Thoughts on Eugene Onegin

by tigermanifesto


It is a good thing to love Pushkin, and, perhaps, it is a specially good thing to love Pushkin just now, when a new spring is in the offing, following, as it were, hard upon the heels of an autumn far gone in decay. The Russian bourgeoisie, the whole Russian bourgeois social and economic structure, travelled by the shortest of short cuts to the last convulsions of epigonous culture, to decadence, and from decadence into that artistic merry-go-round of absurdity produced by the exhausted cultures of other nations of the bourgeois West.

Anatoly Lunacharsky, “Alexander Pushkin”

Eugene Onegin is a novel in verse, a deeply romantic work that captures the gilded grandeur and dizzying pretense of the contemporary Russian bourgeois-aristocratic culture. Its hero, who I suspect would be seen palling around with coked-out bankers in Manhattan clubs if his like could be found today, drifts through life aloof. He denies love, only to be trapped in its claws, unable to make anything but a hollow fool of himself. The heroes in Onegin are Romantics, for whom the world should be unshackled, so that humanity may either be crushed by it or made brilliant through its radiance. Nature is the reader’s constant companion (along with the narrator), a singing, rushing, dancing partner in poetry, the inspiration for so many of the stories the characters consume and internalize. When they attempt to impose these stories upon the world, however, let’s just say they get a lesson in materialism. The culture on display here is one that adores what is Western and, in large part, scorns what is Russian. Onegin, the St. Petersburg socialite, noble in manners and, as the story reveals, more a pawn of convention than he realizes, brings something of that foreign air to the Russian countryside, thus bringing the story into full motion toward its disillusioning conclusion.

I believe that this book can also shed light on some of the ways in which Americans, who believe themselves part of a liberated class in an exceptional nation, are also deceived. Every day we strut and twitter with such abandon that in our pride we lose sight of just how shallow and bitter-tasting most of our capitalist culture is.

Pushkin, of course, is brilliant, and that brilliant deftness with language shines through the translation I read. Its ostentatious narrator won me to his side immediately, and reading the novel feels more like an adventure for two rather than a solo exercise. While I am not fond of Romanticism–even my first-year art history professor saw my disposition as more Classicist in nature–the wicked glee with which Pushkin guides us through the marshmallow world of Russian aristocracy, puncturing its pretensions to enlightenment and chic, ultimately fosters a deep respect for Russia as well as Pushkin’s economy and aptitude with language. This is despite the fact that Pushkin himself was a great admirer of Western European literature, and his breadth of knowledge shines through the text.

I am glad to have had my life brightened by Eugene Onegin, and I tip paw to him for winning me over to a Romantic work, an area in which I previously had little interest. Look forward to a further post about the introduction to the Penguin edition of the book, which, let me tell you, is no great work of art itself. No, indeed.