Date of Degree

9-2020

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Comparative Literature

Advisor

Elizabeth Beaujour

Committee Members

Ilya Kliger

Nadya Peterson

Joshua Wilner

Subject Categories

Comparative Literature

Keywords

reception studies, Absolute, Romantic irony, philosophical system, fragment, tragedy

Abstract

My dissertation project, The Twilight of the Absolute: Russian Symbolism and the Romantic Project, scrutinizes and interrogates the premises of so called “influence studies” by examining one tangled instance of cultural interaction—the relation between early German Romanticism (the brothers Schlegel, Novalis, Ludwig Tieck, and Friedrich Schelling) and the second wave of Russian Symbolism (Andrei Belyi, Aleksandr Blok, and Viacheslav Ivanov). In the scarce secondary literature that touches upon this complex literary-historical problem, Russian Symbolists are often unproblematically represented as proud “neo-Romantics,” passive recipients of the Romantic intellectual legacy. The major claim I advance in my thesis is that Jena Romanticism, far from being a revered and innocuous literary antecedent, presents an ever present challenge to the second generation of Russian Symbolists in both their artistic and metaphysical aspirations. This challenge consists in the Romantic assertion that the Absolute is unattainable, unknowable, and inexpressible because we as human beings live in and are defined by history and language. In this light, the relation of Symbolism to Romanticism is one of active re-imagining, resistance, and surmounting (“rewriting”) rather than of passive absorption, appropriation, and influence.

The dissertation traces all the stages of this uneasy relationship over the span of Symbolism's development as a movement. The first chapter deals with the “demon” of Romantic irony that shatters the Symbolist theurgic enterprise (the early stage of Russian Symbolism). The second chapter is concerned with the Symbolist failed attempt at conceptualizing the Absolute (the late, theoretical, stage of Russian Symbolism). In an effort to grasp the Absolute, Russian religious philosophy, including Symbolism, moves from the Idealist conception of “philosophy as science” to the Romantic notion of “philosophy as art” but, as the early German Romantics already cautioned, “philosophy as art” cannot deliver the Absolute either. One can escape neither history nor language. Since the Absolute proves uncognizable and unattainable, the Symbolists progressively move into the sphere of the tragic, which is the subject matter of the third chapter. In their search for the way to reintegrate the subjective (consciousness and art) and the objective (nature and life), the Symbolists come to view tragedy, an “objective” genre, as a counterweight to the solipsistic subjectivism of Romantic lyricism and therefore as the only viable way leading through cathartic cleansing to the Absolute conceived as a living mystery play. Unsuccessful attempts to realize their ambitious tragic program in practice, however, triggers a severe crisis in the movement and its eventual dissolution. This crisis is conceptualized by the Symbolists as a “tragedy of art”—the ultimate impossibility of producing a man-made synthesis of life and art. Thus, Russian Symbolism traces a full circle back to “the Romantic impasse,” for inability to unite life and art was precisely “the tragedy of Romanticism” that Symbolism sought to overcome by “rewriting.”

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