Andrew Kahn: Pushkin As A Poet of Ideas


An interesting review of a couple of new books on Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin – perhaps the most significant Russian novel in verse – I have to say that Kahn’s book looks interesting, even though I am personally not sure how much one can really learn about someone by looking at their books and marginalia.

Kahn has read systematically many hundreds of the titles in Pushkin’s own large library (in the same editions) in order to understand the nature of Pushkin’s engagement with current philosophical and aesthetic ideas. Of these titles, over 80 per cent are English and French works, in the original or in translation. Using B. G. Modzalevsky’s annotated catalogue of the library, which records the pages cut and the marginal notes and annotations made in them by Pushkin, Kahn seeks not to identify sources as past critics have done, but to trace the poet’s “thinking through lyric”. Kahn’s Pushkin is a poet of ideas, the intellectual heir of “a long eighteenth century”, but one who “suspends judgement”, using his deceptively simple and transparent poems as opportunities for the indirect dramatization of those ideas, and for “creating a lyric speaker who thinks aloud”. Allusive terms in the poems – “imagination”, “inspiration”, “fancy”, “will”, “strength” and “fame” – open up to the reader (the reader who is willing and able to read with Pushkin) the great conceptual framework that holds up their delicate lyric expressiveness.

One thing, of course, is true – everyone seems to be shaped by what they read in Pushkin’s Onegin and it is an interesting interpretive strategy to look at books in order to judge the author, yet I am still quite uncomfortable thinking that someone can glimpse at my books and conclude that I am such and such person – probably because in my case it’s rather easy, since most of the books I own are boring philosophical works…

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7 thoughts on “Andrew Kahn: Pushkin As A Poet of Ideas

  1. This is interesting Mikhail, for one of the first things I do when I visit someone is turn to their bookshelf when they have one, either with my eyes, or by simply walking over to it (I don’t know what I’ll do when books become completely digitalized). Partly this is because I love books and are draw to them. Not only for what is inside them, but the actual artifact, the thing. But it is also because certainly there are things to be learned there. (Now days people look at another’s Ipod queue up, perhaps.)

    I recently had to throw out a bunch of books, thin the herd due to space considerations, and I was struck by the experience of having to assess value to me. And I thought to myself as well, a photograph of my library shelves would be a very personal expression of me, books that don’t always go together, perhaps more revealing than a photo of my face.

    As to your own library shelves of old philosophy books, one would want to see how you read. Do you bend the pages carefully, or break the binding open, dog-earring as you go. Do you underline with a heavy hand, or write notes in the back? Are these books you have opened repeatedly, or once? Do they mainly stem from a single line of thought, or aesthetic, or are they diffused?

  2. Most of my books are of very specific variety, arranged by topics or periods so it’s easier to find – due to lack of space they are dispersed over several locations, including storage (decision what to put away and what to keep depends on current interests, I think my Habermas books are going into storage next week, I don’t think I will feel much). I think I do the same thing with looking at books when I first enter a new space – it’s not it’s impossible to judge the person by the books, it’s actually very easy to do so, I’m simply wondering if one can adequately assess one’s writings or one’s personality based on books he or she reads.

    Back in the Soviet days, if one were well connected, one could get a subscription to volumes of Soviet Encyclopedia, it was quite a popular item primarily because it looked great in a glassed bookcase so popular in the 1980s – whatever the message was, it was certainly not that of intellectual curiosity. Many philosophy people have shitloads of philosophy books, some never read or even opened, but of course those books that I do read again and again are very dear to me – I do break them open, I do underline and make notes etc etc. still I don’t think much of my notation is decipherable even to me if I look at it a year or two later. It’s mostly the process of reading and notating that matters, not the traces left behind.

    This Pushkin book which I’d like to buy if it wasn’t $110 seems like those studies of Hitler library that I think I mentioned a while back or studies of Stalin’s library – attempts to discern some special hidden characteristics of a famous person, some secret code – it’s the old model of trying to get into the author’s head (as if there is this “inside the head”) and objectively present his or her “real thought” – I think it’s fun to know what Pushkin was reading, and it’s certainly going to be helpful in some aspects of the interpretation of Onegin, but how helpful really?

  3. I do agree that there is a question of helpfulness, but perhaps this is never really sure of what the insight is that one is recieving. It was this way when I studied Spinoza. Read and read and read Spinoza, and all kinds of analytical commentaries on the soundness of his arguments, tracing them through history. But then when I finally came to look at and think about his library (of which we have only an incomplete list), suddenly “He had THAT in his library?!” would unlock all kinds of critical associations, none of which determined a final answer. Looking at someone’s library, or even marginalia, is like looking at them through a very fine prism. Everything becomes both highly distorted, but also rather clear along a certain vector of division.

    And yes, the price of books is rather silly.

  4. See, this is precisely my point of contention – I see your point, I think we’ve all been there in terms of quantitative collection of information and then, boom, a moment of clarity, of understanding – the problem is that this moment could equally be caused by a newspaper headline, a throw away phrase you overhear on the bus, or a glance at the thinker’s library – it’s purely accidental, I think, but in case of your example of Spinoza’s library, you would tend to ascribe the insight to that secret hidden dimension of the thinker’s life you haven’t seen before. But in fact it is you who have been constructing the view of what this and that writer is about, all the elements you’ve gathered are arranged not in some ideal objective manner – “this is what X is really about!” – but in a sense-making subjective manner (even this objective-subjective theme is misleading but let’s use it for now). Spinoza suddenly made sense to you because of the unique sequence of your readings and experiences, one of which was your discovery of his library’s books, but that’s silly to suggest, I think, that everyone then should follow your path, or my path, or anyone’s path – there’s no “true” or “false” reading of a philosopher (once, of course, we leave the elemental level of reading and understanding, but even here there are problems), there’s an interesting and a boring one, a productive (whatever it is that you aim to produce) and a useless…

    Looking at supposedly objective features of one’s life in order to unlock the inner meaning, the driving force, the essence is, I think, so 19th century: I have a copy of a Japanese Playboy in my filing cabinet, a friend sent it to me from Tokyo years ago as a birthday present, it was kind of entertaining at the time (since it’s so incredibly tame and boring) and I kept it around – what does it tell anyone about me? Probably a lot, but I personally have no idea what it means. Here, of course, the problem is whether others know me better than I know myself – in a certain sense, and I’m giving you back what I just took away, Spinoza could not have known that a certain book he owned and read influenced his philosophy to an extend that someone like you could look at it centuries later and suddenly unlock the secret meaning…

    Sorry about the somewhat sermonizing tone, too much coffee.

  5. I can say that at least in my case with Spinoza what you describe below isn’t really so, which isn’t to say that it doesn’t happen in other cases:

    M.E.” I think, but in case of your example of Spinoza’s library, you would tend to ascribe the insight to that secret hidden dimension of the thinker’s life you haven’t seen before. But in fact it is you who have been constructing the view of what this and that writer is about, all the elements you’ve gathered are arranged not in some ideal objective manner – “this is what X is really about!” – but in a sense-making subjective manner (even this objective-subjective theme is misleading but let’s use it for now).”

    The realization was not that “this” was what Spinoza “was all about”, but rather was a very small point of information, that he had Gregory James’ “Optica Promota” in his library. I had been studying Spinoza’s two optical letters (which have been completely ignored by Spinoza scholarship), and deciphering his diagrams in those letters [http://kvond.wordpress.com/2008/08/17/deciphering-spinozas-optical-letters/ ]. Looking at Gregory’s Optica one suddenly sees diagrams that are quite similiar to one that Spinoza draws. The same thing occurs when one reads Kepler’s Paralipomena, (and obviously, Decartes’ Dioptics). Then when one reads Johannes Hudde’s “Specilla circularia”, a rather rare pamphlet, sees precisely the sources from which Spinoza constructed his position, and this is able to then see how his own philosophy made these optical concepts. Spinoza was a lens grinder and instrument maker, and the closer we come to seeing what he saw, the more we are able to contextualize the decisions he made. It is not the case that “this is all he is about” but rather one simply understands better, is less projecting.

    M.E.: “Spinoza could not have known that a certain book he owned and read influenced his philosophy to an extend that someone like you could look at it centuries later and suddenly unlock the secret meaning…”

    Kvond: This may be true, but when you find a particular passage in Spinoza that strikes you as profound or significant, and then find the very same passage in a work previous, one cannot help but be enlightened.

  6. Certainly, I think I was mostly arguing not against your observation per se but against a sort of tendency to project one’s own discovery – which I think you weren’t doing, you’re talking about a kind of detective work that I thoroughly enjoy myself – and claim that it is the “key” to understanding of a thinker’s work, period – which strikes me as both naive and annoying. I’m looking at your post on Spinoza’s letter right now – interesting work!

  7. Thanks for the good words on the Spinoza Letter work. Its not something I know what to do with. I bothered me to no end that the endless Spinoza scholarship had completely ignored these letters, as if they did not exist. Strangely, in uncovering their likely meanings they seem to touch on a very deep vein in philosophical thought, i.e., optical analogies of knowledge and consciousness. The research began for an article for Cabinet magazine (never written), and simply became compulsed, as you say, like detective work, satisfying in the end.

    Sadly, this little bit of optical research I did over the summer, (I’ve been informed by some significant people), makes me one of the leading authorities on the matter, which is a joke. Strange what happens when you look under a rock no one has thought to look under before. You say, “interesting, a lot of crawly things around there in the dark”.

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