“Vissarion the furious” was the founding father of Russian literary criticism. During his short life he wrote with “mercurial speed and fanatical enthusiasm.” “Somehow I always run to extremes,” he was to say of himself. Belinskii came from a modest background but soon symbolized the appearance of a new vocal class in Russia, the intelligentsia, those concerned about the state of Russian society and who saw in art and literature a means of improvement. He was also a raznochinets (someone not of the gentry), who had to survive upon his own capabilities as a writer and literary critic.
After studying for three years at Moscow University, Belinskii was expelled for writing a play entitled Dmitrii Kalinin which criticized serfdom (although the official reason was because of poor health). He then went on to become the chief literary critic of the most important journals of the day: Teleskop (The telescope), Moskovskii Nabliudatel’ (The Moscow observer), Otechestvennye Zapiski (Fatherland notes), and Sovremennik (The contemporary). However, the pressures of journalism left him little time for polishing or refining his thoughts and style. In the same way, he paid almost no attention to the style or use of language of the writers he was criticizing. For him, content was the most important issue: language was meant to communicate, not be an end in itself. Belinskii’s own style was erratic, ponderous, and diffuse, marked by repetition, digression, too many quotations, incessant polemic, rhetorical overemphasis aiming at immediate and startling effects, and elementary explanations for a public whose level of critical discrimination was still very low.
After an early infatuation with German idealism and his famous essay “Ideia iskysstva” (1841; “The Idea of Art”), which is saturated with Hegelianism, Belinskii came to see art and literature as primarily utilitarian. It had to go beyond the aesthetic, the romantic, the fantastic, and the grotesque; it had to transform society. He urged literature to be “natural, original and national.” In this sense he accomplished much in encouraging the birth of a national Russian literature after Russian writers of the 18th century had spent most of their time imitating the French classical writers. He was in good part responsible for the fame that Nikolai Gogol’, Mikhail Lermontov, Fedor Dostoevskii, and Ivan Turgenev enjoyed. However, he always rejected naturalism and would not have appreciated a writer such as Émile Zola. In his essay “Gore ot uma” (1840; Woe from wit) he wrote: “A man drinks, eats, and dresses—this is a world of phantoms…but as man feels, thinks and recognizes himself as an organ, a vessel of the spirit, a finite particle of the general and the infinite—this is the world of reality.”
As a critic, Belinskii did not use the methodology of French or English critics, who worked close to the text. He never wrote systematic treatises. However, he made up for this lack of method by his complete belief in the power of literature. If he liked a literary work, he put his heart and soul into it, fulfilling Victor Hugo’s belief that “true criticism begins with enthusiasm.” As an essayist he was a powerful and passionate writer; many of his sayings were adopted by the Soviet regime. For example, after his conversion to socialism (c. 1841–42), Belinskii wrote “my God is negation” and “men are so witless that they must be led to happiness by force.” In a letter toV. P.Botkin he wrote:
“Socialism, socialism—or death! That is my motto. What care I for the existence of the universal when individuality is suffering? What care I if genius on earth live in heaven when the crowd is wallowing in the dirt?… My heart bleeds and shudders when I view the crowd and its representatives… And that is life: to sit in the street in rags with an idiotic expression of face collecting farthings in the daytime to be spent on booze in the evening—and men see it and no one cares about it!”
Belinskii greatly influenced Russian national tastes. His dislike of Slavic folklore and Old Russian literature affected the Russian population for an entire century. But he also refined the Russian language by introducing into it a large body of abstract, philosophical, and literary terminology. All in all, the tone and methods he used set the standard for all Russian 19th-century literary criticism. After the Revolution he became enshrined in the official Marxist-Leninist social realist school of literary criticism.
In his last piece, “Pis’mo k Gogoliu” (1847; “Letter to Gogol’”), Belinskii criticized Russian society and the role of religion in society. In it he wrote: “The basis of religion is pietism, reverence, fear of God. Whereas the Russian man utters the name of the Lord while scratching himself somewhere.” Belinskii addressed Gogol’, who in Izbrannye mesta iz perepiski s druz’iami (1847; Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends) had given an odd defense of the status quo. Belinskii wrote: “One could endure an outraged sense of self-esteem, and I should have sense enough to let the matter pass in silence were that the whole gist of the matter; but one cannot endure an outraged sense of truth and human dignity; one cannot keep silent when lies and immorality are preached as truth and virtue under the guise of religion and the protection of the knout [flogging whip].” It was during a reading of this letter by the Petrashevskii circle that Dostoevskii was arrested. The article went on to become the manifesto of Russian liberals for decades to come.
Vissarion Grigorievich Belinskii. Born 12 July 1811 in Sveaborg, Finland. Studied at a gymnasium in Penza, from 1825; Moscow University, 1829–32: expelled for writing a play seen to oppose serfdom. Wrote for Teleskop, 1834–36; editor, Moskovskii Nabliudatel’, 1838–39; moved to St. Petersburg, 1839; critic, Otechestvennye Zapiski, 1839. Married Mariia Vasil’evna Orlova, 1843: one son (died, 1847) and one daughter.
Suffered from tuberculosis and went abroad briefly, May-November 1847. Wrote briefly for Sovremennik, 1847. Died (of consumption) in St. Petersburg, May 1848.
Essays and Related Prose
Selected Philosophical Works, 1956
Belinsky, Chernyshevsky, and Dobrolyubov: Selected Criticism, edited by Ralph E.Matlaw, 1962
Other writings: many articles for journals (not collected during his life) and the play Dmitrii Kalinin (c. 1832).
Collected works edition: Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 13 vols., 1953–59
Annenkov, P.V., The Extraordinary Decade: Literary Memoirs, edited by Arthur P.Mendel, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1968
Bowman, Herbert E., Vissarion Belinski, 1811–1848: A Study in the Origins of Social Criticism in Russia, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1954
Proctor, Thelwall, Dostoevskij and the Belinskij School of Literary Criticism, The Hague: Mouton, 1969
Stacy, R.H., Russian Literary Criticism: A Short History, Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1974: Chapter 3
Terras, Victor, Belinskij and Russian Literary Criticism: The Heritage of Organic Aesthetics, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1954
Turgenev, Ivan, Literary Reminiscences, New York: Farrar Straus Cudahy, 1958;
London: Faber, 1959 (original Russian edition, 1874)
Wellek, René, A History of Modern Criticism: 1750–1950, 3. The Age of Transition, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982: Chapter 7 (original edition, 1965)
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