Social paranoia and absurdist fiction in Cold War America and Soviet Russia: a comparative study

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Corcoran, Miranda
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University College Cork
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This thesis explores the theme of social paranoia as depicted in the Absurdist fiction of Cold War America and Soviet Russia. The central hypothesis informing this research maintains that, despite the ideology of moral and cultural “Otherness” constructed and reinforced by both nations throughout much of twentieth century, the US and the Soviet Union more often than not functioned as mirror images of paranoia and suspicion. Much of the fiction produced in Russia from the Revolution onwards and in the US during the Cold War period highlights how these two ostensibly irreconcilable nations were consumed by similar fears and gripped by an equally pervasive paranoia. These parallel conditions of anxiety and mistrust led to a surprising congruity of literary responses, which transcended the ideological divide between capitalism and communism and, as such, underscored the homogeny of fear which lay beneath the façade of constructed difference. I contend that, because Soviet Russia and the America of the Cold War period were nations consumed by fear and suspicion, authors living in both countries became preoccupied by the mechanics of such deeply paranoid societies. Consequently, much of the fiction of the US and the Soviet Union during this period was preoccupied with the themes of paranoia, conspiracy, intensive bureaucracy and the politicisation of science, which resulted in the terror of the Nuclear Age. This thesis explores how these central themes unite apparently diverse literary texts and illustrate the uniformity of terror which transcended both the physical and ideological boundaries separating the United States and the Soviet Union. In doing so, this research focuses primarily on the multi-faceted manifestations of paranoia in selected works by Soviet authors Mikhail Bulgakov, Daniil Kharms and Yuli Daniel, and American authors Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut. Focusing on key works by each author, this research considers these texts as products of two culturally diverse, yet equally paranoid societies and explores their preoccupation with issues of spying, infiltration and conspiracy. This thesis thus emphasises how these authors counter simplistic notions of Cold War Otherness by revealing two nations possessed by a similar sense of vulnerability and insecurity. Furthermore, this thesis examines how this social anxiety is reinforced by the way in which these authors position issues such as the mechanics of the bureaucratic system and clandestine scientific experimentation as the focal point of the paranoid imagination. Ultimately, by examining the concordance of paranoiac representation in America and the Soviet Union during this period, I demonstrate that these ostensibly divergent nations harboured similar fears and insecurities.
Literature , Cold War , Literary studies , American literature , Soviet literature , Russian literature , Comparative literature
Corcoran, M. 2016. Social paranoia and absurdist fiction in Cold War America and Soviet Russia: a comparative study. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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