisha Gaddafi still writes me almost every day.

  9. I do. I don’t have the book, but I would be interested to see how he defines modernism.
    And, closer to my interest, is there much in the book on the links between literature and visual arts?

  10. No, I’m afraid it’s entirely about literature (he says people have focused too much on the visual arts when discussing modernism).

  11. AJP Crown says:

    Sash, I thought exactly the same, and would very much like to know of such a book. The discussion about fin-de-siècle modernism – what the fuck is it? The whole point about the fin de siècle in art & architecture is that it celebrated invented decoration, the very antithesis of modernism (see Ornament & Crime, see also Loos’s criticism of Klimt, Joseph Hoffmann & the Gesamtkunstwerk). I’d also like to know how the connection (I’m sure there is one) between Russian Futurism (poetry) and Italian Futurism (more art & arch.) came about. Surely there are one or two people, probably Russians but not necessarily, who are responsible for exporting the literary and graphic ideas somewhere between 1910 and 1914.

    people have focused too much on the visual arts when discussing [the history of?] modernism
    – Pretty feeble. It’s not like we have to choose either-or. And in the visual arts, with the exception of Picasso & Duchamp, the modernist ideas that didn’t come out of Germany came from Russia, so it’s impossible not to discuss.

  12. That’s why I was asking! The book is Camilla Gray’s ‘The Russian Experiment in Art 1863-1922’. It came out in 1962, Thames & Hudson. My edition is from 1986 with extensive appendix containing additional information and corrections to Gray’s original research. Gray tragically died in the Soviet Union, but her work reopened Russian avant-garde for the West and probably for Russia as well.

    It is mostly about art but she looks at it as part of an overall cultural process including literature, design (including in publishing, textile and porcelain) architecture, cinema, and to some extent music. She also mentions the role of various mécénats and explores the links between West European and Russian schools/movements, including futurism.

    I bought it in late 90s but it waited for more than ten years before I got round to reading it – and couldn’t stop. Now it has more bookmarks and scrap-notes than it has pages.

  13. Pretty feeble. It’s not like we have to choose either-or. And in the visual arts, with the exception of Picasso & Duchamp, the modernist ideas that didn’t come out of Germany came from Russia, so it’s impossible not to discuss.

    Dude, he’s a literary scholar writing about literature; why on earth should he be under any obligation to discuss art? If he tried, what on earth could he say that would be of interest?

  14. but AJP Duchamp von Kandinski still has a point. You read Chekhov and you see Levitan, you read Bunin or Alexei Tolstoy (e.g. Blue Cities) and you see Serov. You read Bely and you see Art Nouveau (стиль Модерн) buildings. You read Mayakovsky and you see Lissitsky’s or Rodchenko’s work. You try to figure out Khlebnikov and you see Malevich.
    A few weeks ago I was discussing a painting by an artist friend of mine. It had themes that I thought were Biblical, and I said so — and he suddenly started talking of The Grand Inquisitor. Remember how Grossman uses evocations of great art, not mentioning the images themselves, but painting them with words, the bit when he is describing the emotions of soldiers about to attack at Stalingrad?

    No obligation, but even for the most pedantic scholar of literature, it would help if a wider artistic context is mentioned.

  15. But the wider artistic context is not neglected — that’s all anyone talks about! The whole point is to redress the balance and draw attention to the literary developments, which have been shamefully misanalyzed. The mess needs to be cleared up, and Livak is making a good start.

  16. oh, good! Messy it has been, especially with modernism being a cliché for ‘mercantile bourgeois trinketry’.

  17. AJP Crown says:

    Art Nouveau (стиль Модерн) – Ha. I didn’t know this was the translation.

    mercantile bourgeois trinketry – haha.

    Thanks for the book, Sash. I’ve ordered it.

    why on earth should he be under any obligation to discuss art? If he tried, what on earth could he say that would be of interest?

    Dude! No obligation, but it helps everyone a) to show that art & literature aren’t created in a vacuum, the links between them are as important to our understanding as links to politics, to poverty & society and to anything else are… and b) to map out the links.

  18. But he doesn’t care about those links, and neither do I. Not everybody is interested in everything. Believe me, it’s enough work trying to separate out the hopelessly entangled names for the alleged styles that have confused everyone trying to discuss Russian symbolism/acmeism/futurism/neoromanticism/whatever for the last century!

  19. AJP Crown says:

    All I’m saying is it would be nice for some of us to see the connections, but I’m hoping Sashura’s book will ameliorate that for me. I continue to believe it’s important (what about links from both sides to Russian cinema, for ex.) and knowing who’s NOT interested is just so, so… negative.

  20. Do report on the book when you read it!

  21. Stu Clayton says:

    You’ve got to accentuate the positive
    Eliminate the negative
    Latch on to the affirmative
    Don’t mess with Mister In-Between

  22. ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE ~ Johnny Mercer & The Pied Pipers.
    (For those who don’t know the song.)

  23. AJP Crown says:

    Yeah, I will. I may even inflict a copy on you.

    There’s a really good jazz station here, NRK Jazz, that’s right now this minute playing that Johnny Mercer stuff.

  24. Trond Engen says:

    NRK Jazz

    That’s my favourite channel too. It’s what I listen to in the car. Or would have if my wife hadn’t turned it off three fifths of a second after I turn the key.

  25. AJP Crown says:

    Ha! Same in our car.

  26. Trond Engen says:

    My wife wants me to relay a nod of solidarity to yours. We should meet and sit silently in a car all four of us.

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