Pasternak, Boris 1890–1960
Although he was particularly distinguished as a Russian poet and intellectual, Pasternak is best known in America for his novel Dr. Zhivago and for his political struggles in the Soviet Union.
From the beginning—from the summer of 1917 when he found himself as a poet—[Pasternak] was concerned with the tangible earth, with nature in all her moods, with the human condition in all its amazing variety. He remains a difficult poet because his vision is intricate and conveyed with an extraordinary density of imagery. He defies translation; and no one has yet succeeded in conveying in English the richness of his vocabulary, the leaping brilliance of his rhythms, the way he gives the impression of writing in a language he has invented this morning. Yet no one could be more tradition-bound. His verse patterns are the simplest imaginable. Unlike his contemporaries, Andrey Byely, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Velimir Khlebnikov, who were always experimenting with language, inventing new words and changing the forms of existing words, Pasternak instinctively recoiled from experiment. He believed that the Russian language was so rich that everything anyone wanted to say could be said in it. (pp. 68-9)
As Pasternak saw it, if there was to be a revolution in poetry, it should be one of feelings rather than words. His task as a poet was to sharpen his sensibilities to the point where they were equipped to deal with the most remote, the most tenuous, the most delicate resources of the human spirit.
Inevitably his work is extremely personal, complex and close-knit, but the complexities and close texture of his verse do not arise from any deliberate singularity of vision; they derive from the nature of the hunt. He is a huntsman armed with some wickedly sharp weapons and with nets which are intricately woven. He darts about in the forest, creating his own light, throwing sudden beams at the quarry, catching it in unexpected postures, which are unexpected only because we have never observed them so closely before, for we recognize the truth of what he has described once he has explained it to us. He wanders through the forest which is the familiar forest of the human soul, but he takes the unfamiliar roads. There is a sense in which all his poems are descriptions of the soul at bay, caught in a shining light.
His range is immense, as it must be if a man chooses to write about the human soul in all its peregrinations. There are love poems of extraordinary savagery; poems of mockery; poems which attempt to capture whole cities and nations on a single page; poems like the humming of telegraph wires; poems like explosions of dynamite. A great deal of what he had to say is contained in his two books My Sister Life and Themes and Variations…. (pp. 69-70)
All through Pasternak's verses there is a concentration on what Wordsworth called "modes of being." (p. 72)
Between 1915 and 1923 Pasternak wrote four short stories ["The Sign of Apelles," "Letters from Tula," "The Childhood of Luvers," and "Aerial Ways"] covering altogether less than a hundred pages, which were to become remarkably famous. They were not short stories in the accepted sense of the term; they were completely unlike the stories of Chekhov or Tolstoy; and they did not set out to describe easily recognizable human situations. They were concerned with philosophical concepts, with the nature of the self and the nature of poetry and the nature of war. They were written in a close-knit and lapidary style, and they are the despair of his translators. Evidently they are stories written out of almost intolerable necessity. He wrote them by chipping them off his own breastbone, in despair and anguish, never knowing whether he could complete them or breathe sufficient life into them, and every one of the four stories remains uneven and fragmentary. (p. 86)
These four stories deserve to be read carefully, for they represent Pasternak at his most searching, at his most adventurous. Each story involves the hammering out of a new style, a new way of looking at the world. Significantly, when the stories were collected together, Pasternak called them after the story he liked best, "Aerial Ways." It is not perhaps the most enduring of the stories—"The Childhood of Luvers" has become a classic, and the other stories are rarely mentioned in the same breath—but it is the one which most clearly describes Pasternak's relationship to the communists. (pp. 120-21)
Pasternak's attitude toward communists was complex and unyielding. He was elated by the excitement of the revolution, he sympathized with the aims of the revolutionaries, and in the twenties he was prepared to place his poetry at the service of the revolution, characteristically celebrating the triumphs of the Bolsheviks by writing poems addressed to the revolutionaries of another age. By 1926 or 1927 he was already disenchanted.
In all his life he wrote one, and only one, poem ["The High Malady"] directly connected with communism. It is the longest of all his poems. (p. 128)
For Pasternak Christianity was something that had to be absorbed slowly, painfully, over many years and many tribulations. One can trace the influence of the mystical Christianity of Dostoevsky and the visionary dramas of Alexander Blok in the poems which he wrote in the late twenties and early thirties and collected together under the title The Second Birth, but the full flower of Pasternak's Christian feeling was only revealed in the poems which form the appendix to Doctor Zhivago. Then the floodgates burst open, and he produced some of the greatest Christian poems of our time. (p. 138)
In those days before the second World War Pasternak was already a legend. With those high cheekbones and melting brown eyes and sonorous voice which sounded like the incantations of a shamanistic emperor, he resembled a poet in his singing robes even when he wore a business suit. Everything about him suggested the poet-priest, the vates, the man who has become drunk by drinking the pure waters of the Castalian springs. All the accidental endowments of his physical frame, the darkness of his skin, which derived perhaps from his Sephardic ancestors, his slight limp, his continual gestures, the hands which were finely boned and which he liked to contemplate as though he found something foreign in their sudden appearance before his eyes, even the way he wore his clothes—all these had become legendary. Even in those days people spoke of him with bated breath and with excitement, as one might speak of encountering Shakespeare in the street. It is not often in our civilization that a genuine poet walks in our midst. (p. 146)
By 1935 Pasternak's position in the Russian literary world was that of a strange and powerful adventurer, who obeyed none of the accepted rules of poetry and who held himself apart from all the main currents of thought, rejecting Marxism as he rejected socialist realism, immune from criticism only because his poetry was vastly superior to any of the poetry being written at the time, and therefore he was hors de concours. His roots were in the Russia of Pushkin and Gogol. Though his poetry was revolutionary in its techniques, it was founded upon traditional ideas and was overwhelmingly filled with a passionate love for the Russian earth; and all this was recognized by the students, who saw in him more than the poet—they saw the bearer of traditions, the keeper of the Ark of the Covenant. (pp. 147-48)
Like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy he shared the belief in the physical resurrection of the dead. Again and again in the pages of Doctor Zhivago we encounter themes and ideas related to death and resurrection. The very name of the doctor is connected with the resurrection: he is "the living one among the dead," the one who will arise, the dead man who is chosen to be reborn again. In the Russian Bible, the angels greet the women who come to the open tomb with the words: "Why seek ye the living (zhivago) among the dead?"
The theme is announced in the opening paragraph of the novel, at intervals in the body of the work, and in the poem which comes at the conclusion of the novel. He could hardly have emphasized the theme more pointedly.
But though resurrection—a resurrection of a peculiarly Russian kind—is the pervading and all-embracing theme of the novel, constantly reiterated and described under many aspects, most often in the classic context of the rebirth of nature in the spring, other related themes are woven into it. Doctor Zhivago is a man who thirsts for freedom—not the small freedoms of everyday life, but the absolute freedoms which are almost beyond the power of man to conceive…. He belongs to the long line of yurodiviy, those enchanted fools of God who are to be found in all ages of Russian history, speaking with the tongues of prophets, fearless before kings, insisting always on the truth of the heart's affections. His Christian name Yury hints at the yurodiviy just as surely as his surname hints at the author's preoccupation with resurrection.
Western commentators who see Doctor Zhivago as a protest against the Soviet state have usually failed to observe the the book is also a protest against all existing states. In "The High Malady" Pasternak has spoken of Lenin "tearing through the senseless layer of lies" and breathing "with the soaring flight of the bare essential." In the novel he has invented another Lenin, rooted to the earth, simple and human, concerned with a far greater revolution of human values than Lenin ever attempted. (pp. 170-71)
Doctor Zhivago is a composite portrait, and though we shall never know exactly the proportions of the different characters who were combined to form the final portrait, we can discern at least four people who left their mark on him. Two of them Pasternak knew well, one he glimpsed only in passing, a fourth was a character in a novel. They were his father, his close friend Dmitry Samarin, Lenin, and Prince Dmitry Nekhludov, the hero of Resurrection. That Lenin should be among the influences which went to form Doctor Zhivago is one of the many ironies connected with the novel, but it is not the most surprising. In the last days of his life Pasternak wrote that he had three times observed an epiphany, a godlike light shining from a human face. He had seen this light in Samarin and Lenin, and he became aware of it in the person of Prince Nekhludov. In the figure of Doctor Zhivago all three epiphanies were curiously reconciled. (pp. 171-72)
Though Pasternak's novel is evidently the work of a poet untrained in the disciplines of novel writing, impatient of all restraints, incapable of keeping his characters in exact focus, and strangely incompetent in his management of many of the episodes in the novel, the figure of the slender red-haired doctor rings true. The doctor is larger than life, just as Alyosha Karamazov and all the other great heroes of Russian novels are larger than life. He comforts us, because we see ourselves in him, and he menaces us, because he points to a larger life we are incapable of entering. Above all, he possesses a universality which raises him far above the ordinary inventions of novelists. The air blows through his hair and thoughts quicken in his brain; though he never lived, he is more real than the people we meet every day in the street. (pp. 172-73)
How deeply Pasternak had contemplated the Christian mysteries is made clear in the poems at the end of the novel, and in the meditations put into the mouth of Sima Tuntseva in the chapter called "Opposite the House of the Caryatids." Sima is on fire with the spirit of revelation. To her it is all transparently clear that men have passed through the cleansing fires of many civilizations to be brought at last into the fire of Christ. The patriarch Moses orders the sea to withdraw, and a whole nation passes over. According to the liturgical text this miracle is compared with the Virgin Birth, and the coming of Christ—His passing over into the world—from the virgin womb. On this simple confrontation between texts from the Old and New Testaments, Sima Tuntseva constructs an entire cosmology. The passage … lies at the very heart of the novel…. (p. 175)
That man is closer to God than the angels is one of the constant themes of the Eastern Church. That human life is also divine life is an often-repeated thesis of the Church Fathers from the time of Gregory of Nyssa. When Pasternak says that "individual human life became the story of God," he is saying as clearly as a man can that Doctor Zhivago is a divine mystery.
Again and again in his poems and in the novel Pasternak declares the supremacy of man and of the heart's affections over all the regimentation of dictatorship. (p. 177)
["The Garden of Gethsemane," a poem at the end of the novel,] is Pasternak speaking through the lips of Christ…. This poem is almost certainly the greatest poem Pasternak ever wrote. It moves on many levels, and speaks with many voices. There is a landscape described in visionary detail, with Christ walking in it, but Pasternak is also present, speaking in his own voice, assuming the mantle of divinity, while confronting the terrible Majesty—the tremendum maiestatis of the mystics. In this landscape he moves with extraordinary surefootedness, never at a loss for words or for thoughts as he stands in the fiery radiance of God.
As Pasternak paints the portrait of Doctor Zhivago, we are aware of a man who refuses to come to terms with the world as it is. He is the eternal rebel, the uncompromising warrior against evil, whose abhorrence of the Soviet state was only a small part of his general abhorrence of the way men live their lives. Inevitably his rebellion ends in tragic failure. He is altogether too weak to fight against the powers of evil; all he can do is to suffer them, and to demonstrate in his own life that there is another way to live. It is the way of love.
Since love is a word which has lost nearly all its meaning, Pasternak clothes it in flesh. Love acquires the form and features of Larissa Guishar…. She has gray eyes and fair hair, and moves "softly and soundlessly," and this is all the description we are offered of her. Her beauty is not of this earth. There is something of the angel in her, and like Evgraf she appears only when she is most desperately needed. Quite deliberately Pasternak nearly always introduces her in association with images derived from water, mist, fountains, rushing streams, the rain, the ocean. She is a silent pool or a waterfall falling in torrents, according to her mood. She represents the spirit of freedom in a broken world.
She is, of course, much more and much less than this. She is very real and very human, and for Doctor Zhivago as he gazes with terrified eyes at a world given over to lunacy, she alone makes sense, she alone possesses the power to keep the nightmare at bay. (pp. 181-82)
There comes a time when Doctor Zhivago has to ask himself what it is that he finds so wonderful about his mistress, and he finds he can only describe her in terms of the vast expanse of the Russian earth, the sounds and colors of the motherland…. He loves her with the same passionate love which he devotes to Russia. It is enough to be present in a room with her for him to know that there is light and air, fields, trees, children's voices. When she is absent, the air is weighed down with melancholy and the lights go dim. She is as elemental as the earth and the seas, and she remains a woman with a woman's need for love. (pp. 182-83)
We know who Doctor Zhivago is. He is clearly a reflection of Pasternak himself, even more sensitive and desperate perhaps, and perhaps even more human. (p. 184)
All through those last years Pasternak was a being apart. For more than twenty years he had been a legend, and now he was still more of a legend; he had become a part of the landscape, like the golden domes of Moscow or the cherry trees in his own garden. He was the last survivor of the Symbolists, the only man who could claim descent from the long line of great Russian writers of the nineteenth century. To those Russians who were passionately interested in the fate of poetry, he was the representative of Pushkin on earth; and no greater claim could be made for him. (p. 187)
Robert Payne, in his The Three Worlds of Boris Pasternak (reprinted by permission of Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc.; copyright © 1961 by Robert Payne), Coward-McCann, Inc., 1961.
Pasternak's autobiographies [Safe Conduct and I Remember] are those of a poet. That is their distinction. They are almost wholly concerned with the poet's self, with its nature, gift, or genius, with its nurture and development, and with its persistence, at whatever cost, in continuing to be itself. (In the poem, "The Voice of the Soul," the soul, given utterance in poetry, exclaims: "I am the soul. Rash/To the earthy end.")… Pasternak the poet is an instrument of life: his life is important only in the way it serves a larger life. "What I have written here," he says in I Remember, which he wished to use to preface his collected poems, "is enough to give an idea of how life in my own case was transmuted into art, how it was born of chance and experience…." Only enough: for elsewhere, in Doctor Zhivago, recently completed, he had fully enacted this mighty theme.
Yes, the poet lives a different life and esteems existence differently. Poetry is a higher life—life in its miraculous freshness, more passionate, intense, real—and so profoundly his and wonderful that the omission [from his autobiographies] of even wife and children is inconsequential. But a gift so priceless entails the courage of genius, the resilience, spoken for in "With Artist's Stubbornness," against all that would restrain, diminish, or corrupt it. Pasternak both dramatizes and exemplifies this; it is part of the greatness of his work, especially notable in his autobiographies and in Doctor Zhivago, a novel autobiographical in theme if not in biographical fact. Such stubbornness is not unusual in literary annals and is not necessarily romantic. With Pasternak its ever-present dire occasion is political: the need to maintain the independence of literature from politics and the value of the individual, who, in his view of history, is morally superior to the nation-state. This is the urging of his private letters to artists and of his artful public speeches at Writers' Plenums; and it is the burden of his challenging autobiographical witness. Where literature is a political as much as, perhaps more than an aesthetic or cultural event, autobiography is doubly dangerous. As a form of witness, of confession, it may be read—it invites being read—explicitly in these terms.
What is the meaning of the intriguing title, Safe Conduct? In Russian, the title literally means "safe guard" or "charter of immunity." Why does Pasternak invoke the idea of safety, of being granted passage in hostile, warring territory? What hostile territory? His own country? Passage, then, from what? Is the condition signified by the title merely (as we say) the usual condition of poets, whose song, Pasternak wrote in a poem of the 1920's, is a "high malady?" Does the title already bear the weight of the future as well as the past so that we remember it in reading the summary line of the initial poem in the last chapter of Doctor Zhivago: "To live one's life is not to cross a field?" Is the autobiography, a form discouraged in the Soviet Union, itself the document that insures his safety? Why, then, is autobiography conceived in this way and what security does it grant the author? Is he insisting, in a related meaning of the title (one suggested by adding an article—The Safe Conduct), that his conduct is safe, harmless, no cause for alarm, or perhaps no longer cause for alarm? Is he saying that the passage recorded here merits safe conduct? Is he, finally, intent only on saving himself?
The answers to most of these questions may be found in two unavoidable aspects of this autobiography: the period and situation in which it was written and the fact that, as a poet's autobiography, it must account for a poet's development. The focal point of both aspects is the last of the three parts that comprise the book. This part is devoted to the literary arrival of Pasternak's generation, especially to the advent of Vladimir Mayakovsky, the most colorful and celebrated poet of the revolutionary generation that included Esenin and Pasternak, and to his suicide in April, 1930. In this part of the book, history is almost current with the moment of writing, so current that the book as a whole, even though some of it was already published, cannot escape it. In Mayakovsky's suicide, history seems to have been standing by to improve the author's moral and assist him with his theme.
Pasternak's autobiographies, the second considerably more than the first, may be characterized by their involvement with death…. The sections on Mayakovsky, building to the evocation of his death on a spring day and the over-whelming private and public grief, are stunning. (Pasternak remembered the concluding sections and transferred some of their effects to the scene of Zhivago's death, which perhaps may be the imagining of his own death.) In these sections the autobiographer has yielded himself in the spirit of Pasternak's belief that "a man must be a witness of his time." The stage is no longer his; he is of the generation, merged with it in praise of Mayakovsky, its representative man. This may permit him the safe conduct that the earlier parts seem unlikely to afford. (pp. 18-21)
Pasternak [speaks] of the recognition, so important to his conception of the artist's work, of the "unity of culture." The paradox of his genius is no more paradoxical than Eliot's notion of the relation of individual talent and tradition, and it may be described in a phrase he uses…: "The fresh air of age-old culture." As much a modern as Ortega, upholding the vital imperatives of the present and the work of new generations, Pasternak, like Ortega, appreciated … the idea of culture, its unity and continuity…. [The] new, he maintains, "did not arise from a change of the old, which is the generally accepted way of thinking, but quite the opposite, it arose from an exultant reproduction of the pattern." Or as Zhivago says, stating the rule Pasternak himself demonstrates in I Remember, "Forward steps in art are governed by the law of attraction, are the result of the imitation of and admiration for beloved predecessors."
The theory of art proposed here derives from a paper of Pasternak's youth, "Symbolism and Immortality," where history and culture become both the means and end of art. In a summary of this paper in I Remember, Pasternak says that the artist's perceptions are not personal but "generic" and "suprapersonal"; they belong to the "subjectivity of the world of man and of humanity at large." Because of this he participates in "the history of mankind's existence" and is able to make immortal in art "the joy of living" he has experienced. Through his work other people "a century later" may, he says, "be able to experience something approaching the personal and vital form of his original sensations." This theory, which incidentally reminds one of Whitman's achievement in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," is presented in I Remember by the author of Doctor Zhivago and undoubtedly is closer to the memory of writing that book than to the memory of a paper delivered and lost nearly half a century before. For that novel is unique in formally containing both the life experienced by a man and the art he makes of it; the poems that conclude the narrative, as Donald Davie shows [in The Poems of Dr. Zhivago], are not appendages but "its crown and its justification." The novel is the supreme exemplification of this theme—its own theme, much discussed in it. (pp. 25-6)
Both autobiographies, though not on the scale of great autobiographies, should be highly esteemed as works of art that do the work of art demanded by Pasternak. They create "the image of man" which, he says, is "greater than man"—the image of man for want of which ("Man is the loss I have sustained/Since everybody's lost him too") they were written. (pp. 32-3)
Sherman Paul, "An Art of Life: Pasternak's Autobiographies," in Salmagundi (copyright © 1970 by Skidmore College), Fall, 1970, pp. 17-33.
[Doctor Zhivago], in its oscillation between the lyrical episodes tracing the troubled Zhivago-Lara love relationship and the historical episodes documenting the devastation caused by the Revolution, seems to invite the reader to detect the symbolic patterns and to penetrate to "the hidden, secret part of content" that, Zhivago tells us, constitutes the form of art. (p. 203)
What is especially evident … is the prominence of home imagery: it is intimated that Zhivago's return to his home is a symbolic as well as a literal act and that homecoming is one of the ultimate ideals of human life. Indeed, an examination of this central homecoming symbol uncovers historical, religious, and aesthetic dimensions, with the novel itself being an embodiment of the initially mystifying statement that all art aims at homecoming. (pp. 203-04)
On [its] most obvious level,… the home theme is an expression of Zhivago's resentment of the Bolshevik Revolution, precisely because it jeopardizes the very values associated with home, the reverence for hallowed traditions that constitute "the whole human way of life." The Revolution, we are told, is a violation of the nature of history itself, which for Zhivago is like the forest, "eternally growing, ceaselessly changing … the life of society moving invisibly in its incessant transformations"…. History, in short, is evolutionary, a process which maintains continuity with the past—with man's "home," in its gradual transformations of human life.
It is important to note this acceptance of transformation and renewal in Zhivago's view of history in order to recognize that his distaste for the Revolution as it developed is based not on a mindless conservatism or a sterile nostalgia for a bygone era, but on a sophisticated organic view of history that stresses continuity amidst change…. What Zhivago—and Pasternak—value in history is originality, but an originality that is a fresh development of a tradition rather than a patricidal repudiation of it. (pp. 204-05)
That the pattern of Zhivago's life—and the structure of the novel—is one of enforced motion is hardly accidental: we are to recognize that Zhivago is caught up in the forces of contemporary history. The stability and order represented by the home symbol cannot survive the violent motions of history…. Shortly before his death, in fact, Zhivago recognizes that frantic motion is the essential characteristic of modern life and that he must reject, to conform to the pressures of the time, the language of pastoral simplicity; he decides to develop a new language of urbanism which will capture the spirit of the city "incessantly moving and roaring outside our doors and windows". (pp. 205-06)
The home symbol reaches beyond its topical context to embody finally the deepest religious insights in the novel; "home" is offered by Pasternak as the primary symbol of man's nature and of his destiny. The very identity of man, Zhivago asserts, is sustained by his ability to create a home…. We learn further from the philosophy of Zhivago's Uncle Nikolai, which Zhivago implicitly accepts, that man, in a larger sense, is characterized by his ability to create a home in history…. It is a view of man-in-history, Nikolai tells us, that is based on a "new" interpretation of Christianity; given hope and dignity by Christ's redeeming presence in time, "man does not die in a ditch like a dog—but at home in history, while the work toward the conquest of death is in full swing; he dies sharing in this work"…. This new interpretation of Christianity, to be more specific, is based upon the freedom and individuality given man by Christ; invested in this dignity, man becomes an integral part of the historical process overseen by God, and even a god-like partner in the process of shaping the world. (p. 206)
The most mystifying of Zhivago's religious speculations are those which attempt to encompass the problems of death and immortality; and here again the home symbol seems to provide a key…. The imponderable mystery of death is … implicitly assimilated in the imagery of home: man is at home in the universe in death as in life, death being a return to the All—the final homecoming. (pp. 206-07)
Art for Zhivago is … the struggle to capture in language the living essence of the intuition graven in his memory and incarnated by Lara; the poet strives to "give a name" to the ineffable. The theory of poetry which underlies this statement reveals, in its insistence upon the power of naming, the primal impulse of Pasternak's art: we are reminded specifically of Adam who created his "home" by language, by naming the beasts of the field. The aesthetic of naming proposed by Zhivago is essentially that which Pasternak expounded in Safe Conduct. (p. 208)
The nature of Pasternak's art becomes more understandable when it is seen in the light of Heidegger's aesthetic of homecoming [expounded especially in "Remembrance of the Poet," an essay based on Hölderlin's "Homecoming"]. The nostalgia that is so prominent in Doctor Zhivago emerges as much more than Pasternak's longing for lost innocence; it is the vital essence of his art, the homecoming that Heidegger refers to as the primal act of the poet. Zhivago's immersion in the past, in the visions of his childhood, and in his memories of Old Russia is an act of recreative memory, a return to the source of creativity, true originality, true existence. Doctor Zhivago is on one level a parable lamenting a lost Russia, a lost home. But it is, beyond that, a witness to Pasternak's faith in the ability of art to reconstitute the primordial archetypes that symbolize man's unity, his at-homeness, with the universe. Thus the novel is itself an achievement of homecoming. (p. 209)
René E. Fortin, "Home and the Uses of Creative Nostalgia in 'Doctor Zhivago'," in Modern Fiction Studies (copyright © 1974, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana, U.S.A.), Summer, 1974, pp. 203-09.
Next to nature and love, art itself is one of the permanent themes in Pasternak's work. (p. 3)
There is an overwhelming and ever-present tendency in Pasternak's work to penetrate to the essential reality of life, whether it is in art, in human relations, or in history. His approach—which consciously avoids everything formal and scholastic—can be termed "existential" in the broadest sense of the term, as a concern with the fundamental problems of existence rather than with systems or ideologies. In his rejection of rigid categories and classifications, Pasternak is very consistent. Not only formal aesthetics is denied existence for losing touch with the reality of life; the protagonists of Doctor Zhivago consider formal philosophy as something superfluous and assign to it the role of a "seasoning" in art and life. (p. 5)
For Pasternak the nature of art is best revealed at the time of its first appearance in the life of a creative artist—hence the recurrence in his work of the theme of "the birth of a poet."
In the experience of the poet, the origin of art is most closely connected with love and nature. Actually it is love—which is identified with the energy of life—that brings about the birth of the poet, who at this point suddenly perceives the inherent ties between himself and nature.
The essence of life appears to the poet as a dynamic principle. Change is one of life's basic characteristics. It is experienced directly, but can be depicted by the means accessible only to art. (p. 7)
For Pasternak, the intensity of emotions and the direct and spontaneous expression of them are essential elements of artistic creativity…. Passion is what art attempts to depict; it is the subject of art. The figurative language of art, according to Pasternak, is the direct language of passion. The highest achievement that art can hope to attain is to overhear the true voice of love. (pp. 17, 20)
Despite [the] apparent equality of man and nature in Pasternak's poetic scheme, it is, undoubtedly, man who occupies the central position: his individuality is never dissolved in his surroundings. Nature actually lives man's emotions. When a bog is feverish, a forest depressed, a meadow nauseated, a room trembling, or a city—dusty and exhausted from travel—is falling into bed, there is little doubt that those sensations, responses, and actions are the poet's. Nature's sharing man's emotions emphasizes his predominance. This anthropocentric attitude is especially noticeable in Doctor Zhivago. (p. 23)
The poetic trope that Pasternak employs to convey the interrelation of things is metonymy. In "Wassermann Test," attempting a description of what in his opinion is basic to the "metaphorical vision of the world," Pasternak, without naming it, describes metonymy and explains his predilection for metonymic expression. This trope, according to him, is comparable to an intricate lock, the key to which is in the poet's possession. The reader can only peek through the keyhole at that which is concealed within. A poet who resorts to similarity as the basis for constructing his tropes tosses the keys into the hands of "the amateurs from the crowd." Contiguity rather than similarity should, in Pasternak's opinion, be at the basis of metaphorical association, for it is contiguity that possesses the quality of necessity and the dramatic quality mandatory for metaphorical expression. For him it is the "morbid necessity" of bringing together dissimilar but proximate objects that gives life to an image…. This "metonymic vision of the world" is largely responsible for the originality of Pasternak's verse. (pp. 25-6)
The extraordinary means needed to keep up with life's pace are provided by art, which concerns itself with the presence of energy in life, with the dynamics of life; it depicts life "traversed by a ray of energy." Art succeeds in not falling behind the present by being ahead of it, by looking into the future. Likewise, by not being preoccupied with man's actual individual achievements and by speaking of his potentialities, it is capable of revealing the truth about man. As Pasternak puts it, in art a man's individual voice is silenced, and the image of man takes over.
Energy is the only "aspect of consciousness" that needs some tangible proof of its existence, because it is evident only at the moment of its appearance. Art is the only means capable of depicting energy…. In terms of individual consciousness, energy is emotion. Human spirit cannot be confined to the material world; it transcends it. (pp. 36-7)
The material world, inert and static, calls for an active, creative interference, and this is art's sphere of action…. When Pasternak writes that his experience of the city did not correspond to the place where he lived, he is opposing the life in the realm of the spirit to the material world, the vivid exterior of which is a complete expression of its essence. Pasternak describes himself at the time when he was turning from music to poetry as being physically affected by this heavy world, which is untouched by the transforming spirit. These "attacks of chronic impatience" were his response to the all-pervasive rule of necessity. Human activity that implied an active application of an individual's will and energy to the fabric of life did not cause this sensation in the young poet. By investing his surroundings with his emotion, the poet endows the spiritually static material world with the dynamics of his own spiritual condition. Pasternak's dynamism is a dynamism of spirit. Physical storms and violent movement in his poetry are there to speak of this spiritual quality of life, the depiction of which is the poet's aim. (p. 37-8)
His reiteration of the apparently self-evident truth that a work of art has as its starting point the experience of reality suggests that the realization of this, indeed, must have been one of the most intense and enduring impressions of Pasternak the poet: he undertook several times to show how a work of art is born. [One detailed account is given in A Tale (1929)]. (p. 42)
In his poetic practice Pasternak achieves a synthesis of the futurist attempt to counteract the automatization of poetic language and the symbolist view that poetic language represents the essence of the world perceived intuitively by the poet. In Pasternak's work these two aspects become inseparable. [Hughes notes elsewhere that although Pasternak's connections with Russian futurism have been questioned, Vladimir Markov, in his Russian Futurism, clearly demonstrated the connection and elaborated the dispute.] (p. 46)
According to his own assertion, Pasternak did not share the futurists' dream of creating a new language; in his opinion, the overabundance of what an artist wants to say should leave him no time for seeking new means of expression….
Among the features that separate Pasternak from the futurists—apart from his fundamentally different view of language as an indissoluble unity of sound and meaning and, on an entirely different level, his inability to go along with their behavior—is his very pronounced and conscious affinity with cultural tradition. (p. 55)
What underlies Pasternak's anti-aestheticism and is the most important element of his affinity with futurism is the struggle against the automatization of poetic speech. (p. 56)
It is hardly necessary to argue that the realism that Pasternak talks about [in the 1950's] and considers a foundation of his own art is neither the traditional nineteenth-century realism nor the twentieth-century domestic variety known as socialist realism. For Pasternak, to be realistic art has to be truthful to life; this does not imply, however, that art has to follow the methods of the realist school.
One area where Pasternak's definition of realism is very close to the traditional definition of realism is that of language. The simple and unadorned style of late Pasternak tries to reproduce the natural word order of contemporary spoken Russian, and magnificently succeeds in the effort. (p. 68)
Not unexpectedly, the principal form that history assumes in Pasternak's work is that of the Revolution. The relationship of poetry and history—referring mainly to contemporary social and political events—occupies a prominent place in Pasternak's work beginning with the 1920's. In "Lofty Malady" (1923, 1928) the role of poetry is assessed against the epic proportions of the Revolution. In the poems of the early 1930's Pasternak repeatedly returns to the poet's paradoxical position in a socialist state. He attempts to accept the existing regime and searches for its justification….
What underlies the problem of the poet's relationship to society, as reflected in Pasternak's work, is essentially the conflict between the eternal and the temporal. (p. 78)
In Doctor Zhivago the ultimate purpose of history is spoken of as the overcoming of death; and it is not surprising that the "dead history" of the Soviet state—which subordinates reality to an idea—is rejected as a betrayal of life. It is in the name of life—which for Pasternak by definition is immortal—that he comes to reject temporal ideologies and systems. (p. 79)
[In a 1916 article "Black Goblet"] Pasternak wrote that life is gravitating toward two opposing poles: poetry and history. Equal value was assigned to each, but the poet insisted on not crossing the border from one to the other. Pasternak's long poems of the twenties can be viewed as an attempt to bring together poetry and history, to cross the boundary between the two. The conclusions to which Pasternak came in Doctor Zhivago show that in the end he did not follow the path suggested by the critics and traveled by many of his contemporaries.
In the opening stanzas of "Lofty Malady," the value of history and poetry no longer appears equal. The magnitude of the events of the Revolution dwarfs poetry. It becomes merely the "lofty malady" of the title. Under the catastrophic circumstances poetry cannot be accepted as a normal condition; it is an abnormality. The poet is even ashamed of his gift of song. (pp. 81-2)
The picture of the Revolution in "Lofty Malady" is contradictory: it is perceived both as an approaching spring and as a threat of future privations. (p. 83)
What was contradictory in "Lofty Malady" became clearly polarized in Doctor Zhivago. The unconditional and joyful acceptance of the Revolution in 1917 remained. Zhivago thinks of the Revolution on a cosmic scale and senses greatness in its directness and its disregard for everything that stands in its way. Later, having attained a certain perspective, he clearly distinguishes between the Revolution itself and the regime that issued from it…. Finally, Zhivago comes to a conclusion that the fate of revolutions is invariably self-defeat. They are short-lived, and what remains when they pass is a fanatical devotion to the narrowmindedness of their leaders. (p. 85)
It has to be emphasized, however, that Zhivago accepts the social and economic changes brought about by the Revolution. (p. 86)
A very perceptive analysis of the reasons why Pasternak's open break with the official line in Soviet literature came only at the end of his life with the publication of Doctor Zhivago is made by Nadezhda Mandelstam in her Reminiscences. She observes that Pasternak's conscious efforts to find common ground with contemporary Soviet literature were facilitated by his having some points of contact with traditional literature and, above all, by being a Muscovite and therefore, in a sense, "belonging" to Soviet literature….
Pasternak's rejection of the regime is essentially of an existential nature. It is a free human personality that he defends against an ideology. His revolt is in the name of life itself. Zhivago at one point explains the change in his attitude toward the Revolution in vaguely Tolstoyan terms: "I used to be very revolutionary, but now I think that nothing can be gained by brute force. People must be drawn to good by goodness." (p. 94)
According to Zhivago, the failure of the regime originates in its attempts to change and to reform life by means of an ideology that has nothing to do with real life. Zhivago stresses that he objects to a generally utopian approach of "building life anew," because for him life is an ever-rejuvenating and dynamic principle rather than an inert material that can be shaped and molded to fit some abstract scheme. (p. 98)
For Pasternak, the freedom of every individual is of primary importance, and therefore the right of leaders to deprive individuals of their freedom is questioned and eventually condemned. (p. 104)
By virtue of his poetic gift, the poet is only a visitor, not a permanent inhabitant of this world. Under all social orders and economic systems the poet is someone who does not belong…. The artist is kept hostage by time although by nature he belongs to eternity…. The poet belongs to the two worlds: the eternal and the temporal; in his work the timeless beauty of life acquires flesh that unmistakably belongs to the time when the poet lives and writes…. An artist's original perception of the world becomes a part of this world that remains after his death. (pp. 113-15)
The idea of a poet's becoming a part of life and nature upon his death Pasternak shares with Rainer Maria Rilke, whose influence he acknowledged as one of the most significant and lasting in his life. (p. 116)
It has been repeatedly and convincingly suggested that Pasternak has an affinity with romanticism. Specific links between his poetry and certain features of the poetry of the Russian romantics—Lermontov, Tyutchev, and Fet—have been pointed out. On the other hand, it has been asserted—on the basis of other specific peculiarities of his poetry—that Pasternak is not a romantic. One has to admit that both views are essentially true. (pp. 168-69)
Pasternak shared the basic tenets of romantic aesthetics: for him art was a means of cognition of the world; the organic unity of the cosmos and man's part in it were a tangible reality for the poet. Art, in Pasternak's view, was not engaged in imitating nature but rather in continuing its creative work.
Among Russian symbolists, Blok and Skryabin were most influential for Pasternak's formative period. The elements of Skryabin's world view—his influence was the earliest and perhaps the strongest—that had the greatest impact on the young Pasternak were the belief in the transforming powers of art and in the exceptional role assigned to the creative artist.
But it has to be remembered that one of the fundamental characteristics of Pasternak's personality was the extreme selectivity of approach. Romantic hero worship Pasternak rejected as a very young man. Despite the importance he continued to attach to the role of the creative artist, he was invariably suspicious of those views which conceivably might have led to a dramatization of the poet's life. The romantic view of the significance of an individual took a Christian turn in his world view. Pasternak went further than just asserting the value of every individual: his poet cannot exist without other people. Pasternak's aversion to "organizations" and "societies" reflects his strong antiutopian convictions. His mistrust of collective actions, which, as he was to remark, without exception are tinged with hysteria, only strengthened his faith in the individual. (pp. 169-70)
The belief in the transforming powers of art remained one of the cornerstones of Pasternak's poetics. His view differed from that of the symbolists, however, in that for Pasternak it was not a potential that would be realized in the art of the future, nor, as the forerunner of Russian symbolists, Vladimir Soloviev, believed, at the end of history; this power is realized here and now, in every true work of art….
Romantic hero worship was not the only feature of romanticism that had no place in Pasternak's poetics. The realm of the fantastic held no appeal for the poet, for he was able to perceive the exceptional in the most ordinary and in the everyday. (p. 170)
Pasternak's poetics can be described as aesthetic realism. He rejected both aestheticism and the utilitarian approach to art. Art for him was an objective reality; he shared the modern outlook that poetry has a purpose of its own, which it achieves by its own means. Pasternak's concept of realism presupposes a never-ending fascination with everyday existence, but it does not eliminate spiritual values from his conception of life and art and therefore, in essence, is not related to nineteenth-century positivism and its perpetuation in our time.
In his nontraditional usage of the term "realism," Pasternak follows Blok, who in 1919 spoke of true realism as not imitating but transforming nature, and thus being a legitimate heir to romanticism, which is not a rejection of life but a new vision and a more intense experience of life, the "sixth sense" of mankind. Pasternak's realism fits what has been described as the "imaginative realism" of post-symbolist poetry, with its desire to enter into all spheres of existence and to be minutely precise in its depiction of the poet's complex experiences and impressions. (pp. 172-73)
Olga R. Hughes, in her The Poetic World of Boris Pasternak (copyright © 1974 by Princeton University Press; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1974.
When Pasternak sent the manuscript [of Doctor Zhivago] abroad for publication he invoked an important tradition in Russian writing, that of the "smuggled" text, published abroad. Mere place of publication may seem remote from serious critical concerns, and the charge of heresy which propelled Doctor Zhivago and the principal works of Solzhenitsyn and Sinyavsky across their native boundaries threatens to limit criticism of the texts to political analysis. And yet, heresy—generated out of the novel's moral critique of the political system—is central to any reading of these works which would illuminate their design as well as their meaning. Read, as I propose, with close attention to the local meanings of heresy, read as we can guess Pasternak meant his contemporaries to read it, Doctor Zhivago nevertheless remains available for more timeless readings, as arcane religious utterance—as a gloss on the Book of Revelations, perhaps—or as a forest of coded symbols or a parable of the eternal situation of the artist. My eye-level reading discloses a structural completeness and a related complexity of statement, which may be enriched by other readings but deserves full demonstration, I think, on intentional, expository, and didactic writer-to-reader grounds. I have taken my text from Pasternak's remark in an interview: "It seemed to me that it was my duty to make a statement about my epoch." The elucidation of this statement, it seems to me, should precede other kinds of analysis.
Two vast constellations of ideas, attitudes, and values—intellectual, moral, and aesthetic—come into mortal conflict. One may be called the ethos of Revolution, the other the continuum of Life. At first these bodies of thought, or ways of taking experience, coexist more or less harmoniously in Zhivago's mind. As war and revolution progress, they become disengaged when Zhivago pursues a lonely personal existence, beyond the reach of historical events. In the novel's denouement they become re-engaged when the revolution, an anonymous menacing force, pursues and crushes Zhivago, who in his own eccentric person has come to represent the forces of life. Pasternak then attempts a counter-enveloping movement in the complex epilogue, in the rhapsodic words Lara utters over Zhivago's corpse, in the eventual coming to maturity—and to an understanding of what Zhivago stood for—of Zhivago's two lifelong friends…. By refusing publication, the Soviet government attempted a final extraliterary countermovement, which failed when the novel was published abroad and then filtered back into the USSR illegally. (pp. 259-61)
[Zhivago's] vision of the good life, derived from Christian mythology, is presented early in the novel. It recedes under the flood of historical and personal experiences in the novel's center, and then reappears, restated and amplified in the concluding chapters. (p. 261)
Art … touches the essence of man's involvement in the world; the beauty it discovers everywhere—even in the mutilated corpses Zhivago encounters in his medical work—answers the deepest human needs.
A doctrine which denies beauty, corrupts language, disfigures art and disconnects it from its roots is anti-human. Pasternak is close to his classical predecessors in setting a view of human nature resting on feeling and imagination against a schematic materialist ideology, or in this case, against the acting out of the ideology's inner potential in revolution and civil war.
Zhivago comes to this understanding in the course of the novel—the process of learning defines its central movement—as he is battered by public and private calamities. (p. 262)
Zhivago's existential resistance seems to promise a correction of error, the beginning, at least, of a process in which coercive, blueprinted change will give way to the flow of genuine history, hospitable to art, morality, and human individuality, a final vindication of Zhivago's values. He has survived in the thoughts and feelings of his friends—Pasternak's own definition of immortality—and the doomed end of his mortal life has been eclipsed by his survival in literature.
The full chordal effect of the novel's ending includes a further vindication from beyond the grave: Zhivago's twenty-five poems constituting a second epilogue. They are the record of his most intense engagement with life. The experience reported in the poem or the moment of its composition can sometimes be fixed in the text of the novel, sometimes not. Zhivago's poems repeat themes which are central to Pasternak's own poetic vision: the human is merged with the natural, particularly in the cycle of seasons; night, winter, and death are set against dawn, spring, and rebirth; lovers separate and reunite. Important moments in the life of Christ—the Nativity, the night in Gethsemane, the Crucifixion and Resurrection—are less familiar in Pasternak's work but are securely rooted in the novel's pattern of ideas and motifs. Mary Magdalene, whose relationship to Jesus symbolizes the origins of genuine human history in the novel, is the subject of the penultimate poem.
Taken as a whole, these poems express Zhivago's chief assertion of his identity, of his rooted being. Their appearance at the end of the novel "corrects" for his personal defeat and presents him to us as a tragic but finally redeemed figure. (p. 276)
Rufus W. Mathewson, Jr., "Pasternak: 'An Inward Music'," in his The Positive Hero in Russian Literature (copyright © 1958, 1975 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University; with the permission of the publishers, Stanford University Press), 2nd edition, Stanford University Press, 1975, pp. 259-78.
For Pasternak,… poetry may be seen as lying within the pentagram described by music, philosophy, love, physical nature and Renaissance religious humanism in painting.
Pasternak's concern with musical analogies in verbal composition isn't unique to him, of course. In the 20th century all the arts have aspired to the condition of music, with the frequent exception of music itself. The title poem of Pasternak's collection Themes and Variations (1923) goes farthest in the direction of musical form, still keeping, however, a modicum of paraphrasable content. Also, critics with an eye or an ear for it have described his collection of short stories as a classical four-movement symphony, the first story in sonata allegro form, the second, a scherzo, and so forth.
Philosophy is present in Pasternak's writings—too much so in the novel, probably…. Many of his formulations revolve around one central insight: when we perceive and feel the world intensely, we are the world, and we truly exist, in some sense eternally. This is a fertile point of departure for an artist, one found mainly among great poets and bad ones. In Pasternak, the theme finds beautiful, powerful expression. When, on the other hand, he ventures into historical or religious philosophy (mostly through the intermediary of characters in Doctor Zhivago), his footing is less sure; still, his statements are always interesting.
In Pasternak, the theme of love and verbal pictorialism intertwine…. In love, we see truly, we receive a vision of the beloved in a "climate," a world; and this world proves to be interior, a heartland. As in Italian painting, the writer discovers poses and attitudes where the real and ideal coincide in one figure, a figure in an environment of radiant details. (p. 635)
[The] period of Pasternak's most explicit concern with society and history … takes part of its character from Pasternak's repudiation of his earlier, elaborate style (described … as "Soviet rococo"), in favor of plainer, more direct statement. He wrote Doctor Zhivago during this period and fewer poems; nevertheless, these are among his best, and especially the "poems of Yurii Zhivago," which conclude the novel. The novel itself, the work of one of the century's great modernists, paradoxically takes its place in the Russian tradition that moves from the 19th century and Tolstoy through Pasternak to the present and Solzhenitsyn. In that tradition, the Russian novelist is a kind of prophet, and his prophecies take the form of large historical frescoes that make palpable the dialectic of time and eternity. In Doctor Zhivago, a very concrete referent for that dialectic is the counterpointed juxtaposition of prose and poetry in the novel's structure. Though the poems by placement have the last word, Pasternak shouldn't be viewed finally as either the Poet or the Prose Writer. He is, paradoxically, the relationship between the two. (p. 636)
Alfred Corn, "World of the Interior," in The Nation (copyright 1976 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), May 22, 1976, pp. 635-36.
Did this raise a question for you?