G.V. Plekhanov: Belinsky and Rational Reality



Lucifer: Was not thy quest for knowledge?
Cain: Yes, as being the road to happiness.
– Byron, Cain, a Mystery.

Chapter I

“THE ROOT question of Hegel’s influence upon Belinski’s world outlook has been posed by most Russian critics, but it has been analyzed by none with the necessary thoroughness ‘through a comparison of Belinski’s well-known views with their original sources,” says Mr. Volynski: “No one has analyzed attentively enough Belinski’s esthetic ideas in their original content, nor subjected them to impartial judgment on the basis of a definite theoretical criterion.” (A. Volynski, Russian Critics, p.38.)

All of this is by no means surprising because prior to Mr. Volynski’s appearance among us, there existed no “real” philosophy, nor was there any “real criticism.” If some of us did happen to know something, we knew it merely in a confused, disorderly way. By way of compensation, as of now, thanks to Mr. Volynski, we shall all rapidly set ourselves in order and enrich our meager Stock of learning. As a guide Mr. Volynski is quite reliable. Observe, for instance, how neatly he solves “the root question of Hegel’s influence upon Belinski’s world outlook.”

“Maturing and developing, in part under the influence of Stankevich’s circle, in part independently by digesting his impressions of Nadezhdin’s articles, Belinski’s thought swiftly attained its peak, and its highest pitch of enthusiasm, For Belinski, the Schelling period had already concluded by 1837; and Hegel’s philosophy, as it reached him through talks with friends, through magazine articles and translations, occupied a central place in his literary and intellectual pursuits. And so it is precisely here, and most strikingly, that there emerges Belinski’s inability to draw independent logical conclusions concerning political and civil questions in which philosophic theorems are involved; systematic thought was beyond Belinski’s powers. He was astounded by Hegel’s doctrine, but he lacked the strength to think this doctrine through, in all its several parts and several conclusions.

“Hegel charmed his imagination, but provided no impetus to Belinski’s mental creativeness. For the complete analysis of the basic propositions of idealism, one had to arm oneself with patience. It was necessary to call a halt for a while to flights of fancy and of emotion, so as to give them new wings later on. But Belinski was incapable of calmly poking and prying into the truth – and his whole Hegelianism, together with his infatuation with Schelling, as expounded by Nadezhdin, was bound in the end to degenerate into thought that was inharmonious, shot through with logical mistakes, admixed with queer dreams of a conciliationist-conservative bent.” (ibid., p.90.)

Mr. Volynski was thus greatly shocked by Belinski’s temporary conciliation with reality; and he is able to explain it in one way only, namely, Belinski grasped Hegel poorly. To tell the truth, this explanation is not exactly new. It may be found in the memoirs (My Past and Thoughts) of A.I. Herzen, as well as in the recollections of I.S. Turgenev and even in a letter by N.V. Stankevich to Neverov, written almost immediately after the publication of Belinski’s famous articles on the Battle of Borodino and on Menzel, Critic of Goethe. What is Mr. Volynski’s own is composed of snide comments concerning the ignorance of Belinski coupled with subtle hints anent the unquestionable and incomparable superiority of his own (Mr. Volynski’s) Prometheus of Our Times.

At first glance the above explanation reproduced by Mr. Volynski – and it circulates in several versions – appears quite plausible. Hegel proclaimed: Was wirklich ist, das ist vernünftig (what is real is rational); and on this basis Belinski rushed to proclaim as rational, and by this token, sacred and untouchable, the whole rather unpretty Russian reality of his times; and he started passionately to attack everybody who was not satisfied with it. The articles in which Belinski expressed these conciliationist views were “nasty” articles, as the liberal Granovski said moderately and accurately at the time. But Hegel bears no responsibility for them; he put a special meaning into his doctrine of rational reality and this special meaning escaped Belinski who neither knew the German language nor had the capacity for “pure thought.”

Later on, and especially under the influence of his moving to Petersburg, he saw how cruelly wrong he had been; he perceived the true attributes of our reality and cursed his fatal straying into error. What can be more simple than all of this? Sad to say, however, this explanation simply explains nothing.

Without entering into an examination of all the different variants of the foregoing explanation, let us take note here that our present-day “advanced” patriae patres (honor-laden sociologists included) look upon Belinski’s articles on Borodino and on Menzel through the same eyes as the biblical patriarch must have regarded the “youthful errors” of his prodigal son. Magnanimously forgiving the critic-genius his “metaphysical” strayings, these “advanced” persons are loath to refer to them, in accordance with the folk-saying, “Whosoever recalls the past, stands to lose an eye.” But this does not deter them from hinting, relevantly or irrelevantly, that they, the “advanced” persons, who while still virtually in diapers grasped all the philosophic and sociological truths; they hint, I say, that they understand perfectly the whole profundity of those strayings into error and the whole horror of that “fall” into which Belinski was led by his misplaced and imprudent – but happily, only temporary – passion for “metaphysics.”

Betimes young writers are also reminded of this “fall,” particularly those who tend to be disrespectful toward the Crowned Ones of literature, those who dare doubt the correctness of our “advanced” catechism, and who turn to sources abroad in order better to clarify for themselves the problems which are agitating modern civilized humanity. These young writers are told: “Watch out! Here’s an example for you ...”

And in some instances, young writers do take fright at this example, and from being disrespectful turn into being respectful; and they mockingly pay their respects to “foreign philosopher caps” and prudently “make progress” in accordance with our home-developed “recipes of progress.” In this way, Belinski’s example serves to shore up the authority of our “honor-laden sociologists.”

According to one such sociologist, namely Mr. Mikhailovski, Belinski was nothing all his life but a martyr to the truth. As an art critic he was remarkably gifted. “Many years shall pass, many critics shall be replaced, and even methods of criticism, but certain esthetic verdicts of Belinski shall remain in full force. But in return only in the field of esthetics was Belinski able to find for himself a virtually uninterrupted sequence of delights. No sooner did an esthetic phenomenon become complicated by philosophic and politico-moral principles than his flair for truth betrayed him to a greater or lesser extent, while his thirst (for truth) remained unslaked as before, and it is just this which made of him a martyr to the truth, the martyr that emerges in his correspondence.” (See the article Proudhon and Belinski, with which Mr. Pavlenkov saw fit to adorn his edition of Belinski’s works.)

Since the flair for truth generally betrayed Belinski each time an esthetic phenomenon became complicated by philosophic and politico-moral principles, it goes without saying that the period of Belinski’s infatuation with Hegel’s philosophy falls under this same general law. This entire period in Belinski’s life obviously rouses nothing in Mr. Mikhailovski’s breast except a feeling of compassionate sympathy toward the “martyr to the truth,” coupled, perhaps, with a feeling of indignation toward “metaphysics.” Compassionate sympathy walks here arm in arm with great respect. But this respect pertains exclusively to Belinski’s truthfulness with regard to the philosophic and “politico-moral” ideas expressed by him at the time; Mr. Mikhailovski sees nothing in them except “rubbish.”

Substantially this view on Belinski’s period of temporary conciliation is identical with the view of Mr. Volynski cited previously. The difference is this, that in Mr. Mikhailovski’s opinion the conciliation “came from under the spell of Hegel,” whereas in Mr. Volynski’s opinion, borrowed by him from Stankevich, Herzen, Granovski, Turgenev and others, Hegel had nothing whatever to do with it. But both Mr. Volynski and Mr. Mikhailovski are firmly convinced that Belinski’s conciliationist views are erroneous from top to bottom.

However authoritative are the opinions of these two stout fellows – of whom the one is as potent in sociology as the other is in philosophy – I take the liberty of not agreeing with them. I think that precisely during this conciliationist period of his development, Belinski expressed many ideas which are not only fully worthy of a thinking being (as Byron once somewhere said), but which merit to this day the utmost attention of all who seek a correct standpoint in order to evaluate the reality around us. To prove this theoretical approach, I must begin from somewhat afar. ...

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