February 10, 2012

Hail & Farewell, Alexander Pushkin


Pushkin's death mask

Among the many abstractions abandoned by modernity and rarely confronted in cosmopolitan, “First World” settings like the one I’m self-congratulatingly writing from, if you will allow that unfashionable designation (especially since, lately, the always permeable boundaries between the first and last worlds are, in many places, “under water”—the last shall be first, and the first last), among those anachronisms—like “Nobility,” for example—“Honor” seems to have occupied the waking hours of 19thcentury man (and woman, primarily as goad and spectator) to a much greater degree than we moderns. As far as I can tell, we never think about it.

And yet honor forms the ground of much of our literary inheritance. (Melville House has recently published five books, sharing the title The Duel, that would be inconceivable without it. Joseph Conrad’s version has the alternative title: The Point of Honor.)

Honor was once the preserve of aristocrats—whose values are, for the most part, utterly unrecognizable to us. In our topsy-turvy world, the best educated and most prosperous are the least likely to engage in personal combat to defend a swollen sense of integrity. We rely on the state to redress insults, when we don’t ignore them altogether (discretion being the better part of valor, and all that). Honor today is the currency of prisons and ghettos.

Whether honor’s disappearance has to do with the “feminization” of culture, the diffusion of psychology and the contingency of the self, democratization, or affluence—has probably been explicated by somebody, somewhere.  It happened without the Skinner box, that much I know.  Well, good riddance. As Sugar Ray Robinson once said, “I ain’t never liked violence.”

On this date, February 10th, in 1837, Alexander Pushkin, who, embodying the Romantic, created modern Russian literature, was stupidly killed in a duel, abandoning his wife and three children. He was 37. He was shot in the stomach by Georges d’Anthès, whom Pushkin had accused of unseemly approaches toward his wife, Natalya.

Pushkin’s death agonies were witnessed by his friend and fellow poet Vasily Zhukovsky and were reported in a letter to Pushkin’s father:

Have I … long … to … be tortured thus?… Pray … haste!” This he repeated several times afterwards, “Will the end be soon?” and he always added, “Pray … make haste!

Of his wife, Pushkin said, “Poor thing! She suffers innocently. The world will tear her to pieces.

In memoriam, Melville House is offering, for one day only, half off the price of the print edition of Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin. The ebook edition is only $1.99. (Both versions available here.) Then, all day Saturday and Sunday, buy all five Duels for only $29.95 (in print) or only $14.95 for our specially Illuminated ebooks.


Dan O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Melville House.