Ecstasy and Abstraction: Sergei Eisenstein’s Quest for Pathos and Emile Zola’s Naturalist Prose
12 December 2022, 6:00 pm–7:30 pm
A SSEES Russian Cinema Research Group seminar with Ana Hedberg Olenina (Arizona State University), co-organised by the Eisenstein International Network (EIN)
Eisenstein’s writings often explore the theme of ecstasy and ecstatic states – whether sexual, religious, revolutionary, or understood in more abstract terms, as a form of sublimation, transition to a new state, transformation, or rebirth via death. This paper examines Eisenstein’s framing of ecstasy in an important, but as of yet unpublished book-length essay “How Pathos is Made?” (1929), produced on the heels of teaching the Advanced Workshop for Directors, where filmmakers such as the Vasiliev Brothers, Grigory Alexandrov, and other key players of the 1930s Soviet cinema honed their craft. Central to Eisenstein’s workshop was the task of dissecting ecstatic moments in Emile Zola’s novels. As I will demonstrate, Eisenstein taught his students to identify structural parameters of ecstatic form, training them to notice intensifying rhythm, strategic repetitions, and evocative extended metaphors that engage all senses. I argue that in Eisenstein’s hands, Zola’s naturalist prose turned into a recipe for abstract compositional devices, meant to engage the audience on a visceral level and attune it to ecstatic states. In contextualizing Eisenstein’s perspective, I will situate his ideas within Modernist debates surrounding kinesthetic empathy and the dichotomy of narration vs. abstraction. Further, I will show that Eisenstein identifies Expressionist and Impressionist tendencies in Zola’s descriptions of settings, which, on the one hand, elucidate characters’ temperament and state of mind, and on the other hand, break down and reassemble sensory stimuli in an experiment with the reader’s perception.
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Image credit: Photograph of Sergei Eisenstein in California. RGALI Archive. Photographer unknown (likely, Grigory Alexandrov).