Review: Bethea, David. «The Superstitious Muse»

David M. Bethea. The Superstitious Muse: Thinking Russian Literature Mythopoetically. Studies in Russian and Slavic Literatures, Cultures and History.Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2009. 432 pp. ISBN 978-1-934843-17-8. Cloth.


Great poets transform mere words into verbal art. In the process, they may also transmute stories into myths and myths into stories. Poets cast their spell on readers and, when we are lucky, inspire their most discerning critics with a bit of their magic. Magic highlights this collection of David Bethea’s classic essays.

Bethea seems to have been enchanted, re-enchanted, and trans-enchanted by Pushkin’s ever-metamorphosing spirit. He is therefore an eerily appropriate guide to this elusive genius. “Let it be said,” Bethea explains, “that given his ‘protean’ genius and the remarkable capaciousness of his imaginative empathy, Pushkin could insert himself, or his ‘textual desire,’ into multiple roles” (231). If we substitute “critical” for “imaginative” in this sentence, the same may be said of Bethea himself.

Theory calcifies many critics, who become the tool of their tool, but Bethea takes a different approach. He is fascinated by ideas of thinkers as diverse as Darwin, Gould, Dawkins, Bloom, Bakhtin, Lotman, Jakobson, and many others, but offers neither to endorse nor create any “system of ideas.” Thinkers serve, rather, as a way of raising questions, of getting at something interesting about poem or poet or myth or mythopoesis. For Bethea what is most interesting begins where the system can take us no further.

Whether his topic is the shape of the apocalyptic plot in Russian fiction, the strange interconnections among Dante, Florensky, and Lotman, or the role of chance and daring in Pushkin’s History of Pugachev, Bethea tries “to isolate cultural patterns, but then add something important to the strict structural component—how the pattern took on flesh and blood, how it entered into historical and biographical context, how it happened once and then changed”(10).

Those of us who were educated when Jakobson was still alive will recall how the fear of Jakobson was the beginning of wisdom. Critics either professed an almost religious allegiance to his genius or, at least, cowered covertly while others did. Above all, one was supposed to take a singular, “sophisticated” delight when Jakobson demonstrated that any sort of human interest in literature was primitive, unscientific, and philistine. Blood in art is not bloody, as Shklovsky said, and I remember Jakobson assuring an audience that, whatever emotional or political themes might seem to characterize Mayakovsky’s poetry, in fact there was nothing there but verbal play.

The Jakobson school generated important tools and challenging readings. I do not doubt that we should be grateful for its existence—and still more grateful that its time is over. It branded every reason anyone might actually want to read literature, and especially Russian literature with its accursed questions, mere “vulgarity.” I remember Victor Erlich remarking that, as there is such a thing as vulgar Marxism, there is also vulgar Formalism. And, let us add, vulgar scientism.

Bethea’s fine instincts lead him to reapproach the issues structuralists raised, but to go beyond. He returns to Jakobson’s remarks on “Pushkin and His Sculptural Myth,” brings out the power of Jakobson’s insights and adds more examples, but does so in a decidedly different spirit. “Absolutely everything Jakobson says about texts (poetics and otherwise),” Bethea observes, “is couched in a (meta)language that remains on this side of the scientific divide […] that describes the poetic function at work but will not itself be contaminated by the ‘poetic’” (91).

Read Pushkin in this way and there is no Pushkin — no real person, no emotional life, no human struggle. It is for this reason that this sort of analysis abolishes time: the poet’s many works represent variations in logical space on a theme, rather than a person thinking through a problem. “I would argue that this otherwise foundational work [of Jakobson’s] suffers […] from the […] inability to glean in proper perspective the evolution of feeling and the indispensable sequence of emotional logic” (96). However superb Jakobson may be at isolating structure, he cannot describe “how structure interacts with feeling […]. Jakobson’s calcified binaries can’t tell the tale that arises out of their flesh-and-blood tensions” and he classes as “vulgar biographism” anything “he comes upon that cannot be pressed into the service of his binaries” (96).

To show what else might be done with this material, Bethea returns again and again to the key myths shaping Pushkin’s thought and work. He teases out their meaning, locates them in the poet’s ongoing sense of self and his life, and imagines a human being working out vexing problems through creation with emotionally charged myths. Bethea’s analysis of the Cupid and Psyche myth from Apuleius, and of Pushkin’s attempts to imagine female sexuality, are particularly moving. An essay on The Bronze Horseman shows not how its two stories mesh but, on the contrary that their “two worlds—master and subject, imperial plan and private daydream, rectilinear city and sinuous river, ode and sad tale—do not mesh, and that is precisely Pushkin’s point” (275). An essay on The Captain’s Daughter makes surprisingly apt use of Lotman’s “Russian Orthodox” thesis that “a religious act has as its basis an unconditional act of self-giving,” which means that the gift must “bear no signs of an implied quid pro quo” (156).

Here and in the next essay (on The History of Pugachev) Bethea also dwells on the importance of chance, happenstance, and luck in history, and their relation to genre, narrative voice, and structure. Given Bethea’s interest in where theory leaves off, it makes sense that he would be interested in chance, which is where predictable patterning leaves off. If Pushkin thought through life in terms of metamorphosis, Bethea does so in terms of an explosion of something unexpected. His understanding demands both the endogenous and the exogenous, what the pattern yields and where it is broken from the outside.

In short, one signature of Bethea’s thought is his discovery of a territory “in between.” I was quite struck by the argument in his piece on Pushkin’s dialogue with Shakespeare in The Stone Guest. Bethea senses keenly the difference between Bloom’s notion of interaction with a great predecessor as a deeply personal struggle and the structuralist/poststructuralist idea of “intertextuality,” in which the interaction does not involve human agency. Bethea concludes that the question of how Pushkin creatively used Shakespeare is, despite much philological work already done, only just being posed because “the psychic mechanisms underwriting the works of the mature Pushkin lie somewhere between the Bloomian notion of influence […] and the depersonalized notion of intertextuality” (181).

The present collection of Bethea’s essays divides into three parts. The first features theoretical (or as Bethea says “conceptual”) pieces on theory and theorists, mythopoesis, and a splendid essay on intertextuality. It contains as well an imaginative, provocative, and playful essay on “The Evolution of Evolution: Genes, Memes, Intelligent Design, and Nabokov.” Part 2 collects several splendid pieces on Pushkin. In addition to the ones I mention above, there is also an essay on the history of Russian Pushkin criticism, “Of Pushkin and Pushkinists,” which would be a good piece for any course on the history of Russian criticism. I have not had space sufficient to discuss part 3, which contains essays on other writers with whose work Bethea is closely associated: Khodasevich, Nabokov, and, above all, Brodsky.

Given Bethea’s approach, it is not surprising that, as the theoretical essays go beyond theory, so the critical pieces are also interesting for the larger theoretical questions they raise. Bethea’s muse—mythopoetic, capricious, adventuresome, and unpredictable—evokes that special kind of desire inspired by fine critical thought.


Gary Saul Morson
Northwestern University