The Poetics of Foolishness in Christ in Post-Soviet Literature: Svetlana Vasilenko’s Little Fool

Svitlana Kobets, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies

The phenomenology and the hagiographic topoi of foolishness in Christ provide the basis for the narrative and poetics of Svetlana Vasilenko’s novel-vita (roman-žitie) Little Fool (Duročka, 1998). Both the genre specification and the novel’s title point to the author’s orientation toward the cultural paradigm of holy foolishness. My paper offers a critical analysis of Vasilenko’s application of the holy foolish paradigm in the above novel.

First, I discuss Vasilenko’s distinctive use of the elements of the holy foolish phenomenology (paradoxical, aggressive, controversial) in the imagery and narrative strategy of her work. I comment on the author’s cultural rather than religious usage of the term and the concept of foolishness for Christ. Indeed, her main character is not an ascetic feigning madness in order to proceed with her exploit of virtuous life in complete humility and anonymity, but rather a mentally deranged girl. Yet the hardships of Nadia/Ganna’s life, her miracle-working ability, and the ambiguity of her perception by others (fool/holy fool) exemplify her stance as a fool for Christ in the popular sense of the word.

Second, I address the issue of Vasilenko’s chosen genre and discuss its peculiarities in the light of the holy foolish Life. Notably, the Life of the fool for Christ stands apart in the hagiographical tradition. If ordinarily the Lives of saints present imitable models of exemplary conduct, the Lives of holy fools do not. They do exhibit extraordinary Lives and deeds, yet these are conspicuously inimitable. The jurodivyj does not invite anyone to follow in his steps. The important characteristic of the holy foolish hagiographies is their role as commentaries on the state of people’s moral principles and values. Their spiritual health is put to the test in the encounters with the fool for Christ. Quite in line with this convention, Vasilenko’s novel-vita provides commentary on the state of the Russian nation’s psyche during the Soviet period of its history, showing it through a revealing encounter with the holy fool. 

Third, I explore the feminist aspect of Vasilenko’s work, whose protagonist, a foolish, humiliated, raped girl is nonetheless the only hope and savior of her land and people.