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“One cannot even call him a house-serf…”

June 15, 2015

Back when I was collecting commonplaces of literary slavery, Russian and American, one thing that made my list was that house and field slaves were distinct categories in the eyes of masters and slaves alike. I recently realized that Lgov (Льгов, 1847), one of Turgenev’s Sportsman’s Sketches (Записки охотника, 1847-51, 1872, 1874) plays a lot on these groups’ social and linguistic divisions.

First we meet Vladimir, a “freed house-serf” [вольноотпущенный дворовый человек] who “expressed himself with extraordinary elegance, and obviously plumed himself on his manners” (117 in Constance Garnett’s translation). When a serf accompanying the gentleman narrator tries to use ты, the informal “you,” with Vladimir, the narrator is impressed by Vladimir’s reply: an ironic вы-с, the formal “you” with an extra deferential particle attached (118).

Later a slave nicknamed Suchok tells his life story: a series of masters who had bought or inherited him abruptly made him a coachman, cook (on two occasions), waiter, actor, footman, postilion, whipper-in, gardener, or fisherman. His speech is marked as substandard, especially with non-standard spellings of words of French or German origin: кеятр for театр, ахтер for актер, фалетор for форейтор (see pp. 12125).

Here is Vladimir’s reaction to Suchok:

Sutchok ran to get his pole. During the whole time of my conversation with the poor old man, the sportsman Vladimir had been staring at him with a contemptuous smile.

‘A stupid fellow,’ was his comment, when the latter had gone off; ‘an absolutely uneducated fellow; a peasant [мужик-с], nothing more. One cannot even call him a house-serf [Дворовым человеком его назвать нельзя-с], and he was boasting all the time. How could he be an actor, be pleased to judge for yourself! You were pleased to trouble yourself for no good in talking to him.’ (126)

Сучок побежал за шестом. Во все время моего разговора с бедным стариком охотник Владимир поглядывал на него с презрительной улыбкой.

— Глупый человек-с, — промолвил он, когда тот ушел, — совершенно необразованный человек, мужик-с, больше ничего-с. Дворовым человеком его назвать нельзя-с… и все хвастал-с… Где ж ему быть актером-с, сами извольте рассудить-с! Напрасно изволили беспокоиться, изволили с ним разговаривать-с!*

That’s it – I just wanted to make a note of this neat and direct contrast, which is much more compact than, for example, the nobleman–house slave and nobleman–field slave romances in Pisemskii’s Troubled Seas and Men of the Forties.

* I used to be able to hide the Russian so that you’d only see it if you moused over the link at the end of the English quote, but WordPress doesn’t seem to let me do that anymore.

Vexation of spirit

June 8, 2015

There is a Leskov story called “Томленье духа” (1890), a title which William Edgerton rendered in English as “Anguish of Spirit” and Hugh McLean as “Vexation of Spirit.” At first I liked Edgerton’s title better: something about the word “vexation” struck me as overly precise and unnatural. Would people have said that? The answer, I’ve learned, is that they would and did and probably still do. After I heard “vexation of spirit” pronounced by a skilled English actor reading Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds (1871), my instincts on the naturalness of “vexation”  flipped completely.

“Vexation of spirit” turns out to be not just an established phrase, but a reference I wasn’t getting: “vexation of spirit” occurs 10 times in the King James Bible, mostly in Ecclesiastes, and corresponds to томление духа in Russian translations. (Newer English translations of Ecclesiastes have “a chasing after wind,” mirrored by погоня за ветром in newer Russian translations. Where the King James Bible has “vexation of spirit” in Isaiah 65:14, Russian translations have сокрушение духа ‘distress of spirit.’) The Leskov story has an epigraph from Ecclesiastes, so I should have picked up on this sooner.

Edgerton’s “anguish of spirit” is also a Biblical phrase: it’s what the NRSV has instead of “vexation of spirit” in Isaiah 65:14, while the King James uses it in Exodus 6:9 (Russian has малодушие or их дух был сломлен there; the NRSV has “broken spirit”). Some translations have “anguish of spirit” in places where Russian uses дух or душа but not томление, like Job 7:11 or John 13:21.

It’s hard for me to get back inside my former idea that “vexation of spirit” sounded odd, but I think I must have “vexation” in a set of words that I (in this case wrongly) hear as awkward translationese for difficult abstract concepts: I sometimes find “vexation” for досада as irritating as “nostalgia” for тоска (where I like “longing,” but it depends, and enough has been said about that word). Here, of course, there’s no досада involved, and I shouldn’t have let “vexation” for томленье bother me.


June 7, 2015

The Cause online

May 27, 2015

A conversation on Twitter led me to look for an online version of the journal Дело (The Cause), which Grigorii Blagosvetlov edited after Русское слово (The Russian Word) was closed by the government in 1866. Its most famous contributor was perhaps the radical critic Pisarev, though he died in 1868, and The Cause lasted until 1888; other well-known ones included Gleb Uspenskii, Mamin-Sibiriak, and Dmitrii Minaev. It turns out you can find links to most of the issues from 1867-1880 and a handful of later ones on Wikisource/Викитека. And the links are mostly not to Google Books, but to freely available scanned editions from the Russian State Library. I’ve added it to the list of nineteenth-century journals on the right. [Update: There’s even more out there than has yet been linked on Wikisource. Thanks to Katia Bowers for pointing out this May 1887 issue and to Philip Chadwick for bringing up the subject.]

“He approaches any enthusiasm with a subtle and polite tinge of irony…”

May 9, 2015

The generational conflict in Goncharov’s An Ordinary Story (Обыкновенная история, 1847) mostly boils down to

Тогда вы все узнаете, —
Как глуп я прежде был,
Мечтал, как вы мечтаете,
Душой в эфире жил,
Бежать хотел в Швейцарию, —
И как родитель мой
С эфира в канцелярию
Столкнул меня клюкой,
(Nekrasov, “The Talker” [Говорун, 1845])

but with an uncle instead of a father yanking the young Aduev out of the ether and into a practical office. After reading so much about the generational conflict of the nihilist 1860s, jumping back to 1847 feels not just different, but backwards. The young nephew is not an indefatigably rational champion of science and progress, but a series of Romantic poses: the dreamer, the man disenchanted with life. And the uncle is not just an experienced player of the game who’s figured out how to go about making a fortune and a career in St. Petersburg. He’s also the one who gets to throw around the key words for Belinskii’s followers in the 1840s and 1850s, like дельный ‘practical, efficient, useful.’ From an 1860s point of view, it seems like young people should be the ones who care about everything being дельный. The uncle also uses гражданин ‘citizen’ in one of his speeches to his nephew:

Why did you imagine what does not happen? Didn’t I tell you plainly that up to now you have been trying to live a kind of life that’s never possible? According to you a man’s only business was to be a lover, a husband, father…. and of anything else you won’t even hear. Man is something beyond this; he is a citizen [гражданин] as well, and has a calling, an occupation of some kind—he’s an author, a landowner, a soldier, an official, or a manufacturer. You have read novels, and listened to your auntie out there in the wilds, and have come up here full of these ideas. You still imagined—a sublime passion.
(part 1, chapter 6, trans. Constance Garnett)

Here’s what Pisarev had to say in 1861 in “Pisemskii, Turgenev, and Goncharov”:

Read Goncharov from beginning to end, and in all probability you will never be carried away, nor fall into any reveries; you will not begin a heated argument with the author, nor will you call him either a reactionary or a fiery progressive. As you close the final page, you will say with perfect calm that Mr. Goncharov is a very intelligent and thoroughly rational man. Goncharov has no hobbyhorse, no pet idea; any sort of Utopia is quite uncongenial to him; he approaches any enthusiasm with a subtle and polite tinge of irony; he is a skeptic who does not carry his skepticism to extremes; he is a practical man and materialist capable of living harmoniously with the dreamer and idealist; he is an egoist who does not choose to accept the logical extremes of his world view and expresses his egoism in a tepidly warm attitude toward common ideas or even, when possible, in the ignoring of human and civic interests. This egoism shows through in all his works. Anyone who has read The Frigate Pallas or Oblomov will not find my opinion surprising. Ever tranquil, never carried away, our novelist brashly walks up to the convoluted problems of the public and private life of his heroes and heroines; without passion or prejudice he examines the situation, giving himself and the reader a most clear and detailed account of its minor idiosyncrasies, adopting the point of view of each of the characters in turn, without manifesting a strong sympathy for any of them, but understanding all of them in his way. He picks apart the situation and the qualities of his characters, but always refrains from pronouncing a final verdict. After reading An Ordinary Story, the reader cannot say the author is sympathetic to the elder Aduev, nor can he say that he considers him wrong. Nor does one observe any sympathy for the younger Aduev, either at the moment when he is the exact opposite of his uncle, or at the moment when he comes to resemble him. Consequently, while finishing the final page of the novel, the reader feels unsatisfied. An Ordinary Story produces the kind of impression that a superbly painted but dimly lit picture might produce. We feel that the author of the novel is an intelligent man, who is observant and capable of making sense of his observations; this man speaks to us about the phenomena of our life, describes them in detail for all to see; he depicts the influence these phenomena have on a young person who is becoming acquainted with life, but he depicts all this in a purely external way, only enumerating the symptoms of the changes taking place within his hero.

Pisarev goes on to complain that the narrator never takes a stand, that we never hear learn what he thinks of the people he is describing. He doesn’t want stories with a moral (“God forbid! That’s even more dull!”), but he says it’s impossible to tell a story without knowing why you’re telling it unless you’re “an idle prattler or a doddering old man,” and you should try harder to make sure the readers get their money’s and time’s worth.

It’s true that the voice of the narrator doesn’t really take the uncle’s or nephew’s side by commenting directly on them, but the author, in the sense of the architect of the plot, takes more of a stand than Pisarev gives him credit for. What seemed to be foreshadowing pointed to several possible endings that didn’t actually happen. In particular, I thought there were rather heavyhanded suggestions that Aduev the nephew and his uncle’s wife, both in their 20s, were going to fall in love; she had had a chance to see through her 50ish husband’s tactical approach to love. The older Aduev’s practicality would be revealed as useless; he needed the spark of youth, and didn’t have it either in himself or in the young wife he thought he had acquired. But the author has her remain true to her husband.

In the actual ending, the once naive nephew becomes the kind of man his uncle advised him to become, but more so. He marries for money and pushes himself forward in his career through blackmail and by asking for money and favors from powerful friends.

I think Pisarev’s right that the authorial point of view is that of a skeptic, but wrong to think it’s wishy-washy. The final verdict, as I read the novel, is that the nephew and uncle are both wrong, at nearly every stage. The uncle’s calculated way of materially getting the most out of life works, but the luxuries and prestige it gets him (and, ultimately, the nephew too) aren’t important. The nephew’s early commitment to Love and Friendship, like his belief in his artistic Talent, was play-acting: he failed to recognize real friendship because it didn’t follow the script he’d learned from books, while men who weren’t his friends could play the role he wanted them to play in order to get money from him. Every so often you can see a spark of humanity in the young or the old (in the uncle’s wife before she retreats into the book of household expenses; in the way women are drawn to the nephew, not because he has learned the art of attracting them, but because of something in him; in the extensive interest the uncle takes in his nephew without any hope for personal gain), but it is obscured or put out altogether by the uncle’s and nephew’s commonplace but incorrect ways of living their lives.

“Conversational style” in literary works

May 8, 2015

Yesterday I stopped with this quote from Joe Peschio:

The argument runs that an illusion of conversation between author and reader is maintained by borrowing certain conventions and features of real spoken discourse and representing them textually. The main obstacle here is laughably obvious: lacking recordings, we have no idea how people talked two centuries ago, and a priori definitions of conversational style are therefore an analytical dead end. (47)

I’m still thinking my way through this, and I should read a lot more about it, but on the whole I don’t think it’s true that “we have no idea how people talked” in the early 1800s. We don’t know everything about how they talked then, but then we don’t know everything about how everyone talks now.

Imagine a rural Russian had invented a wax cylinder recording system in 1800 and recorded lots of conversations, but then a natural disaster destroyed the whole village, kept word of the invention from getting out, and preserved the recordings. Tomorrow someone finds them. How much would it change our opinion about whether something written in 1800 mimicked actual conversation of the period?

We might learn some interesting particulars — I’d want to listen — but even something as concrete and “objective” as a recording wouldn’t solve all our problems. It would always be possible that Linguistic Element X from literary conversational style was used in those days in speech in at least one corner of the culture, but didn’t happen to be captured and preserved; the creator of the recordings might have selectively destroyed the interestingly non-standard ones; and people may have changed they way they talked because they were being recorded. We have movies, radio, TV, and documentary recordings of 1950s English speech, and this is useful, but we have to be careful how we interpret individual examples of recorded 1950s speech, much as we do with transcribed 1950s speech.

Also, readers have strong intuitions about whether written words sound like they could have been said aloud, and this is true even when they’re reading the purported speech of people who lived before their grandparents were born. It may be difficult, as a practical matter, to test these intuitions against nonexistent recordings of nineteenth-century conversations, but I suspect they’re intersubjectively verifiable — we’re mostly going to pick the same authors as the ones who seem to be transcribing real speech they heard, or as the ones who seem to be making stuff up about a linguistic milieu they’ve never been in.

Isn’t Boris Bukhshtab probably correct when he says that Dal’ and Vel’tman made a literary representation of the speech of the common people that was “actually based on popular dialects,” while Masal’skii’s commoners spoke in a conventional and inauthentic “literary Esperanto”? None of us, Bukhshtab included, were there to hear how peasants talked in Vel’tman’s day, but there are several lines of indirect evidence we can use to substitute for the missing recordings of actual speech. We can use the spoken and written Russian (and perhaps Ukrainian, or other languages of the relevant part of the Empire) of later periods to reconstruct the spoken Russian of the early nineteenth century, the way people use taboo words in Romance languages to recreate unwritten classical Roman swearing. We can check how contemporaries who did know how (some) people talked in those days reacted to different examples of “conversational” writing. We have contemporary metalinguistic laments about the difference between actual speech and written convention. We can look for text-internal evidence, such as whether non-standard phonological, morphological, or syntactic features occur in a regular way, or we can compare a text to contemporary literary simulations of conversation to see if it is idiosyncratic or resembles writing we consider authentic or writing we consider conventionalized.

I’d even say that learning any language involves repeating that last process over and over: we hear a phrase that stands out from our favorite writer, or a stranger at a bus stop, or a younger cousin, or a docent at an art museum, and in our minds the sociolinguistic and stylistic coloring of the phrase takes on a little of our opinion of the speaker and setting, while our opinion of the speaker and setting are slightly recalibrated depending on our pre-existing idea of the phrase. I assume Bukhshtab believed that ежели, таперича, вестимо, чай, and право-слово were conventionalized markers of peasant speech that traveled from one literary work to another because he had seen them in a whole network of texts, some of which he considered inauthentic for other reasons.

No two generations or even people will hear/read the same words and have the same attitude toward them, which explains semantic change over time and idiolectal differences. But communicative situations overlap with each other. Without even trying, if we’re exposed to enough different kinds of language, over time we develop a sense of how Linguistic Element X was used and perceived by people of different ages and social groups in 1810 writing, 2015 speech, and 1965 radio broadcasts. This lets us guess how it might be used and perceived in a linguistic environment we have no direct access to, like 1810 speech, or for that matter like the majority of 2015 speech that will not be preserved and that we will never encounter.

Long story short, I’m pretty sure that recordings of 1810s speech would help less than Peschio implies in that one sentence, but that the written sources we do have let us infer more than he acknowledges about the spoken language we don’t have.

See Joe Peschio, The Poetics of Impudence and Intimacy in the Age of Pushkin (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012).

Arzamas letters as letters

May 7, 2015

Joe Peschio’s chapter on Arzamas has a good quote from Filipp Vigel’ on how official and formal the meetings of the Colloquy of Admirers of the Russian Word* (the group Arzamas opposed, a.k.a. Beseda) were

In order to imbue these meetings with more grandeur, the fair sex came in ball costumes, the ladies-in-waiting with their portraits of the Tsar, the grandees and generals were in their ribbons and stars, and everyone was wearing dress uniforms…. As in a Government Council made up of four departments, Beseda, too, was broken up into four sections […] Overall, it had more the appearance of a government office than of a learned society, and even in the seating arrangement, the table of ranks was observed more than the table of talent. (36)

Peschio is interested in the private rituals and inside jokes of Arzamas members and the way they play with the “domestic” sphere, but he makes clear that the group was set up as it was partially because the writer-members had no way to publish their work. Some of them had tried to make a different official society, the Free Society of Admirers of the Letters, Sciences, and Arts (VOLSNKh), which had its own print organ, into an anti-Beseda group. This failed, however. There was a terrible poet named Dmitrii Khvostov (1757-1835) who was aligned with Beseda and mocked by the future members of Arzamas. Despite their contempt for his work, the anti-Beseda faction allowed Khvostov to be inducted into VOLSNKh in 1812 as a sort of political cover, thinking that this move would placate their enemies, and they could go on to publish their own work in VOLSNKh’s periodical. For the induction ceremony, Dmitrii Dashkov (1789-1839) was to give a speech in praise of Khvostov, but “his encomium was an exercise in deadpan mockery” and led to Dashkov’s expulsion from VOLSNKh, with the rest of the anti-Beseda faction soon to follow (38-39). Viazemskii was angry with Khvostov for the tactical misstep, even though Viazemskii himself “wrote no less than twenty-two works ridiculing Khvostov” from 1810 to 1817 (39-40).

Without VOLSNKh, the anti-Beseda writers founded Arzamas and created its style of funny, aestheticized private letters, speeches, galimatias out of necessity (nowhere to publish) as well as inclination. In Peschio’s analysis of the Arzamas members’ letters I have the feeling of coming in in the middle of an argument. Contra an earlier view that the letters were pure literary objects, whose entire function was aesthetic and not social, Peschio argues that despite their calculated humor and linguistic intricacy, they were acts of communication like other letters. When Pushkin wrote to his uncle Vasilii Pushkin “in a hilarious imitation of chancellery style,” asking him to repay money he had borrowed, he actually wanted the money, and thought “Arzamasian play” was the approach most likely to get it sent (43). As evidence that Arzamas letters in general worked like this, Peschio points out that letter-writers used the formal and informal pronouns that matched their actual, real-life relationship to the addressee at that moment — unlike in verse epistles, where they consistently used a conventional, poetic “thou” (45-46). They also “hardly ever wrote letters to fellow Arzamasians living in the same city at the same time,” though they were happy to write verse epistles (44).

The part of Peschio’s chapter that has me thinking the most is an offhand remark about “conversational style in literary works” and whether it makes sense to think of it as “a mimicking of actual conversational speech”:

The argument runs that an illusion of conversation between author and reader is maintained by borrowing certain conventions and features of real spoken discourse and representing them textually. The main obstacle here is laughably obvious: lacking recordings, we have no idea how people talked two centuries ago, and a priori definitions of conversational style are therefore an analytical dead end. (47)

There is obviously something to this, but I think the relationship between “real spoken discourse” and attempts to sound “conversational” in writing (or writing that is so perceived) is less obvious than it seems at first glance. More on this tomorrow.

See Joe Peschio, The Poetics of Impudence and Intimacy in the Age of Pushkin (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012).

* For some reason there is a tradition of translating любители as “lovers” in the Colloquy of Lovers of the Russian Word and as “amateurs” (as well as “lovers”) in the Free Society of Amateurs of the Letters, Sciences, and Arts, but I’m going to translate it as “admirers” in both.



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