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Unbearable Burdens: Aleksandr Blok and the Modernist Resistance to Progeny and Domesticity

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 January 2017


Drawing on contemporary critical theory, as well as on the works of a wide variety of Russian modernists, Jenifer Presto discusses the ways in which the symbolist poet Aleksandr Blok responded to what Edward Said has termed the modernist “crisis of filiation.” This essay contends that despite the fact that Blok was consecrated as one of the poetic sons of Russian modernism, he envisioned modern poetic history as a violent family romance that involved murderous impulses not just, as Harold Bloom would suggest, toward his literary forefathers, but also toward his imagined children. Although Blok's complicated reaction to the appearance of a new generation of children has received far less critical attention than that of the futurist Vladimir Maiakovskii, it is Blok—not Maiakovskii—who can be credited with inaugurating a filicidal model of poetic creativity that would come to dominate the more radical flank of Russian modernism, the avant-garde. By examining Blok's resistance to progeny within the larger context of Russian modernism, this article reveals the existence of an antigenerative male poetic tradition that extends from Blok to the futurists, reflecting the writers' growing sense of rupture with the past in the period leading up to and immediately following the revolution.

Copyright © Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. 2004

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Epigraph taken from Stéphane, Mallarmé, “Sea Breeze,” Collected Poems,Henry Weinfield, trans, and commentary (Berkeley, 1994), 21 Google Scholar.

1. Said, Edward W., Beginnings: Intention and Method(New York, 1985), xiiiGoogle Scholar.

2. Aleksandr, Blok, Sobranie sochinenii,ed. Orlov, V. N., Surkov, A. A., and Chukovskii, K. I., 8vols. (Moscow, 1960-63), 5:369Google Scholar.

3. Ibid., 7:216 (emphasis in the original). Blok would, of course, take on the acmeists somewhat later in his essay “'Bez bozhestva, bez vdokhnoven'ia'” (Without divinity, without inspiration, 1921).

4. Harold, Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry(Oxford, 1973)Google Scholar. Bloom primarily examines the way poets react to their precursors, thereby privileging that part of the Oedipal myth that deals with the violence inflicted by the son on the father. And, in this sense, he remains faithful to Sigmund Freud. As Lillian Corti has pointed out in her revisionist reading of Freud in The Myth of Medea and the Murder of Children(Westport, Conn., 1998), however, the entire Oedipal narrative was set into motion by the violence inflicted by the father on the son, since Oedipus's parents abandoned him to die, making it possible for him to unknowingly kill his father. One scholar who has acknowledged theinfanticidal aspect of the Oedipal myth in her revision of Bloom is Barbara Johnson, who looks at the anxiety experienced by the established poet in the face of his young successor. See Johnson, “Les Fleurs du Mai Arme: Some Reflections on Intertextuality,“A World of Difference(Baltimore, 1987), 116-33.

5. Adolescence and youthfulness were valorized by virtually all of the European avantgarde movements and by futurism in particular. For instance, die Italian futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti proclaimed, “The oldest of us is thirty: so we have at least a decade for finishing our work. When we are forty, other younger and stronger men will probably throw us in the wastebasket like useless manuscripts—we want it to happen!” Marinetti, Let's Murder the Moonshine: Selected Writings, trans. R.W. Flint (Los Angeles, 1991), 51.

6. Vladimir, Maiakovskii, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v trinadtsati tomakh,ed. Katanian, V. A.(Moscow, 1955-1961), 1:175Google Scholar.

7. Said, Edward W., The World, the Text, and the Critic(Cambridge, Mass., 1983), 17 Google Scholar.

8. Anna, Akhmatova, Sobranie sochinenii v shesti tomakh,ed. Koroleva, N. V.and Kovalenko, S. A.(Moscow, 1998-2002), 1:36Google Scholar.

9. Quoted in Clare Cavanagh, Osip Mandelstam and the Modernist Creation of Tradition(Princeton, 1995), 61.

10. Adam figures prominendy in Mandel'shtam's poem “Notre Dame” and Sergei Gorodetskii's “Adam,” both of which appeared in the March 1913 issue of Apollon.

11. Mandel'shtam, O. E., Sobraniesochinenii v chetyrekh tomakh,ed. Struve, G. P.and Filippov, B. A.(Moscow, 1991), 2:322Google Scholar.

12. Vladimir, Orlov, “Istoriia odnoi liubvi,” Puti i sud'by: Literaturnye ocherki(Leningrad, 1971), 636 Google Scholar.

13. Dmitrii, Maksimov, “Ideia puti v poeticheskom soznanii Al. Bloka,” Poeziia i proza Al. Bloka(Leningrad, 1975), 6-143 Google Scholar. On the notion of the path in Blok, see also Lidiia, Ginzburg, “Nasledie i otkrytiia,” O lirike(Moscow, 1997), 229-91Google Scholar; Sloane, David A., Aleksandr Blok and the Dynamics of the Lyric Cycle(Columbus, 1988)Google Scholar; Duffield, White, “Blok's Nechaiannaia radost',” Slavic Review 50, no. 4(Winter 1991): 779-91Google Scholar; and Viktor, Zhirmunskii, “Poeziia A. Bloka,” Voprosy teorii literatury: Stat'i 1916-1926(Leningrad, 1928), 190-268 Google Scholar.

14. Blok, Sobranie sochinenii, 7:232.

15. Ibid., 7:232. Blok had equally laudatory things to say about other futurists at this time. He referred to Igor'Severianin as “a real fresh, childish talent” and “suspect[ed] that Velimir Khlebnikov [was] significant” and that Elena Guro was “worthy of attention.” Ibid. On etymology, see Max, Vasmer, Etimologicheskii slovar’ russkogo iazyka: V chetyrekh tomakh(Moscow, 1986-87), 1:155Google Scholar.

16. Blok, Sobranie sochinenii, 7:232.

17. Mandel'shtam, Sobranie sochinenii, 2:323.

18. Quoted in Roger, Shattuck, The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I: Alfred Jarry, Henri Rousseau, Erik Satie, Guillaume Apollinaire(New York, 1968), 322 Google Scholar.

19. While I am not suggesting that Blok was ready to defect to the futurist camp, he did express the utmost respect at this particular time even for the most irreverent of the futurists’ interpretations of their literary ancestors. As regards the modern legacy of Pushkin, for instance, Blok poses the question: “But what if… they learned to lovePushkin again in a new way—not Briusov, Shchegolev, Morozov, etc., but the futurists. They abuse [braniat]him in a new way, and he grows closer in a new way.”Blok, Zapisnye knizhki, 1901- 1920, ed. V. N. Orlov, A. A. Surkov, and K. I. Chukovskii (Moscow, 1965), 198 (emphasis in the original). In his later essay “O naznachenii poeta” (On the calling of the Poet, 1921), he would, however, take on the futurists. “Today they erect monuments [to Pushkin],” he notes, “tomorrow they will want ‘to throw him overboard from the ship of modernity.'“ Blok, Sobranie sochinenii, 6:161.

20. Boris Tomashevsky, “Literature and Biography,” in Ladislav Matejka and Rrystyna Pomorska, eds., Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views(Ann Arbor, 1978), 47-55. The tension between Blok and his poetic persona has been addressed by a number of scholars. See, for instance, Boris Eikhenbaum, “Sud'ba Bloka,” Skvoz’ literaturu: Sbornik statei(The Hague, 1962), 215-52; Ginzburg, “Nasledie i otkrytiia“; Iurii, Tynianov, “Blok,” Problema stikhotvornogo iazyka(Moscow, 1965), 248-58Google Scholar.

21. Kornei, Chukovsky, Alexander Blok: As Man and Poet,ed. and trans. Diana, Burginand Katherine, O'Connor(Ann Arbor, 1982), 1-4 Google Scholar.

22. Blok's collected works contain numerous autobiographical documents and sketches dating from die period between 1897 and 1915. See Blok, Sobranie sochinenii, 7:429-36.

23. An important recent work that overturns this assumption is Michael, Wachtel's Russian Symbolism and Literary Tradition: Goethe, Novalis, and the Poetics of Vyacheslav Ivanov(Madison, 1994)Google Scholar.

24. Quoted in Avril, Pyman, The Life ofAleksandr Blok, 2vols. (Oxford, 1979-80), 2:17Google Scholar.

25. Olga, Matich, “The Symbolist Meaning of Love: Theory and Practice,”in Irina, Papernoand Joan Delaney, Grossman, eds., Creating Life: The Aesthetic Utopia of Russian Modernism(Stanford, 1994), 25-26 Google Scholar.

26. On Blok's relationship with his wife, see Orlov, “Istoriia odnoi liubvi“; Lyubov Mendeleeva-Blok, “Facts and Myths about Blok and Myself,” in Lucy Vogel, ed. and trans., Alexander Blok: An Anthology of Essays and Memoirs(Ann Arbor, 1982), 8-63; Lucy, Vogel, “The Poet's Wife: Ljubov’ Dmitrievna Mendeleeva,”in Vickery, Walter N., ed., Aleksandr Blok Centennial Conference(Columbus, 1984), 379-403 Google Scholar; and Azadovskii, K. M.and Lavrov, A. V., eds., “Nezakonchennyi ocherk D. E. Maksimova,” Novoe literalurnoe obozrenie, 35(1999): 250-80Google Scholar.

27. Mendeleeva-Blok, “Facts and Myths,” 39-40.

28. Blok, Zapisnyeknizhki, 48. Although I discuss Mandel'shtam in connection with his fellow acmeists, I do not want to give the impression that acmeism was a unified literary movement. Compared to Russian symbolism, acmeism was much more heterogeneous.

29. For an excellent discussion of the impact that the nineteenth-century Russian religious philosophers’ theories of love had on the subsequent development of Russian modernism, see Eric Naiman, “Historectomies: The Metaphysics of Reproduction in a Utopian Age,” in Costlow, Jane T., Stephanie, Sandler, and Judith, Vowles, eds., Sexuality and the Body in Russian Culture(Stanford, 1993), 255-76Google Scholar.

30. For a fascinating discussion of the way in which Gippius mythologized her relationship with her husband, see Olga Matich, “Dialectics of Cultural Return: Zinaida Gippius' Personal Myth,” in Boris, Gasparov, Hughes, Robert P., and Irina, Paperno, eds., Cultural Mythologies of Russian Modernism: From the Golden Age to the Silver Age(Berkeley, 1992), esp. 62-65 Google Scholar; and Matich, “The Symbolist Meaning of Love,” esp. 40-44.

31. Aleksandr, Blok, Pis'ma Akksandra Bloka k rodnym,ed. Beketova, M. A.and Desnitskii, V. A., 2vols. (Leningrad, 1927-1932), 1:86-87Google Scholar.

32. Robert Greer, Cohn, Toward the Poems of Mallarmé(Berkeley, 1980), 288 Google Scholar.

33. Charles, Baudelaire, Selected Poems fromLes Fleurs du mal: A Bilingual Edition, trans. Shapiro, Norman R.(Chicago, 1998), 46-47 Google Scholar.

34. Mallarmé, Collected Poems, 21; Baudelaire, Selected Poems., 46-47.

35. Weinfield, commentary, in Mallarmé, Collected Poems, 164.

36. Maiakovskii, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 13:138.

37. One of the other places where Mallarmé treats the conflict between daily life and poetry is in his poem “Don du poeme” (Gift of a poem, 1883), which, as with “Sea Breeze,“ he composed shortly after the birth of his daughter in 1864.

38. Blok, Zapisnye knizhki, 50, 51.

39. Ibid.

40. Ibid., 53.

41. In his reluctance to have children, Blok was apparendy well suited to Liubov' Mendeleeva, who admits in her memoirs that she had a deep aversion to childbirth. See Mendeleeva-Blok, “Facts and Myths,” esp. 48.

42. Mandel'shtam, Sobranie sochinenii, 2:249.

43. Toward the end of Cement, a child that has literally been thrown overboard from one of the returning ships washes up on shore, reinforcing the notion that the creation of the Soviet Utopia demands sacrifices. Upon encountering the dead child, Serge wonders: “Why was the body of this child so carefully placed upon the seaweed? From where came this suckling with its waxen face? The warmth of its mother's hand was almost still upon it as could be seen by this scarf, the carefully tied white clodi, and thetiny socks upon its chubby feet. Serge looked at die dead child and could not tear himself away; it seemed to him that at any moment it would open its eyes and stare at him and smile. From where came this child, so inhumanly sacrificed, arousing in him such poignant pity? From a wrecked ship? Thrown into the sea by a frenzied mother?” Fyodor Gladkov, Cement, trans. A. S. Arthur and C. Ashleigh (Evanston, 1994), 301-2. For more on the antiprocreative tendencies in early Soviet literature and culture, see Olga Matich, “Remaking the Bed: Utopia in Daily Life,” in Bowlt, John E.and Olga, Matich, eds., Laboratory of Dreams: The Russian Avant-Garde and Cultural Experiment(Stanford, 1996), 158-71Google Scholar; Eric, Naiman, Sex in Public: The Incarnation of Early Soviet Ideology(Princeton, 1997)Google Scholar; and Eliot, Borenstein, Men without Women: Masculinity and Revolution in Russian Fiction, 1917-1929(Durham, 2000)Google Scholar.

44. Maiakovskii, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 1:48.

45. I would argue that, for the most part, Russian women writers associated with the symbolist and futurist movements did not demonstrate the same tendency to imagine their success as poets as dependent on the deadi of a child. Gippius, for example, may have gone to elaborate lengths to dissuade Blok from marrying and to convince her contemporaries to avoid having children, but she never went so far as to imagine the death of a child as a prerequisite for her poetic production. The same might be said for the poet Marina Tsvetaeva who went on to have three children. It bears noting, though, that David M. Bethea has censured Tsvetaeva quite harshly for what he perceives to be her willingness to imagine the sacrifice of her child (and of her femininity) to her male poetic genius in the poem, “Na krasnom kone” (On the red steed, 1921), a work he insists has “powerful links with the death, eleven months earlier, of Tsvetaeva's second child[,] Irina.” Bethea reads the act of child sacrifice in the poem as evidence that Tsvetaeva's poetic speaker has “become the ultimate monster and, as Lady Macbeth would say, [has unsexed] herself.” Bethea, Joseph Brodsky and the Creation of Exile(Princeton, 1994), 184. Recently, Alyssa W. Dinega has challenged this reading of the poem, arguing that “it is plausible that in Tsvetaeva's mind (perhaps subconsciously) there is a link between fact and fiction here; however, it seems to [her] unfair to suggest that poetic hindsight (which, in this case, may create a bearable narrative out of an unbearable fact) is at all the same thing as malice aforethought (apropos of Bethea's reference to Lady Macbeth).” Dinega, A Russian Psyche: The Poetic Mind of Marina Tsvetaeva(Madison, 2001), 79.

46. Caryl, Emerson, Boris Godunov: Transpositions of a Russian Theme(Bloomington, 1986), 104 Google Scholar(emphasis in the original).

47. Stephanie Sandler has persuasively shown that “the death of the Tsarevich becomes the subject of four narratives in the course of Boris Godunov. Each of these stories … rejects dramatic conflict for an intensely remembered sequence of events. Boris Godunovtakes refuge from its frustrations as drama in a tendency toward narrative; the play is singularly fascinated with the death of Dmitri the Tsarevich in Uglich.” Sandler, Distant Pleasures: Alexander Pushkin and the Writing of Exile(Stanford, 1989), 109-10. And, not surprisingly, Gogol“s A Terrible Vengeancewould play an important role in the poetic mythologies, not only of Blok, but also of Belyi.

48. Boris, Pasternak, Sobranie sochinenii vpiati tomakh,ed. Voznesenskii, A. A., Likhachev, D. S., Mamleev, D. F., and Pasternak, E. B.(Moscow, 1989-1992), 4:449Google Scholar.

49. There is also the possibility that Pasternak identified not with the father but with the crushed child. In his discussion of the story, Lazar Fleishman suggests that “a partial explanation of the parental theme in his story can be found in the fact that Leonid Pasternak had profound misgivings about Boris’ ‘decadent’ predilections in poetry and art; noticeable differences in tastes begin to emerge around 1910, and the father disapproved of his son's creative tendencies.” Fleishman, Boris Pasternak: The Poet and His Politics(Cambridge, Mass., 1990), 14.

50. Boris, Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago,trans. Max Hayward and Manya Harari (New York, 1991), 284 Google Scholar.

51. On Pasternak's homage to Blok in Doctor Zhivago, see Irene Masing-Delic, “Zhivago's ‘Christmas Star’ as Homage to Blok,” in Vickery, ed., Aleksandr Blok Centennial Conference, 207-24.

52. Blok dedicated numerous poems to his mother, including “Moei materi” (To my mother, 1898, 1899, 1901, 1904, 1905), “la—chelovek i malo Bogu raven” (I am a person also hardly equal to God, 1899), “Syn i mat'” (Son and mother, 1906), “la nasadil moi svetlyi rai” (I planted my bright paradise, 1907), “Poveselias’ na buinom pire” (Enjoying myself at the wild feast, 1912), “Son” (Dream, 1910), and “Veter stikh, i slava zarevaia” (The wind abated, and glowing fame, 1914).

53. Roman, Jakobson, “On a Generation That Squandered Its Poets,”in Brown, Edward J., ed., Major Soviet Writers: Essays in Criticism(London, 1973), 21 Google Scholar.

54. In New York in 1925, Maiakovskii had an affair with the Russian emigre Ellie Jones (neé Elizaveta Alekseeva) that resulted in the birth of a daughter, Patricia J. Thomp son. Maiakovskii is known to have seen his daughter only once in 1928 in Nice. In the spring of 2000, Thompson's trip to Moscow to visit her father's grave and monument on the seventieth anniversary of his suicide produced quite a stir in the Russian media. For more on this event, see “The Week in Review,” Russian Life Online(19 April 2000) at (last consulted 9 November 2003).

55. On the importance of death in Maiakovskii's myth, see Jakobson, “On a Generation That Squandered Its Poets” and Svetlana, Boym, Death in Quotation Marks: Cultural Myths of the Modern Poet(Cambridge, Mass., 1991), 119-89Google Scholar.

56. Recently, Charles Nicholl has revealed that Rimbaud was much more “domestic“ than previously thought, finding evidence that he lived with a woman while in Africa. See Nicholl, , Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa, 1880-91(Chicago, 1999)Google Scholar.

57. Blok, Sobranie sochinenii, 3:85.

58. Ibid.

59. Poems from this period that deal implicidy or explicitly with infanticide, child abuse, or the neglect of children include: “V goluboi dalekoi spalenke” (In the faraway light-blue nursery, 1905), “Povest“’ (A tale, 1905), “Ty prokhodish’ bez ulybki” (You walk by widiout a smile, 1905), and “V oktiabre” (In October, 1906).

60. Blok, Sobraniesochinenii, 3:70 (emphasis in the original).

61. Although Apollinaire claims in his preface to the play that, “apart from the Prologue and the last scene of Act II, added in 1916, the piece was written in 1903,” Maya Slater indicates that “most critics agree that this is unlikely. The subject of repopulation was topical after the war, and besides, Apollinaire had several times remarked that he had never written a play. It is thought that he made this claim partly because he feared accusations of plagiarism—his play appeared very soon after Cocteau's Parade—and partly because he was afraid his play would seem naive and immature.” Maya Slater, trans., ThreePre- SurrealistPlays(Oxford, 1997), 153 (Apollinaire), 210.

Another avant-garde writer who gives expression to the fantasy of male childbirth is Marinetti in his novel Mafarka, the Futurist: An African Novel, which was published first in French in 1909 and then in Italian in 1910. In this work, the hero, who for a large part of the novel eschews the company of women, first to do battle and then to pay homage to his deceased brother, dreams of giving birth to a male child named Gazourmah without the aid of a woman. At the end of the novel, after destroying his first love, he manages to create an enormous mechanical child with wings that is in reality an airplane.

62. For the quote from Burliuk, see Aleksei, Kruchenykh, Nash vykhod: K istorii fulurizma(Moscow, 1996), 80 Google Scholar.

63. Blok, Sobranie sochinenii, 8:301, 8:284.

64. Tsvetaeva also helped to foster this myth in letters she wrote to Roman Goul on 30 March 1924 and 11 April 1924. See Marina, Tsvetaeva, Sobranie sochinenii v semi tomakh,ed. Saakiants, A. A.and Mnukhin, L. A.(Moscow, 1994-95), 6:532 and 536Google Scholar.

65. For a recent discussion of the myth of Blok's illegitimate son, see Marks Tartakovskii, “Prekrasnaia zhizn’ syna Aleksandra Bloka,” Ogonek, 1999, no. 17:34-36. In the autumn of 1999, the Russian television program, Sud'ba(Fate), dedicated an episode to a woman named Aleksandra Pavlovna Liushch who claimed to be Blok's daughter. On 27 September 1999, an advertisement for the show appeared in Antenna: “It is well known that the famous poet and lady-killer of the beginning of the twentieth century, Aleksandr Blok, had no children…. But there lives in Russia a woman named Aleksandra Pavlovna Liushch. Today she is 74 years old. As an adult, she learned that her father was Aleksandr Blok! There are no documents containingjuridical proof or confirming the blood kinship of the poet with Aleksandra Pavlovna. There is only the face, indistinguishable from the face of Blok” (quoted from a private correspondence with Elena Glukhova).

66. Blok, Sobranie sochinenii, 3:375.

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