I've just finished Anna Karenina, my last novel assigned for my 19th century Russian literature course, and I find myself considering my professor's introduction at the very beginning of the semester.
In the course of the 19th century, Russian literature underwent a brilliant development, out of which emerged some of the greatest writers in history. Each of these writers pushed back the boundaries of literature, solving problems of representation in original and creative ways. Because of their tendency to respond to and build upon what their predecessors had accomplished, these writers created a dynamic of "literary evolution." One of the most interesting features of 19th-century Russian literature is the intensity with which it reverberates with contemporaneous social, political, and cultural phenomena in Russia. For this reason, our study of literature will give us an excellent glimpse at Russian history in the 19th century.
It's true. Yet I found the exploration of the social, political and culture conditions concerns all seemed to be articulated by a concern for the state of Russia's soul. Consequently, I'm fascinated by the startling insight and prescience with which each author explores the state of the Russian soul -- of the individual and its people -- and find it all to be incredibly moving and ultimately tragic in light of the violent future to come.
I feel as if I've read the literary expression of nation's consciousness awakened in order to illuminate the ominous elements of the present and express hopes for avoiding disaster: from Gogol's* imagining Russia as a demonic coach racing through the world to the Devil knows where, towards becoming, towards identity, but becoming what? -- he asks the question with an expectation of an ominous retort as the answers already known -- to the Devil; from Turgenev's** musings on the disconnect between the generations amidst the radical political changes during the emancipation of the serfs, presenting the impossibility of truly reconciling the two yet showing these perceived differences are what unites them, even as tragedy strikes as it always has done, history repeating in the universality of the human condition no matter the scientific innovations and new philosophies at hand; from Dostoevsky's*** demonstrating the potential for ultimate evil in the rising philosophical and political beliefs of the time, nihilism, exploring the manifestation of dead-ended psychological horrors, the willful damnation of the soul and the ever-present possibility for divine intervention; and finally Tolstoy's**** dialectical treatise on the toxic influences of a society disconnected from moral feeling and virtue, of the sexist society's oppressive and ultimately tragic influence on a woman and her learned dependency upon that society which would see her eternally punished for seeking fulfillment.
Every author expressing fear of the development of Russia and a sense of powerlessness at turning the tides. The most hopeful endings involve a retreat within and a discovery of spiritual peace housed within the soul alone. But the soul of Russia? More and more, it seems they saw that soul sleeping beneath the societal machine. The soul put to sleep as Raskolnikov lives in an empty closet devoid of light; a soul asleep can provide no reprieve for Anna Karenina from society's judgment and censure as it manifests within her, where peace can only be achieved through self-destruction, where awakening is possible only in death. Deprived of an inner holistic sense of being, only hunger and need and the impossibility of satisfaction, humanity seems destined to tear itself apart.
* Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
** Fathers and Children by Alexander Turgenev
*** Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
**** Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
[eta] lol sorry if this makes no sense. i just had to get these thoughts out of my brain.