Wonder Confronts Certainty
Russian Writers on the Timeless Questions and Why Their Answers Matter
by Gary Saul Morson
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Pub Date 09 May 2023 | Archive Date 09 May 2023
Harvard University Press, Belknap Press
A noted literary scholar traverses the Russian canon, exploring how realists, idealists, and revolutionaries debated good and evil, moral responsibility, and freedom.
Since the age of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov, Russian literature has posed questions about good and evil, moral responsibility, and human freedom with a clarity and intensity found nowhere else. In this wide-ranging meditation, Gary Saul Morson delineates intellectual debates that have coursed through two centuries of Russian writing, as the greatest thinkers of the empire and then the Soviet Union enchanted readers with their idealism, philosophical insight, and revolutionary fervor.
Morson describes the Russian literary tradition as an argument between a radical intelligentsia that uncompromisingly followed ideology down the paths of revolution and violence, and writers who probed ever more deeply into the human condition. The debate concerned what Russians called “the accursed questions”: If there is no God, are good and evil merely human constructs? Should we look for life’s essence in ordinary or extreme conditions? Are individual minds best understood in terms of an overarching theory or, as Tolstoy thought, by tracing the “tiny alternations of consciousness”? Exploring apologia for bloodshed, Morson adapts Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the non-alibi—the idea that one cannot escape or displace responsibility for one’s actions. And, throughout, Morson isolates a characteristic theme of Russian culture: how the aspiration to relieve profound suffering can lead to either heartfelt empathy or bloodthirsty tyranny.
What emerges is a contest between unyielding dogmatism and open-minded dialogue, between heady certainty and a humble sense of wonder at the world’s elusive complexity—a thought-provoking journey into inescapable questions.
Gary Saul Morson is Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His books include “Anna Karenina” in Our Time, Narrative and Freedom, and most recently Minds Wide Shut (with Morton Schapiro).
“An impeccable contribution to literary criticism, social philosophy, and philosophical anthropology. Against debilitating nihilism and secular and religious fundamentalism, it affirms dialogue, conversation, and the ‘polyphonic’ expression of rich and diverse personal points of view. Morson embodies the best insights of the Russian literary tradition he sets out to illuminate.”—Daniel J. Mahoney, author of The Statesman as Thinker: Portraits of Greatness, Courage, and Moderation
“A profound, passionate, and wholly original celebration of Russian realism as both literary school and way of life. Invoking bitter historical precedent, Morson shows us that reality itself—the sensual, moral experience of living and loving actual humans—requires an able defender in the face of alluring theoretical abstractions, perfect futures, and idealized visions of humanity. And who better to defend the prosaic elements of lived experience than those writers whose unprecedented achievements depended on their ability to describe it so well?”—Yuri Corrigan, author of Dostoevsky and the Riddle of the Self