by Anthony Domestico
Written in 1925 for The Common Reader, “The Russian Point of View” is Virginia Woolf’s most compelling piece of critical writing on the ethos of Russian literature. In it, she gathers together the threads of two previous essays, “The Russian View” and “Tchehov’s Questions,” as well as her thoughts on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. In the process, Woolf creates a profound meditation on issues of cultural relativity, the necessary opacities of translation, and the distinctive concerns of the Russian writers she found so influential for her own writing.
Within the essay, Woolf offers her assessments of three Russian writers: Chekhov, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. Woolf’s critical prose is at its most lancing, providing memorable encapsulations of the virtues of these titans of world literature: describing Chekhov’s oddities, she writes, “We have to cast about in order to discover where the emphasis in these strange stories rightly comes” (184); recounting the burning cauldron of Dostoevsky’s fictional world, she says, “The novels of Dostoevsky are seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil and suck us in” (186); accounting for Tolstoy’s utter mastery of detail and characterization, she writes, “And what his infallible eye reports of a cough or a trick of the hands his infallible brain refers to something hidden in the character, so that we know his people, not only by the way they love and their views on politics and the immortality of the soul, but also by the way they sneeze and choke” (188). Beyond their critical acuity, these statements are striking for their own description of Woolf’s prose. As in a Chekhov story, we struggle to find the correct point of emphasis in the ceaseless monologues of The Waves; just as Dostoevsky reveals an inner world of turbulence and passion, so does Woolf show us the concealed, murderous rage of James in To the Lighthouse; in the fashion of Tolstoy, we know Mr. Ramsey not just by his rhetoric but by his blustering manner of marching across the lawn.
Woolf opens her essay by foregrounding the problem of intercultural knowledge. If a British reader must struggle to understand even a transplanted American writer like Henry James, Woolf asks, then what chance does this same reader have of truly comprehending a Russian novelist? Language is the largest and most obvious obstacle. In reading translation, we read a text that is fundamentally different from the original; we “have judged a whole literature stripped of its style” (182). For a writer so cognizant of the effects of style – the impact of syntactical choices, the piercing nature of metaphoric language – translation must necessarily involve loss: “The great Russian writers are like men deprived by an earthquake or a railway accident not only of all their clothes, but also of something subtler and more important – their manners, the idiosyncrasies of their characters.”
Our difficulty in understanding Russian literature, however, is not due solely to the barrier of language for Woolf; it strikes at the very difficulties of cultural difference. She writes, “A special acuteness and detachment, a sharp angle of vision the foreigner will often achieve; but not that absence of self-consciousness, that ease and fellowship and sense of common values which make for intimacy, and sanity, and the quick give and take of familiar intercourse” (182). In addition to being a beautiful description of the challenges that come with reading foreign literatures, this statement serves as a particularly interesting take on the relation of foreignness to modernism in general. It is a critical truism that the modernists were largely an exiled group, oftentimes self-imposed: Henry James left the sordid United States for the culture of Europe; Joyce left Dublin for the international flavor of Paris and Zurich; Pound left Pennsylvania for England, Paris, and Italy; the list goes on. There is a similar consensus that modernist literature concerns itself with self-consciousness in all its forms: the mind considering itself, language reflecting upon its material nature, art questioning its very assumptions and foundations. Woolf here identifies the fascinating link in modernist writing between exile and reflexivity, between estrangement from another culture and the estrangement that enables the creation of art.
Woolf goes beyond mere literary differences and emphasizes that there is a disparity in nature between peoples, that the English and the Russians are so different as to be almost distinct species. This sense that people inhabit different epistemological universes is a major theme running throughout Woolf’s novels. In The Voyage Out, Hewet declares, “No two people are in the least alike” (107); in The Waves, Percival proclaims, “But we were all different. The wax – the virginal wax that coats the spine melted in different patches for each of us” (178). It is the ability of Russian writers like Tolstoy and Chekhov to overcome the gaping chasm between selves, Woolf intimates, that makes them so remarkable. In “The Russian Point of View,” Woolf quotes a short story by Elena Militsina as a general dictum for all Russian literature: “Learn to make yourselves akin to people. I would even like to add: make yourself indispensable to them. But let this sympathy be not with the mind – for it is easy with the mind – but with the heart” (183). This genius for sympathy, “the simplicity, the absence of effort, the assumption that in a world bursting with misery the chief call upon us is to understand our fellow-sufferers,” is what Woolf identifies as most characteristic of Russian literature and what is least possible in English culture. Woolf diagnoses a number of ills in the English soul that prevent such elegant simplicity: the presence of luxury instead of humanizing, “common suffering” (183); the celebration of sardonic wit over “honesty” (185); the rigidity in which English “society is sorted out into lower, middle, and upper classes” (187) instead of the spiritual equality in Russian literature, where everyone, whether “noble or simple, a tramp or a great lady,” is equally possessed of a soul worth exploring.
In a lecture on The Good Soldier, Professor Pericles Lewis outlined a broad taxonomy of British modernist novels. There are essentially two epistemological positions, Lewis argued, in which British modernists locate themselves: either they believe that one can know everything that is in another mind, or they believe that one can know nothing that is in another mind. Throughout her career, Woolf struggled between these two poles. She balanced her despair at the inability of persons to overcome the fact that, as Pater writes, “ each mind keep[s] as a solitary prisoner its own dream of a world” (151) with the hopes for the revelatory recognition of others that constitutes great art. Woolf’s essay “The Russian Point of View,” while interesting for its description of the Russian literary character, is just as fascinating for its insights into Woolf’s own stylistic, cultural, and epistemological concerns.
Pater, Walter. The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1981.
________. The Waves. Harcourt, Inc., 2006.
________. The Voyage Out. Harcourt, Inc., London: Hogarth Press, 1990.
________. “The Russian Point of View.” The Essays of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Andrew McNeille. Vol. 4. London: Hogarth, 1994. 181-189.