The Superstitious Muse: Thinking Russian Literature Mythopoetically

The Superstitious Muse: Thinking Russian Literature Mythopoetically

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David Bethea

Series: Studies in Russian and Slavic Literatures, Cultures, and History, Ars Rossica 
ISBN: 9781934843178 (hardcover)
Pages: 432 pp.
Publication Date: November 2009

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For several decades, David Bethea has written authoritatively on the 'mythopoetic thinking' that lies at the heart of classical Russian literature, especially Russian poetry. His theoretically informed-essays and books have made a point of turning back to issues of intentionality and biography at a time when authorial agency seems under threat of 'erasure' and the question of how writers, and poets in particular, live their lives through their art is increasingly moot. The lichnost (personhood, psychic totality) of the given writer is all-important, argues Bethea, as it is that which combines the specifically biographical and the capaciously mythical in verbal units that speak simultaneously to different planes of being. Pushkin’s Evgeny can be one incarnation of the poet himself and an Everyman rising up to challenge Peter’s new world order; Brodsky can be, all at once, Dante and Mandelstam and himself, the exile paying an Orphic visit to Florence (and, by ghostly association, Leningrad). This sort of metempsychosis, where the stories that constitute the Ur-texts of Russian literature are constantly reworked in the biographical myths shaping individual writers’ lives, is Bethea’s primary focus. This collection contains a liberal sampling of Bethea’s most memorable previously published essays along with new studies prepared for this occasion.

David Bethea (PhD University of Kansas) is Vilas Professor of Slavic Languages, University of WisconsinMadison. His research interests include Pushkin and his era; modern Russian poetry (especially Khodasevich and Brodsky); Russian religious thought and cultural mythology; Russian émigré literature; Anglo-American vs. Russian modernism; twentieth century Russian/Slavic literary theory (especially influence studies); and biography. Among his books are Joseph Brodsky and the Creation of Exile (Princeton UP, 1994), and Realizing Metaphors: Alexander Pushkin and the Life of the Poet (University of Wisconsin Press, 1998).

Few American Slavists have been as prolific as David Bethea; hence this ample collection represents only a small sampling of his work. Nonetheless, it gives a good sense of his scholarly preoccupations over the past three decades. The book is wide-ranging in both its theoretical concerns and its choice of primary texts. . . . Bethea’s approach opens up obscure passages in unprecedented ways, often with admirable clarity.
— Michael Wachtel, Princeton University, in Slavic Review