Friday, 17 February 2012

Ghostly Paradoxes

In 2009, the ingenious and prolific U Penn-based scholar Ilya Vinitsky published Ghostly Paradoxes: Modern Spiritualism and Russian Culture in the Age of Realism. Few academic monographs take so much pleasure in their subject; few range so freely between dimensions. Vinitsky confronts his readers with two paradoxical cultural manifestations: firstly, how Russian scientists in the late nineteenth century treated Spiritualism as a material phenomenon; and secondly, how the realist novel of the same period unwittingly conjured reality into its own spectre. The first part colourfully surveys territory that several scholars have investigated (the work of Julia Mannherz springs to mind, or indeed of Helen Sword; besides this recent Modern Language Review article). Vinitsky argues that the Russian Spiritualist séance became, implicitly if not avowedly, a forum for discussing cultural and political problems, for synthesizing institutional solutions to the former, and even for parodying certain utopian goals. Chapter One revisits a theme already familiar to historians of Russian Spiritualism: the dogged insistence by scientists who should have known better, including the zoologist Nikolai Vagner and the chemist Aleksandr Butlerov (defying patient and meticulous opposition from Dmitry Mendeleev), to argue the genuineness of mediumistic phenomena; apparently, undeterred by the great writer's skepticism, Vagner even implored Dostoevsky's widow to let him summon her husband's shade (Anna Grigor'evna sensibly refused; her delightfully unflattering description of Vagner is cited on p. 89). Dostoevsky is a recurrent character throughout Ghostly Paradoxes: his attraction to the occult led him, along with the writers Leskov and Boborykin, to participate in a séance with an English medium organised by the Spiritualist Aleksandr Aksakov in 1876. The medium, Madame Claire, marked Dostoevsky out as the participant most attuned to 'unseen presences' (no surprise). The séance, however, concluded prematurely when Dostoevsky accused the medium of pulling on the other end of a handkerchief that was being mysteriously drawn away. Vinitsky writes: "'In his account of the séance, Boborykin discloses the nature of the misunderstanding. Dostoevsky had joked that he ‘refused to account for such a phenomenon as anything but the dexterity of the medium.’ Then, though ‘it was said in such a way that, if Madame Claire had understood Russian, she would only have laughed at this perfectly harmless joke,’ on hearing Dostoevsky’s words translated into English, she for some reason ‘instantly took offense, blushed (to whatever extent this was possible for her), her eyes began to flash,’ and Boborykin ‘quite clearly heard a violent phrase, in English, which plainly showed her anger’" (p. 33). This incident confirmed Dostoevsky's distrust of Spiritualist practitioners and informed several negative articles in Diary of a Writer. Other recurrent characters include Leskov himself, author of Spiritualist-themed fiction and a serial séance attendee; and Pushkin, whose posthumously prolific ghost possesses a whole chapter in the first section.

 Entertaining as this section was, I found the second part more intriguing, since it unpacks a question close to my own heart: is realist literature foredoomed, by its very nature, to spectralize reality? What Terry Castle, in The Female Thermometer: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny, proposed for Enlightenment culture, Vinitsky argues for the Russian realist novel: that efforts to reconstruct human experience within rational categories inevitably create the opposite of rationality, namely 'a new human experience of strangeness, bafflement, anxiety, and intellectual impasse' (Castle, p. 8). This idea is so fundamentally postmodern that I was surprised by the paucity of critics Vinitsky cites in support; besides Castle, and a cameo from Barthes (the 'reality effect'), his primary source was George Levine's The Realistic Imagination, which explores the intrinsically uncanny quality of mimesis. Less abstractly, Vinitsky also contends that 'realist writers, either consciously or unconsciously, sought in various spiritualist doctrines of their time epistemological models that resonated with their literary practice and ideological intuition and that permitted them to express and explain repressed feelings of metaphysical uncertainty and hope’ (p. xi). He even suggests that realist teleology has an ‘inner kinship’ with spiritualism, since realist fiction aims to 'haunt' the reader through a series of psychological evolutions comparable to the purgatorial progress experienced by ghosts (in religious and Spiritualist doctrine).

Kukryniksy illustration to The Golovlyev Family
These ideas underlie later chapters on Saltykov-Shchedrin's 'realist spiritualism', Dostoevsky's 'ontological realism', and Tolstoy's 'artistic hypnotism'. All three chapters entertain (the discussion of Bobok, and of the Swedish mystic Swedenborg's influence on Dostoevsky's imagination, is engrossing); the discussion of Saltykov-Shchedrin is probably the most challenging. Returning to the reality paradox identified by Castle and Levine, Vinitsky argues that Shchedrin, although fervently opposed to all forms of Spiritualism (all the more so because his father-in-law was a prominent Spiritualist who had translated Allan Kardec into Russian), involuntarily infused his own fiction with spectrality precisely through its remorseless realism. 'Shchedrin’s realistic method led to the spectralization of reality, turning it into a phantom – one that frightened the writer himself. In this sense, Shchedrin’s realism was indicative of the inner conflict of the Russian realist imagination of the 1860s to 1880s, which created an image of Russia as a house haunted by numerous apparitions: nihilists and afflicted peasants; great historical figures and humble little men; the superfluous man and the heroic revolutionary. [...] The paradox of Shchedrin consists in the fact that reason generates nightmares when awake, not asleep' (pp. 107-8, p. 117). Vinitsky defines Shchedrin's phantasmagoria as a product of his characters' intensely lived dreams and visions, and his relentlessly realist depiction of their misery (as in The Golovlyov Family). Instead of evading the Gothic-fantastic, Vinitsky suggests, Shchedrin inaugurated a 'materialist Gothic' whose horrors were enacted within the phenomenal world; its grotesque apparitions and hallucinations had socioeconomic explanations, rather than scientific or mechanical causes (as in Radcliffe's novels). This is an odd argument, and not Vinitsky's strongest; Marxist Gothic scholars would argue that the genre has always belonged 'within, rather than outside, historical reality', just like Shchedrin's Gothic (p.114). Despite some confusion here and elsewhere in Ghostly Paradoxes, I welcome Vinitsky's key argument that dedicated realism creates its own ghosts (elsewhere, he points out that Belinsky borrowed the vocabulary of Gothic Romanticism to criticize its epigones; Socialist Realist critics would repeat Belinsky's trick less than a century later). It's a satisfyingly circular point, and, moreover, not a cheerful one for academic writers. You don't have to write about haunting, or even read Terry Castle, to realize that attempts to intellectualize reality - especially in the form of academic writing - frequently produce the reverse of rationality, or indeed of intelligence. As I sigh over my own manuscript revisions, I'd happily conjure a ghost or two instead. Preferably Pushkin's.

Picture credit for the Kukryniksy image: