Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Gustafson on Fet, 45 years later

In doing final, reconfirmatory research on my Tolstoy paper for October I have become intrigued by the figure of Afanasy Fet, the poet and friend of Tolstoy’s whose jovial pessimism' (Medzhibovskaya's phrase) made him a congenial and understanding friend to Tolstoy despite many manifest political and philosophical differences. I saw that one of the few books on Fet in English (I am getting slowly better with this Russian thing but still very much forced to rely largely on my own language here) was by Richard Gustafson, later to become renowned as a leading scholar of Tolstoy and the Russian religious/mystical tradition. In reading Gustafson’s 1966 book The Imagination of Spring: The Poetry of Afanasy Fet, I became intrigued by how different it was from (or, as the Australians would say. "different... to") a comparable book in English studies in the same era. Gustafson’s book is a work of interpretation; in other words, it is not comparable to the merely taxonomic single-author works of the era covering noncanonical authors, such as the Twayne series. It is actual literary criticism, which 95% of the Twaynes did not remotely achieve. Yet when compared to similar books of equivalent intellectual ambition and critical accomplishment in English studies, Gustafson’s book is far more multiple in its competencies. There is no separation of form and history language and milieu; no Wimsattian fallacies, no trace of what, in Theory After Theory, I term 'the resolved symbolic'. This, though is easily attributable to differences in national tradition (and Russian Formalism being, despite the weary, recuperative attempts to yoke them as cognate, very different form the new Criticism), and Slavicist criticism, since the time of Belinsky et al, being more open to social influence, many times, of course, restrictively so. The most notable difference between Gustafson’s treatment of Fet and equivalent treatments, of the same period, of Anglophone poets is that Gustafson is not partisan; he is not out to advocate Fet at the expense of others, to denigrate Fet to the benefit of others, or to give a rereading of Fet that would redefine him towards or away from romanticism, conservatives, classicism, Christianity etc. Indeed, Gustafson is less partisan than Fet himself; he does not simply ventriloquize or update the poet’s aestheticism, but regards it in the light of an overall appreciation of Fet's artistic vision; the ideology refers to the poet, nor vice versa. There is none of this here; it is simply full, responsive, telescopic overview of a poet's career, done with flair and nuance, yes, it is obviously a first book, lacking the characteristic religious and mystical emphasis of Gustafson’s signature later work. But one could say that the lack of partisanship, the deft, economical organization of material, and the avoidance of formula in the Fet book foreshadowed Gustafson’s later agility, his capacity to take positions and manifest emphases without these making him narrow or polemical as a critic. It is thus a book that can still be useful now—even after several further studies on Fet have appeared—and not just a museum-piece in the archive of lapsed ideologies, as would be true of so many books on Keats or Donne or Hopkins,

Fet is an intriguing, idiosyncratic figure, for one thing exemplifying the nineteenth-century Russian taking the Muses far more seriously than any poet of his century.  Fet's muse has real power, can, as Gustafson says, give the poet "the power to speak: in a way more imperative than ceremonial. 

I just realized "Afanasy" has to be the Russian version of "Athanasius". Intriguing.

1 comment:

Nicholas Birns said...

I also just realized 'Fet', a name of Derman origin, is probably kin to "Feith", as in the Defense Dept. official of the previous administration.