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TITLE: A Ray of Light in 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 that by allying itself with scholastic pedants, and assuming the task of auditing literary works in the paragraphs of textbooks, criticism frequently finds itself in the following, miserable position: having sentenced itself to thraldom to the latest theory it thereby condemns itself to a constant, fruitless enmity to any sort of progress, to anything that is new and original in literature. The stronger the literary movement, the more embittered criticism becomes about it, and the more openly it expresses its toothless impotence. Searching for some sort of dead perfection, presenting us with obsolete, indifferent ideals, tossing us scraps torn from a good whole, the adherents of such criticism constantly stand to one side of living movement, and, shutting their eyes to new, vital beauty, are unwilling to grasp the new truths which have resulted from a new way of life. They regard everything haughtily and they judge harshly; they are ready to accuse any author of not being equal to their own chefs-d'oeuvres, and they neglect with impudence the author's actual relationship with his public and his era. For these, you see, are but 'fleeting interests', and a serious critic cannot compromise art by being distracted by such interests! What impoverished, callous people! How miserable they are in the eyes of one who is capable of valuing the business of life, its work and its blessings. An ordinary, sensible man will take what life gives him, and give what he can back to it; but pedants always seize what they can from on high, and paralyse life with their dead ideals and abstractions. Tell me, what should one think of a man who, when he sees a pretty woman, starts to argue that her waist is not like that of the Venus de Milo, (2) that the definition of her mouth is not as fine as that of the Venus de Medici, (3) that her glance does not contain the expression which may be found in Raphael's Madonnas, and so on and so forth. Such a man's arguments and comparisons may be very just and ingenious, but what is the point of them? Do they prove that the woman is not good looking? Are they in essence even capable of convincing one that the woman is not as fine as this or that Venus? Of course not, because beauty is contained not in separate features and contours, but in the overall facial expression and the living meaning which it shows. When that expression appeals to me, when I find that mind approachable and pleasing, then I simply surrender myself to beauty with all my heart and mind, and without making any kind of dead comparisons, or making claims that have been consecrated by artistic tradition. And if you really wish to affect me, if you want to make me admire beauty, then you must be able to capture its general significance, the breath of life within it, and you must be able to demonstrate and explain this to me - and only then will you achieve your goal. The same applies to truth: it does not lie in dialectical subtleties or in the accuracy of specific deductions, but in the living truth of what you debate. Make me understand the character of the phenomenon, its place amongst others, its meaning and significance in the general course of life, and in this way, believe me, you will bring me to a correct judgement about the matter, a judgement that will be far more accurate than any attained by all manner of syllogisms you have chosen in order to confirm your ideas. [...]

[...] We take as a measure of the worth of a writer or discrete piece of work the extent to which it serves as an expression of the natural aspirations of a given time and people. Reduced to their simplest denominator, the natural aspirations of humankind may be expressed in a couple of words as 'to make things good for everyone'. It is understandable that, when people strove for this, the essence of the matter demands that they had firstly to distance themselves from it: everyone wanted everything to be all right for himself, and in consolidating his own welfare, he hindered others, and we have still not managed to organise matters so that the one does not obstruct the other. Thus inexperienced dancers cannot control their movements and constantly stumble into other pairs of dancers, even in a fairly empty room. Then, when they have got used to it, they start to move around better even in a room of smaller capacity and with more people dancing in it. But it goes without saying that many couples cannot join the waltz until they have become adroit: many have to wait it out so as not to crash into each other, while the most clumsy may decline to dance at all and may perhaps join in a game of cards, and even lose... This is how life too used to be organised: the more nimble would carry on seeking out their own comforts while others who were sitting it out would occupy themselves with what they should not have done, and would lose out. A general holiday would be ruined from the start, since many would not feel up to merrymaking, having arrived at the conclusion that merrymaking is the business only of those who dance nimbly. Meanwhile, having looked after their own welfare, these nimble dancers would continue to pursue their natural inclinations, gaining more and more space for themselves and more and more means to be merry. Finally they lost all proportion; the others began to huddle together away from them, and they would leap from their place and jump up and down, no longer because they felt like dancing, but because sitting had now began to feel uncomfortable for them. At the same time in the midst of all this movement it turned out that there were some people who were not devoid of a certain agility, and who attempted to join the circle of merrymakers. But the initial, privileged dancers already very unkindly regarded them as uninvited, and did not allow them into their circle. A battle began, a varied, lengthy battle that was for the most part inauspicious for the newcomers: they were derided, spurned, they were condemned to cover the expense of the celebration; their women were taken from them, and the women's admirers banished from the celebrations. But the worse it becomes for people, the more they feel the need to make everything all right. Deprivation does not halt need, but exacerbates it; hunger can be appeased by food alone. This is why the battle is still not over. natural urgings - at one moment stifled, and at another emerging even more strongly - always strive to be satisfied. The essence of history lies in this.

At all times and in all spheres of human activity there have been people who are so robust, so gifted by nature, that these natural urgings have found an exceptionally strong voice in them, and are unable to be stifled. In practical terms they have frequently been made martyrs to their urges, but they have never passed by without a trace, they have never remained alone, and in public life have acquired a party, have made discoveries in the pure sciences, and in the arts and literature have organised schools. We shall not discuss public activists, whose role in history is surely comprehensible to all after what has been said on the previous page. We shall note, however, that great individuals in both scientific and literary matters have always preserved this above-mentioned characteristic - the strength of their natural, vital urges. Any distortion of these urges as a whole is congruent with the establishment of many absurd conceptions about the world and humankind; these conceptions, in their turn, hinder the common good.

[...] Those in the pure sciences who have made discoveries in the physical or astronomical realm, or who have established new philosophical principles, were able to hear the voice of the natural, healthy demands of the mind, and helped humankind to rid itself of certain artificial schema which had damaged the establishment of the common welfare. With each of these people, humanity took a new step towards the development of correct, natural ideas; and the importance of these steps allows us to determine the personal quality of each individual. The same applies to those in the applied sciences: technicians, mechanics, agronomists, and so on. We see the same in the spheres of the arts and in literature.

Until now a small role has been offered the man of letters in humanity's transition towards those natural principles from which it has deviated. In its essence literature has no active meaning: it either proposes what must be done, or portrays what is being and what has been done. In the first case, that is, in its proposals for future activity, it draws its materials and fundamentals from pure science; in the second, from the very facts of life. Thus, broadly speaking, literature is an auxiliary force whose significance consists in its ability to propagandise, while its worth is determined by what information it spreads and how it does so. In literature, though, several figures have now emerged who stand so tall in their ability to propagandise that they are unsurpassed by either those who work for the good of humanity in practical terms or people of the pure sciences. These writers have been so richly gifted by nature that they have succeeded, as if by instinct, in approaching those natural principles and strivings which, until then, only contemporary philosophers using the exact sciences had sought. What is more, these writer-geniuses have succeeded in grasping in life and depicting in reality that which the philosophers had only guessed at in theory. By thus serving as the most consummate representatives of the highest order of human consciousness in any given era, by surveying human and natural life from this elevated position and depicting it before us, these writers have overcome literature's servile role and have joined the ranks of those historical figures who have assisted humankind in the clearest realisation of its vital energies and natural inclinations. Shakespeare was such a writer. Many of his plays could be described as revelations in the realm of the human heart: his literary activity advanced people's general awareness to several levels which no one before him had attained, and towards which only a few philosophers previously had gestured from afar. This is why Shakespeare has such universal significance: he made visible several new stages in human development. But at the same time, Shakespeare stands outside the usual array of writers: while the names of Dante, Goethe, and Byron are frequently linked with his, it is difficult to say that any of them exposed a whole new phase of general human development so fully as did Shakespeare. As for ordinary talents, what remains for them is precisely that service role of which we have spoken. They offer nothing new to the world, nothing that is not known, they do not mark out new paths in the development of humankind as a whole, or even move it further along paths that are already known. They are therefore obliged to restrict themselves to more specific, specialist services: they bring the discoveries of humanity's eminent figures to mass consciousness, laying bare and explaining to people anything which is still vague and ill-defined for them. This usually takes place not by the literary practitioner adopting a philosopher's ideas from him and then introducing them in his work. No: both act independently of each other, both proceed from the same point of origin - living reality - but set about the matter in different ways. The thinker who observes that people are dissatisfied with their current position, for instance, will ponder all the facts and try to reveal new principles which might be able to satisfy their emerging demands. Observing the same dissatisfaction, the literary man (the poet) would draw his picture with such vitality that attention would linger on it, and it would in itself lead people to consider precisely what they need. The result is the same, and the significance of both figures would be the same, but the history of literature shows us that, with few exceptions, literary men are usually slower in this. While thinkers latch on to the most insignificant signs and, having indefatigably pursued the thought that they have hit upon to its utmost foundation, frequently discern a new movement while it is still in its most insignificant, embryonic form, literary men, for the most part, turn out to be less sensitive, seeing and depicting the emerging movement only when it is already fairly clear and powerful. On the other hand, they are closer to the views of the people and have more success with them [...]. Thus, in recognising that the main task of literature lies in its ability to disseminate information, we demand of it that it shows but one quality, without which it would have no worth: namely, truth. It is essential that the facts from which the author works and which he offers us are conveyed correctly. As soon as this is not the case the literary work loses any sort of significance and becomes even harmful, since it serves not the enlightenment of human consciousness, but, on the contrary, its greater obscuration. And then it would be to no purpose to look for any sort of talent in the author, apart from that of a liar, perhaps. In works of a historical nature the truth must be factual; in belles-lettres, where events are made up, this is replaced by the truth of logic, that is, by sensible probability and conformity to the existing course of events.

Yet truth comprises an essential condition of a work, not its value. We may judge its value according to the author's breadth of vision, accuracy of understanding, and the vivacity of the depiction of the phenomena upon which he has touched. And, above all, it is by such accepted criteria that we distinguish those authors who serve as representatives of the natural, correct aspirations of the people from those who act as instruments of various artificial tendencies and demands. We have already seen that artificial, social schema - the corollary of people's initial lack of skill in arranging their own wellbeing - have in many cases suppressed awareness of these natural demands. In the literatures of all peoples we find many writers who are utterly dedicated to artificial interests, and who are in no way concerned with the normal tendencies of human nature. These writers may not be liars, but their works are no less fallacious, and no qualities are visible in them other than those concerning form. All those singers, for example, of bright lights, the glories of war, slaughter, or looting on the orders of some ambitious man - all those composers of flattering dithyrambs, addresses, and madrigals - cannot have any sort of significance in our eyes, since they are so very remote from the natural ambitions and requirements of the people. In literature they compare with true writers, as, in the field of science, astrologists and alchemists compare with true naturalists, as books of dream interpretations compare with a course in physiology, or as fortune-telling books compare with theories of probability. Amongst those authors who do not distance themselves from natural conceptions we can distinguish those who are, to a greater or lesser degree, imbued with the vital necessities of the time; who, to a greater or lesser degree, embrace the progress made by humanity, and who, to a greater or lesser degree, sympathise strongly with it. There may be innumerable degrees of gradation here. One author may exhaust one particular issue; another, ten; a third author may place them all under a single, higher question, and put that question to the test; a fourth may point to issues which emerge in the course of the resolution of that greater question, and so forth. One author may coolly set forth the facts, in an epic manner, while another may, with the force of lyricism, take up arms against falsehood, celebrating virtue and truth. One author may take a surface approach and indicate the necessity of making discrete, exterior connections; another may seize everything by its roots, bringing to light the inner strength and beauty of the new edifice created in the course of the progress newly made by humankind. The means of representing the subject, and its exposition, will vary in accordance with the breadth of vision and strength of feeling of each author. This relationship of outer form to inner strength is easy enough to investigate: the critic's main task is to determine whether the author's standard meets the people's natural aims - those that have already emerged, or which must shortly do so, as the order of things demands. The critic must then determine the extent to which the author has been able to understand and express the essence of the matter; whether he has grasped it at its root, or merely touched its surface; whether he has encompassed the totality of the object or merely certain of its aspects. [...]