Emotions and Affect in Russian Literature

482. Saturday, 5 January, 10:15–11:30 a.m., 307, Hynes

I. Alyson Tapp (Reed College), "The Embarrassing Insistence of the Theological Imperative in the Society Novel: Genre, Narrative and Affect in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot"

II.  Jonathan Brooks Platt (Univ. of Pittsburgh), "The Efficacy of Affect: Bergson, the Avant-Garde, and Andrei Platonov's Grief-Soaked Things"

Presiding: David L. Cooper (Univ. of Illinois, Urbana)
Respondent: Valeria Sobol (Univ. of Illinois, Urbana)


Alyson Tapp, Reed College
"The Embarrassing Insistence of the Theological Imperative in the Society Novel: Genre, Narrative and Affect in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot"

Embarrassment dominates the affective tenor of Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot (1868-69). It is a novel studded with the blushes, outbursts, verbal and physical breakdowns that acute embarrassment brings on.  Embarrassment brings out the alignment of individuals within the social world, their embeddedness in or distance from its governing conventions and norms, yet the physically manifest signs of embarrassment—the blush, broken speech, bodily awkwardness—cause social interaction to stall.  In this way, embarrassment articulates a fault-line between social cohesion and social disintegration. In both its plot development and narrative structure, The Idiot constantly struggles to reconcile these two competing forces.  Dostoevsky’s proposed salve to social disintegration is the reestablishment of a guiding theological imperative, which he introduces into the novel embodied in Prince Myshkin. Yet the presence of Myshkin in Petersburg society proves to be an embarrassment, felt both in the represented world of its characters and, on the metaliterary plane, by its readers. Underlying all the novel’s embarrassment, I suggest, is the embarrassing collision of these two generic imperatives: the society novel and a strong theological imperative.
 Writing in the same age as Dostoevsky, Charles Darwin, in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), points to the differing moral tenors of shame and embarrassment: he observes that man does not blush before God, but only before his fellow men.  Darwin's observation serves as a commentary on the novelistic world in general, and Dostoevsky's world in particular: these are men who live, in Georg Lukács’ famous formulation in “a world that has been abandoned by God.”[1]
 Focusing on embarrassment, and informed by sociologist Erving Goffman’s seminal analysis of this emotion, this paper explores the links between genre, narrative structure, the novel’s ideological and aesthetic principles, and its affective tenor.
[1] Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel: A historico-philosophical essay on the forms of great epic literature, trans. Anna Bostock (Cambridge, MA.: The MIT Press, 1971), 88.

Jonathan Brooks Platt, University of Pittsburgh
"The Efficacy of Affect: Andrei Platonov’s Grief-Soaked Things"

Investigations of the material world’s affective potential draw on a rich philosophical tradition. The modernist pursuit of non-dualist models for the interaction of people and things continues today as Bergsonain intuitionism has evolved (via Deleuze) into a veritable industry, ever promoting the vitality of matter and aesthetic realizations of the threshold at which animacy emerges from atoms. Avant-garde efforts to sublate art into life, releasing (or at least recognizing) the creative power of being, participate in the same project, but inevitably founder on the problem of consciousness. Should the creatively perceived object (or the object that recreates perception) estrange or enthrall? Is the task of art to critique and demystify an automatized world (“laying bare the device”), or to access the durational manifold of emergent rhythms and flows (“making the stone stony”)?[1]

This paper seeks a way out of the dilemma of modernist anti-fetishism through a close reading of the early Soviet writer Andrei Platonov’s persistent blurring of the boundary between man and object, saturating each with “the general affect of grief.”[2]  For Platonov, the eschatological drive to avenge the forsaken bodies and objects of oppressed humanity must be endured without consummation. In other words, the Bergsonian dream of a life in which pure memory and pure perception are available to both consciousness and creative action must be treated as a distant (and dangerous) fantasy—no less a fetish than the commodity that possesses and dehumanizes the subject of bourgeois modernity (even if he is a “protestant” subject of socialism). Only the strategy of patient endurance within a flawed, need-based sociality (of people and things) can sustain the orphans of modernity until communism’s longed-for sublation of matter and spirit is possible.

[1] Viktor Shklovsky, “Art as Device” (1917).
[2] Jonathan Flatley, Affective Mapping (Harvard, 2008).

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