Gary Saul Morson

Dec 17, 2023

Wonder Confronts Certainty

Russian Writers on the Timeless Questions and Why Their Answers Matter

Harvard University Press 2023

Since the age of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov, Russian literature has posed questions about good and evil, moral responsibility, and human freedom with a clarity and intensity found nowhere else. In Wonder Confronts Certainty: Russian Writers on the Timeless Questions and Why Their Answers Matter (Harvard University Press, 2023), Dr. Gary Saul Morson delineates intellectual debates that have coursed through two centuries of Russian writing, as the greatest thinkers of the empire and then the Soviet Union enchanted readers with their idealism, philosophical insight, and revolutionary fervor.

Dr. Morson describes the Russian literary tradition as an argument between a radical intelligentsia that uncompromisingly followed ideology down the paths of revolution and violence, and writers who probed ever more deeply into the human condition. The debate concerned what Russians called “the accursed questions”: If there is no God, are good and evil merely human constructs? Should we look for life’s essence in ordinary or extreme conditions? Are individual minds best understood in terms of an overarching theory or, as Tolstoy thought, by tracing the “tiny alternations of consciousness”? Exploring apologia for bloodshed, Dr. Morson adapts Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the non-alibi—the idea that one cannot escape or displace responsibility for one’s actions. And, throughout, Dr. Morson isolates a characteristic theme of Russian culture: how the aspiration to relieve profound suffering can lead to either heartfelt empathy or bloodthirsty tyranny.

What emerges is a contest between unyielding dogmatism and open-minded dialogue, between heady certainty and a humble sense of wonder at the world’s elusive complexity—a thought-provoking journey into inescapable questions.

Gary Saul Morson is without a doubt one of the leading specialists on 19th and 20th century Russian literature. He is professor of Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University. And he is perhaps one of the few writers who has written for both The New Criterion and the New York Review of Books. 

Charles Coutinho, PH. D., Associate Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, received his doctorate from New York University. His area of specialization is 19th and 20th-century European, American diplomatic and political history. He has written for Chatham House’s International Affairs, the Institute of Historical Research's Reviews in History and the University of Rouen's online periodical Cercles.

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Charles Coutinho

Charles Coutinho, PH. D., Associate Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, received his doctorate from New York University. His area of specialization is 19th and 20th-century European, American diplomatic and political history. He has written for Chatham House’s International Affairs, the Institute of Historical Research's Reviews in History and the University of Rouen's online periodical Cercles.

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