An Unnecessary Man:
The Life of Apollon Grigoriev

286 pages,
ISBN: 0802007120

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Vitally Unnecessary
by Donna Orwin

An Unnecessary Man contains the most complete account in any language of the life and writings of Apollon Grigoriev. Wayne Dowler, a University of Toronto professor, does an excellent job of clarifying the often difficult and confusing prose of this Russian thinker. He resists any tendency to bowdlerize by filling in gaps in Grigoriev's thought, and generally limits his commentary to explanations of developments and changes. Dowler's account of his life-what we know of it-is also admirably succinct and clear. The man stands before us, as attractive and contradictory a figure as he appeared to his contemporaries.
Grigoriev epitomized the "breadth" (shirokost') of the Russian personality as his friend and student Feodor Dostoevsky came to understand it. Extraordinarily intelligent and learned, he was a student of philosophy, a good poet, an acute literary critic, a translator, a decent actor, and a singer and lover of folk music. He was also a binge drinker, a profligate who wrote some of his best essays in debtor's prison, a man who loved life but could never make a living.
Perhaps his greatest contribution to Russian culture-besides his inimitable personality-was his Schellingian concept of art as the ultimate expression of a people's culture and destiny. He inspired Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and numerous lesser-known writers and critics who took up various of his ideas. Grigoriev defended the particular against systematizing generalizations. He believed in moral truths, but idealism for him was subsumed in reality: he wrote that "every ideal is nothing but the aroma and colour of the real." Art, rather than rationalist philosophy (such as that practised in his time by the predecessors of Marxism), therefore captures true reality by conveying both "the truth of life" and the autonomous significance of peoples and individuals.
In politics, Grigoriev championed the nation against cosmopolitanism, but disavowed the messianic role that Dostoevsky claimed for Russia. In this spirit, he opposed the forced Russification of non-Russian minorities that followed the Polish uprising in 1863, and he especially defended the rights of Ukrainians to their own language and culture. On the other hand, he participated fully in the anti-liberalism of both left and right that stifled the development of democracy in post-Emancipation Russia.
He suffered from chronic melancholy. In his own lifetime as well as after, events confirmed his sense of himself as an "unnecessary man". His countrymen are now rediscovering him as a quintessentially Russian thinker untainted by Marxism. (Canadians embroiled in a persistent identity crisis centred around problems of ethnic identity will find in him a kindred spirit.) Russophiles like myself study him as one of the founders of a modern Russian culture that produced the world's greatest novelists in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. We also continue to learn from him. Dowler's book, an exercise in unfashionable intellectual history, is a necessary introduction to a fascinating figure who may be finally getting his due.

Donna Orwin is the author of Tolstoy's Art & Thought, 1847-1880 (Princeton University Press) and co-editor of Kathryn Feuer's Tolstoy & the Genesis of War & Peace (Cornell University Press). She is a resident fellow in the Centre for Russian & East European Studies at the University of Toronto, and the incoming editor of the Tolstoy Studies Journal.


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