In the process of packing I keep running across books I’d forgotten about, and one was so pertinent to my recent focus I started reading it immediately, A Sentimental Journey: Memoirs, 1917-1922 by Viktor Shklovsky. He’s one of those seminal thinkers I keep running across and meaning to investigate, and reading the introduction I realize how important he was for Zamyatin, Mandelshtam, and other writers I care about. But I’m not here to talk about that now, I’m here to report on a far more obscure writer mentioned as an influence on him, Konstantin Leontiev (Константин Николаевич Леонтьев). Leontiev lived from 1831 to 1891 and was one of those uncategorizable, contradictory figures Russia specializes in, so much so that the three descriptions I’m about to quote are barely recognizable as the same person. First, Sidney Monas, from the Historical Introduction to the Shklovsky book:
In Russian literature, Shklovsky had as his particular and peculiar predecessor a lonely and almost forgotten genius, Konstantin Leontiev. For many years, Leontiev served as a Russian diplomat in the Turkish Mediterranean. Like the English and French romantics, he was impressed with the variety, the antiquity, the contrasts, the energy, the interlocking layered quality, the bewildering traces of contrasting past civilizations, the color, the vitality, the instability, the unreliability, the extreme cruelty, and the severe contrasts of asceticism and sensuality, the sheer raw material available to feed the imagination. Unlike his western European counterparts, however, Leontiev saw the East as the place where Russian values were fulfilled rather than reversed; the source of all Russian values, for Leontiev, was Orthodoxy, and the possibility of Orthodoxy in the East was a new kind of community very different from the western European power-state. Shklovsky does not exactly share Leontiev’s “Byzantinism,” but I believe that Leontiev, who was also, incidentally[,] a precursor of formalism in literary criticism, has influenced him in many ways.
Intriguing, no? Now extended quotes from two of the best books about Russian culture I know, James H. Billington’s The Icon and the Axe and D.S. Mirsky’s A History of Russian Literature. First Billington (pp. 440-441):
In some respects Pobedonostsev‘s social doctrine resembles the theory of “freezing up Russia to avoid rotting” contemporaneously being advanced by Constantine Leont’ev. He detested the tendency toward uniformity in “the Europe of railroads and banks…. of increasing material indulgence, and prosaic dreams about the common good.” Reminiscent of Nietzsche in his aesthetic antagonism to bourgeois mediocrity, which amplifies a sentiment already found in Herzen as well as Pisemsky and other anti-nihilist novelists of the populist era:
Is it not dreadful and humiliating to think that Moses went up on Sinai, the Greeks built their lovely temples, the Romans waged their Punic Wars, Alexander, that handsome genius in a plumed helmet, fought his battles, apostles preached, martyrs suffered, poets sang, artists painted, knights shone at tournaments—only that some French, German or Russian bourgeois garbed in unsightly and absurd clothes should enjoy life “individually” or “collectively” on the ruins of all this vanished splendor?
There will be no beauty in life without inequality and violence. To pluck the rose, man must be willing to pierce his fingers on the thorns. Even before the outbreak of the first Balkan War in the mid-seventies Leont’ev insisted that “liberal nihilism” has produced such “decrepitude of mind and heart” that what is needed for rejuvenation may well be “a whole period of external wars analogous to the Thirty Years’ War or at least to the epoch of Napoleon I.”
For aristocratic and aesthetic reasons, Leont’ev rebelled at all reforms, proposing a total return to the ritual and discipline of Byzantine rule. He died as a monk in the monastery of the Holy Trinity, bemoaning the end of the age of poetry and human variety.
And here is the extended essay by Prince Mirsky (himself a contradictory and tragic figure, who voluntarily returned to Stalin’s Russia to perish in the gulag, and whose book is still to my mind the best history of prerevolutionary Russian literature):
Constantine Nikoláyevich Leóntiev (1831-1891) studied medicine at the University of Moscow, where he came under the influence of the “philanthropic” literature of the time and became an ardent admirer of Turgénev. In 1851, under this influence, he wrote a play full of morbid self-analysis. He took it to Turgénev, who received him, liked it, and used his influence to place it in a magazine. But it was not passed by the censor. Turgénev continued patronizing Leóntiev and at one time considered him, next to Tolstóy, the most promising young writer of the time. In 1854, when Leóntiev was in his last year at school, the Crimean War broke out, and Leóntiev volunteered for the Crimean army as a military surgeon. He worked for the hospitals—and worked hard, for he was passionately interested in his work. About this time he developed a paradoxical theory of aesthetic immoralism that took strange forms at times—thus on two occasions, as he tells us in his wonderful memoirs, he encouraged marauding in the Cossacks of a regiment he was attached to. But he remained himself scrupulously honest. He was one of the few non-combatants connected with the Crimean army who had the opportunity of enriching themselves and did not.
So when the war was over he returned to Moscow penniless. He continued practicing as a doctor, and published, in 1861-62, a series of novels that had no success. They are not great novels, but they are remarkable for the fierce intensity with which he expressed in them, always in the most striking and provoking manner, his aesthetic immoralism. This strange immoralistic pathos is best of all seen in A Husband’s Confession, in which a middle-aged husband encourages the misconduct of his young wife, not from any idea of the “rights of woman,” but because he wants her to live a full and beautiful life of passion, ecstasy, and suffering. At this period of his life he began to be attracted by the Slavophils‘ respect for and love of the originality of Russian life, but their moral idealism remained quite alien to him.
In 1863 he was admitted to the consular service and was appointed secretary and dragoman to the Russian consulate at Candia [sic; should be Canea, modern Khania]. He did not stay long at Candia, for he soon had to be transferred for horsewhipping the French vice-consul. This, however, did not impede his career. He moved up the ladder of consular service with great rapidity, and in 1869 he was appointed to the important and independent post of consul at Yanina, in Epirus. All this time his behavior was far from exemplary. His hero was Alcibiades, and he tried to live up to his standard of a “full” and beautiful life. He lived passionately and expensively. He was always in some love affair—and confided them to his wife. She did not like it, and it would seem that these confidences were the cause of her mental illness, for after 1869 she became, with intervals, a permanent mental invalid. This was the first shadow on the wall. In 1871 came the next—the death of his mother, for whom he had a deep affection.
In the same year he was transferred to Salonika and almost immediately had a very severe attack of local malaria. He was in imminent danger, and on his bed of sickness he made a vow to go to Mount Athos to expiate his sins. As soon as he was well enough, he fulfilled his vow and spent about a year at Athos submitting to the severe rule of the monastery and to the strict spiritual guidance of an “elder.” From this time he recognized as sinful his life of the previous years and all his immoralistic writings and became converted to the most ascetic form of Byzantine and monastic orthodoxy. But his aesthetic immoralism remained in substance unchanged—it only bowed down before the rule of dogmatic Christianity. In 1873, finding himself in disagreement with Ambassador Ignátiev about the Græco-Bulgarian church schism, he left the consular service. Ignátiev, like the Slavophil he was, and like all official Russia, took the side of the Bulgarians because they were Slavs. To Leóntiev, the Bulgarians—Slavs or no Slavs—were democrats and rebels to their lawful spiritual lord the Œcumenical Patriarch. This was characteristic of Leóntiev—he had no interest in mere Slavdom. What he wanted was a firm conservatism in the matter of national originality and tradition, and of this he found more in the Greeks than in the Bulgarians…
[Here I omit a description of the development of his historical theories and the increasing difficulties of his personal life.]
…Still, in the last years of his life he found more sympathy than before. And before he died he was surrounded by a small number of devoted followers and admirers. This brought some consolation to his last years. He spent more and more time in Óptina, the most famous of Russian ascetic monasteries, and in 1891… he took monastic vows with the name of Clement. He settled in the ancient Trinity Monastery near Moscow, where he died in the same year.
Leóntiev’s political writings… are written in a vehement, nervous, hurried, disrupted, but vigorous and pointed style. The nervous uneasiness reflected in it reminds one of Dostoyévsky. But, unlike Dostoyévsky, Leóntiev is a logician, and the outline of his argument through the agitated nervousness of his style is almost as clear as Tolstóy’s… He hated the modern West, both for its atheism and for its democratic, leveling tendencies that destroyed the complex and varied beauty of social life. The chief thing for Russia was to stop the process of dissolution and putrefaction coming from the West. This is expressed in the words (attributed to Leóntiev, though they do not occur in his works): “We must freeze Russia, to prevent her from rotting.”…
In all Leóntiev did and wrote there was such a profound contempt for mere morality, such a passionate hatred of the democratic herd, such a violent assertion of the aristocratic ideal, that he has been more than once called the Russian Nietzsche. But Nietzsche’s impulse was religious, and Leóntiev’s was not. He was a rare instance in modern times (the thing was a rule in the Middle Ages) of an essentially unreligious man submitting consciously and obediently to the hard rule of dogmatic and exclusive religion. But he was not a seeker after God or after the absolute. Leóntiev’s world is a finite world, a world whose very essence and beauty lie in its finiteness and in its imperfection…
Though Leóntiev preferred life to art and liked literature in the measure it reflected beautiful, that is, organic and varied, life, he was perhaps the only genuine literary critic of his time. For, alone of all his contemporaries, he was capable of going to the essential facts of literary art apart from the message of the author. His book on the novels of Tolstóy… is, for its penetrating analysis of the novelist’s means of expression, the masterpiece of Russian criticism…
During the last years of his life Leóntiev published some fragments of his personal recollections, which for the general reader are his most interesting work. Their nervous style, their unlimited sincerity, and the great vividness of the story give them a unique place among Russian memoirs… It is truly “infectious.” The reader himself becomes part of the agitated, passionate, impulsive soul of Leóntiev.
Yet another name to add to my reading list…
Update (Feb. 2017). See now John Freedman’s Russian Culture in Landmarks post Konstantin Leontyev in Chalepa, Crete, Greece, which has a description of the town and Leontiev’s time there, translations of passages he wrote about the place and people, and a bunch of lovely, evocative photographs that make me want to return to Khania, where I spent a very happy few days thirty years ago.