Glass Consciousness: A History of Glass in Eighteenth-Century Russian Culture

Julia Bekman, Harvard University

Glass plays a part in culture that is often overlooked, perhaps because of its transparent nature: we look right though it. In its various forms, glass participates in all aspects of social life, from the grandest ceremony to the commonest byt. Glass is a creation of culture whose basic substance is shaped into infinite forms to suit the idiom of that culture. In this way, it is like language. Glass is as much a means as an end: it has the potential to magnify, reflect, embody, or distort the world. In that way, it is like literary language.

My paper maps out the uncharted terrain between textual analysis and material culture studies in its exploration of eighteenth-century Russian culture. While my focus is on the material of glass and its varied manifestations in fact and in fiction, my concern throughout is with the development of literature, for which the substance of glass serves as the foundational metaphor.

Russia in the eighteenth century provides many examples of texts embedded in glass. In museum collections we find glass vessels of all kinds with texts carved into or painted onto the surface. Conversely, glass is embedded in many eighteenth-century texts that cover a wide spectrum of genres and approaches. My paper examines five literary works -- Lukin's Shchepetil'nik, Narezhnyj's Rossijskij Zhil'blaz, Lomonosov's "Pis'mo o pol'ze stekla", the Memoirs of Princess Natal'ja Dolgorukaja, and Kapnist's Jabeda -- each of which incorporates one of five types of glass: optical lenses, decorative glass, windows, and mirrors both literal and metaphorical (the zercalo of law). I demonstrate that the ever-protean glass moves in eighteenth-century Russian culture from its utilitarian aspect toward a symbolic and signifying function, and back again.

Remarking on this period in Russian history, Jurij Lotman proposes that while, on the one hand, the hierarchy of values had turned so that practical activity found itself at the top, and the zeitgeist was determined by "the poetry of craftsmanship, of useful skills, of actions which are neither signs nor symbols, but are of value in themselves," there was an opposite process at work: "At the same time as the tendency to rationalize the semiotic exchange, and to switch the center of its gravity onto its content, there existed a counterflow, the urge towards an irrational emphasis on the sign system as such. Convention, ritual, and the arbitrariness of the sign were stressed." This dialectical model offers a way to confront the contradictions and paradoxes that characterize much of eighteenth-century Russian culture. Glass, as a component of culture on the level of utility, discourse, commodity, allegory, and more, participates in and demonstrates these contradictions by virtue of its capacity for infinite metamorphosis. My paper opens an investigation into the ways in which the eighteenth century in Russia can be considered the Age of Glass.