A few days ago, Erik at XIX век posted some quotes from what sounded like a very interesting book, Joe Peschio’s The Poetics of Impudence and Intimacy in the Age of Pushkin. I took Amazon up on their offer to send a sample of the book to my Kindle, and I thought I’d quote this passage on a heretofore little noticed, but according to Peschio vitally important, genre of early-19th-century Russian literary activity, which might be labeled “insignificant.” He says:
My case for the significance of the insignificant, so to speak, relies heavily on a concept for which I have been forced to borrow a term from the formalists that has long since fallen into disuse: “domesticity.” This is a rough calque from Boris Eikhenbaum, who describes the role of “literary domesticity” (literaturnaia domashnost’) in the early nineteenth century as part of the shift of authorial ethos from the court to high society. A fairly rare word, domashnost’ is used by the formalists in a sense peculiar to the early twentieth century. Only Ushakov’s dictionary defines this usage: “A familial, unofficial attitude toward something. Domesticity cannot be allowed in public work.” […]
As Eikhenbaum notes, domesticity became an increasingly important social context for Russian poetry of the early nineteenth century, and it was, in many respects, the period’s most important “laboratory” for the creation of new forms. In particular, domesticity served as the pragmatic setting for the development of the light genres, from which the new Russian poetry of the 1820s and 1830s, in large part, emerged. These were all, in one way or another, intensely personal genres, and much of the poetry was produced not for public consumption but, as Zhukovskii liked to put it, für wenige (for the few). This is especially true of a little-known genre called the shalost’, which has been all but ignored in Russian literary history, and which lies at the conceptual heart of this book. With Igor Pil’shchikov, I have described shalosti as a peculiar but stable verse genre practiced by the poets of the Lyceum Circle, the Green Lamp, and Arzamas. The word shalost’ is usually translated into English as “prank,” “caper,” “mischief,” or “naughtiness.” In the early nineteenth century, as I discuss at length in chapter 1, an even broader range of behaviors was associated with the word, including deception, practical jokes, assault, mutiny, vandalism, rape, and kidnapping. Lacking a single English equivalent, I am compelled to use the Russian throughout. As a verse genre, the shalost’ is defined not by formal characteristics but by behavioral ones. In other words, it was called thus because it was defined by what it did rather than what it was: whether a long poem or just a couple of lines in the context of a longer work, a shalost’ in one respect or another flaunts [sic] the prescriptions of literary propriety, adhering instead to the behavioral codes and semantics of domesticity.
This might seem harmless to us, but the tsar took it very seriously indeed; in fact, the book begins with a description of Alexander Polezhayev being arrested for his 1825 satirical poem “Sashka” (based on student life and probably a parody of Eugene Onegin) and not only sent to the Caucasus with the army but persecuted relentlessly until his wretched death in 1838. Peschio connects his theme to my own hobbyhorse when he says that “prankishness was still associated with writers and writing well into the 1830s, when it became an embattled political discourse. By the late 1830s, prankishness was on the wane. In the early 1840s it was supplanted by a new ‘serious’ political activism in literature that arose in reaction to what was perceived as the aristocratic frivolity of prankishness. It continued to exist on the margins of Russian literature … before undergoing a metamorphosis and a revival in the early twentieth century.” Long live frivolity! Down with “serious” discourse!