Vladislav Khodasevich as Teacher of Pushkin: Lectures on Poetry to the Proletkult

Author:  Angela Brintlinger
Ohio State University

Proletkult, poetry, and Pushkin. Quite a combination, if you think about it. Add the poet Vladislav Khodasevich (18861939) into the mix, and the likelihood of pedagogical success seems slim, at best.

The publication of a number of documents from the archive of A. Ivich offers a new look into the way that Khodasevich viewed Pushkin and how he used his knowledge of Pushkin in his last pre-emigration years  specifically, in the classroom. These Pushkin lectures, first published by Sophia Bogatyreva in Voprosy literatury in 1999, are being rendered into English for the first time here. In her Voprosy introduction, Bogatyreva refers to some of Khodasevichs articles about Pushkin, Proletkult, and other cultural issues, published in his pre- and post-emigration periods. Together, the present publication and Khodasevichs scattered articles in the Russian and emigre press represent Khodasevichs Pushkiniana. As a lifelong student of Pushkins work, with the insights of a poet, a scholar, and a most careful reader, Khodasevich earned a place amongst the best Pushkinists of the 20th century. Contemporary scholars and students can sigh along with Mark Aldanov, who in his obituary of Khodasevich in 1939 lamented, How sad that he never wrote the life of Pushkin! Aldanov continued:

He said that he had suddenly found himself without the most necessary sources, that you cant put all of Pushkins life into one volume, that such a book could only be written in Russia, that he would need two years to write it. All of this was true. But I think that he could have overcome the incidental and external obstacles. It is more likely that he saw such work as too crucial, requiring too much spiritual exertion. He put it off until better timesas, it seems, did Gershenzon. This loss is irreparable.

True. All the more valuable, then, are Khodasevichs approaches to the Pushkin biography projectincluding these early attempts to present Pushkin to an interested audience of aspiring poets. The students of the Proletkult poetry studio would have had much in common with potential readers of a biography, and thus the way in which Khodasevich constructed his lectures for them reveals his working method and his thoughts about how one should study poetry and Pushkin, and represents the earliest beginnings of that Pushkin biography which he was fated never to complete.

These lecture notes were written in 1918 for special Proletkult preparatory courses for aspiring poets, and they demonstrate in outlined form certain aspects of Khodasevichs interest in Pushkin. Students and scholars of Pushkin and of Khodasevich will find the lecture notes fascinating in and of themselves. Teachers of Pushkin may find Khodasevichs insights to be useful in their own classrooms. More than that, however, readers may want to consider these lectures as exemplary of pedagogical practicethough perhaps bad practice, rather than good. Just what was Khodasevich teaching in his Proletkult classes on Pushkin? To whom? With what goals in mind?

The first lecture emphatically places Pushkin in the center of Russian culture, even after the 1917 Revolutions. If we are to learn to read poetry, then of course we should read Pushkin, Khodasevich writes. Pushkin was for him not only the greatest poet, but also a poet who maintained a striking harmony of form and content. Khodasevichs attempt to introduce his proletarian students to his own Pushkin demonstrates a short-lived optimism, which was to disappear within a few years. In his 1921 speech The Shaken Tripod (Koleblemyi trenozhnik), Khodasevich announced that Pushkin was the parole, the password, by which cultured Russians would recognize each other in the encroaching darkness of the twilight of civilization. In other words, though in 1918 he had introduced his proletarian students to the concept of Pushkin in the series of lectures published here, he did not anticipate pedagogical success. The proletariat remained uninitiated, uncultured, and unable to make use of the password. In his 1918 lectures Khodasevich had recognized that a deeper understanding of Pushkin was the only thing that could bring his students closer to Russian poetic culture. In the 1921 speech he was acknowledging his own failure to stave off the encroaching gloom.

Another important point arises in Khodasevichs very first lecture: the question of form and content, which takes us away from Khodasevichs proletarian poet-wannabes, and back into the debates of the 1910s and 1920s over literary scholarship. Khodasevich took a virulent stand against Formalism per se, as we see in his disdainful discussion of Russian readers of poetry:

In Russia people have never known how to read poetry, and they still dont. The main error has been [their] changing views: now content, now form. Neither one nor the other. Content and form are indivisible. One is indissolubly bonded to the other, and it is not possible to read poets without keeping this in mind.

As I have argued elsewhere, Khodasevich himself believed strongly that form and content, like life and art, could and should never be separated. His lifelong frustration with formalists and formalism centered around their attempts to turn literary criticism into a science. But in his own studies of Pushkin, especially in the essays of Pushkins Poetic Economy (1924) and the later book About Pushkin (1937), his analyses of sound patterns, recurrent motifs, and syntactic constructions are virtually formalist in nature.  Self-contradictory? That is certainly one way to describe Khodasevich as a literary theorist, and perhaps as a teacher as well.

Was Khodasevich a successful lecturer and teacher? Probably not, at least according to current ideas of pedagogy. As we examine his lecture notes today, we see that Khodasevich gets bogged down somewhat in the difficulty of using Pushkin as the material for understanding the poetic process, though he is certain that there is no better way to approach poetry than through Pushkin.

This is complicated. Attention. Abstract? What is to be done... is how he opens his second lecture. In these classes, Khodasevich goes beyond the range of his students understanding and becomes enmeshed in complicated thoughts and details that illuminate much for us, perhaps, and also much for Khodasevich himself, but little for the proletarian poets.

In his first lecture, we can see Khodasevichs own concerns about understanding Pushkin set into sharp relief, as he attempts to present the problem to an under-prepared audience. Of course, he says to his students, you have a general acquaintance with Pushkin. But what about his biography? What about specific poetic terminology? We can imagine that had Khodasevich been permitted to run his cycle of lectures as he had seen fit, he would eventually have given the students all the tools they needed to study both Pushkin and poetry. But it is more likely that his lectures would have become more and more arcane and detailed, leaving the once-and-future proletarian poets behind. Khodasevich did not seem able to escape the double bind of Russian Pushkin scholarship: a little too much concern for textological questions at the expense of examining the final poem and a little too much attention to the poets biography. His experience as a reader of Pushkin is not reflected in his lecture notes. Had he been able to share that experience, he might have inspired his students indeed to become better readers, and writers, of poetry.

In the outlines of four lectures that we have here, Khodasevich marks the trajectory of his pedagogical purposes. Lecture one essentially examines the question of what can be studied, and offers the idea that the object of study can be approached from a variety of angles. The topics he introduces are: 1) the connection between a work and biography; 2) structure of the text and intertextualism; 3) isolating charm in lyrical poetry; and 4) self-borrowing. Lecture two explores characterization (and the choice of title) in Mozart and Salieri; lecture three attacks the complex and vast topic of textology and manuscripts; and the fourth lecture reproduced here, an introductory lecture to a second course, outlines Pushkins genealogy and biography.

Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature
Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature

The Mozart and Salieri lecture recalls very much Vladimir Nabokovs lecture on Chekhovs In the Gully, in which he reveals a succession of deceptions or masks[1] while the textology lecture demonstrates just how ill-suited Khodasevich was for teaching, or at least teaching these particular students. It seems that Khodasevich's own sense of his students' total lack of preparation merely caused him to add more and more detail, ultimately obscuring his more overarching points. Instead of offering concrete, clear ideas illustrated by a few examples, or of trying to bridge the gap between his own poetic erudition and his students presumed interest in poetry, Khodasevich continually complicated his own arguments and demonstrated just how hard it is to truly grasp Pushkin's genius.

Derzhavin: A Biography by Vladislav Khodasevich

Some ten years later, Khodasevich was to write about the poet Derzhavins service to Catherine the Great, saying: "Being exact, hard-working, and assiduous, he studied each issue in great detail and instead of only presenting the essence, he wanted to pass on to the empress the totality of his knowledge every time."[2] This is precisely Khodasevich's error in preparing his Pushkin lectures.

Should poets teach? Certainly the idea of a poetry workshop for proletkult students made sense in the abstract. But by bringing Khodasevicha Pushkinist and, more importantly, both a poet and a believer in poetry as a divine giftinto the classroom, the Proletkult powers-that-be virtually ensured pedagogicaland poeticdisaster. That said, I personally would have given much to be one of the students in Khodasevichs proletkult course. Reading these lectures, we can imagine ourselves back in 1918, doing just that.

[1] See Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature (San Diego: Harvest-HBJ, 1981), 26381.

[2] See Angela Brintlinger, Derzhavin: A Biography by Vladislav Khodasevich (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, forthcoming 2005), chapter 6.