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Alexander Pushkin and His Influence

To try and weigh Pushkin’s influence in Russian literature and aesthetics is far beyond a five-page essay. However, this paper will attempt to provide a rough outline of the basic ideas on aesthetics and social life that Pushkin proposed and, due to his tremendous stature as Russia’s first major poet, see its influence on nineteenth century Russian letters.

The basic thesis is that Pushkin’s great influence over all Russian art can be termed its “moral realism,” or the idea that art is to be prophetic, unmasking falsehoods (represented by the city and its obsession with “numbers”) in the name of truth (represented by the country and its love of “commitment”). Pushkin was very flexible in terms of basic style and genre, some have claimed he rejected the very concept of genre and sought the best style to fit his subject matter (Bristol, 25).

But, according to many in this field, Dostoyevsky included, his primary style was to act as a social prophet, likely his most pronounced influence over Russian art (Davidson, 497). For Pushkin, Belinsky, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, the artist was a prophet, marked by a heightened sense of perception and social depth. Russian art was to be social in character, and had little use for the classical style in general or really, anything detached from the concept of social progress.

Pushkin was the originator of this approach to art, and even until the present day remains the central figure in arranging and understanding the way Russia approaches literature. In terms of actual works, both Eugene Onegin (1837) and the “Queen of Spades” (1833) speaks to this significant center of Pushkin’s and therefore Russia’s approach to aesthetics. Onegin and Queen are opposites of each other, each expressing in nearly pure form the relation of social life to art and poetry.

Onegin, like so much of Pushkin’s social approach to his art, confronted the rural purity to the urban depravity, something important to Gogol, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Without understanding Pushkin’s views on the rural world (represented by the purity and sensitivity of Tatiana), his views on Russia and the social role of the artist make no sense. Onegin himself represents all that is false about the city, especially that most “artificial” of all cities, St. Petersburg.

This is also powerfully put forth in “The Bronze Horseman,” where nature will always win over urbanization, as truth will always win over falsehood and illusion again, represented by numbers and their application, or the ordering of civilization. Like Tolstoy, the point of the artist in Pushkin is not to represent life, for that would mean the representation of lies and manipulation. It is to expose life. This is Pushkin’s most powerful contribution to Russian literature and this contribution made Russian literature as distinct as it is.

In Onegin, the confrontation is between the false and artificial city of Petersburg against the rural innocence of the countryside and its pure female types. Onegin cannot see love as anything but hedonism, as is typical of urban life, but Tatiana sees love as it should be, commitment and life-struggle. The falsity of Petersburg is to be found in its hedonism and that hedonism’s connection with money and class status. Ultimately, this is all that matters in Peter’s monstrous city. It is no accident that Pushkin fantasies of its destruction in the Horseman.

But the “Queen of Spades” is a “pure type” of this Petersburgian approach to the world. Hermann in this short story is the very extreme manifestation of Onegin, without any of the latter’s redeeming features. Hermann is the perfect example of the mentality of Peter I, and cares about only money, numbers, fraud and ultimately, his own hedonistic enjoyment. The very fact that the story concerns both the obsession with numbers (the language of mathematics and hence, civilization), and its use in defrauding people (not to mention killing the Countess), for Pushkin perfectly summarize the Petersburg mentality pushed to extremes.

Hermann in this story is Onegin had he not met the rural beauty in Tatiana. The real tragedy in Onegin is that as the latter begins to reform and see the lies of urban life, it is Tatiana who marries an aristocrat of Peter’s city and hence becomes tainted by Onegin’s urban virus (Cravens, 683-685). This confrontation of rural to urban life is central to Russian literature and hence is one of the great contributions of Pushkin, taken to extremes by Tolstoy and evens the Slavophiles.

In Davidson’s (2002) work on this subject, she holds that the basic “prophetic” role of the Russian writer coming from Pushkin onwards requires a powerful moral cleansing in order to see the world more clearly than the average person (Davidson, 499). In fact, she holds that Gogol, in his defense of Pushkin, held that there is an immediate relation between the moral purity of the writer and the prophetic role of the artist. This, again, was taken to extremes by Tolstoy, who held that art itself was so tainted with the urban civilization of modern society that it was nearly impossible to perform with a pure heart (Asmus, 210).

For Pushkin, the world of numbers is the world of mechanization and urban “order. ” Numbers are not merely the language of mathematics and science, but are also the language of civilization (Hermann is an engineer after all). But civilization, as Tolstoy would agree, is really the ordering of social masks, and hence, it is the job of the writer to destroy the masks and expose the fraud of “real life. ” This is the real distinction in Russian letters, that ultimately, the world of numbers is false, however tidy are the theories and equations (cf.

Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground). Numbers are an assault on freedom and commitment. They are an assault on love. Numbers are the world of domination, not of equality. Dostoyevsky’s underground man rails at the world of quantity in that it is so neat and tidy, it makes one want to rebel in an existential rage against the pure determinism of numbers. Love and the rural world does not partake of the dead determinism of numbers, feelings know no such determinism.

If anything, it is Onegin’s hedonism and Petersburg influence that cause him to be less free than Tatiana, whose feelings and innocence are her guides. Of course, Hermann represents all that is wrong in urban life. Pushkin and Dostoyevsky both shared an addiction to gambling, and the “Queen of Spades” is mirrored to some extent in the latter’s The Gambler, both dealing with the reign of quantity and its influence on social class and social illusion. Craven’s (2002) work is important here because he brings up the influence of Kant on Russian letters.

Speaking simply, Immanuel Kant held that reality is a projection of the human mind, using the unknowable source of all perception as building blocks for actual understandable sensation. This modified form of idealism works perfectly with the Russian rejection of the reign of quantity, in that the urban and rural mentalities are actually personality types rather than “real,” external things. The obsession with numbers that represent civilization, social wealth and class, and the obsessive mentality of Hermann is not about what is “really” out there.

The obsession with order is a personality type, a basically pathological one. There is no more order in order and civilization than there is in the forest, but some personality types feel more comfortable in the urban environment, one that is artificial and hence, matches the artificial, self-centered and hedonistic personality. Both Dostoyevsky and Pushkin see this as the bad side of western influence, and are artistically symbolized by Hermann, a German name.

In Dostoyevsky’s famed “Pushkin Speech,” the great heir to Pushkin holds that this approach to art will save the west, and serves as Russia’s international mission. While the types that Pushkin creates are of the Russian soil, they are at the same time international types. Reading Notes from Underground, Dostoyevsky makes more sense here, since he is trying to rescue the west from its obsession with science and mathematics in favor of freedom and the internal bonds so important to the Russian heirs to Pushkin.

Kant laid out a purely human centered world, where even reality itself becomes a product of the human mind. Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Pushkin want to rescue the western world from such illusions and reintroduce them to the rural life, the life of simplicity and truth and the art that represents such truth. The world of urban life, that of numbers, is seen in the mental dislocation of Hermann and his compulsion to get the “winning combination” of numbers that will permit him a life of ease.

Putting this differently, the mentality of Onegin or Hermann, manifested in the world of Petersburg, is the domination of German science. But so is the gambling addiction that nearly destroyed Pushkin and Dostoyevsky, and was, at the time, destroying the old rural aristocracy. Urbanization represents falsehood, the world of the scientist, the gambler, the super wealthy and political power. Rural life represented truth, social solidarity and purity. Imports from the west included an obsession with social class that introduced institutionalized falsehood into Russian society.

Hence, Russia had a mission to bring the world to knowledge of this truth, to use art to morally expose the fraud of the modern world. Thought here is an active force, one that serves as a moral solvent to the evils of urban life (Asmus, 197). Hence, the real influence of Pushkin concerns the moral uses of art. Asmus lays out four general approaches to art that have come to characterize Russia and all deriving from Pushkin: first, art of action and active thought, that art concerns the concrete, the real object, not some idealization of it.

Third, that the point of this realism is to transform reality, to identify those aspects of one’s subject matter that, if treated properly, could bring about social progress, and lastly, to unmask the pretensions of the urban mentality and its essential foreignness (Asmus, 200-204). This is a fitting conclusion to Pushkin’s influence: there is no pure art, art is an active, demystifying force. Reality is seen not as static, but in motion, and represented, as a consequence, as possibility (Asmus, 208).

References: Asmus, V. “The Basic Traits of the Classical Russian Aesthetic. ” Philosophical and Phenomenological Research, 6, 1945, 195-211 Bristol, Evelyn. “The Pushkin ‘Party’ in Russian Poetry. ” Russian Review, 40, 1981, 20-34, Cravens, Craig. “Lyric and Narrative Consciousness in Eugene Onegin. ” The Slavic and Eastern European Journal, 46, 2002, 683-709 Davidson, Pamela. “The Moral Dimension of the Prophetic Ideal. ” Slavic Review, 61, 2002, 490-518 Dostoyevsky, Fedor. “Pushkin Speech. ” Art Russe. (Retrieved from artrusse. fr on July 27 2009).

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