The Interiority of the Nineteenth-Century Russian Novel
The nature of interiority as essential and fundamental to the novel is the element of Lukács’s theory that remains admirably descriptive of the Russian novel after it becomes clear that the decidedly European historical element of The Theory of the Novel cannot apply. Despite its separate history, the nineteenth-century Russian novel is at least as much a manifestly interior art form as any other nationality or style of novel. Thus, it is this aspect of Lukács’s theory that enables it to be adapted to the nineteenth-century Russian novel and its separate origins.
The intrinsically unique nature of the Russian novel comes from the fact that interiority was introduced as a foreign element, into a Russian culture which had, up to that point, existed in complete totality. Unless this is noted, it may seem that the cultural changes brought about by Peter the Great took the place of the Renaissance and Enlightenment in the story of the Russian novel, since they were implemented with the goal of “joining Europe;” and since, like the Renaissance, they provide an approximate chronological marker for the novel’s emergence. From this viewpoint, the rapid appearance of the Russian novel after the Petrine reforms would signify the Russian literary tradition being appended to the preexisting Lukácsian literary sequence of Europe, and would not represent a separate evolution and identity of novel. But the structure of the Petrine reforms means that effectively, interiority was legally enforced. This implies that even if the Russian novel had been built on the European literary progression, it was established on that progression by an artificial means. This detail in itself constitutes a distinct background for the Russian novel; making it worthy of its own story, distinct from the European account.
The fact that interiority was introduced in Russia from external sources resulted in an inversion of the causality described by Lukács in “Integrated Civilizations.” In Lukács’s timeline, interiority predates and necessitates the novel; the novel is what results from the “productivity of the spirit.” In the case of Peter the Great’s Russia, however, the newly imported products of the spirit necessitated that the Russian spirit become productive. By funding translations and printings of European literature and the creation of new Russian scientific and literary texts, by founding the first Russian university, by encouraging travel and cultural exploration, by supporting dramatic theater and opera, by importing European scientists and intellectuals, Peter the Great and subsequent rulers created circumstances in which interiority was forced to quickly emerge.
Its emergence was encouraged and facilitated by a group of Russian intellectuals called the Zapadniks, or Westernizers, whose opinions were in the majority from the Petrine reforms until the early nineteenth century. These thinkers, such as Alexander Herzen (until later in life) and Ivan Turgenev, argued for the deliberate adoption of Western European conventions in numerous aspects of Russian life, thus supporting interiority.
From a Westernizer’s position, Russia was almost hopelessly backward. “Placed, as it were, outside of the times, we have not been affected by the universal education of mankind,” wrote prominent Westernizer Peter Chaadaev in 1830.1 Defining history and progress according to a European standard, the Westernizers saw themselves as tasked with the tremendous labor of bringing Russian culture up to (or into) date. From this point of view, totality was definitely characteristic of Russia, but not pleasingly so. Rather than being the hallmark of a nostalgic “happy age,” for the Westernizers totality corresponded with embarrassing provincialism, superstition, and lack of sophistication. Interiority, meanwhile, was attractively linked to reason, urbanity, education and scientific advancement, and overall compatibility with Europe—that universal measuring-stick of human progress. Thus interiority developed as an extremely alien element of Russian culture: it was introduced for the purpose of joining Western Europe, by means of Western European cultural products, and encouraged by promoters of Western culture.
Because the inverted causality of Russian interiority had linked it to education, art and philosophy, it emerged primarily in the aristocracy (with the exception of a few later scholars such as Vissarion Belinsky, who had education but no title). This meant that the common people, largely unaffected by such measures as education and artistic patronage, remained occupied with such things as survival, tradition, and religion—pursuits that almost guarantee totality. Their persistent totality served as evidence of the foreign nature of interiority; a marker of the ever-widening distance between interior, educated Russia and the totality from which it had come. In their estrangement from the cultural consequences of so many of the Petrine reforms, the common classes encapsulated all that remained purely Russian in post-Petrine culture.
This surviving totality might not have become much of an influence on the Russian novel at all, if Westernization had remained the principal goal of the intelligentsia. Totality, being an attribute of the peasantry, would never have become a topic. However, as Russian culture and the Russian intelligentsia continued to develop, the Westernizers’ belief in the cultural inferiority of Russia gained a vocal group of opponents: the Slavophiles.2
As intellectuals, the Slavophiles definitely possessed interiority; but their passionate admiration of pre-Westernization Slavic culture caused them to take a suspicious view towards the products of interiority, due to their foreign nature. From their standpoint as educated Russians irrevocably divided from totality, the Slavophiles saw the common people and their connection to the soil of Holy Russia as holding a sacred, natural wisdom that made them worthy of admiration, rather than as a backward people in need of Western education and culture.3
This Slavophilic admiration of totality became an essential difference and point of contention between the Westernizer and Slavophilic schools of thought. The culturally-charged and passionate nature of this conflict is illustrated in this passage from Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies, a book in which Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit make an investigation of Westernization movements and their opponents in various cultures:
The bourgeois mind of the West is often seen by Occidentalists as an impediment to action, or at least any action that matters. Hamlet is the symbol of this. Russian translators rendered Hamlet's question "to be or not to be" as "to live or not to live." Brooding Hamlet, paralyzed by too much intellectual agonizing, lacks the vitality that comes from the spontaneous life. To the Slavophile, the rootless Westernizer in Russia is of this type.4
“Too much intellectual agonizing” versus “the spontaneous life”—these expressions could have come from Lukács himself. This is the exact difference that Lukács depicts; this is the “agonising distance between psyche and soul”5 and the “spontaneously rounded, sensually present totality.”6 Not only was interiority a topic of controversy, it was the subject of an essential and defining disagreement between Russia’s two major philosophical schools of thought during the nineteenth century.
This disagreement is manifest in the Russian novels of this era. For the Westernizers, the novel’s interiority did not require a solution (except, of course, in the sense that interiority is the problem that generates novel in the first place). Its foreign nature was a desirable attribute rather than an obstacle or a blemish, and thus it did not inspire the creation of any distinctive variation of the novel form. Instead, Westernizers simply opted to become “essentially Western novelists” (as Lukács calls Turgenev),7 through the deliberate imitation and advocacy of Western forms and themes. For the Slavophiles, however, interiority was a problem to negotiate, if not lament. At any rate, it was not a quality to simply accept as an unavoidable consequence of art. The Slavophiles sought to be deeply Orthodox, to be essentially Russian, to express the true nature of simple Russian people; the objects of their admiration were all products of totality rather than of interiority.
By opening a controversy, the Slavophiles’ emphasis on Russian culture incited the emergence of the novel as a characteristically Russian form of literature. This is not to say that the nineteenth-century Russian novel was always a purely Slavophilic form (that would be both an exaggeration and a simplification); but that by its idealization of purely Russian culture, Slavophilism made it possible to treat non-Westernized Russian culture and identity seriously in art. The consequence of this possibility was that for any Russian writer but the strict Westernizer, the novel form presented a major hurdle: it required the depiction of Russian totality with the literary tools created for European interiority. Thus in nineteenth-century Russia, the novel form was much more difficult to reconcile with its ideological content than it ever was in Europe. In order to create truly, characteristically Russian works in the novel form, the inherent interiority of novel had to be radically subverted.
This subversion was possible because, having both interiority and totality present in the world he strove to depict, and yet not being native to either of them, the Russian novelist of the nineteenth century wrote with a pronounced consciousness of both. Instead of interiority being solely the condition under which he worked, and instead of totality being the unspoken goal toward which his spirit strove, both interiority and totality became conscious subjects of his novel. The nineteenth-century Russian novel emerged out of this recursion; which is to say, out of a roundness, a wholeness of an entirely new kind—one that reinstated the possibility of complete cultural expression as it allowed the entirety of the Russian world, complete with its elements of interiority and totality, to be circumscribed by the bounds of the Russian novel. The Russian novel of the nineteenth century renewed the epic not by being a forced depiction of totality made by a citizen of a world that had broken the bounds of the integrated life and risen up to a perspective over it—not by that false and violent means—but by rising up, once again, over both interiority and totality. Not only did interiority in Russia become “the precondition for the existence of art and its becoming conscious,” but beyond that, art’s consciousness itself became conscious.
It is this meta-consciousness that led Lukács to identify several examples of the nineteenth-century Russian novel as “remote from any struggle that actually exists.” The condition and struggle of interiority actually exists; it is the state of the human spirit enclosed within the walls of the skull, the skin, the face, the necessity to speak; it is the state of the discrepancy between the mind and the world—the state in which every conscious, modern person experiences every day. But rather than being the direct result of this condition, the Russian novel instead springs from a super-awareness of interiority which is not a part of ordinary experience, a state of mind which in almost every case one must deliberately enter. The Russian novelist who made the idea of Russian identity a motive of creation invariably became aware of the opposition between Russian totality and European interiority, and in this awareness he was able to indulge in both interiority and totality by rising above them and allowing them to become topics—to work within the “new world.” This resulted in the quality Lukács identified as “truly epic” in Dead Souls and War and Peace, and which in its even more extreme presence removes the works of Dostoevsky from Lukács’s definition of the novel. It is this quality—this lucidity that emerges from the conflict between the European interiority of the novel form and the totality of Russian identity—that creates the ability of nineteenth-century Russian novelists to bring about the “renewal of the epic form”8 which Lukács describes in the last few pages of The Theory of the Novel.
In summary: rather than epic leading to interiority through a gradual progression of literary forms, fully-formed interiority was suddenly introduced into the extreme totality of Russian culture in such a way as to allow totality to persist in the uneducated classes. As a result, interiority gained an association with Europe while totality gained an association with Russia, and a conflict over interiority developed because of the many ways in which European and Russian cultures were opposed. When Russian authors began to attempt the literary depiction of purely Russian culture within the form of novel, the ability to treat the themes of interiority and totality with complete consciousness became necessary. The expression of this consciousness (or rather, consciousness of consciousness) in the nineteenth-century Russian novel took the form of a consistent drive to make the European attribute of interiority serve a Russian purpose, necessitating a form which could encompass both: a renewal of cultural expression and an “epic of the new world.”
With the identification of the nineteenth-century Russian novel’s hyper-consciousness of interiority and totality as the defining element of Lukács’s category of the renewed epic, the Russian novel is replaced in the context of Lukács’s Theory without necessitating a distortion of history or an internal inconsistency.
1 McNally, Raymond and Tempest, Richard, eds. Philosophical Works of Peter Chaadaev, p. 20. New York: Springer, 1991.
2 “Slavophilism's advent is ascribed to the so-called Westernizers and their promotion of Western liberal values.”—Rabow-Edling, Susanna. Slavophile Thought And the Politics of Cultural Nationalism, p. 1. New York: SUNY Press, 2006.
3 “Though themselves men of the city, the Slavophiles placed their faith in the Russian peasants; they believed that Russia could and should avoid the path of the West; and from their vantage-point in the social rear they were able to see the terrifying consequences of the atomistic individualism that had sprung up in the West.”—Howe, Irving. “Dostoevsky: The Politics of Salvation.” The Kenyon Review 17.1 (1955), p. 44.
4 Buruma, Ian and Margalit, Avishai. Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies, p. 92. New York: Penguin, 2004.
5 Lukàcs, Georg. The Theory of the Novel, p. 88. Trans. Anna Bostock. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1971.
6 Ibid., p. 46.
7 Ibid., p. 145.
8 Ibid., p. 152.