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The Visual Dominant in Eighteenth-Century Russia

Marcus c. Levitt

Publication Year: 2011

The Enlightenment privileged vision as the principle means of understanding the world, but the eighteenth-century Russian preoccupation with sight was not merely a Western import. In his masterful study, Levitt shows the visual to have had deep indigenous roots in Russian Orthodox culture and theology, arguing that the visual played a crucial role in the formation of early modern Russian culture and identity. Levitt traces the early modern Russian quest for visibility from jubilant self-discovery, to serious reflexivity, to anxiety and crisis. The book examines verbal constructs of sight—in poetry, drama, philosophy, theology, essay, memoir—that provide evidence for understanding the special character of vision of the epoch. Levitt’s groundbreaking work represents both a new reading of various central and lesser known texts and a broader revisualization of Russian eighteenth-century culture. Works that have considered the intersections of Russian literature and the visual in recent years have dealt almost exclusively with the modern period or with icons. The Visual Dominant in Eighteenth-Century Russia is an important addition to the scholarship and will be of major interest to scholars and students of Russian literature, culture, and religion, and specialists on the Enlightenment.

Published by: Northern Illinois University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 1-6


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pp. vii-8


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

A book that has taken this long to produce accumulates debts too numerous to repay but which at moments like this deserve to be made visible. My profound gratitude goes to the many friends and colleagues who have provided advice, encouragement, criticism, and stimulating dialogue over the years. These include: Victor Zhivov, Irina Reyfman, Alexander Levitsky, Gitta Ham-...

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pp. 3-14

The Enlightenment emphasis on vision as the privileged means of understanding the world played a particularly important role in the development of modern Russian culture, for which the imperative to become visible, to be seen was a central motivation and goal. This, in short, is the central proposition of this book. The French philosopher Bruno Latour has written that “a new visual culture...

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Chapter One—Prolegomena

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pp. 15-27

For many people, including many Russians, modern Russian culture begins with the nineteenth century. Before that, there is nothing, a great blank or but a faint glimmer in the dark. The central role of Peter the Great in “turning Russia to the West” in the early eighteenth century is acknowledged, but the subsequent hundred years is more or less of a blind spot, an interim or at best a preparatory phase, a lacuna...

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Chapter Two—The Moment of the Muses

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pp. 28-63

The desire for visibility undoubtedly plays an important part in all human activity, and especially in political culture, in which ostentatious display may bolster and legitimize an individual’s—or a regime’s—hold on power. Such self-presentation figured centrally in Russia’s early modern stage of national development. Displaying Russia “on the stage of universal fame,” as pictured in the Petrine scenario, involved an anticipatory vision of future greatness, of maturity and completeness...

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Chapter Three—Bogovidenie

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pp. 64-77

A fundamental structural problem of monotheism concerns the knowability of God. If God is by definition a perfect and absolute being, existing on a transcendent level that is inaccessible to human beings, how can He be known or communicate with us? On the one hand, there are the various miraculous forms of revelation, either through special intermediaries (angels, messengers, prophets, or, like Jesus, an incarnation into human flesh) or via more or less direct...

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Chapter Four—The Staging of the Self

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pp. 78-123

Russian classicist tragedy, which dealt predominantly with historical subject matter, represents a further stage in the dynamic of Russian self-consciousness. The mirror-stage model again offers a compelling framework, insofar as this development is experienced as “a temporal dialectic that decisively projects the formation of the individual into history.”1 History emerges as a crucial arena,...

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Chapter Five—Virtue Must Advertise

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pp. 124-150

The focus of previous chapters has been the images of the jubilant self in triumphal odes and the heroic self retrospectively projected back into history in tragedy, which offered a validation of an ideal self exalted by tragic circumstances. In this chapter the analysis is extended to apply the values expressed in tragedy to the sphere of ethics and self-representation. In this sphere as well, eighteenth-century Russian...

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Chapter Six—The Seen, the Unseen, and the Obvious

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pp. 151-194

In this chapter, the ideal associated with true vision will be asserted and challenged in two types of mostly poetic works. The first group exemplifies the discourse of “physicotheology,” which asserted that the visual evidence of the physical world attests to the rational structure of the universe and proves the existence of God. The second group, associated with the Book of Ecclesiastes, took a more skeptical stance, describing...

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Chapter Seven—The Icon That Started a Riot

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pp. 195-221

Attitudes toward vision are examined in this chapter—not as expressed in literary or philosophical works, but as they clashed at a particular historical moment, during Moscow’s infamous Plague Riot (chumnyi bunt) of September 15–17 (old style), 1771, that was sparked by the struggle for control of an icon. The riot, in which a murderous mob rampaged through the Kremlin and other parts of the city, claimed the...

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Chapter Eight—The Dialectic of Vision in Radishchev’s Journey

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pp. 222-252

If the triumphal odes offered a comforting vision of greatness; and Russian historical tragedies validated virtue in extreme circumstances; if memoirs and essays on ethics defended the love of honor and self affirmation; and physicotheological works confirmed the obviousness of virtue; if Catherine’s politics argued...

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Conclusion—Russian Culture as a Mirage

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pp. 253-270

Radishchev’s successive stages of vision offer a striking illustration of Latour’s proposition, with which this book opened, that “a new visual culture redefines both what it is to see, and what there is to see.”2 What Radishchev saw—joyful images of Russian greatness alternating with visions of misery and reproach—was defined by a complex negotiation between inner and outer perception, moral and psychological...


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pp. 271-340


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pp. 341-362

E-ISBN-13: 9781609090265
Print-ISBN-13: 9780875804422

Page Count: 357
Illustrations: 8 halftones
Publication Year: 2011