NABOKV-L post 0009017, Thu, 11 Dec 2003 12:53:08 -0800

Fw: dueling in the solntse with text
dueling in the solntse with text
----- Original Message -----
From: Carolyn Kunin
To: Vladimir Nabokov Forum
Sent: Thursday, December 11, 2003 12:19 PM
Subject: dueling in the solntse with text

Sorry -- I seem to have included the wrong file. Here is the book review. There is also an excellent article on dueling in the Encyclopedia Britannica, though restricted to western Europe.

Ritualized Violence Russian Style: The Duel in Russian Culture and Literature.(Review)

Historian, Summer, 2001, by Peter C. Pozefsky

Ritualized Violence Russian Style: The Duel in Russian Culture and Literature. By Irina Reyfman. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999. Pp. xi, 364. $49.50.)

Dueling did not take hold in Russia in the late seventeenth century, its heyday in Western Europe, in part because of its foreign origins and also because the practice required a strong communal identity within the elite. Noblemen would not fight individuals they did not recognize as equals in honor. Meanwhile, Russian traditions of court favorites and Peter the Great's Table of Ranks created rigid hierarchies within the nobility that obstructed the development of a corporate identity and, consequently, of a native dueling tradition.

The rise of dueling in Russia came later and, for Irina Reyfman, parallels the evolution of its elite into a modern nobility with a strong collective identity and a Western cultural orientation. Peter the Great unintentionally established the moral foundation for dueling in Russia. Believing that honor was essential to public service, he attempted to instill the notion in the nobility. Peter did not foresee that a sense of honor would eventually lead many nobles to resent an autocracy that regulated their social relations and often imposed corporal punishment. The duel was an expression of the nobility's aspiration to act independently. Nonetheless, the duel as an alternative to both the brawl and the trial as a means of defending one's honor and resolving personal conflicts found its proponents only in the late eighteenth century as Catherine II westernized the nobility and strengthened its sense of communal solidarity. Dueling became fashionable still later, in the early nineteenth century, among officers associated with the radical Decembrist movement. They found in dueling a means for protesting the blows from the powerful that remained a regular feature of a Russian nobleman's life and a source of considerable shame.

The duel also played an important symbolic role in Russian culture. Several generations of writers employed the image of the duel to raise questions about human dignity, political oppression, and class identity. Reyfman focuses on the playwright, Alexander Bestuzhev-Marlinsky, and the novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Bestuzhev-Marlinsky, in his works of the 1820s, was the first Russian writer to make dueling a central theme. His descriptions of duels exerted a profound influence on writers such as Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Turgenev. The public looked to these same descriptions as a guide to dueling etiquette. A Decembrist literary celebrity and military hero, Bestuzhev-Marlinsky was himself a notorious duelist. While he often idealized the duel, he also highlighted its shortcomings. The duel could defend personal space and honor gloriously, but it could also rob participants of their freedom, compelling them to submit to grisly rituals over a trifle.

Dostoyevsky's protagonists never actually fight duels. Nonetheless, several enter them only to withdraw, either from cowardice, ignorance of procedure, or moral courage. While Dostoyevsky deplored violence, he acknowledged the duel's role in defending human dignity in a society that seldom respected it.. Reyfman believes that this pervasive disregard for human dignity accounts for the prominent place of dueling in Russian culture and its persistence into the twentieth century, when it had already lost much of its significance in the West.

Reyfman emphasizes the nineteenth century, but she pursues her subject through the twentieth century. Her interdisciplinary study is theoretically informed by cultural anthropology, literary theory, and historical sociology; yet her prose is clear and jargon-free. Her interpretations of Bestuzhev-Marlinsky, Dostoyevsky, and other writers are complex, graceful, and innovative. While her historical chapters are somewhat schematic, they are also informative and provocative. She has much to say to readers interested in dueling, Russian novels, Russian social life, ritual violence, and the complex relations between literature and life.

Peter C. Pozefsky
The College of Wooster

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