Evoking the Past to Define the Present: Marina Cvetaeva's Creative Autobiography and the Assertion of the Poetic Self

Christopher Lemelin, Yale University

Marina Cvetaeva called her poetry a lyric diary, and much has been written on the autobiographical nature of her verse. Less work has been devoted to Cvetaeva's "autobiographical" essays, written primarily between 1933 and 1935. These essays often seem more creative fantasy than presentation of real life events, and several essays are closely connected in their themes and imagery. While these connections provide for an interesting analysis of the texts, perhaps more important a subject is Cvetaeva's selection of events that she chooses to relive in these essays. The past that Cvetaeva creates for herself--sometimes far removed from the historical events--allows us to see not only Cvetaeva of the 1900s but also, and perhaps more significantly, Cvetaeva of the mid-1930s.

This paper will focus on three of Cvetaeva's autobiographical essays which are particularly linked by a web of imagery and allusions: "Mother and Music," "The Devil," and "The House at Old Pimen." Images of water and drowning form a significant link among the three essays, as do images of mirrors and doubling of images of rebellion against authority. While previous articles have considered "The Devil" in terms of Cvetaeva's sexual maturation, none have investigated Cvetaeva's "coming of age" connection to her relationship to the past as found in "Mother and Music" and "House at Old Pimen." The connections betweeen "Mother and Music" and "The Devil" have been noted, but none of the essays have been considered together. A comparative reading reveals Cvetaeva's need to define herself against her mother's musical influence and her family's heritage to realize her identity as a poet.

The processes of maturation that Cvetaeva describes can readily be described in psychological terms (Freud's Narcissism, Lacan's Mirror Stage, Kohut's Self-Love/Object-Love Transition), and this paper's approach will include a psychoanalytic aspect. This approach--similar to that used in Berman's Narcissism and the Novel--will be grounded in a traditional empirical analysis of the texts and will avoid post-modern psychoanalytic theory that evokes a mise en abyme of language. It will be concerned first and foremost with the study of the human character, grounded in American critical traditions, and draw secondarily from the work of such moderate post-Freudian psychoanalysts as Heinz Kohut (Analysis of the Self, 1971; Search for the Self, 1978).

This essay will show that Cvetaeva's essay writing of the 1930s should be considered as a whole, for as in the lyric cycles of the 1920s such an approach shows that the poet's ideas are "unable to be contained in a single (work)." In addition, the events from the past Cvetaeva chooses to emphasize clearly establishes her personal concept of her developmental self, and shows the poet making every possible effort to be understood as a poet in a time when she felt rejected by her contemporaries.