Steppe up

Alexander Pushkin, tr Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler
NYRB Classics, 2014

I can’t remember the last time I read a novel in a single sitting, at such a fast clip. But Pushkin’s book is so much fun, and so smart, and such an interesting case for how to think about a text dialectically.

Marxist literary theory has identified a plethora of contradictions within literary texts. There’s proletariat and bourgeoisie of course, and also material labor and mental labor; then there’s phenomena and essence, Realism and Modernism, and the social position of art (its role in propagating ruling class power) and the Utopian impulse of art (the progressive aspects of the bourgeois tradition). But since western Marxism was/is idealist, these contradictions haven’t been dealt with in a systematic way. It’s difficult to identify which contradiction is principal, and to track how these contradictions have intensified, or weakened, or disappeared, or emerged, or transformed themselves at any given phase in literature’s historical development.

Fredric Jameson’s own take, in his concluding remarks to the AESTHETICS AND POLITICS reader, is that the fundamental contradiction is between material history itself and the apparatus of discourse that tries to inscribe it through language.

I need to study a lot more before I can say with confidence what the principal contradiction of literature is. But the meaning of what literature has changed a handful of times over its life span, which becomes clear when we change our view of literature from a static canon of monumental works to a historical process, a complex grouping of material practices and contradictions. Every shift in literature, I suspect, can be marked by a certain contradiction becoming the principal one, which determines the nature of the others.

Jameson’s POLITICAL UNCONSCIOUS offers a powerful and convincing method of interpreting texts. Narratives, he argues, offer symbolic resolutions to social contradictions that are often in fact antagonistic, in which one of the terms can and must win over the other absolutely.

Now Pushkin in his novel stages a symbolic resolution to the contradiction of the old versus the new. It’s an all but explicit argument, put forward in moral terms. At the same time, the old-new dialectic is inscribed in the novel’s very texture and structure.

Like other early novels, this one presents itself as a memoir, that of a soldier, Pyotr Grinyov, who witnessed the peasant-Cossack uprisings of the late 18th century. He narrates his life from his upbringing as the son of a landed nobleman. Then it’s off to the soldier’s life in a southern fortress on the Eurasian steppe, where he falls for the captain’s daughter Maria. The fortress is attacked by Pugachov, leader of the peasant rebellion. Pyotr gets by through verbal duels rather than fencing duels. There’s an escape, and a quest to rescue Maria from an unscrupulous romantic rival, which is answered by Maria’s own quest to clear Pyotr’s name at a tribunal that has taken Pyotr’s activities behind enemy lines for treason.

The old: the rhythm and world view of the peasant life. The new: the refinement of western European culture (Catherine the Great is in power). It’s most compactly expressed in the epigraphs to each chapter (added by Pyotr’s children for publication). The tension is displayed in the novel’s form, which unfolds as a complicated series of narrative doubles: Pyotr gives his hare skin coat to a wayfarer (Pugachov in disguise) as thanks giving, which is answered later by Pugachov gifting Pyotr another coat; there are two duels; there are two framed and glazed documents which change in their significance; and at the end there are two quests. But under these devices, Pushkin preserves the logic of fairy tales and chivalry.

These values do get subverted in small and funny ways. Here is Pyotr describing life at Fort Belogrosk.

Several weeks passed by and my life in the fortress grew not only bearable but even enjoyable. I was received in the commandant’s house as one of the family. Both Ivan Kuzmich and his wife were the worthiest of people. Ivan Kuzmich, a soldier’s son who had risen from the ranks, was simple and uneducated but extremely honest and kind. His wife ruled him, and this suited his easy-going disposition. Vasilia Yegrovna made no distinction between military and domestic affairs and ran the fortress exactly as she maned her home.

It’s a military fortress without military discipline–and ruled by a matriarch. The captain’s family name is Mironov, derived from the Greek for sweet perfume. An institution of war kept on the peace footing.

But Pushkin gives the game away when Mironov gets ready to torture a Bashkir caught with “seditious papers.” The Bashkir is mutilated, nose and tongue cut off, for having participated in a prior uprising. Here Pyotr interjects into his narrative:

When I remember that this happened in my own lifetime and that I have lived to see the mild rule of Tsar Alexander I cannot but feel astonished at the success of enlightenment and the rapid spread of the principles of respect and love for humankind. Dear young reader, if these notes of mine have fallen into your hands, remember that the best and most enduring changes are those that come about as a result of an improvement in morals, without any violent upheavals.

Indeed, the new must supersede the old. But for Pyotr as he narrates (and for Pushkin at the time he wrote this) this is a steady and harmonious process, not a rapid transformation achieved through revolution. In this idealist argument, great changes are necessary for Russia at this historical conjuncture, but they happen by changing the way we think, not the material situation.

In the narratives of modern novels, such a harmony can be symbolically expressed through the pattern of doubling mentioned earlier, arguing for the value of kindness to make a society where the values of the old are preserved without its brutality. The newness of the historical novel, as opposed to the folk tale, can pull off this necessary move.

Or can it? Check out the final pages. Maria heads to St. Petersburg to petition the Empress on behalf of Pyotr, who couldn’t defend his actions at the tribunal since he didn’t want to get his betrothed involved. She arrives at the suburb of Sofia, where the Court retreats for the summer.

The next day Maria Ivanovna woke early, dressed, and slipped out into the park. It was a splendid morning; the sun had already turned yellow. The broad lake lay still and gleaming. Stately swans, also only recently awoken, were sailing out from beneath the bushes that overhung the banks. Maria Ivanovna came to the beautiful meadow where an obelisk had just been erected to commemorate Count Rumyantsev’s recent victories. All of a sudden a little white English dog ran barking towards her. Maria Ivanovna felt frightened and stood stock-still. She heard a gentle voice: “Don’t be frightened, she won’t bite!” And Maria Ivanovna saw a lady sitting on a little bench opposite the monument. Maria Ivanovna sat down at the other end of the bench. The lady was looking at her intently. Maria Ivanovna, for her part, kept glancing discreetly at the lady; very soon she had surveyed her from head to toe. She was wearing a night mob-cap, a white morning gown, and a fur-lined waistcoat. She looked about forty years old. Her plump, rosy face was calm and dignified; her slight smile and her light blue eyes had an ineffable charm. The lady was the first to speak.

Coincidence grants Maria quick access to the Empress. Her clothes, her dog, and even the obelisk are from a portrait of Catherine the Great by Vladimir Borovikovsky, as the book’s notes tell us. But it’s not seamlessly worked in: these are not summer clothes. The whole denouement is broadly working like a fairy tale.

So love conquers all, Pugachov is hanged, despite the genuine admiration and mystique the narrative builds around him, and Pyotr and Masha live happily ever after, with social relations restored to their proper equilibrium. And yet Pushkin takes us there by inserting a painting, deliberately making the details incongruous. Moreover, the notes also tell us this is a reworking of a climactic scene from a Walter Scott novel. Old and new may have its own resolution, played out in the novel’s ideology, its moral arguments. But formally the narrative stops on its most modernist note, that one can’t help but take as a wink from Pushkin, acknowledging that in our own sequence, resolving this and other contradictions will be quite different in its character.


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