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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.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 28, 2015 9:04 am

    Fascinating, and I’ve added the book to my wishlist. Needless to say, I’m all in favor of anyone who “gives the lie to the entrenched literary-historical notion that strident civic verse was the real voice of social change,” and it strikes me that the “reaction to prankishness” discussed here correlates very well with the reaction to literary prankishness (i.e., non-“realism”) that I’ve been deploring for so long. (Of course, I once wrote “having been a college student in the late ’60s-early ’70s, I often feel like a superannuated Regency buck, peering around at all the prim young Victorians and trying to remember not to say ‘leg.'”)

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