Conveyors of the Metaphysical in Literary Fiction – Case Studies

by Angelika Friedrich and Henry Whittlesey

The characteristic of being metaphysical/spiritual makes up the core of the distinction between pragmatists and romantics in Peripatetic Alterity. This treatise posits the materialist worldview of pragmatists as being in contrast to the metaphysical orientation of romantics. Whereas the philosophical treatise adopts the approach of delineating these differences primarily on the basis of contemporary empirical findings, we will address some forms the metaphysical/spiritual takes in literary fiction and attempt to show how the one or the other is associated with certain secondary characteristics that often underscore the author’s perspective.

To keep the scope of this paper manageable, we will confine our examination to four metaphysical phenomena expressed in earthly reality: i) the first is comprised of the classic invocation of religious beliefs. The dyad here is shaped by the conventional differentiation between focusing on life before us versus attending to the afterlife while on earth; ii) second, “evidence” of and belief in metaphysical forces on earth constitutes a means of contextualizing the metaphysical in the “physical”; iii) the third appears in the state of falling in love, which is often a trope employed by authors to reveal the metaphysical mindset of romantic characters; iv) finally, a second self or alternative identity, sometimes discovered through illness or disease, acts as a means for representing the metaphysical.

This metaphysical/materialist duality is observed in many binary constructs that act as a backdrop to emphasize the respective characterization. One common place we can unearth it is in gender, although no gender is consistently associated with one pole or the other: Sometimes women are ascribed as closer to the metaphysical, other times men. Another dichotomy revealing a division can be found in youth and its proximity to existentiality against adulthood and the need to survive materially. However, old age may prompt a return to an existential mindset. A third surfaces with wealth in contrast to poverty, where the accumulation of assets is logically viewed as an outgrowth of a material approach, while the precariat is endowed with an innate understanding of the otherworldly. Additional frameworks include indoors/outdoors or materialist political ideology (capitalism or socialism) vs. balance between various stakeholders, with outdoors and balance being tied to the metaphysical.

Although we will not delve into the topic of materialism here, it is helpful for producing a clear picture of the world being described to remember that materialism is the foil or contrast to the metaphysical. It is understood to be a dismissal of the unknown for the benefit of concentrating on our immediate surroundings. As discussed at length in Peripatetic Alterity, it is closely tied to consumption. The accumulation of assets, property and objects generally reflects such materialism.

Below we will present some case studies with a wide range of authors. A few are well-known classicists from various countries – Grazzia Deledda (Italy), Leo Tolstoy (Russia), Fyodor Dostoevsky (Russia), Ivan Turgenev (Russia), Paul Auster (America) – while others are lesser known writers – Valentina Akssy (Ukraine), Galina Nikolaeva (former Soviet Union), Alexandra Kollontai (former Soviet Union), Armine Asryan (Armenia). The paper is broken down into the four aforementioned metaphysical phenomena, each examined in the context of specific works of literature. These examples further reveal the constructs adopted by authors to portray the metaphysical/spiritual by also integrating a secondary characteristic to ensure correct interpretation by the reader.

Eternity vs. mortal existence: the gender of the metaphysical and material – Elias Portolu by Grazia Deledda and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Right at the start of Elias Portolu by Grazia Deledda, we learn about the clear distinction between material men and metaphysical women. The father of the eponymous protagonist refers to his sons as strong, which results in impressive production and the ability to dominate (“He’s a marvel! He’s sown ten measures of barley and eight of wheat and two measures of beans.” (5); “Now that Elias is back we are like four lions” (5); He [Elias] wouldn’t have allowed it. He would have broken his teeth with one blow. Elias is a man. We are men, we are, we aren’t puppets made of fresh cheese like the continentals” (9)).

By contrast, Elias’s mother and the future mother-in-law of another son of hers confide in each other that men are too material (“attached to the things of this world” (12; repeated in other contexts on pages 33, 48)). This direct connection between men and this world is juxtaposed to the existential place of women:

“…But what were we saying? Men think only about things of this world. If they would think just a little about the other world, they would go straighter in this one. They think this earthly life will never end; but it’s a novena, this life, a novena and short as well. We suffer in this world; we do so so that this little bird here,” she touched her breast, “is calm and free of guilt; let the rest go as it likes. Take some sugar, Arrita;…”

To emphasize the universality of this statement, furthermore, Zin Annedda, Elias’s mother, speaks using the “we” form (“What were we saying?”). In the immediate context of the narrative, this form is logical because she is concurring with her friend’s remarks on ‘this world’. Yet her words gain authority from the collective form to introduce her opinion on how you would conduct yourself with an eye on the metaphysical (‘other world’). As opposed to her husband’s banal associations in material everyday life (barley, wheat, beans, tigers), Zia Annedda touches her breast, describes it as a little bird, and the first object she mentions in reverting back to the current reality is sugar, as if to ingrain in the reader’s mind the sweetness of women’s metaphysical worldview. Finally, the representative of the metaphysical on earth at that time is a member of the clergy. In the novel, this is Father Porcheddu who echoes Zin Annedda’s words as he discusses Elias’s wavering plan to become a priest: “You are still attached to the things of this world?” (155) And when Elias attempts to break firmly with the materialism of pragmatism, he retorts: “I want to show you that I am not attached to anything.” (155)

“…[I]f Elias remained in the world he was lost. Zia Annedda was thinking along these lines because she knew her son.” (5) In the novel, Elias has returned from a 3-year prison sentence for a crime that remains unspecified, but is not sufficiently abominable to damage the family’s reputation or his reintegration into Sardinian society of his native village. His return is celebrated and he is included, although not forced to participate in every aspect of life (marriage is open to him, and eventually he becomes a priest, albeit a sinning one). Even after his return and despite his good intentions, Elias is repeatedly described as (mentally/spiritually) troubled. He does not join his brothers and father in the pasture, behaves erratically (pale (13, 23), laughed until he turned purple (47), beats his breast (51)), and falls in love with his brother’s future wife. He is also considered feminine by both his father and mother, with the associated value judgement depending on the speaker’s perspective. As we have seen above, Zia Annedda, Elias’s mother, is critical of the material world; whereas Zio Portolu embraces it fully. Elias, as an effeminate man, lies somewhere in between: Since he is not an Ur-male like his father and brothers, he cannot identify with their life. Yet he knows no alternatives until he comes upon the idea of becoming a priest. It is his announcement of this idea that prompts Zia Annedda to say in relief that “in the world he was lost.”

Viewed along these lines, the story of Elias Portolu can be regarded as a romantic man confused by his inability to embrace the pragmatic way of life into which he is expected to assimilate. His prominently developed feminine side seeks an alternative to the materialism of pragmatism, but has immense difficulty finding a plausible path and even then struggles with the memes of pragmatism. As Zia Annedda explains to her daughter-in-law Maddalena: “he can be led into temptation because you know that the devil is always doing his work around us, but Elias knows how to fight him and would die before committing a mortal sin.” (52) Although her faith is ultimately betrayed, Elias’s mother understands a metaphysical romantic’s struggle in a world of material pragmatists, especially when you are expected to be one of them.

In Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, the lines between genders are not as clearly drawn as in Grazia Deledda’s work. Nonetheless, Tolstoy portrays Levin as at least a man struggling to grasp the meaning of life and finding it in religion. Furthermore, tying into our third binary construct of wealth/poverty, the great Russian writer notes that Levin becomes able to recognize the metaphysical through a peasant:

“Fedor says that Kirillov, the caretaker, lives for his belly. It’s understandable and reasonable. We all, like rational beings, cannot live otherwise, than for the belly. And suddenly the same Fedor says that it is bad [to live] for the belly; rather it is necessary to live for the truth, for god, and I understand him! And I and the millions of people who lived centuries ago and are living now, the peasants, the poor in spirit and the wise, who thought and wrote about it, speaking the same thing in their obscure language – we all agree on this one thing: why we should live and what is good. I, and all these people, have only one solid, unquestionable and clear knowledge, and knowledge cannot be explained by reason – it is beyond reason and has no reason and can have no consequences.” (778)

In addition to a peasant conveying this undisputed truth to a landowner trying to live like a peasant, we encounter reason (rationality) being linked to the material, while the obscure language of the truth, the universal (“one solid, unquestionable and clear knowledge”), cannot be explained by reason.  Tolstoy directly ties materialism to not only the body, but also the part of the body, the belly, that literally receives food, while the contrast is something “we all know,” but cannot be pinned down anywhere in this world. Specifically, this plays out in the titular character Anna who does not discover Levinesque spiritual enlightenment, killing herself instead as she is unable to come to terms with the limitations of earthly existence, specifically the limits of worldly love. It cannot, however, be said that all women in Tolstoy are materialistic: Both Kitty in Anna Karenina and especially Natasha Rostova in War and Peace bear and achieve an absolute symbiosis with the metaphysical.

In the case of the impish Natasha Rostova, she goes out on a hunt with her brother Nikolai. When they stop at an uncle’s log cabin, the host pulls out a guitar. Both Natasha and her uncle separately enter into a different realm (without any romantic interest in each other). First, he is described as assuming a new personality: Previously serious and quiet, he now becomes funny and laughs. Yet Natasha’s metamorphosis surpasses him by far: Not only does she transform herself by dancing, but she does so by exhibiting complete harmony with the Russian folk, although she has been raised in the aristocracy by a French governess. Without any experience in folk dancing, she knows all the steps, does everything right, as if she had “imbibed this spirit from the Russian air.” The narrator further points to the metaphysical nature of this moment by posing questions in the text and describing spectators as vacillating between laughter and tears at the beauty.

While gender distinctions cannot be assigned in Tolstoy, he does tie humbleness, simplicity, asceticism, labor and a lack of rationality/reason to the metaphysical. Fedor is a peasant. Levin may be an aristocrat, but he disdains high society, choosing farming and philosophical reflection instead. Kitty nearly dies when she becomes enamored by the glamorous solider Vronsky and finds happiness in the countryside with Levin. Natasha Rostova, also a member of high society, imbibes the spirit in a log cabin in the forest. The truth is experienced in fields and is beyond reason as Levin discovers through the peasant Fedor. By contrast, socialites like Anna and Vronsky ultimately commit suicide (Anna) or seek to die (Vronsky) when they run out of worldly distractions to keep them occupied.

Spirits on earth and visions of the dead – A Sportsman’s Sketches by Ivan Turgenev and The DNA of Angels by Valentina Akssy

The idealization and longing for youth in Russian literary fiction has a long tradition stretching back at least to Alexander Pushkin. Often it is associated with innocence, naivety and freedom, especially vis-à-vis adulthood. A subject examined less extensively and less obviously apparent is a possibly unconscious positing of youth as a metaphysical stage in a person’s life before they ‘develop’ into mature materialists.

As always with the subject of the metaphysical, it is hard to define exact criteria that need to be present for us to identify a person, character or mindset as such. In literature, as we saw above in the context of Elias Portolu and Anna Karenina, authors tend to show or depict characters and scenes in a manner that must be connected with the metaphysical or material (or any other classification) rather than telling or stating in an expository manner that such is the case.

In Ivan Turgenev’s story Byezhin Prairie, one of the ‘sketches’ in the collection titled A Sportsman’s Sketches, the hunter or sportsman who is wandering through the countryside, meeting with various peasants and describing their lives, encounters a group of boys sitting around a fire in the evening. He spends the night with them, listening to a series of tales exclusively about spirits, witches, mermaids and supernatural powers.

First, listeners hear about a domovoy, a kind of house spirit, still believed in despite the long tradition of Christianity in Russia. In this instance, the boys were spending the night in an old paper mill where they worked to avoid wasting time. When they are lying down to sleep, someone starts walking around on the floor above, right after they ask whether the domovoy will come. Then water begins to drip, a wheel starts to rattle and then turn. Soon the sound of steps is heard on the staircase; the door flies open, but they see nothing: Now the nets on the vats begin to move; a hook comes off its nail, and there is a cough. (72-3)

The next tale of spirits a boy tells to the circle relates to a mermaid in the forest (mermaids in Russian were not exclusively confined to the sea). Called russalki, these mermaids were essentially considered witches. When the local carpenter encounters one singing in the forest, he crosses himself for protection. This causes the mermaid to shift from singing to crying: She laments the crossing, explaining that he would have lived in happiness with her until the end of his days, (74) but now both she and he will grieve until death. Although the duty of a Christian, according to the boys, is to ward off such spirits just as the carpenter did (“but how can such an evil thing of the woods ruin a Christian soul – he did not listen to her, right? (74)), the carpenter is punished for vacillating. Whereas the children in the old mill fully believe in the domovoy and ultimately are left unharmed by the spirit, the adult carpenter is ruined for acting on instinct and out of routine rather than embracing the metaphysical one way or the other (choosing the pagan spirit or Christian God). Initially, he faints, then wants to yield to the mermaids’ wishes and only half-heartedly crosses himself (“the Lord put it into his heart, doubtlessly” (74)).

The five boys recount a variety of other stories about spiritual powers on earth, with all being taken for deadly serious except for one about a type of anti-Christ called Trishka, which is sightly undermined by the teller Pavel. None of the boys, including Pavel, doubts the existence of Trishka or his superhuman powers to elude capture, escape and lead Christ’s people astray. (78) However, Pavel, who has yet to share a story, tells about an incident where Trishka was expected in their parts on account of a heavenly portent. Suddenly, a man with an odd-shaped head was seen descending the mountain in their area; everyone scattered, screaming and hiding, but it turned out to be the town cooper, who had bought a new pitcher and put it over his head. Pavel is also the boy who exhibits the least fear in the face of these spiritual powers. Earlier, shortly after the mermaid story, he jumps on a horse and rides off into the dark to check the other horses when their dogs start barking convulsively; following a story about wood-spirits and groaning in water pits, Pavel goes to the river to get water. While Pavel does not doubt their existence and presence – he even says he heard his name called in the water as he stopped to fill the pitcher –, his actions demonstrate that he has no fear of them: “No one can escape their fate,” he says. (82) In the story recounted about Trishka, he makes a slight mockery of it with the pitcher-on-head detail. Interestingly, however, the narrator closes the tale by mentioning that (of the five) Pavel was killed that year in a fall from his horse. Not only is youth mingled with the metaphysical by having boys tell stories about spirits (while an older silent narrator documents them), and young believing boys are spared as opposed to half-hearted men, but the boy with the least orthodox attitude toward them dies.

The spiritual can also appear in reality through visions a person has. Such visions may consist of imagining the presence of someone or something in a place, daydreaming or dreaming of a person or thing that does not currently exist. Even mistaking A for B might reflect a case where the metaphysical/spiritual makes its presence felt. In Valentina Akssy’s story The DNA of Angels, we delve into a case of the imagined presence of a physically dead person:

During period after death:

I hate sunflowers. I’ve hated them for four years now. And I dream about them almost every night, and then they hover in front of my eyes all day and don’t disappear:  I push ahead, running between these hateful sunflowers, as rough stems nastily scratch my arms and legs. I try to catch up to my Slavik, but he doesn’t even turn around, as if he doesn’t hear me. Striding ahead, he pushes aside the high stalks with his broad shoulders and disappears under the yellow petals. I stumble, fall, but I don’t stop and yell to him from behind: “Slaavik.” And the sunflowers, like living ones, are closing closer and closer to each other, and I can no longer squeeze through the palisade of stalks. I can only see the crown of my husband’s head under the swinging yellow baskets, farther and farther…

As he is dying:

I fell into a deep sleep and dreamed of Slavik, when he was young, when I met him, going somewhere through a field of sunflowers.

Coming to terms with her husband’s early death:

I sat on the side of the road, with my face to the sun, and smiled. It seemed to me that Slavik was watching them from the sunflowers and smiling at our angels too.

The wind swept over the field and made the yellow flower petals sway. In the distance, several sunflowers parted, forming a narrow path, as if someone was walking between them, spreading the tall stems with his broad shoulders…

In the two passages, Masha sees her late husband in a dream, with the second instance occurring simultaneously to his death in a battle between Ukrainian and Russian forces in East Ukraine. In the third passage, she envisions him during the day as their children play in the field. Whereas Turgenev embeds the spiritual sphere in his narrative by invoking actual spiritual figures witnessed by humans, Akssy depicts the metaphysical with a formerly existing person reappearing in dreams and visions. In each case, the author departs from the documentation of the objective material world to give their readers access to an alternative.

While the metaphysical element of the dream/vision is not unambiguously reinforced by the backdrop of the metaphysical or material, we do observe two interesting developments. Masha’s three visions of her husband unfold in two different contexts: The first two, both negative, are dreams she has asleep and thus presumably indoors. The third vision, by contrast, occurs outdoors and is positive. Hence, the indoor-outdoor dichotomy within the metaphysical suggests a hierarchical ranking of visions, with outdoor ones being more positive. Furthermore, this last vision is accompanied by children scampering through the field, thereby uniting (metaphysical) youth with (metaphysical) visions of the non-existent. And the worldly result of this moment is: a smile, perhaps what was on Levin’s face when he listened to Fedor’s explanation of the truth.

Falling-in-love as a trope for the metaphysical / the dissipation of love as gravitation toward materialism – The Harvest by Galina Nikolaeva and The Love of Three Generations by Alexandra Kollontai

The former lizard, Avdotya, has become a mere appendage of her husband. At home she cooks, cleans, raises their daughter, and works in the vegetable garden. It is a life that pales in comparison to her youth as a respected group leader, an award-winning potato collector and seducer of the highly desirable tractor driver Vassily.

Galina Nikolaeva tells the story of Avdotya (Dunya, Dunyasha) Oserova and Vassily Kusmich in The Harvest. During the halcyon days of her childhood, Dunya jumps through fires (literally), draws the attention of the somewhat older Vassily, dancing, playing, dreaming and working in the fields with him. Life is otherworldly for her. Even when he breaks off their friendship, she is confident that they are in love with each other, and if he is not, then she wants no part of it. His position, the rumors resulting from their friendship, or the security of being married are nothing without love: “If you loved me, Vasya, the slander would not bother me. If you loved me, I wouldn’t hesitate for a minute.” (126-7) And she continues to immerse herself in life, loving unilaterally and using that metaphysical strength to contribute to the societal dream, which in turn feeds back into her love. Hence, she becomes famous for her potato harvesting and when Vassily writes her after a lengthy work-related interruption, she doesn’t harbor any doubts, running to meet him again: “No trace of doubts, criticism or tears. So trusting, faithful, open to joy; she played and sang.” (128) She becomes even more beautiful, and Vassily falls passionately in love with her. They marry.

On the day of their wedding, the narrator sums up Dunya’s otherworldly existence in the state of love that the reader has learned about primarily from his perspective:

Since the moment she had seen Vassily under the flags on the tractor decorated with rowan berry branches and heard his unusually passionate speech, her life had been pure happy expectation. She herself did not know what she was expecting; some kind of wonderful life in which her entire soul soared appeared before her eyes, and Vassily was the man, the best of all, the eternally loved man, with whom she now began this life. Their existence together to date was only the harbinger of something greater. When would it begin, that which she desired? What is it, how is it? (128-129)

The words in this passage capture the proximity between love and the metaphysical: life is a wonder (wonderful life); her soul soars – the soul being a central characteristic of the religious metaphysical and flying associated with the extraterrestrial; “the sign of something greater” ties into the spiritual theme of meaning beyond what we can comprehend on the basis of everyday, material existence. The same is suggested by the adjectives (great, desired) turned into nouns, a linguistic characteristic of the metaphysical, like the word metaphysical itself.

Yet “frosty and clear came the morning” – heralding the end of metaphysical love and the decent into the materialism of daily life. Despite efforts to stem the fall, Avdotya is helpless for a long time, as she cannot understand what is happening. She is lonely at home handling the domestic chores; her husband is at work most of the day and they share little common ground (“common language”). Although the narrator authoritatively declares that he is a faithful husband and there are no marital problems, Avdotya suffers in her position.

As Avdotya watches her dreams of some unclear expectation dissipate into the child, housework, cooking, she also finds herself predominantly in a different location – indoors. When she is falling in love, the scenes are almost all outdoors. She meets Vassily at an open-air festival. They hang out under the open sky, and even when they break off their friendship, it occurs on Avdotya’s porch. In this phase, by contrast, she may be in a clean, cozy, homy room with flowerpots on the windowsills, but her eyes have glazed over; she feigns joy with her child, and eventually resolves to start working at the kolkhoz again. This return to an environment often outdoors is suggested to result in an improvement. Vassily talks with her again, saying “When your wife is doing well, her husband is diligent.” (140)

In 1941 Vassily is evidently killed in the war, which allows Avdotya to start over. She makes private and professional changes. Privately, she lets Stephan, an injured war veteran, move in with her family; professionally, she dedicates herself to the dairy business of the kolkhoz. Although the two are only roommates, so to say, they live like a couple, spending evenings with Avdotya’s kids reading as they knit and repair shoes. With the passage of time (together), she experiences even more intense love than with Vassily: “No matter how much she had loved Vassily, she had never felt such a unity of feeling and thought, such pure harmony in everything.” (144) Her eyes are big and her pale face smiles; they agree on the sowing of the seeds, making them “feel so close, as if nothing could bring them closer.” (146) To emphasize the immensity of their love just prior to consummation, the author then describes various classical metaphysical tropes such as birth/germination (a nest of fawns discovered while mowing grass at night; seeds sowed), girls’ intoxicating and gentle singing, millions of stars twinkling, flickering and flashing, then a shooting star. Similar to the scenes when Avdotya falls in love with Vassily, the two lovers are primarily depicted outside – in fields, under starry skies – especially as their love climaxes, and repeatedly encountering youth or early phase development (seeds, birth, girls).

Finally – to remove any doubt that the author views (falling-in) love as a trope for the metaphysical and the decent out of love as a reversion to the materialism of worldly life – Avdotya and Stephan marry, and Advotya begins to believe that her happiness is solid and impermeable – until Vassily returns. Accordingly, we can say that falling-in-love is equated to a metaphysical state, whereas daily life in a relationship becomes material. This interpretation also plays out indirectly in Avdotya’s first marriage. The state of marriage and end of the falling-in-love phase gives way immediately to domestic chores: material love.[1]

The early Soviet writer Alexandra Kollontai depicts exactly these two opposing kinds of love in her story The Love of Three Generations. One colleague tells another about her mother’s amorous relationships, her own and her daughter’s. Both she and her mother fall hopelessly in love with varius men. Initially, her mother ignores the opposition of her parents to marry an officer (“My mother had married for love and against the will of her parents” (11)). When this mother meets her soulmate, however, she leaves the officer, justifying her action on the basis of, as she viewed it, “the law of love was stronger than the duties of marriage! Love was something great and holy to her.” (12) The woman of the second generation experiences two kinds of love simultaneously: one logical with Konstantin and the other ‘different’ and unexplainable with the engineer M. Olya Sergeyevna (Olga), the woman of the second generation and narrator, then eventually explains that she cannot choose the ‘different’ love because it would be “spiritual bankruptcy for her.” (24) The stark contrast between metaphysical love and absolute pragmatic love without emotion can be seen most starkly with the pure convenience love of the third generation. Eventually, Olga separates from both of her partners and has a close (marriage-like) relationship with a younger comrade named Andrey Ryabkov. He subsequently has a relationship with Olga’s daughter Genia from the engineer M. However, Olga is not shocked by her daughter’s relations with her partner Andrey, but by her attitude towards it: She saw “an incomprehensible heartlessness, a calmness, a person convinced of her right… something cold, rational, almost cynical … not love, not passion and no effort to escape from her position. (30-31)

While Alexandra Kollontai almost certainly did not intend to negatively depict the first generation of Soviet-born and raised children as materialistic in their love and place love within the materialist agenda that pervaded all communist ideology, she does ultimately produce such a narrative. All of the women are communists. Yet both Olga and her mother grew up in Czarist Russia with its greater balance between materialism and the spiritual/metaphysical. Those two generations, irrespective of political ideology or perhaps even as a contrast to it, embrace passionate love, although their views of handling this differ. Genia has been surrounded by nothing other than Marxism her whole life, and her love is absent of any association with something otherworldly, unexplainable, abstract. It is purely physical lust. This is underscored by Genia’s decision to have an abortion: All three have dedicated their lives to the proletariat revolution, but only the third views conception as a material impediment to be eliminated. Genia also exhibits no qualms about her decision to ultimately leave her mother and Andrey. Metaphysical falling-in-love is completely absent from her relationship with Andrey. It has begun and ended in pure materialism.

A second self – being released from the worldly self: Unreal Reality by Armine Asryan and Moon Palace by Paul Auster

The socially constructed self is posited in sharp contrast to an alternative identity that enjoys unlimited freedom (воля). In Unreal Reality by Nane Sevunts (Armine Asryan), we see Julie gain access to this second self in Nare. Fear, special treatment, loneliness and depression are what she has felt since the moment her toy teddy bear emitted a ‘booo’: “Fear. The first emotion she experienced from interaction with the world was fear. She simply assumed that the world was not a safe place.” (1).  Eventually, after leaving her family and travelling aimlessly, she lands in a mental hospital. In the subsequent course of events, we realize that Julie’s collapse was brought about by her incompatibility with the limitations in material life. The language completely changes between the phases when Julie escapes with Nare and when she is alone without her: “suffering,” “overcoming emotional barriers,” “shrinking,” “violent face,” “brutal treatment,” “demons,” “hell,” “depression,” and “pills” become “unlimited possibilities,” “light,” “songs of the birds,” “nourishment,” “happiest,” “laughing and running.” The words laughter and happiness are repeated in many different contexts shared by Julie and Nare. Without directly declaring that her unhappy state is brought about by the materialism of her surroundings, Julie clearly depicts the flights into her alternative self as metaphysical:

From time to time, Julie would leave Nare and return to the real world. She was bored and unhappy in this world, but these moments happened. Most of the time she was in the real world. The world offered nothing to her but wanted her attention and care and love. The world gave nothing to her but wanted every single element of her. And she was exhausted in this world. (6)

The second self is effectively identified as metaphysical while the first self is material. The narrator blurs the boundary between Julie and Nare, leaving it unclear whether they are the same person or whether Nare is a special friend who gives Julie access to her alternative self. Either which way, Julie with/as Nare is metaphysical, while Julie without Nare is material. The deixis of “this world,” “real world” vs. “that world” emphasizes the duality. Furthermore, as mentioned above, the language changes between the worlds. The value judgements on these worlds are also unambiguous: the metaphysical world consists of “precious moments,” while the material one is “full of hatred and humiliation.”[2]

Another example of illness placing a character in communication with the metaphysical appears in Paul Auster’s Moon Palace. Marco Fogg, the protagonist, departs from reality in the midst of a gradual self-destructive craze after his sole relative, his uncle, passes away. At the end of this phase, he is evicted from his apartment and lives in New York City’s Central Park (without a tent or shelter).  The gradually intensifying delirium causes him to lose track of time: He may have nothing to do all day in the park, but he has no trouble filling the time reading newspapers, searching for food and occasionally having fun. Eventually his insanity climaxes with a complete departure from even the surroundings of the park as he hallucinates on the ground beside a hollow in the rocks:

I don’t know how much time I spent in there. Two or three days, I would think, but it hardly matters now… Most of the time I was barely conscious and even when I seemed to be awake, I was so bound up in the tribulations of my body that I lost all sense of where I was. I remember long bouts of vomiting, frenzied moments when my body wouldn’t stop shaking, periods when the only sound I heard was the chattering of my teeth… – endless, mutating visions that seemed to grow directly out of my burning skin. Nothing could hold its shape in me. Once, I remember, I saw the Moon Palace sign in front of me, more vivid than it had ever been in life. The pink and blue neon letters were so large that the whole sky was filled with their brightness. Then, suddenly, the letters disappeared, and only the two os from the word Moon were left. I saw myself dangling from one of them, struggling to hang on like an acrobat who had botched a dangerous stunt. Then I was slithering around it like a tiny worm, and then I wasn’t there anymore. The two os had turned into eyes, gigantic human eyes that were looking down at me with scorn and impatience. They kept staring at me, and after a while I became convinced that they were the eyes of God. (Auster 69-70)

This passage also captures the metaphysical character of hallucination or a second self relative to the materialism of worldly life. Throughout Fogg’s descent into insanity, he has generally been lucid, i.e. conscious, and has primarily addressed material needs, first and foremost, food. The topic of food, how to eat on a low budget, with constraints such as a lack of electricity, is omnipresent. Only when he loses consciousness, a period estimated to be been three days, does he forget the worldly concern of consumption entirely and ultimately perceive to see the impersonation of the Christian metaphysical world – god. It is also worth noting that these hallucinations come during Fogg’s sojourn in the park rather than on the city streets, i.e. in more open nature rather than an environment trapped by buildings. Nonetheless, relative to other departures from the self such as Julie’s, Fogg’s experience may be tempered by the heavily materialistic context of a hypercapitalist city in a hypercapitalist country. In a more balanced place, such as Armenia, the character or author depicting the character delves more extensively into the metaphysical. Whereas Fogg spends much of his time in Central Park looking for food and conscious of physical concerns (above all, vomiting, shaking, clattering teeth), i.e. continuing materialist pursuits, Julie completely abandons all material concerns when she heads out with Nare. Eventually, Fogg too is able to enter a purely metaphysical world as the two OOs in the hallucinated Moon Palace sign of a restaurant he used to see from his apartment window become the eyes of god, but it takes a long time.


This paper has examined four representations of the metaphysical/spiritual in literary fiction, partly by contrasting them to the material. In Elias Portolu by Grazia Deledda and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, we looked at cases where one gender or class was considered to be more in touch with the eternal. Byezhin Prairie by Ivan Turgenev then gave us an example of literary fiction addressing the manifestation of the metaphysical on earth in the form of ‘appearances’ recounted by young locals, with credulous youth depicted as survivors. Another form of the metaphysical was then explored against the indoor/outdoor dichotomy in The DNA of Angels by Valentina Akssy. The physical location of metaphysical experience serves as the backdrop for much of the third approach to depicting this phenomenon, which is revealed in the trope of love, as we witnessed in The Harvest by Galina Nikolaeva, and by comparison in The Love of Three Generations by Alexandra Kollontai. Finally, a second self has also served as a vehicle for exploring life outside of materialism in work such as Armine Asryan’s Unreal Reality or Paul Auster’s Moon Palace.

While all of these depictions share certain commonalities, in particular the broaching of the metaphysical/spiritual as something existent, but intangible, their immediate treatment of the topic is complemented by an even more far-reaching, extensive and nearly universal aspect of the metaphysical: the shifting between different worlds, diverging states, the cyclicality of being when a worldly person consciously or unconsciously embraces the metaphysical. In part, this is an inevitable consequence of a metaphysical orientation. As Julie says in Unreal Reality, it is necessary to return to the real world from time to time. It is not possible, and for many not even desirable, to remain in one state, whether positive or negative, for an interminable amount of time. Romantics live for this diversity, as is revealed time and again in literary fiction and our everyday lives. What we need to understand it, is very simple, just one thing: air.

There is both literal and metaphorical significance to the term air. On the one hand, it is physically required for achieving the necessary balance to reject materialism and embrace the metaphysical, as we have discussed in Peripatetic Alterity. On the other hand, it acts as a symbol for the presence of the metaphysical at given moments. It is certainly possible that this practice derives from Christianity (e.g. air is often associated with the Holy Spirit) and that Christianity drew on pagan or other traditions that adopt air, wind, the ether, etc. for the spiritual.

In the episodes of metaphysical exposure discussed above, the word air or wind either appears, is implied or can be assumed in almost every context. For example, in Elias Portolu, Zia Annedda indirectly refers to the idea of air by tapping her breast and referring to a bird flying (in the air). This is followed by the case of Anna Karenina where Levin’s realization comes as thunder clouds are gathering and it begins to rain – almost certainly accompanied by wind. The evidence of the Domovoy in Byezhin Prairie is proven by gusts of wind opening doors. There is a direct reference to wind in The DNA of Angels, when the narrator describes Masha’s final vision of her late husband: “The wind swept over the field…” Flags rippling (in the wind), her soul soaring (through the air) are part of the description in the trope of Avdotya’s falling-in-love in The Harvest.  Similar to The Harvest, the concept of air is also implied throughout Unreal Reality by having the metaphysical scenes set outdoors under the open sky (rather than indoors). Finally, the same can be said for the hallucinations in Moon Palace as Fogg lies in Central Park.

Works cited

Primary sources

Аксси, Валентина. ДНК ангелов. 2020.

Asryan, Armine. “Unreal Reality.“ In the Beginning. New York: Perypatetik, 2020.

Auster, Paul. Moon Palace. New York, USA: Penguin Books, 1990.

Deledda, Grazia. Elias Portolu. Translated by Martha King. Evanston, USA: Northwestern University Press, 1995.

Коллонтай, Алексадра. Любовь трех поколений. Москва: Accessed Dec. 5 2020:

Николаева, Галина. Жатва. 1950. Online: Royallib. Accessed Dec. 5, 2020:

Тольстой, Лев. Анна Каренина. Москва: ЭКСМО, 2006.

Secondary sources

Baccino, Alejandra. “Till Love Do Us Part.” In the Middle. New York: Perypatetik, 2020.

Достоевский, Федор. Идиот. Москва: ЭКСМО,

Friedrich, Smirnov, Whittlesey (Eds.). Peripatetic Alterity. New York: Perypatetik, 2019

Тольстой, Лев. Война и Мир. Москва: ЭКСМО, 2003.

Whittlesey, Henry (ed.). From Wahnsinnig to the Loony Bin. New York: Perypatetic Media, 2013.

[1] In a modern-day context, the proximity between love and the metaphysical is observed in Alejandra Baccino’s story Till Love Do Us Part. The protagonist falls in love with an intense, dominating guy. Naturally, she is very happy in the early days and enjoys the type of bliss common during the falling-in-love phase. Yet, as the relationship deteriorates, he becomes physically violent, mentally abusive and ultimately cheats on her, she adamantly defends him because he still brings her such pleasure at times. In other words, she is able to depart from the banality of worldly matters through this relationship. Presumably, this is the only avenue she has to achieve these metaphysical moments, so she is very reluctant to abandon him.

[2] The epileptic fits of Prince Myshkin in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Idiot reveal the duality of his protagonist. When Myshkin is healthy, he must deal with the trials of everyday life among the urban proletariat of Saint-Petersburg. These issues consume his life until he has a fit. This second side of himself, in the state of disease, allows him to experience the beauty of the otherworldly: extreme consciousness of self, of life, harmony, beauty, deepest sensation, overflowing with unbounded joy and rapture, ecstatic devotion and completest life (Dostoevsky 262-3).