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Old 03-29-2015   #1
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The Art of Russia: A Literary Context

Part 1:

As the 21st century opened I was about to retire from a career of 32 years in classrooms as a teacher and tutor, lecturer and adult educator, as well as another 18 as a student, making half a century in classrooms for one reason or another. Two years before, in 1998, another collection of essays by Constantin Ponomareff appeared.(1) In my 50 years in classrooms, 1949 to 1999, I had neither the time nor the inclination to read Russian literature. I have tried to remedy this in these years of my retirement, but the wide compass of my intellectual and literary interests has thus far kept me away from Russian fiction. I do enjoy, though, essays which analyse this vast tract of modern literature. This book of essays about Russian literature is one example.

In 1979 Ponomareff published his first collection of essays: The Silenced Vision. That collection of essays attempted to get a sense of the European literary response to totalitarianism by analysing the works of writers like: Hans Erich Nossack, Boris Pasternak, Wolfgang Borchert, Chingiz Aitmatov and Gunter Grass. Nearly a decade later, in 1987, there was On the Dark Side of Russian Literature: 1710-1910, which surveyed the "moral discomfort and spiritual unease among the major Russian writers." (p. 235), These essays showed the way humanity became increasingly superfluous in the Russian creative imagination, a literary imagination from Kantemir and Lomonosov to Bely and Blok.

And yet another decade rolled along, and the 1997 collection of twelve essays appeared. As indicated by its subtitle, the book of essays addressed the problems underlying or belying humanity as evidenced in selected texts of modern Russian literature. As I indicated above, I was far too busy in the last decades of the 20th century to read any of these analyses of Russian literature. Some 80 hours every week were consumed with teaching responsibilities, tasks as a father of three children and a husband, activities in the Perth Baha'i community with its several thousand members, and other activities as a friend and volunteer in the Red Cross and a disability organization.

Part 2:

From the 1970s to the 1990s, when these three collections of essays appeared, my life and time was fully occupied with responsibilities associated with these job and family, community life and leisure-time interests, and, as I say above, my work in the Baha’i community and my health problems. Those three collections of essays did not stand a chance of getting read, for many reasons, even though I usually got through at least 6 to 10 books a week on average, books related to my teaching work or just personal interest. By the first decade of the 21st century, though, I was able to access reading material in cyberspace that was simply unavailable in previous decades.

This review by Susan Ingram in that fine collection of writing The Canadian Slavonic Papers, on which I am drawing here, was just one piece of the immense new wealth of material which became available in cyberspace. To people like me who had retired from the demands and time constraints of: job, family and community, the print resources available were paradisical. No more wading and wandering through libraries for my weekly bundle of books; no more of the many problems associated with being a big reader going to all the libraries in the city for everything that caught my fancy. Now it was all in one place, in cyberspace.

Ponomareff’s third collection of essays in 1997 was divided into three parts. By the time Ingram reviewed the book, I was in my last months as a teacher and about to take a sea-change at the age of 55, an early retirement. The first part of this book consisted of two essays devoted to Russian authors. "The Hole in Humankind: Inner and Outer Space in Russian Literature" and "The Impoverished Self in Modern Russian Literature: From Pushkin to Bunin" both documented the "increasing impoverishment of life on the part of Russian literary characters" (p. 18).

The first essay took Pushkin's Little Tragedies, Gogol's Dead Souls, Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground, as well as Bely's Petersburg and his collection of poems Ashes---took them all as examples that demonstrated a general withdrawal of writers from Russian life, a withdrawal precipitated by Russia’s increasing contact with European rationalist culture.

Part 3:

In the second essay to which I referred above, characters from Pushkin's Little Tragedies are again mobilized and followed by characters in Gogol's, Dostoevsky's, Turgenev's, Chekov's, and Tolstoy's works. The depressing parade of individuals which resulted was aimed at exposing the inner poverty manifest in the modern age. Ponomareff concluded his presentation with citations from the American existential philosopher William Barrett.

The second section of that collection of essays was devoted to Nietzsche. In the first essay in that section, "Nietzsche: Self as History in the Genealogy of Morals," Ponomareff suggested that "Nietzsche may have been reliving in more intellectual terms the physical and physiological ravages of his own disease within." (p. 35) He reads Nietzsche’s work as a "perhaps therapeutic exteriorization or projection of the inner self." (p. 35) In the second essay, "At the Source of the Self: Truth out of Appalling Depths," he moved from syphilis to child-abuse and drew on Alice Miller's The Untouched Key: Tracing Childhood Trauma in Creativity and Destructiveness as a possible explanation of Nietzsche's destructive tendencies.

In "Nietzsche and Dostoevsky" Ponomareff looked at Nietzsche's attraction to Dostoevsky and recounted their affinities. The last essay, "Nietzsche as Homo Ludens," approached the theme of play in Nietzsche's writing and offered perhaps the best illustration of Ponomoreff's theoretical proclivities. He preferred to link Nietzsche's love of masks with Bakhtin's carnival, carefully bypassing any of the substantial body of deconstructive, feminist and postfeminist works relevant to the topic.

Part 4:

The third section consisted of six essays on "the 20th century," from Blok and Rilke, Mayakovsky and Celan, to Camus, Nabokov and Anne Hebert, with a way station in the form of a survey of canonical, post-war German literature (Boll, Grass, Christa Wolf, et al). Readers here of this brief summary that I have provided should not be too concerned if they hardly know any of these names. Reading celebrity magazines, the weekend paper and watching a bucketful of TV will not help readers become acquainted with Russian literature. I needed retirement to even get to the edge of that potentially rich and rewarding world to the east of Eastern Europe.

All the essays in this collection offered stenographic yet convincing arguments in support of the overarching thesis that the unifying element in modern writing "is its capacity to reflect spiritual crisis in society and initiate a process of healing." (p. 1) Ponomareff is a literary comparativist in the tradition of George Steiner. His respect before the text is palpable, his readings assiduous, and his intent pedagogic, in the communicatively positive sense of the word. Just as the writers whose work he analyses, Ponomareff is able "to exploit his sense of displacement and exile for creative and spiritual survival." (p. 130). Citing that great political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, and her contention, he claims that "alienation and rootlessness, if we only understand them aright, make it easier to live in our time." (p. 130). They are the driving-force behind, and the challenge of, modern literature. –Ron Price with thanks to 1“Spiritual Geography of Modern Writing: Essays on Dehumanization, Human Isolation and Transcendence,” in The Canadian Slavonic Papers, March-June 1998, Susan Ingram, and Constantin V. Ponomareff, The Spiritual Geography of Modern Writing: Essays on Dehumanization, Human Isolation and Transcendence, B. V. Rodopi edition, 1997.

Part 5:

I will add below, as a sort of appendix to the above commentary, the above overview of Russian literature, a prose-poem I wrote in the last year or so, after watching a TV series entitled The Art of Russia. This prose-poem will give, at least for me and hopefully for some readers, a degree of personal context for the above commentary on those 3 collections of essays.
A Retrospective Through Art

Section 1:

On the first day of April 2012, just after April Fools’ Day ended as it does at noon, after I had been retired from the world of jobs for a dozen years, I was able to develop my study of Russia. I had taken an interest in Russia from the 1960s while at university. I had even applied for a job there in my first years as a teacher sometime around 1970, before serving as an international pioneer and traveller instead---in Australia for the Canadian Baha’i community. Inevitably, in my role as a student or as a teacher, of history and sociology, of literature and psychology, among other subjects, some aspect of Russia came into the curricula over that half-century from, say, 1955 to 2005 when I was either working at FT, PT and casual jobs, or teaching at primary, secondary, and post-secondary levels. The cold war placed Russia high on the agenda of westerners with an interest in world affairs. I grew-up from childhood to adulthood during that cold war.

On 1/4/’12, a Sunday afternoon, I chanced to watch a BBC Four program entitled The Art of Russia.1 This series on Russian art was first shown on the BBC more than 3 years before, in December 2009; in Australia the series has been shown twice in the years and months to March 2013. This is a revised edition of a prose-poem I first wrote nearly a year ago. This edition was written after watching part of the series again in February and March 2013.2

Section 2:

Andrew Michael Graham-Dixon(1960--), the British art historian was the presenter. After finishing his doctoral studies in his mid-20s, he moved into art criticism and art history. He became the chief art critic of The Independent newspaper where he remained until 1998. As of 2005 he has been the chief art critic of The Sunday Telegraph.

I began to take art criticism and art history seriously about the same age as Graham-Dixon. In 1974 I taught a subject entitled ‘The Sociology of Art’ to technical college students working on their diploma or associate diploma in Launceston Tasmania. After nearly 40 years of reading about art and its history, I have found that this field occupies one of the several epicentres of my academic interests as I head through my 70s from 2014 to 2024, and old-age, the years over 80, if I last that long.-Ron Price with thanks to 1ABC1TV, 3:00-3:55 p.m. 1 April 2012; and 2Art Of Russia: Out Of The Forest, ABC1TV, 24/2/’13 and 2&3/3/’13, 11:30-12:20 p.m.

Section 3:

Your roots of art were in Byzantium1
and your story, like so many stories,
is a long one….Thank you, Michael,
for your TV work since ’92, when I
was beginning to eye my retirement
from more than fifty years of jobs &
student life so that I could spend my
life in places other than classrooms!!

It is programs like yours that enrich
these evening years…these years of
late adulthood(60-80) and old age(80+),
if I last that long. My classroom is now
the world which pours into my study---
daily. I had three children, too, Michael,
but I don’t live in London…..rather…..
at the ends of the earth in Tasmania…...
the last stop on the way to Antarctica…
if you take a western-Pacific rim-route.

I thank you for that incredible story of
the art of Russia: magnificence indeed!

1 Very few students in our modern world have any idea where and what Byzantium was or is. Like so much of knowledge, this field of history and art will not help students negotiate the mine-fields of marriage, jobs, and the many tests that come their way from cradle to grave. They will survive without ever knowing anything about Byzantium, or the long history of Russia and its civilization both before westernization and after--beginning in the 18th century, both before and after the throwing-out of 1000 years of royal rule in the early 20th century.

1.1 Byzantium was an ancient Greek city, founded by Greek colonists from Megara in 657 BC and named after their king Byzas. The city was later renamed Nova Roma by Constantine the Great, but popularly called Constantinople and briefly became the imperial residence of the classical Roman Empire. Subsequently, the city was---for more than a thousand years---the capital of the Byzantine Empire, the Greek-speaking Roman Empire of late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Constantinople was captured by the Ottoman Turks becoming the capital of their empire, in 1453. The name of the city was officially changed to Istanbul in 1930 following the establishment of modern Turkey. As I say, though, this won’t help you get a job or negotiate the slings and arrows of your life-narrative.

Ron Price
30/4/’12 to 29/3/'15.

married for 46 years, a teacher for 35, a writer & editor for 14, and a Baha'i for 54(in 2013)
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Druidic (03-29-2015), fearofgordon (03-29-2015)


art, context, literary, literature, personal, russia, television

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