A Note on Curiosity in Pushkin's «The Blackamoor of Peter the Great»

Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy


Il n'y a point de voyageur instruit
qui, en passant par Leyde, n'ait
vu la partie du reticulum mucosum
d'un Nègre disséqué par le célèbre
Ruysch. Tout le reste de cette membrane
fut transporté par Pierre-le-Grand
dans le cabinet des raretés, à Pétersbourg.
Cette membrane est noire; et c'est
elle qui communique aux Nègres cette
noirceur inhérente qu'ils ne perdent
que dans les maladies qui peuvent
déchirer ce tissu, et permettre à
la graisse, échapper de ses cellules,
de faire des taches blanches sous
la peau.
—Voltaire, Essai sur les moeurs et
l'esprit des nations

Родословная матери моей еще любопытнее.
Дед ее был негр [...].
—А. С. Пушкин, «Начало автобиографии»[2]



Curiosity is indeed a curious concept. It is that which prompts us to look beyond established limits. It leads to the opening up of new horizons in knowledge and therefore may represent a challenge to established authority and received opinion. Curiosity may, then, be either good or bad depending on the point of view from which it is apprehended, a function of what Neil Kenny has termed its "extraordinary moral reversibility."[3] In this context, as far as the historical fortunes of the concept are concerned, the seventeenth century witnessed a distinct shift in Western Europe, a shift particularly noticeable in associations of curiosity and travel. Thus, Christian K. Zacher, in his Curiosity and Pilgrimage, points to the distinction drawn by medieval Christian thinkers between two understandings of knowledge: sapientia, “knowledge of things divine, the attainment of God, the goal Christians must strive for,”[4] and scientia, “human knowledge, speculative and faulty, inferior to sapientia.”[5] “Christian thinkers regarded sinful man’s pursuit of scientia as a flirtation with curiositas[6] and most definitely not a proper motive for pilgrimage: “curiositas is a morally useless, dangerous diversion for wayfaring Christians.”[7] The age of exploration, though, spurred at least in part by curiosity, placed Europeans in contact with radically different peoples and cultures and thereby gave impetus to the Renaissance rehabilitation of the ancient distinction between bona and mala curiositas. By the seventeenth century, curiosity had undergone a pronounced change in valence from negative to positive (or at least neutral).[8] One commentator has identified curiosity as “a defining element of the modern age.”[9]

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"Pushkin and Shakespeare," Mikhailovskoe, 24–30 September 2001

This fall, from September 24 to September 30, there was a conference at Mikhailovskoe on Pushkin and Shakespeare. It was sponsored by St. Petersburg University and the group Piligrim.

The conference announcement suggested various intriguing panel ti­tles, including: “History in Literature,” “Drama: The Problem of Genre,” “Lyricism in Drama,” “The ‘Russian Shakespeare’ and ‘English Pushkin’: Problems of Translation and Reception,” “Problems in Studying and Teaching the Classics,” “Mass Culture as a Form of Commentary on Classical Texts,” “Pushkin and Shakespeare: Theatrical Interpretations.” Because of what I saw as the larger focus of the conference on issues of canon, reception theory, and teaching the classics to a broader audience, I did not give part of my research on Pushkin and Shakespeare but instead wrote up notes I had made for a course I taught last year, “Shakespeare on Film.” This turned out to have been an unnecessary consideration on my part, since the other participants spoke mainly on familiar scholarly issues of close readings, philosophy of history, etc. In a sense this was disappoint­ing because the issues of canon, of “accessibility” and indeed relevance of the classics are such burning topics in US academic discussions these days. Yet on the other hand, the fact that Russian academics, like European academics, are still deliciously research-driven, respected, and untroubled by such identity crises, was of course refreshing and encouraging.

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