Saturday, June 16, 2007

Eugene Onegin and Ennui

Dear A. Pushkin,

I read your poetic novel recently. It was, sigh, ok. I have heard the operatic version a number of times and saw it on the Met broadcast. It's, yawn, nice. So I figured it was time I read the book.

In your poem, "Onegin's Journey," (was that an addendum to the main poem?) I noticed that concise couplet, which, to me expressed the point precisely.

Oh God, I'm young, I'm fresh, I'm strong
And I've got boredom, all day long.
Onegin is not really a bad man, is he? But he is a bored one. And boredom disallows the kind of caring that engenders good, doesn't it. The want of good can degenerate to bad very quickly. In Onegin, it degenerates to a thoughtless flirtation and the killing of a friend. For that, Onegin pays with a life of more ennui and guilt. You don't really develop the guilt in your work, Alexander, but for 'Evgeny' ennui is punishment enough. Ennui, that is, and unrequited love.

Here is why I think Onegin is a generally good man.

1. He doesn't take advantage of Tatyana.
2. He writes in the margins of books.
3. His servants like him.
The first is obvious. In most pre-20th century literature, I think, protagonists get "good" points for respecting the life and sexual innocence of other human beings. This is probably no longer the case as far as I can guess, but when you were writing, it was true.

I might be questioned on my line of reasoning for my third point. But I think goodness used to be defined by how well servants and slaves liked their masters. To me this is strange, but reflects an interesting human trait. The very person who is in some ways the closest oppressor is deified for the kindliness of their oppression. Certainly Onegin is just a poor example of this, but literature runneth over with examples, from Harriet Stowe to Jane Austin, good is established not by active high virtue, but by the absence of high evil with the trimmings of petty virtue. (Perhaps I need to think more about this later but I think I've a headache now.)

Onegin wins my heart though, if perhaps he loses that of Tatyana, because he writes in the margins of his books.

Tatyana sees with trepidation
what kind of thought, what observation,
had drawn Eugene's especial heed
and where he'd silently agreed.
Her eyes along the margin flitting
pursue his pencil.
Everywhere his soul encountered there declares
itself in ways unwitting--
terse words or crosses in the book,
or else a query's wondering hook.

There is nothing I like better than an annotated book with margins full of reaction. How much we can learn about the reader from a simple exclamation point or underline. (I especially favor the double underline.) I have to tell you, this stanza was my very favorite of the entire book. There, as I droned along through the interminable passages of this overwritten book, my spirit was captured by your obvious appreciation of the marginal comment.

Lee Smith in her novel Saving Grace says you can get away with anything if you are nice about it. Of course neither her Florida Grace nor Onegin, whose delicate charm won many hearts, get away with anything in the end, for loved or not loved, they must live with themselves.

At this point I need to comment about Childe Harold, for it seems that this is the character that you drew upon for your skeleton of Onegin ("A Muscovite in Harold's Dress"). Lord Byron, whose portrait hung in Onegin's country library, said this of his Harold.
It had been easy to varnish over his faults, to make him do more and express less, but he never was intended as an example, further than to show that early perversion of mind and morals leads to satiety of past pleasures and disappointment in new ones, and that even the beauties of nature, and the stimulus of travel (except ambition, the most powerful of all excitements) are lost on a soul so constituted, or rather misdirected.
(Does anyone have a stick of gum?)

"Childe," as you know, means a youth destined for Knighthood. But neither Harold nor Onegin have the heart for nobility (whatever that is). Byron's description of Harold,
But long ere scarce a third of his pass'd by,
Worse than adversity the Childe befreel
He felt the fulness of satiety:
Then loath'd he in his native land to dwell,
Which seem'd to him more lone than Eremite's sad cell.
Whoa is this boring yet? So back to the point, poor Onegin, he is not a bad guy, but lost. He reminds me of the obese children suing McDonald's. Is there anything more pathetic than Harold, Onegin, and they, satieted and looking for something to eat.

Here's the thing, (I really need to take a shower) . . . I think U.S. Culture 2007 has been struck by a bad case of Oneginitis. You've had a century or so to think about this. Got a cure? Let me know, I've gotta go and take my Prozac.


1 comment:

brd said...

One comment make to me in a discussion about Eugene Onegin was that perhaps I should read Camus' The Stranger in regard to this subject. So I did. I was less struck by it's similarity to Pushkin as I was by it's similarity, or perhaps connection, to Wright's Native Son or Percy's Lancelot. That is, I fear, a topic for a whole blog post.

Certainly the ennui is there but I'm not sure that Camus would call it that. I almost think he would say it is an embrace of the absurdity of life. In that, it would be less the 'discontent' of ennui and more the 'content' with absurd life as it is. It certainly is something to think about isn't it?