The Estranging Mirror: Effects of Reflection and Superimposition in Vladislav Xodasevič’s Evropejskaja noč′

The paper investigates the metapoetic significance of the recurrent images of reflection and superimposition in Vladislav Xodasevič’s last collection of verse, Evropejskaja noč (1927). Superimposition and reflection figure most notably in one of the best-known works in the collection, Sorrentinskie fotografii, with its central image of the double-exposed photograph as a metaphor for the way in which memory functions. But similar images of reflection and superimposition (they often appear together) also play a key role in other poems in European Night. These images are not only a figure for the “capriciousness of memory,” as in Sorrentinskie fotografii, but also reflect the lyric subject’s simultaneous sense of self-reflexivity and alienation from the self that he experiences in exile. Furthermore, the play of reflections that appears in several of the poems of European Night is indicative of a deeper problem, that of the poet’s increasing inability to integrate art and life, spiritual and earthly reality.

The cycle opens with “Peterburg,” a recollection of the harmonious relationship that existed between the poet, his poetry and the world around him while he still lived in Russia. In the succeeding poems of European Night, this image of a world in which it is still possible to “graft the classical rose onto the Soviet wilding” is replaced by an exilic universe in which the spiritual and the earthly are tragically separated: the poet can superimpose them, but can no longer integrate them. The reflections that he sees around him trap him in the realm of earthly reality, throwing it back at him in even more horrifying forms and denying him access to the world of the spiritual that his poetry once provided in earlier poems such as “Muzyka” and “Ballada” (both from Tjaželaja lira). The various ways in which reflections debase and disfigure reality and entrap the poet in a self-reflexive yet alienating maze of gazes are discussed through readings of the poems “Slepoj,” “Berlinskoe,” “Pered zerkalom,” and “Zvezdy.”

I conclude my analysis with a reading of Sorrentinskie fotografii that focuses on the metapoetic implications of the reflected images in the poem and their relationship to other poems in the cycle. For example, the angel on the Peter and Paul fortress that the lyric subject sees reflected, upside down, in the Bay of Naples is, as several scholars (David Bethea, Frank Goebler) have noted, a symbol of imperial Russia cast down and destroyed by the revolution. However, the angel is metonymically related to many other images in European Night. Firstly, it cannot but remind us of the other “angels” that populate both Tjaželaja lira and European Night: the angels that the lyric subject sees and hears in moments of poetic transcendence. The inverted position of the Peter and Paul angel also relates it to the image of the suicide in “Bylo na ulice potemnelo,” who plunges headfirst onto the pavement below: “Sčastliv, kto padaet vniz golovoj: / Mir dlja nego xot′ na mig—a inoj.” And the reflection of a heavenly entity in a body of water corresponds to the debased “reflection” of “Zvezdy,” in which the Biblical fourth day of creation is reenacted by half-naked dance-hall girls in a vaudeville act: “Tak vot v kakoj postyloj luže / Tvoj Den′ Četvertyj otražen!”

Thus the play of reflections within various poems of European Night is replicated on a larger scale by the way in which reflected images play off one another across individual poems. This intricate play of mirrorings and correspondences attests to the unity and aesthetic sophistication of European Night as a cycle, yet paradoxically, it also represents yet another figure for the poet’s sense of entrapment in a debased and estranging world in which poetry itself becomes increasingly less possible.