I. A. PIL’SHCHIKOV, M. I. SHAPIR
THE POET AND THE READERSHIP
IN PUSHKIN’S FRAGMENT
“DESPITE THE GREAT ADVANTAGES...”
(Addenda to the Commentary)
Pushkin’s A Fragment was written in the autumn of 1830, a period in the poet’s career when he was most discontented with the readership and the critics, who, in turn, were also cooling toward him. The main issue in this conflict is described very fully and precisely in the sonnet To a Poet (1830), where the idea of the rights and freedoms of a litterateur as a private individual and as an artist is embodied, paradoxically, in one of the most restrictive verse forms.
Apparently, Pushkin saw in the idea of creative freedom a concealed contradiction how else can we explain the fact that this theme always demanded a paradoxical formal setting? We also find this internal contradiction in the fragment “Despite the great advantages...”: in this work, the most patent features of both completeness and fragmentariness are united in a most odd fashion. The sources of this paradox are the same as always: a crisis in the relationship between the poet and the readership. To the journalists who decried the lack of substance of the seventh chapter of Eugene Onegin, Pushkin replied with The Little House in Kolomna, the whole pathos of which is the assertion of absolute freedom of creative will. The poet shocked readers with his excessively overblown introduction, with the fictitious nature of the plot, the base and lowly characters, the demonstrative refusal to moralize, and with the dense parodic play that takes the place of any dramatic action in the poem.
The original concept was even more radical: in Little House, Pushkin wanted to reduce the plot to nothing. The text was to consist solely of the introduction, which was to be followed by the afterword: “These octaves are the introduction to a comic poem which has already been destroyed”. This concept is structurally identical to A Fragment, where the foreword is immediately followed by the afterword: “This fragment was most likely the foreword to a short story which was either never written or has been lost”. The isomorphic afterwords were written only three weeks apart: the first is dated October 5, 1830, the second October 26, 1830.
The similarity between these works does not end here. The verse introduction to the poem and the prose introduction to the short story are devoted to metaliterary issues and contain numerous references to the recent polemical war waged in the journals. And if communication in both these works is reduced, the addresser is reduplicated. In A Fragment there are three or even four implied authors, namely: 1) the poet who first told “the tale, presently offered to the reader”, 2) the author of the foreword, 3) the author of the afterword, and 4) Pushkin himself. All of this parallels the manuscript redaction of Little House in Kolomna, in which Pushkin intended to preserve his anonymity and blur the image of the author: For now you may take me // For an old, shot-up wolf // Or for a young sparrow, // For a novice without much sense <...> In A Fragment the addresser also takes on the guise of both “a young sparrow” and “a shot-up wolf”: a completely unknown litterateur takes it upon himself to record and pass on a tale he heard from a venerable poet. This calls to mind the story of the writing of The Secluded Little House on Vasilevsky Island (1829), and can be considered Pushkin’s only reference to this mysterious episode of his biography: as we know, Pushkin’s tale was recorded and published by Vladimir Pavlovich Titov.
The last addendum concerns the genesis of one of the key themes of A Fragment. In the initial outlines and sketches, we find an incomplete quotation: “Voltaire said: le plus grand malheur <...>”. The source of this quotation is the article Lettres, gens de lettres, ou lettrés in Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique: “The greatest misfortune that can befall a man of letters (le plus grand malheur d’un homme de lettres) is probably not becoming the object of his brethren’s envy, the victim of intrigue or the contempt of the powerful; it is being judged by fools”. The beginning of Pushkin’s text plays on motifs which come directly from Voltaire. Eschewing the words on “the greatest misfortune” which can befall men of letters doomed to be “judged by fools”, Pushkin launches into a polemic with the author of Dictionnaire philolosphique: “However, even this misfortune, great though it may be, is not yet the worst for them. The most bitter, most unbearable evil for a poet is his name, the moniker with which he has been branded and of which he can never rid himself”. In Egyptian Nights (1835) this antithesis to Voltaire is proffered as an independent thesis in its own right. The genetic connection to the Dictionnaire philosophique, which was strengthened in 1830 by the unfair and unfounded attacks of the critics, was left in the avant-text in 1835, and we would never have found out about this connection had it not been for the rough sketches of A Fragment.