Friday, April 10, 2009

'Time' Dostoevsky


In December 1859 Dostoevsky finally returned to Petersburg after 10 years in exile. He had two immediate concerns. The first was literature, and the second was money. Almost a year later, he and his brother Mikhail launched their journal, Time, in an attempt to provide themselves with an income, an outlet for Fyodor’s fiction, and a vehicle for their political views. With them on the editorial board, were the young critics Strakhov and Grigoryev. Between them the four men were known as the ‘movement of the soil’ or ‘the grassroots movement’. In addition to Dostoevsky’s writing, the journal published works by Turgenev, Ostrovsky, Nekrasov and Schedrin. The journal was well received by the public, with 4,000 subscribers in the first year; and the presence in it of works by the editors of their commercial rival The Contemporary, attests to the fact that at the beginning, Time was more closely allied to the Westernisers than the Salvophiles.

Between September 1860, and September 1864, Dostoevsky wrote four manifestos (the fourth was for the journal Epoch, which he founded on his own after the tragic early death of his brother). Notwithstanding the opinions expressed in his articles for the journals, and in the range of views of the other contributors, the manifestos are interesting as statements of intent, of editorial policy, an outline of his position, the general direction of his social and political thinking from this time onward.

In these manifestos, Dostoevsky positions himself between the Westernisers and the Slavophiles by combining their arguments. His position is a kind of resurgent Russian nationalism, which combines the best features of the Westernisers and the Slavophiles, Western science and Enlightenment progress with Orthodox cultural achievements.

He is at pains to minimise the fears of the Westernisers (the ‘theoreticians’) that Russian nationalism will mean the rolling back of the advances of Western science and the benefits from it. He insists that good ideas which come from the West must not be rejected but must be Russianised. As for the Slavophiles (the ‘doctrinaires’) he castigates them for their continual and devisive criticism of Russian weaknesses, and their insistence on raising the peasants to their level. Unlike the conservative and often frankly luddite Slavophiles he holds that native science will flourish when the necessity for it rises spontaneously from the people. By this time in the early ‘60s the Westernisers/Slavophile debate had moved on to the controversy between the ‘Fathers’ and ‘Sons’, and the plight of the post-emancipation peasantry. Dostoevsky’s attempt to unite both these parties may be seen as an attempt to reignite the burning issues of his youth, or as his misunderstanding of the new tenor of the times in the capital after his 10 years away from it, or as a sign that the old issues were still lingering in the new political climate under Alexander II.

Dostoevsky sees the way forward as a unity of the peasantry and the intelligentsia, and that the first step must come from the intelligentsia. He is at pains to stress that the positive introduction of a new idea is more important than the constant criticism and abuse of old ideas. His positive contribution is Union with our national source. He introduces the image of the soil in the first manifesto, intended as a kind of symbol of a bedrock of future progress, but gradually, the metaphor crystalizes, until it becomes literally ‘the soil’, much to the puzzlement of his critics, who are not sure what he means. For Dostoevsky, the soil is synonymous with the birthright of every Russian to own a piece of land: One cannot be a Russian without general right to land. This is a very subtle attack on those who naively thought that the question of the peasantry had been resolved by their emancipation in February 1861. In fact, the emancipation was only a legal gesture; the real plight of the peasant was just as miserable as before: stricken with poverty and ignorance, crippled with taxes and dues, and in debt to the landowning classes. Emancipation had done nothing in real terms to ease their lives because they had not been granted land, and no provision had been made for their education, thus leading the way for their economic regeneration and engagement in the cultural life of the nation. Dostoevsky’s vagueness on the meaning of the ‘soil’ is deliberate, partly to stay on the right side of the authorities (ever conscious of his status as former political prisoner) and partly in an attempt to gain as wide a readership as possible. (It must be remembered that Dostoevsky was a professional writer who needed to make a living, and that he indeed saw himself as such.)

What he was clear about, however, was the means to achieve this union with the national source, and that was: literature. Literature is today one of the main manifestations of our Russian life. Literature must remain free, from mediocrity, and from attempts by authority to control it. We are not afraid of authorities, and we despise servility in literature. We are for literature, we are for art. We believe in their independence and irresistible power. We obtained literature by our own efforts, it is a product of our own life, and that is why we love it so much and hold it so dear, why we pin our hopes on it.
It’s difficult, perhaps, for a modern Western audience to understand why the answer to social and political problems was sought in literature: why they pinned their hopes on it. Western intellectuals, since Sartre asked What is literature? have agonised over the role literature is to play in the political sphere; an agonising which comes from an initial distinction in the Western mind between the discourses of sociology/politics on the one hand, and the discourses of literature and literary criticism on the other. In the Russian mind, however, this distinction has never existed. Literature in mid 19th century Russia was part of the discourse of ‘social thought’, an overlapping of the discourses of philosophy, science, sociology, politics and literature best exemplified in the writings of Belinsky, Dobroliubov, Herzen and Chernyashevsky. Commentators of all kinds and in all periods have emphasised repeatedly the extraordinary power and force literature has in Russian culture to affect change. Readers looked to literature to provide answers and directions. Part of the great controversy around Turgenev’s novel, Fathers and Sons, for example, was that the author refused to provide answers, and left the authorial stance deliberately ambiguous. This open-endedness was an outrage, a betrayal of readers' cultural expectations.

The tone of these manifestos ranges from the polite and deferential to his readers, to the sarcastic, to the hectoring, idealistic, burningly sincere and savage attacks on what he calls ‘whistlers’ and ‘shouters’: those writers and critics who changed their tune according to their current employers’ policies. In the first manifesto Dostoevsky mentions 1812 as a force that united all classes of Russian society (this was a common contemporary trope), but it was also his personal experience of the people from his prison days that played a major role in the formation of his view that the way forward lay in unity between the intelligentsia and the peasantry, and that the latter had so much to teach the former. As he wrote in Notes from the House of Death: The best and most outstanding characteristic of our common people is their sense of justice and their desire for it…There is not much men of learning can teach the common people. I would even say the reverse: it is they who should take few lessons from the common people. His prison experiences put Dostoevsky in a unique position among the intelligentsia: he was practically the only surviving working writer who could boast of any prolonged and sustained contact with the peasantry, and his words were therefore stamped with personal truth. Even Tolstoy recognised this. “Tell Dostoevsky I love him”, he wrote to a mutual friend after reading Notes.

It’s difficult, in our post-fascist era, to read Dostoevsky’s remarks about nationalism, to accept their tone, with equanimity, but we must be careful to remember that he was writing from the other side of the chasm, from before the fearful damage that nationalism wreaked on Europe in the century after his death.

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