Meanings of Elegance: Rhetoric Debates and Aesthetics of Lifestyle in Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Century Russia

As early as the eighteenth Century, social origin already began to lose its defining role in the social order as new groups of people rose in societies. They represented, among other characteristics, new wealth or elevated social status acquired through meritorious service. In response, ‘soft’ social markers such as honnêteté and taste began to play a central role in defining the boundaries of elite social groups, which increasingly became 'imagined communities'. In the nineteenth Century, these newly defined social virtues and challenges turned into a widely accepted, substantial prerequisite to social life. This social pattern developed according to an aestheticized model, subsumed by the term of elegance. My current research on the poetics of elegance deals with the cultural and historical developments which transformed the Classical rhetorical rule of elegantia into one of the central cultural practices of modernity.

At the Annual Meeting of the Study Group in 2017, I gave an overview of my research project 'Aestheticization of Life and Cosmopolitan Modernity: The Poetics of Elegance in the Long Nineteenth Century'. After the introduction, I presented two case studies that are rooted in the history of eighteenth-century Russia.

One of the areas of my research project includes a reconstruction of the historical semantics of elegance, conducting research on Russian, German, French, and English sources. In this context, the study traces the transformations of the Classical rhetoric concept of elegantia in the face of modern challenges to its aesthetics. The style of speaking and writing, in which elegantia expressed itself in terms of 'eloquence', appeared increasingly replaced by other strategies of distinction, and added up to what can be called an 'elegant lifestyle'.

In this context, the project explores the media, cultural practices, and social spaces of elegance. Given the emphasis on cross-cultural transfer, the project focuses on items in circulation, especially the periodical press, along with objects of material culture. In particular, an innovative type of 'cultural journals', established around 1800, devoted itself to the concept of 'well-being' and 'good life' by means of embellishment of urban spaces. These cultural journals distinguished themselves explicitly from exclusive fashion magazines. They addressed a wider readership by putting cultural consumption – ranging from literature and theatre to garments and furniture – into the centre of their new media practices. Such cultural journals developed a sophisticated combination of illustrations and texts in order to enhance the self-presentation of the European elegant world.

In connection with the spaces and practices of the elegant world, I am especially interested in places of entertainment and sociability, such as theatres, concert houses, public gardens, coffee houses, clubs, salons, and public reading rooms. All of these spaces are important, because they were forums of communication and performance where an 'imagined community' potentially could be staged and - to some degree - become reality.

Within the time frame of the long nineteenth century, the project highlights a series of temporal thresholds. All of them demonstrate the striking fascination which the concept of 'elegance' inspired against the background of social and medial change. My observations indicate that the characteristic traits of each peak of attraction for elegance were distinctly controversial, thus marking these time periods not only as thresholds, but also as moments of social contest.

In my paper, I addressed only the first of these temporal thresholds, i.e. the time around 1800, when, for instance, the first German cultural journal, Zeitung für die elegante Welt [Gazette for the Elegant World], began to appear. At the same time, such journals as Вестник Европы, Московский Меркурий, or Мой догус aimed to entertain the Russian public. This period of time was characterized by a hope for peace and a spirit of optimism, although it was a time of war and need. As the political map of Europe was reshaped several times, the structure of society was transformed as well. In these transformations the aestheticization of life showed a tendency towards inclusion. By aesthetic means and through sociability, the elegant lifestyle provided new convivial concepts by which social and gender groups expressed and identified themselves.

The role of print media in disseminating a specific pattern of social behaviour addressed my first case study. It focused on leisure practices of elites in Russia in the second half of the 18th Century and demonstrates how journals influenced everyday life and foregrounded social scenarios of elegance. My second case dealt with some aspects of the language of the elegant community, partly related to the well-known disapproval of шегольской жаргон [fashionable language]. It showed, in particular, the rhetorical developments of elegantia in the light of the most controversial polemics about modern Russian literature argued out between Aleksandr Shishkov and Nikolai Karamzin at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Both case studies presented in my paper have been finished since then and accepted for publication in the journal Welt der Slaven (on leisure practices) and in the edited volume Karamzin: The Writer (on poetical polemics).

– Anna Ananieva, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Research Fellow, Queen Mary University of London

The research project 'Aestheticization of Life and Cosmopolitan Modernity: The Poetics of Elegance in the Long Nineteenth Century' has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 655429.

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