Academic journal article Pushkin Review

Where Are Liberty and Law? Subjectivizing the Naive in Chenier, Pushkin, and Lermontov

Academic journal article Pushkin Review

Where Are Liberty and Law? Subjectivizing the Naive in Chenier, Pushkin, and Lermontov

Article excerpt

Abstract: This essay discusses the Russian reception of Andre Chenier's 1794 ode to "The Young Captive," written while the poet was awaiting execution in Saint Lazare prison. The French ode itself describes a scene of reception, as the lyric subject overhears the plaintive song of a female prisoner on the other side of his cell wall and "plies" her lament into "the gentle laws of verse." This scene depicts the foundational tension of the modern political subject, as the naive, vitalist impulse to liberty (or revolution) is contained within a constitutional, juridical order. In his 1825 elegy to Chenier, Pushkin lays bare the violence of this dialectical encounter, undermining the foundational promise of European modernity. Subsequently, Lermontov rereads Chenier (and rewrites Pushkin) to recover the ambivalence of the modern subject's impossible position between liberty and law.

Key words: intertextuality, Chenier, Pushkin, Lermontov, constitutent power.

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An oft-overlooked element of intertextual poetics is its representational character. Reminiscences of earlier texts position the author as reader and generate the image of a specific reading practice--a representation of reception. Moreover, this metaliterarv aspect of intertextuality often interacts with self-reflexive narratives of reception within the text. There are numerous narratives of this kind. For example, the theme of a reader's seduction by textual fantasies is central to modern literature--from Don Quixote's chivalric romances to Emma Bovary's novels. In this essay, I look at the intertextual fate of a different scenario of reception--that of an imprisoned poet, who overhears another prisoner singing in the neighboring cell. While I am primarily interested in the history of this scene in Russian Romanticism, its origins come from Europe, specifically from Andre Chenier's ode to "The Young Captive." Chenier wrote the poem while awaiting execution in Saint Lazare prison in 1794, and in early 1795 his friends had it posthumously published. "The Young Captive" was subsequently reprinted in numerous anthologies, and it became Chenier's most famous work. By the time the first collection of his poems was published in 1819, Chenier was already something of a legend--as a tragic poet-victim-- thanks to "The Young Captive" and a footnote in Genius of Christianity, in which Chateaubriand describes the poet's last moments before the guillotine. Russian readers who kept up with the news from Paris would surely have known about him well before 1819; indeed, many have argued that Chenier is the "subhme Gaul" (vozvyshennyi Gait) to whom Pushkin refers in his 1817 ode to "Liberty. 1 In anvcase, after 1819 Chenier became a central figure for Russian Romanticism, celebrated as a truly "Greek" classic who remained aloof from the pompous, Roman-inspired neoclassicism that dominated his turbulent times. (2) One finds Russian translations and imitations appearing already in 1819, with Chenier's idylls and poems written on the model of the Greek anthology particularly influential. The poet's tragic fate would soon also become part of the Russian canon, after Pushkin wrote his historical elegy "Andre Chenier" in the spring of 1825.

The ode to "The Young Captive" has its own special place in Chenier's Russian reception. As I will argue, this status derives from its association, first, with Pushkin's historical elegy and, second, with Lermontov and his engagement with Pushkin after the latter's death in 1837. Lermontov's own fascination with Chenier is well documented, as scholars have identified a series of references to the French poet--forming a kind of cycle--in works of Lermontov that span the years 1830-39. (3) Many of these poems also contain direct reminiscences of Pushkin's 1825 elegy, and one of the central texts in the cycle is "Smert' poeta" (The Poet's Death), where Lermontov links Pushkin to Chenier (under the cover of an association with Vladimir Lensky from Evgeny Onegin): "And he is killed--and taken by the grave, / Like that bard, unknown but dear, / The prey of ignorant zeal, / Of whom he sang with such marvelous power, / Struck down, just like him, by a merciless hand. …

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