The Russian Psyche: Cvetaeva's Asexual Ideal

Alyssa W. Dinega, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Anya Kroth has perceptively written that the two sexes for Cvetaeva represent not an irreconcilable duality, but a complementary dichotomy--two parts of the whole that is pure spirit, pure poetry. This observation captures the ambiguity of the role sexuality plays in both Cvetaeva's poetry and her personal life; she vacillates between the belief that the body is merely a "wall" hiding the soul, and the contradictory belief that sexual intimacy is the necessary vehicle to spiritual transcendence.

In this paper, I will examine each of these beliefs in the context of Cvetaeva's epistolary and poetic relationship with Boris Pasternak, who represents perhaps the single instance in Cvetaeva's life in which her raw sexual passion and her metaphysical strivings are equally directed toward the figure of a single man. I will focus on two poetic texts in my analysis: the two-poem cycle "Fedra" and the ten-poem cycle "Provoda." The former work is a veritable hymn to female sexual desire and female sexual frustration; the latter, on the contrary, states Cvetaeva's stoic renunciation of Pasternak as potential lover and her henceforward devotion to metaphysical transport over sensual ecstasy.

It is my contention that Cvetaeva, whose predilection for mythopoesis is well known, relies in her relationship with Pasternak upon the myth of Psyche and Eros to provide herself both with a conceptual framework for understanding--and translating into literary form--the huge emotional and inspirational force of the two poets' unconsummated epistolary romance, and with a narrative mandate that determines the course of her very actions in relation to Pasternak, often against her own personal will and desires. In other words, Cvetaeva chooses to regard the lessons of the Psyche myth--specifically, its warning against the dangerous temptation of physical verification of spiritual truth; its privileging of love as the process of attaining higher consciousness rather than love as sexual intimacy; and its ideal of an otherworldly, posthumous union of equal souls made possible only through earthly isolation, torments, and trials--as the pronouncements of Fate upon the impossible union of herself and Pasternak. This myth, I would like to argue, goes beyond myth to become the truth of Cvetaeva's being; thus, it does not submit to a separate, merely mythological treatment, but infiltrates Cvetaeva's entire sense of her own identity and destiny.

Psyche's quest for consciousness (Neumann) defines for Cvetaeva an alternative to the procreative femininity represented by both the Greek Aphrodite and the Biblical Eve. Furthermore, Psyche's ultimate attainment of immortality and spiritual reunion with her husband accord well with Cvetaeva's own ideal of asexual, poetic love in the next world. The name "Psixeja" and its Russian translation "dusha" become synonymous with Cvetaeva's innermost self.

Thus, despite the fact that the "Fedra" poems' embrace of sexuality apparently contradicts the chaste wisdom of the Psychean commitment to enlightened loneliness, Cvetaeva's recognition of the irrepressible force of her own sexual desire for Pasternak paradoxically has the opposite effect of what might be expected. Like Psyche, Cvetaeva is stuck in a metaphysical "catch-22": in order to prove her love, she must give it up. Accordingly, she renounces her desire in "Provoda" and, in the process, demonstrates her unfeminine--in fact, asexual and hence superhuman, arguably inhuman--poetic greatness.