The Irony of the Ideal
Paradoxes of Russian Literature
Academic Studies Press 2018
In The Irony of the Ideal: Paradoxes of Russian Literature (Academic Studies Press, 2018), Mikhail Epstein offers strategies on how to engage with texts in the current continuum. Based on the subversion of linearity as a principle component of chronological construction of literary phenomena, Epstein’s new book emphasizes the idea of text as a node or cluster that includes and incorporates multiple elements which intersect and collaborate, producing a diversity of cultural/literary echoes. To proceed with these lines, Mikhail Epstein re-visits Russian literature from the perspectives of paradoxes that arise when multiple views and points are considered. Starting with the exploration of Pushkin’s works, this book, at first glance, may give the impression that the author undertakes a chronological approach. However, Pushkin is situated alongside Goethe: Epstein does not simply offer comparative explorations; he seeks to outline matrixes that contribute to the illumination of paradoxes that shape the development of Russian literature. It should be noted that this conversation is not limited to the study of one national literature: Epstein’s idea of texts/literatures as megatexts that embrace a multiplicity of texts that we conventionally connect with certain historical periods or cultural contexts is productive for revisiting literary history on a larger scale. In this interview, Mikhail Epstein notes that The Irony of the Ideal is executed in a rather traditional way. While it may be true—the approach to texts offered in this research, however, may indicate otherwise—this traditional way functions in an innovative manner, producing further proliferations of the familiar.
The Irony of the Ideal consists of six parts, each exploring a different angle of Russian literary paradoxes: the titanic and the demonic, the great and the humble, the word and silence, madness and reason, etc. In addition to identifying paradoxes that shape Russian literature, Mikhail Epstein also attempts to illustrate their continuity and flexibility. Thus, for example, readers are offered to examine famous Russian characters, which can be summarized as meek—of course at first glance—in the continuum of literary and cultural echoing. The Irony of the Ideal asks us to subvert some literary expectations in order to explore versatile layers of both texts and reading. Another intriguing point is the combination of word and silence that also contributes to the creation of controversies that Russian literature appears to indulge in and to be involved into: language produces not only sound environment, so to speak, but silences as well. In a subtle way, Epstein guides his readers through the labyrinths that language—and texts as well—generates.
In the final chapter, “Madness and Reason,” Mikhail Epstein includes the periodic table of Russian literature (cycles and phases of development), providing brief summaries for each cycle. However, the final stage of the table, Cycle 4 “The new sociality. Metapolitics: play with the signs of various political systems, political-literary-theatrical hybrids,” is marked with blank sections. This silence, as Mikhail Epstein mentions in the interview, is an invitation to further develop current cultural developments and to maintain current dialogues concerning the nature of literature, language, text. It is an invitation extended to readers to indulge in the multiplicities of texts which are perceived as ever-evolving entities. This understanding of texts invites a reader who looks forward to exploring textual tapestries surpassing the boundaries of time and space.
Mikhail Epstein is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Cultural Theory and Russian Literature at Emory University, USA. He authored more than 30 books and more than 700 essays and articles, and his works have been translated into 23 languages.