TITLE: 'A speech on criticism' (1)
AUTHOR: V.G. Belinskii
THIS VERSION: Copyright © 2002 Carol Adlam; all rights reserved. Notes by Carol Adlam and Robert Russell. Redistribution, or republication of this text in any medium requires the consent of the translator.
Introduction to the text
Yes, the blessed times have passed irretrievably of that marvellous era of humanity when feeling and imagination provided the answers to all questions, and when abstract idealism constituted life's joy. The world has grown up: it needs not the gaudy kaleidoscope of the imagination, but the microscope and telescope of reason, to draw the distant near and render visible the invisible. Reality - this is the slogan, the final word of the modern world! Everywhere, and in everything, the real is the first and final word of our age: reality in facts, in knowledge, in convictions of thought, in conclusions of the mind. Our age knows that it is better to leave a blank space on the map of Africa than to make the Niger flow from clouds and a rainbow. How many courageous explorers sacrifice their lives for geographical facts, merely in order to prove what is real! For our age, the discovery of a sandy desert that really exists is more important than to believe in the existence of an Eldorado that has never been seen by mortal eyes. Our age has no need of distracting trinkets, pleasant deceptions, childish baubles, or joyful, comforting lies. If falsity were to stand before it in the form of a young and beautiful woman, beckoning it, smiling, into her luxuriant embraces, while truth appeared as death's terrible skeleton, flying on a gigantic horse and with scythe in hand, our age would turn from the seductive apparition with suspicion and hatred, and would throw itself into the fatal embrace of the skeleton... it would prefer to feel itself in the real embraces of the terrible spirit of death than to grasp for a phantom that will dissipate at the first touch... This is not scepticism in the least: on the contrary, this is the deification of a truth which threatens only the limitations of the individual person, but which is in itself both an eternal beauty and an eternal blessing. Scepticism despairs of truth and does not seek it; our age is nothing but question, striving, nothing but the quest and yearning for truth... It is not afraid that truth will deceive it, but it fears the falsehood which human limitation frequently accepts as truth.
[...] We have said that reason accepts a recognised truth, teaching, or real phenomenon only when it finds itself in them, as content is within form. It has only one way and one means of doing this: by separating of idea from form, by analysing elements that present themselves as the given truth of a given phenomenon. This activity of reason is far from a detestable anatomical proceeding that destroys something beautiful in order to determine its significance. Reason analyses a phenomenon in order to renew it with new beauty and new life - if reason finds itself within it. It is only those phenomena which reason declares extant in an empirical sense alone, having found nothing of itself within them, that perish as a result of the process of analytical reason. This process is also called 'criticism'. Many understand criticism as either a condemnation of the work under examination, or a determination of the good from the bad in it (this is the most vulgar understanding of criticism!) One cannot either assert or deny anything on the basis of personal whimsy, unmediated emotion or individual conviction: judgement is the property of reason, and individuals must make judgements in the name of common human reasons, and not on their own behalf. Expressions of like or dislike carry weight when they concern food, wines, trotting horses, hunting hounds, and so on: here they may have their own authority. But when we discuss phenomena of history, science, art, morality, then every I who casts judgement according to his own whim and without evidence, operating solely on the basis of personal feelings and opinion, is like a poor soul in a lunatic asylum who, paper crown on his head, grandly and successfully reigns over his imaginary people, dispensing punishment and benediction, declaring war and concluding peace, and is happy in that no one interferes with his harmless activity. To practice criticism means to search for and find within a particular phenomenon the general rules of reason by which and through which that phenomenon can exist, and to determine the extent of the living, organic correlation of that particular phenomenon to its ideal. And just as there are phenomena that fully express the general in the personal, the ideal in the finite, and phenomena that express this unity of the individual with the general only to a certain extent, so too are there phenomena that only aspire to this unity, while in actual fact being utterly alien to it. Hence criticism not only criticises unconditionally, or only praises and scolds, but also occasionally restricts itself to praise alone.
Here in Russia criticism in particular is misunderstood in the eyes of the masses: for many, to criticise means to rebuke, while criticism is one and the same thing as an abusive article. And as if that were not enough, satire and pasquinades are called 'criticism', as are prejudice, gossip and slander in the provinces and amongst the middle classes of society. To understand criticism in this manner is the same as confusing justice with accusation and retribution while forgetting about acquittal. Equally, criticism cannot be restricted to art alone, although its name is most often used with regard to art. Criticism derives from the Greek word meaning 'to judge': hence, in a broad sense, 'criticism' is the same as 'judgement'. Therefore criticism exists not just for works of art and literature: there is also criticism of the subjects of science, history, ethics, etc. Luther, (2) for example, was a critic of Papism, just as Bossuet (3) was a critic of history and Voltaire (4) a critic of feudal Europe.
Criticism always corresponds with those phenomena it judges: this is why it is the consciousness of reality. Thus, for example, what is Boileau, (5) Batteaux, (6) and La Harpe (7) but the heightened consciousness of that which is directly (as a phenomenon, as reality) expressed in the works of Corneille, Racine, Molière, and La Fontaine? (8) Here it is not art that has created criticism, nor criticism that has created art: each has arisen from a single, common spirit of the times. Each is equally the consciousness of the era - although criticism is philosophical consciousness, while art is unmediated consciousness. The content of each is the same: the difference is only in form. It is in this very circumstance that the importance of criticism lies, particularly for our time, which is primarily a thinking, judging, and consequently, criticising era. The spirit of the times is expressed in the criticism of our era, more than in anything else. What is the art of our times? It is a judgement and analysis of society; hence it is criticism. The thinking element has now merged with the artistic. The artistic work is dead for our era if it depicts life merely for the sake of depicting life, without any sort of powerful, subjective motivation that has its origin in the dominant thought of the times; if it is not a howl of suffering or a paean of delight, if it is not a question, or a response to a question. Given this, is it any wonder that criticism is the absolute ruler of the contemporary intellectual world? Nowadays the question of what will be said about a great work of art is no less important than the great work itself. Whatever is said about it, and however it is said, believe me, this will be read first of all, and will inflame passions and minds and inspire interpretations. It could not be otherwise: we have little to enjoy, and we want to know: for us, there is no pleasure without knowledge. Whoever says that he is delighted by a particular work, without accounting for that delight or investigating its reasons, is deceived. Delight at a work of art that is not understood is an excruciating delight. This is now the view not only of individual persons, but of the masses.
[...] It is axiomatic that beauty is the sine qua non of art, that there cannot be art without beauty. But art will not go far with beauty alone, particularly in our era. Beauty is the sine qua non of any emotional expression of an idea. We see this in nature, in which everything is beautiful except for those ugly phenomena which nature herself left incompletely formed and which she has concealed in the gloom of the earth and water (molluscs, worms, infusoria, and so on). But the beauty of empirical reality is not enough for us: admiring it, we nevertheless require another beauty, and refuse the name of art to the most exact copies of nature, to the most successful forgery of her works, which we call 'craft'. What, then, is that beauty that we demand of art, and for which our spirit, unsated by the beauty of nature, thirsts? It is the beauty of an ideal world, an incorporeal world, a world of reason, in which all the prototypes of living forms are contained for eternity, and whence comes everything that really exists. Hence beauty is the daughter of reason, as Aphrodite is the daughter of Zeus. The Greeks themselves nevertheless separated beauty from other aspects of existence, and deified it only in the ideal form of Aphrodite. Zeus's beauty is the beauty of the regal grandeur of sovereign reason: the beauty of other gods similarly expresses ideas other than beauty. And their poetry contained within its beautiful forms the entire content of Hellenic life: religion, ethics, science, wisdom, history, politics and society. But unconditional, absolute beauty - beauty as beauty - was expressed only in Aphrodite, whom sculpture alone could fully express. Hence it cannot be said without qualification, even of Greek art, that its sole aim was the embodiment of beauty. The content of each Greek tragedy is an ethical question, aesthetically resolved.
Christianity struck a decisive blow against unconditional adoration of beauty for beauty's sake. The Madonna's beauty is that of the ethical world, the beauty of virginal purity and maternal love: only painting was able to express this, while impoverished sculpture could not. Of course, whatever ethical expression one gives an ugly face it will never be beautiful; for this reason, Greek beauty did enter the new form of art, but as an element that was subordinate to another, higher principle. It became a means, rather than the goal, of art. Here, the word 'means' must not be understood as something external to art, but rather as signifying the unified form of a phenomenon that is characteristic of art, and without which art is impossible. And on the other hand, art with historical purport but which lacks reasoned content is surely able to please only die-hard lovers of art in the old tradition. Our age is particularly hostile to such a direction in art, and decisively rejects art for art's sake, beauty for beauty's sake. And he who discerns a particular beauty in the work of those artists and representatives of the latest art who have built their own fantastic world in the midst of contemporary reality, is sorely mistaken.
The spirit of our time is such that the greatest creative strength is only temporarily astonishing if it limits itself to 'bird song'; i.e. if it creates a world for itself that has nothing in common with the historical and philosophical reality of contemporaneity; if it imagines that the Earth is not worthy of it, that its place is in the clouds, and that worldly suffering and hopes should not disturb its enigmatic prophecies and poetic contemplation. Works of such a creative strength, however tremendous they may be, will never be a part of life, will never arouse joy and compassion amongst contemporaries or in posterity. [...]
From everything we have said it follows that art is subject to a process of historical development, like everything that is alive and absolute. The art of our time is an expression, rendered in beautiful images of modern consciousness, of contemporary thinking about the significance and aims of life, about the path of humankind, about the eternal truths of existence.
[...] It is true that analytical criticism, as the orator calls it, or historical criticism, as it is called in France and Germany, is essential. To bypass it, particularly now at a time when the century has taken a decisively historical turn, would be to kill off art, or even more quickly, to debase criticism. Each work of art must without fail be examined in relationship to the era, to historical contemporaneity, and with regard to the artist's relationship to society. An examination of the artist's life, character and so on may also frequently serve to elucidate his creation, although, on the other hand, one must not let the aesthetic requirements of art itself out of sight. The critic's prime task must be to determine the degree of aesthetic quality of a work of art. When a work cannot withstand critical analysis it is no longer worthy of historical criticism: for if a work of art were to be devoid of lively historical content, if the art were its own goal, then it might nevertheless possess a single quality, however one-sided. If, however, it bore no imprint of aesthetic or free inspiration, then by no means could it have any value, notwithstanding the presence of lively contemporary interests, and its interests, however vivid, would be senseless and clumsy, since they would be forcibly expressed in a form that is alien to them. The direct consequence of this is that there is no reason to divide criticism into different genera, but it is better to acknowledge a single criticism and to entrust it with all the elements and aspects from which the reality which art expresses is shaped. Historical criticism without aesthetic criticism, and aesthetic criticism without historical criticism would be one-sided and therefore false. Criticism must be a sole entity, and the variety of views within it must arise from a single common source, from a single system, a single contemplation of art. Such will be the criticism of our time, in which the multilayeredness of elements leads not to splintering and fragmentation, as was previously the case, but to unity and commonality.
[...] The question will arise: in what way can two different worldviews, historical and artistic, unite organically in one and the same criticism? Or, how can we ask a poet both to follow his inspiration and to serve the spirit of contemporaneity, without daring to leave its enchanted circle? This question is easy to resolve in both theoretical and historical terms. Every person - and it also follows, poet - experiences the inescapable influence of both time and place within himself. He absorbs these principles, that totality of ideas by which the society surrounding him lives, with his mother's milk. It is because of this that he becomes French, German, Russian, and so on: it is because of this, for example, that a man born in the twelfth century is honestly convinced that his most sacred duty is to burn at the stake those people who think differently from others, while a man born in the nineteenth century is religiously convinced that no one should be burnt or slaughtered, and that the business of society is not to avenge transgression, but to reform the criminal through punishment, thereby both satisfying the transgressed-against society and upholding the sacred law of Christian love and brotherhood. But humanity did not make a sudden leap from the twelfth to the nineteenth century: it had to live through six whole centuries, in the course of which it developed an understanding about the truth, at its own pace. This understanding acquired a particular form in each of these six centuries. It is this form that philosophy calls the moment of development of general human truth; while it is this same moment that should be the pulse of the poet's creations, their prevailing passion (pathos), their main motif, the fundamental chord of their harmony. One cannot live in the past and through the past while shutting one's eyes to the present: there would be something unnatural, false, and dead about that. Why did all the European painters of the Middle Ages paint nothing but Madonnas and saints? Because Christian religiosity was the overriding element of life in Europe at that time. After Luther all attempts to revive religious painting in Europe were in vain. 'But', some will say, 'if it is impossible to leave one's time, then there cannot be poets who are not of their time, and it follows that there is no point in taking up arms against what cannot be.' No, we reply, it not only can be, but it is, and particularly in our time.
The reason for such a phenomenon lies in those societies whose ideas are diametrically opposed to their reality, whose schools teach their children ethics for which they will now be ridiculed when they leave school. Unfortunately, these conditions of irreligiosity, collapse, disunity, individualism, and its inevitable consequence, egoism, are the all-too-clear features of our era! Under such conditions, in societies that live by old traditions that are no longer believed in, and that oppose any new truths that are discovered by science and developed out of historical movements - sometimes, under such social conditions, the most noble, most talented individuals feel alone and cut off from society, while those who are weaker in character willingly sacrifice themselves to, and profess, egoism and all society's vices, clearly thinking that this is how things should be, things cannot be otherwise: it didn't begin with us, they say, and neither will it end with us. Others (alas, frequently the best) retreat within themselves, despairingly shrugging aside that reality that offends feeling and reason. But such a means of salvation is false and egotistical: when there is a fire outside one should not run away from it, but towards it, in order to find a way to extinguish it with one's brothers. Many, however, have on the contrary turned this egotistical and small-spirited feeling into a principle, a doctrine, and a rule of life: finally, into a dogma of elevated wisdom. They are proud of this and they view with suspicion a world which, if you please, is not worth their sufferings and their joys. Ensconcing themselves in the fancy tower of their fantastic castle, and looking out of it through coloured glass, they sing to themselves, like birds... My God! Man has become a bird! What a truly Ovidian metamorphosis! (9) The entrancing force of German views of art has also been added to this; in these there is truly much profundity, truth, and light, but there is also much that is German, philistine, ascetic, and anti-social.
What are the results of this? The death of those talents which, directed otherwise, would have left clear traces of their existence behind them in society, and which could have developed, progressed, and matured in strength. This has also spawned 'microscopic' geniuses, great but petty people who truly demonstrate much talent and strength, but who just clatter around for a while before falling silent, perishing before their death, often in the prime of life, at the full height of their power and activity. Artistic freedom is readily at the service of contemporaneity: in order to do this, there is no need to force oneself, to write according to themes, or to do violence to the imagination. All that is necessary for this is to be a citizen, a son of one's society and of one's era, to appropriate its interests to oneself, to merge one's efforts with its efforts; for this, one needs sympathy, love, and a healthy, practical feeling for truth - a feeling which does not distinguish between conviction and action, and composition and life. That which enters the soul, penetrating it deeply, will reappear anew on its own. When a man is deeply shaken by passion, when he is exclusively occupied by a single thought, everything he thinks about in the daytime is repeated in his dreams. May creation, then, be a beautiful dream, repeating the sacred thoughts and noble sympathies of the artist in its sumptuous images! Whether it manifests itself in practical or social activity, or in science and art, talent in our era must be a virtue, or it will perish in and by itself. At last, humankind has arrived at convictions to which impure people, of their own accord, hesitate to give voice or express, in order not to condemn themselves. They know that society would not believe them, since they themselves would comprise the best repudiation of their ideas... [...].