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Metapoesis: The Russian Tradition from Pushkin to Chekhov

Metapoesis: The Russian Tradition from Pushkin to Chekhov

by Michael C. Finke

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Readers have been schooled to see nineteenth-century Russian literature as the summit of social and psychological realism. But in the work of writers from Pushkin to Chekhov, Michael C. Finke discloses a pervasive self-referentiality, a running commentary on the literary conventions these texts seem so wholly to embody. Metapoesis examines how—and more


Readers have been schooled to see nineteenth-century Russian literature as the summit of social and psychological realism. But in the work of writers from Pushkin to Chekhov, Michael C. Finke discloses a pervasive self-referentiality, a running commentary on the literary conventions these texts seem so wholly to embody. Metapoesis examines how—and more importantly, why—a series of major Russian authors spanning the nineteenth century inscribed commentary on their own poetics into their works of drama, narrative poetry, and fiction. As he explores the process of metapoesis in these works, Finke reveals its communicative function in its time and its interpretive value in our own.
Jakobsonian poetics provides the framework for this approach, though Finke also draws freely upon a number of contemporary literary theorists. After elucidating the meaning of metapoesis in works by Pushkin, Gogol, and Chernyshevsky, he reveals its covert functioning in such masterpieces of realism as Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and Chekhov’s "The Steppe." The result is a new interpretation and deeper understanding of these particular works, which in turn reorient our understanding of linguistic and literary "codes" and of the Russian literary tradition itself.
Of special interest to scholars of Russian literature, Metapoesis will also appeal to a broad range of readers and students of comparative literature, literary theory, and poetics.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A subtle and profound book, excellently written. It is an important book. I no longer can think of the subjects Finke has treated in this book otherwise than on the foundation he laid."—Savely Senderovich, Cornell University

"An impressive and highly literate book. A thesis emerges that stretches not only over a century but also over several genres."—Caryl Emerson, Princeton University

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The Russian Tradition from Pushkin to Chekhov

By Michael C. Finke

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7805-1


Gogol's Metaplay, "Leaving the Theater after the Presentation of a New Comedy"

"Of course, this is a trifle ... Since the author's not here, why not tell the truth? – D. R Lensky, Lev Gurych Sinichkin, Act II, Scene 2

Gogol's comic masterpiece, The Government Inspector (Revizor), was first performed on April 19, 1836, and immediately generated vigorous and mixed reactions among critics. Scarcely a month and a half later, racked by anxiety over the public's reaction to his play, Gogol fled St. Petersburg. In the meantime he had written the first version of "Leaving the Theater after the Presentation of a New Comedy" ("Teatral'nyi raz'ezd posle predstavleniia novoi komedii"), a one-act play in which an author is depicted eavesdropping on his exiting audience in order to learn their true reactions to the play.

This version of "Leaving the Theater," completed in the heat of the moment of The Government Inspector's reception, was no more than a rough draft. Not until October of 1842 did he give the work publishable form; but then he assigned the playlet the critical position of the last work to be included in a collection of his works prepared during the summer of the same year. Complaining of the efforts reworking "Leaving the Theater" cost him, Gogol wrote to the friend arranging the collection's publication in St. Petersburg: "So much needed to be redone, that I swear it would have been easier for me to write two new ones. But it's the concluding piece for the whole collection of writings and therefore quite important, and it required some very careful finishing touches" (Polnoe sobranie sochinenii [hereafter Pss], 12:104). In this edition of Gogol's collected works, "Leaving the Theater" was to be the last word.

In the same letter to his friend N. Ia. Prokopovich, Gogol states that the final version of "Leaving the Theater" is, to his pleasure, much different from the original. Indeed, one suspects that the 1836 version was written in a state of near panic. Its general shape is the same as that which went into Gogol's 1842 collected works — a succession of conversations about the play, framed by two monologues of the author-character, with no interaction between the author and his public. But while in the published version the author-character's words take up less than one-eighth the printed text and are directed toward what the theatergoers have omitted from their discussions, in the earlier version Gogol gave his author-character over half the text, and in the closing monologue the author reacts quite directly to the criticisms that have been leveled against him. There is an element of real fear, even paranoia, in his appeal to the Christian feelings of his public:

In nobody is there a heartfelt interest [serdechnoe uchastie], and there's even some sort of clear wish to incite persecution and victimization, as against someone dangerous for society and the state. Oh, my compatriots, what is it that moves your words — a wish to utter your personal opinion, a desire — instinctive and ill-willed — for the common good, or an involuntary reflex toward saying the first words that come to you, without thinking how they might harm the author? (Pss 5:386).

Gogol also flattered the government, probably in the hope of forestalling action against a play and playwright labeled liberal and slanderous of the government in the reviews of conservative critics: "Our magnanimous government has, with its lofty intellect, peered more deeply than you into the purpose of that which has been written" (Pss 5:387); he even makes a direct appeal for the czar's protection (Pss 5:39c)). These features are toned down in the final version of "Leaving the Theater," in accordance with Gogol's greater self-confidence and his program, expressed in a footnote on the playlet's first page, of making the author of the play an "ideal figure" (Pss, 5:137); in other words, Gogol meant to distance the playlet somewhat from the context of the reception of The Government Inspector.

However "ideal" Gogol made "Leaving the Theater," its metasignificance in regard to The Government Inspector remains the playlet's chief feature. The words of the spectator-characters distinctly echo both the traumatizing critical commentary on The Government Inspector that had appeared in periodicals and certain positive evaluations of the play. As a play which, unlike the other four works taken up in this book, is overtly about poetics from start to finish, "Leaving the Theater" renders problematic any boundary drawn between literary art that is metapoetic and literary criticism. The question has to be asked: can "Leaving the Theater" be treated as a play? and if so, what sort of play is it? Finally, how does its metapoetic commentary refer not only to another play, The Government Inspector, but to itself as well?

Responding to a letter from S. T. Aksakov, in which the latter conveyed the request of A. N. Verstovsky for permission to stage "Leaving the Theater," Gogol wrote, "[N]aturally, it would be wrong and improper to stage it; and it's completely awkward for the stage" (Pss 12:122; Aksakov, 96, 98). In his monograph on Gogol, Vsevolod Setchkarev declares that "Leaving the Theater" "has no artistic value" (181). From the point of view of neoclassical aesthetics, perhaps, "Leaving the Theater" may not be a "play"; but considered in the context of the aesthetics of literary Romanticism, its self-reflexivity and flaunting of generic rules can be understood as Romantic irony. To the present-day reader, accustomed to the works of Beckett and Pirandello, the play's ambiguous status is unlikely to give much pause.

Moreover, neither "Leaving the Theater" nor any of Gogol's other written commentaries on The Government Inspector bear final explanatory power in regard to that play. Gogol never seems to have been able to convince even himself, let alone his readers, that he best understood his own words; witness his repeated returns to and reinterpretations of The Government Inspector. As Nabokov commented, Gogol's "intentions" tended to be formed after the creative act, and were notoriously changeable. Debreczeny finds that Gogol took four distinct positions on the meaning of The Government Inspector over the decade and a half between the play's conception and the playwright's death. The history of these changes is a narrative which, rather than explaining Gogol's artistic productions, compounds the enigmas.

A certain duality of approach seems the best path to follow here — one that neither ignores the playlet's status of reaction to and commentary on the reception of The Government Inspector, nor forgets that this metaplay is a play in its own right which, like The Government Inspector, must be interpreted. In the past certain shortcuts have often been taken in the interpretive process. In particular, readers of the playlet have been quick to identify certain characters as representing Gogol's own views, without taking into account the extent to which there is a dramatic interaction between the various voices and positions, and the nature of the author-character's reactions to these viewpoints. In the literature on Gogol, one can even find statements by characters (especially the author-character) cited as the direct word of Gogol. A more prudent approach would be to show where viewpoints similar to those expressed in "Leaving the Theater" are presented elsewhere in Gogol's works, while discussing the treatment of these viewpoints in the context of "Leaving the Theater."

V. Sh. Krivonos, in an extended discussion of "Leaving the Theater," lends support to the position taken above with the complaint: "In the literature on Gogol we do not find an analysis of 'Leaving the Theater' as an artistic whole" (103). His own analysis goes far toward remedying this situation, especially in its situation of the playlet's dialogic form in respect to the Socratic tradition, and in its treatment of the theme of laughter. Yet, Krivonos's study maintains a suspiciously eulogistic perspective on Gogol. For instance, he suggests that Gogol had a fully worked-out theory of laughter, which is quite rationally presented in "Leaving the Theater." Furthermore, appearing as it does in the author-character's monologue at the end of this last piece in Gogol's 1842 Sochineniia, laughter is to be understood as the "positive hero" and unifying idea of the whole collected works (Krivonos, 142). There is something too sane and calculating about Krivonos's Gogol, and one wonders whether such an unequivocally affirmative view of laughter might not be simplistic.

Nevertheless, our approach to the play resembles that of Krivonos. First we will also discuss the formal organization and generic characteristics of "Leaving the Theater." Rather than repeating the points many others have made about the work's relation to a tradition of plays about plays, on which Gogol surely relied, we discuss the work in the context of the dominant one-act dramatic genre of the day: vaudeville (vodevil'). After a few remarks on the complementary relationship of "Leaving the Theater" to The Government Inspector, we will then take up that which the play is most overtly about: the reception of another play, and its author's reactions — that is, the relationship between the author and his public.

1 "Leaving the Theater" and the Vaudeville

S. S. Danilov, writing of the Russian theatrical repertoire of the 1830s and 1840s, says:

Moreover, in the final analysis the character of the Russian dramatic theater of that period was essentially defined by two chief repertorial lines, as Gogol himself noted: "What sort of things get played on our stage?" is the question he puts in the article "The Petersburg Stage in 1835/36 [Peterburgskaia stsena v 1835/36]'; he answers laconically: "Melodramaand vaudeville." (109-10)

Gogol's antipathy to the vaudeville has often been remarked, and can be observed particularly well in the second section of "The Petersburg Stage in 1835/36," which was written, incidentally, in the months before the first production of The Government Inspector: "For five years already melodramas and vaudevilles have taken over the theatres of the whole world. What apishness!" (Pss 8:181). In the original draft of this section, Gogol called vaudevilles "the illegitimate children of the mind of our century, total deviations [from] nature, which have introduced a multitude of trifling absurdities" (Pss 8:552). He objected to the light, banal laughter of the vaudeville and to the essential foreignness of both genres: "But where is our life? where are we with all our contemporary passions and peculiarities?" (Pss 8:182). Gogol's reaction to the dominance of these genres is not just intellectual: "I'm angry at melodramas and vaudevilles" (Pss 8:186). Dani-lov points out analogous references to vaudeville in "Leaving the Theater" (112-14). Yet, as Vasilii Gippius points out, Gogol was not inhibited when it came to borrowing from the vaudeville's repertoire of techniques ("Prob-lematika," 82).

The popularity of the vaudeville and the melodrama in the early 1830s is best appreciated against the background of a feeling, pervasive among serious litterateurs during these years, that Russian drama had reached a dead end (Gippius, "Problematika," 154). According to Iurii Mann, this was a situation Gogol had taken into account and sought to alter with The Government Inspector; he writes, "In the struggle to renew comedy Gogol had a broad, theoretically grounded program ..."(Komediia, 70).

Many of the new comedy's innovations and subversions of the typical features of melodrama are elucidated in "Leaving the Theater" by the Second Lover of the Arts (Pss 5:142-43), whose views Mann finds closest to Gogol's own (Komediia, 70). If we consider some of the typical features of the vaudeville genre, against which Gogol rails in his "Petersburg Notes," then the same process of subversion and innovation can be seen at work in "Leaving the Theater." This is not to assert that the vaudeville was foremost on Gogol's mind as he wrote "Leaving the Theater"; it should be enough to show the usefulness of considering "Leaving the Theater" in the context of the enormously popular and, in Gogol's expressed opinion, pernicious short comedic form.

Vaudevilles were short comedies of situation, with loosely outlined characters, designed primarily to "amuse and entertain" (Gottlieb, 24). It was customary for a vaudeville to be performed after the main theatrical feature, as is the case depicted in "Leaving the Theater." At a time when most main theatrical productions were of plays dating from the eighteenth century, and new material was subject to "Asiatic censorship" (Gogol's complaint), quickly written and quickly forgotten vaudevilles answered the public's craving for new material. While there were first-rate authors who wrote vaudevilles (Khmelnitsky, Pisarev), the great majority were dilettantes from actors' circles. Writes Varneke, "[I]t is difficult to conceive of any other type of plays better suited to the abilities of society dilettantes. They managed to acquire the reputation of playwrights with the least effort" (192).

The vaudeville was a genre capable of assimilating elements of both tragedy and comedy, the joke as well as social commentary, music, lyrics, dance, melodramatic and exotic settings and events, and extended monologues. Needless to say, the genre did not subscribe to any set of neoclassical conventions; according to Gottlieb, "[T]he vaudeville created its own 'rules' and conventions, and was not bound by the classical 'unities' or other requirements" (Gottlieb, 22). The vaudeville could also be quite topical, though allusions to contemporary people and events were not necessarily incorporated into the play's actual structure, but instead relegated to peripheral and easily censored kuplety, verses set to music. Moreover, everything that took place in a vaudeville became shaded with insignificance. As Danilov puts it, "The 'triviality' [malovazhnost'] of the vaudeville was its own sort of world-view, it was, so to speak, a 'philosophy of triviality.' The Russian theatre compelled its viewer to view contemporary reality through a prism of 'triviality,' thereby deliberately leading him away from social problems" (113). It could be argued that this pernicious (especially so from the perspective of orthodox Soviet scholarship) feature of the vaudeville was all the more significant because of the audience it attracted: vaudeville appealed to a broader and lower-class population of theatergoers than did more serious fare, and was in turn more varied and "democratic" in the settings and classes of characters it portrayed (Karlinsky, Russian Drama, 269-70).

This eclecticism makes it difficult to establish the sort of stable poetics of the vaudeville that would let us ascertain instances of its parodic treatment. There is one aspect of the vaudeville's topicality inviting special attention, however. It was very common for a vaudeville to take as its object another play, author, or aspect of literary culture. Such attacks (and defenses) had constituted a large part of the history of the Russian theater over the previous several decades. Russia's first prose comedy, Tresotinius by Alek-sandr Sumarokov, "inaugurated the custom of presenting onstage a vicious caricature of some contemporary adversary" by lampooning Trediakovsky (Karlinsky, Russian Drama, 94-95). Moving closer to Gogol's time, Sha-khovskoy's one-act comedy, "The New Sterne" ("Novyi Stern"), staged in 1805, poked fun at the typical themes and linguistic innovations of Senti-mentalism and the followers of Karamzin; his 1815 The Lipetsk Spa (Urok koketam, Hi Lipetskie vody) continued the polemics with rough treatment of Zhukovsky, the result of which was to aid in polarizing Russian literary life into the two parties of the "Archaists" and "Innovators." Mikhail Zagoskin wrote and staged his three-act Comedy versus Comedy (Komediia protiv komedii) to defend Lipetsk Spa while the latter was still in its first run on the stage. From the 1830s on, Russian theatrical parody was to be found chiefly in vaudevilles (Poliakov, 17).

This generic feature of the vaudeville can perhaps be traced back to its carnivalesque origins:

Very much a form of "low comedy", the vaudeville was initially performed in the little theatres of the Paris fairs. These pieces en vaudevilles, as they were called, had to be staged as dumb-shows (owing to the monopoly of the Comedie Francaise) and regularly parodied the plays and productions of the legitimate theatre, with musical choruses inserted on well-known themes. (Gottlieb, 22)

In Gogol's "Notes of a Madman" ("Zapiski sumashedshego"), the narrator and hero Poprishchin refers to a vaudeville that touches both the theme of literature and that of the lowly civil servant:

Went to the theatre.... There was also some sort of vaudeville with entertaining rhymes about copyists, especially about one collegiate assessor, which were so freely written, that I wondered how the censor could have passed them.... There was also a very entertaining song [kuplet] about journalists: that they love to rail against everything, and that the author asks for protection from the public. (Pss 3:198)

The vaudeville Karlinsky calls "the masterpiece of this genre" (Russian Drama, 275) — D. P. Lensky's "Lev Gurych Sinichkin, or the Provincial Debutante" ("Lev Gurych Sinichkin, ili provintsial'naia debiutantka," 1839) — is just such a metatheatrical, depicting quarreling actresses, authors, directors, and patrons (Russkii vodeviV, 161-230).


Excerpted from Metapoesis by Michael C. Finke. Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Michael C. Finke is Associate Professor of Russian at Washington University in St. Louis.

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