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Unpacking Viazemskii's Khalat: The Technologies of Dilettantism in Early Nineteenth-Century Russian Literary Culture

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 January 2017


This article explores the image of the khalat, or dressing gown, in and around Petr Viazemskii's 1817 poem “Proshchanie s khalatom” (Farewell to My Dressing Gown). As the poem circulated during the period between its creation and printing, its central image—the khalat—became enshrined as a symbol for early nineteenth-century literary culture around and within the Arzamas circle, emphasizing a creative inner life and an informal approach to writing. The poem mediates between friendship, honor, authenticity, and authorship and the formalities, duties, and expectations of society life. The khalat image appears in later poems, correspondence, and occasional writings by Anton Del'vig, Aleksandr Pushkin, and Vasilii Zhukovskii, among others. Tracing the image through its intertextual influences, extratextual impact, and memetic evolution, I examine the way it contributed to the development of an intellectual network through information transfer during the early nineteenth century and beyond.

Copyright © Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. 2015

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“And, like a warrior his cloak, shot through in battle, I revere my dressing gown with love and respect.” Excerpt from “Zhizn’ nasha v starosti—iznoshennyi khalat” (Our Life in Old Age Is a Worn Dressing Gown), Polnoe sobranie sochinenii kniazia P. A. Viazemskogo (St. Petersburg, 1878-96; hereafter PSS), 12:549-550. All translations in this article are my own unless noted otherwise.

This research was conceived as part of the “Information Technologies in Russia, 1450-1850” project at the University of Cambridge and I am thankful to Simon Franklin for his generous support and feedback throughout its many stages. This article has benefitted enormously from the suggestions of colleagues, among them Mel Bach, Connor Doak, Tatiana Filimonova, Ani Kokobobo, Muireann Maguire, John Carter McKnight, Harriet Murav, William Mills Todd III, Alexandra Vukovic, and the anonymous readers for Slavic Review. Thanks are also due to those who heard and discussed a version of this study at the In(s) and Out(s) Interdisciplinary Seminar Series at the University of Oxford in May 2013.

1. Peace, Richard, The Enigma of Gogol: An Examination of the Writings of N. V. Gogol and Their Place in the Russian Literary Tradition (Cambridge, Eng., 2009), 150 Google Scholar.

2. Gray, Francine du Plessix, “The Russian Heroine: Gender, Sexuality, and Freedom,” in Delbanco, Nicholas, ed., Speaking of Writing: Selected Hopwood Lectures (Ann Arbor, 1990), 380 Google Scholar.

3. For a discussion of this preservation's particular nuances, see Brückner, Aleksander, Literary History of Russia, trans. Havelock, H. (London, 1908), 150 Google Scholar.

4. Viazemskii, P. A., “Proshchanie s khalatom,” Stikhotvoreniia (Leningrad, 1986), 117–20Google Scholar. All quotes from the poem refer to this edition.

5. This article only briefly treats episodes from Viazemskii's life. For a more thorough accounting of the poet's life and work, see Wytrzens, Günther, Pjotr Andreevič Vjazemskij: Studie zur russischen Literatur- und Kulturgeschichte des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts (Vienna, 1961)Google Scholar; M. I. Gillel'son, P. A. Viazemskii: Zhizn' i tvorchestvo (Leningrad, 1969); and V. V. Bondarenko, Viazemskii (Moscow, 2004). For a biographical account of Viazemskii's departure for Warsaw and the dressing gown episode in particular, see Bondarenko, Viazemskii 117-19.

6. The Arzamas Society of Obscure People was a literary circle active mainly in St. Petersburg between 1815 and 1818. While the extant body of critical scholarship on Arzamas is enormous, I recommend a few key works. The classic studies are Iurii Tynianov, Arkhaisty i novatory (Leningrad, 1929); Todd, William Mills III, The Familiar Letter: Literary Genre in the Age of Pushkin (Princeton, 1976)Google Scholar; and M. I. Gillel'son, Molodoi Pushkin i arzamasskoe bratstvo (Leningrad, 1974) and Of arzamasskogo bratstva k pushkinskomu krugu pisatelei (Leningrad, 1977). More recent studies include Alessandra Tosi, Waiting for Pushkin: Russian Fiction in the Reign of Alexander 1, 1801-1825 (Amsterdam, 2006), esp. 44-102; and Mariia Maiofis, Vozzvanie k Evrope: Literaturnoe obshchestvo “Arzamas” i rossiiskii modernizatsionnyi proekt 1815-1818 godov (Moscow, 2008). Oleg Proskurin and Joe Peschio discuss the circle's culture of scandals and shocking language in Literaturnye skandaly pushkinskoi epokhi (Moscow, 2000) and The Poetics of Impudence and Intimacy in the Age of Pushkin (Madison, 2012), 34-59, respectively. For a collection of original Arzamasian documents (letters, speeches, protocols, poems, etc.), see Vadim Vatsuro and Aleksandr Ospovat, eds., “Arzamas”: Sbornik, 2 vols. (Moscow, 1994).

7. I use information technologies here and elsewhere in this study as Simon Franklin does in “Mapping the Graphosphere: Cultures of Writing in Early 19th-century Russia (and Before),” Kritika 12, no. 3 (Summer 2011): 531-60. Examining literary and intellectual writing in the first half of the nineteenth century, Franklin broadly discusses “the three communicative technologies of speaking, writing, and printing.” Ibid., 532. Information technology goes beyond the graphosphere to encompass modes of information dissemination that interact with it.

8. Stephanie Lee Merkel, “The Romantic Culture of Xalatnost': From P. A. Viazemskii to I. A. Goncharov” (PhD diss., Cornell University, 1998).

9. See, for example, Lotman, Jurij, The Structure of the Artistic Text, trans. Lenhoff, Gail and Vroon, Ronald (Ann Arbor, 1977)Google Scholar. As Lotman observes, “The entire sum of historically determinate artistic codes that make a text meaningful is related to the sphere of extratextual relations” (50).

10. I rely on meme theory from its inceptive meanings: first, biologist Richard Dawkins's original definition in The Selfish Gene (Oxford, 1976) of a meme as the cultural equivalent of a gene (189201); then, the work of psychologist Henry Plotkin, Darwin Machines and the Nature of Knowledge (Cambridge, Mass., 1993). Plotkin observes that a meme is not only a cultural replicator but also carries an evolutionary element. Ibid., 215-18, 222-26.

11. On literary dilettantism as a European cultural phenomenon, see Hibbitt, Richard, Dilettantism and Its Values: From Weimar Classicism to the Fin de Siècle (Oxford, 2006)Google Scholar. Hibbitt discusses the concept of dilettantism as referring to six activities: “amateurism, apprenticeship, ‘bodging,’ plagiarism, aestheticism, and skepticism.” Ibid., 168. Hibbitt's research stems from models put forward by Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and their evolution through the end of the century. Early nineteenth-century Russian dilettantism, on the other hand, seems to have associations mainly with amateurism, apprenticeship, and aestheticism. It is in this sense of nonprofessionalism that I refer to “dilettantism” here and throughout. Viazemskii himself called A. I. Turgenev a “dilettante” and meant the term in a positive sense. Viazemskii, PSS, 8:276-80.

12. Collins, Randall, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change (Cambridge, Mass., 1998), 1974 Google Scholar. Collins argues for a general theory of intellectual life built on the anthropological concept of “interaction ritual,” from the theories of Émile Durkheim, George Herbert Mead, and Erving Goffman.

13. Ibid., 25-28.

14. Denis Diderot, “Regrets sur ma vieille robe de chambre, ou Avis à ceux qui ont plus de goût que de fortune,” Œuvres de Diderot, ed. André Billy (Paris, 1951), 953. Viazemskii translated Diderot's essay in 1821, four years after writing “Proshchanie s khalatom,” but given the references to it here, it is likely he read it earlier. On the Diderot essay and Viazemskii's unpublished translation, see Stepanovich, V., “Frantsuzskie prosvetiteli XVIII veka v perevodakh Viazemskogo,” Russkaia literatura, no. 3 (1966): 8889.Google Scholar

15. On the historical interpretation of Diderot's essay, see McLelland, Jane B., “Changing His Image: Diderot, Vernet and the Old Dressing Gown,” Diderot Studies 23 (1988): 129–41Google Scholar. For more on the historical context of the essay, see Samuel Sadaune, “L'Ouverture excentrique du Salon de 1769, ou portrait du philosophe en robe de chambre,” Recherches sur Diderot et sur l'Encyclopédie 35 (October 2003): 7-23.

16. Diderot, “Regrets sur ma vieille robe de chambre,” 953.

17. Ibid., 953. Sadaune also comments on Diderot's notion of dressing gown as uniform, showing the development of the robe de chambre image in the Correspondance littéraire. Sadaune, “L'Ouverture excentrique du Salon de 1769,” 7-8.

18. Batiushkov, K. N., Polnoe sobranie stikhotvorenii (Moscow, 1964 Google Scholar; hereafter PSS), 94-102. In a response to Batiushkov's poem, following a chain of epistolary verse, Pushkin's 1815 poem “K Galichu” (To Galich) replaces the “shirokii shlafrok” (large dressing gown) with a “tatarskii khalat” (Tatar dressing gown). A. S. Pushkin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v shestnadtsati tomakh (Moscow, 1937-59; hereafter PSS), 1:121-22. Merkel discusses this exchange at length. See Merkel, “The Romantic Culture of Xalatnost',” 135-49.

19. The tension between public and private life in the early nineteenth century has been a topic of discussion for scholars since Boris Eikhenbaum's seminal essay “Literaturnaia domashnost“’ (1929). Recent studies that problematize and discuss this tension include Andreas Schönle, “The Scare of the Self: Sentimentalism, Privacy, and Private Life in Russian Culture,” Slavic Review 57, no. 4 (Winter 1998): 726-48; Andrei Zorin, “Pokhod v bordel’ v Moskve v ianvare 1800 goda (Shiller, gonoreia i pervorodnyi grekh v emotsial'nom mire russkogo dvorianina),” Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie 92 (2008): 142-57; Peschio, The Poetics of Impudence, 14-24; and Kahn, Andrew, “Life Writing in the 1830s: Viazemsky's Fon-Vizin and Pushkin's ‘Table Talk,’Ulbandus 12 (2009-10): 83104 Google Scholar.

20. The particular image of the Penates, the Roman hearth spirits, evokes Batiushkov's 1811 poem “Moi penaty” (My Penates), which bears the subtitle “K Zhukovskomu i Viazemskomu” (To Zhukovskii and Viazemskii). The poem is a meditation on the comfort of private life and solitude. Batiushkov, PSS, 134-41. On the Penates and their place in early nineteenth-century Russian poetic culture, see Kleespies, Ingrid, “Traveling Domestics: The Penates and the Poet in Pushkin's Lyric Verse,” Pushkin Review 15, no. 1 (2012): 2751 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21. Diderot, “Regrets sur ma vieille robe de chambre,” 953.

22. Derzhavin, G. R., Stikhotvoreniia (Leningrad, 1957), 250–51Google Scholar.

23. Pushkin, , PSS, 6:164 Google Scholar.

24. Batiushkov, PSS, 245-46.

25. Baratynskii, E. A., Polnoe sobranie stikhotvorenii v dvukh tomakh (Leningrad, 1936), 1:156 Google Scholar.

26. See the description of Onegin's dandyism. Pushkin, PSS, 6:6-7. In the commentary to his translation of Evgenii Onegin, Vladimir Nabokov describes a dandy as “an exquisite” or “a swell” but argues that Onegin is more like a “beau” in the sense of Beau Brummel than a “dandy.” See Pushkin, Aleksandr, Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse, Translated from the Russian with a Commentary by Vladimir Nabokov, 4 vols. (London, 1964), 2:4345 Google Scholar. Here, however, I mean the original form of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century dandyism, which Thomas Carlyle neatly sums up in the following statement from his musings on “The Dandiacal Body”: “A Dandy is a clothes-wearing Man, a Man whose trade, office and existence consists in the wearing of Clothes. Every faculty of his soul, spirit, purse, and person is heroically consecrated to this one object, the wearing of Clothes wisely and well: so that the others dress to live, he lives to dress.” Carlyle, Thomas, Sartor Resartus: The Life and Opinions ofHerr Teufelsdröckh in Three Books, ed. Engel, Mark (Berkeley, 2000), 200 Google Scholar. On historical and literary dandies, see Moers, Ellen, The Dandy: Brummell to Beerbohm (London, 1960)Google Scholar.

27. This earlier type of dandy poet predates the more prevalent modernist incarnation. The term “dandy poet” is typically associated with modernist figures reflecting views of the dandy established by Charles Baudelaire and Albert Camus and keeping in the vein of Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly, whose 1845 study Du dandysme et de George Brummel established dandyism as a philosophy of being. On modernist dandy poets, see Feldman, Jessica, Gender on the Divide: The Dandy in Modernist Literature (Ithaca, 1993), 1314 Google Scholar; and Rita Felski, The Gender of Modernity (Cambridge, Mass., 1995), 91.

28. “Musical genres” of poetry were popular in the early nineteenth century, and writers such as Zhukovskii and Del'vig were fond of them. Originally introduced into the Russian canon by Vasilii Trediakovskii, these genres were associated with eighteenth-century models of poetry. Pushkin scorned them, writing only one madrigal himself (“Madrigal M … oi,” 1817-20), and then putting a “poshlyi” (trite) madrigal in Onegin's mouth in Evgenii Onegin, chapter 5. See also Hodge, Thomas, A Double Garland: Poetry and Art-Song in Early-Nineteenth-Century Russia (Evanston, 2000), 324 Google Scholar.

29. Anacreon's poetry was popular in the eighteenth century and beyond and was both emulated and imitated. On Anacreon, his popularity in Russia, and the eighteenth-century literary tradition of “anakreontika,” see Drage, C. L., “The Anacreontea and 18th-century Russian Poetry,” Slavonic and East European Review 41 (1963): 110–34Google Scholar.

30. Luba Golburt discusses the way that the eighteenth century manifests in the early nineteenth-century Russian cultural imagination in “Catherine's Retinue: Old Age, Fashion, and Historicism in the Nineteenth Century,” Slavic Review 68, no. 4 (Winter 2009): 782-803. Golburt begins with Ivan Kireevskii's essay “Deviatnadtsatyi vek” (The Nineteenth Century, 1831), in which she identifies two historicist premises: “the Hegelian notion that each person can be understood as a product of a specific Zeitgeist and the idea that a conglomeration of historical planes constitutes the novelty of nineteenth-century experience, of its own Zeitgeist” (785). For the extension of this argument, see Golburt, Luba, The First Epoch: The Eighteenth Century and the Russian Cultural Imagination (Madison, 2014)Google Scholar.

31. Pushkin, PSS, 1:165-66; Goethes Sämtliche Werke: Briefe, Tagebucher und Gespräche, vol. 1, Gedichte 1756-1799, ed. Karl Eibl (Frankfurt am Main, 1987), 336.

32. Maiofis's study, Vozzvaniek Evrope, emphasizes Arzamas's reformist political aims and engagement from its inception. While the notion of the group as a band of friendly compatriots engaging in dilettantish literary production is reinforced through the “fascinatingly frivolous” Arzamasian protocols (Todd, The Familiar Letter, 50), it is precisely through this informality and rejection of hierarchy that the circle's political activities took root, as Maiofis argues.

33. Batiushkov, “Moi genii,” PSS, 192; “P. A. Viazemskomu,” PSS, 245-46.

34. For more about this shift and the dynamic between patronage, society, and familiar circles during the transition, see Todd, William Mills III, Fiction and Society in the Age of Pushkin: Ideology, Institutions, and Narrative (Cambridge, Mass., 1986), 5165 Google Scholar.

35. On the intellectual network and network memory, see Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies, 25-28.

36. On the familiar letter, its genre, and its importance for Russian literary culture, see Todd, The Familiar Letter, 38-75 and 134-55.

37. Turgenev writes, “ ” (My dear friend, tell Viazemskii that I received his letter and 1,000 rubles for the carriage; tomorrow I'll arrange everything. Today I read and enraptured Arzamas with his khalat). A. I. Turgenev, Pis'ma Aleksandra Turgeneva Bulgakovym, 161.

38. Turgenev writes, “ ” (I received two of your letters and your splendid “Khalat,” in which you appeared to us with your entire splendid soul. Zhukovskii, who set off for Moscow yesterday, will tell you about the reading at Arzamas). Viazemskii, P. A., Ostaf'evskii arkhiv kniazei Viazemskikh (St. Petersburg, 1899), 1:89 Google Scholar.

39. On September 18, 1817, for example, Turgenev writes to Viazemskii about a different poem read at a different Arzamas gathering: “ ” (Your little verses were read aloud at Arzamas on the same day they were received; and today, at the last Arzamas hosted by Black Raven [Aleksandr Pleshcheev's nickname], I will convey your derogatory attitude). Vatsuro and Ospovat, eds., “Arzamas,” 1:433.

40. Mikhail Gronas attributes Pushkin's success as a poet to the viability of this network. On letters and their significance as an early “social network,” see Gronas, Mikhail, “Pushkin and the Art of the Letter,” in Kahn, Andrew, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Pushkin (Cambridge, Eng., 2007), 130–42Google Scholar.

41. Pushkin, Aleksandr, Pis'ma (Moscow, 1926), 1:159–60Google Scholar.

42. Gronas, “Art of the Letter,” 136-37.

43. This version is reported in a letter sent from N. I. Turgenev to S. I. Turgenev on January 25, 1818. Vatsuro and Ospovat, eds., “Arzamas,” 1:589.

44. Plotkin, Darwin Machines, 215-16.

45. A. A. Del'vig, “Moia khizhina,” Polnoe sobranie stikhotvorenii (Leningrad, 1959; hereafter PSS), 122-23.

46. Pushkin, PSS, 2.1:85-86.

47. Ibid.

48. Pushkin, 2.1:101-3.

49. Lotman, Iu. M., Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin: Posobie alia uchashchikhsia (Leningrad, 1983), 85 Google Scholar.

50. Pushkin, 2.1:179. Emphases in the original.

51.These and that one” is a veiled reference to revolutions going on around the time the poem was written. The poem's annotations include the explanation, “These and that one [Te i ta] are the Italian Carbonari who led the Neapolitan revolution in July 1820. In March 1821, Austrian forces suppressed the uprising in Naples. That one [ta] is political freedom [politicheskaia svoboda].” B. V. Tomashevskii, “Primechaniia,” A. S. Pushkin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v desiati tomakh (Leningrad, 1977), 2:359. However, in another scholarly edition of Pushkin's poetry, “ta” is identified as “the bourgeois revolution in Spain, 1820-1823.” A. S. Pushkin, Sochineniia v trekh tomakh (Moscow, 1962), 1:460.

52. On Byron's politics and reception in Russia, see Diakonova, Nina and Vatsuro, Vadim, “‘No Great Mind and Generous Heart Could Avoid Byronism’: Russia and Byron,” in Cardwell, Richard, ed., The Reception of Byron in Europe (London, 2004), 2:333 Google Scholar.

53. See Maiofis, Vozzvanie k Evrope, esp. 18-27, 691-98.

54. This supports anthropologist Robert Aunger's theory that memes go beyond cultural selection theory as an additional causal force for culture to take on a life of its own and transmit itself through individuals. See Aunger, Robert, The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think (New York, 2002), 5258 Google Scholar.

55. Many thanks to Valery Vyugin of the Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkin House) for his generous help in finding the two copies of “Proshchanie s khalatom” in Pushkin's notebooks and comparing them against the versions printed in Rukoiu Pushkina: Nesobrannye i neopublikovannye teksty (Leningrad, 1935), 478-80.

56. For an exact timeline of Pushkin's entry into and involvement in Arzamas in the summer and early fall of 1817, see Proskurin, Oleg, “Kogda zhe Pushkin vstupil v Arzamasskoe obshchestvo? (Iz zametok k teme ‘Pushkin i Arzamas’),” Toronto Slavic Quarterly 14 (Fall 2005): n.p.Google Scholar

57. In a letter dated July 22, 1818, Viazemskii wrote Turgenev to ask for manuscripts of two of his poems, “Proshchanie s khalatom” and “Vecher na Volge.” Turgenev answered on August 7 that he would find them or would have Pushkin reproduce them from memory Viazemskii, Ostaf'evskii arkhiv, 1:109,1:113. On Pushkin's friendship with Viazemskii and its literary significance, see Ivinskii, D. P., Kniaz P. A. Viazemskii i A. S. Pushkin: Ocherk istorii lichnykh i tvorcheskikh otnoshenii (Moscow, 1994)Google Scholar.

58. On the variety of manuscript texts and their uses during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, see Reitblat, Abram, “Pis'mennaia literatura v Rossii v XIX veke, ee sotsiokul'turnye funktsii i chitateli,” in Rebecchini, Damiano and Vassena, Raffaella, eds., Reading in Russia: Practices of Reading and Literary Communication, 1760- 1930 (Milan, 2014), 7998, esp. 87-93CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

59. On the function of albums, see Beinek, Justyna, “Making Literature in Albums: Strategies of Authorship in Pushkin's Day,” Toronto Slavic Quarterly 31 (Winter 2010)Google Scholar, and “‘Portable Graveyards’: Albums in the Romantic Culture of Memory,” Pushkin Review 14 (2011): 35-62.

60. On the development of Russian print culture, see Remnek, Miranda, ed., The Space of the Book: Print Culture in the Russian Social Imagination (Toronto, 2011)Google Scholar. Especially relevant chapters for the present study include George Gutsche, “Dinner at Smirdin's: Forces in Russian Print Culture in the Early Reign of Nicholas I,” 54-81, and Joseph Peschio and Igor’ Pil'shchikov, “The Proliferation of Elite Readerships and Circle Poetics in Pushkin and Baratynskii (1820s-1830s),” 82-107.

61. For an example of this, see Pil'shchikov, I. A. and Peschio's, J. textological project, “Stikhotvornye teksty iz arkhiva obshchestva ‘Zelenaia lampa,’Pushkin Review 15 (2012): 5395 Google Scholar.

62. On the Arzamasians’ journal projects, and other journals from the 1810s and ’20s, see Todd, William Mills III, “Periodicals in Literary Life of the Early Nineteenth Century,” in Martinsen, Deborah, ed., Literary Journals in Imperial Russia (Cambridge, Eng., 1997), 3763, esp. 38-42Google Scholar. Todd writes, “Four brave projects for an Arzamasian journal (181824) did not proceed past the stage of tentatively assigning responsibilities to the society's members. Government discouragement played some part in this (the censorship was reluctant to license new periodicals), but much of the fault rested with the group's naive and condescending attitude towards the material aspects of literary dissemination, without which literature would remain a matter of oral recitation and hand-written texts” (4041).

63. Merkel, “The Romantic Culture of Xalatnost,” 175.

64. Del'vig, PSS, 194.

65. On Nikolai Polevoi's poem “Skhodstvo” (Similarity, 1832) and its satire of Del'vig's epigram and Viazemskii's khalat image, see Merkel, “The Romantic Culture of Xalatnost',” 186-98.