The Possessed: The Demonic in German and Russian Literature in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

Kuznetsova, Irina, Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, University of Virginia
Martens, Lorna, Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, University of Virginia

This dissertation contributes to the history of the literary appropriation of the demonic from a comparative Russian/German perspective, concentrating on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In particular, this study explores through its literary and cultural-studies analysis how Russian and German authors availed themselves of the demonic in a secular era, and how they refashioned it to suit modern aesthetics, while addressing contemporaneous artistic, social, and political concerns. Concentrating on the tensions between East and West (Russia/Europe), I explore how Russian and German writers responded in crosscultural polemics to the perceived decline of the established culture and the rise of radicalism and terrorism. My analysis further examines what these writers themselves identified as dangers to the development of their own cultures. Drawing on the historical development of the concept of the demonic, I concentrate on Goethe, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche as ‘initiators of discursivity' in this context. Further, I demonstrate on the example of Thomas Mann's Der Zauberberg (1924) and Andrei Bely's Petersburg (1922) how Dostoevsky's conceptualization of the demonic in Demons (1872) and Nietzsche's Dionysian feed into early twentieth-century perceptions of this concept. Thus I argue that the demonic during this period is no longer perceived as an ambivalent, heterogeneous force associated with artistic inspiration, as was previously the case with Goethe's das Ddmonische. Rather, it is constructed as a malevolent force of stagnation and destruction with distinct national markers. Its deployment in literature represents attempts at the demystification of evil in the looming powerful ‘other'. In that sense the demonic functions as an integral part of the discourse on cultural decadence and as an illuminating gesture that exposes the intellectual atmosphere in Russian/German culture of the period. Furthermore, it becomes a medium of disclosure of the respective authors' artistic, ideological, and national anxieties amid the general perception of crisis.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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