Metaphor and Myth in Russian Culture -- from Pushkin to Platonov

Lily Avrutin, University of Toronto

The paper is focused on the boundary (or, its controversial absence!) between myth and metaphor in Russian literature. It addresses the question: what are the special qualities of the literary text and the cultural conditions, which allow the diverse phenomena, such as metaphor and myth to transform into each other? [The proposed presentation is a new work in my series of articles on Pushkin's mythologism (the first two: "Myth of Pushkin in Russian Culture" and "The Queen of Spades: On the Ritual-Mythological Code" have been submitted for publication and presented at conferences in 1997-98; the three articles contribute to a larger project (in progress), on the anthropology of Russian culture.]

The presentation will consist of 1) introduction, 2) quintessential theory (on metaphor and myth), 3) close reading of selected poems by Pushkin, 4) close reading of selected prose by Platonov, and 5) conclusion. A short bibliography on the subject will be available in the hand-out.

Metaphor and myth as two separate issues have been extensively discussed by scholars of various disciplines; surprisingly, few studies have been done on their correlation. The introduction to the theoretical controversy around the myth-metaphor issue, their boundaries and conversions, will precede text analyses. Brief discussion of literary and cultural theory essential to the problem will be focused on often paradoxical interactions between metaphor and myth in Russian literature. The two authors are chosen to underline the common patterns and distinctions in representations of metaphor and myth. Pushkin and Platonov are two writers quite distant from each other, by style, by genre (poetry and prose), by time--they are associated with two different centuries and cultural languages. However, what the two have strikingly in common is their freedom in and ability of conversion/transformation of metaphors in myths and vice versa. The underlying mythologism, however effectual, manifests in the diverse but extremely rich metaphorical modalities of Russian poetry and prose, which tend to keep channels to subliminal dimensions of cultural mythology open.

The "convertibility" of myth into a metaphor, as a characteristic feature of Russian literary tradition, will be discussed in the context of literary theory, semiotics of culture and cultural anthropology. From a semiotic-anthropological perspective, it is possible to suggest that the images created by Pushkin (in particular, his complex metaphors) are so powerful (beyond other reasons) because they carry within the power and structure of mythological thinking. One of the important distinctions between myth and metaphor lies in the belief in a totality of boundaries by which culture lives. Metaphor "accepts" the world of boundaries (once and for all established classifications), but questions and fights it as a device of a literary, educated mind. Myth does not accept it in the first place, and keeps transcending the boundaries as if they never existed. In the world of myth any transformations are possible; metaphor suggests a transformation as a paradox in the boundary-governed world, undermining the established system of classifications. Both myth and metaphor are linked to the creative abilities of human beings. Russian writers (Pushkin and Platonov are diverse but representative examples) generate multiple worlds in which the boundaries between metaphor and myth often disappear. Unique artistic universes originated by Pushkin and Platonov represent a mosaic of multiple and autonomous mythological worlds, which all together compose the writer's cosmology (in an anthropological sense).

Text analysis will show that although Pushkin and Platonov often expressed themselves in metaphors, they actually operated in mythological models, as well as signified and coded the latter in the forms of metaphors. Redefining the boundaries between high and low, official and unofficial culture, ritual structures and modern literature, Russian writers often transcended the boundary between metaphor and myth. These poorly studied aspects of literary (metaphorical) imagery in its connection to latent mythological dimensions of culture, will be discussed using selected texts by Pushkin and Platonov.