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Persisting in Folly

Russian Writers in Search of Wisdom, 1963–2013


Oliver Ready

The theme of foolishness has long occupied an unusually prominent place in Russian culture, touching on key questions of national, spiritual, and intellectual identity. In literature, the figure of the fool – and the voice of the fool – has carried additional appeal as an enduring source of comic and stylistic innovation. Never has this appeal been stronger than in the past half-century, whether as a reaction to the «scientific atheism» and official culture of the late-socialist era, or as a response to the intellectual and moral disorientation that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Persisting in Folly traces three contrasting phases within this period: the «praise of folly» that underpins acknowledged samizdat masterpieces by Venedikt Erofeev, Yuz Aleshkovsky, and Sasha Sokolov; the sceptical appraisals of the Russian cult of the fool offered in the 1980s by Viktor Erofeev and Dmitry Galkovsky; and the legacy of this conflicted tradition in post-Soviet prose. By combining close readings with a rich comparative and contextual framework, this book charts a new path through recent Russian literature and offers a wide-ranging consideration of the causes and consequences of Russian writers’ enduring quest for wisdom through folly.

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Chapter 8: The Fool and his Father, and Sometimes her Mother: Intellectual disability and holy foolishness (Buida, Vasilenko and others)


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The Fool and his Father, and Sometimes her Mother: Intellectual disability and holy foolishness (Buida, Vasilenko and others)

The motifs of idiocy and brain damage noted in the fiction of Makanin and Sharov are signs of a full-fledged tendency in recent Russian writing in which intellectual disability has come strikingly to the fore. In place of self-absorbed narrators who identify themselves as fools, we find engagement with the mentally impaired. Nor is this ‘other’ typically a double, or shadow, as in Makanin’s Underground; from the paradigm of twins and brothers, we shift to the relationship between father and son, mother and daughter. Indeed, the demands made by the impaired child become the context in which the crisis of parenthood can be addressed. A space is opened up for a relationship of responsibility on the one hand and of mutual influence on the other, underpinned by a potent sense of mystery – what is happening in the mind of a child who is mute and brain-damaged? Such a child (and it is almost always a child) is thus invoked to confront the underlying cultural crisis of meaning and values. If ideologies and intellectual constructions have collapsed, if reason – in its Russian/Soviet guise – has been compromised and words have lost their force, the ‘defective’ child can signal a new beginning, and even a source of healing.

These developments can be roughly organized around two chronotopes: province and metropolis. In fiction set in...

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