Academic journal article Pushkin Review

Alexander Pushkin and the Irony of Temporality

Academic journal article Pushkin Review

Alexander Pushkin and the Irony of Temporality

Article excerpt

Pushkin's 1825 lyric poem "K***" ("Ia pomniu chudnoe mgnoven'e ...") has been understood almost universally as a poem of recuperation, where creativity and vitality triumph over a temporal existence that threatens both. 1 On such a reading, the poem's positive surface brings critical examination to a halt, admits no irony, and accords easily with certain prevalent notions of Romantic temporality. It is the contention of this essay that such an interpretive halt is premature, that the poem's surface conceals an irony at its center. Theorists of irony perennially warn against overlooking its presence: "When irony is a form of witticism, as with the Augustans, ineptitude in grasping it leads to a local and limited misunderstanding. On the other hand, when irony is centrally encoded in an entire work, failure to recognise it produces a radical misinterpretation." (2) Recognizing the irony of "Ia pomniu..." first of all revaluates the poem itself, so that the recuperation of the vital and creative self expressed in the poem is understood in a larger temporal context which strongly iraplies that loss and oblivion will recur. More generally, recognition of the irony of temporality, in this and related poems, helps situate Pushkin's lyric poetry with greater precision in the spectrum of Romanticism. And finally, a look at four later poems (by Tiutchev, Blok, and Brodsky) which depend intertextually on Pushkin's will suggest that the unexamined irony of temporality transfers readily through the history of Russian lyric poetry.

1. Romanticism and Irony

Before discussing Pushkin's poem, the broad theoretical context for its close reading will be established in two stages: first by sketching the interaction of Romanticism and irony, then by theorizing the interaction of Romanticism and temporality.

Following Anne K. Mellor, a distinct ironic line of nineteenth-century European Romanticism--in which irony is often "centrally encoded" in a work--may be contrasted with a non-ironic line. (3) Mellor positions her analysis as against Meyer Abrams's analysis of Romanticism but it may also be set against a cluster of theorists which includes Abrams, Northrop Frye, and Rene Wellek. For convenience, these two lines of theorized Romanticism will be referred to in terms of the worldview that underwrites each: the Neoplatonic (non-ironic) as against the Schlegelian (ironic).

Neoplatonic Romanticism, well characterized by Abrams, Frye, Wellek, and others, may be identified not only by its general lack of irony, but by rhetorical loftiness, by encounters with the sublime, by the quest for unity and harmony in the world and with nature, and by the transformative power of the imagination over "mere" or mundane experience.

Wordsworth articulates Neoplatonic Romanticism's basic assumption when he writes, "Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea / Which brought us hither." In a purely philosophical vocabulary, becoming always stands subordinate to being. As Victor Terras notes, "Pushkin has none of the Neoplatonism that is so patent in Romantics like Coleridge, Holderlin, or Wordsworth." (4)

By contrast, the Schlegelian line of European Romanticism is marked by a pervasive irony which moderates the emotional tone of the work, remains skeptical of loftiness and the sublime, and perceives the transformative power of the imagination as potent but limited. Being does not automatically trump becoming. In its extreme form, irony may function as an endlessly negating principle--leading to the demonic emptiness that Kierkegaard famously criticized. But this is not a necessary result of Schlegel's conception of irony; rather, it is an interpretation of Schlegel, one that this essay will not adopt. Schlegelian irony in this essay will signify not a negating principle but an ambiguating or mediating principle. In Wayne Booth's terms, Schlegel's irony is unstable but not infinite.

Irony begins, for Schlegel, as an awareness of the breach between being and becoming. …

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