The Rudeness of Metafictional Irony.

I’ve had occasion once again to consult Joe Peschio’s The Poetics of Impudence and Intimacy in the Age of Pushkin (see my posts Shalost and Shalost II), and in the chapter on Pushkin’s Ruslan and Lyudmila I found the following passage (pp. 112-13) so illuminating I thought I’d share it here:

The lyrical digressions of RL, again, are a good example. The accepted view has long been that the digressions serve a narratological purpose: to create an ironic bifurcation of the lyrical subject. This idea is worth pausing on because irony is what makes RL possible. There is near universal agreement that RL is a metafictional work — a poema, first and foremost, about poetry. Metafictional texts invariably both “systematically flaunt [their] own condition of artifice” and “criticize previous literary conventions.” […] Postulating a now standard argument, Tomashevskii says that the subjectivity introduced and maintained in the lyrical digressions “infects” the entire poem. Moreover, he says, this was a major innovation. “That is why … the entire poem in all its parts is, in a sense, a chat between the author and the reader, the very opposite of the old epic poema, in which the author did not reveal himself as an individual in the poema‘s verse, and the word was dislocated from its speaker, becoming abstract and monosemantic.” […] Pushkin’s claim to the reader’s attention — his ethos — rubbed many readers the wrong way, and the omnipresence of Pushkin’s lyrical subject(s) displeased a number of his critics. […] The Nevskii zritel’ reviewer, for example, wrote, “The poet likes to talk about himself quite a lot and [always seems to be] addressing himself to pretty girls, to preceptors, to actors, and the like — that is what holds up the progress of the action and hinders unity. I would like to be charmed, to forget myself — but, instead, the poet brings my delight to a halt, and instead of Ancient Rus’, I see today’s world around me: the incongruity becomes plain, and, what’s more, all this distracts the reader’s attention and belittles the importance of the [poet’s] subject.”

The expectations that this reviewer has of poets are extremely telling. He wants to “be charmed, to forget himself.” In other words, he wants to be entertained and delighted. And the poet should not hinder this with a lot of asides and jokes; paradoxically enough, the poet should keep out of the way and let the reader enjoy himself. The poet here is a kind of a servant to the reader, one who, as Voeikov says, “should not for a moment lose sight of his readers, before whom he is obliged to conduct himself politely and respectfully.” Pushkin’s lack of respect for his reader, as evinced by the intrusiveness of his narrator, was one of the central themes in the critical polemic of 1820-21. Clearly, he asserted himself more than was customary and, in Goffman’s terms, took a “line” that was not in keeping with the expectations of the readership. His lyrical subject, like the obnoxious young men Bulgarin describes, “does not respect his elders, is familiar with his superiors, and arrogant with his equals.” As such, we have here an ineluctable intertwining of two sets of conventions: literary and behavioral. Not only did the lyrical digressions that lie at the heart of the poem’s pragmatic structure run against literary convention, they were fundamentally rude. It is impossible to separate the two.

We are so used to accepting whatever an author dishes out as appropriate — not in the sense that we like it, but in the sense that it’s to be considered as literature, not as a personal insult — that it’s very hard indeed to put oneself back in the mindset of people for whom there were norms of literature and norms of conduct, and those norms should not be violated. This is the first time I think I’ve really gotten a grip on it, thanks to that image of the poet as “a kind of a servant to the reader”: I see him summoned to declaim a poem as a juggler might be summoned to perform for the entertainment of a noble audience. The poet starts by talking about far-off times and lands, allowing the audience to drift into a pleasant reverie about knights and fair maids, and when he suddenly says something on the order of “But hey, we’ve all been there, you know what I’m talking about!” (to transpose the idiom a couple of centuries forward), it throws the audience right out of the reverie and pisses them off. The poet is supposed to be a tasteful hireling, not a rude ironist.


  1. We are so used to accepting whatever an author dishes out as appropriate

    True in literature and poetry; less true in music and dance; not very true in painting and sculpture; least true in architecture. The closer to utility, the less true it is — note that it isn’t true of non-fictional verbal works, and likewise in fictions written primarily to entertain, which is a form of utility.

    I’m also reminded of Frye’s four radicals of presentation: epic, in which the poet tells you the story; lyric, in which the poet talks to himself and you overhear him; dramatic, in which the poet is hidden and other people show you the story; “fictional” (a bad name, Frye says, but he can think of nothing better), in which the poet is hidden and the his words are presented to you in writing. Of course these are radicals of presentation: actual presentation may involve reading an epic on the page, or reciting a lyric, etc.

  2. to be considered as literature, not as a personal insult

    Em, wasn’t Laurence Sterne (in the voice of Tristram Shandy) already insulting his audience several centuries before Pushkin? There’s one point he upbrades readers for not paying attention, and sends them back several chapters to find out why Tristram’s mother is a Catholic.

    The whole Shandy is full of irony and meta-whatever. There’s a diagram of how the narrative is unfolding by way of digression.

    And I’m scanning my memory for Don Quixote. The preface of the second volume, if not the body, vents at length on imitators, translators, the credulity of readers, the publishing industry, …

  3. John Cowan says

    The work best-known imitator, Avellaneda, is actually referred to as a set of legends about DQ that he is at pains to refute.

  4. Em, wasn’t Laurence Sterne (in the voice of Tristram Shandy) already insulting his audience several centuries before Pushkin?

    Yes (well, half a century, but who’s counting), but Sterne wasn’t Russian. That’s the whole point: Russian society was well behind Western Europe in many ways (a source of eternal Russian angst), and by Pushkin’s day the independent audience (i.e., neither the court nor the writer’s circle of friends) was just beginning to develop.

  5. I had a different reaction. I thought, why yes, servant of the reader! That’s a good description of what I think an author should be. She’s allowed to pick her readership, or cast about for it. But ultimately, she’s hoping to communicate, not broadcast radio waves into an empty universe.

    (Trigger warning – heavy snark content below may cause emotional damage for those with previous bad experiences with snark.)

    And “ineluctable” seems fitting here. It’s hard to tell from the context whether this is straight from Joyce, unironically and without hint of self-reproach, rather than recalling Trilling’s ironic quote. But for me, anyway, use of ineluctable is inherently referential, with no other possible antecedents. The word has no point of arrival into one’s dialect, neither in daily usage nor in text. It’s always important to check your own biases on such things. But Googling it, I find 60 dictionary listings, several Joyce references, a David Byrne song and even the profile of a racehorse without finding any actual usage of the word in a sentence.

    While the tweeness of a David Byrne title is illustrative, the racehorse entry is the clincher. As with band names, all reasonable 1, 2 and 3 word combinations have been taken and trademarked, so you wind up with names like Death Cab for Cutie and Ineluctable.

    There’s also a single New York Times link, which momentarily gave me pause. Is there a reason this word exists? But it leads to an article called lnto the Shadowy World of Sex with Animals, for which I need a new word for something simultaneously twee and horrifying. Perhaps “eluctable” could serve – something someone believed you’d find cute, which you would put up quite a struggle to avoid.

  6. I am not a Pushkinist by any measure, but my vague recollection is that Russian literary circles were very concerned with establishing a Russian canon (to catch up with European literature). Pushkin was thought to be a very promising candidate to help with that. He occasionally wrote something in this “national poet” style like Poltava and Boris Godunov, but mainly wasn’t interested. He was mostly a lyrical poet, someone who really didn’t feel like excluding oneself from the picture. Interestingly enough, his prose work is completely “dramatic” if we follow John Cowan citing Frye.

  7. Pushkin’s lack of respect for his reader, as evinced by the intrusiveness of his narrator, was one of the central themes in the critical polemic of 1820-21.

    Poetry turns all things to loveliness; it exalts the beauty of that which is most beautiful,
    and it adds beauty to that which is most deformed: it marries
    exultation and horror; grief and pleasure, eternity and change;
    it subdues to union under its light yoke all irreconcilable
    things. It transmutes all that it touches, and every form
    moving within the radiance of its presence is changed by
    wondrous sympathy to an incarnation of the spirit which it
    breathes: its secret alchemy turns to potable gold the
    poisonous waters which flow from death through life; it strips
    the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bare the naked
    and sleeping beauty which is the spirit of its forms.

    (From Shelley’s essay, A Defense of Poetry, also 1821.)

  8. I’m absolutely sure that Pushkin saw his mission in liberating Russian literature from the stiffness of Derzhavin odes and Lomonosov high register rules. The rules were moribund but of course shaking their pillars can make traditional reader unhappy. I wouldn’t be surprised if this unhappiness was generational. As in, inserting himself into an equation only became a major gripe because Pushkin innovated in too many irritating ways and the old folks needed to reduce it to one easy target.

  9. Pushkin was familiar with Sterne through French translations and admired him. Sterne’s influence on Onegin is said to be obvious. In Pushkin and Sterne (1928), Modzalevsky argues P.’s acquaintance with S. dates back to 1821 but possibly earlier. Most of R & L was written in 1818-1820. It’s unclear if P. had yet read any Sterne by then. Anyway, Pushkin was unbelievably mature as a poet at 20.

  10. To add, Sterne was not unknown in Russian literary circles. I remember reading in some work on Pushkin that Russian readers had mostly latched on to, and writers had imitated, Sterne’s sometimes sentimentality and effusivenes in emotions, not his irony and playing with genre conventions, until Pushkin came along.

  11. I am afraid there is some sort of misunderstanding. In R&L Pushkin is irreverent, takes inappropriate tone, and generally interferes with reader’s ability to enjoy the poem if you think that it is epic. But it wasn’t. It was “Pushkin is having fun with Russian fairy tales”, just like a short time after that he wrote Gavriliada which was “Pushkin is having fun with the Bible”. When he wanted, he churned out stuff like Song of Oleg the Wise in full seriousness. Unfortunately, Pushkin didn’t write the “Pushkin has fun with Russian history” and we have only A.K. Tolstoy for that, which is good, but not quite the same.

  12. I am afraid there is some sort of misunderstanding. In R&L Pushkin is irreverent, takes inappropriate tone, and generally interferes with reader’s ability to enjoy the poem if you think that it is epic. But it wasn’t. It was “Pushkin is having fun with Russian fairy tales”

    I’m not sure who you think is misunderstanding what. I’m quite sure your understanding and appreciation of what Pushkin was doing has little to do with what his original audience thought.

  13. My problem, I guess, is that I didn’t read Sterne. But Pushkin didn’t write a satire and didn’t try to shock his readers, that’s what I think people have in mind when they compare him to Sterne. He simply was himself, young, quick witted aristocrat, who enjoyed above all the company of his friends and the attention of young ladies. And being himself, he wrote not a parody, but adaptation of the fairy tales, but simply couldn’t (or didn’t want to) stop giggling. I am almost sure, he didn’t want to frapper his readers.

  14. “ineluctable” was last used on languagehat by me, so I feel called on to defend it. It certainly entered *my* dialect via “something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing”. Where Silverberg got it, who knows, but I’m sure it wasn’t intended as a Joyce reference.

    “ineluctable” in Google News, past week: 19 results in English; one is a “word of the day”, the rest are in sentences

    “ineluctable” in Google Books, 21st century, books in English: 2 thesaurus/vocab quiz; 3 about Joyce; 19 other, mostly philosophy and psychology

    “ineluctable” : 7 unique results previous to this thread, including 1 Joyce reference

    Apparently, “has results besides dictionaries in the top Google hits” is a much higher threshold than “is alive in the language generally”. Even “inevitable” doesn’t pass that bar.

  15. Yeah, Ryan’s analysis of “ineluctable” was deeply unconvincing to me (and the idea that an author should be “servant of the reader” is archaic and/or repellent).

  16. Stu Clayton says

    Is a writer servile when he (or she!) gives readers what they want ? If so, then Trump’s tweets make him a servant of the people. Free-thinking writers can be seen as saucy scullions. The market is a moody imperious master with a twinkle in the eye.

    We live in a service economy where no one likes to be called a servant.

    I avoid the word “ineluctable” because it’s used by the wrong people, like “poised to (decide etc)” or “deeply troubling”.

  17. Stu Clayton says

    Politico just reminded me that in addition to “poised to”, there is “set to (force drugmakers etc)”. I think this expression serves (!) to announce a short-term prophecy – all the news before it happens. “Roadblock ahead” means it’s ineluctable.

  18. Stu: I avoid the word “ineluctable” because it’s used by the wrong people
    I avoid it because it’s just inviting the reader to prove the opposite (“Go ahead, show it’s eluctable. There ain’t no such word.”)

  19. Stu Clayton says

    Crown: I suppose that’s one of the things the wrong people do (since I prefer broad brushstrokes,I haven’t investigated the subject in detail). Here they are challenging you to a lopsided vocabulary shootout. Nattering nabobs of negativity.

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