Supplementing Pushkin

`My heart is churned with lyric agitation, It trembles, moans, and strives, as if in sleep' (Pushkin, `Autumn')
Pushkin's Lyric Intelligence by Andrew Kahn is the first book in English devoted to Pushkin's lyric poetry, and in writing it, the author has mined the annotated catalogue of the poet's library - which details the precise editions of his several thousand books (everything from Classical to English, French literature and German Romantic philosophy), and his annotations therein. Kahn sets out to examine Pushkin's `patterns' of thinking, and alert readers to the `larger conceptual framework behind his lyric expression'.

The book provides us with fascinating biographical insights into all aspects of Pushkin's writerly life, from the vagaries of copyright and publishing to the notion of the Romantic hero and the revelation that Evgenii Onegin was something of a commercial failure in the late 1820s; that Pushkin read English well by the age of 29, and for all his apparent frippery, took great pains to turn-out polished, apparently light-fingered verse, writing with a careful eye on book sales.

Pushkin also assimilated the major theoretical trends of his age, where theorists like La Harpe prompted him to accept a classical poetics of genre where `imagination' meant `good taste' and the apt imitation of one's forbears rather than the furor poeticus of the Romantic sublime. The poet was also sympathetic to refined Anglo-German theories on the primacy of imagination inspired by Kant. Andrew Kahn succeeds splendidly in invoking the intellectual currents of the Russian literati of 1820s and 1830s, and short-circuits lazy acceptance of `portmanteau words' with vague meanings prevalent in modern theory, such as `classicism' and `Romanticism'.

But we wonder whether Kahn's `conceptual framework' exists as such, or whether his approach to reading Pushkin's lyric poetry doesn't valorise precisely the fixed meanings that it so worthily sets out to avoid: these are identified in structuralist approaches to Pushkin's lyrics that, Kahn argues, dismiss `surplus meanings' as `extra-semantic' when they do not fit with preconceived ideas regarding `Pushkinian' language use. Instead Kahn's content-driven approach maintains that particular words can be read for their personal `connotations' within the poet's intellectual life.

Perhaps, despite a subtle exegesis of classical and Romantic aesthetics throughout his first five chapters, Kahn fails to see that beyond meticulous preparations for future acts of writing, reading or events in general, chance invariably interrupts our expectations. `The instant of decision is madness,' to quote the French theorist Maurice Blanchot. Most strikingly for a genius like Pushkin, whose poetic acts were perhaps more aleatory than Kahn allows - as our chance epigraph from `Autumn' suggests.

A misreading of French philosopher Jacques Derrida in a footnote to p.82 is telling, where Kahn seizes upon Pushkin's mention of his friend Del'vig in the 1836 lyric `To an Artist'. Kahn seeks to identify the personal connotations of this name for Pushkin, and thereby identify the conceptual structure behind this text. He compares his approach to Derrida's, whereby a word within the text also works as an `outside signifier [that] stabilizes meaning', and reveals it accordingly.

A more accurate summation of Derrida's supplemental logic is that a particular word's status (you could choose any word) is that of an addition to a poem that makes up for the latter's inherent internal deficiency and problematises its very being, precisely by opening it up to the outside. The supplemental word interrupts a stable attribution or reading in the same stroke as grounding one, by setting in motion a potentially illimitable chain of connotations for reader and writer.

So it is certainly not a question of magic words, although Kahn sometimes seems to think so: `[Pushkin's] words are his concepts, and his poems are the literary worlds in which their full meaning derives from the connotation of these words.' A demonstrative instance of Kahn's approach comes in Chapter Three, where he reads Pushkin's lyric `To Beauty':

`Everything about her is harmony, everything wondrous, Everything higher than the words and passions...'

Glossing the word `harmony', Kahn surmises that we can, `look into Pushkin's library and his reading for sources on its meaning.' Now, Pushkin's Lyric Intelligence certainly provides an admirable, if expensive, reading supplement to Pushkin, but not the perfect, impossible encyclopedia that could contain the full effects of his poetry and its meanings.

Andrew Kahn
Pushkin's Lyric Intelligence
392pp. Oxford University Press (2008) £55

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.