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Legitimizing Empire

January 25, 2010

Speaking of Tiutchev’s “Арфа скальда,” Jacob Emery published a very interesting article on Batiushkov’s treatment of similar themes: “Repetition and Exchange in Legitimizing Empire: Batiushkov’s Scandinavian Corpus,” The Russian Review 66.4 (2007): 602-26.

His analysis focuses on Batiushkov’s Отрывок из писем русского офицера (1809), a mixed piece in three parts: four paragraphs of prose on nature and the origin of language in primitive Finland, and the region’s earliest settlers; a long quote of Batiushkov’s own poem Мечта (1802-17), most of which reports the words of a skald; and four paragraphs of prose on Russian graves in contemporary Finland, then part of the Russian Empire.  Emery shows quite effectively how the different planes of the work intersect and nearly collapse into each other, as the skald and Russian poet, the Viking warriors and Russian soldiers, almost blend together, or rather, the later events “echo” the earlier ones.  Bonfires in all three parts make it even easier to conflate the different peoples and times.

How does presenting Russian imperial conquest this way “legitimize empire”?  The answer has to do with the difference between two kinds of repetition, “mimetic” and “genetic” (Emery, through de Man, links the two to Plato and Hegel, respectively).  Batiushkov’s neoclassical works might aspire to mimetic repetition (in “imitating an external, ideal model,” potentially the same for all time), but his works on Scandinavian themes pointedly figure repetition as genetic (as part of a “chain of being” inside history where origins matter and condition what comes next): “Romantic nationalism’s vested interest” is to describe “the relationship between Russia’s beginning as a Varangian colony and Finland’s end as a Russian one in genetic terms” (612-13).  Ultimately the “shift in political power” is presented “as a natural succession rather than a conflict,” and even the dead Scandinavian and Russian soldiers, buried in the same Finnish earth, unite in one figure of the “northern warrior” (624).

While discussing the first prose section of Отрывок из писем, Emery notes the passage where Batiushkov’s narrator explains how language brought the primitive tribes together into a single nation and even changed and softened nature.  He connects Batiushkov’s ideas to Johann Gottfried Herder’s theory of language (shaped by climate and beginning as onomatopoeia).  Along the way he discusses Batiushkov’s Вечер у Кантемира (1816), where Kantemir argues with Montesquieu about whether the Russian climate makes poetry in Russian impossible (613-17).

Emery situates his article where two scholarly traditions come together: investigations into the “Northern vogue” of the early nineteenth century (Sharypkin, Levin, Boele) and into the “poetics of empire” (Greenleaf, Ram).  He wants to add the idea of Empire to our thinking about the Northern vogue, and to make us think about imperial appropriations of northern and western “discourses and territories” instead of only eastern and southern ones.  The appropriation of the North doesn’t fit into colonialist or orientalist boxes, or at least makes us complicate our ideas of colonialism (604-05, and see 621 on “colonial guilt”).

I just reread yesterday’s Tiutchev poem while thinking about Emery’s article on Batiushkov.  There’s a distantly similar conflation of present and past, but in Tiutchev it’s a Scandinavian past that either is visited in memory or lives on in a ghostly way.  Unlike in Batiushkov, there’s little potential for identifying the Russian poet with the skald (or anything similar) because the Russian poet is hardly present, except through the language the poem is written in.

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