|A Discourse on Method
|The present is so important because, and only because, through it the mysterious depth of the past and the mysterious breadth of the future unfold to meet each other.
|— Sergei S. Averintsev, "Two Thousand Years with Virgil"
|The notes with which Sergei S. Averintsev prefaces his collection of essays on poets1 (please note that it is not "About Poetry" or "About a Poet" — we will discuss the meaning of the title later) remind me of another late proemia to my own lifelong works, the opening sonnet of Petrarch's Canzoniere. These motley rhymes, reader, were written: "Quando ero in parte un 'aitro uotno che ora dono."
In the spirit of mature estrangement, Averintsev speaks of the "burden of silent provisos" that had been gathered over the course of years around his statements made in this book. The analogy with Petrarch in connection with Poets also seems appropriate to me in another respect: pieces collected in this volume are rather some kind of rime sparse in the total ensemble of Averintsev's work (with the study of Efrem Sirin, perhaps, representing the only exception to the rule). The author defines the genre of these sketches as "portraits," while the "big" themes of Averintsev can be seen as architecture rather than chamber painting. This metaphor is too simple to carp about, and it is indeed appropriate to apply it to Averintsev's investigative thought with its wide perspectives, distribution of the foundations and main lines of traditions (one of them, as everyone knows, is the theme of "Athens and Jerusalem" and another — traditionalism and rationality).2 These lines and perspectives of the creative tradition are super-individual; they are larger than authors; and in Averintsev's interpretation, they reveal themselves through the authors,3 but are hardly created by them.
It is not the notion of historical development, which goes without saying, as it may seem; after all, we know a different one too: "The epoch of such and such is burning." Pasternak's thought of tradition as a personal initiative hardly agrees with the architecture of culture and history in Averintsev's works. Averintsev trains us to admire just the opposite — the transparency of the author's world for some general tendencies. At that, this transparency is most often not at all evident to us before the scholar comments on it, because we are speaking here not about some grammar school reduction of the individual to the general, such as a philological exercise on the topic of "Zhukovsky as a Representative of Romanticism." The generality that Averintsev reveals in the personal is always surprising as a sudden paradox: so that is what, it turns out, speaking in Dante's metaphor, wove this fabric, that is what its cause is, in the serious meaning of this word. In order for such an interpretation and commentary to possess such a clarifying power, one needs that stunning Averintsev erudition. Reading some of his references, comparisons, and parallels, it seems that one is reading a text ("metatext") composed by the tradition itself: the scholar seemingly possesses the same volume of cultural memory as the tradition itself, and clearly as none of its individual participants, be it even such a genius of universalism as Goethe or Dante.
Sometimes this effect of the unfolding of the boundless horizon gives the impression of a magic trick, a fairy-tale miracle, such as the swans that fly out from the sleeves under which Vassilisa the Beautiful had hidden bones (cf. the impressive reflection on the magic trick in The Byzantine Poetics). However, it is clear that it was not his erudition alone that worked to create it. A serious discussion of Averintsev's works, it seems to me, must begin with an attempt to catch the method of his work, which is not that easy, because what we are left with after reading his works are not some concrete results that we can "use" later on in a businesslike manner, but a certain method of seeing, of understanding, and of conveying one's understanding. We receive from Averintsev not new objects (meanings, facts, etc.), but a new vision. In that his impact on us is similar to the impact of an artist (such as, let us say, the changes that take place in the very sensitivity of the readers of Proust), with the only difference being that the vision that he impacts is not physical, but intellectual.4
Turning our attention to the Poets volume, to Averintsev's smaller genres, it would seem that we should leave these larger themes for later. The genre of the portrait naturally suggests a different type of writing, not an architectural one. A portrait artist himself or herself in some sense is closer and more "visible" for the viewer than an architect. However the "portraits" of poets accomplished by Averinstev are correlated with the general proportions of the larger tradition and separate traditions, they are placed within these perspectives, and because of that represent something essentially different than "normal" monograph studies of the same themes — say, for example, Zhukovsky's translation techniques. It is not really "a portrait in an interior" (which would be, say, a portrait of Zhukovsky in the circle of Russian and European literary contemporaneity and his closest predecessors); generally speaking, Averintsev deals with such an interior to a significantly lesser degree than a "usual" philologist, one who in Russia is called by the unpleasant name of "expert in."5 This is rather the portrait of an artist in the context of the entire universe of culture and more than anything else — in relation to its most basic foundations. Averinstev's method does not stop being deductive and his descent to concrete beginnings from the height of very general meanings, which an objective philologists usually donot have at their disposal — or does not involve them in their professional work with any given author or a given work, leaving them in the realm of their own private life of the reader. I mean here the philosophical, the theological, the general anthropological premises. The poverty of this level of depth or height in many philological projects (for example, in those of the "formalists" who recently once again have begun to be remembered as an example of philological virtuosity) becomes apparent after you read Averintsev. Even if such poverty is declared as a conscious choice, as scientific "strictness" and "purity," the case of professional honor, or the heroism of self-limitation, it changes little.
An example of what this "descent" to the immediate realty of the text from a different height gives is the analysis of the clever sound-writing of Brentano in comparison with the "magic of sound" in Edgar Allan Poe.
The complete article is published in: Olga Sedakova. Freedom to believe: philosophical and cultural essays. Bucknell University Press, 2010. We are grateful to the Publishing house Bucknell University Press for the permission to use the fragment of the book on this site.
|Translated by Slava I. Yastremski
|1 S. S. Averintsev, Poets (Moscow, 1996).
2 The movement from pre-reflexive archaic depth through rhetorical reflection to the epoch that has lost metaphysics is an impressive triad that was constructed in the preceding volume of the Averintsev series — The Rhetoric and the Origins of the European Literary Tradition (Moscow, 1996).
3 Or perhaps, the authors reveal themselves as authors when they find themselves in these power lines, divining them as it happens in the portrait of Petrarch.
4 Beatrice conveys something similar to her pupil in the Second Canzone:
Riguarda bene omnai si com'io vado
Per questo loco at vero chedusiri,
Si che poi sappi sol tenner lo guado.
It is not concrete knowledge (here the poet speaks of the nature of the spots on the Moon), but a path to it — from the height of the theological cosmological premise to an individual explanation across the river of intellectual movements along the stones of properly constructed syllogisms.
5 And because of that, an "expert" can find fault in some details of his interpretations: for example, why can we notice precisely in Zhukovsky the characteristic shift in word usage ("religious" words in sentimentalist usage with a shift to the opposite as happens in the case of "despondency" and "seductiveness"), if this is a common element of the Karamzin school that was passed on to Pushkin and further became not only a poetic but also a general linguistic habit. It is a shift that, as the experts say, precisely has, as its source, German lyrical poetry, the secularized language of piety. Or why in his portrait of Mandelstam there is no presence of the closest background of Mandelstam's writing, his "mad" metaphors, and the fantastic nature of his word that represented a coup d'etat in the artistic language of the epoch, both the poetic and sculptural, as well as musical ones, which consisted in a transition from "representation" to expression.
|A Discourse on Method