Mikhail Epstein

Faith and Image:

The Religious Unconscious in 20th Century Russian Culture (in Russian)

Tenafly (New Jersy):Hermitage Publishers, 1994, 270 pp.


In Freudian psychoanalysis, religion is attributed to the Super-Ego rather than to the unconscious, upon which it is said to act as a force of repression. In the Soviet Union, however, this relationship was reversed since the primordial aggressiveness of the Id emerged as the explicit ideology of class struggle and violence, whereas religiosity was repressed and driven into the unconscious. The book treats this phenomenon of unconscious religiosity as it is revealed in the philosophy, literature and art of the Soviet epoch.

In the INTRODUCTION, the phenomenon of Soviet mass atheism, unique in human history, is derived from the long-standing traditions of Orthodox apophatic (or negative) theology. Apophatism denies the possibility of knowing and describing God in human terms, even going so far as to strip Him of the attribute of existence, thus leading directly to an atheistic worldview. The author compares the Russian-Soviet tradition of apophatism-atheism with Eastern non-theistic religions, such as Buddhism, and with the Western processes of secularization. With the 20th century, following the "death of God", a new sensibility emerges both in the West and in Russia, combining conscious agnosticism or atheism with an unconscious religious predisposition. The concept of "theomorphism" is suggested to designate a new, intensified human relationship with non-transcendent things that substitutes for traditional religious faith. The author's conception is correlated with Karl Barth's dialectical theology and Berdiaev's theory of the "New Middle Ages." The title's terms, "faith" and "image", are taken in a broad sense, which accomodates even their negation. Paradoxically, the gesture of negation always relies upon--and therefore preserves--the meaning of what is negated. In this sense, the nihilistic impetus of the 20th century does not bring about the complete abolition of religious faith or the abandonment of the artistic image but rather their repression, a transposition from the conscious to the unconscious. In the Russian artistic tradition, only Gogol and Malevich have been treated in the context of religious apophatism, and the author attempts to expand this methodological approach to the later stages of Soviet culture.

The book has three sections. Section I is addressed to recent movements in Russian art and literature, such as conceptualism and metarealism, which emerged in the 1970's and 80's. The second section is devoted to several authors whose unconscious religious sensibilities can be identified through an "apophatic analysis" of their artistic subtexts. Section III is concerned with general theoretical and philosophical issues relating to the phenomenon of Soviet atheism and its connection with theocratic systems.


Chapter 1, "The Avant-garde and Religion", explicates religious subtexts of Russian avant-gardism, which denies the very categories of "artistic", "aesthetic", and "beautiful". The author traces the remarkable parallels between the behavior of an avant-gardist artist and the "holy fool" (iurodivy), a figure exemplifying the apophatic aspect of Russian religious tradition. The "cynical" renunciation of art becomes a kind of iconoclasm in pursuit of the revelation of a truer God which cannot be identified with His visual image. The avant-garde, with its hatred of image, echoes the second commandment forbidding any depiction of God, and also recapitulates the vision of Apostle Paul, "the image of this world is passing."

A new version of trans-avantgardism, Russian conceptualism, is extensively analyzed for its apophatic impulse, which far exceeds that of pure avant-garde movements of the 1910's and 20's. Contrary to earlier avant-gardism, with its devices of "estrangement" and "deautomatization", conceptualism develops the technique of "automatization", which intends to strip away the objectified layers of our perception by revealing stereotyped verbal structures. Also, conceptualism refuses the avant-gardist gesture of utopianism, offering not positive alternatives to cultural stereotypes but instead revealing the ultimate emptiness and silence beneath every kind of automatized discourse.

The author regards avant-gardism and conceptualism as the latest modifications of the Russian historical tradition that maintained the priority of ideas and projects over existing realities. Conceptualism is also analyzed as a mode of Russian religious sensibility that combines Eastern "negativism" (the world as illusion) and Western "positivism" (the world as sacred) by constructing positive forms of civilization which ultimately prove to be spectral and illusionary. Conceptualism plays self-consciously with this paradox by revealing the nominalism of ideological constructions which claim to be realistic.

Chapter 2, "As a Corpse I Lay in the Desert...", treats the motif of death in various movements of contemporary Russian poetry, usually accused of being inhuman. The author argues that dehumanization does not necessarily mean anti-humanism; instead, it may be an expression of new religious sensibility, since the death of man may signify the first stage of his resurrection as "the prophet"--the theme of Pushkin's poem of the same name.

Chapter 3, "After the Future: The Emergence of the Arriere-garde", describes a new situation in Russian literature after the collapse of communism. The author explores the history of Russian literature as a cyclical process marked by the recurrence of four successive phases: social, moral, religious, and aesthetic. The evolution of Soviet literature is regarded as one of these cycles, now approaching its fourth, aesthetical phase, where literature becomes narcissistically self-reflexive. The term "arriere-garde" is offered to signify the culmination of the aesthetic impulse, where literature presents only its hollow forms and dispersed meanings. Structurally, this kind of "decentralized literature" is oriented toward entropy and emotionally toward boredom. It advances a nihilism so complete that it gives little significance even to the act of negation, instead tending toward dissolution. This chapter also considers parallels between the paradigm of "post-future" in Russian culture and what is called postmodernism in the West.


Chapter 4, "Tsaddik and Talmudist: A Comparative Essay on Pasternak and Mandelshtam". Though these two great Russian poets of the 20th century never considered themselves to be representatives of Jewish spirituality, the author argues that a religious orientation is revealed in the unconscious subtexts of their imagery. Pasternak's poetry may be understood as a manifestation of a Hasidic sensibility, with its emphasis on the transitional and miraculous, and its vision of the divine chaos of the universe, where spirituality flashes like sparks from the most ordinary things. In Mandelshtam, whose work reflects a Talmudic mentality, the divine is evoked in terms of the weightiness and severity of the Law, and, significantly, the poet identifies himself as a pupil studying the textbook of the Universe.

Chapter 5, "Emptiness as a Device: Word and Image in Ilya Kabakov's Works", examines the relationship between verbal and visual components in the work of Russia's leading contemporary conceptual artist. Kabakov (born 1933) reinstates traditional modes of folk art, which often combine word and image, doing so on a new self-reflexive level that demonstrates the ironic absence of correspondence between these two components. Thus the empty background becomes more important than the visible, positive foreground. Gnostic and Judaic religious concepts are (unconsciously) ubiquitous in Kabakov's treatment of the relationship between sign and signified.

Chapter 6, "After the Carnival, or Eternal Venichka", is devoted to moral and religious subtexts in Venedikt Erofeev (1938-1990), the author of the famous tale, Moscow-Petushki, and some other narrative and dramatic pieces. This chapter emphasizes the image of Erofeev himself as presented in the memoirs of his family and friends. Contrary to the conventional approach, the author argues that the Bakhtinian theory of the carnivalesque is not appropriate to the analysis of Erofeev, since he moves beyond such transgressive models by breaking into what may be called "new sentimentality". The prevailing mood of Erofeev's life and the wellspring of his creativity is the post-carnival "hangover", a state of emotional entropy and melancholic sobriety which inevitably follows the excesses of utopian intoxication.


Chapter 7, "The Oedipus Complex of Soviet Civilization", treats materialism as a mythological system based on the abolition of God the Father in favor of direct intercourse between man and Mother Nature. The entirety of Soviet civilization, with its militant atheism and materialism, is interpreted as a collectivist manifestation of incestuous drives coming from the depths of the collective unconscious. Gorky's novel Mother and Lenin's treatise Materialism and Empiriocriticism, as well as the language of obscenity and the ritualistic connotations of the Moscow subway are analyzed as diverse manifestations of this incestuous disposition.

Chapter 8, "The Rose of the World and the Kingdom of the Anti-Christ: On the Paradoxes of Russian Eschatology", is devoted to an outstanding Russian religious thinker, Daniil Andreev (1906-59). His main treatise, The Rose of the World, develops a theocratic conception of future humanity organized around an interdenominational church, which integrates and reconciles the elements of all religious traditions and administrates an all-human State. Though on a conscious level Andreev enthusiastically strives for the implementation of this religious utopia, one can trace unconscious parallels between his putatively polar depictions of the ideal kingdom of God and the kingdom of the Antichrist. Andreev's views are examined in the context of works belonging to Russian eschatological and (anti)utopian traditions, such as Dostoevsky's, The Brothers Karamozov (especially "The Legend of the Great Inquisitor"), Chernyshevsky's novel, What is to Be Done?, and Vladimir Soloviev's, "A Short Tale of Antichrist".

Specifically, the author argues that eschatological visions contain an intrinsic paradox. Any ultimate harmony attained on this earth by man will inevitably turn out to be a false harmony serving the Antichrist--thus unexpectedly ushering in the very catastrophe that paves the way for the true harmony of "new earth and heaven". Therefore, any conscious project for a ideal future (as "The Rose of the World" claims to be), contains subtexts hinting at its demonic nature. Andreev was so adverse to the atheistic Soviet utopianism of his epoch that he proposed a theocracy as the best alternative, failing to see that the pretension to substitute the rule of a holy hierarchy and a supreme priest for the direct rule of God is even more dangerous than an open struggle against God. As Dostoevsky's and Soloviev's works demonstrate, there are hidden and often unconscious links between atheism and theocracy, though on the surface these ideologies are absolutely opposite. Ivan Karamazov's atheism is the psychological impetus for his theocratic project: if God does not exist, then somebody must assume His role and rule on His behalf. Now that the epoch of overt atheism has come to the end in Russia, a threat exists that a sublimated atheism may evolve into a theocratic movement, one for which Andreev's teachings might become a source of inspiration.


In closing, the author discusses the post-Soviet prospectives for the psychoanalytic interpretation of Russian culture arising with the proliferation of new religious freedoms. What had been relegated to the unconscious will now be reappropriated by the conscious, but hopefully art and literature will not become instruments of a new dogmatism, this time a religious one (fundamentalist, theocratic). To the same degree that religious faith cannot be rendered through image, the artistic image must not be forced to conform to faith. The author considers apophatic meditation as a time-tested method for harmonizing the relationship between the conscious and unconscious. While psychoanalysis merely rationalizes the contents of the unconscious, apophatism transforms knowledge into ignorance in order to expand the field of consciousness. Thus aphophatic meditation is a technique of "psychosynthesis", by which the conscious and unconscious are integrated into a "superconscious". Artistic creation is also a process by which the conscious vision of the artist shapes the imaginative power of the unconscious without attempting to rationalize it. Thus apophatism, in approaching both faith and image, avoids the opposition of conscious and unconscious by striving for a creative synthesis, which accounts for the affinities between religion and art discussed throughout the book.

$18.00. Direct orders to Hermitage Publishers, P.O.Box 410. Tenafly, N.J. 07670, USA.
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