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Between Reason and Faith: Secular and Religious Cultures in (Post)Modern Societies

The articles in the following section were presented as lectures at the 26th Bannyye Chteniya, which was held 29—30 March in Moscow and is an international conference organized by the New Literary Observer.

The Return of the Sacral

The Mark Sedgwick’s article “Traditionalism as Сritique of Secular Modernity” discusses the “Traditionalist” philosophy of René Guénon, a form of perennialism, and aims to explain the continued popularity of Traditionalism’s critique of modernity. It argues that this results partly from the post-secularism that Gilles Kepel called the “revenge of God,” and partly from the way in which Guénon’s work brings together in one grand theory a number of disparate critiques that are relatively widespread. Drawing on Guénon’s seminal The Crisis of the Modern World (1927), the article takes, in turn, Guénon’s fundamental critique of modernity, his hope for the reanimation of the West’s sacred tradition with the help of the sacred knowledge of the Orient, his critique of secular “dogmas,” his understanding of the crisis of modernity, and his view of the post-secular world.

Contemporary cognitive science of religion propose that one of the central aspects of any religious ontology should be the idea of the existence of superor nonhuman intentional agents who possess counterintuitive properties and special access to so-called “strategic information,” and who are able to interact with people in a way that is physically noticeable and intuitively understandable for them, and who are also able to “motivate behaviors that reinforce belief.” It appears that one can add to the list of “religious agents” a relatively large number of characters from contemporary mass culture, including aliens. Proceeding from theories formulated by present day cognitive science of religion, the author questions whether the personages of UFO beliefs and narratives could be regarded as superhuman “full access agents”. In this perspective, the Alexander A. Panchenko’s article “Ufology as a Religion” deals with alien abduction narratives in Soviet and postSoviet popular culture.

The fortieth anniversary of Jonestown was in 2018, and 2019 was the fiftieth anniversary of the Manson commune’s slaughter of actress Sharon Tate and eight others (nine, if her unborn child is counted). In recent years novelists have used fiction to bring to life these two groups united by seemingly inexplicable violence. The Carole M. Cusack’s article “Fiction and the Memory of ‘Cultic Violence’: Charisma, Power and Gender in Peoples Temple and the Manson Family” examines two novels about Jonestown (Fred d’Aguiar’s Children of Paradise [2014] and Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s Beautiful Revolutionary [2018]), and two novels about the Manson Family (Zachary Lazar’s Sway [2008], and Emma Cline’s The Girls [2016]), with the intention of demonstrating how fictional treatments influence popular memory, and may come to supplement or even replace historical accounts for later generations.

The Boundaries of Religion in the (Post)Soviet Context

The Soviet intelligentsia were perceived by the government and outside observers as a non-religious and even atheist community, as higher education supposedly would effectively obliterate a religious worldview. In reality, the situation was significantly more complicated. From the 1950s through the 1980s, for the wider Soviet public, the intelligentsia were the accumulator, converter, and relay of various religious concepts. These included not only modernized versions of traditional Russian religions (Orthodoxy, Judaism, Catholicism), but also a wide range of new religions (neo-Hinduism, Buddhism, yoga, Neopaganism, astrology). The author also includes parascientific beliefs (for example, yetis or UFOs) and so-called “civil religions” (“noosphereology” and other versions of Vladimir Vernadsky’s teachings, “methodology,” morozovschina [later known as the teachings of Anatoly Fomenko]). In the article “The Soviet Intelligentsia in Search of a Miracle: Religiosity and Parascience in the USSR from 1953—1985,” Nikolai Mitrokhin intends to examine the process of developing and disseminating these teachings among Soviet intelligentsia in the 1950s and 1960s, their institutionalization in the 1970s, and commercialization and the beginning of a mass mission in the 1980s. As a whole, the process of the propagation of these teachings among the Soviet intelligentsia is seen by the author as a part of the overall process of rethinking the role of religion of the propagation of new religious teachings among individuals with higher education in the economically developed countries of the Northern Hemisphere in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Anna Sokolova’s article “‘Instead of Being Eaten by Worms, We Will Burn the Corpses of People in Crematoriums’: Cremation as a Technology of Purity in Early Soviet Discourse” examines probably the Bolsheviks’ most impactful innovation to burial culture — the introduction of cremation to the USSR. The majority of researchers look at the history of the introduction of cremation to the USSR as a part of anti-religious propaganda. A comparison of earlySoviet cremation discourse, however, to even earlier European discourse shows that ideas of cleanliness and hygiene had a much more significant influence. In the context of powerful hygienic discourse at the turn of the century, cremation was seen by Soviet cremationists as a technology first and foremost that would solve the serious sanitary and hygienic problems encountered by growing cities in the young Soviet countries.

The Dmitry Uzlaner’s article “The End of the Pro-Orthodox Consensus: Religion as a New Cleavage in Russian Society” is devoted to the phenomenon of the pro-Orthodox consensus that has developed in Russia by the beginning of the XXI century and its gradual destruction in the 2010s. Russian Orthodoxy is gradually turning from a factor of national consensus into a factor of conflict that is splitting Russian society. This process is illustrated by a number of cases starting with the Pussy Riot case: the emergence of “former believers” in public space, the formation of a new Russian atheism, conflicts around museums, exhibitions, films, the rhetoric of “information warfare” against the Church, etc. The author explains the end of the pro-Orthodox consensus as a consequence of the contradiction that arises between the macro- and meso-level of this consensus.

Screenplays as Narrative Texts
Guest Editor: Sergey Ogudov

This collection presents articles that reveal the problematic issues of narratology using Russian and French screenplays and librettos. The focus of the authors’ attention is the paradoxical nature of the screenplay text, which occupies a place on the border of literature and cinema.

The Anna Kovalova’s article “The Narrative Structure of Russian Pre-Revolutionary Film Librettos” raises the question of the narratology of the cinematic libretto — a genre of film dramaturgy that played an important role in the prerevolutionary cinema process. A collection of 874 librettos, collected by the participants in the academic group Early Russian Cinema Prose, served as the research materials. The article discusses the transformations of the narrative structure of the libretto: Ich-Erzählung texts began to appear in this genre, as well as librettos with cliffhanger endings. As the genre developed, the length of librettos increased more or less steadily up until 1915, and then they started to shrink. Replaced by the film script genre, during the second half of the 1910s, the libretto began to move to the periphery of literary cinematic life.

In the Sergey Ogudov’s article “On the Problem of Mimesis in Narratology: Visual Attractors in Soviet Screenplay of the 1920—1930s” the dual nature of a screenplay — which is both a narrated story and an instruction for a filmmaker who brings these events to a screen — is considered in relation to two types of communication, the semiotic and the mimetic. If semiotic communication is based on the interpretation of sign structures, the mimetic one springs from the reflective imitation that emerges during the process of reading. As a complex unity of narrated story and visual attractors, screenplay stimulates acts of mimetic communication. This article analyzes various kinds of visual attractors by citing screenplays by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Aleskandr Rzheshevsky and Ekaterina Vinogradskaya, which includes the features of different literary genres.

The Larissa Muravieva’s article “L’Atalante by Jean Vigo (1934): Narrative Intrigue Beyond the Screenplay” is about the principle of constructing narrative intrigue using the example of the screenplay for Jean Vigo‘s film L’Atalante (1934). It is shown that L’Atalante structure is driven by the overlapping of two different types of narrative intrigue, which leads to the famous “strangeness” and “heterogeneity” of the film. Through the reconstruction of the history of the film’s creation and the comparison of two versions of the screenplay — the screenwriter‘s (Jean Guinée) and the director‘s (Jean Vigo) — the article examines the emerging cinematic narrative of the 1930s.

In Harold Pinter’s screenplay written for an unrealized film adaptation of In Search of Lost Time, the novel’s metapoetic design is not only in the center of the viewer’s attention, but also is the subject of a drastic reinterpretation that has been directly caused by the specifics and potential of the cinematic narrative. The “little patch of yellow wall” from a Vermeer painting, which in Proust is one of the main switches for aesthetic reflection, yet still confined to a character’s conscience, while in Pinter’s version, it is taken out of the context of the plot and becomes the “yellow screen” around which the whole “Proust screenplay” is structured. The Natalya Laskina’s article “‘The Yellow Screen’: The Adaptation of the Metanovelistic Narrative in Harold Pinter’s The Proust Screenplay” traces how this decision transforms Proust’s narrative and uncovers some potential conflicts between the novel and the cinematic narrative.

A Cultural Legacy

The Katia Dianina’s article “‘Fabergé Is Our Everything!’ The Rhetoric of the Russian Cultural Heritage Revival” examines the transformation of Peter Carl Fabergé, the once-forgotten imperial jeweler, into a national celebrity, which became possible against the background of the pervasive rhetoric of revival that has defined Russian cultural politics in recent decades. In this context, Fabergé, who is famous as the gold standard of luxury jewelry and the precious Easter eggs of the imperial family, is positioned as a symbol of the great cultural heritage in a continuous project of reviving the forgotten culture of the pre-revolutionary period. It is paradoxically in the sense that in the revival, Faberg? is entrusted with a role that he never played historically.

The Politics of Prose
Guest Editors: Denis Larionov, Stanislav Snytko

In studies of contemporary literature, essays on a political, in the broad sense of the word, reading of prose are relatively rare and, as a rule, have a critical, demythologizing character. This circumstance is dictated by the broad understand of the political that editors adhered to in this section. The aim of this collection is to present prolegomena to a possible political map of contemporary Russian prose, a map that would take into account not so much the subjects of books and the utterances of the authors as the politics of form and aesthetic ideology as a whole. In the article “A Photocopy of Light: A View of the Utopia of Artificiality in V. Pelevin’s Novels S.N.U.F.F. and iPhuck 10,” Galina Zalomkina examines two genre variations of critical interpretations of utopian ideas — antiutopia and dystopia — developed in Pelevin’s artistic system. Pelevin deconstructs artificiality as an effective means of making a utopia, primarily, a digital one in the forms of artificial intelligence, artificial bodies, and augmented reality. In the novel iPhuck 10, meanings of the utopia of artificiality expand into the realm of the philosophy of art. In the novel S.N.U.F.F., the stepping stone for undermining the utopia of artificiality is the image of an intellectually and sexually ideal android woman who leads the characters and readers to the understanding of the necessity of realizing the ability to overcome imposed patterns of thinking and the totality of simulacrum.

The Denis Larionov’s article “In Different Directions: Political Subjectivity in Yuri Leiderman’s Prose” discusses the political implications in the prose of the artist and writer Yuri Leiderman, who renounced the cold analysis characteristic of conceptualism in favor of an affective involvement in political action. This is already evident at the sentence level, which is a model of the coexistence of diverse ideas, which are sometimes in opposition to each other and are not reduced to a single meaning. This type of writing allows you to retain a not-quitetotal nomadic collectivity, which contains numerous singular wills.

The Stanislav Snytko’s article “A ‘Pension’ Increase (What Is New in the ‘Literature of Existence’)” examines the poetics and the life-affirming project of writer Aleksandr Ilyanen in the sociopolitical context of the last ten years. A detailed analysis of the social positions of the protagonist of the novel Pension (2015) allows for the discernment of an original “tactic” (Michel de Certeau) for the reassignment and transformation of smallgroup and general societal norms that can be traced both in the writer’s literary techniques and in the everyday practices of his characters.

The Vera Kotelevskaya’s article “More than Walser: Collisions of Modernist Metanarrative in Mikhail Shishkin’s Poetology” explores the poetry of Mikhail Shishkin in the context of his dialogue with the works of the Swiss modernist Robert Walser (1878—1956). By interpreting Walser in the Russian context, Shishkin not only creates a popular hagiography, but also constructs his own writer’s myth. This myth is created according to a neo-romantic model, inheriting organicist metaphors, the metaphysical origin of the poetic gift, and fatalism. The retrospective circular motion, in which the narrator’s imagination and the events of the novel are involved, is similar to the eternally youthful universe of Walser. In spite of the differences in the poetics and political position of the two writers, it can be concluded that Shishkin reconstructs the modernist poetic myth as an alternative to socialist reality and aesthetics.

The work of Arkady Dragomoshchenko, one of the most prominent Russian poets of his generation, is, on the face of it, supremely apolitical. He hardly ever spoke on political matters; his poetry is even less concerned with politics. And yet, there is every reason to believe that the politics of his poetry and prose (and he always insisted on there being no boundary between the two) is revolutionary in every sense of the word. This follows directly from Dragomoshchenko’s conviction that language cannot be appropriated. His strategy of political resistance which he calls “resisting the weather” is also based on this conviction. This strategy is the politics of childhood in which language appropriation has not yet taken place. The Evgeny Pavlov’s article “The Politics of Childhood: Dragomoshchenko’s Resistance Strategies” attempts to explicate this position through a reading of a number of Dragomoshchenko’s poems and prose texts, including the poem “Politiku” (To a Statesman) and the novel “Kitaiskoe solntse” (Chinese Sun).


The Oleg Fedotov’s article “Joseph Brodsky’s Twenty Sonnets to Mary Stuart: From Observations on Poetic Verse” features commentary on the verse and style of Joseph Brodsky’s cycle Twenty Sonnets for Mary Stewart, which can be regarded as a poem dedicated not only to the tragic fate of the Scottish queen, but also to the poet’s unhappy love for Marina Basmanova (M.B.), who physically resembled the monument to Mary Stuart in Luxembourg Gardens, as well as the two actress who portrayed her in the films Mary of Scotland (1936) and Das Herz der Königin (1940), Katharine Hepburn and Zarah Lean der. The sonnets in the cycle act as stanzas, which not identical in their structure, forming a meaningful cross-section of the temporal and spatial planes in both the epic and lyrical discourse.

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