‘Eisenstein, Sexuality, and Decadence’

Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein (1898-1948), well known as one of the last century’s most influential film directors and theorists, was also a prolific writer of aesthetic and sexual theory as well as the author of thousands of erotic drawings. Both celebrated and disparaged as a successful practitioner of propaganda that served the Stalinist state, Eisenstein himself was absorbed in developing techniques for effecting aesthetic ecstasy in the viewer; to achieve this goal, he often chose to use erotic and sexual channels. Eisenstein’s notion of erotically enforced “ex-stasis” bears the birthmarks of European Decadence, and one finds much documented evidence of Eisenstein’s fascination with Decadence both as an artistic school and aesthetic sensibility. He even declared: “Had it not been for Leonardo, Marx, Lenin, Freud and the movies, I would in all probability have been another Oscar Wilde.’’ Combining archival, library and film research, I examine the structure and intellectual genesis of Eisenstein’s artistic thinking, especially its erotic aspect, in light of his crucial but little studied connection to the European fin de siècle. In my project, I focus on Eisenstein’s links to the aesthetic and erotic ideologies of Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, early sexual science of Richard Krafft-Ebing, Otto Weininger and Magnus Hirschfeld, certain trends in early psychoanalysis, and the visual imagination of Odilon Redon, Aubrey Beardsley, and Konstantin Somov. A part of this book-length project is devoted to two recurrent, obsessively erotic motifs that Eisenstein borrowed from Decadence and deployed throughout his oeuvre, those of St. Sebastian and the biblical Salomé. Finally, I will address the question of the fine and difficult balance between the “social function” and “erotic intention”, which Eisenstein sought to maintain in his films, and the role of such balance in Soviet aesthetics in general.

Eisenstein saw himself as a Soviet revolutionary artist but also knew that he was shaped by Decadence. The co-existence and collision of these “locations,” ultimately very productive for Eisenstein, is a central concern of my study, and it makes my project relevant to the CRASSH research theme “The Location of Knowledge.” Eisenstein’s double  “embeddedness” – uneasy, combustive, and provoking his incessant methodological self-analysis – requires special scholarly attention.


Evgenii Bershtein grew up in Leningrad, USSR. He studied Russian literature and linguistics at Tartu University, Estonia, and received his Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from the University of California, Berkeley in 1998. Since 1999 he has been teaching at Reed College in Portland (Oregon) where he currently is Associate Professor of Russian. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the Harriman Institute for Russian Studies, Columbia University (2001 – 2002) and a Kone Fellow at the Helsinki University Collegium for Advanced Studies (the summers of 2004 and 2005).  Dr. Bershtein’s recent publications include the following essays and book chapters: “Psychopathia Sexualis in Fin-de-Siècle Russia: Politics and Genre,” “Two Short Essays on the Cult of Otto Weininger in Russia,” ” ‘The Withering of Private Life’: Walter Benjamin in Moscow,”  “‘Next to Christ’: Oscar Wilde in Russian Modernism,” “An Englishman in the Russian Bathhouse: Mikhail Kuzmin’s Wings and the Russian Tradition of Homoerotic Writing, ” “The Notion of Universal Bisexuality in Russian Religious Philosophy,” and “Alexander Sokurov’s Melancholy Athletes”.  A number of his publications can be found online at .


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