Review: Lauren G. Leighton, «The Esoteric Tradition in Russian Romantic Literature: Decembrism and Freemasonry»

Lauren G. Leighton. The Esoteric Tradition in Russian Romantic Literature: Decembrism and Freemasonry. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994. viii, 224 pp. $39.50 (cloth).


The task that the author sets himself here is a doubly difficult if altogether intriguing one. Not only are the literary texts under study in some sense encoded, but they depend for their decoding on sources and traditions which can themselves be arcane, obscure, hermetic. The decoding here ranges over Masonic signs and rituals through calendarology, numerology, cardiology, the Cabala, etc. The whole area of research is a daunting one, especially for those researchers of an empirical turn of mind.

Although some few hardy scholars have tackled the problem in one or another aspect (most often regarding Pushkin and numerology), there has been no general overview, nor one relating specifically to Russian Romanticism.

Lauren G. Leighton's splendid book is a major advance in this sense, and for a number of very good reasons. First, he gives a brief and useful—and blessedly clear—survey of esotericism in general. Then he does the same for Freemasonry (and its preceding manifestations), sifting through the various contradictory traditions and separating out those traits which are characteristic specifically for Russian Freemasonry. The result provides a kind of handy guide for those who are disinclined to venture forth on the sea of esoterica.

Guidelines established, the author applies them to the critical interpretation of certain Romantic poems, in particular Zhukovsky's. His principal example is Zhukovsky's "Star of Hope" image, which was borrowed from Masonic symbolism.

The complex relationship between Masonry and Decembrism is not the issue here: rather, it is the tangential matter of communication among the Decembrists and their sympathizers through "Aesopic language," and specifically that which depended on Masonic symbols and conventions. When these are used to create (or receive) a literary text, the author narrows the definition of a word to describe teh phenomenon: thaumaturgy. The thaumaturgical function of the "Star of Hope" is traced through Zhukovsky's poetry, and where one might expect a number of similar examples, there is instead a ramification of the single central one into a number of associations—Friendship, Providence, Inspiration, Memory. These in turn are ramified into further associations which are perceived as a "unified symbolic system." This "system" underlies Zhukovsky's Romantic esthetics in the author's view, and is extended to the esthetics of the Decembrist poets and those in sympathy with them.

It is in this way that a direct line is drawn to Yazykov, V.F. Raevsky and Polezhaev. The main figures here, however, are Ryleev and Bestuzhev, who are given chapters of their own.

Of special interest in the Ryleev chapter is the short but convincing sketch of Ryleev's character in relationship to his political views in general, and his pro-Ukrainian stance in particular. In this latter connection, the author focuses on Ryleev's historical verse tale Voynarovsky, which draws on the Mazepa theme (Pushkin's poem was in part a response to Voynarovsky).

On a quite different level, there is a highly interesting discussion of the friendship between the Decembrist-to-be Ryleev and Bestuzhev, and the importance of that friendship to the poem. The connections among Freemasonry, the two friends, and the bufeoning Decembrist movement are made through central Masonic images and their variations (e.g. friendship and trust, the Star of Hope, self-abnegation, martyrdom, love of death).

If Ryleev's poem foretells the failure of the Decembrist Revolt, Bestuzhev retells the story in his prose tale "The Frigate of Hope." It is an allegory of Bestuzhev's role in the Revolt and after, and not without an attempt to justify or at least cope with his own actions. There is a whole hidden subtext intended, as the author explains, for those of Bestuzhev's contemporaries with the knowledge to decode it (calendarology, numerology, cabalistics).

It is this level fo course which has to do most directly with the thesis of the book, and it is precisely here that the author occasionally seems to over-reach. In such cases, it is really a matter of individual attention, and because so much of the scholarship is impressive, so many of the arguments ingenious and the conclusions so often stunning, that one tends to go along with the author on those reaches which can be only in some degree speculative. I once had an old French professor who had this scale for judging literary interpretation: probable/possible/peu probable. The author's claims seem to me to fall within the first two categories.

The remainder of the book—about half the total text—centers on Pushkin: Pushkin and Bestuzhev, followed by three chapters on Pushkin's "Queen of Spades" (one chapter on numbers and numerology, another on thaumaturgy, in the sense noted above, and a third on the Masonic elements in the story). While much of this ground has been coverted before in one way or another, there is much here tht is new. Certainly, the summarizing chapter at the end calls to mind how very useful it is to have an accessible, carefully selective study of the esoteric tradition as background for Pushkin's story, as indeed for Russian Romantic literature of the early Nineteenth Century.

Sam Driver
Brown University



Driver, Sam. Rev. of Lauren G. Leighton, The Esoteric Tradition in Russian Romantic Literature: Decembrism and Freemasonry. Pushkin Review 1 (1998): 167-68.


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Vol. 01 (1998)