Three Easy Pieces: Tolstoy, Khlebnikov, Platonov and the Fragile Absolute of Russian Modernity
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AbstractThis dissertation shows how three Russian authors estranged and challenged the notion of human freedom as self-determination—the idea that meaningful self-authorship is possible in view of the finitude that every human being embodies under different aspects of his existence, such as the individual and collective awareness of the inevitability of death, as well as the narrative inclusion of any existential project within multiple contexts of history, culture, and language, all of which are always given already. At first glance to be free is to transcend these multiple limits. But this transcendence can only be absolute if it sees infinity as a creative modification of meaning, whose foundational limits are eradicable. Freedom as absolute transcendence has to be fundamentally suspicious of all totalizing claims, especially those stressing their productive inclusion of unfinalizability as their ultimate source of legitimation. This fundamental suspicion is the aegis under which Leo Tolstoy, Velimir Khlebnikov, and Andrei Platonov approach the legacy of creative transcendence bequeathed by European modernity.
The two theoretical accounts of human freedom this dissertation uses are G.W.F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1806/1807) and Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927).
Chapter I explores Leo Tolstoy’s response to the cultural legacy of European modernity and its absolutization of the individual project on the example of his novella the Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), whose narrative structure provides a key to its philosophical argument, namely that the privatization of God via secular self-authorship is metaphysically unwarranted. Chapter II is a comparative reading of Velimir Khlebnikov’s Zangezi (1922) and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Khlebnikov polemically estranges Hegel’s account, positing the triumph of the poetic word as a historical standpoint of the human triumph over death, evident in the interplanetary brotherhood of artists for whom cultural, political, historical and economical boundaries become only a means to provisionally define multiple sites of future creation. Chapter III examines the philosophical significance of the formal and thematic peculiarity of Andrei Platonov’s prose in the Foundation Pit (Kotlovan) (1930). Platonov’s unique philosophical vision is in his understanding of Soviet dialectics as half philosophical theogony and half Christological ontology.
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