Advanced Seminar with Alyssa Dinega Gillespie

Friday, February 7th, 1:30pm-3:30pm
“Travels with the Muse: Pushkin’s Inspirational Myths”

Although a handful of poetic texts and prose passages by Pushkin that overtly invoke the muse or the experience of inspiration are well known, there has been surprisingly little scholarship that explicitly addresses Pushkin’s conception of these issues in any more than a clichéd manner (associations of his muse with the divine, the good, and the beautiful are commonplace). This seminar will leap into the breach, beginning with more nuanced readings of the inspirational paradigms Pushkin develops in the “obvious” texts and then going well beyond these to investigate the varied and fascinating ways in which his conception of the muse and his understanding of the experience and effects of poetic inspiration evolved throughout his creative lifetime, with a particular focus on the later narrative works. A useful polemical starting point for our discussion will be the observation by American poet Edward Hirsch that inspiration comes “only when something enormous is at risk, when the self is imperiled and pushes against its limits, when death is possible.” While making passing reference to both Jungian psychoanalytic theory and trauma theory, we will identify several repeated motifs and metaphors that frequently accompany manifestations of inspiration in Pushkin’s writings, and we will explore the ways in which the mythic figure of the muse facilitates Pushkin’s creative ruminations on the source, nature, and ethics of his poetic drive.

The seminar will begin with a set of brief introductory remarks. In an open, collaborative discussion format, seminar participants will then go on to consider Pushkin’s various treatments (poetic and prosaic, lyric and narrative, overt and subtle) of poetic inspiration in a wide range of texts, with the aim of greatly expanding our appreciation for the psychological, mythopoetic, and ideological function of the muse in Pushkin’s oeuvre. All excerpts for discussion will be available on site at the seminar.

Alyssa Dinega Gillespie is Associate Professor of Russian and Chair of the Russian Department at Bowdoin College, and an Associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. Her research focuses on the psychology of poetic genius, poetic myth-making, and gender issues in poetry. Gillespie is the author of A Russian Psyche: The Poetic Mind of Marina Tsvetaeva (University of Wisconsin Press, 2001), which was recognized as an Outstanding Academic Title by Choice magazine; this book was published in a Russian-language edition as Marina Tsvetaeva: po kanatu poezii (Pushkin House and Nestor-Istoriia, 2015). Gillespie is also the author of articles on Pushkin, Mandelstam, Pasternak, Tsvetaeva, Brodsky, Pawlikowska, and Sep-Szarzynski, among others, and the editor of Russian Literature in the Age of Realism (Gale Group, 2003) and Taboo Pushkin: Topics, Texts, Interpretations (University of Wisconsin Press, 2012). In addition to her scholarly work, Gillespie is an award-winning translator of Russian poetry, having received first prize in the 2012 Compass Awards, second prize in the 2011 Compass Awards, and joint third prize in the 2011 inaugural Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender translation competition; her translations have been published widely in anthologies and literary journals. She is also the founding editor of the book series Myths and Taboos in Russian Culture at Academic Studies Press. Gillespie’s current projects include a short biography of Pushkin for the Critical Lives series of Reaktion Books and a scholarly monograph on Pushkin’s poetics, tentatively titled Dangerous Verses: Alexander Pushkin and the Ethics of Inspiration, for the Wisconsin Center for Pushkin Studies book series at the University of Wisconsin Press. In addition, a Russian-language collection of her previously published essays on Pushkin is in preparation for the Contemporary Western Rusistika series at Academic Studies Press.