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Visionary Mimesis: Imitation and Transformation in the German Enlightenment and Russian Realism


The dissertation examines the intersection and conflict of two aesthetic imperatives, one mimetic and the other didactic, in the literary culture of early eighteenth-century Germany and mid-nineteenth-century Russia. Describing a structure that I call "visionary mimesis" or "progressive realism," I show how texts struggle to bridge the gap between imitation and transformation, the present and the future, or what is and what ought to be. I present this underlying contradiction as a defining dynamic of both Enlightenment and Realist literature.

First I analyze J. C. Gottsched's Critical Poetics (1729), showing how the text deploys multiple shifting understandings of literary mimesis in order to reconcile the "imitation of nature" with the demand for morally instructive portrayals. Then I examine how this conflict is worked out in a fictional text, C. M. Wieland's novel The History of Agathon (1766-67). After tracing Wieland's turn toward a more "earthly" aesthetic in his earliest writings, I demonstrate that his novel pushes apart the very antinomies that it ostensibly seeks to combine. I then examine how the contradictions of "visionary mimesis" are reworked in the cultural context of the "1860s" in Russia. I describe the strained yet wonderfully ingenious interpretations put forth by the radical realist critic N. A. Dobroliubov in his desperate attempt to find the revolutionary hero within Russian reality. I then examine how F. M. Dostoevsky pursues a religious version of the radical project. After turning to his correspondence and his Diary of a Writer for background, I show how The Brothers Karamazov (1879-80) creates a path from ordinary experience to spiritual transcendence.

The comparative angle of the dissertation places nineteenth-century Russian literature in a broader European context. Texts of this period are often viewed as precursors of twentieth-century socialist realism; I argue that they continue an Enlightenment project and, with the German texts, belong to the larger literary configuration of "visionary mimesis." An awareness of this configuration helps explain the complexity and instability of "progressive realist" texts. Because these texts often fail to span the contradictions of imitation and transformation, they mirror the perennial cultural gap between our objective perceptions and our subjective visions.

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