Theses Doctoral

Flesh Made Word: Inscription and the Embodied Self in Mandel'shtam and Nabokov

Nieubuurt, Brendan James

“Flesh Made Word” examines two seemingly incongruous Russian modernist writers to illuminate one remarkable species of aesthetic response to the violent pressures of Marxist ideology, especially as those pressures are manifest as sociolinguistic phenomena and practice. The unexpected pairing of Osip Mandel’shtam and Vladimir Nabokov is motivated by their shared debt to Henri Bergson’s materialist theories of embodied selfhood and subjectivity, language, and the metaphysics of art. Poetry, both writers insist, as it operates according to a non-linear logic of ever-open and expanding associations of sound and image, offers the only authentic grammar for a multifarious self that knows not the constructions of time, causality, and finality. This mode of self-expression, at once intimate and cryptic, clashes with the Marxist state’s effort to make the subject uniform and transparent—to “sentence” him to his prescribed collective identity in the bondage of speech, prose, and narrative, whose didactic agenda and linear momentum are encrypted with Marxism’s world-historical teleology. Mandel’shtam’s and Nabokov’s own texts, the study argues, operate primarily by poetic principles, and their literary practice in turn creatively anticipates theories of Bergson’s postmodernist heirs (Foucault, Barthes, Derrida), particularly as they draw bold political implications from Bergson’s theories to analyze the relationship of language, writing, and power. Barthes, for instance, claims that the “poetic” text—composed of a personal image-system, not a “structure of signifieds”—places the artist “outside the pact that binds the writer to society.”
In exploring this conflict between manners of expression, the study offers innovative, cohesive readings of the writers’ most enigmatic and elusive works of poetic prose—Mandel’shtam’s The Egyptian Stamp and Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading. More specifically, it examines the ways the conflict is manifest on the bodies of the narrator-protagonists. These figures are effectively twice composed: once by the mortifying narration of the State, again as they are the subjects of their own revitalizing self-writing. The texts that the protagonists produce of themselves are figured as their very flesh transubstantiated, and as nothing other than the poetic works that we are reading. These metaphysical dimensions of the fiction make forceful statements about the power of the artistic act, and especially its potential to reclaim and restore the self in a gesture of political defiance.
By establishing a distinct set of images, themes, and techniques shared by the authors, along with a conceptual framework in which to discuss them, this dissertation responds to a scholarly need, until now not substantively articulated, to place Mandel’shtam’s and Nabokov’s creative projects into dialogue. As much as it invites a parallel gaze, however, the study equally contributes daring new chapters to each author’s existing body of scholarship and opens fields of inquiry that demand continued critical attention.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Slavic Languages
Thesis Advisors
Izmirlieva, Valentina
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 21, 2018