Representing sexualities and eroticism : Russian literature and culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries

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Lalo, Alexei

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The dissertation explores traditions of expressing the body and sexuality in nineteenth-century Russia and how these traditions affect the literature of Russia’s Silver Age (1890-1921). The period's modernizing intellectuals had at their disposal two strategies: – a tradition of silence, which is used to avoid the very theme of sex and eroticism; – a tradition of representation associated with the burlesque, in which the author presents carnality and eroticism in a deliberately ludicrous, grotesque way. European literatures of the era were developing highly nuanced representations of sexuality, often in relation to social functions. Conversely, the Russian authors confront notable deficits as they revert to indigenous traditions of expression. How these authors move beyond these defi-cits is the core of the project. Chapter 1 explores three historical determinants for the “strategy of silence” and the “strategy of burlesque” marking the history of Russia's literary representation. The first is a set of profound differences between Western and Russian medical science, sexology and psychopathology. The second is a divide in perceptions of sexuality between Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox traditions. The third is embodied in some of the earliest canonical representations of sexuality in literary history, including the Archpriest Avvakum’s Life (1682). Chapter 2 begins by taking up Aleksandr Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol as exemplars for Russian approaches to sexuality – with Pushkin exemplifying pro-erotic expression, and Gogol the opposite. The chapter concludes with analyses from late-nineteenth-century texts by Leskov, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Dostoevsky. Chapter 3 is focused on the ways some of the most emblematic works of the Silver Age (e.g., Sanin by Mikhail Artsybashev) emerge as deconstructions of the term “literary pornography” and as attempts to find new social representations of sexuality. Chapters 4 and 5 take up some major post-Silver Age texts and then Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955). The Conclusion argues that during the Silver Age, Russian popular culture found itself in direct confrontation with the high cultures of the nation’s upper classes and intelligentsia. This Russian version of modernization is described as a full-blown Foucauldian “bio-history” of Russian culture: a history of indigenous representations of sexuality and the eroticized body.



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