The Holy Fool in Russian and American Culture: A Dialogue

By Heller, Dana; Volkova, Elena | American Studies International, February 2003 | Go to article overview

The Holy Fool in Russian and American Culture: A Dialogue


Heller, Dana, Volkova, Elena, American Studies International


Preface: The following dialogue could be considered a methodological as well as formal experiment in comparative cultural analysis. It is the result of a cross-cultural, transnational discussion and exchange between two scholars and professors of American literature, one Russian (Elena Volkova) and one American (Dana Heller). The foundation for this dialogue was established two years ago when Volkova and Heller team-taught a course in American literature at Moscow State University, in the Faculty of Foreign Languages. That course ignited an intellectual spark and a mutual willingness to experiment with forms of scholarly interaction and productivity. Indeed, rarely do Russian and American scholars have an opportunity to develop actual face-to-face dialogue on literary criticism and cultural studies. Such contact is vital and beneficial, not only for developing comparative cultural analysis but for developing new, progressive forms of teaching and international publication. This lecture, a comparative analysis of the holy fool character in Russian and U.S. literature and culture, is one of a series of lectures that have been written for a course titled, "Litzom k Litzu" / " Face to Face." The year-long course is structured in the form of an ongoing dialogue between the two lecturers. By bringing together in one course the different faces and voices of Russian and American culture, it is hoped that these lectures will help open up a space for the further discussion and realization of our common, as well as our different traditions, histories, values, assumptions, and forms of representation. (1)

EV: The main visual symbol of Russia known in the West is that of the Cathedral of Saint Vasilii, or Saint Basil, located on Red Square in Moscow. However, not many Americans know that Saint Basil was a holy fool who lived in Moscow in the 16th century. Thus, in a sense, the main visual symbol of Russia may be called the Cathedral of the Holy Fool.

One of the most popular characters in Russian folklore is Ivan the Fool, who is "a secular variant of the Holy Fool" (A.M. Panchenko). On the surface, Ivan the Fool seems lazy and stupid but he is "a chosen one." Miraculous forces help him. He wins at the end of the fairy tale and gets the princess along with half of the kingdom. If the mystical subtext of Russian fairy tales were not taken into consideration, one would see Ivan the Fool simply as a symbol of national laziness and stupidity. Ivan does seem a fool in common, practical situations (in matters of domesticity and working the land, etc.), but he is a hero in the struggle between good and evil, and the supernatural world is native to him.

Russian classical literature inherited hagiography's, i.e. lives of saints, goal of creating the ideal character although there were more failures than achievements. Dostoevski wrote to his niece Sophia Alexandrovna Ivanova (Jan, 1, 1868): "To depict a positively good man is the main underlying thought in the novel. There can be nothing harder than that on earth especially nowadays. All writers--not only ours but even all of them in Europe--who have attempted to depict what is positively good have always failed to do it. It is because the task is an immeasurable one." Dostoevski's attempt resulted in Prince Myshkin the Idiot.

A question arises: Is there something deep inside the Russian mentality that correlates with the state of insanity? Many people in the West and even in Russia would readily say: "Yes, there is. Russians cannot organize their life in a proper way. They carry on terrible, bloody experiments with their own country. They destroy their own traditions. There is little logic in their politics and economy." We Russians ourselves often exclaim: "What is going on? But, after all, what else can we expect in this country of fools?!"

Thus, in Russia the concept of "foolishness" is apparent on different cultural levels: religious, folkloric, literary, political, and on the level of everyday life. …

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