Academic journal article Pushkin Review

On Laughter and Dreaming in Pushkin

Academic journal article Pushkin Review

On Laughter and Dreaming in Pushkin

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article argues that the dreams depicted in Alexander Pushkin's poems, plays, and stories often concern the nature of social relations, and the dynamics of social power and social impotence. It argues that moments of scornful dream-laughter and merriment are central to Pushkin's negotiation of intersubjectivity: in the moment of being laughed at, the dreamer is made aware of how powerfully he or she has internalized the opinions and attitudes of others. This article argues that Pushkin's dreams follow a distinctive schema, in which laughter engenders a simultaneous alienation and envelopment in a dream, and that this in turn causes a state that resembles what sociologists call social death. This article treats dreams throughout Pushkin's corpus, and relies on Bakhtin, Max Scheler, Orlando Patterson, and Plato to offer a theoretical model for the perils and powers of social life depicted in Pushkin's work.

Key words: Pushkin, dreaming, laughter, social death, intersubjectivity, carnival, Bakhtin.

I. Malicious Laughter in Pushkin's Dreams

This essay will argue that moments of malicious laughter play a central role in the dreams described in Alexander Pushkin's plays, poems, and stories. These outbursts of cruel laughing or grinning, almost always directed at the dreamer, precipitate a vertiginous loss of control and, at the same time, a paralysis. They cause the dreamer to be at once isolated from and trapped within his dream. It is my contention that the stratifying effect of this laughter--emerging from the mouths of dream characters and battering the dreamer--is one of Pushkin's most complex and melancholy commentaries on the intersubjective nature of our existence.

Mikhail Bakhtin ended Rabelais and His World, his great study of laughter and social life, with one of Pushkin's dreams:

[phrase omitted] ... (1)

This is Grigory Otrepiev's voice from Boris Godunov, recounting his prophetic dream while still a novice in the monastery. Bakhtin understood the passage as a kind of myst ical historiography of carnival: "Every act of world history was accompanied by a laughing chorus," he glosses. But it is very important to recall that the dreamer here is being laughed at by the Muscovite people. He is perhaps a participant in the carnival of world history, but, if so, he stands outside the stratum of laughter (in Bakhtin's largely positive account of carnival, it is precisely the indiscriminate ubiquity of laughter that makes it so liberating and restorative; the butt of the joke laughs with the joker). Bakhtin considered the carnival a kind of exaggerated negative image of society, a moment when all of its structures were revealed by being dissolved and turned on their heads. (2) If we extend this reading to Otrepiev's dream, it seems that Otrepiev's position in the social world has been turned upside down by the carnival. Yet in some sense, the carnival has also prefigured his ultimate demise in the non-carnival world. Bakhtin's reading of this dream suggests that in this case carnival not only mocks social structures but also predicts their final consequences (in this case, deposition and death). Malicious dream- laughter becomes the index of an individual's relation to the society around him. A laughing dream is a carnival that enforces social discipline rather than relieving it. (3)

Dream-laughter (sometimes also manifested as clream-grinning and dream-pointing) occurs in many of Pushkin's works, among them Evgenii Onegin, Pikovaia dama, Raslan i Liudmila, and Grobovshchik. His uncanny dream sequences and their strange laughter owe a direct debt to the gothic movement of the preceding generations in England, France, and Germany. R. L. Busch reminds us that the ecole frenetique, or the gotho-freneticist tradition--Hoffman, Byron, the early Hugo, the fantastical Balzac--came to have an important influence on Russian literature of the 1820s and 1830s. …

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