It is fitting that A Voice from the Chorus should conclude with a vision of a book, “hundred-mouthed,” fulfilling its destiny independent of its creator, for Sinyavsky believes that the writer serves as a “form” for a power greater than himself. “I have no program except art,” Sinyavsky said in an interview in The Times Literary Supplement (May 23, 1975). “All my life I have wondered what art is and why it exists.” Those questions are not definitively answered in A Voice from the Chorus; Sinyavsky suggests that it is of the essence of art to elude precise definition: “Art is always a more or less impromptu act of prayer. Try to catch hold of smoke.” Nevertheless, he does not cease exploring the nature of art; that quest lends continuity to his wide-ranging reflections.
Above all, he emphasizes the absolute freedom of art. No demands for social utility, no partisan claims, may be allowed to constrain that freedom. Thus, despite the fact that it no longer serves the purpose of concealment, Sinyavsky continues to use the pseudonym Abram Tertz for most of his publications. Sinyavsky originally took this name from an underworld ballad; it suggests art’s perennially subversive nature. By the same token, Sinyavsky rejects the demands of realism: “Art is not the representation, but the transfiguration of life.” Indeed, Sinyavsky argues that “realism” is largely a fiction; so-called realistic painting, he notes, is a triumph of artifice, made possible by the viewer’s unconscious acceptance of countless conventional devices.
What he says about art in general, Sinyavsky reaffirms for writing in particular: “From the start, from the very first paragraph,” he declares,you must write in such a manner as to cut off every way of retreat and thereafter live only by the law of the train of words now set in motion. . . ....
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Readers in the West frequently encounter Russian literature in what might be called an artificial environment, in which literary works are detached from their cultural context. This leads to misunderstanding, since the reader is likely to overlook significant differences between Russian and Western perspectives.
Western critics often contrast Sinyavsky with his countryman Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Clearly the two men represent diametrically opposed approaches to literature. Solzhenitsyn the novelist has assembled a vast historical archive to authenticate his fictional re-creation of Russia in the years leading up to the Revolution. Sinyavsky is a creator of fantastic fictions, scornful of the pretensions of realism. Solzhenitsyn is the foremost representative of what has been called the authoritarian-nationalist wing of the Russian emigre community, while Sinyavsky is one of the leading figures of the liberal-democratic wing. Many critics, dismayed by Solzhenitsyn’s apparent contempt for Western institutions, have pointed to the grounding of his political program in his Russian Orthodox faith, which they regard as dangerously archaic.
While there is unquestionably a real basis for the contrast between Solzhenitsyn and Sinyavsky, it is misleading on both sides, particularly with regard to Sinyavsky’s alleged affinities with liberal humanism. In an essay titled “Dissent as a Personal Experience” (Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature, 1982), Sinyavsky defines his position. As a writer, he says, he is in opposition to not only the Soviet government but also his fellow emigres: “I am an enemy—an enemy as such— metaphysically, in principle.” He rejects Solzhenitsyn’s mixture of religion and authoritarian politics, but also—in A Voice from the Chorus as in Unguarded Thoughts—he rejects such dearly held Western notions as “freedom of choice,” “human dignity,” and “the inviolability of the person,” dismissing them as nothing more than cant. In Unguarded Thoughts he writes that truly Christian attitudes and actions are “abnormal,” against human nature; in A Voice from the Chorus, he describes the process of writing as equally abnormal and paradoxical. In some ways, from the viewpoint of secular Western society, Sinyavsky may be more “extreme” than Solzhenitsyn.