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Arts & Culture

Symposium delves into Dostoevsky

Slavic studies department presents interdisciplinary perspectives on Russian novelist and his legacy

Contributing Writer
Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky is exceptional for his representation  of the human soul, British novelist Virginia Woolf wrote in her essay “The Russian Point of View.” “Out it tumbles upon us,” she expounded, “hot, scalding, mixed, marvellous, terrible, oppressive.”

Merging Darwinian theory, Romantic poetry and the complexities of human morality, the Dostoevsky Symposium hosted by the Department of Slavic Studies this weekend offered multiple perspectives on Dostoevsky’s work.

Dostoevsky’s writing is “profoundly interdisciplinary in nature, perhaps to a large extent due to the peculiar development of Russian culture, in which literature came to encompass various areas of knowledge … that were much more developed in the West as distinct disciplines,” wrote symposium coordinator Svetlana Evdokimova, professor of Slavic languages and comparative literature, in an email to The Herald.

She and other colleagues organized the symposium to spotlight “his engagement with science and social sciences, but also a deeper understanding of his aesthetics and his ‘philosophy,’” she wrote.

For the conference, the department invited Dostoevsky scholars from both the United States and Russia, as well as specialists from other fields, including Daniel Todes from Johns Hopkins University’s Institute of the History of Medicine, religion scholar David Cunningham from Hope College and Professor of Philosophy Charles Larmore.

The symposium’s multidisciplinary approach was important because Dostoevsky himself worked at the intersection of many disciplines, including politics, science and philosophy, said Vladimir Golstein, associate professor of Slavic languages and symposium organizer.

The first panel, “Dostoevsky and Darwin,” delved into Dostoevsky’s work within the context of evolutionary biology. Panelists discussed how the publication of Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species” not only sent shock waves through the world, but also personally affected Dostoevsky and his artistic practice.

Another panel, “Dostoevsky and the Questions of Aesthetics,” examined Dostoevsky’s writing in relation to art-making at large.

“Dostoevsky is still very, very fresh,” Golstein said, adding that Dostoevsky dwells upon issues prevalent and powerful today, including the complexities of religion and science coexisting together.

Golstein did not always feel affection for Dostoevsky’s novels.

When he first read “Crime and Punishment” in high school, he deemed it “boring.” But once he reached college, he found himself so “absolutely disillusioned” with life that he rediscovered the novel. It was a “prophetic book,” he said, which helped him understand life.

“Stories acknowledge concerns many people don’t even realize they have,” he added, explaining his attraction to literature.

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