Vladislav Khodasevich as Teacher of Pushkin: Lectures on Poetry to the Proletkult

Article excerpt

Proletkult, poetry, and Pushkin. Quite a combination, if you think about it. Add the poet Vladislav Khodasevich (1886-1939) into the mix, and the likelihood of pedagogical success seems slim, at best.

The publication of a number of documents from the archive of A. Ivich offers a new look into the way that Khodasevich viewed Pushkin and how he used his knowledge of Pushkin in his last pre-emigration years--specifically, in the classroom. These "Pushkin lectures," first published by Sophia Bogatyreva in Voprosy literatury in 1999, are being rendered into English for the first time here. In her Voprosy introduction, Bogatyreva refers to some of Khodasevich's articles about Pushkin, Proletkult, and other cultural issues, published in his pre- and post-emigration periods. Together, the present publication and Khodasevich's scattered articles in the Russian and emigre press represent Khodasevich's "Pushkiniana." As a lifelong student of Pushkin's work, with the insights of a poet, a scholar, and a most careful reader, Khodasevich earned a place amongst the best Pushkinists of the 20th century. Contemporary scholars and students can sigh along with Mark Aldanov, who in his obituary of Khodasevich in 1939 lamented, "How sad that he never wrote the life of Pushkin!" Aldanov continued:

   He said that he had suddenly found himself without the most
   necessary sources, that you can't put all of Pushkin's life into
   one volume, that such a book could only be written in Russia, that
   he would need two years to write it. All of this was true. But I
   think that he could have overcome the incidental and external
   obstacles. It is more likely that he saw such work as too crucial,
   requiring too much spiritual exertion. He put it off until better
   times--as, it seems, did Gershenzon. This loss is irreparable.

True. All the more valuable, then, are Khodasevich's approaches to the Pushkin biography project--including these early attempts to present Pushkin to an interested audience of aspiring poets. The students of the Proletkult poetry studio would have had much in common with potential readers of a biography, and thus the way in which Khodasevich constructed his lectures for them reveals his working method and his thoughts about how one should study poetry and Pushkin, and represents the earliest beginnings of that Pushkin biography which he was fated never to complete.

These lecture notes were written in 1918 for special Proletkult preparatory courses for aspiring poets, and they demonstrate in outlined form certain aspects of Khodasevich's interest in Pushkin. Students and scholars of Pushkin and of Khodasevich will find the lecture notes fascinating in and of themselves. Teachers of Pushkin may find Khodasevich's insights to be useful in their own classrooms. More than that, however, readers may want to consider these lectures as exemplary of pedagogical practice--though perhaps bad practice, rather than good. Just what was Khodasevich teaching in his Proletkult classes on Pushkin? To whom? With what goals in mind?

The first lecture emphatically places Pushkin in the center of Russian culture, even after the 1917 Revolutions. "If we are to learn to read poetry, then of course we should read Pushkin," Khodasevich writes. Pushkin was for him not only "the greatest poet," but also a poet who maintained a "striking harmony of form and content." Khodasevich's attempt to introduce his proletarian students to his own Pushkin demonstrates a short-lived optimism, which was to disappear within a few years. In his 1921 speech "The Shaken Tripod" ("Koleblemyi trenozhnik"), Khodasevich announced that Pushkin was the parole, the password, by which cultured Russians would recognize each other in the "encroaching darkness" of the twilight of civilization. In other words, though in 1918 he had introduced his proletarian students to the concept of Pushkin in the series of lectures published here, he did not anticipate pedagogical success. …