Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy

Il n'y a point de voyageur instruit
qui, en passant par Leyde, n'ait
vu la partie du reticulum mucosum
d'un Nègre disséqué par le célèbre
Ruysch. Tout le reste de cette membrane
fut transporté par Pierre-le-Grand
dans le cabinet des raretés, à Pétersbourg.
Cette membrane est noire; et c'est
elle qui communique aux Nègres cette
noirceur inhérente qu'ils ne perdent
que dans les maladies qui peuvent
déchirer ce tissu, et permettre à
la graisse, échapper de ses cellules,
de faire des taches blanches sous
la peau.
—Voltaire, Essai sur les moeurs et
l'esprit des nations

Родословная матери моей еще любопытнее.
Дед ее был негр [...].
—А. С. Пушкин, «Начало автобиографии»[2]

Curiosity is indeed a curious concept. It is that which prompts us to look beyond established limits. It leads to the opening up of new horizons in knowledge and therefore may represent a challenge to established authority and received opinion. Curiosity may, then, be either good or bad depending on the point of view from which it is apprehended, a function of what Neil Kenny has termed its "extraordinary moral reversibility."[3] In this context, as far as the historical fortunes of the concept are concerned, the seventeenth century witnessed a distinct shift in Western Europe, a shift particularly noticeable in associations of curiosity and travel. Thus, Christian K. Zacher, in his Curiosity and Pilgrimage, points to the distinction drawn by medieval Christian thinkers between two understandings of knowledge: sapientia, “knowledge of things divine, the attainment of God, the goal Christians must strive for,”[4] and scientia, “human knowledge, speculative and faulty, inferior to sapientia.”[5] “Christian thinkers regarded sinful man’s pursuit of scientia as a flirtation with curiositas[6] and most definitely not a proper motive for pilgrimage: “curiositas is a morally useless, dangerous diversion for wayfaring Christians.”[7] The age of exploration, though, spurred at least in part by curiosity, placed Europeans in contact with radically different peoples and cultures and thereby gave impetus to the Renaissance rehabilitation of the ancient distinction between bona and mala curiositas. By the seventeenth century, curiosity had undergone a pronounced change in valence from negative to positive (or at least neutral).[8] One commentator has identified curiosity as “a defining element of the modern age.”[9]

Even if the secularization of knowledge, travel, and encounters between peoples tipped the balance toward a more positive perception of curiosity, the term remained slippery, resisting reduction to facile generalizations. Thus, Kenny points to “another kind of semantic reversibility [that] also characterized ‘curiosity’: its strange capacity, after centuries of mainly denoting desiring subjects, to start denoting desired objects too in the seventeenth century.”[10] This blurring of the line between the curiosity of the observer and of the curio, like the “wonder” Stephen Greenblatt identifies as the defining experience of Europeans first encountering and appropriating the New World,[11] suggests the risky, potentially subversive permeability of the boundary between self and other—and the attendant fascination with and commodification of the exotic and monstrous. Thus, Greenblatt observes:

European voyagers crate up artifacts that they have purchased or stolen or received as gifts, and they take unsuspecting or undefended natives captive, not only in order to serve as interpreters but in order to ship them back for display at home. Such displays—Columbus’s Arawaks or Frobisher’s Eskimos—appear to have been immensely popular, and by the early seventeenth century could figure as sources of income. Hence Shakespeare’s Trinculo dreams about getting the savage Caliban back to England. “Holiday fools,” he is sure, will pay handsomely to see the monster: “When they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian” (The Tempest, 2.2.30–32).[12]

Barbara M. Benedict, writing on curiosity in eighteenth-century Britain, captures the ambiguity of the relationship between the curious spectator and the curious display. She writes of:

a practice already firmly established in the world of fairs and shows. There, human oddities or “freaks”—limbless artists, giants and dwarves, those with strange appetites or features—already had their curiosity value enhanced by the biographical flourishes provided by their own publicity or by their touts and managers. In print, however, people claiming irregular bodies relied on biography for their claims to marvelous status. […] These biographical wonders enact through the reader’s complicity the thrill of comparison in which observers confirm their normality by contrasting themselves with human marvels.[13]

I would suggest that the very instability of the term “curiosity”—whether it be a spur to voyeurism or the dignified acquisition of knowledge, whether it refer to the observer or the observed, whether it serve commerce, entertainment, scholarship, or art—marks it as a nexus of the growth pains of empire and modernity and of the consequent anxieties about boundaries and even about the very limits of the human in Western Europe at the time.

So what then of Russia and, more specifically, of Pushkin? Yuri Slezkine has suggested that curiosity—the urge to travel, jostle with foreigners, and collect oddities—began in Russia only in the era of Peter the Great:

Seventeenth-century Muscovites did not travel. They might escape, migrate, or peregrinate, but they did not view movement through space as a worthy pursuit in its own right and did not encourage wonder at things profane or blasphemous.
     But Peter I’s mentors and mercenaries lived in a different world and saw the world differently (because they “observed” it carefully). All creation as they understood it was neatly divided into the “natural” and “artful” (or man-made) varieties, with the recovery of “natural” nature possible only as a result of the elimination of everything “erring” and “altered.” “Curiosity” was both a virtue and a profession; “curiosities” were objects remarkably close to the original plan (“primitive”) or particularly far removed from it (“monstrous”); and travel was an increasingly well-regarded endeavor to bring curios to the curious.[14]

Slezkine links these impulses with the eighteenth-century preoccupation with classifying the peoples of the earth, and, in Russia, particularly within the empire. Thus, while the Russian любопытство and the related calque курьез may have lacked the rich, theoretically and philosophically loaded history of the analogous terms in Western European languages,[15] by the eighteenth century they would seem to have found themselves similarly balanced between desire and difference, the acquisition of knowledge and the acquisition of property (territorial or otherwise). In the remainder of my argument here I will, moreover, explore the premise that Pushkin’s uses of the word любопытство in his unfinished novel The Blackamoor of Peter the Great expose the contemporary social and personal anxieties that underpin his fictionalized depiction of his great-grandfather’s life and times.[16]

To place my argument in context, let me begin with several observations about Pushkin’s uses of the word любопытство in his work at large. The word любопытство occurs eight times in The Blackamoor of Peter the Great, as opposed to 60 times in Pushkin’s entire oeuvre.[17] Most striking, perhaps, is the fact that Pushkin employs the word, with only two exceptions, in works of prose (14 times in critical articles, 4 times in letters, twice in The History of Pugachev, twice in Journey to Arzarum, and 28 times in prose fiction). The implicit association between curiosity and narrative evinced by these numbers appears particularly appropriate when we note that in the vast majority of cases in which Pushkin employs the word in his prose fiction or travel notes, curiosity is the prerogative of the first-person narrator or of the narrator’s interlocutor, who asks questions that prompt the narrator to tell his story.[18] In other words it is the narrator’s function to satisfy curiosity, which is to say that curiosity is that which drives narrative.

Yet even in this close association with prose Pushkinian curiosity is plagued by a precarious ambiguity. Thus, in at least two of his critical articles, Pushkin takes writers to task for preying on readers’ morbid curiosity for sensationalism, implicitly a pitfall of pandering to a popular readership. In the first case, Pushkin abhors what he assumes will be the inevitable success of the publication of the “notes” of a French executioner:

Не завидуем людям, которые, основав свои расчеты на безнравственности нашего любопытства, посвятили свое перо повторению сказаний, вероятно, безграмотного Самсона. Но признаемся же и мы, живущие в веке признаний: с нетерпеливостию, хотя и с отвращением, ожидаем мы Записок парижского палача. […] Что скажет нам сей человек, в течение сорока лет кровавой жизни своей присутствовавший при последних содроганиях стольких жертв, и славных, и неизвестных, и священных, и ненавистных? […] Головы, одна за другою, западают перед нами, произнося каждая свое последнее слово… И, насытив жестокое наше любопытство, книга палача займет свое место в библиотеках, в ожидании ученых справок будущего историка. («О записок Самсона», PSS 11: 94 - 95, emphasis mine—C.T.N.)

In the second, Pushkin refuses to condemn all of French literature because of the excesses of a single group:

[У]жели весь сей народ должен ответствовать за произведения нескольких писателей, большею частию молодых людей, употребляющих во зло свои таланты и основывающих корыстные расчеты на любопытстве и нервной раздражительности читателей? Для удовлетворения публики, всегда требующей новизны и сильных впечатлений, многие писатели обратились к изображениям отвратительным, мало заботясь об изящном, об истине, о собственном убеждении. («Мнение М.Е. Лобанова о духе словесности», PSS, 12: 69, emphasis mine—C.T.N.)

The connection between curiosity and commerce in the literary marketplace threatens not only the content of literature, but the person of the artist as well. And so the most blatant exploitation of curiosity in the interests of art depicted in Pushkin’s works figures in Egyptian Nights, in which Charsky, himself squeamish about drawing the attention of society to his calling as an artist, twice in quick succession assures the Italian improvisatore that his performance must invariably be a success and therefore make money because it will arouse curiosity: «Любопытство будет возбуждено,» «—Поедут—не опасайтесь: иные из любопытства…» (PSS 8: 267). Curiosity, then, would seem to be a particularly sensitive gauge of Pushkin’s own concerns about the changing social role of the author and literature entailed by the ascendency of prose. Literature—and the artist—for sale to a readership beyond the confines of his immediate circle hovers dangerously close to an exhibit in a freak show.[19]

Given the apparent affinity between curiosity and prose in Pushkin’s writings, it is hardly surprising that the word is repeated more frequently in the relatively brief novel The Blackamoor of Peter the Great, Pushkin’s first extended work of prose fiction, than it is in any of his other works. Moreover, this statistic suggests that Pushkin considered his forebear an especially worthy subject with which to launch his own serious career as a writer of prose fiction, at least in part because Gannibal’s exotic foreign origin rendered him a likely object of curiosity in his own right, and, as we shall see, seven of the eight repetitions of the word любопытство in The Blackamoor of Peter the Great are related directly to the figure of Ibragim. A brief survey of Pushkin’s use of the word in his novel hopefully will further illuminate the anxieties, both aesthetic and personal, it signals.

In the opening, “Parisian” chapters of the novel, the word is used virtually exclusively to describe the motives of those who gaze on the “Negro” Ibragim, most particularly women. Susceptibility to the lure of “curiosity” is in fact one of the defining traits of this society: «Богатство, любезность, слава, таланты. Самая странность, все, что подавало пищу любопытству или обещало удовольствие, было принято с одинаковой благосклонностью» (PSS, 8: 4, my emphasis—C.T.N.). The compendium of traits that excite curiosity here is telling, most particularly in anticipation of Egyptian Nights, the metonymic association of riches, glory, talent, and strangeness. The text makes clear that Ibragim is first attracted to the Countess precisely because she does not view him with curiosity:

Графиня приняла Ибрагима учтиво, но безо всягоко особенного внимания; это польстило ему. Обыкновенно смотрели на молодого негра как на чудо, окружали его, осыпали приветствиями и вопросами, и это любопытство, хотя и прикрытое видом благосклонности, оскорбляла его самолюбие. Сладостное внимание женщин, почти единственная цель наших усилий, не только не радовало его, но даже исполняло горечью и негодованием. Он чувствовал, что он для них род какого-то редкого зверя, творенья особенного, чужого, случайно перенесенного в мир, не имеющий с ним ничего общего. Он даже завидовал людям, никем не замеченным, и почитал их ничтожество благополучием. (PSS 8: 4–5, my emphasis—C.T.N.)

It appears that Ibragim fears being viewed as a freak, outside the bounds of the human. Of course, as the narrator points out: «и не одна красавица заглядывалась на него с чувством более лестным, нежели простое любопытство; но предубежденный Ибрагим или ничего не замечал, или видел одно кокетство» (PSS 8: 5, my emphasis—C.T.N.). The discrepancy between Ibragim’s understanding of himself as “Other” and his apparent attractiveness as a sexual partner is underscored by the narrator in perhaps the only instance in which that voice departs explicitly from Ibragim’s point of view in the text. This discrepancy therefore suggests a certain powerful instability in Ibragim’s image, caught in the space of the exotic between desire, marvel, and disgust, the space into which he projects his own anxieties about how others see him.

There is, however, a marked shift in Ibragim’s relationship to curiosity in the Russian chapters of the novel. Immediately upon his return to Russia, he becomes no longer a potential object of curiosity, but himself an observer of curiosity:

Ибрагим с любопытством смотрел на новорожденную столицу, которая подымалась из болота по манию самодержавия. Обнаженные плотины, каналы без набережной, деревянные мосты повсюду являли недавнюю победу человеческой воли над супротивлением стихий. Дома казались на скоро построены. Во всем городе не было ничего великолепного, кроме Невы, не украшенной еще гранитною рамою, но уже покрытой военными и торговыми судами. (PSS 8: 10, my emphasis—C.T.N.)

Ibragim is here transformed from the object to the subject of the curious gaze. In this context, Svetlana Evdokimova has suggested that Ibragim functions as a “‘double’ foreigner” in The Blackamoor of Peter the Great, rightly underscoring his importance as an observer of the “syncretic,” inchoate Petrine epoch simultaneously from inside and from outside.[20] If Ibragim continually runs the risk in France of being reduced to a curio, in Russia, at least at first, he seems in his new role as subject to be an emblem of the free-wheeling meritocracy of the age, gaining acceptance virtually as kin into the Tsar’s family and into the society at large.

Thus, as the text progresses, Ibragim becomes a cultural mediator, one who is able to satisfy curiosity (rather than arouse curiosity) because of his superior knowledge. When Peter the Great retires to rest after dining, Ibragim remains behind with the women of the imperial family: “Ибрагим остался с императрицей и с великими княжнами. Он старался удовлетворить их любопытству, описывал образ парижской жизни, тамошние праздники и своенравные моды” (11). Shortly thereafter in the text, on the other hand, Ibragim finds himself explaining Petersburg society to the Frenchified Korsakov: “Корсаков осыпал Ибрагима вопросами, кто в Петербурге первая красавица? Кто славится первым танцовщиком? Какой танец нынче в моде? Ибрагим весьма неохотно удовлетворял его любопытству” (15). Here we see clearly how curiosity, specifically the need for explanation, feeds on change and difference within and between cultures. Tellingly, it is Ibragim, who himself begins as an object of curiosity because of his origin beyond the boundaries of European culture, because of his status as an outsider in France, who in Petrine Russia becomes empowered with the knowledge to satisfy the curiosity of his adopted fellow countrymen and women. His ability to satisfy curiosity thus marks him as an insider, while, as we have noted, his status as an object of curiosity marked him as an outsider in France. Yet an underlying anxiety about curiosity continues to infect the text, imminent in his status as a “go-between,”[21] native to neither Russia nor the West—a status that is perilous in the extreme.

Here we should note that following tradition that goes back to Pandora and her box, in the overwhelming majority of cases in which любопытство is invoked in The Blackamoor of Peter the Great, the characters who experience curiosity are female. This fact, I will suggest, exposes an underlying sexual anxiety. The final two incidences of the word любопытство in The Blackamoor of Peter the Great invoke the stereotypically negative image of the curious, prying woman. In the first instance, Natasha Rzhevskaia falls victim to her desire to learn her fate:

Сердце в ней замерло, когда государь заперся с ее отцом. Какое-то предчувствие шепнуло ей, что дело касается до нее, и когда Гаврила Афанасьевич отослал ее, объявив, что должен говорить ее тетке и деду, она не могла противиться влечению женского любопытства, тихо через внутренние покои подкралась к дверям опочивальни и не пропустила ни одного слова из всего ужасного разговора; когда же услышала последние отцовские слова, бедная девушка лишилась чувств и, падая, расшибла голову о кованный сундук, где хранилось ее приданое. (PSS 8: 26)[22]

Natasha faints when she overhears the words with which her father responded to Peter the Great’s matchmaking for «Арап Ибрагим»: «—Я сказал, что власть его с нами, а наше холопье дело повиноваться ему во всем» (PSS 8: 26). The second instance occurs after Natasha, some time later, having recovered long enough to catch a brief glimpse of Ibragim, engages in a tête-à-tête with the family’s resident dwarf to find out what has happened to her fortunes in the time she has been ill:

Несчастная красавица открыла глаза и, не видя уже никого около своей постели, подозвала служанку и послала ее за карлицею. Но в ту же минуту круглая, старая крошка как шарик подкатилась к ее кровати. Ласточка (так называлась карлица) во всю прыть коротеньких ножек, вслед ка Гаврилою Афанасьевичем и Ибрагимом, пустилась вверх по лестнице и притаилась за дверью, не изменяя любопытству, сродному прекрасному полу. (PSS 8: 31, my emphasis—C.T.N.)

Most telling here, I would suggest, is the fact that the dwarf, in doubling Natasha’s action, also serves as an invocation of the freakish, the marginally human.

At this point, let me return to my assertion of the link between “curiosity” and prose in Pushkin’s works. I would argue, following on my survey of “curiosity” in The Blackamoor of Peter the Great, that Pushkin’s first major attempt at prose may conceivably, and even probably, be read as an allegory of the literary process, with the figure of Ibragim at the center. Pushkin, who at the time when he began writing The Blackamoor of Peter the Great had just recently returned from exile and was himself something of a “curiosity” in Petersburg society, was, of course, aware—even painfully so—of the fragile line dividing the Author’s story from the author’s story, the narratives generated by the writer as writer from the tales that grow up around the writer’s body, both in measure at the mercy of the good faith and competence of the reader. Ibragim, as an autobiographical fiction, serves to focus the anxiety of the writer balanced between satisfying the curiosity of his readership and risking becoming a curiosity in his own right. In this context, I would direct attention to the second epigraph to this note, a passage from Voltaire’s Essai sur les moeurs et l’esprit des nations which encapsulates the more sinister implications of “enlightenment” curiosity about and taxonomies of other peoples.[23] Voltaire’s observation makes clear the risk that if one’s body attracts curiosity, one will be reduced to a collectible object, a monstrous spectacle. On the other hand, if the writer takes on the role of satisfying the curiosity of others, he might appear little more than a “tout.”

Moreover, as the second epigraph to this note demonstrates, Pushkin did indeed view his African heritage as “curious.” A number of scholars who have written on The Blackamoor of Peter the Great have suggested that Pushkin found his great-grandfather an attractive subject to serve as the focus of an historical fiction because the poet drew an analogy of one sort or another between his forebear and himself. In this context, however, there has been a definite tendency to downplay or defuse Pushkin’s own repeatedly stated belief that his great-grandfather was a “Negro” and therefore insufficient attention has been paid to the aesthetic and psychical implications and metaphorical force of this racial identification as a figure in Pushkin’s life and works. Yet I would suggest that beneath the certainly idealized portrayal of Ibragim in The Blackamoor of Peter the Great, and particularly of Ibragim’s relationship with his imperial godfather, which reflected the fact that Pushkin’s primary sources on Gannibal’s life were family legends and the unremittingly eulogistic “German biography” of Gannibal, lies a darker and more ambiguous reality. This reality, moreover would have resonated in disturbing ways not only at a transitional moment in Pushkin’s literary fortunes, but at a transitional moment in his life as he was contemplating marriage, a situation in which Pushkin could not help but worry that he might find himself in an unenviable position with regard to “curiosity.”

In this regard we cannot help but notice that Ibragim’s “Africanness” is unquestionably associated with marginal humanity in the novel, at least as regards the “Blackamoor’s” self-perception, as evidenced by his farewell letter to his Parisian mistress: “Зачем силиться соединить судьбу столь нежного, столь прекрасного создания с бедственной судьбой негра, жалкого творения, едва удостоенного названия человека?” (7: 9). Tellingly, Ibragim places himself in this self-evaluation at the fringes of the human, in the realm of dwarfs (like Lastochka), freaks, and monsters. In this context, studying Peter I as a collector of oddities, Tony Anemone has written of “Peter’s unusual, but hardly unique, passions for giants, dwarfs, malformed humans and animals, his love of arranging carnivalesque weddings and funerals for his various ‘monsters.’”[24] In the same vein, Nabokov in his study of Abram Gannibal, observes with regard to Gannibal’s arrival in Russia that “In Moscow, he [Peter] amused himself with establishing an anatomical and biological museum, with a botanical garden in front of it. The Young Blackamoor was no doubt welcomed as an additional curio.”[25] Moreover, he goes on to suggest a decidedly grotesque reading of the ceremony that would, in the future, allow the poet to claim kinship with the reformer tsar, Gannibal’s baptism:

[T]he ceremony performed on the young Blackamoor, at the Pyatnitski church, in late September or early October, 1707 (not “1705,” as the memorial plaque there oddly says), with Peter I as godfather and Christiana Eberhardina, wife of King Augustus II of Poland, as godmother (fide the German biography), was conducted in the rowdy and slapstick atmosphere of Peter’s court and smacks of mock marriages between freaks or the elevation of jesters to the rank of governors of Barataria. Indeed, there seems to have been an attempt by some zealous courtiers, a few months before, to marry the Blackamoor: in a letter from Poland, dated May 13, 1707, the tsar writes to Councilor Avtonom Ivanov that he does not wish to have the arap conjugated—with, presumably, the daughter of some grandee’s Negro servant, or a dwarf, or a Russian female house fool (domashnyaya dura, shutiha).[26]

While it stretches credibility that Pushkin could have known any of this, there would indeed seem to be a muted echo of the carnivalesque marriage in the associative proximity into which Ibragim is cast with the dwarf Lastochka in the novel. Certainly a scurrilous anecdote included in Table-Talk suggests a less than facile attitude on Pushkin’s part toward Peter the Great as a “fearless naturalist” as well as toward his greatgrandfather’s “curious” provenance[27] :

Однажды маленький арап, сопровождающий Петра I в его прогулке, остановился за некоторою нуждой и вдруг закричал в испуге: «Государь! государь! из меня кишка лезет». Петр подошел к нему и, увидя в чем дело, сказал: «врешь: это не кишка, а глиста»—и выдернул глисту своими пальцами. Анекдот довольно не чист, но рисует обычаи Петра. (PSS 12: 157)

At the very least this “anecdote” offers supporting evidence that the figure of the blackamoor was as visceral to Pushkin as it was closely felt. And, of course, Pushkin’s own fears of a marital mismatch were too prescient and are too well documented to detain us here.

In sum, I would conclude that Ibragim/Abram Gannibal as a locus of curiosity served Pushkin as a potent textual and biographical field on which to put in play his own uncertainties about his place in the world at a moment when his immediate personal, professional, and even political context was in unquestionable flux. That is most certainly why Pushkin turned to the story of his great-grandfather in his first novel. As to why he left the novel unfinished—that is another story.[28]


Barnard College
Columbia University



Nepomnyashchy, Catharine Theimer. "A Note on Curiosity in Pushkin's The Blackamoor of Peter the Great." Pushkin Review 04 (2001):0 37-50.

[*] I would like to express my appreciation to Robert Maguire, Catherine O'Neil, Ludmilla Trigos, Ronald Meyer, and the two anonymous readers for The Pushkin Review, all of whom made very helpful suggestions that have been incorporated into the final version of this article.

[1] Voltaire, Oeuvres complètes de Voltaire (Paris: Armand-Aubré, Éditeur, 1729), 12: 6.

[2] Aleksandr Pushkin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Moscow: Izdatel′stvo Akademii nauk SSSR, 1949), 12: 311. Henceforth all references to this edition of Pushkin's works will be given in parentheses in the text as PSS, volume, and page number.

[3] Neil Kenny, Curiosity in Early Modern Europe: Word Histories (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 1998), 14.

[4] Christian K. Zacher, Curiosity and Pilgrimage: The Literature o f Discovery in Fourteenth-Century England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), 19.

[5] Zacher, 19. See also Dennis Quinn, “Polypragmosyne in the Renaissance: Ben Jonson”: “Early and medieval Christian writers condemned curiosity as a vice because, as an excess in the order of learning, it constitutes distraction from the main business of the Christian—salvation of one’s soul” (The Ben Jonson Journal: Literary Contexts in the Age of Elizabeth, James and Charles, vol. 2 [1995]: 158).

[6] Zacher, 20.

[7] Zacher, 21.

[8] Kenny, 16. According to Barbara Benedict: “Curiosity is a historical phenomenon that crests when opportunities and commodities that encourage and manifest it crest: the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.” (Barbara Benedict, Curiosity: A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001], 8).

[9] Quinn observes that “the most extensive study of curiosity is that of Hans Blumenberg in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age. He, correctly I think, identifies curiosity as a defining element of the modern age.”

[10] Kenny, 15.

[11] “Wonder effects the crucial break with an other that can only be described, only witnessed, in the language and images of sameness. It erects an obstacle that is at the same time an agent of arousal. For the blockage that constitutes a recognition of distance excites a desire to cross the threshold, break through the barrier, enter the space of the alien” (Stephen Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991], 135). This quote should give some indication of the resonance between curiosity and Greenblatt’s “wonder” as well as of the subtlety of his argument about the complexities of the meeting of alien semiotic systems framed by unequal power relations.

[12] Greenblatt, 121 - 22.

[13] Benedict, 42 - 43.

[14] Yuri Slezkine, “Naturalists versus Nations: Eighteenth-Century Russian Scholars Confront Ethnic Diversity,” in Daniel R. Brower and Edward J. Lazzerini, eds., Russia’s Orient: Imperial Borderlands and Peoples, 1700–1917 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), 27, 28. I am grateful to Ludmilla Trigos for bringing this article to my attention.

[15] Here, for a comparative analysis of the history of the relevant terms in the Romance and Germanic languages, I would refer the reader to Kenny, Curiosity in Early Modern Europe: Word Histories. For the Russian case, let me simply cite two sets of dictionary definitions that predate Pushkin’s time:
     CURIOSITÉ, s. f. любопытство, любоведение, желание все видеть, знать, всему учиться, иметь разные редкие вещи. Curiosité défendue, запрещенное, непозволенное любопытство. Aller par curiosité en quelque lieu, итти из любопытства в какое место. Satisfaire, contenter sa curiosité, удовольствовать свое любопытство. Cabinet de curiosités, кабинет редкостей. (Dictionnaire complet
François et russe: Composé sur la dernière édition de celui de l’Académie François
, Ivan Ivanovich Tatishchev, ed. [St. Petersbourg: De l’Imprimerie impériale, chez J. J. Weitbrecht, 1798]. Please note that the spelling of this passage has been modernized.)
     ЛЮБОПЫТСТВО, ства, с. ср. 2 скл. Склонность, охота, старание к приобретению сведении, познании. Непозволенное любопытство. Книга достойная любопытства. Удовольствовать свое любопытство. (Slovar′ Akademii Rossiiskoi, po azbuchnomu poriadku raspolozhennyi. Part 3. K–N. St. Petersburg, Imperatorskaia Akademiia Nauk, 1814.)
As these definitions from reference works slightly preceding Pushkin’s time suggest, the Russian term did not apparently undergo any startling evolution, a fact perhaps not surprising given Russia’s different history of imperial expansion. Moreover, the Russian noun (unlike its adjectival counterpart) never took on the meaning of object of curiosity. I would nonetheless hope that a scholar will someday attempt to reconstruct the Russian history of любопытство from textual examples in the manner of Kenny. (I would like to thank Ilya Vinitsky for obtaining the text of the Slovar′ Akademii Rossiiskoi for me.)

[16] For particulary useful and relevant studies of The Blackamoor of Peter the Great, see: S. L. Abramovich, “K voprosu ostanovlenii povestvovatel′noi prozy Pushkina: Pochemu ostalsia nezavershennym ‘Arap Petra Velikogo,’” Russkaia literatura 17:2 (1974): 54 - 73; D. I. Belkin, “Zametki o Pushkinskoi traktovke natsional′nogo i obshchechelovecheskogo v obraze afrikantsa Ibragima Gannibala,” Literaturnye sviazi i traditsii, vyp. 3: Mezhvuzovskii sbornik (Gor′kii: Gor′kovskii Gosudarstvennyi Universitet im. N. I. Lobashevskogo, 1972), 52 - 63; D. I. Belkin “O Rossiiskikh istochnikakh ‘Arapa Petra Velikogo,’” Boldinskie chteniia (Gor′kii: Volgo-Viatskoe knizhnoe izdatel′stvo, 1987), 222 - 38; B. L. Bogorodskii, “O iazyke i stile romana A. S. Pushkina ‘Arap Petra Velikogo,’” Uchenye zapiski, vol. 122 (Leningrad: Leningradskii Gosudarstvennyi Pedagogicheskii Institut im. A. I. Gertsena, 1956), 201 - 39; Paul Debreczeny, “The Blackamoor of Peter the Great: Puškin’s Experiment with a Detached Mode of Narration,” Slavic and East European Journal 18:2 (1974): 119 - 31; G. A. Lapkina, “K istorii sozdaniia ‘Arapa Petra Velikogo,’” Pushkin: Issledovaniia i materialy 2 (1958), 293 - 309; L. S. Sidiakov, “‘Arap Petra Velikogo’ i ‘Poltava,’” Pushkin: Issledovaniia i materialy, vol. 12 (Leningrad: Nauka, 1986), 60 - 77; M. G. Kharlap, “O zamysle ‘Arapa Petra Velikogo,’” Seriia literatury i iazyka 48: 3 (1989): 270 - 75; D. P. Iakubovich, “‘Arap Petra Velikogo,’” Issledovaniia i materialy, vol. 9 (Leningrad: Nauka, 1979), 261 - 93.

[17] V. V. Vinogradov, ed., Slovar′ iazyka Pushkina (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel′stvo inostrannykh i natsional′nykh slovarei, 1957), 2: 526 - 27.

[18] The use of this technique as a driving force of narrative is particularly pronounced in the opening banter between Maxim Maximych and the narrator in Lermontov’s Hero of Our Times. It is also worth noting that Paul Debreczeny points to Pushkin’s own indebtedness particularly to Sir Walter Scott in creating his naïve narrators (Paul Debreczeny, The Other Pushkin: A Study of Alexander Pushkin’s Prose Fiction [Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1983], 29 - 30, 63 - 64). It would seem that Scott himself had a distinct fondness for the word “curiosity” judging by the frequency of its usage in his novels. For instance, the word appears 49 times in Waverley, 18 times in Ivanhoe, 23 times in Heart of Midlothian, 21 times in Guy Mannering, 31 times in Kenilworth, 25 times in Rob Roy, and 15 times in Talisman (

[19] On the literary context in Pushkin’s time, see William Mills Todd III, Fiction and Society in the Age of Pushkin: Ideology, Institutions, and Narrative (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), especially “Institutions of Literature,” 45 - 105.

[20] Svetlana Evdokimova, Pushkin's Historical Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 150.

[21] I take this term from Greenblatt.  See chap. 5, "The Go-between," of Marvelous Possessions, 119 - 51.

[22] It is worth noting the particularly nice touch that Natasha strikes her head against the chest containing her dowry, thus drawing attention to the “mercantile” aspects of marriage. In this context, see my “The Telltale Black Baby, Or Why Pushkin Began the Blackamoor of Peter the Great, But Didn’t Finish It,” in “Under the Sky of My Africa”: Alexander Pushkin and Blackness, eds. Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy, Ludmilla Trigos, and Nicole Svobodny (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, forthcoming).

[23] It is worth noting in this context that Voltaire’s novel L’ingénu (translated as The Sincere Huron), in which a “native American” finds himself in England and France, allowing the reader to see through his eyes, might have served Pushkin as a model for Ibragim as a “naïve” observer of European civilization. It is perhaps telling in this context, however, that the “Huron” in Voltaire’s novel turns out to be a European by birth who was raised by native Americans after his parents had been slaughtered. For works by Voltaire contained in Pushkin’s library, see B. L. Modzalevskii, “Biblioteka A. S. Pushkina,” Pushkin i ego sovremenniki (St. Peterburg, 1910), 9 - 10: 360 - 63.

[24] Tony Anemone, "The Monsters of Peter the Great: The Culture of the Kunstkamera in 18th-Century St. Petersburg," unpublished lecture, 12 - 13.

[25] Vladimir Nabokov, “Appendix One: Abram Gannibal,” in Aleksandr Pushkin, Eugene Onegin, translated with commentary by Vladimir Nabokov (New York: Pantheon Books, 1964), 3: 423.

[26] Nabokov, 3: 424 - 25.

[27] I am grateful to Catherine O'Neil for having suggested this reading of this passage to me.  The phrasing in quotation marks is hers.

[28] I will not address here the issue of why Pushkin did not finish The Blackamoor of Peter the Great, because, in "The Telltale Black Baby," I focus my argument around that question in a related, but more relevant context.