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), 9781618118127 (paperback)
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 Wisconsin–Madison. 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

Table of Contents

Preface: David M. Bethea

Introduction: Caryl Emerson (Mythopoetics Meets the Living Person: How David Bethea Balances the Body and the Muse)
I. Part One: Russian Literature: Background, Foreground, Creative Cognition
1. The Mythopoetic “Vectors” of Russian Literature
2. Mythopoesis Writ Large: The Apocalyptic Plot in Russian Literature
3. Mythopoesis and Biography: Pushkin, Jakobson, and the Secret Life of Statues
4. The Evolution of Evolution: Genes, Memes, Intelligent Design, and Nabokov
5. Relativity and Reality: Dante, Florensky, Lotman, and Metaphorical Time-Travel
6. Whose Mind is This Anyway? Influence, Intertextuality, and the Legitimate Boundaries of Scholarship
II. Part Two: Pushkin the Poet, Pushkin the Thinker
7. Of Pushkin and Pushkinists
8. Biography (with Sergei Davydov) 
9. Pushkin’s Mythopoetic Consciousness: Apuleius, Psyche and Cupid, and the Theme of Metamorphosis in Eugene Onegin
10. “A Higher Audacity”: How to Read Pushkin’s Dialogue with Shakespeare in The Stone Guest
11. Stabat Pater: Revisiting the “Monumental” in Peter, Petersburg, and Pushkin
12. Slavic Gift Giving, the Poet in History, and Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter
13. Pushkin’s The History of Pugachev: Where Fact Meets the Zero-Degree of Fiction
III. Part Three: Reading Russian Writers Reading Themselves and Others
14. Sorrento Photographs: Khodasevich’s Memory Speaks
15. Nabokov’s Style
16. Sologub, Nabokov, and the Limits of Decadent Aesthetics
17. Exile, Elegy, and Auden in Brodsky’s “Verses on the Death of T. S. Eliot” 
18. Joseph Brodsky and the American Seashore Poem: Lowell, Mandelstam, and Cape Cod
19. Joseph Brodsky’s “To My Daughter” (A Reading) 
20. Brodsky, Frost, and the Pygmalion Myth

Index