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Classical art and the poetic practice of modernism (on the existential meaning of literature)

The poetry of modernism is a special form of artistic practice, which resists interpretation within the framework of classical literary theory and calls for a new interpretation strategy.

In his “Okhrannaya Gramota”, Boris Pasternak tries to articulate a new understanding of modern art along with already known forms of scientific analysis including “psychology of creation, issues of poetics”. He defines another facet of poetics, which in a non-classical way binds life, art and the artist. One can say that Pasternak does not view life as the subject of poetics, but rather the poetics, or the poetic, to be precise, is understood as a special facet of life, revealed by the artist. The existential meaning of literature reveals itself in this epistemological turn from mimesis to poetic ontology. The problem with the classical study is that it does not capture this meaning, and the modernistic genre of essay is not considered rigid knowledge in the literary studies and is treated as critique. It needs to be emphasized that the poetic practice of modernism demands an “other-than-scientific” view. This attribute has been used by Averintsev to describe the meaning of theoretical work by Bakhtin, but it can by all means be understood in its broader sense. A dialogical approach is in order, when a contradiction is not eliminated but rather understood in its inner dynamics.  

The classical contradiction of personal cognition “God(Logos) vs. Man” is dialectically cancelled in the process of development doe to the formation of a special type of classical art (e.g. literary trends as historically determined poetic practices). In the non-classical period, this contradiction takes a different shape and is conceived in its inner dynamics of personal self-identification, in particular, in the poetic practice of modernism.

The “subjective-biographical realism” of the modernist poetry, as Pasternak puts it, entails re-discovering reality. “We stop to recognize the world. It is revealed to us as a new category. This category seems to be its own, and not ours, state. Except for this state, everything else in the world has its name. Only this is new and does not have a name. We try to name it. Here is how art is born” [1]. Also, “Oriented toward reality suppressed by feeling, art is nothing but the recording of this suppression”, and “the properties of life become the properties of art” [2].

As follows from the quotations above, the subject of poetry is not life per se, but the poetic of reality which is born in the poet’s self-identification. Poetry is the tongue of life which speaks through the poet. In this way a fundamental phenomenon of the cognitive unity of creator and the created is derived. It is the mutual determination of “life-by-poetry” and “person-by-poetry” that presents reality as fictional space, or culture. 

According to Pasternak, the “bloom of mastery” is accompanied by a special type of “syncretism”, “when in the equality of the artist and the artistic realm it becomes impossible to see, who of the three – the artist, the created of the subject of the creation – manifests itself more fully on the canvas” [3]. The nature of “creator – created –reality” relation can be better described through the concept of “poetic practice” which defines poetry mainly in relation to the method of self-identification of the human-creator. This method directly relates to the type of rationality, which delineates the possibilities for sense-formation; hence a clear-cut distinction between classical, modernist and post-modernist types of rationality. At a systemic literary perspective this distinction allows us to define clearly the type of poetics both in aesthetic (see Averintsev’s “types of fictional consciousness”) and anthropological aspects. This distinction captures the person’s nature in relation to the poetic that is, it captures the person as an artist by nature and orientation. At the same time, this distinction allows us to generally define individual-creative achievements in relation to the method of self-identification. 

A detailed description of the poetic practice of a certain author by no means supersedes traditional forms of literary knowledge. Moreover, the definition of type of poetic practice will bring some definiteness in the study of poetics (of “fictional world”). This will help avoid the aberration of the analytic attitude since the analysis of modernism within the classical framework gives way to the inaccuracy of conclusions, which can well be illustrated by the book on Mayakovski by Karabichevski, where the modernist forms of art are approached at the classical standpoint.  

On the other hand, it is not unusual to “modernize” classical by employing inappropriate frameworks and thesauri. The notion of poetic practice types would import more accuracy in understanding poetic achievements of authors and would help taking the appropriate analytic stance.

The concept of poetic practice contributes to the research nature of literary studies and highlights a specific aspect of art. In what follows we will try to define two types of poetic practice based on some general relations.

1. The poetic practice of classical art is the poetry positioned in the logocentric picture of the world, in the Divine Hierarchy of the forms of understanding of the Universe (or in Hegel’s system). The poetic practice of non-classical art (modernism) – is the poetry in the “God-is-dead” situation (Nietzsche). In this light, the distinction between these two types is directly related to the metaphysics of death. According to Hegel, the struggle with the finiteness of human life, i.e. death, is one of the needs leading to art. Art is an illusory attempt to overcome with finite burden of the human, who is capable of outliving the Eternal by creating the Ideal in art [4]. Goethe said about the poet (to the poet): “Stirb und Werde” (“Die, Become, and Be”) – in this way can the artist become part of the eternity, living in the Word of the truth. “Death in the fight for Ideal, which does not collapse with the death of the human but wins – this is the true victory over death, this is the supreme glory of life” [5]. 

M. Blanchot had a different view on the issue of art and death: “art is the connection with death”, “the possession of death”, as it were, even the power over it, which precedes creation. “Then the writer is a man who writes to be able to die, and he receives this ability due to his acquired connection with death”[6]. Brodsky, Tsvetaeva and other poets had similar experience [7]. Blanchot steers dialectically polarizes Hegel’s idea: art is not the method of struggle with death, but rather the possession of death becomes a necessary prerequisite of creative life: in order to create, one has to “become the master of his death” (Camus). To the artist to possess death in this sense means to write as if you live forever and death matters no more. To generalize, different views on the metaphysics of death form different types of poetic practice; however the issue of ethico-psychological nature of creation lies in a different domain. 

2. Classics is the art of imitation, the reflection of the Divine meaning of life; it is the activity of cognizing life of the century. Modernism is a creative activity, a “life-creation” as it were, i.e. the finding of character of human life in the act of individual achievement. As G. Bataille put it, “literature retain the right to name the unnamed and the unsaid and reach far in this nomination”[8].

The Divine Word is itself a creation, which classical art imitates, but the meaning of reality as presented in classical art is automated, it is lost in human activity, “the mush/ of Revelations and human bondages”. This is why Pasternak addresses the Creator: “I was begging you distinctively/ Repeat the creating words”. But the words are not repeated, and the poet has to articulate them again (also see a poem “As if my heart is dressed in a cloud…” by Mandelshtam).

Viewed at this perspective of creativity, modernism can be understood as the utmost embodiment of biblical sense, free of dogmatism and apocryphal in nature. According to the non-classical understanding of reality, “Homo cogitus” exercises fully his God-given freedom of “delusion” (e.g. the “energy of delusion” in Tolstoy and Shklovsky). To the poet, the completeness of free self-identification, often dubbed in art as “demonism”, becomes an epoch of free making of the world, the freedom of the Way, which ultimately leads to God. It is important that the artist himself chooses the completeness of meaning. But modernism never abandons God – Logos is the refusal of salvation, but not of God. Here is how A Camus expresses it: “The secret of my world is to imagine God without human immortality” [9].

Modernism thus takes an adogmatic stance: in the poetic making of the world freedom is exercised: freedom of choosing God, realizing the Divinity of world-culture through experiencing it. Modernism thus reveals a dialectic relationship with classical art. It needs to be said in this connection that the meaning of art can only be adequately defined in the “classics – modernism – postmodernism” trichotomy.  

The problems discussed above find their diverse and antynomic expression in the correspondence of Pasternak and Tsvetaeva. For example, Tsvetaeva wrote to Pasternak: “Your topic is You yourself, whom you discover like Columbus America – always unexpectedly and in the way you could not have predicted”[10]. But this “you yourself” reveals itself only in the realm of culture. Pasternak pointed, “I want to fee through history and for history, and It will not be exaggeration if I call it the rebirth of heart” [11]. The topic of Pasternak is he himself, not a reflection of the Absolute Spirit, but a manifestation of the space of culture through Pasternak-human, by Pasternak-human and due to his freedom to experience the creation-culture, which in this way acquires a new voice and a new style.  

The description of poetic practice allows us to see literature in a specific light. The poetic in its relation to life, the artist, and art is an anthropological feature. It indicates the rebirth of heart and the nature of humaneness. Such an understanding of this issue may constitute one of the foundations of philosophy of literature as a free-standing discipline.


1. Pasternak, Boris. 1990. “Okhrannaya Gramota” I zametki o khudojestvennom tvorchestve.(“Okhrannaya Gramota” and notes on fiction). Moscow: Iskusstvo: 71.

2. Ibid.:72.

3. Ibid: 90.

4. Hegel, G.F. 1968. Estetika (Aesthetics). V 1. Leningrad: Iskusstvo: 161.

5. Hoethe. I.W.1988. Zapadno-Vostochny divan (Eastern-Western divan). Moscow: Nauka: 579.

6. Blanchot. M. 1994. Smert kak vozmojnost’. (Death as a possibility). Voprosi Literaturi (Issues of Literature) (3): 196-198.

7. Zotov, S.N. 2001. Khudojestvennoe prostranstvo – Mir Lermontova (Fictional space – world-Lermontov). Taganrog: Taganrog Teacher Training Institute: 18-20.

8. Bataille, G. 2003. Maurice Blanchot. Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie (New Literature Review) 61 (3): 9.

9. Camus, A. 1990. Tvorchestvo I svoboda (Creation and freedom). Moscow: Raduga: 339.

10. Tsvetaeva, M., Pasternak, B. Dushi nachinaut videt’. Pisma 1922-1936 godov. (Souls begin to see. Letters of 1922-1936). Moscow: Vagrius: 98.

11. Ibid.: 143.

Published in: Klassicheskie I neklassicheskie modeli mira v otechestvennoi I zarubejnoi literaturah (Classical and Non-Classical models of the world in native and foreign literature). Proceedings of the international conference, Volgograd. April 12-15, 2006. Volgograd: Volgograd State University Press: 579-583. 

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