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The Visual Dominant in Eighteenth-Century Russia
Marcus C. Levitt
Marc Raeff Book Prize, Eighteenth-Century Russian Studies Association, 2013
Winner of the Marc Raeff Book Prize Recipient of the USC Phi Kappa Phi Faculty Recognition Award
Winner of the Marc Raeff Book Prize
Recipient of the USC Phi Kappa Phi Faculty Recognition Award
“Levitt puts forth a fascinating and highly original thesis concerning the centrality of visual motifs in Russia’s Enlightenment culture. I found the discussion of Orthodox theology and the ways it echoed in eighteenth-century literature to be innovative, intellectually stimulating, and persuasive.” —Elise Kimerling Wirtschafter, Professor of History at California State Polytechnic University Pomona and author of The Play of Ideas in Russian Enlightenment Theater
Modern Russian culture is commonly thought to begin with the 19th- century classics, and its value system defined as “logocentric,” focused on the power of the word. In fact, Levitt argues, the visual, with emphasis on visibility, played a crucial role in the formation of early modern Russian culture and identity. The challenge posed by Peter the Great’s opening a “window to Europe” was to see, to make others see, and to be seen. The Enlightenment privileged vision as the principle means of understanding the world, but the 18th- 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, and he rehabilitates the vital place of religion in the period often mistakenly written off as a time of full-scale secularization and of total state domination over the church.
Levitt traces the early modern Russian quest for visibility from jubilant self-discovery, to serious reflexivity, anxiety and to crisis. Starting from the premise that defining what it is to see precedes and defines what is seen, the book examines a series of verbal constructs of sight—in poetry, drama, philosophy, theology, essay, memoir—that provide primary 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 attempts a broader revisualization of Russian 18th-century culture through its own eyes.
The visual in Russian culture has attracted scant attention, and the 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 redresses that neglect. The book is an important addition to the scholarship and will be of major interest to scholars and students of Russian literature, culture, and religion, and to specialists on the Enlightenment.
Marcus C. Levitt is Professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Southern California and the author of Russian Literary Politics and the Pushkin Celebration of 1880.
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