Marina Cvetaeva's Gothic Autobiography

Lynn Ellen Patyk, Stanford University

Marina Cvetaeva's mythopoesis and appropriation of literary sources for her poetry have been recognized by Cvetaeva critics, but her creative indebtedness to humble pulp fictions and the formulaic "female" genre of the Gothic novel in both her poetry and memoiristic prose have gone largely unremarked. In my presentation I will investigate Cvetaeva's practice of aesthetic autobiography in which her poetic imagination transmutes the facts of her biography into an "automythography." I argue that the first installment of Cvetaeva's childhood autobiography, "The House at Old Pimen" ("Dom u starogo Pimena") is, in fact, a Gothic revival--a return to the Gothic motifs and Romantic subjectivity which predominate in Cvetaeva's juvenilia and her perennial return to the vampire theme. The reader of Cvetaeva's childhood automythography must enter through Old Pimen's Gothic portal, and its ghastly themes and motifs redound through the subsequent essays which constitute her recits d'enfance, where they instruct us in the anxieties of identity.

As Cvetaeva tells it, the Ilovajskij family seat at Old Pimen is the paradigmatically Gothic "house of death," in which one denizen after another meets his/her doom. Cvetaeva employs the Gothic topoi of preemptive parents and the fatal interrelationship of the house and its inhabitants in order to characterize the relationship of the reactionary historian Dmitrij Ilovajskij and his embittered second wife, Aleksandra Aleksandrovna, to their oppressed children. I will argue that for Cvetaeva the Gothic plot enjoyed the status of myth, or legend. With her acute insight into the "inner workings, the distinct logic, the polymorphous semantics, and eternal openendedness of myth," (T. Venclova, "On Russian Mythological Tragedy: Vjaceslav Ivanov and Marina Cvetaeva," in Myth in Literature, p. 100) Cvetaeva distilled the archetypal structures from Gothic fictions and used them to portray female existence as a "live burial" in the household of the pre-Revolutionary Russian intelligentsia. By self-consciously employing clichÈd Gothic images and motifs throughout her essay, Cvetaeva not only imparts a heightened sense of horror--or ghastliness--to her family chronicle of female collaboration in patriarchal oppression, but she exhaustively articulates the psychological and cultural significance of these literary conventions, and, in the process, renews their evocative power.

Using feminist psycholinguistic theory and the tenets of Gothic criticism, I will further suggest that the Ilovajskij family chronicle serves as "the mirror diverting us from the Gorgon's gaze, at least once removed from the source of trauma and taboo." (Marie Mulvey-Roberts, The Handbook to Gothic Literature, p. xvi). As I will demonstrate, the House at Old Pimen is a mirrorin which we see reflected Cvetaeva's childhood home at Three Ponds, and the source of "trauma and taboo," is her own preemptive parent and monstrous mother, Marija Aleksandrovna Mejn. In successive installments of her automythography ("Xlysty," "Skazka Materi," "Chert,"), Cvetaeva repeats the "formula" of her transcendence of the female Gothic plot by dint of the elegiac plot. In a psycholinguistic sense, Cvetaeva's mother may be read as the generative dichotomy of the symbolic and material who must remain vitally and challengingly "undead," in order to inspire repeat performances of her daughter's self-representation as an integral self, and a poet.