Author Archives: uwpress

A Reader’s Guide to Andrei Bely’s “Petersburg”

 

Today we present a piece written by Leonid Livak, editor of the book A Reader’s Guide to Andrei Bely’s Petersburg

 

Few artistic works created before World War I convey the sensibility, ideas, phobias, and aspirations of Russian and transnational modernism as comprehensively as Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (1913), whose place and importance in cultural history have been often compared to those of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). Yet Petersburg has not received its due attention from the Anglophone public and is rarely taught within the framework of literature and humanities courses, because like other hermetic modernist classics, this novel presents serious challenges to nonspecialist readers as well as to instructors in literature and general humanities. The essays collected in our volume strive to make Petersburg more accessible. They have been written with a broad audience in mind in order to help the Anglophone reader gain a better understanding of Bely’s novel and to facilitate its study in the college classroom. The volume’s contributors have been asked to refrain from new interpretations of the literary classic and to summarize instead what we already know about Petersburg, explicating it in the intellectual and artistic context that informed the novel’s creation and historical reception.

Boris Nikolaevich Bugaev (1880–1934), who used the penname Andrei Bely, was an intellectual omnivore drawn to the most diverse practices in art and thought. Petersburg is a virtual encyclopedia of European philosophical and aesthetic currents between the turn of the century and World War I. This makes Petersburg—originally written for an interpretive community that shared the author’s cultural knowledge—all the more difficult to understand today. Hence the structure of our book: each essay explores a particular aspect of Bely’s novel.

The first part treats Petersburg’s rapports with Russian and European intellectual life in Bely’s day. Lynn Patyk elucidates the historical circumstances informing Petersburg’s terrorist intrigue, with an eye on the range of meanings that intrigue had in Bely’s modernist circle and in contemporary Russian society at large. Maria Carlson draws attention to Bely’s fascination with Theosophy and with its offshoot—Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophical doctrine, which freshly captivated the writer midway through his work on Petersburg. Bely’s interest in Friedrich Nietzsche’s iconoclastic thought predated his work on the novel. The formative role in modernist philosophies of art and life of Nietzsche’s intellectual heritage all but assured that Bely would engage with it in Petersburg, as Edith Clowes illustrates. Neo-Kantianism is yet another philosophical current informing the novel. As Timothy Langen explains, it shaped Bely’s thought in the decade preceding his Petersburg project, and it is present there as one of the novel’s competing philosophies. Henri Bergson equipped Bely with polemical tools for a critical reexamination of Nietzscheanism and Neo-Kantianism, whose philosophical virtues, Hilary Fink argues, the writer no longer took for granted during his work on Petersburg. Judith Wermuth-Atkinson shows that Bely’s modernist search for alternatives to the materialist understanding of the world and the human being led the author of Petersburg to heed the new science of psychology, as elaborated by Sigmund Freud. A special place in Petersburg’s imaginative universe is occupied by racial theories, whose narrative manifestations are explored by Henrietta Mondry. Closing the book’s first part, David Bethea demonstrates the centrality of eschatology—speculation about the end of history, framed as the demise and rebirth of the world and humankind— in Petersburg’s narrative and stylistic economy.

The volume’s second part examines Petersburg in the aesthetic context of Bely’s day. Keenly following the latest developments in Russian and Western artistic theory and practice, Bely poured his erudition into Petersburg as a medium for reflecting on and realizing modernist artistic philosophy. Steven Cassedy explores the role of music in Bely’s novel against the backdrop of modernist musical theories and their implementation in literature. Considering Bely’s novel as an exemplar of modernism’s embrace of performance practices and metaphors, Colleen McQuillen shows Petersburg’s place in the practice of “life-creation,” common among Russian modernists who turned their lives into artistic texts that were lived before they could be written down. Olga Matich treats Petersburg as an expression of Bely’s passion for painting, exploring the ways Bely uses verbal signs to create visual images. Taras Koznarsky shows Petersburg’s contribution to transnational modernism’s intense preoccupation with urbanism. Violeta Sotirova looks at Petersburg as a case study in the larger modernist turn to consciousness as the source of reality, placing Bely’s novel alongside literary experiments by his Western European peers.

Petersburg explores every level of spoken and written language in order to speculate about language as a source of what people perceive as reality but what might as well be an illusion originating in the psyche. That is why we open this volume with an essay by John Elsworth, the author of the most recent English translation of Petersburg, who endeavors to impart to Bely’s Anglophone reader a sense of the challenges inherent in translating the novel; and to give the reader an idea of the inevitable losses and distortions accompanying any such translation project.

Petersburg’s importance for the evolution of Russian prose writing in the twentieth century had no equals. Fifty years after the novel’s original publication, Vladimir Nabokov ranked Petersburg alongside James Joyce’s Ulysses, Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in his list of “my greatest masterpieces of twentieth century prose.” Like the other modernist masterpieces on Nabokov’s list, Petersburg makes for an intensely enjoyable but challenging read, for Bely expected his audience to actively participate in unraveling the work’s many meanings, narrative strains, and patterns of details. The present volume aims to facilitate that task by recreating for the general Anglophone public the sociopolitical, intellectual, and artistic context informing Bely’s novel.

 

 

Leonid Livak is a professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Russian Émigrés in the Intellectual and Literary Life of Interwar FranceThe Jewish Persona in the European Imagination, and How It Was Done in Paris: Russian Émigré Literature and French Modernism.

The Lasting Impact of Francisco Franco

This week we have a piece written by guest-blogger Stanley G. Payne, co-author of the book Franco: A Personal and Political Biography.

 

The revolutionary movements that provoked the Spanish Civil War in 1936 created the only violent mass collectivist revolution of Western Europe in the twentieth century, but the victor in this contest was Francisco Franco, the most successful counterrevolutionary leader of the era.  He went on to create the first stable dictatorship in Spain’s history, surviving World War II and remaining in power until he died of natural causes in 1975, having defeated all comers for nearly four decades.  In the process he promoted the definitive socioeconomic modernization of his country and created institutions that after his death permitted a peaceful transition to democratic constitutional monarchy, led by liberal Francoists, though this final outcome was not his intention.

Franco was the most powerful individual figure in the more than two millennia of Spanish history, for no king under traditional institutions enjoyed the resources of an organized twentieth-century dictator.  He has been both the most widely praised and the most extensively and vehemently vituperated personality in the annals of Spain.

During the twenty-first century the country has begun to fragment.  The Spanish left, bereft of ideas or a coherent new program, has partially repudiated the prosperous, broadly decentralized democracy of 1977-2018, claiming that it was tainted by Franco’s dictatorship, even though it put an end to the latter. “Anti-Francoism” has become a central banner, crediting a dictator who vanished more than four decades ago with the power to dominate Spanish affairs from beyond the tomb.  In Spain more than anywhere else, polemics about recent history form a major part of current political controversy.

Though most twenty-first century Spaniards do not support the fantasies of so-called “historical memory,” which is neither history nor memory, the ignorance of history is as widespread in their country as in any other Western land.  These circumstances raise anew the question of exactly who was Francisco Franco and what exactly was his historical record.  The literature about him is enormous, greater than that concerning anyone else in Spanish history, but is strongly divided between encomia and denunciation.

The present biography seeks to open a new inquiry that is more balanced and objective, or at least less subject to the influence of polemics than its predecessors, based on a broad base of key primary and secondary sources.  It treats the sharply contrasting aspects of Franco’s rule, from the rigorous Civil War-era repression to the positive achievements of later years.  While investigating all the major aspects of Franco’s career over four decades, it also seeks to offer a personal portrait of the dictator, from his early career as a teen-aged infantry officer through his marriage and family life to his eventual demise in the most public (and one of the most prolonged) natural deaths of modern times.

It may be that no other Western country changed more during one lifetime than did Spain during Franco’s eighty-three years, and many of these changes were closely involved with his own biography.  The book grapples with this lengthy process of change, and with the numerous mutations of Franco’s own rule, as his regime evolved from a politics of semi-fascism to Catholic corporatism to modernizing bureaucratic authoritarianism, from associate of the Third Reich to important ally of the United States.  It seeks to provide deeper understanding of a key historical personality, and also of the dynamic evolution of Spain during the twentieth century.

 

Stanley G. Payne (right) is the Hilldale–Jaume Vicens Vives Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the author of many books, including A History of Fascism, 1914–1945The Franco Regime, 1936–1975; and Spain: A Unique History.
Jesús Palacios (left) is a noted historian, investigative journalist, and adjunct professor at the University of Madrid.

Universal Witchcraft and the Problem of Categories

Today we present a piece written by Douglas J. Falen, author of the new book African Science.

 

In 1935, the British anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard wrote, “Witchcraft is an imaginary offense because it is impossible.” Although Evans-Pritchard made a sincere attempt to explain the rationality of African witchcraft, his remark voiced an enduring Western view of the distinction between imaginary witchcraft and scientific reality. Since then, anthropologists have used less dismissive language to address such cultural differences, but this does not automatically mean they accept the reality of other cultures’ magical forces. What is the role of our own reality in our interpretation of other cultures? And what do we make of a society where witchcraft and science are not competing paradigms, but rather are similar forms of knowledge? These are the philosophical and interpretive dilemmas that an anthropologist faces in studying the occult in the Republic  of Benin, West Africa.

Sacred objects used in the creation of a deity’s new shrine

In the course of many years of research, I have come to recognize that my Beninese friends do not feel the need to make a choice between science and magic. For them, western scientific knowledge is a kind of magic that is responsible for fantastic technology, such as airplanes, cellphones, and the internet. This “white people’s witchcraft” as Beninese call it, is often likened to the incredible accomplishments of their own occult knowledge, which they call “African science” – an indigenous force that also permits people to travel around the world and to communicate via invisible waves. Another feature that these two systems share is their moral ambiguity. Beninese people acknowledge that, despite their benevolent potential, technology and witchcraft are similar in that both can result in death and destruction – such as through bombs or invisible soul attacks. This suggests that in Benin, what we might call “witchcraft” (àzě in the Fon language) is a much broader category drawing up ideas about knowledge, technology, and magic. Some informants also suggest that witchcraft is the animating force behind their indigenous deities, Christian churches, and esoteric societies like Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism. They regard witchcraft as the ultimate, all-encompassing, and universal force in the world. While people attribute misfortune, illness, and death to the work of malevolent witches, àzě’s incorporative tendencies allow traditional healers to adopt and employ new, often foreign, spiritual traditions in a supernatural arms race to triumph over evil. Beninese witches and healers battle over people’s souls, reaffirming the existence of good and evil in the world.

 A healer, right, engages in an Asian-inspired ritual to protect a patient from witchcraft

Rather than reduce witchcraft to mere folklore, or a naïve belief held by those lacking scientific rationality, I have taken inspiration from my Beninese friends for whom witchcraft is not a traditional belief giving way to modernity. Witchcraft is instead a contemporary, adaptive, and inclusive system that incorporates many domains that westerners regard as distinct – science, medicine, religion, and the occult. Although I do not expect foreign people to accept another culture’s supernatural reality, one of the lessons of anthropology’s “ontological turn” has been to encourage us to take native categories seriously and to let them shape our interpretation of other cultures. Through long-term, intimate ethnographic experience, I have come to appreciate my Beninese friends’ understanding of their world without feeling the need to discount it or frame it terms of my own categories of real, imaginary, science, or myth. Anthropology’s contribution to current social debates is to show us that cultural difference does not have to result in judgment, disavowal, and discrimination. If we make an effort to befriend people who are different from ourselves, we usually find that they possess the same human rationality as we do.

 

Douglas J. Falen is a professor of anthropology at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. He is the author of Power and Paradox: Authority, Insecurity, and Creativity in Fon Gender Relations.