“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”