by Kenneth WHITE

There was a time, first in Glasgow, then in Paris, when I was plunged in Russian literature and Russian problematics. I often walked up and down Nekrassov Street and looked along the Neva prospect…




What preoccupied me in Glasgow was the relationship between nationalism and cosmopolitanism : the big 19th century debate in Russia between the Occidentalists on the one hand and the Slavophiles on the other, both of them concerned with the evolution of culture in Russia and with the question of native genius.

Russia has always oscillated between the European West and the Asiatic East. It was overwhelmed from Asia by the Golden Horde, and was aggressed from the West by the Teutonic Order. It expanded West into the Baltic and East across Siberia. If there were peaceful relations – economic and cultural – between Russia and Europe as early as the pre-eminence of Kiev, if they were developed, towards England, France and Spain, in the 16th century, if Boris Godunov accentuated the thrust towards a Russia of Europe, it was with Peter the Great that the great turning-point occurred in Russian history, with a massive move towards European ways of working and thinking. This was the beginning of Occidentalism.

Peter the Great, whom we might more usefully call Peter the Pragmatist, opened up, materially and intellectually, the Nevski prospect. The image he had of Russia was of a country steeped in superstition and obscurantism euphemistically dubbed « spirituality », whose Church calendar went back to « the creation of the world », a country economically backward, with no significant volume of trade, no adequate financial system, an army hardly worth talking about, and a navy that was non-existent, the only port open to the West being Arkangelsk, blocked half of the year by ice. Peter’s aim was to lift Russia out of its murky Middle Ages and set it on an equal footing with the modern states of Europe.

To do this, while still young, he augmented his official Russian education by frequenting the foreigners of the « German » suburb of Moscow, later travelling to Germany, Holland, England, France in order to visit shipyards, factories and workshops.

Once in power, absolute power, relayed by a governmental bureaucracy in which nobility and clergy were pressed into a civil service, to which laymen and non-noble men of merit also had access, he organized a fiscal system, opened up mines in the Urals that would lead to a heavy metal industry, set up textile manufactures, imposed national conscription for a citizen’s army with new grades and new strategies, declaring for example, at the battle of Poltava : « You are not fighting for the tsar, you are fighting for your fatherland and for your families », and meaning it.

All this culminated and became concentrated in the foundation of the city of St Petersburg, on the banks of the Neva, a city of stone and brick with wide avenues and prospects (in total contrast to the wooden huddle of Moscow), a city alive with trade, loud with shipbuilding, open to the Baltic and the West, linked to the centre of the country by a canal network involving the Volga, Lake Ilmen and Lake Ladoga. To cap it all, Peter set up in this city an Academy of Sciences, staffed  at the beginning mainly by foreigners, most of them French or German (the naturalist Georg Steller studied and taught there before leaving with Bering the Dane on the Kamchatka expedition), but there were also Russians, like Mikhail Lomonosov, a peasant’s son from the Pomor country of the North, who was to found the first Russian university.

For those who were to form the party of the Slavophiles, Peter was not only a Europeanised anti-traditionalist, he was the Antechrist in person, trampling underfoot the most precious values of Orthodoxy, aggressing the most secret recesses of the Russian soul. If that soul was to be saved, a wall of opposition had to be raised, a counter-reform set in motion.  At its forefront was a phalanx of disgruntled aristocrats and clergymen, a mix of the proud and the pious, deep in its background the conviction that if you possess the truth of Christ, the shining light of Orthodoxy, you have no need of knowledge or education. This was Moscow talking over against St Petersburg, and behind Moscow, a string of muddy little burgs with their krml fort full of bully boys, their church full of icons, their backyards full of kail.

In addition, as an offshoot of the Slavophiles, there were the ultra-slavophiles, the raskolniks (from raskol, schism), the « Old Believers », sometimes referred to as the Calvinists of Orthodoxy (who were to play a preponderant rôle in Russia’s later industrial and capitalist development). Attempts to take a wider view within the slavophile camp, open up the arena, quickly died out. For example, in 1687 a Greco-Slavo-Latin Academy was set up, meant to rival the old church academy of Kiev, but its main function turned out to be the rigorous censure of foreign books.

For decades, the ding-dong debate raged on, as is the way of history, including cultural and literary history, where one partial script, one partial score, follows another, in a monotonously predictable kind of way, and where any real idea gets lost in simplistic polemics. The general context is not restricted to Russia, nor is even this particular Occidentalist-Slavophile debate. It’s possible, even easy, to extrapolate to other situations : to the Scottish situation, for example, where, after 1603, and especially after 1707, you have an Anglified (hardly Europeanised) gentry on the one hand, and, on the other, a people devoted to Scottishness, in a more or less sentimental, more or less pugnacious kind of way.

History (political, cultural, literary) is one thing, works are another. In the works of a real author we leave simplistic polemics, as well as oppositional dialectics, behind, and can see things (forces, ideas) in a more complete, paradoxical rather than orthodoxical kind of way.




It’s in the work of Dostoevsky (first read by me in many a dingy room in Glasgow) that the contradictory Russian context is most concentrated, particularly in his A Writer’s Journal, and in three texts : « Books and Education », « Recent Literary Manifestations » and « The Pushkin Speech ».

On the face of it, Dostoevsky is an out-and-out Slavophile. His Christian beliefs (witness, The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov) are notorious, and connected to them are his ardent desire for « a resurrection of the Slavs » and his convictions concerning « the predestination of the Russian people » for the salvation of humanity. To all that, has to be added his explicit criticism of Occidentalism. Peter the Great, he says, wanted to turn Russia into a section of Europe, he provoked the split between a Europeanised elite on the one hand and the mass of the people on the other – where the moujik maintained his original Slav simplicity and his faith in Christ, the Occidentalists lived a rootless, sceptical, spiritually empty existence that was in touch with nothing (cf. Turgeniev’s Smoke). What the cosmopolitan intellectual, who has lived too long « in a rarefied and corrupted atmosphere », needs is to return to the people and the native soil. The case, apparently, is clear : Fedor Dostoevsky stands firm in the Slavophile camp.

Yet it is not so simple.

Part of Dostoevsky’s apparent partisanship of the Slavophile position is, in its campy style, implicit, ironical criticism. And elsewhere the criticism is quite explicit. To fail to see, to refuse to see, as the Slavophiles made it their credo and mission to do, that the petrovian reform was a significant moment in Russian history, breaking bonds that obstructed the growth of the country, is wilfully to wear blinkers and play the role of the blind leading the blind. The European-Occidentalist movement brought with it a spirit of intelligence and research as also a capacity for analysis, synthesis, the formation of concepts : real questions were asked, and real answers found.

Hypnotized by the blurred vision of a pre-Peter Russia, what had the Slavophiles to offer in place of this real work ? Only a wad of legendary fiction, a mix of tale and song, a mess of half-understood, ill-digested tradition. In their visceral hatred of anything remotely smacking of foreign influence, indeed anything that was too intelligent for them to understand, in their branding as false, pseudo, pretentious, elitist, everything that did not fit into their « little waffle-iron made in Moscow » (Dostoevsky dixit), in their short-sighted « back to the people » slogan, in their putting sentimental pathos in place of the paths of intelligence, not only did they show a total incomprehension of the cultural situation,they were pushing Russia into a cul-de-sac.

The Occidentalists, went on Dostoevsky, were every bit as imbued with Russian spirit as the Slavophiles, they refused simply to cover their eyes and close up their ears to a complex state of affairs. Euro-Occidentalism had been a real movement, with all kinds of possible extensions, whereas Slavophilia with its populist patriotism and its comfortable conception of identity, its whole ethos and ideology defended by small-minded, mean-minded partisans, was a dead end.

On the more strictly literary level, newspapers such as The Annals of the Homeland or The Moscow Daily, while talking in the name of the people, were in fact not worthy of the people, and did not work in its best interests, or the country’s interests. They confused nationalism with populism, plebeianism. The hard truth is, says Dostoevski, that the forms chosen by the people to express and realise its ideal (when ideal there is), are always limited and often totally false. The Slavophiles wanted writers to « talk directly to the people ». It’s possible to conceive of such a poet coming from the people and talking to them. That poet would express a milieu, as in popular song, but he would never blaze trails, his horizon would always be constricted. What is the value in terms of a country’s culture for a poet talking the people’s language if that people is not yet fully developed, or has been left undeveloped owing to historical circumstance ? To be cultivated and intelligent, is it to be « not of the people » ? When a people becomes cultivated, does it necessarily lose its national character ? Were the Greeks less Greek when Pericles came on the scene ? In short, do the Slavophiles want a real poet, or just a familiar face on a mug ? To see what I’m getting at, Dostoevsky went on, you have to have some sense of poetics – and the Slavlophiles simply didn’t have it. It was the Occidentalists, not the Slavophiles, who recognized Gogol as a great writer and saw his importance for Russia as for the world. With their noses deep in writers « for the people » and in populist poets, not only were the Slavophiles incapable of seeing Pushkin but, when attention began to be drawn to him from elsewhere, they were loathe to admit that his work had any value at all, and denied any relevance it might have for Russia. Whereas for Dostoevsky, the truly national poet in a developing Russia is not X, Y or Z (fill in the slavophilic or whatever blanks), but Pushkin. These writers were not and would never be anywhere near Pushkin. For Dostoevsky, as he declared in his speech of June 8th 1880, Pushkin was « an extraordinary phenomenon ».

Born in 1799 in Moscow, Pushkin got his early education from his father’s library, a library full of French books, among them Voltaire, Rousseau and the Encyclopedists, which is why, as a pupil at the lyceum, where he was forever making reference to them, he was known, as « the Frenchie ». One of his first texts, when he began to write himself, in a Russian out to be more supple than the structures of church Slavonic, was an « Ode to Liberty », soon followed by « The Village » (an indictment of peasant servitude) and « The Prisoner of the Caucasus ». From there, he went on to « The Gypsies », describing the life of a homeless vagabond, a stranger in the city, attracted to the nomadic life, desirous of a newfound contact with nature. Another wanderer is Oneguin, traversing territory after territory, looking for new truth, without being able as yet to formulate anything like a coherent project. In Boris Godunov, written in white pentameters and prose, it’s not a wanderer we’re concerned with, but an isolated, independent monk who chronicles the times in a text that perhaps no one will ever read. There’s always a tension in Pushkin (shall we call it a dialectics ?) between a principle of order (he admired Peter the Great) and elementary forces (he admired also the rebel Pugatchov), as between isolation and some kind of association. With this tension in mind, keen to see if it was present in Russian culture as a whole and how it had worked itself out, he plunged into a mass of historical, archival, documentary research, writing articles in The Contemporary that showed the results of that research and which he offered as elements of a future education. In the meantime, he was expanding his own cultural horizon, with investigations into German, Spanish, English, Greek, Latin, Arabic and Persian literature.

All of this was mostly unbeknown to The Annals of the Homeland, and, when it was seen in glimpses, it was rejected as foreign, irrelevant, of no use to the people of Russia.

Should Pushkin, asks Dostoevsky, have dropped his investigations, hidden his culture under a bush, talked the language of the people to the people for the people ? Should he have given up his real work,k be content with a restricted play of his faculties that would be « popular « ? Absurd, says Dostoevsky. What does it matter, he goes on, if at the present stage of its evolution, the people don’t understand Pushkin. It will come to know him later, as a figure of prime significance, and at the same time become conscious of its own potentiality.

Dostoevsky concludes his Pushkin declaration with an expression of regret that the poet should have died before reaching anything like the completion of a work already so full, not just of promise, but of lines of future development := « He went to the grave with a great secret. We have to try to penetrate that great secret without him. »

If there’s a feature that marks out Russian literature from others, and specially from a certain contemporary context that is no more than « Business as usual », it’s the question : « What is to be done ? » The answers can be various : from a series of vague aspirations, fraught with hesitation and irresolution (cf. Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time), to a resounding nihilistic nothing (Netchaiev), via a set of messianic or revolutionary projects (from Tolstoy to Lenin), with listlessness leaping up to a wild, bizarre energy before lapsing back into torpor.

Dostoevsky’s programme is part prophecy, part project.

His first concern was to synthesize the Occidentalist movement and the Slavophile stand. On the occasion of the « Pushkin speech » there had been, in a burst of panrussian enthusiasm, a momentary reconciliation, but Dostoevsky was well aware that such a punctual event, whatever its punch, would not be the end of the matter. He therefore set about trying to create some kind of unity that would provide a new dynamic. The orthodoxy that the Slavophiles cherished was, in Dostoevsky’s eyes, a precious thing (the evangelistic truth of Christ in the service of humanity), and how to forget such invaluable compositions as The Legend of the Vladimir Princes, or The Legend of Igor or The Chronicle of Past Times ? As to Peter the Great’s Occidentalism, it went beyond any immediate utilitarianism. It was not only a question of knowledge and science, it was a new vision, a broader vision – in fact the enlargement of an ancient idea : the old muscovite idea. Both movements were essentially Russian. And what marks the Russian is universal sympathy, he has a capacity for panhuman identification. An Englishman, says Dostoevsky, always remains an Englishman, a Frenchman always remains a Frenchman, a German always remains a German. Germany’s force is spent, France however brilliant tends to be self-destructive, as for England, it is peopled by shopkeepers of common sense. The Russians can be better Europeans than the Europeans. And they can go beyond Europe towards a new unity of humanity. Not just a political unity, like the USA, and based on profit, but based on a world-vision.

If Dostoevsky’s discourse is both vigorous and clarifying, it’s pretty obvious that, if yet another convivial mix is to be avoided, the whole debate, between Slavophiles and Ocidentalists, between indwellers and outgoers, between the closed and the open, has to be raised to another level.




My Paris explorations of this « Russian » field were slightly different, having a more abstract tendency.

What interested me there were the first stirrings of revolutionism before the bolchevik clampdown, what Mandelstam called the years « before history », the « red band of the future dawn ». I’m thinking, for example, of Kautsky’s Erfurt Programme, that emerged from the Erfurt Congress of 1891. Mandelstam was reading Kautsky for social thought and Tyuchev for « cosmic sensations », a combination close to what I was involved in myself. And I liked what Mandelstam had to say about the move towards anything like an adequate discourse, a live language : that you had to spend long years listening to the noise of history while letting your mind be gradually « whitened by the foaming crest of a world-wave ».

Relatively little of these explorations has yet appeared in my work in English (I developed it in French in my Paris thesis Le nomadisme intellectuel that later turned into the book L’Esprit nomade), but some inkling of it all can be seen in the essay on utopian socialism I wrote to accompany my translation of André Breton’s Ode to Charles Fourier that came out from Jonathan Cape, London, in 1968.

If Marx could make fun, as in The German Ideology, of certain Fourierists (he also made fun of most « Marxists »), both he and Engels had great admiration for the work of this « eccentric theorist » and studied it in depth, as did Proudhon who refers often to Fourier, notably in his research into the principles of political organisaion in De la création de l‘ordre dans l’humanité (The creation of order in humanity). In his preface to Capital, Marx conceives every form as in the course of movement, a movement entailing varying phases, contrapuntal contradictions, startling paradoxes and quick transitions. It is the observation of sequence, the series of such movements that invited a move of the mind towards a different type of thought. This different type of thinking was to be called dialectics and lead to the theory of dialectical materialism, the first and principal study in the field being Engels’ The Dialectics of Nature : « Nature is marked by dialectical laws ».

It is at this depth level, leaving aside any premature and idealistic utopianism, that Engels enters into the deep field of Fourier’s work, declaring that Fourier « handles dialectics as well as Hegel », maybe better, going in detail into the Frenchman’s « composite method » and his « serial calculus ».

Fundamental to Fourier’s thought was the notion of harmony, a complex notion that turns up early in Heraclitus and was developed, for example, by Kepler in his Harmonices Mundi, in which the conception is crystallised in the phenomenon of the snowflake. What Engels saw in Fourier’s work as serial calculus is what Fourier himself called « the calculus of harmony », with series extending from the smallest and the binary (to and fro, thesis-antithesis), what Fourier called vibration, the origin of rhythm), and making from there out to ternary series (Hegel’s thesis, antithesis, synthesis) into further complex quaternary series, as in his The Theory of the Four Movements, which came out in 1808, practically at the same time as Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Mind. What Fourier called for was a new « general exploration », « a new road to be followed », both of them governed by « the general law that determines the relationships of universal movement. »

While keeping Fourier’s harmonics in mind, let’s come back to dialectics.

Dialectics have come in recently for a good deal of criticism, whether it be in the context of existentialist philosophy, or in the sphere of pure mathematics. But existentialism is hardly the last word on existence, and in mathematics something like a « dialectics » can be seen coming back in group theory, and in algebraic topology where much attention is paid to the inbreak of foreign and extreme elements.

It was this field I wanted to explore, it was possible lines of development in this area I wanted to follow.

What it meant for me was a move from dialectics, via harmonics, to poetics. This is not so extravagant as it may sound on a first encounter. In The Dialectics of Nature,  Engels refers to Hegel’s work as « a dialectic poem ». What emerges here is an abstract poetics, allied to an abstract naturalism. Again, to some whose notions of « poetry » remain embedded on anoyther plane, such notions will seem preposterous, incomprehensible. But, as Wallace Stevens says, « abstraction is anathema only to the fatuous ». Without abstract notions of some kind, not only does everything end up in a morass of sociology, but the « concrete » is never seen in a clear light. The abstract is no enemy of the concrete, it simply gets rid of a lot of intermediary junk.

What I’ve been outlining, sketching in this preliminary text is a field in which political practice meets up with abstract thought (the calculus of harmony), in which dialectical materialism turns into geopoetics. It was these connexions I put tentatively forward in L’Esprit nomade, and which I presented in a more explicit way in Le Plateau de l’Albatros.