"Avtorskaja pesnja: Orality and/or Literacy?"

Rachel Platonov, Harvard University

Recent years have seen a publishing boom surrounding avtorskaja pesnja. Various editions of the works of bardy from elite to lesser-known appear on bookstore shelves at an astonishing rate; and the full range of recording media--from tape to CD-ROM--also embrace the heritage of the Soviet bards. The vigorous pace of such activity demonstrates the continued popularity of the classics of avtorskaja pesnja, while other ventures--such as the almanac Molodezhnaja Ėstrada '96', which features songs by bards both young and older--demonstrate that avtorskaja pesnja is, at least in some ways, a living, developing tradition. While this new abundance is a boon for the academic community, providing scholars with more and better resources for broad-based critical study of avtorskaja pesnja, it also raises issues that drive to the very heart of the genre. One of the most important of these is the issue of literacy vs. orality in avtorskaja pesnja.

Even one only casually familiar with avtorskaja pesnja is likely aware that the genre, in its very origins, is oral and performance-based. The increased production and availability of portable tape recorders in the 1960s facilitated the rapid spread of recordings from hand to hand; thus avtorskaja pesnja acquired the moniker magnitizdat. As Rosette Lamont writes, "paradoxically perhaps, the development of technological tools copied on American and Japanese models allowed for a return to the ancient tradition of oral/aural literature." Lamont's emphasis on the oral/aural nature of avtorskaja pesnja underscores the problem of literacy vs. orality: what is lost in the translation of this genre to a written mode, in the inclusion of the genre in an expanded literary canon? As Walter Ong cautions, "in view of [the] pre-emptiveness of literacy, it appears quite impossible to use the term literatureķ to include oral tradition and performance without subtly but irredeemably reducing these somehow to variants of writing." Though links between avtorskaja pesnja and the Russian literary tradition do seem to exist, and though one would not want to imply that the songs of the Soviet bards lack "literary merit," the important oral aspects of the genre should not be ignored.

In examining the problem of literacy vs. orality in avtorskaja pesnja, the present paper will use Vladimir Vysockij and several of his songs as a "case study." First, a single song will be analyzed both as a literary and as an oral work. "Lukomor'ja bol'she net" has been chosen for this analysis for two reasons: its relationship to Pushkin's Ruslan i Ljudmila provides it with a particular literary context; and it has received strikingly different analyses in critical literature (G. S. Smith refers to it as an "outrageous parod[y] of Russian folklore" that is "almost childish in the level of its humor," while Rosette Lamont writes that in it, Vysockij bewails "the waning of legends and the desacralization of life"). The question of whether oral performance influences the song's interpretation will be considered. Second, the issue of Vysockij's "masks," and the relation of literacy vs. orality to this very important feature of Vysockij's oeuvre, will be analyzed. It is well known that audiences responded enthusiastically to the wide variety of characters (such as soldier, fighter pilot or miner) portrayed by Vysockij in his songs, believing that these experiences were Vysockij's own, and not fictional. In this connection, the issue of whether these "masks" are discernable from the text of certain songs alone, or whether they are dependent on (his own) performance, will be examined. Walter Ong's concept of "secondary orality" as well as the theatre-based analytical frameworks of Erving Goffman and Elizabeth Burns will be brought to bear in this analysis.