sábado, 4 de junio de 2016

Dostoevsky esteemed art as a higher way of knowing

Beauty and the Enlivening of the Russian Literary Imagination

by Glenn Davis

Like Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn, conservatives must come up from politics and recognize that the roots of a truer just order are watered with the permanent ideals of truth, goodness, and beauty.

Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords readers the opportunity to join Glenn Davis as he discusses Fyodor Dostoevsky and the concept that “beauty will save the world.” —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher

Readers of The Imaginative Conservative know well the phrase “beauty will save the world.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn borrowed it from Fyodor Dostoevsky to set the theme of his Nobel Lecture in 1970. British conservative writer Roger Scruton has written extensively about how aesthetics—and beauty in particular—enlarges our vision of humanity, helps us find meaning in our lives, and provides knowledge of our world’s intrinsic values. And Gregory Wolfe used the phrase for the title of his recent book, Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age, the theme of which is the importance of an aesthetic understanding for sustaining a civilized culture. Wolfe’s approach is especially appropriate for readers of this site in that he addresses the decline of an aesthetic appreciation in the conservative movement over the previous thirty years which has resulted in a highly politicized conservatism without vision and without deep cultural roots.

As a long time student of Russian culture, I find it inspiring that imaginative conservatives are attaching to a concept (“beauty will save the world”) articulated by Fyodor Dostoevsky one hundred fifty years ago in reference to his own battles against a severe ideological movement bent on politicizing the culture of nineteenth-century Russia. The contentious aesthetic rivalries that defined the last half of that century ultimately resulted by the 1920s in the devastation of imaginative literature in Russia. The roots of this nightmare of aesthetic dispute were watered by the political upheavals in the 1850s and 1860s and Dostoevsky wrote indefatigably to defend Russian art, enliven the Russian imagination, and nurture the human soul. It is a period in history which, I believe, given the arguments of Wolfe and others, imaginative conservatives will find interesting and fertile for thought.

The battle for the Russian imagination and for humane letters in the middle decades of the nineteenth-century was dominated by two literary movements: writers who supported and nurtured an aesthetic approach and the writers who favored a social/political approach based on utilitarian and materialist beliefs. Dostoevsky was one of the great representative figures of the aesthetic movement for he conceived of imaginative literature as the form best able to plumb the depths of the human soul. The radicals, on the other hand, led by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Nikolai Dobrolyubov, and Dmitry Pisarev, who largely denied the soul and stated that art is inferior to reality, kept mostly to philosophical writings and literary and social criticism as means to argue for political and social change. The central issue of the time, which demanded the attention of the cultural elites and defined the intellectual milieu, was, of course, the issue of servitude. For Russians in the nineteenth-century, just as for Americans, the issue of servitude overwhelmingly infused Russian literary culture with powerful, and at times brilliant, political, social, and literary polemics. But as the United States had a cathartic purging of the issue through the national tragedy of civil war, the emancipation of the serfs in Russia in 1861 only seemed to aggravate the political situation. Because of the historically oppressive nature of the Russian system, political issues could not be addressed openly in the public square; instead, they had to be addressed indirectly, often through humane letters. Consequently, literature and literary criticism became the means whereby the great political and social issues of the day were discussed. The culture favored politicized literature and, as the radical Pisarev exclaimed, “aesthetics [was] my nightmare.”

The radical critics were best represented by Pisarev and Cherynyshevsky. They advocated a politicized literature and were strongly suspicious of the imaginative arts. Chernyshevsky argued that “art is inferior to reality,” and that a materialist and utilitarian worldview should inform not simply social and political policy but literary works as well. Pisarev went one further in his damning of beauty:

Be it noted in praise of human nature in general and of the human mind in particular that up to now, apparently, hardly anyone has ever gone to his death for the sake of something he considered beautiful, while on the other hand there are infinite numbers of people who have given their lives for that which they considered true and socially useful… Art never has had and never can have any martyrs.

This radical worldview was a powerful and vocal force in the latter half of the nineteenth-century, influencing many of the cultural and political elite.



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