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|
Picture credit for the Kukryniksy image: http://visualrian.ru/en/site/photo/historic/1970/?startfrom=85068