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Russian Studies in Literature, vol. 44, no. 4, Fall 2008, pp. 3337. 2008 M.E. Sharpe, Inc.

. All rights reserved. ISSN 10611975/2008 $9.50 + 0.00. DOI 10.2753/RSL1061-1975440403

ElEna PogorElaia

Criticism as a Guidebook Through the Sphere of Ideas


1 The critics role as a guide or intermediary between author and reader is ending. Criticism, which assumes an inside view of a literary event, is departing from the general context of reality, since its contemporaries, who today are privy to matters literary as readers if in no other capacity, are escaping into the text, testing life against the text, and evading reality in the labyrinths of other peoples artistic spaces. The resultant figurative, ideational, and situational collage is almost indivisible, as Evgenii Vezhlian writes in a recent article, Portrait of a Generation Against a Poetic Backdrop [Portret pokoleniia na fone poezii]: As Pushkin said, I love you (philologists used to favor that fairly precise one-liner, as illustrative of the postmodernist attitude toward a pronouncement that on closer examination invariably turns out to be a universally known quotation).1 Philologists and critics use such one-liners to overcome their own perplexity. That perplexity comes from their inability to maintain in their field of view the familiar principles relative to the construction of a viable critical text, in its various incarnations: as a commentary on an authors work; as a dialogue with an author that assumes at least partial integration into the fabric of the work;
English translation 2008 M.E. Sharpe, Inc., from the Russian text 2007 Voprosy literatury. Kritika kak putevoditel po sferam idei, Voprosy literatury, 2007, no. 4, pp. 6267. Part of a roundtable discussion on The Status and Genres of Contemporary Literary Criticism (Status i zhanry sovremennoi literaturnoi kritiki). Translated by Liv Bliss. This article was written in Penza. The English quotation from Boris Pasternaks Doctor Zhivago is from the Max Hayward and Manya Harari translation (New York: Pantheon Books, 1958), p. 407.Trans.
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as the tracing and reinforcement of certain new phenomena in the readers mind; and as the processing of current material from the viewpoint of whether literature as a whole needs it. An attempt to position oneself somehow on the shifting boundary between literature as it is and literature as it ought to be often ends either as a lapse into sociopolitical commentary and the production of critical reportage on the latest happenings in poetry, prose, and prizes or as a detour into a facsimile of literary scholarship, a conversation about already emblematic figures that does little or nothing to help clarify the contemporary status quo. Only someone who tries to combine the two levels, to come to the general via the personal and to verify the here-and-now with the eternal, can close in on criticisms new dimension, the new sphere that remains autonomous in literature, sometimes even outweighing that which is, in formal terms, more independent than it is. 2 A situation in which text is life and life is a text, in which those categories are fluid and interchangeable, imposes certain duties on authors and forces them to exist in the conditions defined by that situation. The authors task in this case is to solder as tightly as possible, to knit together the edges of those two realities (a literal understanding of that metaphor is seen in the current poetry slamsthe celebrated live performances of poems that even on paper are full-bodied and caustic), to remove any hint of a seam between them, to permeate the two hemispheres with a current of creative energy, subordinating the reader to the internal movement of the authors being. The text erodes the familiar structure of both reality and consciousness. The critic, by contrast, restoresand is restored tothe benchmark, mirrors back the situation to develop a montage of text and extratextual reality, to offset one from the other, and, rather than inscribing life into the text, to remove the authorial reality from the context of a provisional world that suppresses multiplicity, to flag semantic movement in the sphere of primordial beingin other words, to reveal the meaning that a given text has for life. In modern times, when life itself (as has been noted in various articles and stated on numerous occasions) emerges as a commentary to the text, what can we use to substantiate how apposite a commentary is to another commentary? The interaction, the mutual influence, of the mundane space and the artistic space, of art and the social organism, that takes place in the human mind implies a possibility of many permutations. The moment of modernity may only be linked with a textual snapshot from an angle inaccessible to mere readers and poets, since that action belongs to another sphere, a sphere of system and analysis. In the work of todays young criticsof those, at least, who are not mired in

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the metaphorical structure and semantics of the analyzed textone observes with increasing frequency a withdrawal from the critical genres familiar interpretations or, more precisely, a retreat into spheres whose affiliation to literature may be established only by juxtaposition. A kind of fourth genus of poetry, its fourth dimension, coexisting with the epic, the drama, and lyric versein short, the redemptive art of the essayis gradually growing into something that resembles literary psychoanalysis or, beyond that, a certain sort of literary philosophy, the equivalent of the quasi-art for which Pasternak longed: I dont like purely philosophical works. I think a little philosophy should be added to life and art by way of seasoning. After a period of absurdity, of confusion and the aggressive negation of the individual personality, this stride into a space that has been trampled up and down by this generations forebears (from Aristotle to Annenskii) has quite a substantive look to it and is appreciated as a divergence from the boundary lines set up for the statistically average critic. This means that when Marta Antonicheva declares, In this instance the rats are leading the Pied Piper, not he them. It is the writers, not the critics, who should demonstrate how to write. Criticism should educate the reader; it is written for them . . . [but] more often than not criticisms focus is on ensuring that the reader does not overlook a given work, there should arise no sense that the present company, be he critic or reader, is discharging an inferior task.2 Thus the sphere of criticism is, in the minds of most observers, rigidly and precisely demarcated by the boundaries of the topical. The critics workshop is thereby located at a safe distance from the writers: monitor the process, keeping a close eye on the novelties; review works good and otherwise; engage the colorful authors of no less colorful manifestoes in debatewhat else, my dear, could you want? Meanwhile, the critics who allow themselves to stand aloof, to gather the age in quotation marks [a reference to Joseph Brodskys Piazza MatteiTrans.], and to view the emerging situation from the outside, from some extratemporal space, are offering a definition of modernity that is far more rounded than that of their colleagues who have attuned their hearing to the readers taste. A written work, as arts result and goal, has always been the first of firsts, has existed in and of itself, before there was a printing press, before anyone was arguing about expediency, prior to any terms or concepts. The critic (like the poet) is attuned not to the readers taste but (unlike the poet) to a general idea, to a meaning that demands a new verbal expression. Where literature in the most natural way abuts on philosophy and psychology, the chess pieces are repositioned on the board. The fragment of reality, whether primary or secondary, finds itself within the scope of a dual perspective: the critic introduces the authors characters and meanings into living life, into current reality, and thus the interpretation is less of the text than of reality, with assistance from the text. The abovementioned characters and meanings then reveal an essence that is not at the mercy of the authors artistic high-handedness.

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3 The tokens of novelty that have been placed, like pieces of a mosaic, in the characterization of the time are scattered through all the dimensions of youth literature. Criticism has pitched in, too. The young contemporary critic grew up within the same textual boundaries and has grasped the laws of postmodernist montage not a whit worse than the poets and prose writers who fall within the range of his critical attention. But there is also a trait that distinguishes them. Critics aspire to the integrality and summarization of what is contemporary to them, which should not be made into a Procrustean bed for the eternal, for the universally human through the critics agency. With increasing frequency, this kind of dialogue between critic and writer resolves into a protest against a tradition that snarls itself into a clump of references, quotations, allusions . . . [and] is supporting material at best, or a circle specially marked out for the javelin toss, and that dialogue is conducted in a language understood by both partiesa unique kind of literary/critical Esperanto.3 A poet is a hero of his own myth [attributed to BrodskyTrans.]. The terrain presently being offered to authors for the creation of their own myths, in poetry or prose, has little to recommend it: it is a region marked up with symbols, each of which refers the reader to someone else. On this score, critics feel no freer, because the space allotted to them between the task (reacting to something thought of by another mind understanding a work written by another pen) and the metatask (constructing a fully valuable and integral world) is tenuous. The author in the postmodern age splinters the whole into shards. By projecting each text that is read into the sought-after reality, critics, by contrast, assemble integral mosaics from scraps, form marginal notes into a picture that is threedimensional and possibly independent of the manuscript, and transfer the reader into an autonomous region where the ideas, images, and meanings engendered by the author begin to live by other laws. In the semantic field into which critics admitor enticetheir own authors, the writer becomes not a subject, not an object, but a co-participant. Author and critic come together in the space of meaning, even if each espouses a meaning of his or her own. 4 The critics artistic reality constitutes a quintessence of the prose writers and the poets, the playwrights and the essayists artistic worlds. It is a transformed consciousness wherein one quotation implicates another and consistently directs the reader toward the ethic and aesthetic of the time, toward the mindset of a person who has grown up on that material, which is spiritual, cultural, historical, and textual in origin. This unique inversion of the text sheds light on the implicit essence of a current work that has been chosen for critical interpretationyet in this method any work can be made current, since the boundary between criticism and literary scholarship thins, and the reader follows the vagaries of meaning noted by the critic, never delving into the concrete specifics of how the analyzed work was

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created. Critics working at this level are searching for style, searching for a topic that has never been brought to the surface yet shimmers through the context; they seek a set threshold of pain to serve as a common denominator for all their essays, articles, and reviews, which vary both by definition and in their take on the work of numerous authors. Style combined with topic is a reaction to stress, an acute sensation that something is missing, the lack of a foundation that is not social, as certain young critics rashly assume it to be, but spiritual and maybe even metaphysical. The analysis of that sensation provides the impetus to create ones own philosophy, be that unknown quantity a philosophy of faith, as with Valeriia Pustovaia, or a philosophy of integrality, as with Vladimir Kozlov: If one believes that between man and reality there exists, like a fence erected against the barbarians, a deep trench of meaning (meaning that is in part an artificial construct and in part is inspired, personal, but objective), then that trench has been dug by people who are searching for the right words. . . . The meaning that engenders the artistic world appears when the world of reality is limited, when its multiplicity, which is overwhelming to mortal man, is suppressed. That limitation conveys harmony, makes reality into a world.4 The conscious choice of this path signifies the critics withdrawal from the community of commentators and creators of manifestos, his or her approach to a region alien to that genus of literature, a sphere of fearsome lyricism where, to borrow from Akhmatova, every step is a secret, / where chasms gape to right and left. Such a critic is already essentially more poet than prose writer. No less, and perhaps even more, than a creative writer, such a critic is characterized by an aspiration toward virtuoso mastery of composition and style, by a transition from form to formula, to the logical analysis of an elemental force that by its very nature is not subject to analysis. To find meaning in something that by its nature evades pure reason [ratsio] means to affirm the autonomy of the critical text, which is here underpinned not by the education of readers nor by the standardization of writer categories but by the critics own philosophy accompanied by the spiritual experience and creative intuition that are akin in equal part to the readers and the writers milieu. That set threshold of pain, that eternal topic, as cultivated in modern times, is the hallmark of the critics artistic reality and is what all the textual material currently being processed in prose and poetry serves to disclose. Notes
1. E. Vezhlian, Portret pokoleniia na fone poezii. Molodaia literatura v poiskakh meinstrima, novyi mir, 2006, no. 10. 2. M. Antonicheva, O tendentsioznosti v literaturnoi kritiki, Kontinent, 2006, no. 128. 3. A. Rudalev, O tsennostnykh izmereniiakh novoi poezii, Voprosy literatury, 2005, no. 5, p. 78. 4. V. Kozlov, Preodolenie mnozhestvennosti, Voprosy literatury, 2005, no. 5, p. 70.

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