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Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Erotic Ascent in the Poetry of Mikhail Kuzmin: “Nets” (Seti) as a Unity in Multiplicity
by Tcherkassova, Farida, Ph.D., Yale University, 2012, 279; 3525280
Abstract (Summary)

Mikhail Kuzmin (1872-1936) was a poet, prose writer, playwright, critic, diarist and composer, as well as a translator from several ancient and modern languages. Although Kuzmin had the reputation of a frivolous and carefree dandy, the critic Vsevolod Petrov claimed that Kuzmin was a "philosopher": "his attitude to reality and even his aesthetics have grown on the soil of a unified worldview, based on his deep study of ancient thinkers – from Pythagoreans and Plato to Plotinus, the Alexandrians and the Gnostics." 1 Scholars have previously acknowledged the Platonic subtexts in Kuzmin's debut novel Wings (Kryl’ia, 1906), which relates a story of homosexual love in St. Petersburg and which at the time of its publication was derided as pornographic. On the basis of a close analysis of Kuzmin's debut collection of poems Nets (Seti, 1908) I argue that Kuzmin returned to Platonic imagery and paradigms throughout his poetic career. By reading Kuzmin's poetry as a continuation of the Platonic discourse of erotic ascent, we can recognize Kuzmin's lively dialogue with many representatives of this tradition, from Plotinus and Augustine to Dante and Marsilio Ficino. This context highlights Kuzmin's hitherto unappreciated contributions to major issues of the Russian Silver Age.

In my Introduction I argue that love is the central topic of Kuzmin's poetry and unites his entire oeuvre. Kuzmin's poetry has a double nature: his poems, cycles and even collections read differently, depending on whether one takes them separately or in interaction with other works. The unity of Kuzmin's poetic oeuvre is manifested in formal correspondences and in the continuity of leading images, which are developed as a symphonic system of leitmotifs. The formal and motivic unity of Kuzmin's poetry represents his belief in the unity of different historical ages, cultures, and systems of belief. Kuzmin's concept of unity is also discussed explicitly throughout his poetry, usually in connection with such concepts as wholeness and fragmentation.

In my first chapter "The Music of Poetry: The Composition of Nets," I demonstrate that the unity of Kuzmin's poetry was evident already in the symphonic structure of his debut collection.

Chapter two, "In the Beginning Was the Word: Biography and Poetry in Kuzmin's 'My Ancestors,'" shows how the poetic prologue of Nets traces the origin of the poet's voice in his mute ancestors. As the last link in the chain of his lineage, the poet senses his voice as both gift and sacrifice, as new origin and material grave. Like Plato's Diotima, he lays his hopes on spiritual, not biological progeny.

My third chapter "The Awakening: 'Where will I find the right style…?'" is wholly devoted to an analysis of the first poem of part one of Nets. Although for many contemporaries this poem was emblematic of the triviality of Kuzmin's poetic world, I demonstrate that it encapsulates all the collection's structures and ideas. Indeed, the poem presents an entire philosophy of erotic ascent, leading in its three stanzas from the physical to the aesthetic and the spiritual.

In chapter four, "Initiation: Part I of Nets," I show how the first three cycles introduce the main motifs of Kuzmin's collection both as autobiographical narrative and as a complex weave of images which complicate the temporal linearity of ascent and the unity of the poet's voice.

Chapter five, "The Minor and the Path: Part II of Nets," investigates two major motifs by which Kuzmin explores the role of aesthetic mediation – particularly that of the image – in erotic ascent. The first section of the chapter is dedicated to Kuzmin's intense dialogue with artist Konstantin Somov. The second section analyzes the important motif of the path. Leading from static emblem to crystalline image, the minor of aesthetic representation opens up on an endless road. It is the moment of writing – and simultaneously of reading – that lies at the basis of the poetic image.

Chapter six, "The Figure of Vozhatyi in Part III of Nets," examines the third part of the collection. Written in lofty style with religious overtones and biblical imagery, this part elevates love to the metaphysical dimension, with particular reference to the tradition of love mysticism.

In my conclusion I examine how the main three parts of Nets culminate in the epilogue "Alexandrian Songs." As if recalling the dilemmas with which he began his path, the poet now returns to the historical origin of his creative voice, finding his style in the city itself and the polyphony of its many individual voices.

1 V. Petrov, "Kaliostro. Vospominaniia i razmyshleniia o M. A. Kuzmine," Novyi zhurnal no. 163 (June 1986) p. 87.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Venclova, Tomas
School: Yale University
School Location: United States -- Connecticut
Source: DAI-A 73/12(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Slavic literature, Metaphysics
Keywords: Erotic ascent, Kuzmin, Mikhail, Modernism, Modernism - Russia, Platonism, Platonism - poetry, Poetry, Russia, Russian poetry, Somov, Konstantin
Publication Number: 3525280
ISBN: 978-1-267-57490-9
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