The Little Tragedies – Alexander Pushkin


Pushkin’s came to us as a new guiding light, a brilliant illumination of our dark way. In this sense Pushkin is a presage and a prophecy.
– Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Pushkin Speech (1880)
Ambition. Envy. Nostalgia. Survival.
The past was not necessarily better when human beings have maintained some particular patterns over the years. And Pushkin, an exceptional influence for the greatest writers of Russia and all over the world, shared his views on the human nature through the mastery of his poetry.
This book contains four plays in verse: “The Miserly Knight”, “Mozart and Salieri”, “The Stone Guest” and “A Feast during the Plague”. Brilliantly written, with humor and tragedy in every line, they depict situations that are not entirely uncommon for us, simple mortals, the children of dust. The essence of these plays relies on the fact that Pushkin described these situations with the art of conciseness. They are short works and therefore, difficult to perform. And still, that fascinates me. What is the point of writing plays that are so difficult to stage? The beauty of romantic irony.
Following the plays, there is a critical essay for each one. I read them, of course, but not with my full attention, honestly. I want to keep my interpretation intact. That doesn’t happen with every writer. I always want to know the right interpretation, what the author really meant. With Pushkin, I don’t feel like I have to know everything; just my thoughts while reading it.
I will write about two of those four plays that amazed me with both content and execution. The first verses of “The Miserly Knight” immediately reminded me of the greed that rhythmically walks among the pages of The Brothers Karamazov.
Do we really have to care about what will happen to our material things after we die? Money. Money will remain there, unless we spend it. It will not mourn us, it will not die with us.
Baron: I am a king . . . but who will follow me,
Who will take this power? My heir!
A boy who throws money around like mad,
With his hellraising friends out for a good time! (238-241)
Oh, if only I could hide this vault from all
Unworthy eyes! Oh, if from my grave
I could arise, a ghostly watchman,
And sit upon the chest, and guard my treasures
Against the living, as I guard them now! (270-275)
Worst of all, it gives us a false sense of omnipotence; something that, inevitably, brings a real sense of loneliness. Loud, unforgiving loneliness.
Baron: … What’s not in my power? From here,
Like a demon I can rule the world. (177-178)
There is a man whose world turns around his wealth and there is a man whose poverty does not allow him to live with dignity. That cannot end well.
Human beings feel free when they have wealth. It is the freedom of a golden cage built in a world ruled by money.
Duke: … A terrible age, terrible hearts! (381)
The second play that I will refer to is “Mozart and Salieri”.
It starts with Salieri speaking about his creative process. He dedicated himself to the study of music. Sometimes even forgetting to eat or to sleep, he obediently studied every form, every structure, every sound. He was looking at music from the coldest point of view, abandoning everything he loved. And only then, he began creating.
Salieri: … By concentrated, constant effort
Finally in the unbounded realm of art
I achieved a high place. (40-42)
I couldn’t feel guilty because of this. For I do not want a high place. I write because I need to. I don’t want this to be “all work and strict effort”. I couldn’t do that even if I wanted to. I can’t function that way. I sit and I write. And I eat and I get up. And sometimes I move on, too. I can’t be a surgeon of the words. I can’t dissect literature to know its every corner.
I don’t own the writing process. That might be the difference between a high place and the little nook I chose to write my gibberish.
Moreover, some of us are even afraid of the high place. The admirable quest for it can transform the noblest genius into a contemptible envier. And all the hard work gets lost amid the implacable vapor of oblivion.
Pushkin’s Salieri knows it well. He personifies the degeneration of the artist. One whose jealousy transforms him into a villain.
Mozart: He’s a genius,
Like you and me. And genius and crime
Are two things that don’t combine. Isn’t that true? (199, 201)
It is true.
So, the poet did it again.
We take a look at our lives and we often want something more. We want something different. We want magic. Sometimes, that magic can be achieved while holding a humble pen with no other intention but to empty the mind. Release it from every sorrow, every doubt and joy.
Pushkin, the immortal sorcerer.

* Photo credit: Book cover via Goodreads.

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