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Theses Doctoral

Figures of Clarity: Three Poets' Voyage Toward an Intelligible Poetics

Doubrovskaia, Maria

The 1910 polemic on the “crisis of Symbolism” began when the Symbolist poet Viacheslav Ivanov read a lecture entitled the “Precepts of Symbolism.” This lecture initiated a lively debate on the status of this prominent literary movement, to which many of the leading literary figures of the Silver Age contributed. Although the “crisis of Symbolism” has garnered a great deal of scholarly interest, an important aspect of this debate has remained unexplored. Ivanov’s lecture contained an attack on the notion of clarity, which he interpreted as the word’s “transparency” to reason. He argued that language is neither an adequate expression of thought, nor an accurate representation of “reality.” The lecture was itself a polemical response to a brief article written by Ivanov’s friend, Mikhail Kuzmin, and entitled “On Beautiful Clarity: Notes on Prose.” Published a few months before Ivanov’s lecture, this essay urged respect for the word, advocated such Classical values as precision, economy of means and clarity of expression.
Both “On Beautiful Clarity” and the “Precepts of Symbolism” appeared at a time when pervasive loss of faith in the communicative power of language combined with the sense of social and cultural malaise led to a profound crisis that far exceeded the ranks of the Symbolists. Between 1910 and 1917, a number of Russian writers and thinkers proclaimed the word “dead” and offered programs for its revival. For Ivanov, clarity was an Enlightenment notion that he associated with rationalism and blamed for the ills of his age. For Kuzmin, however, clarity represented poetic rather than empirical meaningfulness and had little to do with the kind of empirical “transparency” that Ivanov had in mind. Both poets were after the same goal: a poetics that would bridge the perceived divide between the word and “reality.” Even as Ivanov argued for a language of mystical obscurity in the hope that such an idiom would restore the mystery and meaning of which he believed his age was sapped, he replaced clarity with a kind of Symbolist intelligibility and so a clarity of his own.
This dissertation examines Viacheslav Ivanov’s, Mikhail Kuzmin’s and Osip Mandelshtam’s distinct approaches to the concept of clarity as poetic sense, formulated by these poets independently as well as in response to each other. I argue that for all three poets the notion of clarity applies to the specific relationship between the poet and the word, between the image and the word, and between the semantic content and the sound within the word. Since for all three poets, clarity is associated not only with the poetic logos in general, but specifically with the heritage of European Classicism, the Classical ideal works its way into these relationships as the “image” of sense to which the poet must aspire. For each poet, poetic clarity is an explicit concept as well an individual “model” implicit in his poetic identity.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Slavic Languages
Thesis Advisors
Gasparov, Boris
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 2, 2018