Between Thought and Feeling: Odoevsky, Pushkin, and Dialectical Doubt in 1833

Jonathan Brooks Platt


     In the commentary to the Literary Monuments edition of Vladimir Odoevsky's Motley Tales, Marietta Tur´ian remarks upon a peculiar moment of intertextual resonance in the final tale of the 1833 collection. In "The Same Tale, Only Inside Out"—the companion piece of the preceding "Tale about How Dangerous It Is for Girls to Walk in a Crowd down Nevsky Prospect"—a Russian beauty, who has endured kidnapping, vivisection, transformation into a doll, partial reanimation, and a failed romance that ends in her being thrown out a window, is now gathered up off the ground by a 1000-year-old, proto-Slavic sage. In an effort to restore the girl's humanity, the sage plays Beethoven for her, shows her the works of Raphael and Michelangelo, gives her a new heart, and finally blesses her with "the poetry of Byron, Derzhavin, and Pushkin, inspire[s] her with the art of suffering and thinking [iskusstvo stradat´ i myslit´], and continue[s] on his way."[1] This final gift of the sage recalls the famous lines from Pushkin's 1830 "Elegy" ("The faded joy of mad years..." ["Bezumnykh let ugasshee vesel´e..."]): "But, o friends, I do not want to die; / I want to live, in order to think and suffer" [Ia zhit´ khochu, chtob myslit´ i stradat´].[2]

     The reminiscence is not necessarily intentional on Odoevsky's part; it could be only a coincidence, given the fact that the elegy was not published until 1834. Still, it is not unlikely that Odoevsky read or heard Pushkin's poem at some point before its publication. Pushkin and Odoevsky crossed paths frequently at literary gatherings in the early 1830s—at Zhukovsky's evenings, for example, or at Odoevsky's own salon—and they had many friends and acquaintances in common. Either way, the intentionality of the textual parallel is not essential for the purposes of this essay. More important is the reaction of the commentator, who considers it an open-and-shut case of quotation.[3] Indeed, it is likely that any reader familiar with Pushkin's elegy will find the work quite unequivocally echoed in Odoevsky's phrase, especially after the immediately preceding mention of Pushkin by name. Having sensed an association, the reader is then presented with an opportunity to elaborate its significance and, if he is aware of the elegy's date of composition, to imagine Odoevsky's text in some way responding to Pushkin's.[4] This response is not necessarily a positive one. On the contrary, when the hermeneutic potential of this textual encounter is actualized, it is a latent polemic that is most likely to surface.

     In what follows I will attempt to tease out and test the implications of this polemic. While taking advantage of the associative liberty allowed by an intertextuality of reception, I will not ignore the authors of the works being read. Rather, my intention is to blur the line dividing the authors from the textual fabric into which they are "quilted" (interpellated) as simultaneous producers and products of discourse. With this in mind, I begin my investigation of Odoevsky's intertextual polemic with Pushkin by considering two episodes from the documentary record of their relationship in 1833—in the first case, memoiristic accounts of Pushkin's reaction to Odoevsky's Motley Tales, and, in the second, an epistolary exchange between the two authors later that year. Treating these episodes as texts in their own right and reading them alongside Odoevsky's tale and Pushkin's poem should evoke a multi-dimensional, if fragmentary, portrait of the two writers' interaction in 1833. With the episodes setting the scene, my analysis of Odoevsky's polemic will then be presented, or rather, "staged" as an encounter between two aesthetic strategies, two intellectual postures, two social personae. This encounter will take shape amidst a semiotic field elaborated entirely from the two works' single point of textual contact in the infinitives "to think" and "to suffer."



     It is well known that Pushkin and Odoevsky shared a great deal in terms of their literary interests. One finds many common themes and motifs in their works from the 1830s, often with publication histories that make primacy difficult to determine or suggest fortuitous convergence.[5] Despite the thematic parallels, however, the two writers had little in common stylistically—a difference which also extended to their personal style, as the two men were not close friends. Both differences appear interrelated in a surprisingly long-lived rumor about Pushkin's negative opinion of the Motley Tales. Regardless of whether the rumor reveals Pushkin's actual feelings about Odoevsky or his writing, it is important for what it suggests about the subtle differences between each man's position in Russian society.

     In an émigré newspaper in 1860, Petr Dolgorukov described a conversation between Pushkin and Odoevsky in which the poet had mocked the prince for admitting the difficulties he experienced in writing. "When his motley tales came out, the famous Pushkin asked him: 'When will the second book of your tales come out?' 'Not soon,' Odoevsky replied. 'It's not easy to write after all!' 'Well, if it's so hard, then why do you write?' Pushkin retorted."[6] Vladimir Sollogub published a more detailed, but quite similar version of the rumor in 1874. In it he claims to have personally witnessed the exchange, which allegedly occurred during a chance encounter on Nevsky Prospect. According to Sollogub, when Odoevsky's tales were printed, he sent copies to all of his friends and, upon meeting Pushkin, was very eager to learn the latter's opinion of them.

But Pushkin avoided saying anything concrete: "I read them... not bad... good..." etc. Seeing that he couldn't get anything out of him, Odoevsky simply added that it is extremely difficult to write fantastic tales. Then he bowed and went on his way. Here Pushkin again laughed his loud, one might say, toothy laugh, since he showed two rows of white, moorish teeth [on vykazyval togda dva riada belykh arabskikh zubov], and said: "Well, if it's so hard, then why does he write them? Who's forcing him? Fantastic tales are only good when they're written without difficulty."[7]

     The earliest (and least suspect) version of the rumor—first published in German in 1850—was penned by Wilhelm Lenz, a music critic born in Riga, who frequented Odoevsky's popular Saturday-evening salon in 1833. Lenz's story lacks the emphasis on Odoevsky's laborious writing process, but it contains the memorable detail of Pushkin's toothy smile, which Sollogub seems to have appropriated and even exaggerated, making the racial overtones in the verbal portrait explicit when he refers to Pushkin's teeth as "moorish." Somewhat more believably than Sollogub, Lenz locates his encounter with Pushkin in Odoevsky's drawing room, at the prince's salon. Lenz describes working up his nerve to sit next to the famous poet, whom, to his surprise, he finds very sociable. Their conversation turns to the tales of E. T. A. Hoffmann, which had just been published in French translation, and eventually to the recent efforts of their host.

Our conversation was lively and lasted a long time; I was in good form, and it felt as though I were talking like a book. "Odoevsky also writes fantastic tales," Pushkin said in a tone of inimitable sarcasm. Completely innocently, I rejoined: Sa pensée malheureusement n'a pas de sexe, and Pushkin suddenly showed me the full row of his magnificent teeth [Pushkin neozhidanno pokazal mne ves´ riad svoikh prekrasnykh zubov], as that was his manner of smiling. "What did you say?" Prince Grigory asked me. "What is he laughing at?" The words I had spoken then spread among the gathered public. I should have said to myself: si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses, but I was young.[8]

The mot that Lenz is at once so proud and so ashamed of uttering—provoking Pushkin's surprisingly broad smile—is a play on the feminist remark, first made by Madame de Pompadour, that intelligence (l'esprit) has no sex, and later upgraded by Madame de Staël to claim that neither does genius. Lenz transforms this statement of intellectual gender equality into a cutting jibe by applying it to a man—a man, it may be added, who was often described as "too feminine" by acquaintances and friends, who had no children, and who wrote an autobiographical prose work at the age of seventeen (The Diary of a Student) in which he laments that his mustached cousin (the future Decembrist, Alexander Odoevsky) cannot be transformed into a girl, thereby producing an ideal mate.[9] One of the entries of this diary seems to confirm Lenz's suspicions: "A woman with the soul of a man, with a bright mind, with broad ideas, is an impossible thing.... Wouldn't it be better to leave women alone, are they not created only for the material life of men? But why is there this sense of emptiness and lack in man—is it really only the desires of the flesh? It's better to be a eunuch."[10]

     In general, the impression one gathers from the three versions of the rumor is that Odoevsky was seen as a man not quite at home in the vocation of writer. Dolgorukov makes this point explicit, adding that the prince was equally uncomfortable in his society role as a title-bearing aristocrat: "These days Odoevsky is known among socialites as a writer and among writers as a socialite."[11] The ambiguous reputation of "in-betweenness" Odoevsky seems to have faced was also a notable characteristic of his salon, which, according to memoirists, was divided into two rooms, each with its own specific coterie. The writers, many of whom were not particularly well-off or well-born, gathered around the prince, usually sequestered away in his study, which was nicknamed the "lion's den." Meanwhile, the high-society aristocrats mingled in the drawing room, where Odoevsky's wife acted as hostess. Odoevsky had apparently hoped the salon would democratize the Russian literary hierarchy, but in the end the society crowd remained disdainful and aloof, the writers, awkward and shy, and a veritable "abyss" separated the drawing room from the study.[12] Pushkin, always one to value aristocratic birth higher than a poet's fame, sat in the drawing-room, which is where his conversation with Lenz apparently took place—notably out of earshot of Odoevsky himself. It is possible that Lenz's remark about the sexless Odoevsky implicated this surrounding context as well, with the salon divided, not so much into male and female worlds, but into the asexual and the sexual.

     Citing a note Odoevsky made towards the end of his life—"the toiling aristocrat is already a democrat"—Tur´ian identifies the life-model Odoevsky chose for himself from a very young age. What the rumor about Pushkin's disapproval of the Motley Tales reveals, though, is that the role of aristokrat-truzhenik was an awkward and in some ways thankless one in Petersburg society.[13] Hard work within the existing social structure could not compensate for an inability to navigate the codes of gender, and, indeed, the image of Odoevsky's laborious writing could itself have easily been shifted into the realm of sexual innuendo.[14] At the same time, Pushkin seems to have had his own problems, judging from the detail about his teeth. Despite the great esteem in which he was held by many—writers and socialites alike—Pushkin's status as a high-society intellectual also remained shaky at some level, leaving him strangely vulnerable to the bubbling up of racial discourses.[15] Both men, albeit in quite different ways, found themselves caught between their aristocratic pedigrees and something else—not so much an alternative identity, but more a peripheral place of abandonment by the social. It is in such a place where the fragments of unformed identities—unusual physical characteristics, unruly anxieties and desires, etc.—are typically left to stir.[16]



     On 28 September 1833, Odoevsky wrote a letter to Pushkin, proposing a collaboration that would have also included Gogol. If Pushkin had agreed, each of the three authors' respective pseudonymous frame-narrators would have produced a new tale, published together as different "rooms" in a three-story house or Troichatka, which would be depicted in an illustration on the frontispiece. Odoevsky's Gomozeiko would describe the drawing room; Gogol's Panko, the attic; and Pushkin's Belkin, the cellar [pogreb]. Whether or not Pushkin knew of the idea before receiving the letter (or perhaps had even given some form of preliminary assent), the poet finally rejected the proposal in a letter to Odoevsky written on 30 October during his stay in Boldino, claiming a lack of inspiration: "My apologies, your Excellency! apologies all round. I arrived in the country and thought the writing would come [dumal raspishus´]. But it wasn't to be. Headaches, domestic troubles, laziness—aristocratic, land-owner laziness [barskaia, pomeshchich´ia len´]—got the better of me in such a way that God help me."[17] Pushkin may have genuinely felt this way earlier in the month—he complained about laziness and headaches to his wife on 21 October, although this may also have been dissimulation.[18] By the 30th, however, he was definitely writing, informing his wife in another letter he wrote that same day—"The writing came not long ago, and I've already written a ton" [Nedavno raspisalsia, i uzhe napisal propast´]. Both letters were drafted in the middle of Pushkin's most intense work on the Bronze Horseman, and if The Queen of Spades had not already been completed, it must have been soon after—a point worth noting in the context of Odoevsky's request for a new tale. Still, judging by the letter to his wife, the burst of inspiration had not improved Pushkin's mood. This is the same well-known missive in which the poet charmingly compares his wife's flirtations to a bitch raising her tail to be sniffed or putting a trough out for swine.[19]

     These facts help reveal the layers of sarcasm and irony in Pushkin's letter to Odoevsky. Odoevsky also writes his letter in an ironic mode, but he only takes it so far as to treat the frame-narrators as real people, asking what Belkin is doing these days and what Pushkin thinks his decision will be on the matter. Pushkin responds to this innocent bit of play with a real explosion of double entendre. "Don't wait for Belkin; evidently he really is deceased [ne na shutku vidno on pokoinik]; he won't be able to make it to the house-warming [ne byvat´ emu na novosel´i] either in Gomozeiko's drawing room or in Panko's attic. Evidently he's not worthy of their company... It's not a bad idea to make a trip down to the cellar, though."[20] What sets Pushkin off is the fact that Odoevsky has asked after the affairs of a dead man, forgetting that the original tales were published as those of the late Belkin (Povesti pokoinogo Ivana Petrovicha Belkina). This conjures up one of Pushkin's favorite themes: the dangers involved in addressing the dead as if they were alive. This motif plays no small part in the Bronze Horseman, and in the context of the letter, it points directly to Belkin's "Coffinmaker"— in which the titular character also invites pokoiniki to a novosel´e, and they dutifully arrive in his drunken dream.[21] The context of the pogreb also plays a role here—evoking semantic frames of both burial and eating and drinking. Pushkin specifically emphasizes the latter, which fits into the context of his "aristocratic laziness."[22]

     All of these associations hover around Pushkin's statement that Bel¬kin "evidently" [vidno] really is dead, and that, again "evidently," he does not deserve to be in the company of Gomozeiko and Panko. Is this evident because Pushkin has not produced a text for the almanac? Or perhaps he has taken offence at the conception of the three-story house of tales, where Belkin is stuck in the cellar, like a preserved corpse? Indeed, if we give our associative mechanism free rein, perhaps the "evidence" is mistaken, and a danger exists that Belkin will rise and exact some form of gruesome revenge upon Odoevsky for disturbing his rest. Is Pushkin on some level hinting that for all his laziness and drinking (or perhaps because of them), he has in fact literally been "flooded" with inspiration? The truth is that Pushkin's letter invokes a kind of ironic discourse in which a general erosion of distinctions—between the fictional and the true, the figurative and the literal, the living and the dead—causes the ground of meaning constantly to collapse, even as associations proliferate. This kind of "entropic" irony is very different from Odoevsky's, which is designed to reinforce categorical distinctions, promoting a sense of inclusion among the interlocutors erecting this new literary edifice of the Troichatka.[23] Such a different sense of irony, considered alongside the different struggles the two intellectuals faced in Petersburg society, becomes highly suggestive when one begins to reconstruct (or imagine) the polemic between "The Same Tale, Only Inside Out" and "The faded joy of mad years..."



     Odoevsky's tales about the girl who is transformed into a doll are narrated with the same kind of constructive, inclusive irony that we find in his letter to Pushkin. The subject of the tales is the social reality of marriage, with special emphasis placed on society's negative influence on women. A crowd of girls is walking down Nevsky, and one of them gets separated during a visit to a shop. The shopkeeper, a "heathen from overseas" [zamorskii basurmanin], takes the girl captive, removes her heart, and treats it with a solution of foreign texts—on ethics and education, as well as etiquette and dance manuals—mixed with Petersburg society gossip and bureacratic formulations, until the Russian beauty is tame and ready for her final transformation into a doll.[24] The doll is then kept on display until a young Russian man notices her and decides to take her home. Catching a scent of Russianness [pochuila russkii dukh], the doll comes to life but quickly proves a poor companion.[25] As a result of the shopkeeper's cruel manipulations, she is totally ignorant of art, has no sense of virtue, and is devoid of all passion, particularly love. The young man tries to reeducate her, but to no avail. In the end the doll does nothing but make demands of him, refusing to do anything herself, until finally he throws her out the window.

     The second tale is introduced as a polemical inversion of the first one, sent in by Gomozeiko's angry female readership. The damy protest they are not dolls but are fully conscious of their higher purpose as "the soul of that four-legged animal called a married couple."[26] The tale then begins with the proto-Slavic sage, who seems to succeed where the young man failed in rehumanizing the doll. The doll learns to think and to suffer, and, after the sage leaves her, she also acquires the capacity for love. Once again referred to as a beauty (krasavitsa), the girl falls asleep and has "poetic dreams" about the "mighty power of the mysterious union of souls." She links arms with a lovely young man and is joined with him as a single being, each living the life of the other in perfect harmony, "laughing at the wasteland of the tomb, for beyond it they found no limits to the existence of human love."[27] When she awakes, however, the beauty is surprised to find not this poetic youth, but a hideous wooden creature called Nodder [Kivakel´] with a bobbling head and a fat tongue wriggling between hanging lips.[28] Everything proceeds in reverse of the first tale. The beauty feels sorry for the creature and tries to teach him language, thought, pleasure, and passion. But in the end all he does is smoke eighty pipes a day and enquire about the health of his horses. Soon he begins to treat the beauty like his slave, oppressing her terribly, until she can suffer no more and dies, after which he "again" throws her out the window (suggesting the two tales relate the same fabula from different perspectives).[29]

     Upon inspection, the tale represents a fairly typical Odoevskian critique of social conventions in modern Russia, in this case an allegory for the tragic failure of the Romantic ideal of marriage. Instead of a harmonious union of complementary opposites, the hideous Nodder and the multiple violent deaths of the beauty reveal the irresolvable contradiction between man and woman, paralleled by the many other contradictions in the tale—between Eastern and Western cultures, between animate spirit and inert matter, or between natural life and the civilizing strictures of society. The reader is profoundly aware of these oppositions, as the allegory builds itself out of them. At the same time, there is clearly some truth to Lenz's description of Odoevsky's thought—and not just his persona—as asexual. The allegory of the doll seems utterly incapable of accommodating the contradictory violence of gender. There is lost harmony and a yearning to find it again, but there is no feeling that the tension between the broken halves could be productive. Sexual tension is absent, and violence comes only as a rent in the artificial symmetry of the two-part tale. In both parts, the girl's death is empty and gratuitous—devoid of the lush, sacrificial logic one finds, for example, in the climaxes of more canonical narratives of murdered women like Othello or Carmen.[30]

     So, where is Pushkin in all this? On the surface, he seems to be a positive force of harmony, and yet "evidently" art is not enough. When one considers the poem that Odoevsky may or may not be quoting, it is possible to imagine why this is the case. "The faded joy of mad years..." is a peculiar elegy—in a sense an elegy for the future, rather than the past. Scholars have linked it to one of André Chénier's most famous poems, "O nécessité dure! ô pesant esclavage!...," in which the speaker turns from the struggles of life toward the appeal of death, but finally rejects suicide: "Et va chercher bien loin, plutôt que de mourir / Quelque prétexte ami de vivre et de souffrir."[31] Chénier's poem distills quite purely what may be called the elegiac contradiction—voluptuously approaching self-annihilation ("Le fer libérateur qui percerait mon sein / Déjà frappe mes yeux et frémit sous ma main") only to withdraw back into life, now as a death-in-life ("Il se traîne au tombeau de souffrance en souffrance").[32] The dialectical tension produced by this poetic movement is the same that simultaneously links and divides joy and sorrow, the past and the present, or the possession and the loss of love in other elegies that evoke the "mixed feelings" [vermischte Empfindungen] many have noted as the essence of the genre in its modern form.[33]

     In "The faded joy of mad years...", by contrast, the object of the poetic discourse appears to be the dimming of this elegiac contradiction:

     Безумных лет угасшее веселье
Мне тяжело, как смутное похмелье.
Но, как вино — печаль минувших дней
В моей душе чем старе, тем сильней.
Мой путь уныл. Сулит мне труд и горе
Грядущего волнуемое море.

     Но не хочу, о други, умирать;
Я жить хочу, чтоб мыслить и страдать;
И ведаю, мне будут наслажденья
Меж горестей, забот и треволненья:
Порой опять гармонией упьюсь,
Над вымыслом слезами обольюсь,
И может быть — на мой закат печальный
Блеснет любовь улыбкою прощальной.

The faded joy of mad years / Weighs upon me like a murky hangover. / But, like wine—the sorrow of past days / In my soul grows stronger as it gets older. / My path is gloomy. Labor and woe are promised / By the tumultuous sea of the future. // But, o friends, I do not want to die; / I want to live, in order to think and suffer; / And I know that I will have pleasures / Amongst the woes, the worries, and the cares: / At times I will again drink in the harmony, / And release a flood of tears over a work of the mind, / And perhaps at my sad sunset / A parting smile of love will flash.[34]

The slackening of elegiac tension occurs primarily through the poem's use of metaphor. The first two couplets present an alcoholic conceit so semantically overdetermined that it quickly unravels under analysis. The joys of the past are likened to drunkenness, with the pain of joy's fading as the ensuing hangover. But then the sorrows of the past are a wine that grows stronger with age. Does sorrow produce a drunkenness that differs from that of joy? Is the hangover that follows joy accompanied by an ever-increasing intoxication with sorrow? The ultimate effect of this metaphoric laxity is to weaken the contrast between joy and sorrow. In place of the dialectical mixture of emotions, where the transcended limit of difference is simultaneously actualized and intensified, Pushkin's elegy offers only an alcoholic blur.[35] A similar effect is produced by the images of light and water that appear throughout the poem. Although one might expect a powerful contrast between the two elements as symbols of form and flux, one instead finds correlates of each associated with every major point of the poem's argument, again suggesting a loss of distinction. The joys of the past fade as a light (ugasshee vesel´e), but they also resemble wine (smutnoe pokhmel´e). The future is a tumultuous sea (volnuemoe more) that can only be avoided through death, but in the end the future is also a setting sun (moi zakat), itself now associated with dying. Finally the compensation for sublimating the suicidal impulse is either the tender, drippy feelings of art (garmoniei up´ius´/slezami obol´ius´) or the flashing smile of late love (blesnet liubov´). The dominance of these two types of image in the poem—the only unrelated metaphor is the use of the word "path" with a temporal meaning—makes the strange oscillation between them quite powerful. Indeed, in a sense, this metaphoric "instrumentation" is the only concrete semantic content the poem offers, as it otherwise presents only a highly abstract emotional narrative, entirely lacking in details.[36] At this level—the level of narrative logic—the poem proceeds according to a dialectical plan quite similar to Chénier's original (with the contrastive "No ne khochu..." marking the turn from thesis to antithesis).[37] But, since it does something entirely different at the metaphoric level, the power of the final synthesis is dimmed. In the end, the poem's movement fails to produce the tense, precariously balanced synthesis of opposed feelings the reader expects, for beneath that familiar movement there subsists a persistent ambiguity, exhibiting no accumulation or release of tension at all. Indeed, I would argue that although "The faded joy of mad years..." does not read as an overtly ironic poem, its slippery semantics is very reminiscent of the entropic irony Pushkin practices in his 1833 letter to Odoevsky.

     When Pushkin's elegy is positioned in dialogue with Odoevsky's tale—with the tale as a response to the elegy—it appears as if Odoevsky is attempting to rewrite or "correct" Pushkin. The revision occurs primarily through a shift in the place of love: that core of elegiac discourse that Pushkin touches only in the final image of his poem. To understand this shift, it is necessary to consider more closely the series of infinitives, "Ia zhit´ khochu, chtob myslit´ i stradat´," which Tur´ian identifies as the source of the "iskusstvo stradat´ i myslit´" the sage imparts to the doll. If indeed the elegy is working off the reader's memory of Chénier's "de vivre et de souffrir," it is worth considering the effect of the inserted middle term, for although Chénier treats a highly introspective subject, his elegy contains no explicit mention of thought.[38] My suspicion is that the effect was on some level unsettling for contemporary readers of the poem, who may have experienced the verb "to think" as usurping the place of the more natural "to love" in this series. There are a number of reasons for this suspicion. First, the entire erotic elegiac tradition is based on the link between love and suffering, and this link is often named explicitly—as, for example, in the final lines of Pushkin's 1823 "Prostish´ li mne revnivye mechty...": "Ne znaesh´ ty, kak sil´no ia liubliu / Ne znaesh´ ty, kak tiazhko ia stradaiu." [39] Second, there is the common association (through consonance) of the verbs leben, lieben, and leiden in German, which form a semantic cluster central to the Sentimentalist concept of the "beautiful soul."[40] Finally—and this is where Odoevsky comes in—Russian writers in the first fifteen years or so after Pushkin's elegy was published seem to have experienced an internal pressure to add a more emotive verb, such as "to love" or "to feel," to the series. For example, Vissarion Belinsky, who in 1836 called the elegy "the one precious pearl" among the otherwise disappointing fourth volume of Pushkin's Poems,[41] linked the infinitives "to think" and "to suffer" twice in 1840 and 1841, and both times he included an emotive supplement.[42]

     Assuming (or imagining) Odoevsky's tales are responding to Pushkin's elegy, one suspects that this pressure to supplement the verbal series was particularly acute for the prince. With the intertext in mind, one can trace the great lengths to which Odoevsky goes in restoring the place of love and emotion alongside thought and suffering—constituting a triad of forces forever striving to suture up the dismembered world. When the young man in the first tale grows frustrated with the doll, he tells her: "since you cannot think or feel [ne mozhesh´ ty ni myslit´, ni chuvstvovat´], I won't be able to pour my soul into you ... so why don't you tend the house according to the old Russian custom."[43] Suffering follows soon after, when the young man gives up on the doll completely: "the unfortunate man did not know the sufferings the poor beauty had endured ..., and one day upon waking he threw the doll out the window."[44] After its brief preface, the second tale begins where the previous one left off, with the doll lying on the ground "abandoned by all, despised, without thought, without feeling, without suffering [bez mysli, bez chuvstva, bez stradaniia]." This is the cue for sage's entrance, reviving the doll and teaching her the Pushkinian arts. Almost immediately, however, emotion and love begin to creep into the narration, despite their not being mentioned either in the sage's lesson or in the line from "The faded joy of mad years...": "And life lives in the beauty, thought [mysl´] burns, feeling [chuvstvo] speaks, all of nature smiles at her with its rainbow-colored beams; there are no Chinese pearls on the thread of her existence, each one shines with the light of fantasy, love, and sounds."[45] Finally, after the girl's dream, love even manages to leak retroactively into the sage's lesson itself. When the beauty decides to stay with Nodder and humanize him, it is the memory of her own reanimation that guides her: "she resigned herself to her fate without complaint; taking pride in the art of love and suffering [iskusstvo liubvi i stradaniia], which the sage of the East had given to her, she swore to devote her life to raising up and reviving this rude, degraded creature, who had fallen to her lot, and thus to fulfill the noble purpose of woman on this earth."[46]

     Love and thought do not necessarily exclude one another in their relation to suffering, of course. The suicidal Leiden of Goethe's Werther, for example—which Odoevsky cites symmetrically in the epigraph and epilogue to the second tale—seem caused as much by an overactive intellect as by erotic longing.[47] The point is that in Pushkin's image of a life composed of thinking and suffering, the sphere of emotion and love is palpably missing. It is as if the line is intended to be somewhat strange and unsettling, to conjure up a ghostly lack of love, so it can then be "filled in" by the poem's final image of the parting smile. This perhaps explains the habit of the elegy's readers, who seem so inclined to remember the striking phrase from its central couplet as already illumined by the flash of love in its final line. And yet, in the poem itself, the amorous payoff of that image is quite unusual, and one can imagine it failing to satisfy a reader as hungry for harmony as Odoevsky. The smile occupies the place that in many gloomy elegies features an utterly different content; in the usual finale, the speaker's beloved comes to his grave and sheds a parting tear. Such, for example, is the ending of Lensky's eve-of-death elegy in Evgeny Onegin: "Will you come, maid of beauty, / To shed a tear upon my early urn [slezu prolit´ nad rannei urnoi] / And think: he loved me, / He dedicated to me alone / The sad dawn of his stormy life! [rassvet pechal´nyi zhizni burnoi] / Dear friend, desired friend, / Come, come: I am your husband!..."[48] Both this tear and the smile in "The faded joy of mad years..." are dialectical images—bringing erotic lack and fullness together—but with inverted accents. One smiles sadly over the living, while the other weeps sweetly over the dead.[49] And yet the superimposition of the two images in the reader's consciousness has a non-dialectical effect similar to that of the poem's general use of metaphor. Just as joy collapses into sorrow, and light seems interchangeable with water, now the distinction between desire and consummation is lost as the pair of inverted images effectively cancel each other out. Here the biographical context of the poem is relevant, as "The faded joy of mad years..." is one of several "parting" elegies that Pushkin wrote on the eve of his marriage.[50] With this context in mind, the poem appears to argue that the passing of youth is a kind of death, but not quite—much as middle-aged, married life is still a kind of life—but, again, not quite.[51] Instead of the tense imprisonment of death-in-life that Chénier evokes, Pushkin finds a kind of freedom in losing the boundary between the two categories. Elegiac discourse is manipulated in such a way that the frontier-crossing the poem describes is experienced as effectively limitless, not in a sublime sense, but as something mundanely indeterminate. The border between opposed conditions is eroded, and the tension between them grows slack. Perhaps a slackened, more durable love is the poem's ultimate object.

     Odoevsky does not follow Pushkin towards this ground of indifference, however. Instead, his restoration of the doll to life—as a life of thought, suffering, and love—seems part of a general effort to restore the power of Pushkin's dimmed elegiac contradiction, only now on a different plane. Instead of the internal alchemy of opposed feelings, Odoevsky is concerned with the conflict of elemental forces at the interpersonal level of the social. In this struggle, the pale, slackened love of "The faded joy of mad years..." has no place. Although Odoevsky does not insert the emotion directly into the live-think-suffer series as other readers of Pushkin soon will, a truly powerful love still comes to the doll as a sneaky side effect of the sage's lesson. And, unlike Pushkin, Odoevsky seems intent on covering up this awkward delay in love's appearance. His dream of a limitless love does not shift indeterminately between life and death, joy and sorrow, longing and consummation, or youth and age. Rather, Odoevsky's ideal is a love that will truly resolve such conflicts—along with the more classic binaries of man and woman, East and West, matter and spirit, nature and culture—restoring the wholeness of the divided absolute. And here is where the tragic kernel of Odoevsky's allegory reveals itself. For like art, music, and poetry, love is also apparently not enough. The tale offers no image of dialectical synthesis, only the dream of harmony and the pain of life's cruel division into so many irresolvable antinomies. The tale's ethical ideal seems to be endurance and striving against the odds, while its ironic, satirical edge is aimed at all hastily crafted, mechanical forms of unity. As the narrator informs us just before the girl's second death and defenestration, "the sage of the East, having taught the beauty the art of suffering, had not given her the art of enduring suffering."[52]

     Recalling finally the two biographical episodes with which I began, I do not believe it is necessary to systematize their relation to this more literary meshing of texts. One could offer certain generalizations about the stifling climate of post-Decembrist Russia and the social quicksand in which writers often found themselves, but in such broad formulations, these historical truths are no doubt obvious to the point of superfluity. More important is the simple fact that aesthetic strategies do parallel social realities (and vice versa), even at the micro-level of who sits where at the salon, or who takes what tone in an epistolary exchange. By weaving a specific intertextual moment into this more diversified extraliterary fabric, associative patterns that might otherwise have remain buried in the texts have become visible. While these patterns may not always be traceable back to a sovereign act of authorial intention, they are significant as logical consequences of the staged intertextual encounter, as manifestations of the tensions and oppositions that define it. The hermeneutic potential of this kind of reading is great, of course—to the point even of producing echoes that resound only in the space of the analysis itself (such as Pushkin's moorish smile and the flashing smile of love, or Odoevsky's vivisected beauty and Pushkin's bestialized wife). Rather than suppress such resonances, I have invited them in order to apprehend more deeply the one thing in my analysis that should not raise any doubts—i.e., the difference between these two writers in 1833. I have staged this difference first as an encounter of their respectively "bodily" and "non-bodily" challenges in Petersburg society, second as a clash of their entropic and constructive forms of irony, and finally through their different manipulations of dialectical aesthetics in "The faded joy of mad years..." and "The Same Tale, Only Inside Out."

     As far as the final staging is concerned, one can say that both authors experienced a similar moment of "dialectical doubt"—perhaps not uncommon in the early 1830s in Russia—though each reacted to it in his own way. Pushkin seems to have embraced it, albeit not publicly, but under the cover of a kind of camouflage. On the surface he still appears to play by the rules, while below he is secretly unraveling them. By contrast, Odoevsky seems more passively infected with doubt, which undermines the very ideals his discourse seeks to champion—especially the ever-implicit project of building a modern Russia. The non-productive images of violence in Odoevsky's allegorical war of the sexes suggest that on some level the proposed means of realizing this project—which would require resolving the "contradictions" (however defined) that slow Russia's progress—inspired a certain horror in the author. Odoevsky clearly does not share Pushkin's answer to the question of marriage, and yet he also proves incapable of offering a clear alternative. While Pushkin dims love to protect it from consummation, Odoevsky demands love's fullness, only to reject the sexed bodies that would share it.


University of Pittsburgh


Download: Platt, Jonathan Brooks. "Between Thought and Feeling: Odoevsky, Pushkin and Dialectical Doubt in 1833." Pushkin Review 12-13 (2009-10): 45-63.

[1] V. F. Odoevskii, Pestrye skazki, ed. M. A. Tur´ian (St. Petersburg: Nauka, 1996), 55.

[2] A. S. Pushkin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 10 vols. (Leningrad: Nauka, 1977–79), 3: 169.

[3] Tur´ian writes: "This quotation testifies to the fact that Odoevsky knew the 'Elegy' in manuscript form. Written in 1830, it was only published in 1834 in The Library for Reading (vol. 6)" (Odoevskii, Pestrye skazki, 186).

[4] The correct dating of the poem was known to all by 1855, when it was published under the heading "1830" in the first edition of Pushkin's collected works.

[5] A number of these common themes are discussed (primarily in an effort to deny Pushkin's direct influence on Odoevsky) in N. V. Izmailov, "Pushkin i kniaz´ V. F. Odoevskii," in Pushkin v mirovoi literature: Sbornik statei (Leningrad: Gosizdat, 1926), 289–308; and idem, "Pushkin i V. F. Odoevskii," Ocherki tvorchestva Pushkina (Leningrad: Nauka, 1975), 303–25.

[6] P. V. Dolgorukov, "Ministr Lanskoi," Budushchnost´, 15 September 1860. Dolgorukov was settling old scores by publishing the rumor, as Odoevsky had accused him of writing the anonymous letter that led to Pushkin's fatal duel. Odoevsky denied that any such conversation with Pushkin had ever occurred in a written, but unpublished reply. See P. E. Shchegolev, Duel´ i smert´ Pushkina (St. Petersburg: Akademicheskii proekt, 1999), 466–70; and M. A. Tur´ian, Strannaia moia sud´ba: O zhizni Vladimira Fedorovicha Odoevskogo (Moscow: Kniga, 1991) 238.

[7] V. A. Sollogub, Povesti: Vospominaniia (Leningrad: Khudozhestvennaia litera¬tura, 1988), 578.

[8] V. Lents, "Prikliucheniia lifliandtsa v Peterburge," in V. F. Odoevskii, Poslednii kvartet Betkhovena: Povesti, rasskazy, ocherki, Odoevskii v zhizni (Moscow: Mos-kovskii rabochii, 1987), 341. See also Wilhelm Lenz, Aus dem Tagesbuche eines Livlanders, ed. Baron Arnstein (Vienna: Gerold, 1850).

[9] See Neil Cornwell, The Life, Times, and Milieu of V. F. Odoevsky, 1804–1869 (London: The Athlone Press, 1986), 23–25, 208, 228; and Tur´ian, Strannaia moia sud´ba, 45.

[10] Quoted in Tur´ian, Strannaia moia sud´ba, 47.

[11] Dolgorukov, "Ministr Lanskoi."

[12] I. I. Panaev, Literaturnye vospominaniia, (accessed 5 September 2010). See also Tur´ian, Strannaia moia sud´ba, 182–87.

[13] Tur´ian, Strannaia moia sud´ba, 181.

[14] Here I am thinking of the long tradition, especially popular among the Arzamas circle, of associating laborious writing with futile masturbation. The classic image is that of Dmitrii Khvostov laboring over an ode in the adolescent Pushkin's Shade of Barkov and Shade of Fonvizin. In the latter text, Khvostov is contrasted with Konstantin Batiushkov, who exhibits the ideal poetic qualities of laziness, inebriation, and erotic potency.

[15] See also Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy, Nicole Svobodny, and Liudmilla A. Trigos, eds., Under the Sky of My Africa: Alexander Pushkin and Blackness (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2006), 15–18.

[16] It makes sense to associate these questions with the professionalization of writing in the 1830s and the threats it posed to a gentry writer's class status (especially one with financial worries like Pushkin or Odoevsky). My focus here is on the unformed aspects of a writer's identity, which emerged as salient when class status was destabilized through these awkward processes of literary democratization.

[17] Pushkin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 10: 354.

[18] Ibid., 353.

[19] Ibid., 353–54.

[20] Ibid., 354.

[21] The word novosel´e would have also evoked associations with the eponymous almanac published by Alexander Smirdin earlier that year, in which both Odoevsky and Pushkin featured.

[22] It seems likely that it was these semantic links to "The Coffinmaker" that made Odoevsky (and/or Gogol) associate the pogreb with Belkin in the first place (see N. N. Petrunina and G. M. Fridlender, "Pushkin i Gogol´ v 1831–1836 godakh," in Pushkin: Issledovaniia i materialy (Leningrad: Nauka, 1969), 6: 205. It is also interesting that the motif of drunken hallucinations of the living dead may have been fresh in Pushkin's mind at the time of writing the letter, as it features in The Queen of Spades.

[23] On Pushkin's use of different types of irony, see Monika Greenleaf, Pushkin and Romantic Fashion: Fragment, Elegy, Orient, Irony (Stanford, CA: Stanford Univer-sity Press, 1994), 38–55.

[24] Odoevskii, Pestrye skazki, 45–48.

[25] Ibid., 48.

[26] Ibid., 54.

[27] Ibid., 55.

[28] It is worth noting that Odoevsky's Nodder may have influenced Pushkin's description of the Countess in her bedroom in The Queen of Spades. Compare Pushkin: "The Countess sat, completely yellow, moving her hanging lips, rocking [shevelia otvislymi gubami, kachaias´] to the right and left" (Pushkin, Sobranie sochinenii, 6: 225) and Odoevsky: "the crushed head was ceaselessly nodding [kachalis´], as if in a sign of agreement; its fat tongue was moving between hanging lips [iazyk shevelilsia mezhdu otvisshimi gubami], without pronouncing a single word" (Odoevskii, Pestrye skazki, 56).

[29] See Cornwell, The Life, Times, and Milieu of V. F. Odoevskii, 44.

[30] It should also be noted that Odoevsky's tale has very little of the "uncanny" about it, despite its superficial links to Hoffmann's "Sandman."

[31] André Chénier, Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Badouin Frères, 1819) 156. See L. G. Frizman, "Tri elegii," in Iskusstvo slova: Sbornik statei k 80-letiiu Dmitriia Dmitro-vicha Blagogo, ed. K. V. Pigarev (Moscow: Nauka, 1973), 72–81; idem, "K zametke Pushkina 'Ob Andre Shen´e,'" Vremennik Pushkinskoi komissii 14 (1976): 144–46; and B. G. Reizov, Istoriia i teoriia literatury (Leningrad: Nauka, 1986), 187–201. In 1828 Evgeny Baratynsky published a truncated translation of the elegy in Anton Del´vig's Northern Flowers almanac. The reminiscence in Pushkin's elegy emerges clearly through the rhymed infinitives умирать/страдать, which repeats Chénier's mourir/souffrir.

[32] Chénier, Oeuvres complètes, 156.

[33] See Theodore Ziolkowski, The Classical German Elegy, 1795–1950 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 76–84; and V. E. Vatsuro, Lirika pushkinskoi pory: Elegicheskaia shkola (St. Petersburg: Nauka, 2002), 15–18.

[34] Pushkin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 3: 169.

[35] One may recall Michael Riffaterre's concept of ungrammaticality here, defined as a rent in the poetic mimesis that forces the reader to abandon representational meaning in favor of semiotic significance (moving from signifier to signifier, rather than from sign to referent). See Riffaterre, Semiotics of Poetry (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978). In this case, a metaliterary plane is accessed and problematized, with the "but" (no) in the third line reading as an authorial hesitation. The speaker—as elegist—seems to doubt his own metaphor, unable to choose between the opposed semantic domains of joy and sorrow as the target for its structure.

[36] Here one may also speak of a metaliterary significance to the poem, in that it re-duces the gloomy elegy as a genre to nothing but pure "movement," casting off all narrative support for that movement.

[37] Although I do not agree with his conclusions, Oleg Zyrianov makes a number of interesting points about the dialectical structure of the "The faded joy of mad years..." and its phenomenological relation to the sonnet form. See O. V. Zyrianov, "Pushkinskaia fenomenologiia elegicheskogo zhanra," Izvestiia Ural´skogo gosudarstvennogo universiteta 11 (1999): 5–12.

[38] Commentators have looked for other sources, but the results have not been particularly convincing. Lucifer's recommendation for man to "think and endure" in Byron's Cain ("examinez et souffrez" in French translation) and a line from Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer—"To think, then, is to suffer—and a world of thought must be a world of pain" (Charles Robert Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer [London: Oxford University Press, 1968] 221)—are among the candidates. A search on the Russian national corpus ( suggests that when taken in isolation, thinking and suffering tend to collocate in Russian only in phrases such as stradat´ pri mysli (to suffer at the thought)—unless, of course, one is quoting Pushkin.

[39] Pushkin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 10 vols., 2: 146.

[40] See Vatsuro, Lirika pushkinskoi pory, 35. The nominal forms of the verbs also appear often in the titles of German biographies.

[41] V. G. Belinskii, "Stikhotvoreniia Aleksandra Pushkina: Chast´ chetvertaia." (accessed 5 September 2010). Belinsky clearly internalized the elegy as he invoked its metaphoric terms in his summary judgment of the volume as a whole: "Of course, the sunset of talent [zakat talanta] is evident in it, but of Pushkin's talent; in this sunset there still a certain sparkling [eshche kakoi-to blesk], albeit one that is weak and pale...." (ibid.).

[42] In 1840, Belinsky described Goethe's Wilhelm Meister as a man who "lives only to take pleasure in life and art, to love, to suffer, and to think [liubit´, stradat´ i myslit´]"; V. G. Belinskii, "Mentsel´, kritik Gete," text_1270.shtml (accessed 5 September 2010). In the introduction to his 1841 review of Mikhail Lermontov's Poems, Belinsky included the aphorism: "To live means to feel and to think, to suffer and to experience bliss" [Zhit´ znachit – chuvstvovat´ i myslit´, stradat´ i blazhenstvovat´]; V. G. Belinskii, "Stikhotvoreniia Lermontova," (accessed 5 September 2010). It is interesting that both instances also refer to pleasure—another central term in Pushkin's elegy. Poetic examples of this emotive supplementation can be found in Vladimir Benediktov's 1837 "The Land beyond the Neva": "Later, longing and loving [toskuia i liubia], / Later, both thinking and suffering [i myslia i stradaia] / O, how many times, native river, / Did I look across you into the distance"; V. G. Benediktov, Stikhotvoreniia, (accessed 5 September 2010) and Apollon Grigoriev's 1846 "Deathbed Confession": "I have lived too much, / To live for nothing [...] / I suffered, thought, and loved— [Stradal ia, myslil i liubil] / Enough... I did not live for nothing" (A. A. Grigor´ev, Izbrannye stikhotvoreniia, (accessed 5 September 2010). Ironically, even Chénier's original seems to have been susceptible to a similar kind of transformation. In De l'Amour, Stendhal quoted the elegy's central lines out of context, using them to describe a lover's tendency to ignore obvious evidence of his mistress' infidelity; Stendhal, Love (London: Penguin, 1975), 117. Stendhal also refers to the desire for continued pleasure as the reason for rejecting "death" (i.e., the end of love).

[43] Odoevskii, Pestrye skazki, 50.

[44] Ibid., 51

[45] Ibid., 54, 55. Another suggestion of Pushkin's intertextual presence can be found in the image of a smiling sun in this passage (recalling the sunset smile of love in "The faded joy of mad years..."). The solar aspect of Odoevsky's image is reinforced by the rainbow motif: nature smiles with rainbow-colored beams (raduzhnymi luchami), and in the subsequent paragraph the "the sun of poetry" (solntse poezii) dapples rainbow colors (raduzhno igralo) over the harmonious melodies and crystalline thought of the beauty's dream (ibid., 55). Here one cannot help recall the famous line from Odoevsky's obituary for Pushkin—"The sun of our poetry has set" (Solntse nashei poezii zakatilos´); quoted in R. B. Zaborova, "Neizdannye stat´i V. F. Odoevskogo o Pushkine," Pushkin: Issledovaniia i materialy (Moscow: Nauka, 1956), 1: 320. It is worth noting in this context that "The faded joy of mad years..." was often read after the poet's death as Pushkin's "swan song." See, for example, Nikolai Polevoi, Ocherki russkoi literatury (St. Petersburg: Tipografiia Sakharova, 1839), 223.

[46] Odoevskii, Pestrye skazki, 56.

[47] The passage Odoevsky quotes is interesting, however, precisely because it echoes his theme—the reciprocally artificial lives (and bodies) of the partners in a modern marriage—in an entirely "asexual" key. Werther writes to Charlotte of his alienation from the society of others: "And still it seems to me that I am standing before a puppet show [pered iashchikom s kuklami]; ... I play with them, or better to say, they play with me like a doll; sometimes, forgetting myself, I take the wooden hand of my neighbor and immediately come to my senses in horror..." (ibid., 57).

[48] Pushkin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 5: 111.

[49] The inverted parallelism can be more specifically linked to Lensky's elegy through the opposition of Lensky's "sad dawn" to the "sad sunset" in "The faded joy of mad years...." My use of the phrase "dialectical image" here should not be confused with Walter Benjamin's very different use of this term.

[50] Other parting elegies written in Boldino in 1830 include "For the shores of your distant homeland..." and "Parting" ("For the last time your dear image...").

[51] If one imagines that Odoevsky is consciously echoing Pushkin's elegy, one must also assume that this biographical context lurks somewhere in the subtext of his cautionary tale about a loveless marriage. Is it an accident that Odoevsky's other main work on the theme, the society tale "Princess Mimi," written in 1834, also refers to Pushkin by name?

[52] Odoevskii, Pestrye skazki, 57.