Russian Anti-Literature and the Anti-Hero

Rolf Hellebust, University of Calgary

This paper builds on research presented at the 2003 conference of the Canadian Association of Slavists ("The 19th-Century Russian Literary Canon as an Anti-Literature") and AATSEEL 2004 ("Russian Anti-literature in the 20th Century"). This research is part of a larger project – a book on the 19th-century Russian canon as a symbolic cultural text. In the efforts of 19th-century Russia to realize its political and cultural ambitions, the yardstick was always Western Europe; yet these efforts could only be judged successful if grounded in a concept of the nation's uniqueness. Thus the social function that was to mold Russia's destiny could only arise from a literature that measured itself against the West and yet remained distinct – one that could be seen as an antithesis to the Western cultural establishment, just as young Russia as a whole sought to see itself as old Europe's opposite. In the 19th century this idea is perhaps most explicitly expressed in Tolstoy's preface to his most famous work, with its "What is War and Peace? It is not a novel..." In the 20th century, Tolstoy's view is reflected in Bakhtin's negative definition of the novel, Russian or otherwise, in terms of its antagonistic relations with other literary forms. It is also expressed through the provocative genre-breaking labels of Pushkin's Evgenii Onegin and Gogol''s Dead Souls, and by a strategy of "bad writing" (based on the assumption that the degree of polish in a narrative is inversely proportional to its sincerity), most (in)famously, in Chernyshevsky's What is To Be Done?, and also in the works of writers such as Dostoevsky. The ostensible failure of the literary text as a whole is often directly linked to that of its protagonist – as in the case of Dostoevsky's Underground Man, who concludes his monologue by calling it "hardly literature so much as a corrective punishment," because while "a novel needs a hero, [...] all the traits for an anti-hero are expressly gathered together here." The anti-hero of Notes from the Underground mocks and yet embraces the anti-literary strategy of Chernyshevsky, both in his production of "bad writing," and his own self-subverting attempts to play the part of the literary hero.