Paul Debreczeny. Social Functions of Literature: Alexander Pushkin and Russian Culture. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997. 282 pages. Tables. Illustrations. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. ISBN 0804726620. Hardback.
The first time I went to Russia, many years ago when I was an undergraduate, I remember being amazed at the sight of little children walking the cold, snowy February streets carrying cut flowers—and being even more amazed at the news that these children were headed to the local Pushkin monument to commemorate the great poet’s death.
In his study Social Functions of Literature, Paul Debreczeny does a number of things, and does them well. Among his desires is to calibrate the true meaning of Pushkin for those Soviet schoolchildren, for their parents and grandparents, and for their ancestors under the tsarist regime. This impressive work becomes, in its way, a summing up of a lifetime of studying Pushkin, literature, and society, and not merely Russian society. Debreczeny brings to bear in this volume methodologies and approaches gleaned from Russian and American scholarship in myriad arenas—psychology, semiotics, social history and anthropology, among others, in addition to traditional literary analysis. His readings of Pushkin’s poetry are a welcome and perceptive supplement to the main content of the work—a reading of Russian society and of the relationship between society and its literary tastes. Debreczeny’s book is a tour de force of Pushkinistika, humanistic scholarship, and the study of the interaction of Culture and culture.
The book is divided into three sections, in each of which the author examines responses to and renditions of Pushkin from his own time through Soviet and even post-Soviet times. Readers of Debreczeny will recognize some of the arguments furthered here. My personal favorite was “Zhitie Alexandra Boldinskogo: Pushkin’s Elevation to Sainthood in Soviet Culture,” originally published in the South Atlantic Quarterly in 1991, which is here transformed into the third section of the book, on the “myth of the poet.” In it, Debreczeny puts the “Pushkin cult” into a religious context, comparing Pushkin’s canonization to that of Boris and Gleb, the original Russian saints. He does not stop there, however, but goes on to suggest that Pushkin was more than a saint—he was a “mythological hero” (243). The historical and social circumstances surrounding the reception of Pushkin made him, in Debreczeny’s estimation, unique in world literature; comparing him to Homer and Shakespeare (the latter in a detailed analysis, see 204–09), Debreczeny asserts that in becoming a national symbol, Pushkin was aided by Russia’s continual “search for a national identity” (225) and indeed “need for a national myth” (246).
In the first section, “The Reader’s Response to the Text,” the author addresses the social setting of reception, drawing on such theorists as Wolfgang Iser to examine the shifting perceptions of a poet by readers. The audience, Debreczeny argues, creates its own Pushkin by “select[ing] a few salient features” from the poet’s oeuvre and allowing them to stand for the poet as a whole. Applying the theories of developmental psychology to the material of memoirs, Debreczeny goes on to examine the ways in which literature affects emotional growth, particularly in adolescence, and serves as a model for behavior. The “cherished book” of pre-revolutionary autobiographies, he discovers, was almost always Pushkin (35). “One of the maxims [of the pre-revolutionary memoir],” he argues, “was that you could form your political and philosophical ideas under the influence of any number of writers from Gogol through Pisarev to Dostoevskii, but your inner self was shaped by Pushkin” (36).
As Debreczeny sees it, Pushkin’s works “were informed with a bemused tolerance for the human condition,” and as such they “aided his readers in accepting themselves and constructing ‘positive possible selves’” (42). The latter term, borrowed from developmental psychology, suggests the way in which human beings think of their own futures with optimism, positing the various people they might become. The final chapter in this section is devoted to one of Pushkin’s most assiduous and public readers, Marina Tsvetaeva, who, through her reading of Pushkin, constructed a “possible past self” (62), thus reversing the chronological direction of the term “possible selves” to reconfigure and rewrite her own history. Her relationship with Pushkin, as always, offers rich material for both psychological and literary analysis.
The second section of the book, “Social Determinants of Aesthetic Norms,” considers Pushkin in terms of his expanding readership on all levels of society. “Imaginative literature,” Debreczeny states, “is one of the ways society creates shared symbols” (80); thus through literature, and through Pushkin, Russian society came to form an understanding and image of its own self. With interesting discussions of Pushkin, Gogol, and especially Pushkin’s epigones and imitators, Debreczeny isolates the aesthetic norms of Russian society. Kenneth Burke’s ideas of “type-situations” and especially his idea that art functions to name a situation (159–60) define the main social function of Gogol’s art—“naming and responding to new situations, rising above the simplistic models of middlebrow romanticism” (160). By looking at textbooks and stage representations of Pushkin, Debreczeny tries to determine how the poet filtered down to the “masses.” His examination of the “simpler codes” (172) and how Pushkin was translated into these codes offers interesting insights into both the poet and his varied audiences.
A portion of this section represents one of the most innovative approaches in the book: in a study of literary journals—that most important section of Russian publishing—the author presents tables and analyses of the importance of Pushkin based on mentions of his name and/or works. “Name recognition” has a similar meaning for Pushkin in this study as for American political candidates in polls—whether in positive or negative comparison, each mention of Pushkin furthers his fame and “popularity” in the true senses of these words. While the journals surveyed and the data collected vary widely (Debreczeny offers us eight to nine years of The European Herald and Son of the Fatherland during the 1820s, and one year each of The Contemporary , Annals of the Fatherland , and Russian Treasures ), the conclusions which Debreczeny draws are always interesting and perceptive. The section concludes with a look at the contrasts between mass culture and the literary elite, and it is on this boundary that Debreczeny has the most to offer his reader—his non-elitist study builds on the work of Marcus Levitt and Jeffrey Brooks to paint a portrait of the whole of Russian society.
This book will be interesting to a wide variety of readers, from historians and literary specialists to psychologists and anthropologists. Particularly in combination with Levitt and Brooks’s seminal works and with the rest of Debreczeny’s own oeuvre, this book offers a reading of Pushkin, his readers, and his role in the formation of the Russian national identity which will engage audiences for some time to come.
Ohio State University