HAPPY BIRTHDAY, PUSHKIN!
THE ENIGMA OF PUSHKIN
Let’s be truthful. Non Russians have trouble grasping the significance of Pushkin. Honest Western reviewers are puzzled by the seemingly glib wit of the plays. Compared to other Russian writers Pushkin seems devoid of big ideas. But his selected verse, ‘My Talisman’ translated by Julian Henry Lowenfeld is a sudden revelation.
Something uniquely Russian is embodied in Pushkin.
Seven points can be made.
(How can I explain this using universalisms without too many generalisations?)
1) The Russian relationship to the Land.
German poetry has many examples of the mystical power of nature. Some French horticulturalists trim trees and impose order on their gardens. The English ideal is to relax in the romantic natural chaos of traditional country gardens. As to America, well, the paintings of Winslow Homer show the exertion of people against nature’s forces in a contest for dominance.
But the Russian soul has some connection beyond words with the eternal forests and vast expanses. Somehow Pushkin found the words to express this. You read Pushkin and you see the land that has been defended with so much cost because it seems holy. This is implicit.
2) The search for Truth.
In an American Starbucks coffee shop educated people can discuss politics in terms of ideas and campaign tactics but the Russians I know with a similar level of education are more concerned with assessing the goodness and intent of the politicians. Pushkin makes this halting uncertain seach for goodness clear.
3) Whereas an American may righteously express abstract ideas (church sermons) the Russians I have contact with prefer to think in imaginative pictures. Ideas as ideas, bore. (Hence the place of icons in homes and churches and the integrated use of illustrations in story books). Pushkin’s words evoke inner pictures to show truth. You ‘See’ in Pushkin’s very visual writings.
4) The relationship to Beauty.
In Levitan’s pictures there is a mystery that cannot be put into words. Schishkin and Repin reveal aspects of beauty in landscape and faces that leaves us silent, feeling an ineffable connection to the timeless.
All major American art can be spoken about because it is the artists’ Self Expression. -A use of paint to dominate the subject. But Pushkin, when joining with nature, is self effacing.
5) Pushkin has expressed the Folk Soul of Russia. So much so that Russian exiles integrated into Australian life may weep at recitations of Pushkin because they feel truly Russian and truly themselves at that moment.
6) All poetry and fiction exists to consciously give shape to make content more potent.
But in Goethean terms, the Russian language is at its purest as sound when a Thought/Image/Content/ Rhythm/Form Oneness is achieved. The glorious language, although it is a quality in itself, is melded to the content to create something bigger than the parts. Perhaps this integration is why Russians of all social classes can recite Pushkin. As literature it touches the unified core.
7) The final point is the most important. It is in the nature of Pushkin’s personality. We all know that he didn’t pretend to be perfect. He was probably a bit worse than most of us. Although his character was flawed, (he was even prepared to ritually kill a man in a duel because of his pride, and that he was himself killed doesn’t alter his intent to kill), there is a sense of redemption. I have discussed this many times only to find those who believe in a deity are all pretty much in agreement asserting that Pushkin’s soul was saved. Why? Because he was unique, an individual, a creator, and a reminder to us of our own possibilities. Pushkin’s writing is loved (although it is self effacing) because we can identify with the man.
(I have not quoted passages to provide supportive evidence because Russians will already know them and Australians can get the book from the library and have the joy of discovery). This book is a treasure.