From "Acropolis" to "Necropolis": Laying to Rest the Body of Silver Age Culture

Galina Rylkova, University of Florida

How do we know that any particular period of cultural evolution has come to an end? Did Modernism really end with the break of World War II as we are now led to believe? Do we always become aware of the end of an era as result of a meaningful political event or the death of a major figure? Do we shape cultural phenomena to fit the trajectory of political events? Or do we need these political events to make sense of the otherwise inexplicable trajectory of cultural evolution? In my talk I attempt to answer these questions by discussing two trajectories of cultural evolution presented in the writings of Merezhkovskij and Xodasevich. I focus on these two writers because from the viewpoint of literary criticism, one of the most debatable periods, known as Russian Modernism or the Silver Age, is framed by two collections of essays, that by Merezhkovskij's Eternal Companions (1888-97) and that by Xodasevich's, Necropolis (1926-38).

Both works were written over the period of ten years and reflect not only the crystallization of the authors' views but the crystallization of the cultural divides as well. In contrast, while Merezhkovskij heralded the dawn of the new era, Xodasevich testified as to its ultimate decline. In his work Merezhkovskij finds features of Decadent aesthetics in the writings of such diverse people as Goethe, Calderon, Flaubert, Pliny, Marcus Aurelius, Ibsen, Euripides, Pushkin and Dostoevskij and describes them as the forerunners of current literary trends in the Russia of the 1890s. Merezhkovskij starts his re-visitation of the past by describing his actual trip to the Acropolis. It is on pedestals similar in height to the rock on which the Acropolis stands that he places his literary "heroes."

While Merezhkovskij's main role was that of breathing new life into old concepts, Xodasevich chose the less enviable role of a mortician concerned with burying the corpses of an exhausted culture. It is common to talk metaphorically about something concrete such as a road, railway or city being built on the bodies of those involved in the construction. However, when it comes to convincing people about something less concrete, and less obvious, such as the death of a cultural age, rather than metaphorical bodies, one needs to be able to point to the actual corpses of many of the icons of the age in question. Necropolis consists of nine essays that were written from 1924 to 1938. Although many of them originated as obituaries, Necropolis is by no means a random collection of newspaper articles. As I intend to show, the structure of Eternal Companions as well as that of Necropolis reflect their authors' succinct interpretations of the course of literary evolution.

In conclusion I will place Necropolis in a broader cultural context and discuss it in connection with the actual Russian cemetery in Sainte Genevi╦ve des Bois and with the wave of disinterring and reburying of cultural figures that swept Soviet Russia in the 1930s.