Belinskii, Vissarion

Belinskii, Vissarion Grigor’evich


Born May 30 (June 11), 1811, in Sveaborg; died May 26 (June 7), 1848, in St. Petersburg. Russian literary critic and journalist.

Belinskii’s father was a doctor in the navy and later a district physician. In 1816 the family moved to the town of Chembar (now the town of Belinskii) in Penza Province. From 1822 to 1824, Belinskii studied at the Chembar district school and from 1825 to 1828 at the Penza secondary school (but did not graduate). In 1829 he entered the philological department of Moscow University. He participated in the student literary Society Number Eleven, to which he read his antiserfdom and romantic drama Dmitrii Kalinin, which led to his persecution. In 1832 he was expelled from the university. In 1831, Belinskii published the poem “Russian Truth” and a review of A. S. Pushkin’s Boris Godunov in the journal Listok. In 1833, Belinskii’s translations from French journals appeared in Teleskop. In the fall of 1833 he began to visit the circle of N. V. Stankevich and studied the philosophical systems of Kant, Fichte, and Schelling; later he made the acquaintance of M. A. Bakunin and studied Hegel with him. Belinskii’s first long article “Literary Reveries” was published in 1834 in the newspaper Molva (Rumor), which was the literary supplement to Teleskop. It attracted attention by the coherence of its philosophical and aesthetic conceptions and by its bold refutation of old authorities and traditional literary notions. Belinskii became the main critic for Teleskop and Molva.

In the Russian literature of this period a transition from romanticism to realism was taking place. In his article “On the Russian Novella and the Novellas of Mr. Gogol,” Belinskii proclaimed N. V. Gogol, the master portrayer of life “in all its nakedness and truth,” as the leader of contemporary Russian literature. He criticized the epigonic romanticism of the 1830’s (the novellas of A. Marlinskii and the verses of V. G. Benediktov), the pieces on literary criticism in the Moskovskii nabliudatel’ (Moscow Observer), and reactionary St. Petersburg journalism. In the autumn of 1836, just before Pushkin died, he was planning to invite Belinskii to collaborate on Sovremennik (The Contemporary).

In 1837, Belinskii underwent a cure for tuberculosis at Piatigorsk, where he met M. Iu. Lermontov. (They became closer acquaintances later in 1840 in St. Petersburg.) From 1838 to 1839, Belinskii edited Moskovskii nabliudatel’, which he had reorganized. The journal was not successful because it reflected Belinskii’s mood of philosophical “reconciliation” with Russian reality and his interpretation of the position of Hegel in this spirit that “everything that is rational is real, and everything that is real is rational.” These views were reflected in the articles “The Anniversary of Borodino” (1839), “Menzel, Critic of Goethe” (1840), and “Woe from Wit” (1840). In the autumn of 1839, Belinskii moved to St. Petersburg and was invited by A. A. Kraevskii to join Otechestvennye zapiski (Fatherland Notes). In the spring of 1840 he overcame his “reconciliatory” tendency. Belinskii became acquainted with A. I. Herzen, I. S. Turgenev, and N. A. Nekrasov and soon became recognized as the leader of the realistic trend in Russian literature. He published annual surveys of Russian literature (from 1840 to 1845), the work The Writings of Alexander Pushkin (a cycle of 11 articles), articles on the works of M. Iu. Lermontov, and theatrical surveys. In 1842, Belinskii carried on a stormy polemic with K. S. Aksakov over Gogol’s Dead Souls. In a circle of his friends Belinskii studied the history of the French Revolution of the 18th century (by F. Mignet) and considered himself a montagnard (the left party of the Convention). His revolutionary-democratic views achieved their definitive form in the articles “Speech on Criticism” (1842) and “Parisian Secrets” (1844). Belinskii headed the “natural school” which united the followers of Gogol.

Differences of opinion with A. A. Kraevskii led to Belinskii’s departure from Otechestvennye zapiski in 1846. He suffered from poverty, and his tuberculosis grew worse. In the summer of 1846, Belinskii and M. S. Shchepkin made a trip to the south of Russia. From January 1847 until May 1848, Belinskii headed the critical section of the journal Sovremennik, published by N. A. Nekrasov and I. I. Panaev, in which he published the annual surveys’ “A Look at Russian Literature of 1846,” “A Look at Russian Literature of 1847,” and’ ’An Answer to Moskvitianin’’ in which he gave a definitive exposition of his view of the history of realism in Russian literature. Belinskii characterized the significance of the “natural school” represented by the works of A. I. Herzen, I. A.Goncharov, I. S. Turgenev, F. M. Dostoevsky, and D. V. Grigorovich. From May until October 1847, Belinskii underwent a cure abroad. He was accompanied by I. S. Turgenev and P. V. Annenkov. In June 1847 in Salzbrunn, Belinskii wrote his “Letter to Gogol,” inresponse to Selected Passagesfrom a Correspondence with Friends (1846). In this work Belinskii, unshackled by any censorship, formulated his political testament and called upon the great writer to return to his former path of realism and satire. The Revolution of 1848 in France aggravated police terror and censorship in Russia. Belinskii was summoned by the Third Section; only death saved him from arrest and imprisonment in the fortress.

Belinskii was the first Russian revolutionary democrat, who under serfdom was already “a precursor of the complete displacement of the gentry by the classless intelligentsia in our liberation movement” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 25, p. 94). In his “Letter to Gogol,” Belinskii demanded the complete emancipation of the peasants, abolition of corporal punishment, and adherence to basic legality in the country. Belinskii was an opponent of the Slavophile idealization of the Russian patriarchal order, but he argued against the uncritical view of the European bourgeois order held by certain liberal Westernizers. He knew that capitalism was a new slavery for the people but that Russia could not bypass the bourgeois path of development. Humanity, however, will not remain in the bourgeois phase; rather, this phase will be replaced by socialism. At the same time, Belinskii valued only the critical principle in the then popular systems of Utopian socialism (Saint-Simon and Fourier).

Belinskii made literary criticism the expression of a coherent philosophical world view. Having a profound understanding of Hegel’s dialectic, Belinskii worked out objective and historical criteria for art, breaking with the “romantic” criticism based on taste. He developed the dialectical “idea of negation” as the second most important link in cognition of life after the “acceptance” of life as an indisputable fact. In the mid-1840’s, Belinskii began to resolve many problems of philosophy in a materialist manner. He called A. Comte’s positivism (Littré’s version) into question and showed that man’s spiritual activity must be distinguished from his physical activity but not separated as if it were something independent (letter to Botkin of Feb. 17, 1847). Belinskii knew of L. Feuerbach’s philosophy, but his materialism did not achieve the concrete form of “anthropological” materialism.

Belinskii’s philosophical views were the methodological basis for the elaboration of his aesthetics. He was the founder of Russian realistic aesthetics and literary criticism.

Belinskii defined art as “thinking in images.” Art was identical with science in content but distinguished from science in form. Art does not tolerate abstract concepts but typifies reality in concrete-sensual images. However, the creation of the poet is not a copy of reality but rather a second repeated world, similar to the realization of potentiality; the artist reproduces this potentiality with a conscious purpose, and “infects” it with specific ideas and an understanding of life’s contradictions. Of all art forms, the highest is poetry, the art of the word; here “form” is adequate to thought. Belinskii considered the forms of poetry—epic, lyric, and dramatic—as different levels of cognition, from the viewpoint of “the mutual relations of the conscious spirit, the subject, to the matter of consciousness, the object.” Of all the genres, Belinskii singled out the novel and the novella as the “epic of a new world,” the broadest forms for the depiction of the complex present. For a long time, Belinskii, after F. Schelling, maintained that creation is “unconscious.” It was important to him to emphasize the immortality and stability of art and its independence from the actual situation and from the political decrees of “official nationality.” Belinskii’s philosophical evolution from idealism in the spirit of Schelling, and later of Hegel, to the materialism of Feuerbach is reflected in his aesthetic views. From the abstract conception of art as thinking in images, he came to the conception of art as the reproduction of life in images. Belinskii renounced the thesis of the “unconsciousness” of creation. He greeted as a positive phenomenon the fact that young writers of the “natural school” differed from their teacher, Gogol, in that they created “more consciously” than he did, armed as they were with progressive theories (letter to K. D. Kavelin of Dec. 7, 1847).

At first Belinskii used the undifferentiated concepts of national life and nationality, ascribing their essence to faithfulness in the transmission of everyday life, morals, and local color. But in the middle of the 1840’s, he began to refine these concepts, giving the concept of nationality an increasingly democratic content. Nationality for Belinskii no longer consisted merely in the truth of life but also in criticism of serfdom. Linking the beginning of Russian literature with the reforms of Peter I, he mistakenly maintained that Russian literature was a “transplanted” tree. But Belinskii studied its further development into realism historically and made many profound generalizations. From its very beginning Russian literature of the 18th century followed two currents. The first, from Lomonosov, reflected state and patriotic considerations and the ideal aspirations of society; the second, from Kantemir, reflected the bold and satiric unmasking of the system of serfdom. In the works of Pushkin, both lines merge, giving a universal character to his writings.

Belinskii viewed Pushkin as Russia’s first national poet. Skillfully combining historical and aesthetic analysis, he demonstrated Pushkin’s greatness as “the poet of reality.” However, Belinskii underestimated the merits of Pushkin’s prose. He elucidated the deeply Russian, rebellious nature of Lermontov’s poetry and the humanism and nationalism of the poet. In Gogol’s Inspector General and Dead Souls, Belinskii valued the striking typicality of Gogol’s heroes and the writer’s passionate “subjectivity” which condemned the Russian regime. Belinskii’s excellent artistic taste allowed him to articulate the inimitable originality of the talents of Herzen, Nekrasov, Turgenev, Goncharov, and Dostoevsky on the basis of their early works.

Belinskii felt that criticism is “aesthetics in motion.” While demanding from literary criticism a concrete historical approach to works of art, he felt that criticism must respond to all living contemporary questions. Belinskii was the central figure in the ideological and political struggle of the 1830’s and 1840’s in Russia. He combined philosophical thinking with the talent of a literary critic and the inspiration of a revolutionary journalist. Belinskii subordinated his work to the tasks of the struggle against serfdom and of the development of social consciousness and Russian realistic literature. The traditions of his criticism were continued by N. G. Chernyshevskii and N. A. Dobroliubov.


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