National Stereotypes and Literature in the 20th Century
Tatyana Malikova (Russia)
Since the 20th century national fiction has been actively translated into foreign languages, gaining readership outside the culture of origin. At the same time European literary scholarship became interested in researching the factors affecting reception and interpretation of national fiction by foreign readers. Image studies, originating in France and Germany of the 1950s, addresses this aspect in detail. Dutch scholar Joep Leerssen points out that current cultural, political and economic relations between nations define whether such stereotypes are positive or negative in their valorization, resulting in either xenophobia or exoticism, or "xenophilia". Nowadays when speaking about nations it is more appropriate to speak not of racial or ethnic groups as such, but rather people united by the language they speak. This classification principle proves to be ‘more lasting than belonging to a particular nation’ not only in terms of image studies (Mehnert 2003, 34), but also in terms of Sapir and Whorf’s theory of linguistic relativity which proves that ‘the grammatical categories and vocabulary of the language in question shape the mentality of the individual using it’ (Kuzhnetsov 1994, 244).
Image studies strive to investigate ‘the image of another country’, ‘of a foreign culture’ as it is portrayed in national literature. Researchers, therefore, aim at explaining the origin of the image as well as discovering the factors modifying the image when it is perceived through literary works (M. Fischer). Image studies allow a thorough analysis of a cultural confrontation between auto-images and hetero-images. Auto-image is the attitude one has towards one’s own cultural values, which becomes realized in fiction (E. Mehnert). Hetero-image, thus, is the attitude towards the other as opposed to one’s own (A. Wierlacher). The interrelation of auto- and hetero-images can be characterized as dialectical as they mutually explain each other: ‘one’s own’ is defined when opposed to the other.
Image studies believe that ‘images are essences of one’s perception of cultural peculiarities and differences, which relate to countries and peoples as temporary mental models existing in history’ (K.U. Sindram). This brings us to the conclusion that literary images, being attached to a specific point in time, possess their own history and thus to analyze them we have to consider both local and historical aspects. Among these is the impact of ‘political (especially cultural and political) relations between nations and language groups’ over a particular period of time as well as ‘images of countries popularized via mass media and science and art’ (Mehnert 2003, 62, 63). However, the making of auto- and hetero-images is best understood in terms of the field theory, proposed by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in the 1980s. And so it turns out that reception and interpretation are substantially defined by national or ethnic stereotypes forced upon literature externally by the power field and also promoted within by the history of the field of literature itself (the terms ‘field of power and ‘field of literature’ were coined by Bourdieu). According to Bourdieu’s theory, the field of literature lies within the field of power and functions in accordance with the fundamental principle of the latter, which is ‘yearning for economic and political profit’ (Bourdieu 2000, 25). Therefore, we can say that the filed of power affects the making of non-literary images, which in turn ‘interact’ with literary-images. At the same time, as ‘conventional wisdom and commonplaces inherited from the existing textual tradition completely overshadow personal experience’ national stereotypes become ‘intertextual constructs’ (Leerssen). Therefore, we should speak about the special mission of the history of the field of literature to preserve and pass on the already-existing concepts of perceiving a foreign culture.
The degree of autonomy of the field of literature from the field of power defines how distinct is the border between its two poles: the sub-field of limited (elitist) production and the sub-field of broad (mass) production. The elitist sub-field functions by the fundamental law of independence of the outer requirements and reverses the fundamental principles of the field of economy and the field of power. It ‘rules out pursuit of material benefits and does not guarantee that the amount of investments will be up to the material profit’ (Bourdieu 2000, 26). The sub-field of mass production defines success as commercial success (the size of a book edition) or fame (rewards received), when those authors who are known and recognized by the public are considered to be the top ones.
Looking at the principles defining the way émigré writers’ works enter a foreign field of literature, it is possible to analyze the way his/her own culture and ‘the other’ culture affect him/her as well as the interaction between the culture of origin and the receiving culture within a cross-cultural and even cross-civilization dialogue. Considering the possibilities and the challenges of the present day resulting from mass media globalization, scholars are attempting to discover factors defining an author’s reception in a foreign environment through analysis of the dynamics of a literary work within a foreign field of literature together with the characteristics and the degree of interaction between the artist and the foreign audience. To investigate these problems means not only to specify the borders of national traditions, but also to comprehend the world literary process.
In the 20th century the confrontation between the capitalist and communist ideological systems greatly affected the reception and interpretation of Russian Soviet literature by English-speaking readers in the West. However, thorough research of Western critical positions became possible only in the 2000s when a researcher could freely compare and contrast Cold war and post-Cold-war attitudes in Western literary scholarship. During the 1960s-1990s the majority of English-speaking Slavists conducted research in US colleges and universities (over 30 scholars, including Deming Brown, Edward Brown, Katerina Clark, John Glad). The second largest community was based in the UK (Geoffrey Hosking, Max Hayward, Arnold McMillan). A few researchers worked in Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa. Among those researching Soviet Russian literature and publishing in English were many Russian and Soviet immigrants whose intellectual contribution to Western scholarship can hardly be overestimated: Marc Slonim, Victor Erlich, Mark Lipovetsky, Mikhail Epstein etc.
Once translated into English, Russian Soviet literary works entered the history of the field of literature, which is understood as ‘a historically constituted sphere of co-existing and competing fiction texts. The interaction between the already existing works define the range of possible manifestations as continuation of the previous canon, break with it, or its replacement’ (Bourdieu 2000, 46). To illustrate the point we will look at the reception of some works of the famous Russian Soviet writer Vassily Aksyonov, who was forced to emigrate to the US in 1980 and whose novels have been widely translated into English since the 1960s, when he first became well-known in the Soviet Union and then abroad. The appeal of his works lies within the scope of topics and styles employed. Aksyonov was a representative of the so-called ‘shestidesiatniki’ generation which came about as a result of relaxed post-Stalin policies in the Soviet Union and destalinization giving rise to pro-Western ideals both in society and in literature. Writing about the Soviet youth Aksyonov portrayed them as individualists speaking sub-standard Russian filled with slang of English origin and looking up to Western lifestyle and culture.
Throughout most of the 20th century literary scholars in Russia and in other countries inevitably found themselves involved in the political confrontation of the socialist and capitalist systems. Fields of power of the two systems regulated the conditions of economic and symbolic capital accumulation for all agents, or participants, of the fields of literature. Research of ‘designedly anti-Soviet literature’ (Russian writing 1977, 12) became the most widespread and economically profitable practice in the English-language field of literature. According to Carl Proffer, an outstanding Slavist and the founder of Ardis publishing house, not only newspapers and magazines, but also ‘a number of well known American Slavists have made their careers on Soviet dissent, while pretending to be interested in the art of writing’ (Proffer C. 1972, xviii).
The period from Stalin’s death to the collapse of the Soviet Union provided Slavists with enough material to prove their theories. Moreover, the 1960s and the new literature that arose in that decade shaped their attitudes and divided them into two distinct groups. One group of Slavists comprised those scholars who were tuned in to the political confrontation and multiplied their economic and symbolic capitals in the ideological battles. As early as the middle of the 1960s English-speaking researchers acknowledged their dependence on extra-literary criteria as well as on Soviet literary politics, which stimulated investigation of Soviet Russian literature ‘in a somewhat distorted light’ in accordance with critical standards, ‘infected with a stereotyped contempt which is political in origin’ (Simmons E. 1965, 264). Priscilla Meyer wrote, ‘We produce abundant material on literary politics but almost no analyses of literature per se… [much of American criticism] has done little more so far than seek out the “anti-positive hero” and discuss Soviet literature primarily as a reflection of Soviet reality’ (Meyer 1971, 420-423). The founder of America-based publishing house Ardis observed a number of similarities between American and Soviet critics of the Cold War period, ‘Soviet critics tend to complain that American critics… overlook or purposely conceal the social significance of literary works. American critics will probably be surprised to learn they are involved in a conscious ideological conspiracy. In any case anyone who reads the major literary reviews of this country will be puzzled by the Soviet view, since our reviews consistently stress social aspects to the exclusion of artistic considerations’ (Proffer 1972, x). Carl Proffer continued and pointed out that ‘any American translator who has tried to interest a national magazine in Soviet literature, or who has approached a publisher, knows he will be told that without the “dissent angle” it will not be interesting and sell’ (Proffer 1972, xvii).
Research of English-language critical works on Russian Soviet literature and reception of Russian fiction in English-language press of the 1980s-1990s proves that there were two distinct hetero-images of Russian Soviet literature shared by scholars and critics alike. One of them (hetero-image 1) was based on a politicized stereotype, according to which good Russian literature of the Soviet period was necessarily anti-Soviet and ethically and esthetically oriented to the Western literary canon. Indeed, at the end of the 1950s – beginning of the 1960s Soviet culture and society were going through breaking up of Weltanschauung and ideological positions, thus forcing artists to make a choice between returning to national origins or connecting with the modernist tradition of the beginning of the 20th century thus trying to join in the contemporary Western literature. Scholars who supported hetero-image 1 believed that in Russia and the Soviet Union writers fulfilled a special social mission which was defined by the influence of the field of power. Ronald Hingley, for example, explained that literature always functioned in Russian society as a source ‘from which readers expect not merely to derive entertainment, but also to learn how life should be lived’ (Hingley 1979, xi). Rosalind Marsh insisted that ‘nineteenth-century Russian writers regarded themselves as the chroniclers and conscience of their nation; and this tradition has been inherited by many twentieth-century Russian writers’ (Marsh 1995, 1). According to researchers, the unique relationship between the writer and the reader in Russia related to ‘the public’s expectations from the writer’ as well as ‘the writer’s view of his own role’ (Milner-Gulland 1977, 10), tolerance and even encouragement of ‘the often insistent historical aspirations of many writers of fiction’ (Ziolkowski 1998, 172). Robin Milner-Gulland also pointed out that Russian literature was the only European literature, which has been traditionally under ‘numerous social and political pressures in accordance with [which], or indeed against [which], the writer may react’ (Russian writing 1977, 10). John Garrard believed that the special role played by the Russian orthodox church defined the historical tradition of Russian literature being engaged ‘in theological debate… that in the West is viewed as the prerogative of theologians’ (The Russian Novel 1983, 5). Therefore, John Glad’s observation summing up the opinions of the majority of Western scholars is absolutely logical, ‘It was naïve to expect so different a culture to have produced a world view identical to that of the typical Western liberal’ (Glad 1999, 399).
Consequently, hetero-image 1 is based on the belief that the phenomenon of Socialist Realism was created by political pressure and that it interrupted modernism and its connection with postmodernism (Eshelman 1997, 14). Since the field of power functioned as a ‘customer’ ordering new type of literature, the Socialist Realism that arose was characterized by the unique function as ‘a vehicle of ideology’ and so was different from Russian pre-Revolutionary and Western literatures (Shneidman 1979, 3).
However, even within the group of scholars supporting hetero-image 1 there formed two polar attitudes. One of them was represented by Canadian Slavist N.N. Shneidman, who suggested examining Socialist Realism ‘not only as an aesthetic, but as a sociological phenomenon having broad cultural, national, and ideological’ (Shneidman 1979, 3). Among those researchers who shared this opinion were Max Hayward, Gleb Struve, and Irving Howe (Rogers 1972, 20-22). The other attitude was upheld by researchers who adapted to the political situation of Cold War and preferred studying Socialist Realist works in spite of their literary or cultural value. Among representatives of this trend we can name George Gibian, Nadya Peterson, and British critic and translator Ronald Hingley, who believed that ‘the study of the literature [of the Soviet period] transcends the literary element that it comprehends, being indispensable to the historian, sociologist and student of current affairs. [It] would… be well worth examining even if [it] lacked literary merits’ (Hingley 1979, xi).
As to hetero-image 2, it took account of the notion of the world literary process comprised of unique and mutually complimenting national literatures, thus viewing Russian Soviet literature as a phenomenon similar to Western literatures of the 20th century as they were brought to life by the same world-wide social, political, and cultural circumstances. Those aspects of Russian and Russian Soviet literary process which were interpreted in terms of the difference from Western literary canons by apologists of hetero-image 1, were perceived as common to all national literatures by scholars supporting hetero-image 2. For instance, Tomas Venclova spoke of complete absence of censorship as something ‘inconceivable’: ‘Any society, while it remains a society, imposes certain restrictions on its writers and artists. Even if everything is permitted, the mechanics of fashion and the marketplace play the role of a kind of censorship (and often a far from lenient one)’ (Venclova 1990, 186). Victor Terras went further and reminded that ‘many of the foremost works of Russian literature were in fact written and/or published in the West, were inspired by or written in response to works of Western literatures, and have long since joined the canon of Western literature’ (Glad 1999, 12).
Speaking about the Weltanschauung of Russian and Soviet Russian literature Geoffrey Hosking noted: ‘What the Soviet people has suffered under is in fact an extreme form of attitudes widely taken for granted in the West: materialism, atheism, scientism, belief in progress’ (Hosking 1980, 196). Leading American Slavist Katerina Clark compared Socialist Realist literature to popular Western literature because they were both characterized by ‘formulaic’ nature and the functions performed in society (Clark 1985, xi). Therefore, hetero-image 2 was based on presupposition that Socialist Realist literature was an organic part of Russian and world literary processes. Donald Wesling’s rhetoric question highlights the essence of this hetero-image: ‘If modernism because of violent termination didn’t complete its trajectory, what would the postmodern look like it if were not Socialist Realism?’ (Wesling 1992, 108). In other words, the appearance of socialist realism, although largely imposed from above, still followed the principles of development of art in the 20th century common in the West.
The origin of the two contradicting hetero-images can be understood in terms of their correlation with the Western book market requirements. Obviously, notions already existing in the minds of the public mostly define reception of fiction by foreign or émigré writers. Research of English-language reviews of works by Russian Soviet émigré Vassily Aksyonov, translated and published in the West, proves that their reception was governed by stereotypes of Russian, Soviet, and émigré literatures. His mostly realistic novels about a writer’s life in the Soviet Union The Burn (1984) and Generations of Winter (1994) and Winter’s Hero (1996) were perceived first and foremost in terms of maintaining Tolstoy’s and Dostoyevsky’s tradition of pondering on serious questions of human existence. Exactly because externally Generations of Winter and Winter’s Hero met the standards set by English-speaking public, they were praised as ‘20th Century War and Peace’ by critics from The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, Publishers Weekly, The New York Review etc. Moreover, politicized stereotypes produced by the Cold War forced English-speaking readers to examine émigré works in search of an anti-Soviet message. According to Sally Laird, ‘Yet if the persecution of writers, and the expulsion or departure of many to the West, brought a bitter celebrity to those involved, in some ways it distorted our understanding of Russian literature as such’ (Laird 1999, xiii). At the same time, it was largely due to the existence of such stereotypes that English-speaking readers remained interested in Soviet émigré literature. Finally, it was these stereotypes (of Russian literature and Soviet émigré literature) that helped somewhat bridge the semantic gap between Russian émigré authors and their newly-acquired English-speaking audience.
Such gap is inevitable when a work of fiction is produced by a representative of one culture and is perceived by a representative of another culture because art necessarily draws upon national traditions, literary canons, and the surrounding reality. However, hetero-image 1 not only provided stereotypes to interpret Soviet émigré works, but also insisted that literature lacking national peculiarities was the epitome of good literature exactly because it was easier to understand and sell across the globe. Thus, works interpreted within hetero-image 1, brought economic capital to its authors and publishers and therefore were considered successful in the sub-field of broad (mass) production of the English-language field of literature.
As to hetero-image 2, which valued preservation of national traditions in fiction and promoted diversity within the common world cultural context, works interpreted within it appealed to connoisseurs, thus placing them into the sub-field of limited (elitist) production valuing cultural capital. Vassily Aksyonov’s novel The New Sweet Style where the writer talks about his experience as an émigré in the US in a surrealist manner often alluding to Russian literary heritage and avoiding explicit political comments received wide acclaim among cultured readers, whose opinion was voiced by The New York Times Book Review, New Criterion, Virginia Quarterly Review, Harper’s Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, Review of Contemporary Fiction etc. Indeed, interpreting an émigré work within hetero-image 2 required an in-depth background knowledge of world history and art, as well as Russian literature, to decipher allusions and cultural messages. Thus, it was essentially impossible for an average English-speaking reader to comprehend Russian fiction (or any foreign fiction for that matter) to the point where he/she can actually enjoy it.
Therefore, national stereotypes affecting reception and interpretation of translated literature by foreign audiences were created not only by the current international situation in the world. What is more important, they were encouraged and sustained by the national book market of the receiving culture, aiming at economic profit from fiction easily interpreted within a set of cultural and political stereotypes.
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