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Distinguished Lecture - Sergey Zenkin, "Revolutionary Event and Literary Discourse"

Event Type
REEEC; CEERES at University of Chicago; Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory
126 School of Information Sciences (501 E. Daniel St., Champaign)
Apr 10, 2017   4:00 pm  
Sergey Zenkin (Professor, Russian State University for the Humanities)
Free and open to the public.
Originating Calendar
Russian, E. European & Eurasian Center: Speakers

Revolution is a “good example”, an incontestable specimen of an event. Paradoxically, it can be experienced “from inside”, not as a radical transformation of the world but as a moment removed from the time of projects, fears and expectations. It is a great moment when nothing happens. Maurice Blanchot’s reflections in his long article “Literature and the Right to Death” should be reexamined from this point of view: revolution is a “fabulous instant” of absolute freedom, when “history is emptied” and “nobody has to do anything more because all has already been done”. Blanchot compares such an experience of a revolutionary event, which in essence abolishes any ordinary idea of eventness, to the experience of literary creation, expelling the writer into a space of unsolvable contradictions, where acts have no common measure with their meaning.


The meaning of a revolutionary event, as well as that of a literary text, is constituted afterwards by posterity’s hermeneutic work. That work takes place not only as a mental activity but also as properly social action, a mimetic repetition of the exemplary event. We know how revolutions imitate one another (sometimes in a parodic mode, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”); we also know how literary texts sometimes invite not only a literary or critical interpretation but also an interpretation by action, i.e. imitating their characters in real life. The mimetic memory may concentrate in specific mythical events, “the acts of deliverance” according to Paul Ricœur’s expression: for instance, the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt or the Passion of the Christ. What those religious events signify in traditional cultures, revolutions represent for modern cultures; they are exemplary deeds that deserve to be memorialized. And, given their similarity with literary experience, their mimetic reproduction takes a paradoxical form: an imitation of emptiness.


A comparison of revolutionary and literary experience, resulting from the writings of two French philosophers, Blanchot and Ricœur, provides an opportunity to reconsider the problems of narrative knowledge and literary work, the relationship between action and meaning, diegesis and mimesis. A theoretical reflection on the structure of fictional narratives can elucidate the structure of socio-political historical events and their survival in cultural memory.

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