The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"The Cosmorama" (1840)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“The Cosmorama” (original: “Kosmorama”) was written by Vladimir Odoevsky and first appeared in Otechestvennye zapiski (1840). Vladimir Fyodorovich Odoevsky (1804-1869) is not well-known outside of Russia, but is well-respected inside it. He has been called “the Russian Hoffmann”1 and is seen as a major figure of Russian Romanticism. Among Gothic-conscious literati he is regarded as the master of the Russian Gothic.
The cosmorama is a box which Vladimir “Volodia” Petrovich first discovers in his aunt’s house when he is only five. It is a box “covered with colored paper on which flower, faces and various figures were sketched in gold.”2 The cosmorama looks like a toy, but when Volodia looks into a piece of glass on the box he sees a vision of the future. Reporting this gets him into trouble, but he eventually leaves for school and forgets about the box. When he is a grown man he takes a leave from the Army and returns to Moscow “in the most Byronic state of mind, firmly intending to do a little philandering.”3 He stays at his aunt and uncle’s house and rediscovers the cosmorama. He looks at it again and now sees a future vision of himself whispering things to a beautiful woman. Doctor Bin, a family friend, comes to visit. During the visit Volodia looks into the cosmorama and sees Bin explaining the cosmorama to Volodia. The vision of Bin suddenly starts talking to the real Volodia and explaining that he, Volodia, “in your childhood chanced on the charmed signs which were inscribed by a powerful hand on the magic glass”4 in the cosmorama, and now Volodia can see the future. But the vision of Bin warns, “Oh, you ill-starred fortunate! You can see everything--everything without the covering, without the astral shroud.”5 But the real Bin has no idea of what Volodia saw, and merely thinks that Volodia is ill. The next day Bin orders the destruction of the cosmorama. Volodia goes about his business, visiting old friends. He visits one of his aunts and meets his beautiful, innocent cousin Sophia. Both Sophia and Volodia share a love of books, and they become fast friends, although Sophia is ignorant of the world. She is clearly attracted to Volodia, but she is too innocent and ignorant and young for him. But then he meets the beautiful older Countess Eliza B., who seems familiar to him, and he to her. There is an instant familiarity and affection between them, and it is only when the Countess tells Volodia that her husband is returning home soon that Volodia realizes that he is in love with the Countess. The Countess feels this, too, and insists that they break off their friendship for propriety’s sake. The Countess plans to travel with the Count, and Volodia announces his intention to follow her.
But then the Count dies from a nervous fever. Volodia visits the Countess to comfort her, and she tells him that she is planning to return to her home village in the Ukraine. But before she sells her estate she and Volodia see a great deal of each other and confide completely in each other. One night both Volodia and the Countess have nightmares in which the Count haunts and terrorizes them both. In the Countess’ dream the Count threatens to return to Earth to take vengeance on her. In Volodia’s dream the Count, freshly risen from his coffin, approaches the Countess’ house. He touches Volodia’s hand, and Volodia sees the entirety of the Count’s life, all the hideous monsters which drove the Count to become the sadistic bastard he was at his death. Volodia realizes that he had seen not just the Count in the cosmorama but the Countess. Volodia awakens, and Doctor Bin tells him that the Count wasn’t really dead and had merely fallen into a “fierce swoon.” Volodia returns to Moscow feeling lonely and lowered, but he sees Sophia again, and they renew their friendship. After a meeting with Sophia Volodia involuntarily puts himself into a trance in which he receives another vision of the future, this one of a “treacherous, voluptuous”6 Sophia speaking seductively to him. He also sees Eliza, who reproaches him for being unfaithful to her and for leaving her to suffer with her awful husband. Volodia’s friends try to get Volodia to get out of the house, and they take him to the opera. There he sees the Countess and the Count, and during an intermission he speaks to them. He and the Count have a civil conversation, and the Count later invites him to a reception and dinner. Volodia begins seeing the Countess and Count regularly, although Volodia and the Countess betray no sign to even themselves of their previous relationship. Months pass, and the Countess cleverly arranges a tryst with Volodia, on New Year’s Eve when the Count always plays cards. But Volodia gets no sleep the night before and sleeps past the arranged time, and when he goes to visit the Countess they have little time together. They are embracing when the Count arrives, wreathed in a fearsome, magic aura. He spontaneously combusts, but as he burns his gaze burns holes through Eliza. Volodia falls into a coma. When he recovers he is told that the Count, the Countess, their children and house all died in the fire, and that Volodia’s aunt and Sophia also died from mysterious burns at the same time. Volodia tries to force himself to have a vision of Eliza, but in the vision he sees Eliza and the Count, both of whom look reproachfully at him. His friends shun him, for he has acquired an innate mysterious repulsiveness, and he is forced to live out his days in anguish, haunted by ghosts, in a remote village in a dense forest far away from civilization.
“The Cosmorama” is an unusual story. It is well-told—the modern English translation reads easily and well and betrays none of its age. Odoevsky clearly meant it as a work of Romanticism, and it has the philosophical musings of many Romantic works. But it also has a great many of the traditional Gothic apparatuses combined with occult paraphernalia, including the walking dead, second sight, spontaneous human combustion, and the mysterious manuscript which forms the story. It is dark and bittersweet, and unlike most Gothic stories betrays no hint of an overriding prescriptive moral code. It is closer to a modern horror story in its lack of guiding morality and its connection between innocent actions and terrible consequences, regardless of intention or guilt. The cosmorama plays only a small part in the story, but its touch begins Volodia down the path to damnation, and it provides the first of several horrific visions in the story.
“The Cosmorama” also serves as a precursor to the cosmic terror of Robert W. Chambers (see: King in Yellow), Arthur Machen (see: “The Great God Pan”), and, in the twentieth century, H.P. Lovecraft; Bin’s horrified comment that “You can see everything—everything without the covering” strikes a nice chill of cosmic horror in the reader. In this “The Cosmorama” is a departure from previous Russian horror literature, which (as seen in the work of Odoevsky’s contemporaries Aleksandr Aleksandrovitch Bestúzhev [1797-1837] and Gogol; see “Viy”) was heavily based on either Gothics or Russian folklore, and on Russian science fiction of the nineteenth century. Odoevsky wrote science fiction, and stands as one of the first Russian sf writers:
Of course, science fiction could enter the field of fine literature only in the past decades, when truly fantastic potentialities unfolded before science and technology. This is why the virtually sole example of science fiction in the past centuries is Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis...The only representatives of this genre in the history of our literature were Odoevskii and Baron Brambeus (Senkovskii). After that science fiction clothed in literary form will be found only at the end of the nineteenth century.7
But Odoevsky’s science fiction, most particularly his unfinished novella “The Year 4338” (original: “4338 god”), tends toward the Utopian. Brambeus/Senkovskii’s narratives are fantastic voyages and Lost Race Stories. And the great spurt of Russian science fiction from 1880 to 1921 (see: “Captain Nemo in Russia”) is progressive, forward-looking, and concerned with Russia’s transformation into a world power courtesy of a electricity and a geoengineered Siberia.8 There was nothing in Russian literature with cosmic horror elements before Odoevsky’s “Cosmorama,” and what followed Odoevsky in Russian horror literature was based on folklore or modeled on the work of Poe. It was not until the turn of the twentieth century, when the occult and Satanism began appearing in progressive and avant garde Russian literature, that hints of cosmic horror would reappear.9
“Most students of Odoevsky’s Gothicism agree that the long story ‘The Cosmorama’ is his Gothic masterwork.”10 Modern readers will agree, and moreover will be thankful that it is a veritable inventory of Gothic devices that completely avoids the awkward prose of most Gothic stories and novels.
Print: Vladimir Odoevsky and Neil Cornwell, The Salamander and Other Gothic Tales. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1992.
1 Neil Cornwell, “Introduction,” in Vladimir Odoevsky and Neil Cornwell, The Salamander and Other Gothic Tales (Evanston: Northwestern University, 1992), 1.
2 Vladimir Odoevsky, “The Cosmorama,” The Salamander and Other Gothic Tales (Evanston: Northwestern University, 1992), 91.
3 Odoevsky, “The Cosmorama,” 93.
4 Odoevsky, “The Cosmorama,” 96.
5 Odoevsky, “The Cosmorama,” 96.
6 Odoevsky, “The Cosmorama,” 121.
7 Evgenii Zamiatin, “H.G. Wells,” 1922, qtd. in Banerjee, “The Genesis and Evolution of Science Fiction in Fin de Siècle Russia,” 1.
8 The entirety of Banerjee’s “The Genesis and Evolution of Science Fiction in Fin de Siècle Russia”—later revised and published as We Modern People: Science Fiction and the Making of Russian Modernity (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2013), unseen by me—is worth reading on this subject.
9 Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal, ed., The Occult in Russian and Soviet Culture (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997) is worth consulting on the fin-de-siècle Russian occult and Satanist literature.
10 Frederick S. Frank, “Vladimir Fyodorovich Odoevsky,” in Douglass H. Thomson, Jack G. Voller, and Frederick S. Frank, eds., Gothic Writers: A Critical and Biographical Guide (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002), 326.