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“Is it to be wondered that, after this nation had borne the yoke for centuries… its gentle character should have sunk into the artful, cruel indolence of the slave?”

April 22, 2015

I just started Dale Peterson’s Up from Bondage: The Literatures of Russian and African American Soul. Its premise is that the Europeans of the Enlightenment created a supposedly scientific classification that excluded black people and Slavs from the civilized races, and in response to this exclusion Russians and African Americans each made “the counterclaim of an ethnic essence” (4-6). Their group was not inferior, primitive, unworthy of attention. Instead it had some special quality that no one else had. This special quality, this “ethnic essence,” is the “soul” of the title.

Coming to the book I had assumed the parallel was built on the pre-1860s experience of slavery common to African Americans and Russian peasants and thought Peterson would look at pairs of authors similarly situated on the master-slave scale. Anti-slavery Russian noblemen (like Turgenev) might resemble white abolitionists (like Stowe). Ex-slaves and the descendants of slaves, like Chekhov and Chesnutt, might interpret their present through similar ideas about the pre-emancipation past. Some, like Chernyshevskii, wouldn’t be easy to categorize.

But that isn’t what Peterson does in his juxtapositions. In each case he takes an African American author and a Russian author who is as often as not from a landowning, slaveholding family. Petr Chaadaev and Alexander Crummell represent “Eurocentric and ‘civilizationist’” movements (7). Ivan Kireevskii and W. E. B. Du Bois show “the beginnings of what may truly be described as cultural nationalism” (7-8). By “reproduc[ing] the semantic gaps and contested meanings present in numerous dramatized exchanges between a literate master and an illiterate peasantry,” Turgenev and Chesnutt cleverly depict “the deliberate evasiveness of an oral peasant culture confronting the blindness and insights of Western literacy,” as does, in a different way, Zora Neale Hurston (8). Dostoevskii and James Weldon Johnson show us “self-divided bicultural characters who represent the paradoxical mentality of Westernized Russians and hyphenated African-Americans” (8-9). Maksim Gor’kii and Richard Wright “rejected populism and nationalism and sought instead to attach their people to a new secular universalism” (10). The Eurasianist movement and the “New Negro” movement marked a turn toward cosmopolitanism or multiculturalism, but with a “residual ethnocentrism — namely, the idea that Russians or African Americans were inherently more synthetic or more comprehensively multicultural than other modern nationalities” (10-11). In the late twentieth century, Valentin Rasputin and Gloria Naylor “construct an island refuge of ethnic ‘soul’ and relate its dramatic encounter with a ‘mainstream’ culture that threatens to inundate it” (11-12).

At first I wondered if the inclusion of Russian slaveholders was pragmatic, a decision made so Lomonosov and Chekhov wouldn’t have to stand for pre–twentieth century Russian culture. But Peterson has different divisions in mind. He’s thinking about which groups were left out in various European discourses about whose culture counts, and within those groups he contrasts the elite to a larger mass the elite feels bound to speak for (or at least about):

It matters that the cultural construction of Russian and black “soul” has not been an enterprise of the folk masses but of a self-consciously literate class obligated by racial ties to identify with a vast population of illiterate and enslaved bondsmen. The literature actually written by the small number of educated black slaves and Russian serfs (who were even fewer in a peasant culture whose religion was rooted in Orthodox liturgy rather than scriptural warrant) was devoted to the abolition of cultural inequality and not to the preservation of cultural difference. It has been, for understandable reasons, the deracinated or socially advantaged brothers and sisters of the folk who have most felt the imperative to define the irreducible particularity of a nationality that had been denied any historic significance of its own. (9-10)

In this sense Turgenev and Chesnutt are not looking at “the people” from opposite sides of the divide, but each as an elite, literate member of a marginalized nationality.

I’m looking forward to reading the next eight chapters, plus an epilogue on the interest scholars like Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Houston Baker Jr. have had in Bakhtin (3, 186-200). The full citation for the book is Dale E. Peterson, Up from Bondage: The Literatures of Russian and African American Soul (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000). The title of the post is from a quotation by Peterson of something Johann Gottfried von Herder wrote about Russians in 1791. I’m coming to Peterson’s book via Julie de Sherbinin and John MacKay.

Justyn Feliksovich “was entirely Russian and did not even consider himself a Pole”

April 17, 2015

Leskov’s No Way Out (Некуда, 1864 — the book Victoria Thorstensson and I are translating) is a bit like a Dickens novel in that the characters don’t all seem to belong in the same world, or perhaps the same genre. A lot of them seem human and have the kind of interesting psychological complexity you expect from a nineteenth-century Russian novel — Liza Bakhareva, Mother Agnia, Doctor Rozanov. But Reiner is an angel, the Marquise de Baral and her entourage are comic figures, and the Poles Raciborski and especially Jaroszyński are cartoonish villains.

Not every Polish character is a caricature, though. Justyn Pomada anticipates Prince Myshkin from The Idiot (Идиот, 1868-69) as an unworldly saint, though women don’t take the childlike Pomada as seriously as Myshkin. He’s as fully drawn as any of the Russian characters but cut off from them, with one foot in the world of idiosyncratic psychology and human weakness, and the other on Reiner’s plane of moral purity.

Aleksandr Kuz’min gives Pomada and No Way Out a whole section (30-34) in his chapter on how Poles are portrayed in Leskov. Despite the presence of Jaroszyński later in the novel, the author’s position when Pomada is introduced seems critical of Russian prejudice against Poles in the wake of the January Uprising of 1863. Pomada’s parents were brought to Russia in the wake of the failed November Uprising of 1830-31, but Russia had no use for them (33). Their son grew up in Russia and was educated in Russian schools; the narrator declares that “he was entirely Russian and did not even consider himself a Pole”; but Russians, asked to describe him, laconically say he’s Polish as if that were all anyone needed to know (32). He fought and died in the 1863 uprising, but his motives, like those of Reiner and a minor character named Kajetan Słobodziński, were a belief in universal human freedom and independence, while the more pragmatic Jaroszyński just wanted political power transferred from certain Russians to certain Poles (33).

At the beginning of the novel, Pomada is employed as a teacher of penmanship in the house of the noblewoman Mereva. He stayed there as her children grew older, ignoring hints to leave, but never thrown out decisively; the episode seemed to me to point out Pomada’s impracticality and lack of ambition. But Kuz’min notes the irony that this supposed foreigner is a teacher of penmanship for children whose ethnic Russian mother’s Russian is bad (32).

Kuz’min gives a list of novels of the period with unsympathetic Polish characters that looks like a list of the most famous anti-nihilist novels (30). I wish he’d had the space to go into more detail on one of them, Pisemskii’s Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863). I thought the main Polish character from that novel, Panna Kazimiera, was neither negatively portrayed nor a stereotype. Not one I’m familiar with, anyway — most of the “typically Polish” traits I know from Russian writing of the time apply to men, and I may just not know enough about how Russians pictured Polish women c. 1863. However, I think you could argue that of the four women the main character Baklanov hurts — the luxury-loving noblewoman Sonia, the peasant girl Masha, his landlady’s daughter Kazimiera, and the devout and serious Evpraksiia — the Polish woman is the least commonplace.

See A. V. Kuz’min, Инородец в творчестве Н. С. Лескова: Проблема изображения и оценки (St. Petersburg: Filologicheskii fakul’tet SPbGU, 2003).

Bonawentura Kajetanowicz Chrząrzczkowski

April 11, 2015

Back in 2013 I was thinking about the use of Ukrainian in Russian literature and how Leskov and Pisemskii dealt with dialogue between Ukrainian and Russian characters. But as I just read in a book by A. V. Kuz’min, “the device of linguistic conflict between characters who belong to different ethnic groups [natsional’nosti]” is “fairly persistent in Leskov’s poetics,” and not just with Ukrainians (22).

Among his examples is the story “Kuvyrkov” (Кувырков), which I haven’t read (it’s in the ongoing 1996- collected works, but didn’t make it into the 1902-03 or 1956-58 or 1993 collections):

In Leskov’s early story “Kuvyrkov” (1863) there is a Polish character named Bonawentura Kajetanowicz Chrząrzczkowski. The comic nature of this character is embedded in his very name, which was deliberately invented by the author — on the model of Polish names — to be difficult to pronounce. However, in the story he is described in a positive way. “No materialism, no nihilism: quiet, pious, respectful, and modest. I’d even wish to have a son like him” (PSS 2:90), the main character of the story, Aleksei Kirillovich Kuvyrkov, says of him. Once, while a guest at someone’s house, Bonawentura Kajetanowicz decided to ask the hostess about the health of one of her daughters:

“Oh, nothing much is wrong with her,” replied the mother, “but she walked a little yesterday and felt worse. There is some unsightly swelling.”

“In her whatsit? [В самой вещи?]” Bonawentura Kajetanowicz asked sympathetically. (PSS 2:91)

Asked in this form, the question shocked those present. One of the guests explained to Bonawentura Kajetanowicz what had happened, and he […] apologized, saying he hadn’t meant to offend anyone and that “‘[where I’m from], instead of в самом деле [‘really, is that so’] people say w samej rzeczi [sic], which literally translates to в самой вещи [‘in the thing itself’] […]’ but everything was already ruined” (PSS 2:92). His apology was accepted, and the incident was quickly forgotten, but it had the most tragic consequences for the main character, Kuvyrkov, who from that moment on began to pay so much attention to how language is used that he soon went out of his mind. The episode involving Bonawentura Kajetanowicz is presented by Leskov in a comic light, but in the context of the Polish problem of the early 1860s (the January Uprising of 1863; significantly, the story was published that same year), it symbolizes, in veiled form, the lack of mutual understanding between Poles and Russians. (23)

Kuz’min spends more time on a pair of travel accounts, “From a Travel Diary” (Из одного дорожного дневника, 1862) and “Russian Society in Paris” (Русское общество в Париже, 1863, 2nd ed. 1867). In them the Russian traveler-narrator begins with a certain “sentimentality” toward the Poles that he picked up in “liberal Petersburg circles” (27-28). He more or less keeps it in Krakow, where he finds the local Poles don’t suffer from any “narrow-mindedness of tribal or religious thinking” (26), but loses it in Lemberg (present-day Lviv), where the Polish population is demonstratively hostile to the larger Rusyn population, which in turn despises them and prefers German domination, to the amusement of the Austrian overlords. The Galician Rusyns, if I understand Kuz’min’s summary of Leskov right, were seen as a subset of Little Russians (Ukrainians), who were in turn a subset of Russians, and therefore the Polish-Rusyn conflict in Lemberg was like the Polish-Russian conflict in the Russian Empire, but with the dominant side reversed (26-30). Later, in Paris, the narrator sees Polish expatriates as less tolerant than Russian expatriates, but envies their patriotism and solidarity, Russians being the only group in a diverse Paris who fail to set up a mutual aid society for their own set (28). (Poles and Russians in Paris is a theme Leskov would return to in The Bypassed [Обойденные, 1865], book 3, chapters 12-18, when Dolinskii meets “M-r le prêtre Zaionczek.”)

Overall it seems like the narrator’s position should make you a little uncomfortable whether you’re a Russian, Ukrainian, Rusyn, or Polish nationalist, or a liberal “people are people” cosmopolitan. The narrator remarks early on that he has often been mistaken for a foreigner: for a Frenchman in St. Petersburg, and for a Jew by women in Orlov Province (because he was dressed “properly, that is, like a foreigner/German,” как следует, то есть “по-немецки,” 21-22).

See A. V. Kuz’min, Инородец в творчестве Н. С. Лескова: Проблема изображения и оценки (St. Petersburg: Filologicheskii fakul’tet SPbGU, 2003). The book is organized into chapters on “Representations of Poles and the Polish Theme,” “Russia and the West,” and “The Jewish Theme and Representations of Jews” in Leskov.

Prankishness in the age of Pushkin

March 27, 2015

Tolstoi wants you to understand that it isn’t funny to open all the windows in winter while an old woman coughs and prays on the stove, or to tie a bear to a policeman and push the bear into a river. Pisemskii writes about Moscow University students throwing a dead cat on stage because they didn’t like a certain actress in Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863, part 2, chapter 3). In Nekrasov’s “About the Weather” (О погоде, 1858-65), two young men flirtatiously take two young seamstresses out of the city, then abruptly dump them in a snowy cemetery and drive away (see the passage beginning “Невский полон: эстампы и книги”). Officers in a Leskov story try to remember if they had cut off anyone’s nose while drunk the night before.

I’d never tied these incidents together before, and it’s easy to see each one as typical of the particular author. Pisemskii shows us how petty we are. Nekrasov makes us empathize with the downtrodden poor. And so on. But thanks to Joe Peschio, I see that all of them can be seen as mid-century reactions against the early-century idea of shalosti.

Shalost’ is often translated as “prank” or “mischief,” but its meaning in Russian is broad. What all its meanings had in common was “not doing what is expected of one, or doing what is not expected of one” (11). Shalost’ and related words could belong to any of three overlapping semantic fields: “play,” “dysfunction,” and “rebellion” (11-12).

Here are a few of Peschio’s examples of shalosti (in some cases contemporaries used another word formed on the root shal- or the French word folie to characterize these):

  1. Polezhaev writing a “comic poema drawn from student life” (3-5)
  2. Pushkin going to “a gathering at a regional governor’s house wearing see-through pantaloons and no underwear” (9)
  3. The organized catcalling of an actress in Odessa by M. D. Buturlin and his friends (cf. Pisemskii; 10)
  4. An officer kidnapping and raping a merchant’s wife (11)
  5. Pretending to feed real soup to a plaster bust of Nicholas I (14)
  6. Men dressing up as nuns and going to a pious woman’s house, pretending to solicit donations for a convent, but dancing the trepak when she returns with money for them (18)
  7. Men riding through the inspection of a cavalry regiment by Nicholas I, dressed as “an unusually fat lady in a green riding-habit and a hat with feathers” and “a desperate fop” who “showered her with flattery” (19)
  8. Offering to explain a French play to a theatergoer who supposedly knew no French, and substituting ridiculous inventions for a straightforward explanation (19-20)
Aleksandr Polezhaev (1804-1838)

Aleksandr Polezhaev (1804-1838)

These examples (drawn from memoirs, not fiction) cover a range from the silly to the brutal that’s too broad for the English “prank,” so Peschio uses shalost’. These shalosti were not punished the way we might choose to punish them. Emperor Paul had someone’s tongue cut out for allegedly writing a humorous couplet, and Emperor Nicholas I sent Polezhaev to the army for his poem “Sashka” and “personally saw to it that [he] should continue to suffer in the worst conditions” (11, 4). Conversely, in the case of the rape, “the governor-general of Moscow […] persuaded the merchant to refrain from filing a report because he took pity on the officer, saying that he himself had ‘capered plenty [nashalil] as a young man’” (11).

Since the rulers acted afraid of irreverent young men like Polezhaev, Peschio argues, light verse and the tradition of shalosti must have been a greater threat to the social order than openly political poetry:

The story of Polezhaev and “Sashka” gives the lie to the entrenched literary-historical notion that strident civic verse was the real voice of social change and that this makes it somehow more significant than the “light” verse of the period. In fact, the more trenchant challenge to the legitimacy of the regime and of the social order it created and oversaw is to be found in the formal innovations forged in the lightest genres: the friendly epistle, the burlesque, the familiar letter, the comic narrative poem, the epigram, the prose parody. (5)

Peschio claims that shalosti in Russian literature peaked in popularity in the late 1810s and early 1820s, declined after the failure of the Decembrists in 1825, and mostly went away after Pushkin died in 1837 (with some exceptions, like Koz’ma Prutkov and “Ivan Miatlev’s Madame Kurdiukova,” 6). Then, in the 1840s, “it was supplanted by a new ‘serious’ political activism in literature that arose in reaction to what was perceived as the aristocratic frivolity of prankishness” (6). Indeed,

The social consciousness for which Russian literature is famous was, in some respects, a reaction to prankishness. For example, the striking earnestness of the Russian “social prose” that came to the fore at midcentury and subsequently gave world literature Lev Tolstoi and Fedor Dostoevskii can be understood in historical perspective partly as a counterpoint to the “frivolity” and “cynicism” of their forebears. A comparison might be made to the recent “death of irony” in American culture: after a decade of amused detachment in the 1990s, the earnest brusquely staked a claim to cultural authenticity in the early years of the twenty-first century, often piggybacking on tragedy and fear. This bien-pensant “new sobriety” can be understood only in terms of its precursor. In much the same way, the writers of the “post-Pushkin” era homed in on the angst of a nation built on slavery. (6-7)

As long as we’re comparing things to American culture, I’d have to say that even if there’s no English word as broad as shalost’, Peschio’s description of shalosti and those who committed them — a combination of drunkenness, sexual humor, mean-spirited practical jokes, unpunished rape, solidarity within a private all-male society, and loud rebelliousness by young members of the ruling class — sounds like a negative stereotype of American college fraternities, which I suppose could be seen as epigones of the boisterous young aristocrats of old.

See Peschio’s The Poetics of Impudence and Intimacy in the Age of Pushkin (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012). I’ll probably post about this book again, but for now I’ll mention that he goes on to discuss Arzamas, the Green Lamp, and Pushkin’s Ruslan and Liudmila (Руслан и Людмила, 1820). He also argues that the two-way distinction between public and private is not a useful way to think about Russian culture of this period and proposes a three-way contrast between domesticity (домашность), (high) society, and the state. Disclaimer: I once met Joe Peschio.

Translation, interpretation, and outright errors

March 24, 2015

I’m happy to agree with Russell Scott Valentino that literature is a “narrow and hyper-conventionalized form of communication,” though I’d insist that the actual use of non-literary language is also governed by conventions that we internalize and forget, that linguistic conventions arise in every repeated communicative situation. You can find my earlier thoughts here and here. Rightly or wrongly, I’m inclined to see human language as something special, and non-linguistic symbolic systems as qualitatively different, while RSV seems to lump non-literary language together with forms of communication like “how close you stand to someone” and put literature in a special category.

I don’t want to keep going around on that subject, but there’s a different tension in RSV’s latest post that I find interesting because I agree with two parts of his argument that seem contradictory:

If we were discussing misrepresentations or outright semantic errors, then I would be on board. But that has not been the issue in these posts. Interpretive differences, like those that often surface in comparisons among multiple published translations of the same text, are not misrepresentations, they are interpretive differences. […] The original book, original poem, original story, or play, or literary essay is not a unitary thing.


To be clear, I am excluding outright errors (where the translator has clearly not understood the source language) and deliberate manipulation (where the translator has willfully made the text into something else, e.g., an updated version of The Inferno replete with contemporary figures in their appropriate circles of hell). […] As a result, no one is being called in to tell us what is the “true” or “most accurate” or “authentic” or “ideal,” because this monolithic, unitary, most accurate version does not exist anywhere in reality. […] Thinking that it does exist would be like thinking that there is one correct interpretation of any artistic work and that you could write that version down somehow, capturing the entirety of it in other words than those in which it was first expressed.

Theory and practice seem to be pointing in different directions. What I’m calling “theory” is the idea that a text can be interpreted many ways, and it’s impossible to reduce even one sentence from a literary work to a single correct interpretation. The disclaimers about errors and misrepresentation seem to come from “practice.” We all know that sometimes a translator just plain gets something wrong — I know I have. Strong claims that it’s impossible to judge how faithful a translator is to the original work fall pretty fast to John Cowan’s reductio ad absurdum: if no one can say what any part of Anna Karenina means for sure, and one interpretation is as good as another, why not translate the first sentence as “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”?

Both these things are obviously true, aren’t they? Literary works can be interpreted in many ways, and a translator can be guilty of “outright errors” or “misrepresentation.”

But they can’t both be true, at least not the way I understand these ideas in RSV’s telling.

Here’s how I understand RSV’s position: We have a field of possible interpretations, where if Constance Garnett translates something one way and Isabel Hapgood translates it another way, it’s an interpretive difference. A Russian-speaking reviewer shouldn’t come along and say that Garnett’s reading is better than Hapgood’s because Garnett makes an ambiguous word in chapter 41 harmonize with a use of the same word in chapter 62, and Hapgood doesn’t. Then we have a space outside that field, where the translations are different because Hapgood has committed an outright error (or deliberate misrepresentation) and Garnett hasn’t. Bilingual readers know which cases are errors, which are misrepresentations, and which are interpretive differences.

I don’t think evaluating translations can work this way, with a bright line between error and permitted interpretation. I believe in the errors, and I believe in polyvalence and ambiguity and their wonderfulness in literature, but I don’t believe in the bright line. We’re not always sure, and when we are, we’re one piece of information away from changing our minds. What seemed like a clear error (or non-error) on the part of a translator may no longer seem so after we recognize an allusion or learn an obsolete, technical meaning of a word we know in another sense.

I guess I see the fidelity of translations like this: there’s a continuous spectrum from persuasive interpretation, to possible interpretation, to an interpretation that’s a stretch, to a potential error, to a clear minor error, to a howler. A reader with specialized knowledge, such as knowledge of the source language or experience as a literary translator, is well placed to make an argument about where on this spectrum a concrete choice by a translator falls. It’s fine to argue that one error-free, defensible interpretation is less faithful to the original than another, and this doesn’t require us to believe that the original text has one fixed meaning: the original (and the translations that come from it) can have multiple but not infinite interpretations, which are plausible but not interchangeably, equally plausible.


March 23, 2015


“The Riddle of Nekrasov”

March 10, 2015

In 1938 the poet Zinaida Gippius (1869-1945) published “The Riddle of Nekrasov” (Загадка Некрасова) in the short-lived émigré journal Russian Notes (Русские записки, 1937-39). In 2009 I finished a dissertation on “Nekrasov and Russian Modernism” without ever finding Gippius’s piece. Now it just popped up when I was searching for something else on the internet, thanks to the website, which started in late 2011, and volume 13 of Gippius’s collected works (2001-), which came out in 2012. If those sources didn’t exist, there’s now also the site, which has scanned reproductions of tons of émigré journals, including Russian Notes (which looks worth browsing; issue 3 has Tsvetaeva, Merezhkovskii, Shestov, and others, besides Gippius on Nekrasov). I’m still kicking myself for not finding “The Riddle of Nekrasov” before, but every year the internet makes life easier.


Nekrasov, for people of my generation, is childhood, the earliest childhood, almost infancy. Nekrasov — not by name, of course — is in songs: grandfather playing whist and half-humming, half-singing something pleasant and incomprehensible: “my attachments have all been broken” or an aunt at the piano: “look longingly at the road…” “you ruined your youth… two or three flowers…” [I think “two or three flowers” is a child misunderstanding А ты цветка весеннего свежей as Два-три цветка… – EM] And how much more singing too! It is true that the principal quality of Nekrasov’s poetry is its “songfulness [песенность].” Not its musicality [напевность], o no!, but precisely its songfulness (his best pieces, of course): critics were right to point this out. In songs he remained alive even then, as he probably also did in various “winged” words and lines that we heard from “grown-ups” and committed so thoroughly to memory (a child’s memory!) that even thirty years later we come upon them like old acquaintances. But that was all. At the time of my — our — childhood, Nekrasov had, it seems, nearly run his course. After we learned to read, we read him in anthologies, and even read his books, but we read them (people my age and I) not as poetry but as stories. “Vlas,” “The Pedlars,” “Sasha” — aren’t these stories, and fairly interesting ones? Poetry was something else. Poetry was Lermontov, but also any random garbage in any random volume, which felt to us at the time to be closer to Lermontov than to Nekrasov. His satires entirely failed to interest even me, with my early inclination toward satirical verse and the epigram. (222)

This fits with my basic picture of how Gippius’s generation saw Nekrasov, but I’m struck by the contrast with Valerii Briusov (1873-1924), who in a draft of an article on Nekrasov was enthusiastic about his satires and called him “our only satirist in verse.” On the other hand, the fact that Gippius suddenly mentions Nekrasov’s satires as a subset of his poetry says something, just as the fact that she writes a ten-page article about him in 1938 is in tension with the limited importance she says he had in her generation’s formative years and afterward.

Briusov also remembered young admirers of poetry in his late–nineteenth century youth as breaking into two camps, roughly a “pure art” Pushkin camp and a “civic poetry” Nekrasov/Nadson camp. Gippius has a similar division: long after the 1860s, the civic line continued in literature and culture, but had no use for Nekrasov with his poems to his muses (“and such despondent ones!”; 225); and when at the end of the nineteenth century “literature began its tortuous rebirth” from decades of civic concerns, Nekrasov was quite forgotten on that side too (223). The difference may only be one of emphasis: Briusov speaks of young readers admiring Nekrasov “through Nadson,” and Gippius says that among students of the time, “Nekrasov’s influence, his direct influence at any rate, could not be discerned” (222, emphasis added).

Much of Gippius’s article is a direct response to what Kornei Chukovskii wrote about Nekrasov in the 1920s. Chukovskii makes much of Nekrasov’s “duality” — he is both a poet and a citizen, both a gentleman and a plebeian, both a “man of the 1840s,” in the tradition of the liberal, Europe-oriented gentry like Gertsen or Turgenev, and a “man of the 1860s,” a raznochinets like Chernyshevskii or Dobroliubov. Gippius essentially says he’s neither; he was always his own thing, different in essence from and misunderstood by his early friends and his later allies, and destined to fall out with the Turgenev set even if circumstances (Chernyshevskii coming to The Contemporary, Gertsen accusing Nekrasov of stealing Ogarev’s money) had been different (224-26).

Gippius doesn’t like what Chukovskii does with the contradiction between Nekrasov’s supposedly Homeric love of life and his constant despondency and spleen. A rank-and-file critic following the 1860s tradition (“some Skabichevskii or other”) would have been content to say Nekrasov was unhappy because the misery he saw on all sides was so far from the ideal society he wanted (226). Chukovskii was close to blaming Nekrasov’s despondency on physical ailments, but that wouldn’t fly, because his writing showed the same tendency when he was a healthy nineteen-year-old (226-27). Gippius has her own answer: Nekrasov had a conscience (227-29).

A conscience is a strange gift. To what degree is one given to whom? Nekrasov’s conscience lived in him from his childhood and kept growing, even though he didn’t think about it. This made it the more terrible: like a blind serpent in his heart. He did not know how to protect himself from his passions; they easily took control of him; the more easily, as he sought an occasional “breather”: a way to forget the stings. And he did forget them… But how the serpent made him pay afterward! (228)

Gippius disagrees with an unnamed “modern critic, a person with taste,” who, however, “suffered from an inclination toward paradoxes,” and therefore decided to call Nekrasov “a true Christian poet” (230). I suspect she means her husband Merezhkovskii (1865-1941), who wrote in Two Mysteries of Russian Poetry (Две тайны русской поэзии, 1915) that “no Russian writer has so prayed or at least so thirsted for prayer” as Nekrasov did. (She might conceivably have meant Sergei Solov’ev or someone else, but why not name the critic unless it was her husband?) Gippius’s idea of Nekrasov’s conscience recreates the “thirsted for prayer” argument, but as an atheist blindly groping toward Christ’s forgiveness (230-31).


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