Alexander ZHOLKOVSKY (USC, Los Angeles)

I was flattered by Caryl Emerson’s invitation to speak about my work in progress and am honored to participate in this distinguished panel. I was not sure what specifically to speak about and I am afraid I will act as the proverbial nudnik who, when asked “How are you today?”, starts recounting in earnest his ailments. Indeed, after seventy usually there is a lot to complain about.

I am involved in several projects and will briefly list them. In all of these, I proceed from a set of, I must confess, naïve

, obsolete and unpopular ideas developed decades ago together with my friend and co-author Professor Yuri Shcheglov, who died in Madison, Wisconsin, almost two years ago at 72. Namely, that the literary text expresses themes, has structure, conveys themes via motifs belonging to the referential, stylistic, intertextual and pragmatic planes, relies on expressive devices, is rooted in archetypal topoi, and involves iconic use of formal means. And that the rest is, as Paul Verlaine would say, literary criticism.


One major work in progress is editing and publishing two collections of the late Yuri Shcheglov’s studies, both in Russia. Shcheglov is mostly known for his now classic annotations to the Ostap Bender saga (the third, definitive edition came out posthumously in St. Petersburg) and less known for his two other monographs, on Ovid’s Metamorphoses and on the oeuvre of Antioch Kantemir. What is being collected and published now are some fifty articled scattered in Russian, American and European Slavic publications, — a treasure-trove of scholarly gems. To cite one example, a brief essay on Voinovich’s Ivan Chonkin introduces a new theoretical concept: “the administrative mode of narrative,” i. e. one that unfolds not through the actual actions and movements of the characters but rather through the movement of their “dossiers.” As examples Shcheglov briefly considers Leskov’s “Chelovek na chasakh” [On Sentry Duty] (1887), Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat (1896) and Tynyanov’s “Podporuchik Kizhe” [Second Lieutenant Asfor] (1927). Other articles are about prose, poetry, and drama by Russian and foreign authors: Ovid, La Rochefoucault, Moliere, Victor Hugo, Derzhavin, Pushkin, Akhmatova, Chekhov, Zoshchenko, Dobychin, Bulgakov and some others. Working on these two collections (to come out from NLO and RGGU) is a really rewarding process. Imagine being the first to contemplate in their entirety Nabokov’s commentaries on Eugene Onegin, which, incidentally, barely made it into print.


Parallel to this, I am also bringing out my own collected essays on the poetry of Boris Pasternak. The point of this decades-long project is portraying the poetic world of the author in all of its aspects: identifying the central themes, the set of invariant motifs, with special reference to the poetry of grammar, and formulating in these terms comprehensive monographic analyses of individual poems from the major periods of the poet’s oeuvre. To cite just one example of the approach, in analyzing Pasternak’s “Veter” [The Wind] (1954) from the Zhivago cycle I focus, among other things, on one odd element of the rhyme scheme: line 4, about the separate pine-tree, ends in the word “otdel’no”, separately, contrary to the rules of rhyming, as it yields the sequence of rhymes abbc.

1 Я кончился, а ты жива.

2 И ветер, жалуясь и плача,

3 Раскачивает лес и дачу.

4 Не каждую сосну отдельно,

5 А полностью все дерева

6 Со всею далью беспредельной,

7 Как парусников кузова

8 На глади бухты корабельной.

9 И это не из удальства

10 Или из ярости бесцельной,

11 А чтоб в тоске найти слова

12 Тебе для песни колыбельной.

But this “kholostaia”, literally, “single, unmarried”, clausula, actually starts a new series of rhymes, one that will successfully end the entire poem. The poem as a whole is precisely about not leaving the heroine alone, – in keeping with Pasternak’s general invariant theme of the unity of existence. In this case, the overcoming of ‘separation’ relies also on the famous intertextual — from Heinrich Heine and Lermontov — pine-tree longing for the distant palm tree. Pasternak’s poetic world in a nutshell. (Remarkably, out of the seven extant English translations, only one did keep the odd line effect – the one supervised by Professor Markov.)


Two articles in the Pasternak book are linked to another project: a survey of Pasternak’s infinitive poetry and the analysis of one particular infinitive poem, “Raskovannyi golos” [The unchained voice] (1915). Pasternak was among the many modernist poets who paid tribute to the upsurge in infinitive writing in the 1910s, the best known instance probably being Alexander Blok’s “Greshit’ besstydno, neprobudno…” [To sin shamelessly…] (1914).

What is “infinitive poetry”? I introduced the concept some 10 years ago to describe poems written exclusively or predominantly in infinitive sentences, — imagine Hamlet’s soliloquy governed exclusively by such forms.

To be, or not to be: that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end then? To die; to sleep;

No more; and, by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache <…………………………..>

<…………………………>To die; to sleep;

To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub…

Impressed by an infinitive poem of a living poet, Sergei Gandlevskii, “Ustroit’sia na avtobazu…” [To get a job at a car park] (1985) and unimpressed by two leading critics who saw as its intertexts only two specific Russian poems, namely, the already mentioned Blok’s “Greshit’..,” and the relatively recent Joseph Brodsky’s “Rodit’sia by sto let nazad…” [Oh, to be born a hundred years ago…] (1971), I started looking for invariants, in this case, obviously, grammatical ones. And I discovered that the tradition of infinitive writing went all the way back to Trediakovskii, borrowed by him from his French originals, gained momentum in Pushkin’s time (to an extent it is there in the very first stanza of Onegin, and fully blown in Onegin’s letter to Tatiana), it reached an important watershed in Afanasii Fet’s “Odnim tolchkom sognat’ lad’iu zhivuiu…” [To chase with one push the live boat…] (1887), became a rave in the Silver Age and continues unabated to this day.

My project is compiling a representative annotated anthology of Russian infinitive poetry – about 500 poems, by about 200 poets, written over the three centuries. This work is still in progress, but many excerpts have been published in the form of articles on the theoretical issues of infinitive poetry and on the infinitive legacies of individual authors. It is a dozen or so articles. One of the sticky points in the work on the anthology is finding a balance between just showcasing the poems and deploying an appropriate metalanguage. The latter is needed for formulating the various infinitive structures and their semantic haloes, because the entire concept is basically a fusion of two seminal ideas of Russian structuralist poetics: the Jakobsonian poetry of grammar and the Taranovsky/Gasparov study of the semantic haloes of verse meters. In my articles, I discuss in detail the semantic import of various infinitive structures, here let me just state the most generic theme of all infinitive writing, a meditation on a certain alternative mode of being. An interesting byproduct of the study is naming the hall-of-famers of the genre: Bal’mont, Voloshin, and Alexander Kushner, with scores of infinitive poems.

Let me stress that I consider this project interdisciplinary. Unfortunately, in today’s conventional wisdom, the importance of linguistics is negligible and the profession’s entire interdisciplinary attention is focused on the visual, the bodily, cinema, ballet etc. Well, folks, let me tell ya that linguistics is our bread and butter, like it or not.


The next item, I guess, should be my resumed interest in studying the iconic projection of poetic meaning onto the various formal structures, be it of versification or grammar. I have recently taken up what I did in the article entitled “How to Show Things with Words” (1978). The separatenesseffect that I mentioned in connection with Pasternak’s pine-tree is, of course, one such case. And I just published an article on other similar effects, among them, on the treatment of the word “otdel’nyi” in a popular poem and song “Belorusskii vokzal” [The Bielorussian station] by Bulat Okudzhava, written for the eponymous film (1970).

Нас ждет огонь смертельный,
и все ж бессилен он.
Сомненья прочь. Уходит в ночь отдельный
десятый наш десантный батальон.

I tried to identify all the subtle syntactic, lexical, phraseological and versification means which make the word “otdel’nyi” stand out as a really separate one.

Another related article, coming out soon, is on Pushkin’s eight-liner “Gorod pyshnyi, gorod bednyi…” [City pompous, city poor] (1828):

Город пышный, город бедный,
Дух неволи, стройный вид,
Свод небес зелёно-бледный,
Скука, холод и гранит —

Всё же мне вас жаль немножко,
Потому что здесь порой
Ходит маленькая ножка,
Вьётся локон золотой.

There the opposition of the large (the city) and the small (the beloved) hinges on the crucial use of synecdoche. Of course, the poem’s overall effect also relies on other structural patterns, as well as some archetypal motifs. Among the latter is the biblical one of the “sinful city redeemable by just a few righteous inhabitants”, in this case, one. Think of God’s pledge to Abraham to spare Sodom and Gomorrah (from Genesis 18: 24-32). Another archetypal topos involved is that of “the city visualized as a woman”. One famous example is Babylon as a whore (Revelations of St. John, 17).


By speaking about the role of archetypal subtexts I have actually moved on to yet another type of study I have been engaged in, namely, the monographic analysis of individual poems, in which I try to “cover it all,” that is, the top-to-bottom thematic and expressive structure of the text. A book of such analyses came out a year ego: Novaia i noveishaia russkaia poeziia [Modern and recent Russian poetry] (RGGU, 2009). In the press is another collection of articles on Russian poetry and this time also prose entitled: Очные ставки с властителем[Confrontations with Authority Figures] (forthcoming from RGGU later this year.) The prose works are by Pushkin, Lermontov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Leskov, Chekhov, Bunin, Bulgakov, Zoshchenko, Platovov, Nabokov and Iskander.

In one of the essays, an analysis of Leskov’s “Chelovek na chasakh”, I am trying to develop Shcheglov’s insight into the structure of administrative narrative that I mentioned earlier. I introduce additionally the concepts of vertical and horizontal dimensions of such narrative movement. I also discuss the way such replacement of sequences of events with the transmission of information is relevant to our today’s world, where image making and various spins rather than facts are the order of the day. One new piece is about Fazil Iskander’s pantomimic narrative, which I found to be a pattern recurrent throughout his prose.


The last but far from least item on my agenda is a continued effort in the area of literary pragmatics. It is related to what is known as the study of life-creation, жизнетворчество, — with the difference that the focus is not on just documenting some artistic behaviors in the poet’s real life, but rather on viewing the entire artistic output of the life-creative poet, that is his/ her life and works, as one whole artistic product to be studied as a work of fiction. The important corollary is that this creation should be analyzed precisely as such, that is as a skillfully constructed act thus lending itself to demythologizing. Subjected to this procedure should be not only the poet’s oeuvre, but, what is sometimes more painful, the corresponding scholarship, which takes the poet’s act at face value and thus dooms itself to perpetuating and cultivating the poet’s myth rather than developing its independent analysis. As a result of such self-delusional approach, this kind of scholarship leaves many stones unturned, so that a free-thinking scholar has ample opportunity to make discoveries where one could expect everything to have been already discovered.

My favorite patch of this vast field is Anna Akhmatova. In a recent article about the epilogue of her “Requiem” (1940).

А если когда-нибудь в этой стране
Воздвигнуть задумают памятник мне,
Согласье на это даю торжество,
Но только с условьем — не ставить его
Ни около моря, где я родилась:
(Последняя с морем разорвана связь),
Ни в царском саду у заветного пня,
Где тень безутешная ищет меня,
А здесь, где стояла я триста часов
И где для меня не открыли засов.

I tried to make sense of a striking cluster of literary topoi. I had, first of all, to identify those topoi, preexistent to Akhmatova’s design (unfortunately, I don’t have the time to talk about them). Only after that was it possible to unravel the pragmatically crucial combination of several contradictory desires: to claim not to want a posthumous monument, to ask for it, and to capriciously indicate where it should and should not be erected. Once again, the point is not to morally “judge” the poet, as some of my opponents ascribe to me, but by pinpointing precisely the poet’s stance (in Akhmatova’s case, a narcissistic obsession with control) in order to gain a vantage perspective on what is actually happening in the poet’s world and, thus, to be able to identify the specific motifs at play.

As I sought to make clear, the six topics I am working on – Shcheglov’s legacy, Pasternak, infinitive poetry, iconic expression, monographic analysis and demythologization –are all part of a single project: studying the way themes are conveyed by texts, be these plots, narratives, syntactic structures or life-into-art behaviors. If I have bored you with this, please, believe me, that annual activities report is not my favorite genre. Those who for some reason are not sufficiently bored, are welcome to visit my web-site, the maintaining of which is the seventh and last item of my agenda. To end on a really grand note, in the words of the classic, “А то, что я вам говорю, нужно для вас будет. Вы вспомните, когда уж меня не будет, что старик говорил нам добро. Прощайте, будет.