Communities of Dialogue Russian and Ukrainian Émigrés in Modernist Prague

Conference | Paper

The Titanic Language of Memory (Nabokov, Kundera, Stepanova)

Patrick Flack

Thursday 23 May 2024

11:00 - 11:45


The paper will set off from the trope of the Romantic poet (Byron, Shelley, Hölderlin, Lermontov) and his Titanic urge to self-expression and self-sacrifice through art. Turning to the crisis of this Romantic conception of subjectivity in the late 19th century, we will outline the artistic alternatives explicitly pursued by Hofmannsthal, Nabokov and Kundera in response to the death of the ideal of the poet as a truth-sayer through their recourse to more intersubjective, polyphonic forms such as drama (or opera) and the novel. Noting the limits of this turn to intersubjectivy or polyphony in Nabokov and Kundera (manifested both by the presence of overbearing, controlling narrators in their work, and their compulsive, almost paranoïd defense of their own myths as authors), we will outline however the continuity of the Titanic trope, beyond the Romantic poet, in the Modernist novelist.

To do so, we will sollicit in particular the theme of memory. Mnemosyne, the Godess of memory and mother of the muses, is indeed a Titaness, and thus invites us to think of the relation between literary forms and memory in terms of Titanic expression. Our simple thesis will be that this focus can help us understand and theorise the historical shift (but also the continuities) from the demiurgic, even demonic aspects of «Romantic» Titanism that identify expression and subjectivity through the possibility of their immediacy and «unboundedness» to the «Modernist» Titanism that links them to the power of social and political projection or, indeed, recognition. Specifically, we will try to trace the evolution of memory as a Titanic force that is first at the command of the writer (Nabokov's Speak, Memory), appears then as a dialectical, treacherous angel-like figure (Kundera's Book of Laughter and Forgetting), and finally as a monumental collective entreprise that calls for a ceaseless process of re-subjectivation (Stepanova, In Memory of Memory)