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Models of Personal Conversion in Russian cultural history of the 19th and 20th centuries

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Edited By Jens Herlth and Christian Zehnder

This volume offers a view of modern Russian intellectual culture as shaped by the dynamic of conversions. The individual contributions examine a rich variety of personal conversions occurring in a culture in which the written word enjoyed a privileged status and, historically, was closely linked to the sacred. However, the essays presented go beyond the original meaning of conversion as a change of religious beliefs. They address shifts in style, aesthetic outlooks, and mindsets, political and ideological transfigurations as well as religious conversions in the true sense of the term.
Whether at the level of culture, society or biography, the study of conversions opens the way to profound reflections about questions of identity, cultural ruptures, and continuity. The awareness of former conversions and the possible «convertibility» of one’s own ideological, spiritual or social stance has been among the central traits of Russian intellectual culture during the last two centuries.
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Conversion as Attitude in Pasternak

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Never have I been as glad, as in the past year, that the world is set up as it is … This should not be called a discovery because something like this has already happened in my life three or four times. But clearly we need to remind ourselves of these states of illumination. And so now, when I saw that the painful burden of maturity anew turns the world on its axis, exactly as in some passing moment of childhood, of first love and first poetic objectivity, I understood how greedy life is for our fundamental sudden crises, and that it regards our changes as so many festive occurrences, however much we ourselves may have lamented one or the other of these transformations.1

Introduction: “Literary” Conversion?

When dealing with the phenomenon of religious conversions in the modern age, Charles Taylor (2007: 732) asks why there have been so many writers and artists among the converts during the nineteenth and especially the twentieth century. An important part of his answer goes as follows. Due to their particular sensitivity to form, artists are predestined to grasp ← 167 | 168 → the need for a renewal of language whenever it has become conventionalized, neutral, mortified, in order to create a “subtler language”. In other words, writers, or poets, in virtue of their calling as artists, would be able to avoid what St John calls the “lukewarm” (Revelation 3: 16). By making out of a mechanized language a “performative event...

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