It has long been recognized that Pushkin’s brilliance lay not in creation ex nihilo, but in his ability to borrow, adapt, disfigure, and creatively recombine the wealth of material that he encountered (whether literary, subliterary, historical, factual, or simply gossip). Pushkin studies have generally focused on a single aspect of this process. Attempts have been made to understand his work through his life, through the history of his age, through his language, through his politics, through his philosophy. Ambitiously, Gasparov seeks to show how every one of these spheres intersected and contributed to the whole. He studies the genius of synthesis through a synthetic approach.
Such an approach seems eminently logical, but its realization demands an unusual combination of stamina and creativity. To begin with, the “synthetic” scholar must himself master a daunting array of subjects (as well as the voluminous criticism that attends them). Still more challenging, he must find a comprehensible way to integrate all of his discoveries.
Gasparov solves this problem by making poetic language the “dominant.” In this regard, he follows the lead of the Formalists. Indeed, the opening eighty pages, devoted primarily to questions of the Russian literary language in Pushkin’s day, read like a homage to Tynianov. This section revisits the rivalry of archaists and innovators, emphasizing how it has been oversimplified and misunderstood. To a certain extent, Gasparov rehabilitates Shishkov, placing his theories in their original cultural context and showing how Pushkin (in spirit, at least) was often closer to him than to his Arzamas comrades-in-arms. Finally, he makes clear the numerous extra-literary factors involved in any poet’s decision to join one of the two warring literary camps. Numerous insights notwithstanding, these “introductory” chapters are either too long (for many of the details are, truth be told, not essential to what will follow) or too short (if these details were truly fleshed out, they would supply sufficient material for a book quite different from the present one). One issue that seems particularly rushed is Gasparov’s effort to situate the Russian poets in terms of their French counterparts of the previous century. These arguments are intriguing, but the references to French literature are repeatedly vague, and the reader who is not intimately familiar with this period of French culture must accept them on faith.
Chapter 3, which constitutes the genuine substance of the book, presents three chronological stages of Pushkin’s development, which are designated as apocalyptic battle, the poet as messiah, and the poet as prophet. Within this strict scheme, Gasparov displays an extraordinarily nuanced understanding of texts and contexts. The theme of apocalyptic battle has its origins in Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Having sifted through a vast number of documents from these years (both literary and journalistic), Gasparov can point to repeated portrayals of Napoleon as the devil incarnate and Alexander as the savior. While these works predated Pushkin the poet, they created a rich literary, historical, and mythical context for him to draw on. Equally important, the young Pushkin encountered this same rhetoric of apocalypse in the literary battles of the archaists and innovators. Only by weaving in and out of these now forgotten pre-texts can today’s reader appreciate Pushkin’s debt to tradition and evaluate his contributions.
In moving from the apocalyptic battle to the poet-as-messiah phase, Gasparov considers several potential reasons for this change. For example, history itself caused many Russians to question the role of Alexander as redeemer. The Greek uprising provided an alternative source for messianic visions. Moreover, Pushkin’s own southern exile provided a biographical impulse for him to view himself in the footsteps of “messianic” poets of the distant and recent past. Gasparov delineates an insistent pattern of “meetings” with poets (Ovid, Dante, Chénier, Byron), through which Pushkin mythopoetically defined his own place in the Russian poetic pantheon.
Gasparov’s final paradigm (“poet as prophet”) should not be understood as the poet who determines what will come, but rather as the poet who comprehends what must come and therefore accepts it. In fact, this phase is determined largely by a fatalistic view of the world (or, at the very least, of Russia) as a place of permanent catastrophe. (Incidentally, this perspective is remarkably akin to that of Pushkin’s great interpreter Mikhail Gershenzon, as elucidated in Vera Proskurina’s recent monograph, Techenie Gol¢fstrema: Mikhail Gershenzon, ego zhizn¢ i mif [Saint Petersburg, 1998].) Again, the historical (e.g., the Decembrist uprising) goes hand in hand with the literary, but Gasparov wisely avoids trying to determine causality. This section—unlike the others—contains some extended readings of lengthy works: a highly unorthodox treatment of “Graf Nulin” as another infernal invasion (with enormous historical implications), a reading through this prism of the end of Evgenii Onegin (both the final pages of chapter 8 as well as the fragmentary tenth chapter), and, as the culmination of the entire study, an analysis of “Mednyi Vsadnik” with a focus on Pushkin’s reinterpretation of his own earlier works. (A particularly ingenious section traces the interplay of ode and elegy in this masterpiece to “The Fountain of Bakhchisarai” and its refraction in Baratynskii’s “Eda.”)
One need not accept all of Gasparov’s formulations (which at times have an overly schematic and almost deterministic quality) to be persuaded by his general observation that Pushkin gradually came to reject all one-to-one correspondences as facile and false. If, for example, Pushkin inherited a traditional understanding of the opposition of good vs. evil (richly endowed with specific features and associated with a variety of biblical and historical personages), he then transformed it, mixing those attributes and personages in surprising ways. A marked continuity in the larger paradigms of his thought went hand in hand with a stubborn refusal to endow them with permanent meaning. Pushkin subjected any given “idea” (for want of a better term) to myriad treatments—comic and tragic, sacred and profane, odic and elegiac. According to Gasparov, this phenomenon reflects not a fundamental inconsistency, but rather a series of steps in Pushkin’s systematic evaluation of man’s place in the world.
Gasparov’s method demonstrates the ubiquity of a few powerful paradigms, which appear at times in the most unexpected places, in passages that would otherwise seem bizarre or simply unremarkable. Some of his most brilliant readings are devoted to minor works that are usually treated as no more than of topical or biographical interest—the friendly epistles, the epigrams, and the correspondence. For today’s readers, these genres are often the least accessible, for they depend on a thorough knowledge of lost realia. Gasparov brings these works back to life by recreating precise historical circumstances and reestablishing the literary conventions that were borrowed and reworked. (For example, the discussion of the six-line “Ugriumykh troika est¢ pevtsov” [pp. 150–53] is one of the highlights of the entire book, revealing layers of complexity beneath a humorous facade.)
Unlike myriad “prophetic” readers before him, Gasparov ultimately emphasizes that Pushkin was very much a writer of his own time (and certainly the best writer of his time). Pushkin was not a Symbolist: he never sought to go beyond the word, to use language as a means of reaching beyond reality. “Ego mir, vo vsekh svoikh smyslovykh transformatsiiakh i kataklizmakh, sokhraniaet svoiu slovesnuiu prirodu” (p. 323, italics in original). Yet by treating the Pushkinian text as a continuum that runs smoothly from the personal (letters to friends, to his wife, etc.) to the poetic (from the lowest to the most elevated genres), Gasparov makes him a perfect candidate for the Symbolist ideal of the poet whose life is inseparable from his work. Certainly Pushkin’s belief in fatidic dates and numbers (repeatedly documented by Gasparov) indicates that he saw human life as being ordered according to principles similar to those of a great work of art. And Pushkin sought to understand these “laws” in his life, just as he strove to apply them to his art.
The extraordinary degree of interconnectedness in Pushkin’s writings is part of their undeniable fascination. However, teasing out the patterns is not without its dangers, particularly for the “synthetic” scholar. In the context of powerful, all-encompassing paradigms like apocalyptic battle, any utterance can sound relevant. According to Gasparov, when Pushkin writes in a letter to his brother: “Pereshli zhe mne prokliatuiu moiu rukopis¢,” he is not simply using an idiom: he is also attributing infernal powers to his manuscript (p. 234). When dealing with a poet as careful as Pushkin, one is tempted to find a hidden logic everywhere. It may be true that Pushkin translated excerpts from the “Song of Songs” before he wrote “The Prophet.” But did he really do so because the “Song of Songs” is the book in the Bible directly before the Book of Isaiah (the source of “The Prophet”)? Finally, the Pushkin literature is full of wonderful anecdotes of questionable provenance and authority. Gasparov cannot be faulted for including these, particularly since he so often uses biographical material to stunning effect. Yet at times he chooses to forget that some of these anecdotes were surely imposed by later mythographers precisely because they yearned for a satisfying narrative of Pushkin’s life and work. The story of the “missing” final stanza of “Prorok,” for example, was dismissed even by the Symbolists, yet Gasparov cannot resist including it (albeit with the peculiar explanation that it is “byt¢ mozhet, apokrificheskii, no ves¢ma vyrazitel¢nyi s tochki zreniia mifologii pushkinskogo povedeniia” [p. 240]).
Still, the “strannye sblizheniia” of Pushkin’s works invite such readings, and it is to Gasparov’s credit that he so tenaciously traces them. Now almost a decade old, this study has proven more durable than most of the jubilee volumes that postdate it. It has recently been republished in Russia, making it affordable even to graduate student budgets. As one of the most informed and far-reaching recent works on Pushkin, Gasparov’s book deserves the widest possible readership.
Wachtel, Michael. Rev. of B. M. Gasparov. Poeticheskii iazyk Pushkina kak fakt istorii russkogo literaturnogo iazyka. Pushkin Review / Pushkinskii vestnik 4 (2001): 143-46. <http://www.pushkiniana.org/index.php/vol-4-reviews--/210-wachtel-review04>.