"What kind of thing is a rope?" Romantic Idealism in Russia

Lauren G. Leighton, University of Illinois, Chicago (Emeritus)

Pushkin's aversion to the metaphysics of the Lovers of Wisdom in the 1820s and the growing influence of Schelling in the 1830s is well known. His sarcastic remark that "The Moscow Messenger sits in a pit and asks, 'What kind of a thing is a rope?'" has been used to demonstrate that Pushkin was indifferent to, therefore not well versed in Romantic Idealist philosophy. Pushhkin's attitude has been ascribed to other poets and critics during the 1820s when interest in "the new, the modern, the so-called Romantic school" reached a peak. Something called "Schellingism" is said to have been contrary to "Pushkinian aesthetics," and the chief culprit is something called "metaphysics."

Systematic reading of Russian journals ca. 1790–1835, amplified by research in primary and secondary sources, suggests the need for a revised view of Russian reception of Romantic Idealist teachings, most particularly in the 1820s when debates over Romanticism became a rage. I have found that one effective way to trace the development of Russian Romanticism is to extract key critical assertions from Russian journals and trace their origins by demonstrating that in syntax and meaning they are direct adaptations of ideas expressed in European philosophical and critical works. Experience with this method has yielded knowledge of two conditions which I believe need attention.

First, dislike of metaphysics should not imply ignorance or lack of interest in the teachings of Schelling and other Romantic Idealists. zhukovskij, Vjazemskij, Bestuzhev-Marlinskij, the brothers Polevoj, Grech, Bulgarin, Somov, Pletnev and other activists of the 1820s, including Pushkin, read, argued and assimilated Romantic concepts into Russian intellectual awareness. Orest Somov's seminal 1823 essay On Romantic Poetry, for example, is in large part a translation of lengthy portions of Madame de Stael's De l'Allemagne.

Second, despite Schelling's influence on the Lovers of Wisdom philosopher-poets, his ideas had considerably less impact on the development of Russian Romanticism in the 1820s than those of other Romantic Idealists. The thinkers and intellectuals whose ideas were carried into Russia and who are most often quoted, paraphrased, and adapted into Russian Romantic criticism were Herder, Goethe, Schiller, the brothers August and Friedrich Schlegel, their advocate Madame de Staël and opponent Simonde de Sismondi, Lamartine, Victor Hugo, and the lesser known J.-P.-F. Ancillon. Pushkin, for example, admired Sismondi more than any other thinker of the time and was well versed in the teachings of the Schlegels.

This paper is an attempt to demonstrate the reception of Romantic Idealist thought in Russian literary criticism by reviewing what I believe to be the exceptional—and therefore exemplary—influence of Madame de Stael. This influence derives from the assuredness with which she wrote and because she wrote not as a philosopher, but as an unabashed propagandist of the teachings of others. Her De l'Allemagne—the work with which she challenged and then overcame the dictates of French Neoclassicism—was readily accepted by Russians because they believed that the ideas she explicated were particularly applicable to Russian conditions.