Ivan A. Esaulov. Sobornost’ in Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature

Ivan A. Esaulov. Sobornost’ in Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature // Cultural Discontinuity and Recomstruction: The Bysanto-Slav heritage and the creation of a Russian national literature in the nineteenth century. Ed. by Jostein Bortnes & Ingunn Lunde. Oslo: Solum forlag A/S, 1997.

<…> The religious character of early Russian literature is so evident that to argue anew for such a thesis would be superfluous. Throughout the first seven centuries of its existence, Russian literature was clearly Christocentric, that is, oriented firs and foremost towards the New Testament. Moreover, characteristic of “Russian sanctity” (Averintsev) is precisely “the attempt to accept the word of Christ about loving one’s enemies, non-resistance to evil, and the necessity of turning the other cheek in an absolutely literal sense , without reservations, without misinterpretations”. This is a manifestation of the same Christocentrism which, to my mind, constitutes the unity between early Russian literature and the Russian classics of more resent times, above all of the nineteenth century. Possibly, the profound, close and never broken tie with the New Testament is the main factor than unites Russian culture as a whole.

In early Russian literature the principle of sobornost’ is developed explicitly, indeed the main purpose of this literature is the incorporation of man into the Church. The liturgical year – in Orthodoxy linked to and beginning with Easter – affirms the final victory over death, thereby giving a meaningfulness to the life of every human being who has embarked on his or early Russian literature, meny Soviet literary scholars and medievalists had to avoid emphasizing its predominantly religious purpose. While it is quite clear, for example, that the high moral idealism characteristic of this literature has a distinctly New Testament flavour, its “ensemble structure” (Likhachev’s term) is markedly based on the idea of Orthodox sobornost’.

As we all know, the aesthetic aspect (the beauty of the divine service) was probably the most decisive factor in the choice of confession, at least in the consciousness of the early Russian literati. In Russian culture, the good and the beautiful were originally not only not mutually exclusive, but even inseparable. The sacred was perceived in its aesthetic aspect, whilst the later maxim “beauty shall save the word” would therefore also mean – apart from anything else – a renewal of the Orthodox Tradition, the very “return to the religious principle of life,” which Georgii Fedotov writes about.

In the Russian literary classics of the nineteenth century, the Christocentrism of the Gospels is made manifest both directly <…> and – which is more common – implicitly: in the author’s ethical and aesthetic orientation toward Jesus Christ as the highest moral ideal. Moreover, the central character of the New Testament often remains, as it were, outside the brackets of the narrative, but is invisibly present in the consciousness of the author and readers. Hence the constant feeling of the imperfection of all the other characters, as well as the cosial and moral criticism implied when the hero’s “real” life is projected against the ideal life of Christ, even if the author himself in not fully conscious of this projection.

Christosentrism is that suprapersonal goal which everyone must try to reach, however difficult. But this aspiration is not at all the expression of an utopian consciousness. On the contrary, for a person with an Orthodox mentality, it is not “a place, which is not,” but “a place, which bas already been.” Christ revealed himself to the world both as the Savior who atoned for the sin committed by Adam, and as model of the highest moral standards.

The above consideration make easier to understand the maximalist ethical demands imposed on the nineteenth-century Russian literary hero, far more severe than in Western European literature of the same period, where the burden of demands put on man is much more practicable.

Russian writers oriented toward Orthodoxy did not wish (or, perhaps, were unable) to yield to the demands of a secularized life. Compared with an analogical process in Western Europe, the secularisation of Russian culture was a far softer phenomenon; it occurred much later, and had not even reached completion by the beginning of the twentieth century. That is why, in the Russian classics, there are so few central heroes who stand comparison with the early Russian literary tradition of moral perfection. Every person is “worse” Christ. There are so few good geroes precisely because the “best one” is always present in the author’s consciousness (or subconsciousness). The constant dread of spiritual imperfection in the face of an ideal Holy Rus’, the fear that the lower, given reality (dannost’) may not correspond to this higher, ideal reality (zadannost’), renders all other earthly problems of human life secondary and insignificant. Hence the constant preoccupation with the ultimate problems, with the “cursed questions.”

The reverse side of this spiritual maximalism in Russian literature is the complete and unconditional acceptance of God’s world. Before God we are all equal as his servants. True, there is distance between sinners and saints, but both are unworthy of him in equal measure. This means, however, that everyone is worthy of pity, love and sympathy. Hence the love for the wretched, the fools in Christ, the destitute and the convicts. Hence too, the striking forbearance, and the aesthetic rendering of this forbearance. This is an aestheticisation of the love for one’s neighbor, his imperfections notwithstanding.

The gallery of heroes in the Russian classics may by seen as variations on a universal (sobornyj) striving towards the hero of the New Testament. Therefore, in my view, Russian nineteenth-century classics sometimes appear to constitute not a body of separate texts, but indeed one united work. Moreover, in its internal scheme this united work in implicitly oriented towards a different book, the Gospels, just as the early Russian body of texts was explicitly oriented towards that same book.

Despite the external formlessness of many of the Russian classics (for example, the “superfluous” digressions in War and Peace, Dostoevskii’s polyphony, or Chekhov’s refusal to formulate any ultimate thrust), and despite their differences in world outlook, all these writers possess one common denominator: they share an Orthodox attitude to the world. Their divergencies are different manifestations of the principle of sobornost’.

On the level of textual composition and representation of character, we observe an almost spiritual trepidation on the part of the author when faced with the power (realized through the heroes) over the Other. It is a trepidation when confronted by our own possibility of creating a “finalized” and “complete” world. We also perceive an uncertainty as to whether one’s role as a judge of one’s neighbour is a rightful one (even if the latter only appears as a fictional character). For the “final truth” uttered about the Other is fixed by the text of the work, and it therefore deprives him of the hope of transformation and the possibility of spiritual insight, of which the Other cannot be deprived, as long as go is alive.

To claim that the hero is complete is almost the same as to pronounce a last Judgement over him, thereby disregarding the fact that the last and ultimate trust about man is known only to God. However, as is expressed in Chekhov’s short story “The Duel”, no one knows the real truth within the boundaries of the earthly world created in the artistic work. No one knows, not because truth is relative and the real truth does not exist, but because the final truth about man is revealed even to God only after his death. Until this boundary is reached there is only hope, and to deprive the Other of this hope means, in a sense, to perform towards him an anti-Christian act.

The famous polyphony of Dostoevskii’s novels, discovered by Bakhtin, and the equality of both the author’s and the characters’ voices, have in my view the same profound universal sources, deeply rooted in Orthodox Russian spirituality. It is precisely in the face if this absolute, and not relative, truth – which in its completeness is known only to God – that the author and the hero possess equal rights. In relation to this higher truth, any other truth is relative; any thought uttered on earth, as Tiutchev expresses in his poem “Silentium”, is a lie.


Добавить комментарий

Ваш e-mail не будет опубликован. Обязательные поля помечены *