Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Diagnosing the Demonic: Reading Valerii Briusov's Fiery Angel as Pathography
by Knickmeier Cummings, Kelly, Ph.D., University of Kansas, 2017, 278; 10255826
Abstract (Summary)

Russian Symbolists struggled to write a counter-narrative to the prevailing master narrative of disintegration, degeneration, and social pathology advanced by the emerging fields of social science, psychology, and modern medicine at the turn of the twentieth century. The Symbolists invested their counter-narrative of transformation in the medieval alchemical promise of restored wholeness and transcendence of the material—even as the modern world rushed toward materialism. They attempted to realize their narrative through the process of poetic zhiznetvorchestvo, or life creation.

This dissertation examines one attempt to “practice” zhiznetvorchestvo by tracing Symbolist Valerii Briusov’s (1873–1924) experiment in life creation with the minor writer Nina Petrovskaia (1879–1928), which he captured in his major novel, Fiery Angel (1907–1908). In Fiery Angel, Briusov poeticized Petrovskaia as “Renata,” the unhappy and tortured psychopomp to Briusov’s own alter-ego, the rational Ruprecht. Setting the work in the sixteenth century, a period of change and confusion eerily echoed by the Silver Age, Briusov diagnosed his and Petrovskaia’s quest for mystical experience as an encounter with demonomania, a medieval condition indicative of demonic possession that afflicted witch and saint alike and whose signs and symptoms corresponded to hysteria as defined by the fin de siècle. Briusov’s novel chronicles Renata’s descent into illness, her suffering, and her eventual death by fusing autobiographical details with historical data and clearly-defined medical symptoms.

Briusov’s novel thus functions as a pathography—an extended account of an illness, individual or social, and the dysfunctionalities it introduces into the world of the sufferer and the people close to him or her. As a specific genre, pathography attempts to describe the illness, to find a way to come to terms with it, and to deal with its inevitable consequences. This genre offered Briusov an opportunity to diagnose and explore the relationship that existed among himself, Petrovskaia, and Andrei Belyi (1880–1934; the Count Heinrich of the novel). It also allowed him to explore the dysfunctionalities of the Russian Symbolist milieu and to diagnose the fin de siècle as “mad”—in a particular way.

The dissertation explores the master narrative of the fin de siècle and the Symbolist counter-narrative, investigates the concept of life creation, describes the genre of pathography and its distinctive features, and examines Briusov’s Fiery Angel in this context.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Carlson, Maria, Chernetsky, Vitaly
Commitee: Greenberg, Marc, Kokobobo, Ani, Levin, Eve
School: University of Kansas
Department: Slavic Languages & Literatures
School Location: United States -- Kansas
Source: DAI-A 79/02(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Slavic literature, Philosophy, Psychology
Keywords: Briusov, Fiery Angel, Hysteria, Nina, Pathography, Petrovskaia, Russian symbolism, Valerii
Publication Number: 10255826
ISBN: 978-0-355-34263-5
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