“On The Epigraph to Eugene Onegin” – V. I. Arnold

Samir Khan asked me for a translation of this short paper by the mathematician Vladimir Arnold (1937-2010) on his foray into literary studies: http://www.math.nsc.ru/LBRT/g2/english/ssk/arnold_sll.pdf

News of the [Russian] Academy of Sciences, Literature and Language Series, vol. 56, no. 2, p. 63.

On the Epigraph To Eugene Onegin
V. I. Arnold, 1997

The French epigraph to “Eugene Onegin” goes like this:

Pétri de vanité il avait encore plus de cette espèce d’orgueil qui fait avouer avec la même indifférence les bonnes comme les mauvaises actions, suite d’un sentiment de supériorité, peut-être imaginaire.
Tiré d’une lettre particulière

That is,

Steeped in vanity, he had even more of the kind of pride that makes one acknowledge one’s good and evil actions alike with the same indifference, out of a sense of superiority, perhaps an imaginary one.
– From a private letter

It’s generally considered that this “private letter” is a hoax of Pushkin’s, who made up the epigraph text himself.

Recently re-reading “Dangerous Liaisons” by Choderlos de Laclos, I came across the following line (in letter L [50] from Madame de Tourvel to Vicomte de Valmont):

“Je n’ai pas la vanité qu’on reproche à mon sexe ; j’ai encore moins cette fausse modestie qui n’est qu’un raffinement de l’orgueil…

I do not have the vanity my sex is accused of; I have even less of that false modesty which is nothing but a refined form of pride…”

I was struck by the resemblance to Pushkin’s epigraph. I thought that Pushkin changed “I do not have” to “he had,” perhaps unconsciously bringing the phrase closer to describing himself than Onegin, in a line from a novel “in which reflected was the day / and modern man was there portrayed / clearly enough […] with his amoral mind / churning at empty action’s grind…”*

Tending to hoaxes, he could have tried even more to conceal a borrowing from a novel about which he’d said elsewhere, “a mother would tell her daughter to spit on this book” — out of a sense of caution, perhaps a justified one. A “modest author,” as Pushkin called himself, would let himself translate just half of the “glorious verse” or to delude the reader with hints understandable only to insiders (“I’ve heard they want to force the ladies…”, etc.*)

Someone among Pushkin’s friends and contemporaries could have known the source of the epigraph.

Pushkin’s borrowings (“Faust,” “Angelo”**, Tatiana’s letter — in the West, they think the whole of “Onegin” is a re-working of Byron’s “Don Juan”) are never exact translations. The epigraph’s text resembles the text of Madame de Tourvel’s letter no less than does Pushkin’s “Novel in Letters,” evidently inspired by “Dangerous Liaisons” (although not just by them).

Not being a literary scholar by profession (and even less a Pushkinist), but a mathematician, in my work I must constantly depend not on proofs, but on sensations, guesses and hypotheses, moving from one fact to another by means of the kind of insight that lets one see commonalities in things that an observer may think completely unrelated.

A correct guess goes hand-in-hand with a feeling that further proofs would be completely useless, an almost painful feeling that’s unforgettable, but difficult to convey.

Above, I’ve tried to make the reader relive the sense of having seen this already, similar to what I felt on reading Letter L of “Dangerous Liaisons.”

Translator’s Notes:

I’m referring to “Madame de Tourvel” following the English translation rather than “the presidentess Tourvel” (la Présidente Tourvel) as she is called both in the original French and in the Russian translation.

*Arnold was almost certainly working from memory, and this is actually a slight misquotation from Chapter 7, Verse XXII of Eugene Onegin: the original says that Onegin, though mostly tired of reading, had kept “two or three novels / in which [plural; Arnold has the singular] reflected was the day / And modern man was there portrayed / Clearly enough, with his amoral soul / Self-loving and dry / Infinitely given to fancy, / With his infuriated mind / Churning at empty action’s grind.” (I’m not going to try to make it all rhyme and scan.)

** This is also a slight misquotation of Chapter 3, Verse XXVII: “I know, they want to force the ladies to read in Russian. Horrors, true! Could you imagine ladies holding / ‘The Well-Intentioned’ in their hands?” — in the section when he explains why Tatiana wrote her letter to Onegin in French, Pushkin mocks the poor Russian grammar of contemporary noblewomen, as well as putting in a dig (according to his own footnotes) against a notoriously poorly-edited magazine of the time.

(I Googled the original text in both cases, and found that both of these are misquotations, but very common ones.)

*** Pushkin’s re-write of “Measure for Measure”


Concert Notes – Beethoven’s Violin Sonata 5 and Violin Sonata 10

I take notes at classical instrumental concerts. Mainly to later be able to tell apart when in my life I had heard what performed by who, for the early concerts I had gotten dragged to as a child blend together in my head and I wish I could reconstruct them. I do not take notes at vocal performances, because the words interfere. I do take notes at jazz concerts, but generally just of the standards played. At classical concerts, I could take notes on the imaginary narrative film this would be the score to, but jazz performances are not a single narrative; they are a panel discussion, held in a language I only have a rudimentary grasp of. 
Somehow over the past few years, I lost the habit of getting imagery out of a classical work. It used to be that these images were very clear in my head, that the second movement of Rachmaninov’s Sonata No. 2 is exactly a description of the day after a breakup, and that Debussy’s “Reflets dans l’eau” as performed by Leif Ove Andsnes and by a talented university student pianist are about entirely different bodies of water. But then I grew too fixated on analyzing music, and my notes became, “Now it shifts to minor…and now the bassoon has a solo.” And that, I got told by friends who actually can analyze music that way far better than I can, is far more boring.
The only other person I’ve encountered who thinks like I did about music, or at least, dares put it into program notes, is Aurelien Pederzoli, a violinist formerly of the Spectral Quartet:
“Mice are dancing, with no direction at first, then with as much purpose as a mouse can have. Pastoral scenes pass by. A fair. The only constant is the horse’s gallop. Then everything vanishes, until only the mice are left, purposeless again. Until the horses come back and show them the way out.” (Movement 4, Vivace assai, of Haydn’s String Quartet in F major, Op. 77, No. 2).
“Dark. A stage. One light. The dancers from the first movement appear and dance together. Their dance is brutal and mean, more of a bullfight than a tango. The light goes off. Screams. Silence. One of the dancers reappears, limping, covered in blood. She drags the corpse of the other. She looks you in the eye and says, “Even in Arcady, I am.” (Movement 4 of Thomas Ades’s Arcadiana)
—from my notes as Aurelien’s program notes were read aloud, November 29, 2011, University of Chicago.
So when I went to hear Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov play Beethoven’s Sonata #4, Sonata #5 (Spring) and Sonata #10 in G Major, November 11, 2016 at Mandel Hall, University of Chicago, I was at first influenced by what the pre-concert lecturer said about how he interpreted Sonata #4. Then, willfully, I brought back my own images for my notes for Sonata #5, and #10. I know it is influenced, like night-time dreams, by my recent experiences, the songs I’ve sung, the films I’ve watched — but I do my own dreaming.
Spring Sonata, #5
Mvt 1: Allegro
The approaching of a lady you’ve always admired, her silks rustling. She turns to dance with you, lightly touching your arm with gloved fingertips. But she is impetuous, ordering, and her silks and gloves are pale green.
She learns you are not playing along, and becomes more conciliatory. You and she walk out into the garden together, only to break into an argument.
Then she comes back — circling around you, many years later, as you tell her the story again. She pulls out a dark secret that’s yours and throws it in your face — and you show her you now have the maturity not to care. She is frustrated and twists her fan.
Then walks away. You are left at the window, wondering at this strange relationship between her and you.
She knocks the door down, trying to talk to you again, And you two dance in anger.
(They have to retune)
Mvt 2: Adagio molto expressivo
It is summer rain on a lake, the raindrops just starting to fall. A boat appears, alabaster white with a curving, blade-like prow. It pauses. A swan flies off the water in front of it.
The boat seeks a mooring as the rain falls. The rain then falls faster, birds flying through it, glinting stark white and almost glowing in the grey threads. The boat is rising in the water as it sails on, also glowing white in the rain.
It looks for a messenger, waiting for a letter of returning. It almost thinks one of the birds is the messenger, that rise of hope we know to be deceit.
And the people on the boat realize the letter is not coming.
Mvt 3: Scherzo: allegro molto
A dancing clown — puppets tease each other by the strings. Then they all come running away at the Fire-eater. Then return to their puppet dancing.
Mvt 4: Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo
This is when the flowers truly open and the green hummingbirds sip. Butterflies argue with hummingbirds over the hibiscus.
Wind rises to blow it away. The hummingbird tries to find the flower.
Now the wind is tossing the ears of ripening wheat, as the waves pass like ripples in the sun-coloured grain and its stiff whiskers.
After the rain, the hummingbird comes back to the flowers, only to find another one there. They have a contest of beauty and grace, each hummingbird trying to outdo the other, but remember, they have dagger beaks!
Rather than retreat, our bird is conciliatory, but then they fight.
The hummingbird then tells its mate about it (the theme) and becomes more and more angry with the experience.
Sonata #10 in G major
Mvt 1: Allegro moderato
Behold, the winter is past. Snowdrops are coming out. [Yes, I recognize the irony that I read spring images in the one that was not the Spring Sonata.] The starlings fly in and land in a circling wave, followed by another, and the brooks begin to run. The flowers are opening, their petals sprung and elastic. Now it’s the green buds that open, and it’s all a vivid pure green.
A female hawk circles a possible mate in the blue, blue sky.
A first bee goes seeking a flower.
The moles start digging, and pass each other messages. The woodpecker grows more intense.
A large bird — a grouse? I’m going to say a grouse — swoops in, its pinions just quivering as it lands on a branch.
A deer treads through the woods, on tiptoe, the sun gilding each separate hair of her taupe coat.
And the rain comes, spring rain. Birds sing, building and swelling until it seems they have to burst with song.
A petal swirls down, then another. Grass grows long enough to ripple. Bouncing from rock to rock, a young frog. The light turns the birches to silver.
A fierce fight for dominance between two birds, then a return to the brook.
The birds are building more and more of the next, but predators are near, looming, and strike. But miss. We stay in suspense — then the danger passes.
With sunset, the birds return. Then with a twist, it suddenly ends.
Mvt II: Adagio expressivo
Returning to the dusty halls of an emptied school that held so many memories that I, the violin, am about to tell you.
Here I had my first love, you know, tense and suspended.
Then he answered me, and we shyly ran through green fields, not believing it was real. And then went to sleep, giddy with it being real, and had whirlwind dreams.
But a reminder, says the piano, it is over.
Peaceful were our days, and perfect. Even as they all must end.
Then it trailed off. We do not get it to last.
Mvt III (no break; I realize in retrospect this is the movement break): Scherzo – Allegro Trio
Was it a war that came? A war that made us giddy with the childhood excitement. I thought of him and me, but interpreted it as us two growing up, the war giving us a chance to be adults, what we desperately wanted to do.
Were we fools not to see it would take away our bliss?
And — a cry — it did.
Mvt IV: Poco allegretto
The graceful young ladies file in, doing graceful jetés and glissade assemblé, sissone, sissone. Now me, now you — this is getting serious. Now we are putting on hard shoes and showing off.
Now back to being very proper and demure young girls. The instructor reprimanded them all, each by each, as they curtsy meekly, but some more defiant than others.
They process, even as they want to skip. Pause to listen — something completely different is ringing.
They have discovered something different, not formal dance but stirring love, and they are puzzled by it.
They walk alone, trying to figure it out. Returning to the dance, they are changed and pause, forgetting the steps. Then race as fast as they can. Then return, recognizing that love alone won’t carry them through this; they need to work. They seek help, insight, advice as they dance.
I did not get such imagery out of the encore, perhaps because they did not introduce the encore, and when I do not know the piece’s name, I try to work it out and do not leave enough time in mind to dream.