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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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