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Culture and Research of Memory

On November 21-22, HSE International Laboratory for the Study of Russian and European Intellectual Dialogue organized an international conference Memory As a Historical and Cultural Phenomenon: Russia and the West, XX-XXI Centuries’. HSE News Service has talked with one of the conference speakers, Richard Tempest, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, about his vision of historical memory and his research of Solzhenitsyn.

Multiple Pasts

As Richard Tempest stresses, memory studies is a fairly new discipline that draws on the methodologies and expertise of a variety of established fields such as psychology, anthropology, political science, and literary studies to examine collective and individual, historical and cultural recollection, and the past or pasts it engenders.

‘Memory studies recognizes that there are multiple pasts that coexist or intersect with, or confirm and deny, each other. Instead of posing the question, “what do we know about the past?” it asks, how do we remember?

The United States and Russia both offer examples of multiple pasts, e.g., the story of African Americans and their place in the American story, or the events of the Soviet period, especially during the period 1917-53, which are covered by competing, mutually exclusive historical and national narratives

To paraphrase the beginning of L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country,” the past is many foreign countries, which speak different languages and sometimes misunderstand and sometimes ignore and sometimes go to war with one another.”

Powerful Appeal of History

When asked his scientific approach, Richard explains that ‘to a considerable degree, his scholarly work has been shaped by the approaches and practices of memory studies.’

‘I have written extensively on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as a literary artist and a historiographer of Russia’s past. I also study the history of charismatic politics since 1789, i.e., the period of the French Revolution, when charismatic leaders in the modern sense first appeared. I am inclined to adopt a textological, culturological, and historical approach when examining the manner in which the past is authored by writers like Solzhenitsyn, or branded and demarcated by political figures such as Charles De Gaulle or Vladimir Putin.’

The paper Richard Tempest presented at the conference looked at the debate about Russia’s past that was begun by Pyotr Chaadaev, who in his Philosophical Letter denied that Russia actually had a past, other than a narrowly — or broadly — geographical one, and Alexander Pushkin, who responded to the Letter by positing a Russian history that possessed patriotic meaning as well as high narrative value.

‘I then examine how Solzhenitsyn reconstructs the recent — Soviet — past, mostly by looking at his novel The First Circle, and how he narrates the events of a much more remote historical period in his story ‘Zakhar the Pouch’.’

I contend that as a writer, Solzhenitsyn was anxious to fill the lacunae and discontinuities in the nation's memory with densely structured and intricately designed literary texts

Researching Solzhenitsyn

Talking about perception Solzhenitsyn’s understanding and perception by younger generations  across the globe today, Professor Tempest comments that as a teacher and scholar, he tries to show that Solzhenitsyn was a wonderfully accomplished teller of tales, a passionate and ethically informed patriot, but also a purveyor of pleasure for all those who love a good story.

‘Still, my students are a captive audience, and not necessarily representative of their peers on or off campus. I will say, however, that in my travels across the United States and Eastern and Western Europe, I have been thrilled to come across young men and women from different walks of life, and of different political beliefs, who admire Solzhenitsyn’s novels and stories and historical works.

Solzhenitsyn appeals to young people outside Russia — people who don’t have any specific connection to your country— by showing how self-sovereign, autonomous individuals insist on making their own way in life and forming their own decisions, even under extreme conditions

Oleg Kostoglotov in Cancer Ward, a war veteran and former political prisoner, insists on owning himself against the all-embracing claims of political, medical, and even erotic authority. This kind of existential stance can have a powerful appeal for teenagers and people in their twenties.

Richard Tempest has just completed Overwriting Chaos: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Fictive Worlds, a 700-page examination of the writer’s novels and stories, which will be published next month by Academic Studies Press of Boston. This is the first study, in English or any language, of Solzhenitsyn’s entire corpus of prose. 

Overwriting Chaos investigates Solzhenitsyn’s cosmologies, architectonics, stylistics, and genre poetics and explores his dialogic connection to other writers, Russian and foreign, classical and modern.

‘I argue that his vast literary output represents a monumental attempt to reverse the Modernists’ reconfiguration of the text and its epistemological function in favor of the healing and redemptive function of imaginative literature. I look at Solzhenitsyn’s ethics of artistic creativity in the twentieth-century terror state; his pursuit of fictive consilience, i.e., the melding of the literary and the scientific in both a thematic and an expressive sense; his practice of encoding into his texts scenes and passages from earlier authors, e.g., Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, as a parodic, pastichistic, or exegetic device; his self-description as a polyphonic writer; his surprising predilection for literary puzzles and games à la Nabokov or even Borges; and his dismantling of the significant myths of Lenin, Stalin, and the Russian revolution by means of satire and counter-semiosis.

In doing so, I acknowledge that this is a severely autobiographical writer who populates his worlds with direct self-representations and authorial emanations that coexist and interact with the invented characters.’