Musical Echoes in Boris Pasternak’s Blind Beauty

Boris Pasternak’s last work, his unfinished play The Blind Beauty, has received relatively little attention from scholars. Although the work comes down to readers as a fragment, it provides as many interesting clues to Pasternak’s poetics as do his earliest prose and verse fragments, which have received considerably more scholarly treatment (for example, by E. V. Pasternak and Anna Ljunggren). Part of the text as we have it is its “metatext”: Pasternak’s comments on his plans for the play, which he related to his son, E. B. Pasternak, to Olga Carlisle, and, in briefer form, to others in correspondence and conversation. Aware that he might be unable to finish the play, Pasternak was apparently eager to convey its intended contents and some hint of its symbolic structure to trusted listeners. He told Carlisle that the blinded serf woman who gives the play its title is “of course symbolic of Russia, oblivious for so long of its own beauty, of its own destinies.”

In attempting to recreate the atmosphere of the nineteenth century, in which the action of the play takes place, Pasternak refers to literary sources mainly from the Romantic era and later evocations of it: one sees hints of Puškin (Mossman), Gogol′ (Hayward, Mossman), German Romantic-era writers (Carlisle), and closer literary predecessors Blok and Belyj, who also draw on earlier traditions. Indeed, according to Christopher Barnes and E. Pasternak, these Symbolists provided the inspiration for the play’s title, in their literary homage to what Belyj perceived as the Gogolian image of Russia as Sleeping Beauty.

Here we see a hint at another source of inspiration for Pasternak’s late-life play: composer Petr Il′ič Čajkovskij, references to whom in Pasternak’s work have been examined to some degree by Platek, Schreiner, Fischer, and particularly Kac. The creator of the famous ballet, whose heroine falls under a spell from which she is freed by love, wrote a much less well-received opera about a woman in a different kind of bondage: Iolanta. The heroine of this, Čajkovskij’s last, opera, with a libretto by Čajkovskij’s brother Modest, is blind from birth and kept ignorant of her blindness: she does not know the meaning of light or color, nor does she perceive any purpose in eyes other than to shed tears. For all the differences between this princess-heroine and Pasternak’s martyred serf-heroine Luša, the similarities in these works are striking. In both the heroine is cured by a somewhat mysterious foreign doctor, and she thus faces the dilemma and risk involved with a cure. In both, the symbolic structure is based on the oppositions of inner and outer light, light and darkness, death and resurrection, bondage and freedom. Although these are certainly common enough themes, a comparison of this Pasternak play and his other references to Čajkovskij throughout his oeuvre will show that it is precisely in the context of these themes that Pasternak evokes Čajkovskij’s work. Moreover, the tone and scale of Pasternak’s play, so grand that he described it to Carlisle as a “trilogy” although the literary evidence does not support that characterization, are reminiscent of operatic drama, while the domestic setting of much of the play recalls Čajkovskij’s “chamber” settings in Eugene Onegin and Iolanta. Pasternak’s use of duets and women’s choral voices recalls Čajkovskij’s skillful employment of them in his operas. In Pasternak’s plans, Luša herself was supposed to be a talented singer (Carlisle). Pasternak told Carlisle of the play that “all this is very melodramatic, but I think that theatre should be emotional, colorful …” in writing a theatrical work, he looked toward one of the great masters of Romantic opera in Russia for inspiration.