The Coherence of the Russian Classics

Essays on the Dynamics of Creativity

by Jim Curtis (Author)
©2022 Monographs 278 Pages


This innovative book presents some fundamentally new interpretations of the best-known and best-loved classics of Russian literature. It does so by applying to them the latest Western research on creativity and literary theory. Readers will come away from the book with an enhanced understanding of individual works by classic authors such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky as well as of the overall evolution of nineteenth-century Russian literature.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • I. The Critical Legacy of the Twentieth Century and Russian Studies Today
  • II. Russia and Russian Literature in the Nineteenth Century: Some General Remarks
  • III. The Biographical and Literary Contexts of the Russian Classic Writers
  • IV. The Arrival Motif and the Monoplot of the Russian Classics
  • V. Metaphor is to Dostoyevsky as Metonymy is to Tolstoy
  • VI. Why Are Russian Novels So Long?
  • VII. A Proposed Periodization of Russian Literature, 1825-1918
  • Epilogue: The Heart of Russian Literature
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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The essays collected in The Coherence of the Russian Classics represent the results of my engagement with Russian literature for over 50 years with particular attention to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. My research on these two great writers resulted in an article, “Metaphor is to Dostoyevsky as Metonymy is to Tolstoy,” which was printed in Slavic Review. That journal has graciously given me permission to publish a revised version in this book. Pondering the relevance of metaphor and metonymy for these two great writers led me to formulate what I call a creative matrix that operates for at least some artists. As I understand it, a creative matrix defines and thus limits how an artist creates. Obviously, in the case of great artists like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, these limits are very large, but they do exist.

More generally, my work is relevant in a minor way to a large historical change in Russia. In particular, one little-noticed effect of the Bolshevik Revolution was a radical shift in Russia’s cultural orientation. If before 1917, it had been France whose culture preoccupied Russia’s brightest creative spirits, after 1917, it was America. While contemplating American influence in Russian culture, which became more pronounced after 1991, I began to think about the relevance of American scholarship to Russia, and innovative insights that it might produce.

The issue of the relevance of American scholarship to Russia and to Russian literature has numerous implications. To state the obvious, it is not possible for ←vii | viii→any one individual to read a substantial percentage of the scholarship on the Russian classics whom I discuss in this book. Therefore, one must pick and choose which scholars to cite, and which ones not to cite.

I have two criteria for the scholars cited in this book. First, my preference is for critics such as Harold Bloom and Roman Jakobson, critics whose work makes it possible to re-conceptualize major works and think about them in a new way. I know of no one who has seriously argued that there is an expiration date on stimulating ideas, and that simply because critical ideas were published in the previous century, they are not, and cannot be, relevant today.

In this book I use the work of Jakobson, Bloom, and others of their ilk because I believe that their ideas were stimulating when they first published them, and they remain stimulating today. There is a word for the belief that whatever is current is better than what was in the past, and that word is presentism. Presentism affects scholarly inquiry just as much as it affects other human activities.

Perhaps in reaction to Soviet critics, who tended to reduce great works of literature to what they called “the evil of the day,” scholarship on Russian literature, both in Russia and in the West, tends to shun the social sciences. Since the 1960s, a substantial social science literature consisting of contributions relating to creativity by psychologists and sociologists has appeared. This literature has great potential to address issues that have generally gone unaddressed in the extant scholarship on Russian literature. These are issues such as the relevance of such family issues as birth order and relationships with the father that have been shown to affect creativity in the careers of Western artists. I consider it a valid scholarly enterprise to show how these issues affected Russian writers as well.

Generally speaking, Russian scholars write dense expository prose, which sometimes has metaphysical implications. One notices, for example, the use of a phrase such as “his fate,” which they use where American scholars would simply say “his life.” Thus, the belief in fate helps to explain why Russian scholars very rarely ground the artists that they discuss in their family circumstances and do not generally draw on the rich literature on creativity that has accumulated in the West. Essay III, “The Biographical and Literary Contexts of the Russian Classic Writers” and Essay VII, “A Proposed Periodization of Russian Literature, 1825-1918,” show the results of applying American scholarship to the lives and works of the Russian classic authors.

It remains to thank my wife Donna for her tireless editorial work on this book. Every page of The Coherence of the Russian Classics has benefitted from her expertise and patience. Despite her best efforts, there are surely errors that remain, and they are my responsibility.

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The Critical Legacy of the Twentieth Century and Russian Studies Today

“Russian literature is compact, intensely self-reflexive, and always about to forget that it is merely made up of words. Imagined characters walk out of fiction into real life, while real-life writers are raised to the status of myth.”1 This pithy statement by Caryl Emerson defines some essential features of Russian literature in its social context. Widespread literacy came late to Russia, and, as a result, writers like Pushkin and Tolstoy who produced the compact corpus of the Russian classics are raised to the status of myth. The special status of writers in Russia to which Emerson refers has numerous implications. Among other things, it brought them to the attention of authoritarian leaders, who immediately sensed their potential for use as instruments of state policy. For his part, Joseph Stalin raised—if that is the proper word—writers, not to the status of saints, but to the status of “engineers of human souls.” It is also true that the special status of writers made some of them vulnerable to persecution, exile, and execution in the Soviet era.

The point is that the special status that is, and has been, attributed to Russian writers has appeared because of specific, identifiable historical circumstances. However, not everyone who loves Russian literature lives in Russia or possesses the Russian mindset. What are such outsiders to make of Russian literature? This book gives one answer to that question.

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Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin said that difference is the essence of dialog. When two people are engaged in dialog, he argued, the difference between them makes for a creative interchange. The same also applies to people from different countries. As an American, I perceive Russian literature differently from Russians do, and I offer this book as an American scholar’s perception of Russian literature.

To begin with one obvious difference between Russia and America, I do not share the Russians’ belief in fate (sud’ba). It is very difficult for Russians to talk about the sufferings of writers without having recourse to the concept of fate. For my part, I do not believe that fate had anything to do with Futurist poet Benedikt Lifschitz’s death in 1938, for example. He was shot when and where he was shot because of specific decisions by specific individuals, who bear moral responsibility for their actions. Fate had nothing to do with it.

As an heir to the tradition of American pragmatism, I avoid the concept of fate because doing so derives from my larger project of stripping the metaphysics from Russian literary history. I thus propose to remove the special status of Russian writers to which Emerson refers and unite them with the rest of the human race. I treat the writers whom I discuss in this book as men who were born into particular circumstances at a particular time. (All of these writers were men with the exception of the women writers mentioned in passing in Essay VII, on the periodization of Rusian literature.) They lived in a particular era—the nineteenth century—which had its own dynamics. Their work constituted a response to the dynamics of the nineteenth century, although its larger meaning transcended that era, as the work of all great artists always transcends its era. In fact, that is one of the definitions of greatness.

It is not just Russian literature that is “intensely self-reflexive,” to use Emerson’s phrase. This also applies to scholarship about Russian literature. Take a venerable classic such as Ronald Hingley’s Russian Writers and Society, 1825-1904, for example, which cites no general studies of modernization and industrialization in the bibliography, although these processes determined a great deal about the life and work of writers in this time period.2

Since the Russian writers lived in a particular time and place, it is helpful to state such facts as specifically as possible. That is why I have compiled an abundance of data about their births, deaths, and family circumstances.

If—despite what some Russians often imply—the Russian classics do belong to the human race, it is possible to analyze their commonalities with other gifted high achievers in the arts who lived in other times and in other places. For example, we know from the very rich scholarly literature on creativity that has appeared in the West that certain biographical patterns appear again and again ←2 | 3→in the lives of artists. These patterns, which psychologists and sociologists have identified, include birth order and the relationship with the father, among other factors. So far as I can determine, no one has ever applied these findings to the Russian classics, as I do in this book, possibly because the belief in their alleged special status made it inappropriate.

More generally, there have appeared numerous works on the meaning of generations in history, and this literature has numerous applications to the concept of literary generations. These works have rarely, if ever, been cited by Russian scholars. Obviously, one’s concept of literary generations determines one’s concept of literary history, as I show in the chapter on the periodization of Russian literature.

But of course the literary process does not consist only of writers. It consists of readers as well as writers, and these readers are conditioned by historical circumstances, just as writers are. This generalization especially applies to those readers who call themselves literary critics. Just as literature has a history, literary criticism also has a history. Literary history cannot come into being without critical concepts that engage with literature and make sense of it. To put it another way, literary history is the application of critical concepts to specific works and writers. These critical concepts often remain unstated, and those who use them often do so unconsciously. In the belief that using critical principles consciously produces better, better-informed, and more rigorous literary history, the following remarks introduce some critics whose work I propose to apply in the subsequent essays.

Discussions of such classic texts as War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov will use a method that derives largely from the work of Russian critics of the 1920s, such as Boris Eichenbaum and Yury Tynyanov and Mikhail Bakhtin. I will also draw on the work of such English-language critics as Northrop Frye, Harold Bloom, and T.S. Eliot with references to contemporary scholarship as needed.

Readers with a scholarly background will notice that all of these critics published their key works in the twentieth century. I draw on their work both as an hommage to the very great achievements of the previous century in criticism and also as an affirmation of my belief that there is no expiration date for ideas. Literary criticism is not journalism, which rapidly becomes dated. The question that responsible readers ask about literary criticism is not “How long ago was it written?” but “Have these ideas been so thoroughly applied to the literary classics that we can no longer gain any new insights from them?” With regard to the works that I cite here, I can answer “No!” emphatically to that question.

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So far as I can tell, no one except me has ever applied the work of Harold Bloom to the Russian classics. Moreover, using Bloom’s ideas as I do is not merely an intellectual exercise. I argue here that an understanding of the interplay between what he calls ephebes and precursors results in a fundamental reorganization of Russian literary history.

If Russian literature is self-reflexive, to cite Emerson’s term again, then one implication is that it features recurring patterns, and the identification of such patterns is a major task of this book. As Northrop Frye once commented, “…The critic should see literature as a coherent structure, historically conditioned but shaping its own history, responding to but not determined in its form by an external historical process.”3 This principle seems eminently sensible and has immediate relevance to these discussions. Bloom states the same principle a little differently: “There are no texts; there are only relationships between texts.”4 If only relationships between texts exist, then these relationships are formed by the coherence of texts with one another. These relationships between and among texts cohere in such a way as to form the literary history of Russian literature, which has its own structure, a structure that evolved as one new classic after another appeared in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and that continues to evolve in the twenty-first century.

These ideas, of course, merely paraphrase another source from the 1920s, T.S. Eliot’s concept of the dynamics of literary history as stated in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”:

The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.5 (Eliot’s emphasis)

In a sense, then, this book is an exercise in Eliotesque criticism, which is why its subtitle includes the phrase “the dynamics of creativity.”

However, as Eliot himself well knew, writers who create new—“really new”—works often do so in response to new historical circumstances. Critics, especially those who write about Russia, often relate new works to new historical circumstances, such as the 1917 revolution, and allow those circumstances to determine their meaning. However, I will offer historicist readings of what Eliot would recognize as new works. These are works whose innovations derive from the difficult ←4 | 5→work of synthesizing changed historical circumstances with literary tradition in such a way as to create a new perception of tradition. That is what Eliot did, and that is what some of Russia’s greatest writers did. For example, an understanding of the way Dostoyevsky worked through his anxiety of influence from Gogol, for example, results in a changed understanding of both Dostoyevsky and Gogol.

Eliot himself was greatly influenced by French Symbolist poets such as Stéphane Mallarmé, who in a conversation with the painter Edgar Dégas made a comment that lies at the heart of Eliot’s criticism. Mallarmé asserted, “You can’t make a poem with ideas…You make it with words.”6 A variant translation might be, “There are no ideas in a poem; there are only words.”

I cite Mallarmé’s comment here because it has exciting, but deeply subversive implications for the study of Russian literature, which has often been read for its ideas as abstracted from their context. In proceeding in this way, I am taking into account the practice of Bakhtin, who writes, “In our analysis we will move away from the content side of the ideas introduced by Dostoyevsky—their artistic function in the work is important to us.”7 For Bakhtin, then, it is inappropriate to abstract ideas from individual statements by Dostoevsky’s characters because the work, the characters, and their personalities all have their own autonomy from their social context. Bakhtin says, “The truth about the world, according to Dostoyevsky, is inseparable from the truth of the personality.”8

Despite Bakhtin’s best efforts, separating the statements about the world from the representation of the characters served the purposes of Soviet critics and scholars, and Western scholars of Russian literature adopted it as a standard way of making a connection between literature and society. In the tradition of Mallarmé and Eliot, however, I do not believe that there are any ideas in imaginative literature, and I do not find that the word “ideology” serves any useful purpose in discussions of literature. I also choose not to use the word “realism.” It is perfectly possible to discuss the Russian classics without using the words “idea,” “ideology,” or “realism.” I will proceed in this way not because of personal whims, but as an application of a particular philosophy that has particular relevance for criticism.

If writing literary history is ultimately a logical exercise, and I believe that it is, then it behooves critics to make their assumptions as explicit as possible. To that end, I wish to cite here a passage from Language, Truth, and Logic, written in 1936 by the British philosopher A.J. Ayer.

In his polemical way, Ayer goes on to assert that it is a fallacy to believe that “to every word or phrase that can be the subject of a sentence, there must be a real entity corresponding.”10 Logically, then, Ayer insists on verification as a key to the meaning of propositions. That is to say, if a word such as “realism” or “ideology” cannot be shown to refer to something in the real world, then that word or phrase is meaningless.

Thus, if poet Fyodor Tyutchev’s famous statement “One can only believe in Russia” is accepted, then Russia must be an unverifiable idea. The belief that writers such as Dostoyevsky are “writers of ideas” is also unverifiable. However, Russians are so committed to metaphysical literary history that even so thoughtful a critic as Vladimir Linkov can find metaphysics even in realism: “The beauty of the ordinary in realism is the recognition of the unknowable infinite essence of man.”11 In the spirit of Ayer’s rigorous logic, I believe that the belief in “ideas,” whether Linkov’s or Lenin’s or anyone else’s, has had disastrous consequences in Russia, and that therefore the use of the words “idea” and “ideology” creates logical dysfunction.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (September)
Russian literature novels Tolstoy Dostoyevsky Chekhov Pushkin Mandelstam Pasternak creativity Solzhenitsyn generation theory literary history The Coherence of the Russian Classics Essays on the Dynamics of Creativity Jim Curtis
New York, Berlin, Bruxelles, Lausanne, Oxford, 2022. VIII, 278 pp., 10 tables.

Biographical notes

Jim Curtis (Author)

Jim Curtis received his PhD from Columbia University and was professor of Russian literature at the University of Missouri-Columbia for 31 years. He is now Professor Emeritus of Russian. Dr. Curtis is the author of numerous books and essays, including Solzhenitsyn’s Traditional Imagination and Stalin’s Soviet Monastery.


Title: The Coherence of the Russian Classics