Academic journal article Pushkin Review

"Portable Graveyards": Albums in the Romantic Culture of Memory

Academic journal article Pushkin Review

"Portable Graveyards": Albums in the Romantic Culture of Memory

Article excerpt

In his 1820 tongue-in-cheek article in the journal Blagonamerennyi (The Benevolent One), a certain "N. Virsheeskii" complains about the then fashionable "invention" of albums and their detrimental effect on literary culture: "Now all new poems and prose are devoured by these portable graveyards to the detriment of Poetry and Eloquence." Despite his apparent goal of destroying the reputation of the album, this fictional selfprofessed "scholar from Koltovskaia" quite well articulates the complexities and uses of the album. He notes the album's open, hybrid structure by describing a "terrifying mix" of poetry, prose, drawings, and musical notes "thrown together" and "without any order." He points out that the album is a "collection" of "names of authors," and its woman owner frequently acts like a "conqueror," demonstrating his intuitive understanding of how albums operate within the realms of literary and erotic collecting. He also very aptly calls albums "portable graveyards" (podvizhnye kladbishcha), thus noting one of the album's most important facets, its link to the Romantic fascination with death, memory, and a belief that writing has the power to bridge the two. (1) Almost a decade later Evgeny Baratynsky would also call the album a graveyard in his poem "V al'bom" (In an Album; 1829), penned in fellow-poet Karolina Pavlova's album. His metaalbum poem, starting with the words "Al'bom pokhodit na kladbishche ..." (The album resembles a cemetery) offers a poetic conceptualization of the album as a cultural artifact. Both the fictional scholar and the poet--in different registers and at different points of the Golden Age--interpret the album as a space where memory of the dead is preserved via material objects, as well as the writing of names and inscriptions. Likewise, most of the writers of the Pushkin period and, indeed, most of the literate population of the time, were engaged in album culture.

Early nineteenth-century salon and domestic albums refract in myriad ways the Romantic interest in the idea that the processes of writing and remembering could symbolically counteract mortality. Albums--ornate scrapbooks, frequently called livres de souvenir or livres immortels--contained inscriptions in verse and prose, usually addressed to the album's owner, as well as signatures, drawings, and even personal memorabilia such as locks of hair or drops of blood. (2) The album's very existence and its varied contents symbolically promised eternal remembrance; the album functioned as a carrier of individual memory, ensuring permanence against mortality through physical preservation of human traces: texts, signatures, pictures, and souvenirs. An important prop in the life of the Romantic salon, the album was not confined to salon life. Thanks to their versatile, open form albums assumed many different forms and infiltrated various social settings, finally becoming a phenomenon of mass culture. (3)

Death, immortality, and the power of writing to bridge these two realms were among the most significant Romantic concerns. Their prevalence allows us to call the early nineteenth century in Russia a time of specific memory culture which has also been aptly called "a culture of recollection" (kul'tura vospominaniia) in reference to both West European and Russian Romanticism, by Savelii Senderovich. (4) Various verbal and iconic album materials that come from a wide spectrum of social strata show us the many different registers in which ideas about memory and remembering were expressed and formulated in albums, from the conventional album--a random, incongruous, haphazard collection--to the complex literary album, one that can be viewed as a self-reflective art form, as well as a "communal" forum that explored the idea of "memory." In this essay, I will explore how the memory discourse in albums evolved from simple images and banal poems to complex meta-writing that interprets remembering as a creative process, physically linked to the materiality of album inscription (paper, ink, pressed flowers), yet ultimately leading the writer to new definitions of the poetic "I. …

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