Theological Variations   /   Summer 2023   /    Book Reviews

Realism Confronts Utopia

“One word of truth outweighs the world.”

Richard Hughes Gibson

THR illustration; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn speaking at the State Duma in Moscow, 1994.

Announcing Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s selection as the Nobel laureate for literature in October 1970, the prize committee highlighted “the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.” The Soviet government, however, did not jump for joy at hearing praise for this writer, much less for Russian literature. In the authorities’ eyes, the author of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and other works airing awkward truths about life under Soviet rule was a liability rather than a national treasure, and the award a provocation by the West. Solzhenitsyn was stuck. He worried that if he made the trip to Stockholm, he would be denied reentry into the fatherland. But as a condition of accepting the prize, he had to write a speech.

Having failed to get the writer to the ceremony (which he would finally attend in 1974, at the beginning of his long exile) or to bring a ceremony to the writer, the Nobel committee had to settle for Solzhenitsyn’s undelivered address, which was published in the international press in 1972. It quickly won admirers around the world—including Dorothy Day, who found it “beautiful”—and its penultimate sentence, a Russian proverb, is still often cited: “One word of truth outweighs the world.” The performance is vintage Solzhenitsyn, his voice booming from the pages as he vindicates the writer’s vocation as a truth teller. “Who could impress upon a sluggish and obstinate human being someone else’s far off sorrows or joys,” he asks, “who could give him an insight into the magnitudes of events and into delusions which he has never himself experienced?” With a clear nod to his homeland, the laureate argues that “propaganda,” “coercion,” and “scientific proof” are “useless” on this moral terrain. Only art and literature can “overcome man’s ruinous habit of learning only from his own experience.” But Solzhenitsyn doesn’t stop there. Art and literature, he continues, also work at the national level, conveying collective experience for the benefit of other nations and later ages. In the most fortunate instances, literature “could save an entire nation from a redundant, or erroneous, or even destructive course, thereby shortening the tortuous paths of human history.”

From a contemporary perspective, especially an American one, the whole scenario likely seems absurd. What were Soviet officials so worried about? How much havoc could a novel or some poems really cause? And while we may piously nod at the writer’s point about using books to foster empathy among individuals, who isn’t inclined to smile, just a bit, at Solzhenitsyn’s claim that literature can redirect the course of nations and thus history? In short, why did literature—a pastime of declining importance in our world—loom so large in the Russian imagination?

For nearly half a century, Gary Saul Morson has been pondering these questions—especially the last one—in the pages of the New York Review of Books, The New Criterion, Commentary, and The American Scholar, among many other periodicals, and in a series of award-winning books. In Wonder Confronts Certainty: Russian Writers on the Timeless Questions and Why Their Answers Matter, Morson has at last bundled his answers into a single, expansive volume. As its title suggests, the book is in part a literary history—stretching from the rise of Russian literature on the world scene in the middle of the nineteenth century to the fate of writers under Soviet rule in the twentieth—and in part an apology for the benefits of reading the literature produced in that period, particularly the realist strain spearheaded by Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov (hereafter “DTC”).

Morson strives to make sense of situations such as the Solzhenitsyn affair with which I began. He shows that Russian letters developed under unique conditions that promoted and then embedded a distinctive form of verbomania in Russian culture whose repercussions were still felt one hundred years later. Soviet officials’ anxieties about and Solzhenitsyn’s fervent faith in literature represented rival stances within a long-running, agonistic, and prolific tradition. For a century (at least), Russians went wild over words.

What happened? In Morson’s persuasive account, Russian literary history is “telescoped”: literary and philosophical movements (including the novel, romanticism, rationalism, empiricism, political economy) that the rest of Europe had digested over centuries were devoured all at once in nineteenth-century Russia. Economic, political, and cultural reforms contributed to the rise of a mass Russian readership and, in turn, to the first class of professional writers, who fiercely debated the flood of foreign ideas in newly founded periodicals. In those venues, works that we now think of as “classics” jostled with political reporting, philosophical speculation, history writing, and translations. Morson cites the example of the February 1866 issue of The Russian Herald, which featured the first chapters of Crime and Punishment and War and Peace along with articles on poetry, flora, history, and religious sects, as well as chapters from Wilkie Collins’s Armadale in translation.

Literature was in the thick of a dynamic intellectual scene that was closely monitored not just by critics and writers but by government censors and political radicals. Indeed, one of the great contributions of Morson’s book is to demonstrate that literature was such a serious matter in nineteenth-century Russia that major intellectual and political figures frequently turned to fiction and literary criticism in order to disseminate their social visions and philosophies. Consider, for example, the fate of Ivan Turgenev’s character Bazarov, exemplar of the new radicals Turgenev dubbed the “nihilists,” in the 1862 novel Fathers and Children. A flurry of critical commentaries and fictional responses followed, including Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s novel What Is To Be Done? (1863), which projected a millenarian future in which the “new people”—Bazarov’s spiritual descendants—would inherit the earth. That novel would, in turn, be satirized by Dostoevsky in Notes From Underground (1864) and Demons (1872). Tolstoy would appropriate the title “What Is To Be Done?” for a pamphlet in 1886, as would Lenin—who loved Chernyshevsky’s book—in his own pamphlet of 1902. That makes Bazarov, the British publisher and author Holbrook Jackson once quipped, Lenin’s “intellectual grandfather.”

Such a chain reaction speaks to one of Morson’s most important historical claims: that Russian literature is a tale of two opposed but historically codependent groups, writers in the DTC mold and the intelligentsia (a term whose development in nineteenth-century Russia Morson traces in detail). Morson aligns the two groups with rival stances toward word and world—realism and utopianism, respectively. Because neither DTC and writers of like mind nor the intelligents were internally harmonious cohorts, this formulation seems debatable. Turgenev and Tolstoy, initially friendly, had a famous falling out. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were, by turns, appreciative of and censorious toward each other’s writings—a rivalry that George Steiner later reduced to a conjunction in his 1959 book Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. Chekhov paid Tolstoy friendly visits, including one that ended with the count telling his guest that his plays were “worse than Shakespeare’s” (obviously an insult many would savor).

Meanwhile, the intelligents were no less fractious and fissiparous, including socialists and anarchists and various adherents of radical European thought. These sects were connected, as Morson takes pains to show, less by a core set of ideas (other than atheism) than by a recognizable asocial lifestyle and a passionate, sometimes violent yearning for revolution.

That the DTC group and the intelligents comprised two distinct—but, again, frequently colliding—camps would not thus have been readily apparent to many of them. But Morson makes an effective case on literary grounds that these groups indeed constitute two movements within Russian letters. In their fiction and criticism, the intelligents wrote against the background of the coming, world-shattering Revolution; they knew how the world’s story would end, or at least should end, and valorized the heroic individuals or groups that would bring about history’s consummation. This made the imperfect realities of the present a sticky and potentially embarrassing business, especially once the revolutionaries were themselves in charge in the Soviet era. (Bare fidelity to present realities, Morson notes, seemed to the Soviets to smack of “bourgeois objectivism.”)

As Solzhenitsyn recognized, the most personally and socially dangerous thing for a writer to do under such a regime was to tell the truth. Realism, in Morson’s formulation, is the art form invested in such troublesome quotidian truths. The realist writer shows “uncompromising fidelity to actual experience”—as opposed to portraying experience in the intelligents’ ideological rearview mirror. The DTC trio, as I have said, are the foremost members of Morson’s realist school because they are exceptional, albeit in different ways, at bringing us inside the messiness of lived experiences that defy their contemporaries’ prescriptive accounts of human nature and life in the world.

Like Solzhenitsyn, Morson sees realism as a moral training ground in which we benefit from others’ experiences. And following the lead of the great Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, Morson argues for the aesthetic and ethical goods of dialogue. “Readers of Middlemarch and Anna Karenina,” he writes late in the book, “inhabit several consciousnesses in turn, so that when people with different beliefs argue they sense from within why each interacts with others in a specific way. In so doing, readers can come to understand even misunderstanding.”

In so many ways, Morson revitalizes Solzhenitsyn’s charge in the Nobel lecture he was not allowed to deliver. In this narrative, Solzhenitsyn’s proclamation of literature’s sacred mission does not seem naive. Morson would, in turn, summon us anew to the paperback miracles that can free us from the captivity of our insular perspectives. Fiction has long been disparaged as an “escapist” pleasure; drawing on the excruciating history of Russia, Morson would show us that fiction can be our rescue—above all, from ourselves.

Wonder Confronts Certainty is a magnificent book, equally valuable as a work of scholarship and a meditation on the timeless urgency of reading. I wish I could end this review there. But it is a long book, and the books Morson extols are, for the most part, longer. Humans remain sluggish and obstinate beings, and now we have affixed distraction devices to our hands and faces. The verbomania that compelled ordinary Russians to devour thousand-page books appears increasingly remote, even mythological. Morson promises that wisdom will still speak to us. But will anyone pay attention?