Conference Proceedings: "Alexander Pushkin and Russian National Identity: Taboo Texts, Topics, Interpretations," University of Notre Dame, 9-11 January 2009

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Alyssa Gillespie (University of Notre Dame) and Katya Hokanson (University of Oregon), the editors of a forthcoming volume on Pushkin and taboo, convened this conference to provide the volume's contributors an opportunity to come together to grapple with its overarching themes. Among many other things, participants took on the big questions of morality and immorality, national identity, cognitive vs. institutional taboo, eroticism, cultural permission and cultural prohibition, and finally kitsch in Pushkin's work and, by extension, Russian culture as a whole. No doubt, more questions were asked than were answered (always the case at a productive conference), but the central questions that came into focus as a result of the conference were these: How have taboos of various kinds clouded our picture of Pushkin? Can and, indeed, should we overcome these taboos? How and why do these taboos come about and how are they perpetuated centuries later? How can we mine the history of a given taboo for insights on the culture/period in which it is in force? The articles in Gillespie and Hokanson's book will provide some answers to these questions.

In her keynote speech Caryl Emerson (Princeton) offered a conceptual framework for the conference, focusing on neurosis and taboo, the relationship between society and the poet, and the moral self-censorship that blinds readers to the transgressive aspect of poetry. She asks in the Freudian sense whether the poet can heal, whether by acknowledging repression, self-censorship, and taboo, we readers of Pushkin can overcome the abyss that lies between us and the poet. The next day, Professor Emerson presented some of her new research on the Soviet writer Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky and his theater work related to Pushkin in a paper entitled "Censored or Banned: Eugene Onegin and 'Cleopatra' in the 1930s." The second keynote speaker, Oleg Proskurin (Russian Academy of Sciences), delivered an address entitled "'Forbidden Pushkin' in Putin's Russia: Paradoxes of Post-Soviet Postmodernity," in which he regaled the audience with anecdotes of how Pushkin has been appropriated for various purposes in the last decade, showing how the Russian language can restrain (consciousness) better than a pair of handcuffs. No less informative was his paper on Saturday, "Pushkin and Metropolitan Philaret: Rethinking the Problem."

Participants presented papers based on working drafts of their contributions for the volume, which were distributed to everyone some weeks in advance of the conference in order to facilitate meaningful and productive discussion. The papers drew on methods and concepts from all over the disciplinary map--history, sociology, anthropology, psychology--in addition to literary studies. They fell into roughly two categories. Some papers were devoted to various aspects of Pushkin's life and works which have been obscured by taboos of various sorts--e.g., Pushkin's "career" as a bureaucrat, his racial identity, "obscene" aspects of his poetry, etc.--in an attempt to overcome these taboos and regain some clarity of scholarly vision. For example, in "Pushkin the Titular Councilor," Irina Reyfman (Columbia University) gave an account of Pushkin the civil servant, a topic which still engenders distaste among many Pushkinomaniacs. Other papers treated the ways in which taboos are generated and have restrained and continue to mold representations of Pushkin in various media even today. …


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