Russian Literature and its Demons.
Demons and demonism have occupied and, it seems, continue to occupy an important place in Russian consciousness, not least in its literary expression. With Russian Literature and its Demons, Pamela Davidson has produced an excellent collection of essays, both general and particular, but all rich in detail, which throw light on many different aspects of Russian literary demonism. What makes the book outstanding, however, is the way the editor has drawn the different aspects of the subject together, placing her contributors' work in an overall historical and conceptual context. Davidson's erudite and elegant introduction contrasts Russian and Western traditions of demonism, and attempts to define the status of the Devil as an element in Russian national consciousness. An important aspect of the latter is that, for Russians, demonism can lead not to damnation but to purgatory and then onto the path of positive historical development, absolved of guilt and complicity in evil and suffering. Several tsars and, later, Stalin were prone to be demonized by their subjects, partly on account of their claims to divinity or, in Soviet times, cultic status, for the border between divinity and devilry is, perhaps, nowhere crossed more easily than in Russia.
Demonism found a ready soil for iconographic and verbal reflection in Russia, where folk beliefs and Russified Western literature combined to influence a strong tradition of literary demonism, seen most clearly in the work of Lermontov, Gogol', Dostoevskii and, in particular, writers, philosophers and artists at the end of the nineteenth century. In the latter period, fiction and even printing were felt by some to be a corrupting power (for readers and writers alike); on the other hand, literature and art both played an important role in the preservation of demonism in the national imagination. A century later, Russian bookshops reflect a lively continuing interest in demonism and the occult.
The standard of writing in this collection of articles is very high and it would be invidious to select particular authors for special praise. In Part I, 'Tradition and Contexts', Simon Franklin writes on Russian literary demonism and the Orthodox tradition, wittily imagining the demons' possible delight at their literary incarnation. Faith Wigzell traces with due caution reflections of the Russian folk devil in literature. Kevin Platt describes the way two prominent tsars, Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, were regarded by many as the Antichrist enthroned. Finally, Pamela Davidson writes on Russian views of art as demonic, tracing biblical, folk and historical influences.
Part II, 'Literary Demons', begins with another essay by Davidson, on 'The Muse and the Demon in the Poetry of Pushkin, Lermontov, and Blok'. This is followed by Robert Reid writing on Lermontov's famously ambiguous poem The Demon. Julian Graffy finds a rich vein of demonic features in the detail of Gogol's Petersburg. W. J. Leatherbarrow, drawing particularly on the Petrushka tradition and the legend of the False Dmitrii, attempts to 'decode' the demonic in one of the many works of Russian literature incorporating the theme in their titles, Dostoevskii's The Devils. Liza Dimbleby writes about Vasilii Rozanov's attempts to counteract what he saw as the demonism of contemporary life and, particularly, literature. Avril Pyman analyses the Demon as a mythopoetic world model in the work of two artists and a painter: Lermontov, Vrubel', and Blok. Adam Weiner's essay treats the fertile field of satanism in the Symbolist novels of Briusov, Merezhkovskii, Sologub, and Belyi. Michael Basker reviews the transformation of Symbolist devils by Acmeism, in particular showing the demonic nature of Gumilev as the absent hero of Akhmatova's Poem without a Hero. Philip Cavendish discusses a rather lighter treatment of devilry in Zamiatin's miracle tale or chudo, 'The Miracle of Ash Wednesday'. The last essay is by Rosalind Marsh on literary representations of Stalin and Stalinism as demonic.
This is a fascinating collection of articles, enriched by twenty-one (black and white) illustrations, and held together by the skilful editorial control of Pamela Davidson. It will undoubtedly be appreciated by readers with a wide variety of literary as well as (im)purely demonological interests. It deserves to be on the shelves of all academic libraries.
<ADD> ARNOLD MCMILLIN UNIVERSITY COLLEGE LONDON </ADD>
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|Publication:||The Modern Language Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2001|
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