- The Poetics of Impudence and Intimacy in the Age of Pushkin by Joe Peschio
Drawing on a vast array of materials, including treasures from the archives, Joe Peschio examines the connection between literary texts and literary communities, considering the shalost´, or impudent gesture, as a phenomenon that encompasses published poetry, private jokes, and public pranks. His scholarly approach is meticulous, but also engaging and appropriately humorous for a book that takes jokes as its subject.
In a welcome development for Pushkin studies, Peschio firmly situates the great poet in a broader literary context, giving due attention to central Golden Age writers who are little read today. For example, the book begins by analyzing the circumstances surrounding the arrest of Alexander Polezhaev. Polezhaev was arrested not long after the Decembrist uprising, not for participating in any antimonarchist conspiracies, or even for his explicitly liberal poetry, but rather for writing Sashka, a ribald parody of Evgenii Onegin. The poet was later canonized by the likes of Alexander Herzen as a “dekabrist bez dekabria.” Peschio demonstrates that Polezhaev’s text was politically dangerous because its playfulness was in itself subversive. Although the culture of the Decembrist conspirators was quite unlike the impudent social code that Peschio explores, the Nicholaevan regime regarded them both as existential threats. This book underscores the link between the liberal and the libertine, revealing the importance of the previously neglected genre of humorous incidental writings, as well as their relationship to a larger cultural-behavioral trend closely related to the personality of Alexander Pushkin.
Chapter 1 offers a definition of the shalost´ or folie genre, and shows how Pushkin’s early political troubles derived precisely from his efforts in that arena. Drawing on Boris Eikhenbaum’s concept of literary domesticity, or domashnost´, Peschio proposes a useful intervention into the scholarly habit of dividing expressions into the public and private. Instead, refining the approach introduced by William Mills Todd III, Peschio argues that Golden Age Russian culture operates within three spheres: the domestic world, high society, and the state. Though they originate in the domestic world, pranks are powerful because they often blur the boundaries between these spheres. Moreover, literature and social mores not only inform each other but may be fairly understood as continuous. Peschio’s concept is also useful because it shows how and why public literary texts might be written with specific meanings legible only to certain audiences. He offers a particularly telling example on page 31, where he shows how the word blagonamerennyi functions as an obscene euphemism for the male member in Onegin. [End Page 163]
Chapter 2 presents an exploration of the phenomenon of rudeness in Arzamas culture, drawing from speech act theory and sociologists like Erving Goffman, as well as a wealth of persuasive (and amusing) evidence from the society’s archives. Though, as Peschio acknowledges, Arzamas has been extensively studied in both Russia and the West, this chapter’s targeted focus on the specific sort of domestic rudeness practiced in this society—a sort of rudeness that strengthened rather than damaged their social bonds—nevertheless offers a new and useful perspective on the sometimes perplexing practices of this brotherhood of goose-worshippers.
In chapter 3 Peschio turns his attention to the Green Lamp. This group was not an extension of the Decembrist Union of Welfare (as the initial inquiries of the Investigatory Committee posited, and as many Soviet scholars later argued) or an equivalent of the semipublic and more rarefied Arzamas, but rather a secret society devoted to drinking, sex, and literature. Here, he analyzes two themes that were legible only to Lampists: “Socratic” love in the poetry of Arkadii Rodzianko, and the courtesan Fanni in Anton Del´vig’s poetry. This chapter offers an expanded consideration of the question of why Pushkin and other poets in this circle refer to texts most of their readers would never know; as Peschio puts it, “‘Fanni’ is a prime example of literary shalost´, a poem addressed to a close social circle, the...