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THEORIES OF CORPOREAL EXPERIENCE IN EXPERIMENTAL LITERARY PRACTICES

Compiled by Tatiana Venediktova and Ronald Schleifer

An article by Ronald Schleifer, “The Terrible Facticity of Pain: Semiotics and the Pos­sibility of Representing Sensate Experience,” examines two different ways of under­standing pain – its nomological analysis and phenomenological perception – with re­gard to the semiotic understanding of the terrible factuality of pain as sensation and perceptual experience. Semiotics attempts to explain genesis as meaning itself, as well as the phenomenological effect of its immediacy, “factuality.” Schleifer demonstrates this through one of the most extreme states of human experience, the phenomenon of human pain. The article attempts, first of all, to precisely define the possibilities for the representation of somatic pain, and secondly, to achieve a more precise under -standing of the phenomenon of pain itself. Schleifer also introduces the concept of a “pain situation,” which coincides with the actual dynamics of pain understood not as a “psychic” or “physical” phenomenon, but rather a site of interaction and feedback that reveals the factuality of pain as such.

In “On the Length of the Poetic Line, or Is It Possible to Formalize Corporeality in Poetry,” Natalia Azarova asks to what extent the structure of the poetic text is ca­pable of reflecting the corporeality embedded within it, the interplay between the rhythm of breath and that of the eyes, and of serving as a projection of various move­ments in space. Azarova selects the length of the poetic line as a formal criterion and proceeds from the assumption that a long free-verse line offers special possibilities for realizing the link with corporeality, as well as for connecting the mental and the cor­poreal. The “Whitman line” – a long free-verse line, the length of which is determined by the rhythm of breath (and more broadly, of corporeality) – acts as a precedent and model for this kind of interplay. This model was transmitted in twentieth-century po­etic texts by Fernando Pessoa, Allen Ginsberg, et al. Writings by Yakov Druskin trace a distinct interplay between corporeality and the length of the poetic line. His “philoso­pher’s poems” establish the interplay between breath, the length of the poetic line and the not-quite-defined quality of the philosophical definition, such that the limit of a thought’s development is regulated by corporeality given form in the length of the poetic line. Nevertheless, the proposed formalization is not rigid; as demonstrated in the poetry of Arkady Dragomoshchenko, a long line can help to bring about the oppo­site strategy as well – one of pure ideation.

An article from Anna Shvets, “The Verbal Gesture as Possibility for the Direct Trans cription of Experience,” explores a signifying strategy which makes possible the rendering of a directly inaccessible and inexpressible experience, with reference to Walt Whitman (Song of Myself, 1855). Shvets argues that, in his early poems, Whitman strives to communicate the inherently incommunicable experience of composing a poem that cannot be put into words because it precedes verbal expression. In response to this challenge, Whitman deploys a new signifying strategy based on a bodily means of expres -sion. In Shvets’ view, the flow of Whitman’s verse imitates bodily movement, namely, a verbal gesture, i.e. a means of performative signifying. Shvets carries out a thorough analysis of the means of expression involved in the process of verbal imitation.

In “Corporeal Deixis in Experimental Poetry: The Experience of e.e.cummings,” Vladimir Feshchenko discusses the deictic (pragmatic) dimension of the poetic text, where this dimension is realized through “signs of corporeality” in experimental poetry. Feshchenko suggests an analysis in which the problem of corporeal deixis can be pro­jected onto a literary text. Using the work of e.e.cummings, Feshchenko examines how corporeal deixis functions in experimental poetry. He pays particular attention to the transition from the symbolic (symbolism) and iconic (mimetics) methods of producing meaning in the poetic text to the indexical (performative). The performative quality of the image in cummings is connected to his special attention to subjectivity. The figure s that take shape, the egocentric sign-shifters and speech gestures in his poems create the performative effect of the poet’s “speaking body.”

Nicole Svobodny’s article, “The Dancer Writes: Vaslav Nijinsky and Embodied Language” explores the connection between dance and writing through an analysis of Vaslav Nijinsky’s Feeling. Written in 1919 while he was in semi-retirement in Saint-Moritz, Switzerland, Feeling can be considered side by side with Nijinsky’s various ex­periments in translating bodily movement into new forms of expression and expanding the boundaries of artistic medium. Nijinsky’s choreographic experiments in horizontal and vertical movement found expression in the writer’s poetic style; in his accounts of solitary walks; and in the tension of two narrative movements in counterpoint.

 

FOLLOWING THE CAMBRDIGE SCHOOL: ANTHROPOLOGY OF THE LANGUAGE OF SOCIALITY

Section edited by Timur Atnashev and Mikhail Velizhev

An article from Mikhail Velizhev, “Language and Context in Russian Intellectual His­tory: Chaadaev’s First Philosophical Letter,” suggests a new interpretation of the rift between contexts that accompanied the creation and publication of Pyotr Chaadaev’s first Philosophical Letter, as well as with the period in which the new political language Chaadaev used in his text was taking shape. The political language of French tradi­tionalism had become fully consolidated in the political context of the Holy Alliance of European sovereigns; the ideology of this alliance was closely tied to one of the key texts of the Catholic tradition, Joseph de Maistre’s treatise On the Pope. The founda-tional hypothesis of Velizhev’s article lies in the fact that, while actively using the lan­guage of the traditionalist-philosophers, Chaadaev was also reflecting upon the fate of the Holy Alliance.

The section continues with an article from Ekaterina Pravilova, “‘Private Property’ in the Languages of Late Eighteenth-Century and Early Nineteenth-Century Russian Society.” Thanks to the reforms of Catherine the Great, by the end of the eighteenth century the concept of “property” had become firmly established in Russian political and legal discourse. Borrowed (like other significant terms) from European sources, this con­cept had a multitude of interpretations. How was “property” differently under stood by German Romantic conservatives, English liberals and French physiocrats? And which one of these interpretations did Catherine have in mind when she declared the indivisi­bility of “property and liberty,” and with what meaning did she invest this declaration?

In “‘The Necessary Defense of Society’: The Language of the Zasulich Trial,” Tatiana Borisova examines the connection, heretofore neglected by scholars, between A.F. Koni’s theory of the right to necessary defense (1866) and the acquittal of Vera Zasulich (1878). Adhering to an expanded understanding of necessary defense, Koni, who presided over the trial, organized it such that arguments in favor of the defense of society from despotism prevailed, even if this aim was achieved through crime. Given the absence of other legal forms of societal participation in making important political decisions, the acquittal of Zasulich became an important act of political solidarity. At the same time, this victory of “societal conscience” over the law enabled both the es­calation of despotism and violence and the affirmation of the egalitarian element in the understanding of social equality in post-reform Russia.

In “Reformers in Search of a Language: Yegor Gaidar’s State and Evolution,” Timur Atnashev examines the intellectual legacy of Egor Gaidar as an inventive philosopher of history and political philosopher, proceeding from his book State and Evolution. Usin g the Cambridge approach, two basic historiosophical languages are highlighted: a) a neo-Marxist and simultaneously liberal language based on the central idioms of the “Asiatic method of production” and the division between private property and the state (i.e. “Eastern” and “Western” civilizations); b) the perestroika-informed histo-riosophical language of “choosing a path” and “historical alternatives.” By combining these two languages, which demonstrate different answers to the question of prede­termination and freedom in history, Gaidar offered a solution to the contradictory rhetorical problems connected with an original interpretation of the general determinist logic of the history of Russia and the USSR, including perestroika, through an apologia for the reforms pushed through under his leadership and offering a substantiation of the possibility for free choice in the near future (in light of the active criticism, in sum­mer 1994, of the results of these reforms). Gaidar’s previous work as a top-level expert and acting prime minister had demonstrated the objective difficulties faced by the re­former, regarding the possibility of publicly justifying and substantially discussing the suggested institutional resolutions. The language developed by the team of future eco­nomic reformers, over ten years of collaborative work at the request of the Soviet Cent -ral Committee and Council of Ministers, turned out to be incomprehensible and uncon -vincing for the lobbyists, most of the military branches, the central bank management and a majority of constituents. In State and Evolution, Gaidar uses accessible linguistic means to explain his position, suggesting a new philosophy of history. The prophetic power of this model and the rhetorical failure of the reformers over the subsequent two decades make this book a relevant and profound utterance with an ongoing impact on history. A serious discussion of Gaidar’s intellectual legacy can be conducted outside a narrow ideological framework using the Cambridge methodology of investigating discourse, with the aim of better understanding the motives and language of the re­formers – an integral part of society’s working through its historical experience.

 

PHYSIOLOGY OF CULTURE

In “Smells as Miasma, Symptoms, and Evidence: On the Problem of Everyday Life Beco -ming Scientized in Late Nineteenth-Century Russia,” Maria Pirogovskaya addres ses one of the aspects of medicalization in Russian nineteenth-century urban culture: the introduction and popularization of “scientifically founded” standards for everyday life. This process, which was reflected in various kinds of advisory literature, brought about changes in the social meaning of smells and the incursion of the sense of smell into social space. Guided by the theory of miasmas, which remained the major explanatory mo del for pathogenesis into the 1880s, the authors of manuals, textbooks and guides for housekeeping advised their readers to pay closer attention to everyday smells. For their own security, educated city-dwellers were compelled to acquire the skills of organoleptic analysis and to internalize a hygienic approach to everyday life that called for the comple te cleansing and deodorization of the home habitat. In this perspective, smells were interpreted as potential symptoms, or as evidence fraught with medical and social significance.

 

POLITICS OF THE BODY/POETICS OF GENDER

Though best known to fin-de-siècle Russian audiences as a decadent purveyor of anti-political aestheticism, Oscar Wilde’s interest in Russia stemmed precisely from its po­litical radicalism. Wilde’s very first play, Vera, or the Nihilists (1881), was his contri­bution to a growing trend in British literature to offer fictionalized portraits of Russian terrorists. The threat of Irish radicalism at home made the nihilist-led assassinations in imperial Russia a common subject in the British press. In Vera, Wilde focuses on the sexual mores of the nihilist movement including their rejection of romantic love and sublimation of sex. Wilde’s heroine, an extremely fictionalized version of the real-life Vera Zasulich, struggles to deny her lust for the tsar in order to carry out the as­sassination she has been tasked to lead. Jennifer Wilson’s “The Importance of Loving a Nihilist: Oscar Wilde’s Vera and the Sexual Politics of Russian Radicalism” frames Wilde’s characterization of revolutionary asceticism within broader questions raised by socialists at the end of the 19th century (in both Russia and Britain) regarding the relationship between sex and socialism.

Irina Arzamastseva’s “The Three Souls of a Provincial Female Gymnasium Student: Zinaida Gippius’ The Green Ring” discusses The Green Ring by Zinaida Gippius in the context of issues connected with public awareness of gender, family, and ideology in early twentieth century Russia, as addressed by Russian and European writers, moder -nists and realists alike. It emphasizes the discovery of Meyerhold and Stanislavsky’s new systems in Russian theatre, lays out Gippius’ critique of utopian notions of “the child’s age” and “the new human” by Gippius, and identifies her play as an expressionis -tic satirical co medy emulating a realistic social drama. It also suggests that Ivan Bunin’s account of how he wrote the 1916 short story The Light Breath is a hoax, and that Boris Pasternak completed the literary type of a Russian female gymnasium student in his Doctor Zhivago. This type is regarded in its development from the “Turgenevian young lady” and emancipated actress of the late nineteenth century to the androgynous revolver-wielding gymnasium student, a child, a male, and a female at the same time.

“Gender and Art, or ‘A Triangle Drawn into a Circle’ (On the Symbolist Subtexts of The Gift),” an article from Olga Skonechnaya, examines the romantic and writerly plots of The Gift in the context of the Symbolist philosophy of Eros, which is founded on the idea of overcoming the earthly division of the sexes. This overcoming, and the rejection of gender roles and of the erotic drama instilled by nature, in the name of vic­tory over death, is connected to the idea of the artist’s service to the “common good,” which in émigré literature becomes connected with the theme of the “end” of literature and the renunciation of its traditional forms. Among the émigrés, one striking repre­sentative of this kind of thinking and its rejection of standard forms of life and art was Zinaida Gippius. In The Gift, a novel which recreates with ingenious irony the spiritual movements of Russian life and among them, its “erotic utopia” (O. Matich), from the “new men” of the 1860s to the “new people” of the fin-de-siècle, Skonechnaya discovers previously unsuspected moments of hidden polemics with Gippius, her mentors and fellow-travelers. Skonechnaya articulates Nabokov’s opposition to the Russian Sym­bolists regarding the theme of gender and art.

 

INTERPRETATIONS

Evgeny Soshkin’s “The Origins of Nabokov’s The Potato Elf” contains an intertextual analysis of Vladimir Nabokov’s 1924 story. Soshkin proposes a hypothesis that the story’s key subtext, which allows for the reconstruction of its metafabula, is Wilhelm Hauff’s fairy-tale Der Zwerg Nase [The Dwarf Nose] (1826). On the basis of this hypothesis, and taking into consideration several other proposed subtexts (including Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done? and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, as well as one of Vertinsky’s “sad little songs” written after a poem by Blok), Soshkin suggests an integrated reading of The Potato Elf. In his analysis, Soshkin incorporates the Eng­lish translation of the story, which Nabokov participated in.

In “On Happiness in Personal Life (The Karamzinian Subtext in Pushkin’s From Pindemonti),” Igor Nemirovsky investigates the Karamzinian subtext in Pushkin’s poem and points to the fact that its key line, “To depend on the tsar, to depend on the people” carries in its subtext the concluding phrase from Karamzin’s Dedication to Empe ror Alexander: “the history of the people belongs to the Tsar” – and the highly controversial discussion provoked by this phrase. The connection between Pushkin’s words and Karamzin’s statement is not at all based merely on the mention of two key figures, the tsar and the people, but involves a whole complex of Karamzinian “traces” in the poem, as well as in other works by Pushkin during the same period. Pushkin spent his whole life making sense of the phrase “history belongs to the Tsar,” and trans­formed it in From Pindemonti into the line “to depend on the tsar, to depend on the people, / Isn’t it all the same to us”; this can be seen as a focal point of Pushkin’s Karamzinianism.

 

NON-CONFORMISM REVISITED

An article from Oleg Fedotov, “Snowfall at Christmas (Religious Allusions in Joseph Brodsky’s Snow falls, leaving the whole world in a minority),” analyzes one of Brodsky’s most “Pasternakian” poems in the broad context of both poets’ cycles of poems on Christmas. In the poem of the title, and other ones with which it exists in dialogue, we can observe shared motifs with the prose genre of the “Christmas tale.” But instead of an event-driven narrative built around a fairy-tale plot with an inevitable happy ending, an intense lyric meditation develops, with elements of a symbolic landscape, philosophical musings, grand odic inspiration, balladic mystery and imaginary prayer (or the call to prayer). Within the complex substance of the poem, the idea of the eter­nal flow of time is highlighted, which allows the lyric speaker to experience the birth of the God-man as his own.

Boris Kolymagin’s article, “Chinese Motifs in Underground Poetry,” examines the influence of Chinese culture on unofficial poetry. We can observe attempts within the literary underground to move toward mastering the internal features of Chinese lite -rature, but this movement turned out to be stuck on external attributes. The most grand-scale attempt to master the Chinese theme was made in the 1980s by Olga Sedakova. In the present day, the underground’s modernist project is being continued by Natalia Azarova. The problem of transforming Russian words into Chinese charac­ters, which Azarova is working on, is directly connected to visualizing and interpreting character-based writing. This problem has been addressed at different times by Dmitry Avaliani, Anna Alchuk, Vsevolod Nekrasov and other poets. These attempts by under­ground writers demonstrate that classical Chinese literature has to a certain degree influenced contemporary Russian poetry as well.

In “Alternative Models of Time in the Self-Awareness of ‘Unofficial’ Culture,” Alexander A. Zhitenev analyzes the different ways that writers self-identified in a situa tion of timelessness, and investigates ideas about the role of tradition and the possibility for innovation in the post-avant-garde era. Using material from Leningrad’s “unofficial” culture, Zhitenev describes several models of time connected with different ways of understanding the link between the past and the present: seeing the past as absolute, mimicking certain cultural models, creating individual utopias, embodying the unrealized possibilities of past literary periods. That time which the individual ex­periences as “coinciding with oneself,” and which can be written into the linear logic of the literary process, is connected with the figure of the subject who possesses a fate and history.

 

“CAPITAL OF RUINS”: WAR AND THE ANTHROPOLOGICAL TURN

An essay from Shamshad Abdullaev, “A Poem by Samuel Beckett,” presents a liberal hermeneutic study commenting freely on Samuel Beckett’s poem Saint-LôWritten in 1946 after the devastating Allied bombings that transformed the ancient town in Lower Normandy into a “capital of ruins,” this poem marks a rupture and simultaneous new beginning of a new, “mature” period in Beckett’s work. As an Irish Red Cross vol­unteer in 1945, Beckett worked as a translator at a military hospital in Saint-Lô; in his eyes, the utterly devastated town became a symbol of the collapse of rationality and the cogito.

No writer besides Samuel Beckett has ever demonstrated such a stunning and grand-scale evolution, from the linguistic excess of his early texts to the conspicuous silence of the late ones. In “Samuel Beckett: The Path of Subtraction,” Anatoly Riasov examines this evolution in broad historical and cultural context, and particularly in connection with the author’s destructive experience of war. Beckett’s texts, which stand apart in twentieth-century literature, have become both a detailed historical chronicle of modernism and its aesthetic zenith. Reading them, we can never be sure if we are dealing with the remains of a dying language, or coming into contact with something that makes the very birth of speech possible. Beckett’s legacy can be per­ceived both as a whole work, complete with prologue and epilogue, and as a text that he was just getting ready for, and did not even begin writing.

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