Liminality as Literary Paradigm and Vision: The Caucasus in Russian Literary Imagination (part V)

It may seem surprising and even outright doubtful at the first glance that the three key works of nineteenth-century Russian literature, set in the Caucasus, seem to be so different yet reveal so much structural similarity in their narrative design. A question which suggests itself, therefore, is whether indeed a common feature of liminality underlies the three works by Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tolstoy, or whether reading them in this way is merely tendentious.

I do believe otherwise strongly, and I suggest that discovering the shared quality of liminality in these works really lies at the surface and is justified by several reasons.

To begin with, liminality is a historical phenomenon, which as Greenleaf has argued, characterizes the Caucasus’ position inside the Russian empire[1], and has therefore come to characterize its place in Russian cultural imagination. Thomassen suggested that prolonged wars, enegendering political instability, are capable of producing liminality (in the sociopolitical sense). [2] Following his argument, this paper has addressed the way in which the initial vision of a land, subject to imperial conquest, arose and consolidated as the dominant paradigm of its literary representation.

It is important to specify that the vision of the space of Caucasus as liminal arises in Russian literature as a certain way of looking at its history and role within the Russian empire and, later, Russia. Morevoer, it arises in the very specific creative situation where addressing these questions is designed to be a substantial part of the fictional work’s message and structure. Therefore, the idea of the Caucasus’ liminality is not a universal, ubiquitous, or clichéd mark of any Russian fictional work set in that geographical domain – simply because not every literary work at all shares the intention to discuss the Caucasus’ status and place within the larger political structure it belongs to. For example, we see the idea of liminality considerably less pronounced in Bestuzhev-Marlinskii, who had more creative interest in the adventurousness and the entertaining side of his oeuvre than in addressing the ideological preoccupations of his time; or altogether insufficient in Nikulich’s Mimochka, a text dealing with the problem of woman’s role in Russian society, rather than the role of the Caucasian landscape, where the narrative is partly set. Yet many of the ‘Caucasian’ texts do indeed share the liminal view. And this is unavoidable, since this quality roots merely in the shared setting they have in common, and grows important due to their interest in the Caucasus as a specific topos. This, however, is the most similarity the liminal idea imposes on the variety of literary texts; other than that, it takes different forms and shapes, and is anything but a universal device.

In Pushkin, it largely serves the role of a narrative instrument ensuring the teleological unity of the poem’s spatiotemporal and ideological construction. For Lermontov, it grows into a means of a demonstrating the possible dangers of a human’s emotional and psychological limitation, caused by his lack of ‘belonging’ somewhere. Tolstoy uses the same device to broach the metaphysical questions of faith, loyalty and determination. What is important is that all of these different uses and variations of the concept of liminality make us consider the relationship of geographical and fictional space, and the way the two can shape and condition their reciprocal development. That history and fiction can in no way be seen as detached, is one ultimately undisputable umbrella idea, arising from reading Pushkin, Lermontov and Tolstoy. Within this reading framework, the idea of liminality persuasively claims its unifying presence in the three texts.

[1] See M. Greenleaf. Pushkin and Romantic Fashion: Fragment, Elegy, Orient, Irony (Stanford, 1994), p. 141.

[2] See B. Thomassen. ‘The Uses and Meanings of Liminality’ in International Political Anthropology, 2009, p. 16.

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