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Short Reviews

Phenomenology and Art

by José Ortega y Gasset, translated by Philip W. Silver
Norton, 220 pp., $8.95

Russia Under the Old Regime

by Richard Pipes
Scribner’s, 361 pp., $6.95 (paper)

Ortega was thirty-one in 1914 when he published his first and best work, Meditations on Quixote, a revolutionary attempt to create through Cervantes’s “way of looking at things” a new and distinctive Spanish philosophy. This was a bold undertaking, Ortega’s countrymen traditionally preferring the sensual to the intellectual. To complicate matters further Ortega had been schooled in Germany, was a follower of Brentano and Husserl, and an adept in the then virtually unknown discipline of phenomenology. The Meditations, nevertheless, not only changed the mental habits of Spain, bringing it into the twentieth century, but also initiated Orgega’s debut on the stage of world culture.

The finest of the essays presented in this collection, “Sensation, Construction, Intuition,” “On the Concept of Sensation,” and “An Essay in Esthetics” (all three dating from the period when he composed the Meditations) are brilliant, manly, and difficult. Ortega is a vigorous writer, always determined to make an impact. His general preferences are easy enough to state. For instance, this typical cautionary note concerning his vitalist philosophy: “It is essential as Europeans adopt the point of view of life, of the Idea of Life, itself an advance over intellectualism, that they not let go of reason in the process.” Where things become dark and incantatory is in the subtle modifications, embellishments, and illustrations that Ortega’s racy temperament, Latin to the core, produces when the attacks metaphysical or psychological problems per se. Philip Silver, in his introduction, claims that these essays help us “to judge his originality and place him within the phenomenological movement as a whole.” That’s not quite so. Ortega resists assimilation. He stands alone, potent and idiosyncratic, not really part of any group, though always a voice to be reckoned with.

An excellent introduction, painstaking and enjoyable, to the gigantic backwater of Russia up to the 1880s. Pipes has a general scheme based on a theory that “patriarchal” forms have continuously determined the country’s development, after 1917 as before, and he gives many examples of pre-Soviet informers, forced labor, punishment exacted in a criminal’s family, and so forth. But this is an insignificant aspect of the book, compared with Pipes’s elaboration of the eternal difficulties of Russian agriculture and the ironies of an all-powerful state bureaucracy which, nevertheless, owing to population diffusion and lack of government funds, remained a thinly spread pack of petty thieves during this period. Of special interest is the book’s rather caustic discussion of “feudalism” and the anomaly that Russian serfdom—in various complicated forms which Pipes manages to make sense of—rose in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as its Western European counterparts were being abolished.

On the psychology of the Russian peasant himself, Pipes is unusually interesting, not only because he underlines the muzhik‘s fear and mistrust of the outside world, but because, quite unlike most other scholars, he repeatedly stresses the urge of the peasant to leave the land if not prevented and the pervasive tradition of commercial activity dating from the Scandinavian-founded Kievan Rus. The latter part of the book, which deals with the Church, the intelligentsia, and the failures of Russian liberalism, is less original and less concerned with particular cases.

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