Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Comparative Literature and Literary Theory

First Advisor

Kevin M. Platt

Second Advisor

Catriona MacLeod


This project centers on what I call the “masochistic aesthetic,” which emerged as literature dovetailed with medicine and law in German-speaking Europe and Russia around 1900. I argue that incipient totalitarian societies instrumentalized art and literature to produce citizens who enthusiastically consented to painful social discipline — that is, political masochists. Masochistic narratives like Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs (1870), Anton Chekhov’s The Duel (1891), or Andrei Platonov’s Happy Moscow (1933-6) reflect the ethnographic attention to borderlands, regulation of the body, and indefinite delay of pleasure inherent in the imperial or totalitarian settings that engendered them. After tracing the origins of the masochistic aesthetic to the synthesis of sexology and literature in Austria-Hungary, I track its passage into degeneration discourse in late-imperial Russia (Lev Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov) and the labor rationalization movements of interwar German-speaking Europe (Franz Kafka, Robert Walser). I conclude with an analysis of political masochism’s apotheosis in Stalinism (Andrei Platonov, Daniil Kharms), showing how the convergence of literature with bio-centric labor theory in the Soviet 1930s produced an ethos of joyful self-sacrifice and indefinitely delayed gratification. By casting masochism as a tool of political and ethnographic normalization, my work revises the traditionally psychoanalytic approach to the phenomenon in Russian culture. Mobilizing masochism’s understudied “Slavic” underpinnings and the Germanophone influence on its Stalinist incarnation, this project offers insight into the uneasy nexus of politics and private life that gave rise to Stalinism and Nazism. My research contributes to debates in comparative literature, labor history, and gender and sexuality studies, addressing themes central to the intertwined cultural histories of Russia and German-speaking Europe.

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