Tuesday, April 21, 2009

'Time' Dostoevsky


In the series of 5 articles written for his journal Time between 1861 and 1863 Dostoevsky put forward his ideas on a number of important contemporary issues, chief among which include his aesthetics, the peasant question, and education.

Russian culture during the 1860s was riven by an argument between the Utilitarians and the Aesthetes similar to that of late Victorian culture. On the one hand were the Utilitarians, Chernyeshevksy and Dobroliubov in particular (both heavily influenced by the English Utilitarians), who demanded that literature should address the social questions of the day. On the other were the Aesthetes who held the opposite, that literature should only be concerned with itself, and that true literary genius cannot be found in ‘issue’ literature. Dostoevsky positions himself more on the side of the Aesthetes, and in doing so outlines his own aesthetic position.
Art is an intrinsic part of humanity: Creation is the fundamental principle of all art…and a necessary accessory of the human spirit. Beauty is an end in itself and needs no other purpose: Beauty is useful because it is beauty, because a constant need for beauty and its highest ideal resides in mankind.
The demand of the Utilitarians that art be subordinate to social purpose is a restriction of the freedom of the artist to choose his own subjects, and contrary to the nature of art itself, which is both an expression of and an answer to the need for beauty in humanity: Perhaps it is in this that the greatest secret of creative art lies: namely that the image of beauty created by art at once becomes something to be worshipped without any conditions. A work of art whose artistic value is compromised by extra-artistic concerns can have no other value either: Art will be true to man only if its freedom of movement is not hampered. The worth of art is best measured not by its aim, as the Utilitarians would have it, but by the fullest possible harmony between the artistic idea, and the form in which it is expressed, in a harmony between form and content, especially in the realms of specificity and authenticity. In order for a work of art to have true ‘usefulness’ it must be authentic, true to itself and its times. This is the mark of true art: it is always contemporary, vital and useful.
Apart from the social aspect of this debate, in terms of an aesthetics, Dostoevsky prefigures Oscar Wilde, who maintained: no work of art can be tried otherwise than by laws deduced from itself: whether or not it be consistent with itself is the question.

The peasant question was of course the most burning issue of the early part of the decade. Emancipation in 1861 had brought no real (economic or social) benefits to the peasants, and Dostoevsky and others were conscious of a huge rift between the intelligentsia, and the peasantry. On the one hand Westernisers wanted to raise the peasants to their level through education. On the other hand the Slavophiles had an idealistic, unrealistic attitude towards them. Dostoevsky is harshly critical of this didacticism inherent in both positions: The peasant will never never trust you. Do you really imagine that the common people won’t realize that although you seem terribly anxious to teach them something, you are also terribly anxious to conceal something from them because you think they are as yet unfit to have that knowledge? In place of paternalism Dostoevsky puts forward a fraternalism born of his own intimate knowledge of the peasants –unique among the intelligentsia- and of a more historical perspective. Social reformers who laugh at the peasant prejudices, without realising that the prejudices are dear to the peasants, do not look at things historically. He is adamant that before the people will listen to the intelligentsia, the latter must earn the love and respect of the former. The common people might find out that they have a lot to teach the intelligentsia. The intelligentsia need to approach the peasants on equal terms, and need to make the first move. For Dosteovsky, this unity of peasantry and intelligentsia will result in a new Russia, one that will embody…the extraordinary aspiration of the Russian tribe for universal human values.

Concommitant to this view of the peasant question, was the question of the education of the peasantry, another burning issue of post emancipation Russia. Dostoevsky is adamant that literacy should be available to all, not just the privileged peasants, as some of the Slavophiles held. If literacy is bestowed as a kind of privilege it will cause superciliousness and arrogance in people. The only way to prevent this is to make literacy available to everybody so that its privileged status is removed. Dostoevsky savagely derides the efforts of educators who seek to provide specially designed reading material for the masses in order to educate them into the national character, Russian history, basic hygiene and science. No real improvement will be accepted by the masses as an improvement, but rather as an act of oppression, unless the desire for such an improvement has arisen in the masses. The best way of stimulating such a desire for improvement is by promoting basic literacy first, but not of didactic reading material (beloved by the Utilitarians) but of reading material that is entertaining, true to itself, and meets the peasants’ own needs: Let reading be at first nothing but an entertainment for them, something they can enjoy; they will realise the usefulness of it all later.
This is quite in keeping with Dostoevsky’s aesthetics: It is in the nature of good literature to purify taste and reason. Good literature is in itself an education, namely, self-education: Without true serious and correct education, there appears at once a phenomenon in society which is harmful and pernicious to the highest degree: Knowledge without knowledge. It’s interesting to speculate what Dostoevsky would have made of our own powerpoint enslaved, bullet-point driven, hyperlinked, over-informed but intellectually lazy educational practices.

Dostoevsky’s non-fiction writing is highly dialogic, which is to say that his ideas are never presented in a straightforward exposition but always in response to an article by another critic in a rival journal. He engages directly with the other writers and journals and controversies of his time. Matlaw writes that Belinsky’s critical method is to expound the meaning as it appears to him, largely through comments on extensive quotations. His work gives the impression of having been improvised, written at white heat. It is prolix, ill organized, the style journalistic, obscure, confusing and often grating, but remarkably vigrous and direct. It might be a description of Dostoevsky’s own journalism. It’s not that Dostoevsky eschews logic in arriving at his conclusions but it’s that he prefers to lambast his readers and critics with withering sarcasm, passionate remonstrance and the irresistible fictionalising of opposing arguments into characters: the German smoking his cigar, the Frenchman superciliously nodding at everything. His polemical voice is characterised by digression, interruption, the assumption of different conflicting voices, epigrams, repetitions, jokes, and huge leaps in logic. At the same time he is careful to provide pointers and signal language so that the reader can follow the argument. This is by no means quiet skilful persuasion but passionate, loud urgent sincere argumentation, idealistic and practical together, never boring and never dry.

In April 1863, Strakhov, one of the team of critics on Time, ran an article on the Polish uprising. The article was deemed revolutionary, and the journal was shut down.

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