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Copycat camellias

May 23, 2020

Colleen Lucey’s piece on the demimondaine/camellia (камелия) in 1860s Russia made me think of Nekrasov’s Ballet (Балет, 1866), part of his planned numbered cycle of satires where the poet wanders around the city commenting on this and that while saying he’s not brave enough to give various things the invective they deserve. The demimondaine phenomenon in France and Russia was centered on theatergoers and actresses and dancers, and during his visit to the theater the poet uses the word camellias:

Марья Савишна! вы бы надели
Платье проще! — Ведь как ни рядись,
Не оденетесь лучше камелий
И богаче французских актрис!

Maria Savishna! You ought to wear a simpler dress. After all, no matter how much you dress up, you’ll never dress better than the camellias or more sumptuously than the French actresses!

The context: the poet has been talking about a financial crisis that has everyone asking “Where can I borrow money? That is the question.” Then he turns to the “flower-garden” of the most expensive boxes at the theater. The people in those boxes prove that not everyone in Russia is broke. Who do we see there? Bankers’ wives, with “nary a breast without a hundred thousand rubles,” with pearls around their swanlike necks and a diamond the size of a nut in each ear; men who are Jewish, Greek, or German (Russian merchants mostly refuse to come); the wife of an otkupshchik (“tax farmer,” or holder of a government-granted local monopoly on alcohol sales) who has dragged her husband to the theater; apparently the above Maria Savishna, who is the wife of a chinovnik (nobleman in the civil service) and spends money that should go to household expenses on dresses; and “many ladies and maidens” shining in their beauty.

This passage always jumped out at me for the attitudes it revealed (with I’m not sure exactly how many layers of irony) toward foreigners, women, and Jewish men, but I hadn’t thought about it from the demimondaine angle. It’s not just the mention of the camellias that Maria Savishna can’t compete with, but also the story of the otkupshchik‘s wife’s necklace:

Откупщица, втянувшая мужа
В модный свет, в бельэтаже видна.
Весела ты, но в этом веселье
Можно тот же вопрос прочитать.
И на шее твоей ожерелье —
Погодила б ты им щеголять!
Пусть оно красоты идеальной,
Пусть ты в нем восхитительна, но —
Не затих еще шепот скандальный,
Будто было в закладе оно:
Говорят, чтобы в нем показаться
На каком-то парадном балу,
Перед гнусным менялой валяться
Ты решилась на грязном полу,
И когда возвращалась ты с бала,
Ростовщик тебя встретил — и снял
Эти перлы… Не так ли достала
Ты опять их?.. Кредит твой упал,
С горя запил супруг сокрушенный,
Бог бы с ним! Расставаться тошней
С этой чопорной жизнью салонной
И с разгулом интимных ночей;
С этим золотом, бархатом, шелком,
С этим счастьем послов принимать.
Ты готова бы с бешеным волком
Покумиться, чтоб снова блистать,
Но свершились пути провиденья,
Всё погибло — и деньги, и честь!
Нисходи же ты в область забвенья
И супругу дай дух перевесть!
Слаще пить ему водку с дворецким,
“Не белы-то снеги” распевать,
Чем возиться с посольством турецким
И в ответ ему глупо мычать…

One otkupshchik‘s wife, having dragged her husband into fashionable society, can be seen in the bel étage. You are cheerful now, but in this cheerfulness one can read the same question [i.e. “Where can I borrow money?”]. And around your neck is a necklace—you should have waited to show it off! It may be of an ideal beauty, you may look delightful in it, but… the scandalous whispers have not yet faded away that say it had been pawned: they say that so you could show yourself in it at some fancy ball, you made up your mind to get down on the dirty floor and beg in front of some revolting money-changer, and as you came back from the ball the pawnbroker met you—and took off those pearls… Isn’t that how you got them again…? Your credit has fallen, your despairing husband has taken to drink from sorrow, never mind him! It is more nauseating to part with that prim and proper salon life and the debauchery of intimate nights; with that gold, velvet, silk, with that happiness of receiving ambassadors. You’d be ready to get friendly with a rabid wolf to shine again, but the paths of providence have taken place, all is lost—both money and honor! Descend to the realm of oblivion and let your husband catch his breath! He finds it sweeter to drink vodka with the butler and sing “Not the White Snows” than to fuss with the Turkish delegation and bleat stupidly in answer to whatever they say…

The prototypical camellia is, I think, unmarried, but this story seems to fit with the more general case of high-class prostitution as both a form of and a means to luxury consumption.

The poet-satirist seems to treat his theater ticket as a cheap substitute for the favors of a dancer or actress in much the way that Lucey says the album of prints of demimondaines worked as a substitute for actual demimondaines; he goes on to borrow his neighbor’s opera glasses so he can ogle the ballerinas in the best traditions of Pushkin.

Does the poem give us a “plot of containment” to neutralize the sexual power of the women on stage and in the audience? On the most superficial level, it holds the latter group up to mockery in a creepily anti-Semitic way:

Марья Савишна глаз не спускала
Между тем с старика со звездой.
Вообще в бельэтаже сияло
Много дам и девиц красотой.
Очи чудные так и сверкали,
Но кому же сверкали они?
Доблесть, молодость, сила — пленяли
Сердце женское в древние дни.
Наши девы практичней, умнее,
Идеал их — телец золотой,
Воплощенный в седом иудее,
Потрясающем грязной рукой
Груды золота…

Meanwhile, Maria Savishna wouldn’t take her eyes off an old man with a star. All in all many ladies’ and maidens’ beauty shone in the bel étage. Their wondrous eyes simply sparkled, but who were they sparkling for? Valor, youth, strength—these captivated women’s hearts in days of old. Our young ladies are more practical and intelligent. Their ideal is a golden calf in the form of a gray-haired Hebrew running his dirty hand through heaps of gold…

Given the cynical use of a Pushkin epigraph to open Ballet, it’s hard to take the poet’s praise of the morals of the previous generation too seriously, but the women of today are made fun of for the “ideal” they’ve set their sights on, and moreover the ones singled out by the poet fail when they try to emulate camellias. This is the opposite of the kind of containment Lucey saw in Krestovsky’s story—Maria Savishna is criticized as an irresponsible wife, mother, and housekeeper, instead of being redeemed through her maternal love—but it does seem to neutralize them. That said, the women the poet addresses end up on the same level as the poet, the poet’s male neighbor, the reader, and a lot of the characters in other parts of the numbered cycle: flawed and silly mortals, but interesting enough to comment on, they’re halfway between the non-Russian men in the theater (who are almost beneath the poet’s notice) and the idealized, but nearly interchangeable, suffering peasants at the end of Ballet whose sorrow after losing a man to military recruitment is contrasted to the crowd-delighting Russian folk dance performed by professionals in a St. Petersburg theater.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. languagehat permalink
    May 23, 2020 11:06 am

    Interesting — I should really read more Nekrasov. There’s a lively performance of “Не белы-то снеги” here. (I’m not sure how to interpret “Не белы-то снеги, не белы, Эх, снеги во чистом поле, Снеги забелелися, забелелися” — the snows aren’t white but whitened??)

    • May 23, 2020 4:11 pm

      I had trouble with that too, but I think this is the short-form adjective being used in attributive position: это не белые снеги забелелись, а каменные палаты моего дружка ‘what has turned white is not the white snow, but my friend’s stone house.’ I’m not sure I get how that thought fits in with the rest of the lyrics, or why there are two of everything.

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