Exploring the Body Shameful: Solov'ev, Sologub, and Original Sin

Jonathan Stone, University of California, Berkeley

When, as is often ascribed to Russian culture, the aesthetic and the ethical are conflated, physical repulsiveness invariably heralds moral ugliness. Fedor Sologub's novel The Petty Demon (1907) is set in a town populated with singularly hellish and wicked characters whose moral and spiritual baseness find a clear correspondence in Sologub's powerful and evocative descriptions of the hideousness of their bodies. I intend to examine these descriptions in order to better place Sologub's portrayals of the body into the dichotomies of shameful and shameless nakedness and tainted and untainted flesh. My reading of Sologub in this respect is informed by Vladimir Solov'ev's article "The Meaning of Love" (1892) and the place Solov'ev affords to the physical human body in his representation of the religious and moral obligations of humanity. I hope to show that Solov'ev grants the flesh a centrality in his doctrine of salvation and deification such that it is stripped of the stigma of shame and disobedience that have plagued it since the Fall. Herein lies a key distinction between an Orthodox and a Western interpretation of Original Sin--the Eastern tradition allows for the human body to be recovered from its corrupted state and its mortal taint wiped away, while the Western church does not. Both Solov'ev and Sologub, prominent figures in the religiously informed culture of Russian Modernism, found a vision of redemption and salvation concealed in man's seemingly wrecked and sinful physical shell.

In The Petty Demon depictions imbued with an overwhelming vileness always surround the novel's protagonist, Ardal'on Peredonov. For my discussion I will concentrate on one of the most vile aspects of his life--his treatment of and relationship with his cousin/fianc»e Varvara. Nonetheless, there are some crevices of this world still free from Peredonov's seemingly infectious corruption. The schoolboy Sasha Pyl'nikov's body, as revealed to Ludmila Rutilova, thus deserves consideration separate from the rest of the novel's depictions of physicality. I shall look at Ludmila's undressing of Sasha as an attempt to forge a sphere distinct from the world that surrounds them. They provide the only hint of redemption in the work, and it is through his body alone that the reader glimpses the possibility of a return to mankind's original, paradisiacal condition. Finally, these two worlds are brought crashing together in the last scene I examine--the masquerade. Here both the ugliness and the beauty of these characters and their bodies are on display in an orgiastic mingling of disguised and exposed flesh. This is a novel that thrusts the body on its readers and forces them to gaze upon it at its most hideous moments and at its most beautiful. Sologub presents both the splendor of Eden and the infernal mire into which the world has fallen.