Alexandre Gontchar, PhD, March 2017
Dissertation title: “Three Easy Pieces: Tolstoy, Khlebnikov, Platonov and the fragile absolute of Russian modernity”
M.A., Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, University of Toronto. Thesis: Marina Tsvetaeva through the Looking Glass of Zangezi
Sasha Gontchar is a happy husband and father and an unhappy consciousness. His desultory education and the relaxation of authority he had been permitted as a youth led to the indolence of disposition only capable of being stirred by the gratification of conquering problems he can neither dismiss, nor solve, for they transcend every capacity of his reason. Lately, he has been concentrating powers of his mind for an earnest investigation of narrative and narrativity taking place under the auspices of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University.
My dissertation looks at how three Russian authors (Leo Tolstoy, Velimir Khlebnikov, and Andrey Platonov) creatively estranged and challenged various philosophical notions of freedom as self-determination, that is, the idea that meaningful self-authorship is possible precisely in view of man’s finitude: his mortality and multiple contexts of history, culture, and language into which he is thrown by birth. The two major accounts of human freedom against which I read the three Russian classics are G.W.F. Hegel’s the Phenomenology of Spirit (1806/1807)and Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), the works I choose because of the fine balance in which ancient thought (Plato, Aristotle) appears together with contemporary methods of historiography and cultural anthropology. I read Hegel and Heidegger, focusing on how they grapple the conflict between the linear temporality of monotheism and the cyclical time of pagan polytheism, namely on the multiple narrative ruses with whose aid the two philosophers make the relationship between the two foundational sources of the hierarchy of Western civilizational values appear in a new light. I show how the three Russian authors responded to the cultural legacy of European modernity and its absolutization of the individual project: Tolstoy with a charge that the privatization of God via secular self-authorship was metaphysically unwarranted; Khlebnikov with a genealogy of the poetic word that conquers death, appearing as the interplanetary brotherhood of artists for whom cultural, political, historical and economical boundaries were only a means to provisionally define multiple sites of future creation; Platonov with a phenomenological investigation of whether Western metaphysical import, transplanted into the soil of Russian history, could survive under communism.
My second project is entitled “Between pagan polyphony and Christian transfiguration: a history of dialectical logic in young Soviet Russia” and it builds on my dissertational research in two ways. First, it examines the narrative evolution of the metaphysical tension of Hegel’s thought under the rubrics of two official dialectical sciences of the Soviet State: dialectical and historical materialisms. Second, it follows the history of the state-wide institutionalization of formal, not dialectical, logic, as a system of signs mediating between the subjective reality of human mind and the objective reality of the human world. I approach these diverse aspects of the religious character of how dialectical logic was understood in young Soviet Russia from four different directions.
First, I look at how Christian eschatology (Christ’s Second Coming and the establishment of Kingdom of God on Earth) informed Marx’s philosophical vision in Capital (1867) of the planet-wide extinction of the labor-capital opposition, that is, the arrival of a full informational transparency preventing any party from accumulating enough resources to build dominance. Second, I consider some of the official views of the early Soviet ideologues on the usefulness of state-religion as a tool allowing to manipulate the consciousness of the masses, and I compare them against the official rituals of the ancestral legitimation of the regime as practiced by the communist elite who made its appearance on and addressed the people from the special platform above the entry to the Lenin’s Mausoleum, itself being in half a step-pyramid, in half a ziggurat. Third, I revisit the relationship between the conscious and unconscious religiosity of the ceremonial scripts that the new order had employed, looking at the life of dialectical logic in the Soviet Union from the point of view of one of its marginal yet populous groups, one of prison convicts. Fourth, I study the conspicuous absence of dialectical logic it in the works of Russian formalist critics, some of whom, like Vladimir Propp, worked on a universal system of narrative functions at the core of the folktale, while others, like Yuri Tynianov, stressed the importance of history in connection with literary form.