Review: Andrew Kahn. «Pushkin's Lyric Intelligence»

Andrew Kahn. Pushkin’s Lyric Intelligence.Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. xi + 398 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-923474-5. Cloth.


     In the words of Andrew Kahn, the aim of his book is “to show how Pushkin wrote poems about fundamental aspects of his creative and intellectual identity in response to the ideas and aesthetic questions of his age” (1). Kahn’s study clearly demonstrates that Pushkin’s distinct idiom and con­ceptual vocabulary can be better understood if evaluated in the context of the history of ideas and in conjunction with the views on creativity and inspiration that were prevalent in eighteenth-century Europe. By under­lining Pushkin’s closeness to eighteenth-century Russian literature, Kahn establishes a vantage point that enables him to read Pushkin’s lyrics as a semi-veiled dramatization of ideas and to reassess Pushkin’s links with European Romanticism. Kahn’s holistic approach to the evolution of Push­kin as a lyric poet stands in sharp contrast to the Structuralist approach which, in Kahn’s opinion, reduces the analysis of Pushkin’s ideas to a dis­cussion of “synchronic invariant motifs” (2). Kahn’s ambitious undertaking to recover Pushkin’s aesthetic vocabulary together with his artistic and professional concerns is subordinated to a desire “to address a Pushkinian sense of the creative mind that informs his understanding of mimesis” (2). Such an approach hinges on the problematic claim that Pushkin’s poetic thinking can be straightforwardly historicized, i.e., that the lyric hero al­ways acts as a mouthpiece for Pushkin himself.

     In his desire to establish a dynamic understanding of the intellectual context of Pushkin’s lyric poetry, Kahn draws on findings and interpreta­tions included in the studies of Boris Gasparov, Oleg Proskurin, Stephanie Sandler, Monika Greenleaf, and David Bethea. Yet Kahn is much more preoccupied than they with the notion of Pushkin as a great reader and bibliophile. Kahn seems especially appreciative of Mikhail Gershenzon’s 1919 essay, which presents Pushkin’s poetry as a source of wisdom and emotional truth, and H. J. Jackson’s 2005 study Romantic Readers: The Evidence of Marginalia, which offers many insights into the psychology of the romantic reader. By thoroughly investigating Pushkin’s library and all its marginalia, Kahn draws the important conclusion that Pushkin demon­strated a growing interest in the psychology of the creative mind. As Kahn claims: “The profile that emerges is of a writer who is a man of his age, immersed in the European literature of his time, from journalism and political theory to fiction and poetry, with a pronounced interest in the writers of the French and German Enlightenment and a strong interest in classical antiquity, most particularly Epicurian and Stoic philosophy” (7). He urges the poet’s readers not to underestimate the rich intellectual content of Pushkin’s lyric poetry. Although Kahn’s approach is highly valid and stimulating, it nevertheless has some methodological flaws, giving the impression, for example, that all the books in Pushkin’s library with cut pages were read by the poet in a very attentive way. Besides, not all the ideas taken from books that Pushkin studied found their way into his lyrics. Just like Andrey Anikin’s 1989 study Muza i mamona: Sotsial´no–ekonomicheskie motivy u Pushkina (surprisingly omitted by Kahn in his bibliography), this erudite and well-researched study appears to overem­phasize the importance of European thought in the construction of Push­kin’s poetic self–representation. It tends to present Pushkin as having a systematic and didactic approach to aesthetics in the style of Kireevsky and other contributors to the journal Moscow Herald with whom Pushkin engaged in intellectual dialogue over many years.

     Kahn’s book comprises, in addition to an introduction, appendix of selected prose quotations in the original French and Russian, bibliography and index, eight chapters entitled “Tradition and Originality,” “Invention and Genius,” “The Meaning of Beauty,” “A Reticent Imagination,” “Nature and Romantic Subjectivity,” “Genius and the Commerce of Poetry,” “The Hero,” and “Body and Soul.” A strength of the study is its careful evalua­tion of critical responses to Pushkin’s poetry and the inclusion of an in­sightful discussion of such critics as Mikhail Pogodin and Faddei Bulgarin. In this respect, the 1824 poem “Conversation between a Bookseller and a Poet” is a good example, in Kahn’s interpretation, of Pushkin’s concern with such issues as Romantic subjectivity and economic discourse that be­came visible in literary criticism in the 1820s–30s. Kahn’s analysis of the poem is linked to the wider discussion about the rare occurrence of dialogic poems in Pushkin’s oeuvre and highlights some Goethian overtones in the poem. In Kahn’s view, the poem can be seen as one of the poetic manifesta­tions of Pushkin’s authority imbued with the sense of paradoxical relation­ship between writer and reader. As Kahn points out, “The bid to conquer hearts and minds is inevitably paradoxical, for the more Pushkin wanted to command his readers, the less inclusive and inviting his rhetoric was about the bond between writer and reader” (185). Perhaps, one of the most interesting chapters is the chapter on the body and soul, in which Kahn finds some analogies between Pushkin’s poetic contemplations on death and immortality, Fichte’s philosophy of consciousness, and Leibniz’s pan­theism. Kahn concludes his exhaustive analysis of Pushkin’s artistic imagination and philosophical beliefs with the definition of the poet as a “Stoic sage” and Romantic figure preoccupied with mnemonic writing and with the glorification of friends as privileged readers or representatives of “the state within a state where virtue can be cultivated” (338).

     To a great extent, the method of reading of Pushkin’s poetry employed in Kahn’s study invokes Gershenzon’s method of slow reading. Yet, unlike Gershenzon, who uncovered in Pushkin’s works the urge for cosmic unity and the signs of inspiration comparable to the temporary insanity of an artist overwhelmed by suprahuman forces, Kahn molds Pushkin into a Briusov-like figure whose inspiration relies on the “archaeology of knowl­edge,” to borrow Michel Foucault’s expression from the title of the book, in which Foucault analyzes the conditions of existence for meaning and the emergence of truth on the basis of what was said and read during various epochs. While Kahn’s illuminating study will be of interest both to stu­dents of Russian and comparative literature, as well as to historians, we note that there are numerous mistranslations in his quotations from Push­kin’s works, which, unfortunately, raise some questions about the Russian-language competence of the author. The list of serious mistranslations in­clude the rendering of Pushkin’s “i ot sudeb zashchity net” as “and there is no defense to be found in judgment” (297); “vek zakatilsia” as “the age was eclipsed” (234); the phrase “otsepenelymi rukami skhvativ zheleznyi svoi venets” is transformed into “his hands pinned in irons. / He grabs his crown of iron” (237).


Alexandra Smith
Department of European Languages and Literatures
University of Edinburgh


Download: Smith, Alexandra. Rev. of Andrew Kahn. Pushkin's Lyric Intelligence. Pushkin Review 12-13 (2009-10): 149-51.