Lydia Iakovlevna Ginzburg is not a name widely known outside Russia except to Slavists, but this excellent translation of perhaps her most important book, On Psychological Prose, should help to introduce her to a larger public. Until a few years before her death in 1990, when she was eighty, one could hardly say that her reputation was widespread even in Russia, except in scholarly circles. There she was highly respected as the author of a series of impressive studies of Russian writers, including Lermontov (1940) and Alexander Herzen (1957), as well as on such broader literary subjects as the Russian poetic tradition (On the Lyric, 1964).
The present book, however, brought her increased attention when it was first published in 1971 because it deals with both Russian and Western European writers in a manner running completely counter to the Marxist-Stalinist insistence on the inherent virtues of the Russians and the inherent short-comings of the Europeans. On Psychological Prose treats Vissarion Belinsky, Nikolai Stankevich, Turgenev, and Herzen on equal terms with the Duc de Saint-Simon (not the Utopian Socialist of the 1800s, but his great-uncle, the memoirist of the court of Louis XIV whom Proust so much admired) and the Rousseau of the Confessions. Tolstoy, who dominates the last three chapters, is discussed along with Benjamin Constant (Adolphe), Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, and Proust.
Soviet Russian readers were not accustomed to such impartial and judicious handling of foreign writers, who were most often denounced rather than studied, even in the work of specialists. Moreover, the book ends with a chapter on the question of individual moral responsibility as raised by Tolstoy—a question that was not supposed to trouble good Soviet citizens since it had been answered once and for all by the Bolshevik Revolution. So Ginzburg’s subtly subversive emphasis gave her presumably innocent work of scholarship a distinct ideological edge.
The young Lydia Ginzburg’s circle of friends included both her Russian Formalist teachers at the Institute of the History of Arts in Leningrad (Boris Eikhenbaum and Yuri Tynianov among others), and many of the leading Russian writers of the 1920s and 1930s such as Mayakovsky, Blok, and Mandelstam; she was especially close to Anna Akhmatova. Teaching at the institute herself until it was closed by Stalin in 1930, Ginzburg then found work teaching adult education courses in factories and wrote a detective novel, The Pinkerton Agency, for adolescents. Between 1947 and 1950 she obtained a post at Petrozavodsk University north of Leningrad, one of the provincial schools considered safer for Jewish intellectuals in those years than institutions in the larger cities. The publication of her memoirs, based on the journal she kept all her life, brought her additional fame in the 1960s, and she continued to produce books and articles throughout the 1970s.1
Her considerable personal influence is evoked in an essay by Irina Paperno (now teaching at UC Berkeley): “For us,” she writes,
the generation that began to study literature in the 1960s and 1970s, conversations with Lydia Ginzburg became one of the most important parts of our education…. Informal as they were, these conversations were always experienced as events, for in this way Lydia Iakovlevna included the younger generation in the oral tradition of cultural inheritance, into the “domesticity” of Russian cultural life.2
Ginzburg thus became a link with the past for the younger people who were devoted to her; and for many years she also held open house for the foreign Slavists and students who sought to penetrate beneath the frozen Soviet surface. In 1988, two years before her death, she was awarded the Lenin Prize, at a time when, as one writer acidly remarked, it was no longer a disgrace to receive this honor.
On Psychological Prose may prove somewhat disconcerting to Western readers because the word “psychology” is usually taken here to mean a study of inner, private lives. One might expect yet another book about what Erich Kahler called “the inward turn of narrative,” the movement of prose literature from epic heroics and picaresque travels to the exploration of states of feeling and, ultimately, the stream-of-consciousness. Ginzburg, however, uses the term in the sense of “social psychology,” the ways in which character and personality are formed from myriad impressions, sensations, and feelings, under the influence both of internal needs and external models. These models are usually derived from the social norms of a particular period and, very often, from the type of personality-ideal expressed in the literature of that period. Ginzburg thus sees a very fluid boundary between literature and life, and speaks of an “aesthetic potentiality” present everywhere in social life itself. (She uses the word “aesthetic” in a very broad and rather vague sense, to mean the organization of experience according to one or another dominating idea or ideal, which then becomes self-conscious in art.)
For Ginzburg all of human existence is filled with principles of organization that give it form and structure, and “social man” comes into being by absorbing “shared norms and ideals, images that not only have a social function but that also possess aesthetic coloration.” To show how the rituals of social life embody part of this inbuilt “aesthetic potentiality,” Ginzburg points to parades, uniforms, and the ceremonial dress obligatory for certain official duties. She also stresses the “mutual interpenetration in life and in literature of images of personality”—so that a work such as Werther could cause a wave of suicides. Ginzburg’s attempts to correlate art and social life in this way have produced a new approach to Russian culture called “the semiotics of behavior”—a study of the ways in which literary models and historical reality interact. And she has been hailed as a pioneer by numerous scholars who have applied and developed her suggestions.3
Since art and social life mutually affect each other in forming images of personality, Ginzburg takes a special interest in types of writing that arise directly, without any artistic intention, from social experience. The first section of her book is devoted to the stormy and painfully revealing correspondence between the literary critic Vissarion Belinsky and the young Mikhail Bakunin (not yet the anarchist and all-destroying revolutionary); the second to writers of memoirs and autobiographies such as Saint-Simon, Rousseau, and Herzen; the third to novelists who are able to write without the responsibility to fact that constrains the others. This progression obviously represents an increasing degree of self-consciousness and autonomy in transforming social experience into aesthetic images; but Ginzburg is very far from considering such freedom as unconditional as might at first seem the case.
On the contrary, she values semi-documentary genres precisely because they have a freedom of their own—a freedom from prevailing aesthetic standards and conventions. Artists tend to conform to the dominant social, cultural, and aesthetic standards of their time, and they seldom break free of the conventions governing contemporary novels, poems, and stories. But “literature located outside traditional canons,” Ginzburg remarks, “is sometimes able to furnish unusual, even startling insights into spiritual life, thereby anticipating the future discoveries of artists.”
The correspondence between Belinsky and Bakunin from the 1840s, in her view, thus prepared the way for the Russian social-psychological novel of the 1860s and 1870s; memoirs and autobiographies made possible a new understanding of individual personality quite outside the literary practice of their time, and, in the case of Alexander Herzen’s memoirs, to a sense of individual character as defined by, and expressive of, a historical or ideological situation. For Ginzburg, such tendencies then converge in the social-psychological realism of the classic Russian novel and particularly in Tolstoy. Her book thus has an external structure deriving from the distinction between artistic and documentary prose, as well as an internal one that traces her own distinctive view of this historical and literary evolution, culminating with the works of Tolstoy. The internal account is by far the more interesting, and it is regrettable that Ginzburg does not give it greater emphasis.
At first sight, the correspondence between Belinsky and Bakunin (as well as between other members of what was known as the Stankevich circle) may seem to have little interest except to students of Russian literature. In fact, Ginzburg uses it to illuminate one of the most widely noted and distinctive features of the nineteenth-century Russian novel, as compared with those produced in the West. It is soon evident to any of its readers that virtually all the great characters of Russian literature are portrayed not only as individuals with particular traits and temperaments, but also as the self-conscious bearers of certain ideas and social-cultural attitudes that give them a particular historical significance.
Turgenev’s Rudin, modeled on the young Bakunin, is not only an unhappy nobleman too weak to elope with the young woman he loves but also a Romantic Idealist “superfluous man” of the 1840s, whose weakness is typical of the social impotence of his class and generation. Pierre Bezukhov in War and Peace is not only the bumbling, good-hearted scion of Russian high society betrayed by his naiveté into a disastrous marriage but someone whose Masonic affiliations and devotion to his fellow-prisoner, the peasant Platon Karataev, reflect important tendencies in Russian culture. Raskolnikov is not only a desperate young man who commits murder to break out of an oppressive personal situation but he does so under the influence of the radical ideas that were, as Dostoevsky said, “in the air” of his time.
Critics have often explained that in tsarist Russia arguments about such political and philosophical matters could be carried on only in novels, which, as a source of amusement and recreation, enjoyed a certain freedom from political constraint, and in which dangerous thoughts could be implied or suggested rather than stated, or imputed to fictional characters. There is a good deal to be said for this explanation; but it will now have to be supplemented by the more sophisticated perspective that Ginzburg provides.
Tracing the “conception of man” worked out by the Russian intelligentsia of the first third of the nineteenth century, in its movement from German idealism to one or another form of materialism and supposedly scientific determinism, she writes:
First came the romantic idealization of personality, then the meticulous investigation of that personality in terms of philosophical categories, and finally the transition, especially clear-cut in Belinsky, to realistic determinism—the analysis of the individual human being in relation to his social conditionality [i.e., to the most minute, prosaic, and down-to-earth details of his daily existence].
The second and third stages of this process were the most important, and it is very easy to be amused and astonished at some of the examples that Ginzburg produces of how the most abstract philosophical concepts became intermingled with the most elemental experiences of human existence. One of Bakunin’s sisters, for example, who had become engaged to the poet and philosopher Nikolai Stankevich just five weeks before his death, sat beside his corpse and consoled herself by writing (in German) that “in and of itself the material world is nothing but only through its internal union with the spirit has my being, my I, received its reality,” continuing with several more pages on the relation of the finite and the infinite.
Herzen, in a famous passage of My Past and Thoughts, later described the 1840s as a time when “everything in fact spontaneous, every simple feeling, was raised to an abstract category and brought back without a drop of living blood, as a pale algebraic shadow…” Herzen’s mockery was justified, as Ginzburg sees it, but it tells only part of the story. For “this habit of detailed and at the same time generalized examination of psychic life laid the groundwork” for what became the Russian novel, whose outstanding feature is “that in it ideology permeates the material of ordinary social life, and that the facts of private life are raised to the level of philosophical generalization.”
During the 1840s, to be sure, “ordinary social life” had hardly been touched at all by such reflections. It was Belinsky who finally brought it into view, and whose letters Ginzburg analyzes with great detail and acuity to show how he gradually broke free from the metaphysical dualism produced by Idealist thought. Instead of relegating the practical and the empirical to a status inferior to that of the Spirit, the plebeian Belinsky, forced to earn his living as a critic by turning out monthly articles, found it impossible to forget about such trivial matters as money (as his gentry friend Bakunin did all too easily). Bakunin paid no attention to “finite” personal debts, which shrank to insignificance beside his “infinite” mission to spread the gospel of the Spirit. When Belinsky reproached him for his negligence, he replied that he had seen “evidence of eternal degradation in [Belinsky’s] letter about scrupulousness and kopecks….”
“You do not even want to hear about kopecks,” Belinsky retorted, “but you want to have them—it makes no sense. You speak only of the inner life, but you pay a significant tribute to the external one; it is not logical.”
For Belinsky, individual moral responsibility extended to every aspect of life, even that of “the despised kopecks.” By insisting that idealist notions must be anchored in ordinary reality, as Ginzburg writes, he “enlarged the responsibility of creative endeavor to the whole of life’s content.” Ginzburg thus maintains that
the intellectual life of the Russian intelligentsia of the 1830s and 1840s was the medium in which were first crystallized those ideas that later found expression in the spiritual experience and writings of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
In fact, many similarities exist between the moral and spiritual crises discussed in the letters of Belinsky and his friends and those appearing later in both the life and work of the two great Russians. The famous passage in which Belinsky passionately protests against the sacrifice of the individual to the Hegelian Universal undoubtedly influenced Ivan Karamazov’s refusal to accept the injustices of God’s world in his conversation with his brother Alyosha about the suffering of innocent children. The resemblances are striking, and Ginzburg is by no means the first to point them out; but she gives Dostoevsky’s use of Belinsky fresh importance as part of a more general thesis.
But sometimes Ginzburg is carried away by her doctrine that documentary literature anticipates the novel. It is simply not true that Belinsky’s emphasis on ordinary social circumstances, and what she calls their “cause-and-effect” relation to personality, “were still beyond the reach of the novel of the first third of the nineteenth century.” Belinsky’s letters, to be sure, were published (and even then partially) only in 1875; but the impact of his critical articles had been felt long before then. In Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk (1845), which Herzen praised as the first Russian social (and Socialist) novel, the lives of the characters are deeply affected by their humiliating poverty and inferior social position. No wonder that Belinsky rapturously hailed the book, for reasons that Ginzburg helps us to appreciate more fully. But her eye is too much on Belinsky’s letters and too much on Tolstoy to give Dostoevsky the credit he deserves for this early achievement.
Beginning with the early nineteenth century, Ginzburg’s book then goes back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to deal with Saint-Simon and Rousseau, and then returns to her starting point with Herzen. Saint-Simon, whose memoirs describe life in the court of Louis XIV and the first eight years of Louis XV, was undoubtedly the greatest portraitist of individual character up to his own time: his unprecedented images break all the rules of the reigning literary genres and the conventions of a polite society governed by the most rigid etiquette. At the climax of his portrait of a highly placed court charmer, he notes her heavy jowls and rotting teeth; the brother of the king, the duc d’Orleans, was “a small, pot-bellied man mounted on stilts, so high were his heels, who always dressed like a woman, all in rings, bracelets, and jewels of every kind….” One easily understands why the manuscript he left lay buried in the files of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs for seventy years after his death, and even then was published only in fragments.4
Saint-Simon thus was one of the first writers to react against the prevailing literary codes, and to loosen social and cultural constraints by direct empirical observation. In this respect he may be seen as a distant precursor of the nineteenth-century novel. But he was still a man of his time, who continued, as Ginzburg writes, to see personality as a “mechanistic assortment of qualities governed by passions”; one succeeded the other, and there was no connection between them. He had no awareness of what she calls the “fluidity of consciousness,” the manner in which contrary tendencies could exist in a single personality and form a unity, even if a contradictory one. By contrast, Rousseau’s great accomplishment in his Confessions was to show how personality is modified by all the circumstances and impressions that impinge on a person’s life.
For Ginzburg, Rousseau’s grasp of the complexity of these pressures is what make him so important a forerunner of the nineteenth-century novel. In turning down, despite his poverty, an offer to meet the king and accept a royal pension, Rousseau gives a variety of reasons that Ginzburg summarizes as follows:
Thus his bladder affliction, his awkwardness and confusion in society, his love of liberty, and his dread of taking trouble all stand, simultaneously, as reasons for his decision. Rousseau revealed the presence of a multiplicity of coexisting impulses deriving simultaneously from different sources—the physiological, the psychological, the social—in as much as the individual is subject to the influence of all these spheres at once.
Rousseau brought the same type of what we now call “overdetermined causality” to bear on the less edifying aspects of his life, for which, as Ginzburg notes, he judged himself very harshly, while implicitly excusing himself through the very profuseness of the enumeration of his weaknesses.
Ginzburg then turns to Herzen’s My Past and Thoughts, to which she had devoted her much appreciated book in 1957, and concentrates on the “conscious historicism” that pervades this magnificent autobiographical panorama of Russian culture between the 1820s and the 1860s. No such conscious grasp of their own historical situation can be found in either Saint-Simon or Rousseau, while for Herzen, steeped in Hegel, the historical moment was the very air he breathed. His awareness of history, as Ginzburg illuminatingly shows, penetrates to the most intimate details of private life (his own as well as others’), so that social and historical considerations cannot be separated from psychological ones.
Herzen’s friend Nikolai Ketscher, for example, a member of the intelligentsia, married a poor, uneducated orphan girl brought up by Old Believers, and who thus “possessed all the prejudices of esoteric religion and all the fantastic notions of old Russian society.” The marriage was a disaster; and Herzen typically turns this private mishap into “the clash of two different cultural stages, of two different ‘ages of man.’ ” The infidelity of his own wife, who betrayed him with the radical German poet Herwegh, caused Herzen agonies of grief; but for him it was more than a personal tragedy, it was a clash between “two different historical formations”—a naively idealistic and trusting Young Russia and a treacherously corrupt bourgeois West.
Herzen’s work was thus an indispensable step toward the historical self-awareness that marked the grasp of character of the Russian novel; and Ginzburg also sees an even closer link between Herzen and Tolstoy in the similarity of their narrative manner. Both use an explanatory commentator (Herzen as himself, Tolstoy as thirdperson observer) who “theoretically explains the general patterns that governed the acts, gestures and words” of a particular character before illustrating these patterns through the scenes and dialogue that follow. This is a well-known trait of the Tolstoyan narrator, and clearly distinguishes him as quite different from Turgenev’s unobtrusive narrators or Dostoevsky’s unreliable ones.
For Ginzburg, the great period of the Russian novel peaks with those of Tolstoy, which are “the high point of nineteenth-century analytical, explanatory psychologism.” All the developments she has been tracing thus far culminate in Tolstoy, and she argues that he gave them “a fundamental change in…direction.” Just what this change involves is not very clear, though it seems to mean the final eradication of the boundaries between documentary and artistic literature, and with this the attainment of a hitherto unexampled freedom and range (at least in the novel) in depicting personality. “The documentary nature of Tolstoy’s psychological inquiries,” she writes, “freed his heroes from the strict laws governing artistic modeling of the individual human being.” This does not mean that Tolstoy was writing autobiography instead of novels; but she insists that the close relations between his personal diaries and his novel are more than merely an incidental fact of his creative life. For Tolstoy’s heroes “not only address the same problems of existence that he addressed, but…they address them in the same psychological form and in relation to virtually the same circumstances that he himself was faced with.”
Ginzburg realized, of course, that realism in the novel already had a history, but she tries to show that a true, “explanatory” realism in relation to personality had not been achieved in the past. The novelists she discusses are all French (Mme. de Lafayette, Constant, Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert); she seems to know little of English literature, where the realist novel (Defoe) arose directly out of journalism and has a different history (from documentary literature to the novel) from the one she traces. Her suggestive point about the French novel is that, beginning with La Princesse de Clèves and even including Stendhal and Balzac—who began to see personality as shaped by historical and social circumstances—the characters’ central conflicts are invariably conceived as a “clash” between “the opposing principles” of passion and duty, ambition and love, patriarchal moral values and social success. It is only in Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale that a novel’s psychological analysis begins to approach the minute dissection of opposing velleities, impulses, and rationalizations that were initiated much earlier by Rousseau and perfected by Tolstoy.
To illustrate her argument, Ginzburg provides a telling analysis of the great final scene, in which Frédéric Moreau rejects the temptation to make love at last to the now white-haired Mme. Arnoux, the ideal woman of his lifelong desire:
Frédéric suspected that Madame Arnoux had come to offer herself to him, and once again he was seized by a furious, ravening lust, stronger than any he had known before. But he felt something inexpressible, a repulsion, and something like the dread of incest. Another fear held him back, that of feeling disgust later. Besides, what a problem it would be! And impelled simultaneously by prudence and by the desire not to degrade his ideal, he turned on his heel and started to roll a cigarette.
It is the very multiplicity and contradictoriness of this tangle of motives—the effect of growing older, the sudden eruption of lust, dread of incest, bourgeois prudence, a last shred of Romantic idealization—that determine Frédéric’s response, which Mme. Arnoux takes for “chivalry.” What Flaubert still lacks, however, is the socio-historical dimension; and though the revolution of 1848 is part of the novel’s background, Ginzburg says quite accurately that “the historical atmosphere surrounding the hero of L’Education Sentimentale does not penetrate very deeply into his spiritual experience.” History was not an essential element in the construction of personality for Flaubert as it would be for the Russians.
Having celebrated Tolstoy for the unprecedented density and complexity of his social and psychological analysis—so unprecedented, indeed, that contemporary critics, joined by Turgenev, often upbraided him for the “superfluity” of his details—Ginzburg goes on to speak of a “pre-Tolstoyan” period in the history of the novel. Tolstoy thus, in her view, created a new era in the novel, and her claim recalls the very similar one made for Dostoevsky by Mikhail Bakhtin, against whom, one suspects, she is carrying on a concealed polemic.
Ginzburg wrote with great respect of Bakhtin elsewhere, without concealing her resistance to his idea (in fact highly exaggerated) that Dostoevsky’s “polyphony,” the presumed liberty with which he allows his characters to express their own points of view, precludes the author’s dominance over his novel.5 And in a classic gambit of Russian criticism, she contrasts the two writers in order to justify her view of Tolstoy as the superior artist. “If psychologism means the investigation of spiritual life in all its contradictions and depth,” she admits, “then it would be odd, to say the very least, to exclude Dostoevsky.” But he went his own way, and “departed from classical nineteenth-century psychologism, the basic principle of which was explanation, whether explicit or concealed.” Dostoevsky’s main characters all act according to motives that come from a dominating idea, and they are more or less removed from the ordinary routine of life that Tolstoy explores so minutely. Nor, as Ginzburg put it elsewhere, did Dostoevsky believe it possible (or desirable) to account for human behavior, as Tolstoy does, by tracing its many interrelated and determining causes.6
For Ginzburg, then, Tolstoy was the founding father of the modern novel, and she insists that “one may find in him the seed of everything that twentieth-century literature would later elaborate to the full extent…” Among such features, she lists the “stream of consciousness” (as in Anna’s inner monologue on the way to the station where she throws herself under a train), “the unconscious, the subterranean currents of conversation, and the use of extended, vividly marked details.” Ginzburg refers disparagingly to the view (first proposed by Dostoevsky himself) that Tolstoy “is a classic who belongs irrevocably to the past”; but she sometimes seems to acknowledge that her own view may not be persuasive today. With a distinct sense of pique, she writes that contemporary man “finds it more interesting to conceive of himself in Dostoevskian terms, since doing so allows him to focus his attention on himself.”
In a chapter on “direct discourse” Ginzburg examines at great length Tolstoy’s method of explanatory narration, and increases one’s suspicion that Ginzburg is implicitly debating with Bakhtin; for this is precisely what Bakhtin saw as retrograde and outmoded in Tolstoy. Ginzburg is arguing the same case, on the level of technique, that was made thirty years ago by Wayne Booth, in his Rhetoric of Fiction, against the then-reigning critical prejudice in favor of an invisible narrator. Booth too refused to accept the notion that an assertive narrator was necessarily an artistic defect. But Ginzburg is less interested in technique as such and more in Tolstoy’s use of direct discourse to unmask in advance the egoism and vanity that often lie concealed in the most innocuous and banal conversations, as well as to describe the ebb and flow of feelings that can “determine” the most casual remark. Printing a long passage from the epilogue to War and Peace with the passages in direct discourse marked by italics, Ginzburg concludes that
Tolstoyan dialogue collapses without this system of analytical connections that establish why and to what end a person says what he says, and that consequently confirm the determined nature of what is being said (in the same way that they confirm the determined nature of every other phenomenon).
Tolstoy’s sense of an inescapable determinism controlling all human behavior leads to Ginzburg’s final, and extremely rich, chapter on literature and ethical values. Since literature is concerned with human behavior, she insists, “there is therefore an indissoluble bond between literature and ethics.” Literature and ethical norms have been related in a bewildering variety of ways over the centuries, but for Ginzburg the mid-nineteenth century posed a new problem. Before then, however acute the tensions between the two may have been, “the commandments of God and the absolute transcended the individual and were therefore beyond dispute….” But the combination of atheism and individualism in the mid-nineteenth century, along with the ascendancy of realism as the literary voice of a scientific determinism, brought with it the question of how people could justify a commitment to values other than those of their own egoism. “Can that general significance be established without resorting to transcendental premises?” she asks, in what was certainly a daring question in the Soviet Union of 1971.
Ginzburg discusses this issue with regard to Tolstoy’s own moral and religious crisis in his Confession, in which he describes how he was tempted to commit suicide. She also attributes the widespread influence of Schopenhauerian pessimism, which affected Turgenev as well as Tolstoy, to the same unresolved dilemma over the source of values. Even those dedicated to revolutionary action, like Herzen, she writes, could find no way “to substantiate the necessity for the humanistic goals of that action….” This quandary confronted all of Russian literature and culture in the midnineteenth century, and of course not Russian culture alone. What became central was “the sociopsychological issue of how to reconcile determinism with the fact of guilt and individual responsibility.” For without the “working hypothesis” that a person is free and morally responsible, no portrayal of spiritual life—or for that matter, action of any kind—is possible (as Dostoevsky had shown with caustic irony in the first part of Notes from Underground, though Ginzburg does not mention the work in this connection).7
In fact, Tolstoy’s work and life reveal the continuous struggle between these two aspects of his world view—on the one hand, the determined nature of all human behavior, on the other his view of the individual as unmistakably free and morally responsible. The “philosophical duality” of Tolstoy’s beliefs has been magisterially laid bare by Isaiah Berlin with regard to the understanding of history, and Ginzburg’s fine explorations of the concrete moral choices of Tolstoy’s characters provide a valuable supplement to Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox. Tolstoy’s characters, she writes, are never good or evil in themselves, but they respond to particular situations according to a hierarchy of values whose highest stage is “higher than intuitive compassion or intuitive closeness to the earth (Nikolai Rostov), or than immanent creative energy.” This highest stage is a
condition of faith that was accessible to all, but especially to simple, uneducated people, a condition of faith in the absolute validity of the experience of shared bonds that is given to Tolstoy’s unbelieving intellectuals only as a possibility.
As should be amply clear by now, much of the value of Ginzburg’s book is found in its details rather than in any overriding thesis, and what is most impressive are her continual flashes of insight about particular issues, especially about the way social and literary stereotypes are formed and broken. She is unlikely, though, to have anywhere near the same impact as Bakhtin, for one thing because she sadly lacks a talent for exposition, for another because she cannot match him in historical range or theoretical boldness. Her strong point is close, careful, and patient elucidation rather than sweeping and often highly dubious speculations. Nor is she likely to persuade many readers that the true father of modernism is Tolstoy, though she makes a good case for giving him more credit as a technical innovator than he has previously had. Technique is not everything, however, and Dostoevsky was right in assigning Tolstoy’s still relatively stable and well-ordered world to a landowning gentry past that had irrevocably vanished.
All the same, Ginzburg’s book is well worth the attention of anyone seriously interested in literature, and not only that of the nineteenth century. Her perceptive observations on the relation between literary and documentary genres are quite relevant to present-day arguments about the relativity of the literary canon, and she has illuminating things to say on every page about the interaction between varying historical conceptions of human personality and literary creation. One hopes, indeed, that the moment may be as propitious for her as it was for Bakhtin, whose reception in the West was strongly conditioned by the overheated revolutionary atmosphere of the 1960s. His account of fiction as liberated from the author (as presumably in the novels of Dostoevsky) and from moral and social norms (as with Rabelais) strongly suited the apocalyptic temper of the period. The recent attempts to reconsider the relations between ethics and literature (in the work of Wayne Booth and Martha Nussbaum, among others) may provide a climate for a more sympathetic reception of Ginzburg than might have been anticipated a few years back.8 And perhaps the time has also come for a new, sobering appreciation of what Ginzburg describes as Tolstoy’s fundamental task, the slow, stubborn, and relentless search (so congenial to her own critical temperament) for the “foundations of the good” that could withstand even the withering effects of Tolstoy’s own disillusioning scrutiny.
December 1, 1994
Her last book was On the Literary Hero (1971). After that, she published volumes of essays and reminiscences: On the Old and the New (1981), Literature in Search of Reality (1987), and A Person at a Writing Table (1989). ↩
See Irina Paperno, “Beyond Literary Criticism,” Canadian-American Slavic Studies, Vol. 19 (Summer 1985), p. 184. This issue of the journal is entirely devoted to Ginzburg, and its contributors are mainly younger North American Slavists. Many of them made her acquaintance during their study and research jaunts to the then Soviet Union. ↩
See a collection of such writings, The Semiotics of Russian Cultural History, edited by Alexander Nakhimovsky and Alice Stone Nakhimovsky (Cornell University Press, 1985). Ginzburg is credited in the introduction with giving “the first explicit formulation of [this] new approach” to Russian cultural history (p. 8). ↩
Erich Auerbach, with his unrivaled knowledge of the Western literary tradition, has written that “the best and most famous portraits from earlier memoirs pale before his, and in all European literature there have probably been only a very few writers capable of giving their readers such an abundance of human characters, each so patently specific and homogeneous, and each so fully revealing the very basis of the individual’s life.” Erich Auerbach, Mimesis (Princeton University Press, 1953), p. 416. ↩
“By no means everybody (very far from it),” she says, “will agree that there is no definitive authorial word in Dostoevsky.” See the interview in Voprosy Literaturi, Vol. 4 (1978), p. 188. ↩
“Dostoevsky,” she writes cogently, “occupied a peculiar position among his contemporaries because he made the metaphysical understanding of the freedom of the will a constructive moment of his novels, the driving force of the behavior of his characters.” See On the Literary Hero, p. 83. Dostoevsky had a very acute understanding of the moral consequences of Tolstoy’s pursuit of causality, and wrote a clever and amusing parody of it that should be better known. In it Dostoevsky is discussing Anna Karenina, and why he believes that Levin’s new-found faith will soon disappear. The reason is that Kitty will have stumbled over the root of a tree. “If she stumbled, it was because she could not have not stumbled; it is perfectly obvious that she has stumbled for this reason or for another reason. It is clear that everything had depended on laws that could be rigorously determined. And if this is so, then science is omnipresent. Where then is Providence? Where is human responsibility? And if there is no Providence, how can one believe in God? And so on and so forth. Take a straight line and extend it into infinity.” F.M. Dostoevsky, Diary of a Writer (July–August, 1877), chapter 2, part 4. ↩
For a discussion of Notes from Underground that highlights this very question, see my Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation (Princeton University Press, 1986), chapter 21. ↩
See Wayne Booth, The Company We Keep (University of California Press, 1988), and Martha Nussbaum’s Love’s Knowledge (Oxford University Press, 1990). Also, see Nussbaum’s comment: It is striking that in the last few years literary theorists allied with deconstruction have taken a marked turn toward the ethical.” After citing examples from Jacques Derrida and Barbara Johnson, she adds: “No doubt a part of this change can be traced to the scandal over the political career of Paul de Man, which has made theorists anxious to demonstrate that Deconstruction does not imply a neglect of ethical and social consideration,” p. 29, footnote 52. ↩