The Open Presentness of Past Moments: On Gary Saul Morson’s “Wonder Confronts Certainty”

By Bob BlaisdellMay 17, 2023

The Open Presentness of Past Moments: On Gary Saul Morson’s “Wonder Confronts Certainty”

Wonder Confronts Certainty: Russian Writers on the Timeless Questions and Why Their Answers Matter by Gary Saul Morson

THE AMBITIOUS NEW VOLUME Wonder Confronts Certainty: Russian Writers on the Timeless Questions and Why Their Answers Matter could only have been pulled together by Gary Saul Morson, and if you don’t believe me, you can ask him: “About a decade ago, John Kulka, then at Harvard University Press, suggested this book, which, he said, I was ‘born to write.’” The United States’ foremost authority on 19th-century Russian literature, the Northwestern University professor builds a 400-page argument that avoids stridency while deftly laying out—truly, as only he could—example after example of resounding thoughts and quotations from every major Russian-language author from Alexander Pushkin to the 2015 Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich. “The greatest literature advances understanding,” Morson observes, “not by supplying final answers to eternally open questions but by revealing new depths in the questions themselves.”

The “wonder” of the title belongs to the world-class authors: Varlam Shalamov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reflecting on their transformative experiences in the Gulag; Leo Tolstoy’s Konstantin Levin and Prince Andrei weighing the purpose and meaning of their lives; Alexievich raptly attending to the voices of women whose personal war stories could fill novels; Fyodor Dostoevsky’s reckless and amazed protagonists daring themselves (and us) to push or cross boundaries. Morson sees Russian literature, above any other, as being in dialogue with itself: there are no outliers among its authors; suffering unites them all. “Suffering is our capital, our natural resource,” Morson quotes Alexievich. “Not oil or gas—but suffering. It is the only thing we are able to produce consistently. … But great books are piled at our feet.”

Morson includes a miraculous description of literary fulfillment by the economist Olga Adamova-Sliozberg (arrested in 1936 for being an “enemy of the people” and the wife of one) as she reflected on her time in the Gulag. As Adamova-Sliozberg declares, “That was when I understood what a really good book was: a book that would make you feel human again when you’d read it! […] [H]ere were Tolstoy and Dostoevsky speaking to me, and in my human essence I felt myself their equal.”

The villain of Morson’s book—the “certainty” of the title—refuses dialogue, refuses to be in awe of the range of possibilities existing in the singular moment. For Morson, echoing Solzhenitsyn, its embodiment is Vladimir Lenin. “Lenin referred to his opponents’ self-characterization as ‘seekers’ of truth with derision. Dialectical materialists do not seek truth; they already possess it. […] ‘Nothing in Marxism is subject to revision,’” Lenin said to a follower. “‘There is only one answer to revisionism: smash its face in.’” I also grew up on Solzhenitsyn’s various and relentless analyses of Lenin, but I confess that, no matter how much I read about and by the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution, how this uncharismatic and dull writer could have achieved his feats did not make sense. And then I read Victor Sebestyen’s 2017 book Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror and finally understood: Oh, that monster was a man. Not that I mind despising him: Lenin is responsible for the remorseless sacrifice of millions of people for the sake of a terror-based Marxism that reminded no contemporary Marxists of the creed. And yet, like a character in Chekhov or Tolstoy, Lenin (as I learned from Sebestyen’s biography) hunted, smoked, read, loved, and was even nice to his family! That Lenin and Stalin were genocidal terrorists who also loved books makes one’s head and heart hurt. If literature makes us better, or inclined to less evil, how much worse would they have been if they hadn’t read Pushkin?

Morson seconds Solzhenitsyn’s unwavering argument that Lenin’s takeover was not inevitable, that Russia did not have to become the Soviet Empire, that there were open roads not taken. Most importantly, and most unfortunately, nobody in Russian life and literature has possessed or claimed certainty as pitilessly as Lenin, though Nikolay Chernyshevsky, the 19th-century revolutionary and author of the novel What Is to Be Done? (1863), serves, in this book, as Lenin’s literary predecessor and understudy.

Morson’s most interesting idea (which I happily agree with) is that the most real people we are ever going to meet are the characters in novels: “Russian social thinkers routinely discussed fictional characters […] as if they were real people; or, more precisely, as if they were realer than real people.” Morson can’t “prove” his next assertion—nobody can—but I know he’s right:

If psychologists knew people as well as […] novelists did, they could present portraits of people as believable as Anna Karenina and Dorothea Brooke, but none has even come close. These writers must know something that psychologists still struggle to grasp. The same may be said of their portraits of society.

In the manner of an expert’s series of lectures, Morson shows how the great Russian authors continue to clarify and deepen dialogues about the meaning and purpose of life. They do not provide certainty; they show instead how to think, feel, act more deeply—how to be more modest (despite the tremendous self-confidence of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy), decent, and kind. At any given moment, as the writers dramatize again and again, there are always choices; fictional characters show us their strivings, and how through acts of sympathy they achieve not happiness but fulfillment as human beings: “In Tolstoy’s view, fiction is especially well adapted to capturing presentness. […] Novelists try to restore the open presentness of past moments.”

Morson contends that the road to wisdom is dialogue: “Dialogue requires the ‘modesty’ of regarding one’s opinion not as the center of truth around which other beliefs revolve.” He has written books about War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and Dostoevsky’s Diary of a Writer, all of them smart but definitely non-dialogic. The professor’s restrained but clear and emphatic points about the great novels are not dialogues with imagined interlocutors but summaries of his own convictions about them. He quotes a favorite moment from Chekhov’s great 1889 novella A Dreary Story, when the narrator, a fatally ill professor of medicine, remembers his glory days and the ecstasy of spellbinding his students: “‘I see a hundred and fifty faces before me, each one different from the others […] My aim is to conquer this many-headed Hydra.” The narrator adds:

At all times I must have the skill to pluck from this mass of material what is most important and most essential and, keeping pace with my own speech, to present my thoughts in a form that is both accessible to the monster’s mind and effective in rousing its interest […] Nothing compares with this experience.

Morson, renowned for his lectures, surely knows the truth of this.

Although engaged readers and students might have other ideas, he is not listening to them (and why should he?); he’s tuned into the timeless frequency of the giants he is discussing. But this means that Morson sometimes seems to become the kind of figure he warned us to be leery of: the person-with-certainty. “Tolstoy solved the problem of making a novel out of prosaic events by letting Anna [Karenina] provide the drama. Riveting our attention, she exemplifies the wrong way to live and think.” It does not occur to him that Anna is not a “wonder” because she happens to have cheated on her husband and ultimately kills herself but because she, more than any other character in Russian literature, is up to her last moment alive! The awesome communication of Anna’s “presentness” bests Morson’s lessons, no matter how good those lessons are. We are all part of Russian literature when we share Anna’s suffering. On this topic, let’s heed Dostoevsky’s “underground man” (as presented by Morson): “Rather than live in paradise, man would choose suffering, the underground man asserts, since ‘suffering is the sole origin of consciousness’ and without it ‘there will be nothing left but to bottle up your five senses and plunge into contemplation.’” Anna’s life was not strictly imaginary—most of her experiences were Tolstoy’s lifeblood rendered in ink: her lightning-quick consciousness, her terrors, her betrayals. Levin, the novel’s moral hero, whose biography closely resembles a younger Tolstoy’s, is good and right—but as a figure replaying Tolstoy’s experiences, he’s not as alive.

Morson does seem to reveal a breakthrough in his own thinking in his appreciation of Chekhov, about whom he writes with a fresh-seeming wonder and appreciation. “If this study has a hero, it is Chekhov,” he confides. Boldly and interestingly, he sums up the impression Chekhov’s stories generally make, their “special sadness” deriving,

in part, from the shadow cast by the sense of happiness lost and opportunities missed. By intimating possible plots as well as narrating an actual one, apparently simple tales achieve great depth. […] [E]ach story is shadowed by others, and the shadows cast by all these could-have-beens accumulate in a pattern of poignant possibilities.

I have learned a lot from this book—everyone will. Morson’s special gift is to present Russian literature as an endlessly renewable source of revelation.


Bob Blaisdell, a longtime contributor to Los Angeles Review of Books, is the author of Creating Anna Karenina: Tolstoy and the Birth of Literature's Most Enigmatic Heroine, Chekhov Becomes Chekhov: The Emergence of a Literary Genius, and Well, Mr. Mudrick Said … A Memoir.

LARB Contributor

Bob Blaisdell is the editor of Conversations with Karl Ove Knausgaard (University Press of Mississippi, 2023) and the author of the biographies Chekhov Becomes Chekhov: The Emergence of a Literary Genius (2022) and Creating Anna Karenina: Tolstoy and the Birth of Literature’s Most Enigmatic Heroine (2020).


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