TITLE: 'A Dark Kingdom' (1)
AUTHOR: N.A. Dobroliubov
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
It is clear from this that the main virtue of the writer-artist lies in the truth of his images; otherwise, false conclusions may be drawn from them, and, depending upon their attractiveness, false ideas. But how should we understand the truth of artistic images? Strictly speaking, writers never concoct unconditional falsity: it is impossible to say that the passions and platitudes of even the most absurd novels and melodramas are unconditionally false - that is, impossible, even as an abnormal occurrence. But the falsity of such novels and melodramas lies precisely in the fact that they seize upon the random, sham features of real life, and not its essential constituents, its characteristic particularities. They are also false in the sense that, were one to extrapolate theoretical concepts on the basis of them, one might then arrive at utterly false ideas. For example, there are authors who have devoted their talents to the glorification of scenes of licentiousness and degenerate adventures; they show this licentiousness in such a way that, were they to be believed, it would seem that mankind's sole blessing lies in this alone. This, clearly, is an absurd conclusion, although there are of course those who, depending on the extent of their maturity, are incapable of understanding any other blessing... There have been other, even more absurd writers, who have extolled the valour of those warmongering, feudal lords who spilt rivers of blood, burnt towns to the ground, and robbed their vassals. There is no outright falsehood in the descriptions of such plunderers' feats: nevertheless, the eulogies used and the light in which they are shown testify clearly to the fact that the soul of the author contains no feeling for human truth. Any sort of narrowness or exclusivity is already a hindrance to the artist's observance of the truth. The artist must, therefore, either retain his simple, childishly direct vision of the whole world absolutely intact, or (since this is completely impossible in life) must save himself from narrowness, and broaden his views to the greatest possible extent by mastering those common concepts that have been developed by men of reason. Here, the connection between art and science may be rendered noticeable. An unobstructed embodiment of the highest ideas in living images, accompanied by a full consciousness of the higher significance shared by every fact of life, even the most specific and random - this is the ideal in which science and poetry come together, and which has not been attained by anyone, until now. The artist whose general ideas are governed by correct principles possesses, nevertheless, an advantage over the immature or falsely-developed writer, insofar as he is able more freely to pay heed to the remonstrations of his artistic nature. His immediate sense always correctly indicates subjects to him; but when his general ideas are fallacious, then a battle, doubts, and indecision inevitably arise within him, and his work will turn out to be weak, colourless, and inelegant, even if it is not rendered utterly false by this. On the other hand, when the artist's general concepts are correct and are in complete harmony with his nature, then this harmony and unity are also reflected in the work. Reality is then reflected in the work of art more clearly and vividly, and it may all the more easily lead the thinking man to correct conclusions, and, it follows, to have more vital significance.
[...] By acknowledging that the main quality of a work of art is its truthfulness to life, we also denote the measure by which the degree of quality and significance of each literary phenomenon is determined. By estimating the depth of the author's penetration into the very essence of the phenomenon, and the breadth of his grasp of various aspects of life in his works, we may also determine the greatness of his talent. All interpretation would be worthless without this. Mr Fet (2) has talent, for example, and so does Mr Tiutchev, (3) but how may their respective significance be determined? Indubitably, by examining the fields which each attains, and in no other way. It will then also be evident that the talent of one of them appears in full force only when it captures fleeting impressions of tranquil natural phenomena, while the other has access not only to this, but to burning passion, austere energy, and a profundity of thought that is aroused not only by natural phenomena, but by ethical questions and social considerations. Any demonstration of this would of course contain an assessment of both poets' talent. Without any sort of aesthetic considerations (which are frequently very vague), readers would then understand the place in literature to which each poet belongs. This is how we propose to proceed with Ostrovskii's (4) works. The entire preceding exposition has led us to the current point of acknowledging that a faithfulness to reality and a living truth may constantly be observed in Ostrovskii's works, and that these stand at the forefront before any sorts of tasks or hidden motifs. But this is still not enough, since Mr Fet, too, expresses direct impressions from nature very accurately; it does not follow, however, that his poems are of any great significance in Russian literature. Hence, in order to say something specific about Ostrovskii's talent, we cannot limit ourselves to the general conclusion that he represents reality accurately: we must also demonstrate the breadth of the field that is subject to his scrutiny, the extent to which the aspects of those facts in which he is interested are significant, and the depth to which he penetrates them. In order to do this a practical examination of the content of his works is essential.
[...] Without comparing the significance of Ostrovskii with that of Gogol in the history of our development, we shall nevertheless note that it is always possible to find profoundly true, striking features in Ostrovskii's comedies, regardless of the theories under whose influence they were written: features which demonstrate that the artist's apprehension of living truth has never deserted him and has never allowed him to distort reality for the sake of a theory. And since this is the case, this means that neither could the general features of the artist's worldview be utterly destroyed by errors of reason. He might not have chosen living facts (in which a given idea is reflected in the best way) for his images; he might have supplied a tenuous connection between them, and not interpreted them utterly accurately, but, since his artistic flair did not betray him, and since truth has been preserved in his work, criticism is obliged to use his works as much to explain reality as to characterise the artist's talent, and not in the least to castigate him for ideas which perhaps did not even occur to him. Criticism must declare: 'here are the people and events depicted by the author; here is the subject of the play; and this is its meaning (which, in our opinion, contains real-life facts as depicted by the author), and this is the extent of their significance in society'. In the course of such a judgement it will become clear of its own accord whether or not the author himself has accurately observed the images he has created. If, for example, he tries to infer a universal type from some person whom criticism shows to be of minor and specific significance, then it is clear that the author's false view of the hero has damaged the work of art. If he makes certain facts dependent upon each other, and critical consideration demonstrates that such facts never exist in such a state of dependence, but are contingent upon utterly different reasons, then again it is self evident that the author has incorrectly understood the connection between the events he has represented. Criticism, however, should be very cautious in its conclusions here: if, for example, the author rewards a scoundrel at the end of his play, or depicts a noble but stupid man, this is still a long way from the conclusion that he wants to justify scoundrels or believes all noblemen to be fools. Here criticism should merely consider whether, according to its own understanding of intelligence and nobility, the person whom the author shows as a noble fool is really such, and it should then ask whether the significance the author bestows upon his characters is that which they possess in real life.
Such, in our opinion, should be the approach of genuine criticism to works of art; such, in particular, should be the approach to the writer when reviewing his literary activity as a whole.Criticism may be distracted by specifics and accuse the writer of having elucidated them insufficiently with regard to a particular work. In a general account, however, an exposition of the writer's general worldview as it is manifested in the entire body of his works should occupy the foreground, and specifics may be disregarded. And the way in which this exposition is expressed is determined by those subjects and phenomena which have drawn the artist's attention and sympathy, and which have served as the material for his depictions. [...]