Sunday, 11 October 2015

Why read Russian Literature

They probe life and come up with insights we direly need.
Name the best short story or novel in the world literature and one is most likely to answer some writing from Russian literature. By general consensus Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are the greatest novelists. To be the greatest novelist is to be the greatest teacher of life.
      We hardly live life; don’t know its beauty, glory and meaning. We are enslaved by what Schopenhauer called Will and live life as if under bondage. We have complaints and grudges against almost everyone; we keep cursing others and even ourselves at times. We come and go without having learnt the meaning of life with all its challenges, guilt, violence, tragedy, horror and countless distractions and games that ego invents to avoid facing reality of nothingness within. The question is “where is life lost in living?” – in vegetating, in complaining, in cursing, in “fret and fever,” in day dreaming, in begging for fame or recognition.
      Understanding the meaning of life, especially in these secular times when God is no longer the Centre for man, and “anarchy is let loose” and relationships seem to have lost their sheen, is a great challenge. Calling us back to God in a world that has forgotten or exiled the divine is what all the books, sermons and polemics for God fail to do as effectively as is done by our greatest writers. Some people lose faith while reading novels. To them one might recall that the greatest novelists happen to be religious or mystical in orientation. And such statements as:
  •  “Art, void of its supernatural typology, fails in its inherent artistic essence."  (Sir George Birdwood)  
  • “The Man who never in his Mind & Thought travelled  to  Heaven Is No Artist” (William Blake) 
  • "The ultimate subject of all pure or revealing art is God."  (Coomaraswamy and Stella Block)
How shall we live in a world where nothing seems to be trustworthy or faithful or worth our love? This is what our greatest novelists try to explore without judging, without prejudices, without blinkers, without conclusions. They probe life and come up with insights we direly need. 
      For Altizer our seers are novelists like Joyce and Beckett who accompany us in our “descent into hell” that is modern life and help us on our journey home. Tolstoy’s classic statement on encountering the problem of seeming absurdity of life needs to be read by anyone who is  concerned about the meaning of life. His classic exploration of life lived without considering the problem of death in The Death of Ivan Illyich is a must read for anyone who thinks he can’t escape death. Thanks to  Prof. Shoaq – our prolific scholar of Kashmiri language and literature, we have its translation in Kashmiri. Thanks to Shamshad Kralvari, we have wonderful translation, in chaste Kashmiri – at times it is close to trans-creation in Kashmiri setting – of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment the most widely read novel of the world translated into scores of languages, and courtesy Muzaffar Azim we have Kashmiri  War and Peace.  It is not easy to translate classics and how grateful we should be to our translators can only be imagined. Kashmiri language is now quite rich thanks to them and others.
      Russian literature explores, like none else, the problems of meaning of life and suffering that constitute our most important problems. How important and influential Russian literature is may be understood  by noting the fact the two of the greatest modern philosophers Nietzsche and Wittgenstein were great fans of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy respectively, that Gandhi cited Tolstoy as an important influence, that the greatest modern scientists Einstein was moved by Dostoevsky’s greatest work The Brothers Karamazov. Name any great twentieth century writer who has escaped influence of Russian Masters. The power of Dostoevsky’s pen  may be felt by reading a section “The Grand Inquisitors” or portrait of Alyosha – the saintly character if ever there is one is modern literature – or debates on evil in chapter on Ivan. Let us not forget that even Lenin’s favourite writer was Tolstoy. About Tolstoy’s work William Dean Howells wrote: "I know very well that I do not speak of Tolstoy's books in measured terms; I cannot."  "A second Shakespeare!" was Flaubert's response.
      Let us try to understand Tolstoy’s “comprehensive sympathy,” and “absolute incapacity to evaluate human beings according to station, rank or profession, or any standard but that of spiritual worth.”  The Quranic dictum that taqwa or fear of God is the only criterion for distinguishing humans is echoed in both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
      The best summary of arguments for taking Russian literature seriously is in introduction to the volume The Best Russian Short Stories  by Thomas Stelzer. Here I reproduce it:
“The Russians take literature perhaps more seriously than any other nation. To them books are not a mere diversion. They demand that fiction and poetry be a true mirror of life and be of service to life. A Russian author, to achieve the highest recognition, must be a thinker also. He need not necessarily be a finished artist.
      Everything is subordinated to two main requirements—humanitarian ideals and fidelity to life. This is the secret of the marvellous simplicity of Russian literary art. Before the supreme function of literature, the Russian writer stands awed and humbled. He knows he cannot cover up poverty of thought, poverty of spirit and lack of sincerity by rhetorical tricks or verbal cleverness. And if he possesses the two essential requirements, the simplest language will suffice.
      Conceive the joy of a lover of nature who, leaving the art galleries, wanders out among the trees and wild flowers and birds that the pictures of the galleries have sentimentalised. It is some such joy that the man who truly loves the noblest in letters feels when tasting for the first time the simple delights of Russian literature. French and English and German authors, too, occasionally, offer works of lofty, simple naturalness; but the very keynote to the whole of Russian literature is simplicity, naturalness, veraciousness. Another essentially Russian trait is the quite unaffected conception that the lowly are on a plane of equality with the so-called upper classes. When the Englishman Dickens wrote with his profound pity and understanding of the poor, there was yet a bit; of remoteness, perhaps, even, a bit of caricature, in his treatment of them. He showed their sufferings to the rest of the world with a "Behold how the other half lives!" The Russian writes of the poor, as it were, from within, as one of them, with no eye to theatrical effect upon the well-to-do. There is no insistence upon peculiar virtues or vices. The poor are portrayed just as they are, as human beings like the rest of us. A democratic spirit is reflected, breathing a broad humanity, a true universality, an unstudied generosity that proceed not from the intellectual conviction that to understand all is to forgive all, but from an instinctive feeling that no man has the right to set himself up as a judge over another, that one can only observe and record.”

1 comment:

  1. sir your knowledge can be crafted to enrich the philosophical approach in the intelectuals