Vissarion Belinsky – A Russian Idea, or When Critics Go Wild.

By Stephen Randorf

Reviewers and critics during Vissarion Belinsky’s time (1811- 48) desired to say something meaningful and important, something that would impact their society, and since authors have a special talent in word craft as well, they too were expected to use their skills for the benefit of society. That is, to write something meaningful and important; and it was the critic’s job to hold them, the artists, accountable for this purpose. As expressed by Isaiah Berlin:

 For him [Belinsky] the man and the artist and the citizen are one; and
 whether you write a novel, or a poem, or a work of history or philosophy,
 or an article in a newspaper, or compose a symphony or a picture, you
 are, or should be, expressing the whole of your nature, not merely a
 professionally trained part of it, and you are morally responsible as a
 man for what you do as an artist (Berlin 107).

We should also understand the role in which literature and literary magazines played during this period of Russian history. I think it is best if we look at them (novels and literary magazines) in the same manner in which we view our cable news talk shows vying back and forth for the viewer’s attention. During Belinsky’s time, the main outlet to express political opinions was the literary magazine, and what authors and critics wrote had great importance.

Most readers come across Vissarion Belinsky in reference to Fedor Dostoevsky (1821-81) and his first novel Poor Folk (1846), which was highly praised. What Belinsky found of merit in this short work was its humanitarian view point and realistic style (Proctor 58). When Dostoevsky diverged from this form of realism in his second story, The Double, Belinsky’s opinion also changed, no longer was Dostoevsky considered the great up-and-coming writer.

So let’s go a little deeper into the views of Vissarion Belinsky, after all, his opinions, even though they were stretched, expanded upon, and exaggerated, had a great impact on criticism and literature.

Belinsky had two strong underlying beliefs: “faith in the future and dissatisfaction with the present” (Proctor 45). He also believed in progress, “the progress of humanity” (44), as well as the fact that people were good, and it is society that distorts them (57). Understanding that, the rational approach would then be to show (in novels) how society does this and how the lives of its people are affected, and in this way people can then make the appropriate changes to society. In order to do this, however, it is necessary that there be a clear understanding of what these effects are. It is the responsibility of the artist to present the clearest possible picture of reality, so these effects can be seen and then changed. In a letter, Belinsky wrote:

 When I give a penny to a soldier I almost cry, when I give a penny to a beggar
 I run from him as if I had done something terrible, as if I did not wish to hear
 the sound of my own steps [. . .] Has a human being the right to forget himself
 in art or science, while this goes on? (qtd. in Berlin 194).

It is this role of presenting reality which Belinsky gives to the artist and the novelist, and in order to fulfill this role, the artist must portray society as accurately as possible, that is, to present life in the most realistic manner. Did not Stendhal write in The Red and the Black (1830) that the novel is a mirror being carried along the rode that reflects reality back at us? (Dickstein 6-7).

Not only did Belinsky believe that the novel must reflect life, but that the authors should be judged by how well this is done; that it was the critic’s role, the critic’s responsibility, to determine how accurate, the author “represents what exists” in society (Proctor 50).

As I have said, Belinsky had faith in the future, but was dissatisfied with the present (45), which was with Russian life in particular. Consequently, he ended up praising authors who espoused this same dissatisfaction. But he had a third element regarding the artist’s role in society, perhaps a more dangerous one, although at first it may appear benign, and that was the “impulse to act . . .” to change what is, “to accelerate the arrival of what ought to be . . .” (45). In effect, art is a “tool, a lever, an instrument” for this change (74). By presenting what is, one can examine it and change it to how it “ought to be.”

This “ought to be” was determined by whom? This goes back to the presentation of reality, the idea that if people see how they live, what is occurring in their lives, they themselves will, in a rational world, be able to change it. So, it is important for this reason that the way of life, the way one lives, is accurately portrayed and reflected back in works of art.

Belinsky lived a short life of 37 years. N. G. Chernyshevsky (1828-89) was an active author and critic during this same period and quickly moved into the role of Belinsky’s successor, although as Isaiah Berlin states, “he was not a man of original ideas” (Berlin 256). It was in 1863 that Chernyshevsky came out with his own novel Chto delat’? (What Is To Be Done?).

 But he [Belinsky] never believed that it was the duty of the artist to prophesy
 or to preach – to serve society directly by telling it what to do, by providing
 slogans, by putting its art in the service of a specific programme (Berlin 207).

It was Chernyshevsky who saw art as a substitute for life (Proctor 69) sort of as a stand in. So, once life was reproduced in art or literature (like a mirror reflecting everything back at us) life’s circumstances can be explained and judged. Proctor quotes Chernyshevsky:

 A poet or artist cannot, even if he wanted to, refuse to pronounce his
 judgment on the phenomena depicted, and this judgment is expressed in his
 work. This is another significance of art by which art becomes one of the
 moral activities of man (69).

Of course the “moral activities” would not be to change the art or the novel to make it a more pleasant representation of life, but to change life itself, because that is what art represents, once you can see how it is, the reality of life, then you can take action to transform it into what “ought to be.” And in this way, you would not be changing or judging art for what it portrays, but life’s circumstances, in order to create a better future. It was Chernyshevsky in his work What Is To Be Done? who took the author’s role one step further, and that was to give guidance and instruction on what is to be done, presenting what is and also what ought to be in the same novel. As Proctor explains Chernyshevsky:

 . . . what was “real” was that which ought to be. What is real exists, in
 part, in the actual world, but more fully and completely in potentiality
 (in the actual world of the future, as transformed by man’s activity) . . . (71).

As I mentioned in the opening, it was the critic’s task to hold the artist accountable for this purpose, which may not necessarily be the artist’s or the author’s purpose. It should be pointed out that it was the critic who was determining this role for the author, which may not necessarily be the purpose the author had intended. It is here where things get a bit touchy, because the artist may have had something completely different in mind. Instead of using his or her creative work as a “tool, a lever, an instrument” for change, he or she may have wished to create art for its own sake, as they say: art for art’s sake, or for purely entertainment purposes. Either way, this leads to another debate.

We should not forget that it was because of these ideas first espoused by Belinsky and later Chernyshevsky, M. A. Dobrolyubov (1836-61), Dmitry Pisarev (1840-68), which were later adopted for political purposes by Maxim Gorky, Stalin and others, that poets and writers such as Osip Mandelstam and Isaac Babel to name a couple, and later the Night of the Murdered Poets, lost their lives because they chose to express their own opinions on art.

~ ~ ~

Works Cited:
Berlin, Isaiah Sir., Henry Hardy, and Aileen M. Kelly. Russian Thinkers. London:
 Penguin, 1978.
Dickstein, Morris. A Mirror in the Roadway, Literature and the Real World. Princeton:
 Princeton University Press, 2005.
Night of the Murdered Poets.,
Proctor, Thelwall. Dostoevskij and the Belinskij school of literary criticism. The Hague:
 Mouton & Co., 1969.

Copyright © 2017 Stephen Randorf