Introduction to Mikhail Epstein

Mary Cappello, Professor of English, University of Rhode Island (Providence).



(on occasion of  Mikhail Epstein's lecture "From Post- to Proto- : on the Future of the Humanities," March 27, 2003)


My introduction to the work of distinguished writer and theorist, Mikhail Epstein, came in the form of a candy wrapper. In October of 2001, I had been attempting to introduce poetry students at the Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow to the relation between sculpture and poetic form through the examples of  American collagist, Joseph Cornell, and, the poet, Emily Dickinson. It had been said, that words were to her like things, while things were to him like words. Cornell, known for his spare rearticulations of cultural debris, for the oneiric playhouses that were his assemblages, and the tabernacles that became his famous boxes, found a kinship in Dickinson’s minimalism. He was especially thrilled to have found that  Dickinson resignified scraps much in the way he did, when for example he learned that she had often composed her poems on whatever materials were at hand, including the backs of candy wrappers. The back of one wrapper contained this spare lexical display: “necessitates celerity were better nay were im memorial may to duller [by?] or duller things.” Cornell went on to make a series of Chocolat Menier boxes following from Dickinson’s inscription.


It was a supremely happy accident then, to be reading concurrent with the pedagogical challenge that was before me, an essay by Mikhail Epstein that had appeared in an anthology of Russian theorists of visual culture, an essay entitled, “Things and Words: Toward a Lyrical Museum.” In this captivating essay, Epstein had written: “…besides the monetary, historical or artistic value bestowed on a few selected Things, every thing, no matter how insignificant, can possess a private or lyrical value…The purpose of [the lyrical] museum is to expose the endlessly diverse and profound significance of things in human life, their rich figurative and conceptual meaning which is not at all reducible to their utilitarian function.” “There is not a Thing,” he went on, “from a car to a button from a book to a candy wrapper, that does not occupy a special place in culture and bring culture within human reach.” What French theorist Roland Barthes had done with photography, Mikhail Epstein did with Things: “The Thing possesses a distinct essence that expands precisely at the time when its technical novelty, retail value, and aesthetic attraction diminish.” Epstein’s essay ended with an extended meditation on a candy wrapper “with the sonorous name “Bylina” (epic) that got lost on [his] desk by chance among the much more wordy and significant books and papers intended to be read.” I won’t try to do justice to the dense and magnificent reading of the candy wrapper that ensues, but share with you its closing lines: “This candy wrapper is not such a small thing after all: in it the most abstract dream and the most tangible reality come into contact with each other, nature instills itself into culture and teaches us how to cultivate the beautiful on the tips of our tongues.”




It was exciting to me, not just to find resonance with ideas that stirred me in this essay, but to have found a work by a contemporary Russian writer that would offer an exposition to my students of the very principles that motivated some portion of the work of American artists Cornell and Dickinson.


This was just the beginning of a kindling, the very spark of an idea, that brought me into contact with the work of Mikhail Esptein. Another essay of his, on a vastly different subject, and rendered in an entirely different idiom, helped me and my students to understand the differences and continuities between major developments in Russian poetry of the 20th century from symbolism and acmeism to futurism, metarealism, presentism, and conceptualism.


It was only quite gradually and much later that I became aware of Mikhail Epstein’s stature and the breathtaking range of his work: I had merely experienced the wafting of a fragrance of flowers, when there was a trunk and entire orchard of ideas to be had.


Epstein’s first major study, Paradoxes of Innovation: On Literary Developments of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries appeared in Moscow in 1988. This book, in which he presents some of his ideas on culturology, a Soviet approach to cultural studies, became a phenomenal success, selling out nineteen thousand only in two weeks. It established Epstein as one of the most important intellectual figures in the on-going process of cultural renewal in the Soviet Union. Known for his work on Russian postmodernism and totalitarian language, for his startling religious and philosophical writings, and for his extensive Internet projects, Epstein was the founder, in the 1980s in the USSR, of groups such as the Essayists Club, Image and Thought, and the Laboratory of Contemporary Culture, in which artists and intellectuals attempted to cross political, intellectual, and cultural borders—those set, for example, by the language of totalitarianism. Eventually persecuted both for this work and for his Jewishness, Epstein left Russia for the US  in 1991, and he is currently the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Cultural Theory and Russian Literature at Emory University.  Epstein is the author of 15 books and hundreds of essays that range freely over historical, linguistic, literary, political and religious ground.


Some of Epstein’s most recent projects include an exhibit of tactile art in St. Petersburg, and his on-going coinages project, entitled “lexicopoeia,” whose aim in part is to search for blank spaces and semantic voids in the lexical-conceptual systems of languages in order to fill them with new words designating would-be phenomena and made-up ideas for which no semantic markers currently exist. Like so much of Epstein’s work there is an uncommon jouissance to be found here, even, I would venture, a polymorphous perversity.


By way of closing, allow me to invoke the spirit of William Blake who wrote, “what is now real was once only imagined.” Our nation, as we know, has been able first to imagine then realize fear, first imagine then realize violent incursion, first imagine then realize inimitable dominance. I, for one, prefer what the work of Mikhail Esptein would ask us to imagine: returning to the Lyrical Museum: Epstein offers “an image of an endlessly wide and voluminous world, where a single common entrance does not exist but there is a multitude of doors, and where nobody meets all at once but everyone meets everyone.”