By Jonathan Stone

Northwestern University Press. 304 pages. $39.95.  ISBN 978-0-8101-3572-7

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Symbolism was among the first literary expressions of modernism in Russia. Arriving on the scene in the 1890s, it was designed by its practitioners and promoters to offer an alternative to the nineteenth century tradition of realism. As Jonathan Stone puts it: “Little could be farther from the weighty and detailed prose works of Realism than Symbolist poetry”. The influences came from elsewhere, most notably France. It was, in a way, presaged by Decadence, a description certain writers liked to function under, and it was initially sometimes hard to decide where Decadence ended and Symbolism began. Stone says that they “frequently overlapped with one another and could even become interchangeable”.  Movements in literature do not run on roads that are neat and tidy and easy to negotiate. Decadence had, perhaps, alerted some critics, readers, and others, to changes in the possibilities of poetry.

It had also alerted them to the possibilities of satire. The initial critical response to Symbolism was often hostile. People will take pleasure in ridiculing what they don’t understand. And the appearance of a single-line poem, “Oh, cover your pale legs”, in the 1895 issue of Russian Symbolists, was an open invitation to mockery. It also didn’t help that a plethora of publications purporting to represent Symbolist poetry started to become available in 1895, a year that Stone describes as “remarkable”. Among the leading lights of the new movement were Aleksandr Dobroliubov, Alreksandr Emel’ianov-Kokhanskii, and Valerii Briusov, all of whom, according to a critic in one newspaper, were “literary posers” and given to “Poprishchin’s literature”, a phrase derived from the ramblings in Gogol’s Diary of a Madman. Time may have been relatively kind to the three poets referred to, but Stone admits that most of the poems published as by Symbolist were not guaranteed to survive for very long : “Very few of the works published by the ‘Russian Symbolists’ in 1894 and 1895 would make a lasting impact or warrant consideration solely for their poetic quality”. They were in print notably because they pointed to the existence of “an active community of poets”.

The reception of Symbolist poetry in Russia was coloured by the fact that Alexsandr Dobroliubov was a noted eccentric and Aleksandr Emel’ianov-Kokhanski a joker: Dobroliubov’s notoriety as a Russian Decadent was a prominent part of the early image of Symbolism in Russia”. According to Stone, he had a “thorough knowledge of French literature”, was odd in both “appearance and behaviour”, and had a taste for opium. He left the literary world to “lead the life of a religious pilgrim”. He was only “vaguely aware” that a collection of his poems was published in 1900.

As for Aexsandr Emil’ianov-Kokhanski, he seems to have had some importance during the early days of Russian Symbolism, but his penchant for playing the jester didn’t endear him to Valerii Briusov who referred to his collection, Bared Nerves as “charlatanism”, perhaps because he “understood the impact that he could make by flaunting the extremes of his Decadent persona”. Briusov, as Stone makes clear throughout his book, was determined to give Symbolism an appearance of seriousness that would make it acceptable to both critics and committed readers. This is not to say that he was averse to publicising the work of the poets he favoured. He simply didn’t want acknowledgement of their poems to rest on a notoriety resulting from bizarre personal behaviour and outlandish extremes of verse making. Briusov was soon to become a major force in Russian Symbolism, shaping the direction it took and cultivating its image in the eyes of the public.

 Any new literary movement needs outlets in the form of magazines and books. An individual, or a small group of friends, can start a magazine, but establishing a publishing house is often a more daunting prospect. Briusov was lucky in that he established a rapport with Skorpion, a press that soon became, under Briusov’s tutelage, the major publisher of the Russian Symbolists. Because he almost dictated what Skorpion published, he could determine who was to be regarded as a Symbolist. If a reader wasn’t sure what Symbolism represented he or she could safely look to the Skorpion list for guidance. It’s perhaps almost impossible to know how many of the people reading the Symbolist poets truly knew what the term meant.  Throughout his book Stone carefully notes that, as with many avant-garde groups, there was a feeling that they were essentially writing for each other and a few informed readers. A limited circulation could thus be seen as representing quality. If the mass of people were indifferent then that just proved how ignorant they were. Only the initiated and discerning could properly understand what Symbolism was.

Which brings us to an interesting question. What was it? I’m not sure that Stone provides a satisfactory answer in terms of explaining its basic methods and aims. It sometimes seems that he’s accepted Briusov’s definitions, possibly in the same way that Russian readers accepted them. If Briusov included a poem in a Symbolist publication then it must surely be Symbolist. But did those readers truly know what Symbolism meant? Or was it just a term that was, in Stone’s words, “an effective shorthand for all that was new” and which “gave writers and readers easy access to a host of ideas associated with modernism”.

Stone does, at various points, provide limited definitions of Symbolism. It’s a “poetics that relies on symbols in the generation of meaning” and it generates “meaning from nuance or obscurity”. And elsewhere, “Symbolism is an orchestrated set of interactions motivated by the reciprocal nature of the symbol”. Stone says that theoretical overviews of Symbolism were not a prominent part of the early days of the movement. The reader had to accept that “Russian Symbolism was that which was published by the Russian Symbolists in books titled Russian Symbolists”. Which possibly caused Nikolai Mikhailovskii to comment: “It may be asked what ties together all of these people into a single, albeit blurry and motley, whole? Or is there no general bracket into which we can place them all – the talented and the hapless, the believers and the tricksters?”

Reading Stone I was reminded of the situation in the United States when the Beat movement began to emerge in print in the 1950s. There was no real agreement amongst the writers about what Beat meant, and the term was often used to describe writers who weren’t Beat, however one defined it. There were certainly plenty of tricksters around and more than a few of the hapless. Stone’s comments about very few of the works published by so-called Symbolists making a lasting impact, or warranting consideration for their poetic qualities, could certainly apply to most of the minor Beat poets, as could his observation that they were in print to demonstrate the existence of a poetic community.  Independent publishers sprang up, and magazines were started. And, for many readers, I would guess that the fact of inclusion in an anthology or magazine that was believed to represent Beat meant that the writer was Beat. Other factors may also have been similar. Stone refers to the Symbolists as a coterie, an in-group who would attract readers who, perhaps, saw themselves as sharing the values of the coterie. The same could have been said of the Beats. I’m talking about the Beat literary movement and not the social aspects of it that were exploited by the mass media. It’s also worth noting that there was the same sort of a largely hostile reaction to the Beats, both as poets and people, and the same sort of ridiculing of their work.

But I’m straying from the subject of Stone’s book. It’s difficult to know how many readers the Symbolists had, and who they were. Stone has some interesting things to say about the number of copies of Symbolist books that were produced. He points out that Skorpion print runs were modest, ranging from 300 to 600 copies. Most of its catalogue was still available four year after the company started in 1900. An exception was Dobroliubov’s Collected Verses, the last copy of which was sold in 1903. But it had only been published in an edition of 300 copies. As Stone says: “Not many people were noticing or reading these books, .a situation exacerbated by the rudimentary dissemination and advertising structures of the small press”.

Briusov carried on as an advocate for Symbolism, though by 1910 it was evident that, as a movement, it had lost its momentum and cohesion. Other groups had come to the forefront in the modernist camp in Russia. The Acmeists and the Futurists were attracting the attention of critics and readers. Both were opposed to Symbolism, and it needs to be said that, on the whole, they involved poets who will probably be better-known outside Russia than most of those mentioned by Stone in his survey of Symbolism. The Acmeists, preferring “direct expression through images” to “intimations through symbols”, attracted Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova to their ranks.

There is a fascinating anthology, The Stray Dog Cabaret (New York Review of Books, New York, 2007), which has poems by Mandelstam and Akhmatova, alongside some by, among others, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Alexander Blok, and Velimir Khlebnikov, who might all be classified as Futurists. Their manifesto, A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, summed up their determinedly confrontational stance when compared to the Symbolists. It’s interesting to note that Blok (“arguably the most significant and successful poet of Russian Symbolism”)  had earlier been published by Skorpion, and that, as Stone describes it, his book was among the “indisputable milestones of Russian Symbolism”.  He also says that Briusov was largely responsible for shaping it “for Skorpion’s particular exposition of Symbolism”. He also did the same for Andrei Bely’s work that Skorpion published.

It’s sobering to recall how many of the poets linked to the Stray Dog Cabaret in St. Petersburg came to what might be called sad endings. Mayakovsky, Sergei Esenin, and Marina Tsvetaeva all committed suicide, Blok died in 1921, “possibly of venereal disease”, and Khlebnikov of “disease and malnutrition” in 1922. Mandelstam, a victim of Stalin’s purges, died in a camp in 1938. Others, such as Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova, survived but were persecuted, in one way or another. Stone has little to say about the later years of most of the Symbolist poets, though he does mention that Dobroliubov re-surfaced in the 1930s “in the guise of a thoroughly Soviet writer interested in reinventing his literary career”. It may have been a useful was of escaping the attentions of the secret police. Or maybe just another expression of his eccentricity. He also asserts that Emel’ianov-Kokhanskii ended his life “in the literary world of Stalinism”, though he does add that he was in a “declining mental state” at the time.

The Institutions of Russian Modernism is a complex book and frankly not always easy to follow if one is not well-read in Russian literature. Many of the poets and critics named by Stone have probably never been translated into English, or if they have it has likely been on a limited basis. Stone’s research into Russian Symbolism has clearly been deep, and he is to be admired for that. His book will no doubt prove invaluable to anyone wanting to look further into aspects of Russian poetry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.