Book review

by Andrew A. Gentes

Aesthetics of alienation: reassessment of early Soviet cultural theories
Evgeny Dobrenko; translated from the Russian by Jesse M. Savage

Published by Northwestern University Press, 2005-05-16
ISBN 9780810120259

The title of this book, part of the NUP series Studies in Russian Literature and Theory, may strike a chord of recognition among humanities scholars labouring under the Howard regime, but from the outset let it be said this is a dense text for specialists only. Dobrenko’s thesis is that Socialist Realism, rather than being a straitjacket used by the state to eliminate artistic waywardness, was actually an ‘assimilation’ of revolutionary theories which, by their own internal logic, were self-destructive (p. 109). Despite disapproving these theories’ alienating aesthetics, Dobrenko draws the idiosyncratic conclusion that ‘the product of Socialist Realism is life itself (in full accord with the revolutionary theories of creativity)…’ (p. 126). (Note that his use of the present tense is no mistake.) He reconciles this paradox by characterizing the production of theories as a process that culminates in a state of praxis whereby life itself is aestheticized and ‘art’ as a bourgeois and alienating fetishistic product is annihilated. All this makes for an intriguing re-envisioning of Socialist Realism – an especially elusive phenomenon for historians and literary scholars alike.

Unlike others who have attempted the task, Dobrenko arrives at his definition virtually without reference to any politics ‘from above’. He instead charts a revolution from inside, documenting those philosophical precepts that guided Soviet theorists along their alienating path. His approach, however, is unsystematic, breathlessly jumping from writer to writer and quote to quote in a manner that leaves little space for summarization. Greater attention to narrative may have rendered the book more digestible; although, had Dobrenko dealt in a more conventional fashion with a single text at a time his argument might be less convincing, for while he does (re)construct a Zeitgeist, the result is possibly as much his own (as suggested by his use of the present tense in the quotation above) as a reflection of what existed at the time. A greater weakness is that his description of Socialist Realism as an assimilatory culmination of purely theoretical trends functions as a mono-causal and teleological approach excluding other explanatory factors. For example, Socialist Realism could hardly have assimilated Acmeism, a turn-of-the-century movement Katerina Clark defines as ‘informed by the ideal of an art that was static, eternal, and crafted the way the artisan constructs a building’ (Petersburg: Crucible of Cultural Revolution [Harvard, 1995], p. 63 [Citation details]) – had Stalin not been rebuilding Moscow at the time of RAPP’s establishment in 1934. Certainly, RAPP owed its origins primarily to the literati, but the organization also reflected official policy (call it Thermidor or the Stalin Revolution, as you will) affecting all areas of Soviet life. Dobrenko’s cloistered analysis of literary theorists’ inner worlds consequently suffers from a shortcoming common to intellectual histories which portray ideas arising in a vacuum, regardless of the arguably greater influence of material conditions. Nietzsche, after all, wrote that philosophy begins in the gut, and so it may have been that access to rationed goods played a bigger role than ‘Mozartianism’ in assuring allegiance to RAPP’s literary prescriptions.

To be fair, however, Dobrenko’s brief monograph (excellently translated by Savage) is intended to be a corrective, rather than definitive, statement on Socialist Realism’s literary/historical origins, and so there’s no reason to demand a repeat of explanatory formulas that have been around for years. His take on the matter is also made unique by his treatment of Socialist Realism as a present-day rather than passé phenomenon, as he seems to be trying to prove his argument through praxis, rendering himself indistinguishable from the text he has created and which the reader may be said to be creating. For those seeking a multilayered and challenging discussion that reinvents a well-mined topic, this is a must read.