Ophelia Lavey is a first-year PhD student in Russian, funded by the Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Programme.
Tell us about your research, Ophelia.
My research looks at the language used to describe suffering and pain in Russian literature since the Enlightenment. I am looking at how the perspective and linguistic devices used to present the experience of suffering give rise to radically different psychological and ethical perspectives, thus shaping our responses to the pain of other beings. In a sense, I am concerned with how form can change our perception of content.
I have always been concerned with the way in which rapid changes in media and digital technologies today radically alter the way in which individuals respond to the suffering of other human communities and individuals, or indeed animals. I saw that a very different psychological process occurs whether a genocide or a plague epidemic is presented through a sensational news story, a feature movie, a realistic novel or a poem. The events narrated can be the same, but the perspective and narrativity used to depict them construct an entirely different relationship towards events of that kind.
What made me focus on pain in particular is that individual suffering is hard to communicate using representational and descriptive language. Instead, we frequently rely on figurative and aesthetic devices, such as similes, metaphors and hyperbolic contrasts in order to express our pain to others and to fulfill our ache for recognition, for example, saying you have a headache as though someone was drilling into your brain, or that your leg feels as if it were on fire. Medical discourse is also littered with the use of similes and metaphors in the categorisation of pain: it is something that is difficult to numericalise and gives rise to questions about the transparency of language. Analytic philosophers in the second half of the twentieth century focused on the way in which language forms a stumbling block in our perception of the pain of other beings, and many have said that pain, perhaps like love, is an ‘incommunicable’ aspect of human experience. As such, I also focus on the presentation of children’s and animal pain in literature and the emotive effect of the language used to describe it, as such beings are incapable of articulating their pain through their own control over language.
I am looking at the way in which the models and conventions of the language and aesthetics used to describe physical and mental suffering have been used by Russian authors since the late eighteenth century, from the cult of sentimentalism to the modern period, as they served a variety of moral, political and philosophical purposes and discourses. As such, I plan to demonstrate how the aesthetics of pain are far from arbitrary and can be infused with a specific social, moral and psychological purpose. In addition, contemporary Russian thinkers, such as Fedor Girenok and Valery Savchuk, look back to the Aristotelian concept of art as a cathartic process, and emphasise the importance of suffering and ‘blood’ in the process of artistic creation itself, challenging the boundary between life and art and the consumerist concept of art as mere entertainment.
Why did you choose to pursue your doctoral studies at Durham University?
The main reason why I chose Durham University is because of the highly interdisciplinary nature of the literary studies conducted by the academics here. For example, in the Russian department, Professor Mikhail Epstein’s work focuses on the dynamic relationship between literature and ideas. Scholars in the French department also look at the potentially subversive and political role that can be played by aesthetics in society, thus challenging the role of the humanities in a world dominated by utilitarian and consumerist discourses. I was inspired by the way in which the studies of Professor Epstein or Professor Bernard Stiegler, who I heard was visiting Durham next term, undermine the narrow concept of the arts as a form of escapist entertainment that has no bearing on so-called ‘reality’.
What advantages does the Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Programme (DTP) offer?
I am delighted with the opportunity I have to pursue my research interests due to the Northern Bridge studentship. I appreciate the guidance and the suggestions for widening our horizons offered by the programme, such as the opportunity to apply for grants to travel abroad and to access different libraries. I also want to attend the seminars on research ethics and interviewing individuals abroad, as these are some indispensable skills for the kind of questions I want to address within the Russian philosophical community. Furthermore, I am very excited about the chance we have been given to undertake a non-academic work placement abroad for several months, as I would like to work for a translation agency and experience life outside of academia. The Northern Bridge programme has also offered many pathways and advice in terms of careers, which I have found very useful. I also look forward to being able to access the library at Newcastle University, which has some resources I need. It is such a wonderful opportunity to develop my research and to have support from a well-connected and helpful academic community.
The Northern Bridge DTP involves attending a conference each term at the three respective universities. How was last term’s conference?
The Northern Bridge Autumn School was a highly stimulating and illuminating experience, as it gave us an opportunity to engage with other individuals working on such a wide range of interesting projects, some from disciplines and angles which I never would have considered before. It is also a great opportunity to talk about your own research to people who are interested in it, and to receive constructive feedback and criticism about your writing.