The High Stakes of Identity: Gambling in the Life and Literature of Nineteenth-Century Russia, and: "Ehre" in der russischen Literatur: Analyse des Begriffs in ausgewahlten Werken von Aleksandr S. Puskin, and: Zhizn usadebnogo mifa: Utrachennyi i obretennyi rai (review)
- Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History
- Slavica Publishers
- Volume 6, Number 2, Spring 2005 (New Series)
- pp. 417-423
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 6.2 (2005) 417-423
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Of late, history and literary criticism appear to be growing ever closer. For some years now, historians interested in cultural history have been using fiction as a source. At the same time, in the realm of literary criticism, Slavists in particular work in a more and more historical context. Theories and models of aesthetics and the narrative no longer drive many Ph.D. theses. Instead, literary scholars are reading Russian literature as a source of information on cultural, social, and political problems.
One key reason for this trend in Russian studies, it might be assumed, is the conception of Russian literature as a socially important phenomenon. Various books on literature and history and/or ideology have been written based on this almost axiomatic assumption.1 Russian literature is considered nearly a substitute for politics and civil society in the 19th and 20th centuries. A particularly strong emotional bond between Russians and "their" literature forms another meaningful aspect of this image. Especially in regard to early 19th-century culture, life and literature seem to be very close, sometimes even identical. Naturally, Iurii Lotman's work on Pushkin's life and work are [End Page 417] of great importance here.2 The question remains, however, to what extent fiction actually aids the understanding of history, and conversely how legitimate the "history" written by literary critics based on fictional texts really is.
Ian M. Helfant has written a fine book on an issue every reader of 19th-century Russian literature has often come across: gambling, which formed such an important facet of noble life and self-understanding. Though fiction provides the main basis for Helfant's work, his focus is much broader. He uses memoirs, contemporary literary criticism, and journalistic, didactic, and moralistic texts as sources. His approach is informed by sociological and anthropological models such as the theory of play or risk theory. He proves to be very flexible in using these models while carefully choosing texts that illustrate the cultural importance of gambling in 19th-century Russia.
Helfant's methodology allows him to explore gambling in depth as a symbolic space of action. Interested in constructions of identity, Helfant suggests that gambling functioned as a means for the Russian nobility to protest against political and legislative patronizing and to construct masculinity and aristocracy. This power-focused interpretation relies on both semiotic analysis and psychoanalytical approaches. In particular, Pushkin's gambling is presented in a psychoanalytic frame as the expression of a struggling ego—and, in more cultural terms, as an act of self-constitution by a nobleman who does not have to apologize for his deeds (see, e.g., 64). This form of protest might be implicit and unconscious or not. In either case, it helped construct the noble "ego" in the realm of public and private, between highly valued ethics and material necessities. In a convincing way, Helfant describes the symbolic value of gambling, where money appears as "dissociated from labor and material care" (16) and becomes a crucial element in noble communication and construction of the self. A mythological system of the game is thereby established, where high monetary stakes...