Hypotextual Levels of Meaning in Russian Literary Tradition

by Evgeny Soshkin (Author)
©2020 Monographs 222 Pages


Why did Osip Mandelstam picture himself as a victim of anti-Semitic persecution, but at the same time described his victimizers using the grotesque features of Jews from anti-Semitic mythology? What was the meaning of Sasha Chorny’s pen name? Why were the Russian translators of Gargantua and Pantagruel steadily leaving out one phrase from the novel? Why did Alexander Pushkin use the same idiom in his fragments on Cleopatra, though in different contexts and referring to different things? What was the principle used by Leo Tolstoy when choosing one of the four patterns created by a diegetic or non-diegetic narrator and a personal or narratorial point of view? Why was the common knowledge about the tight alliance of the four post-symbolist poets – Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva, Boris Pasternak, and Anna Akhmatova – so enthusiastically appreciated by Akhmatova herself? Why in Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat the robbed Akaky Akakievich receives a kick in the butt but falls face-up? Which fairy-tale character does the name of the dwarf from Vladimir Nabokov’s short story The Potato Elf allude to? Each of these questions is reviewed in a separate chapter of this book, united by a uniform interpretation method, theoretically substantiated in the book’s foreword.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Contents
  • Foreword
  • Chapter 1 (real name). Mandelstam and his brothers: On the question of Mandelstam’s self-projection onto the biblical Joseph
  • Chapter 2 (pen name). Who went by the pen name of Sasha Chorny?
  • Chapter 3 (byword). Earthly gods: Shakespearean motifs in Pushkin’s project of The Egyptian Nights
  • Chapter 4 (coinage). Rabelais and censorship: On the euphemism left uncommented by French commentators and untranslated by Russian translators
  • Chapter 5 (rhetorical figure). The great writer of Russian water: The art of being naïve as a literary device in Tolstoy
  • Chapter 6 (trope). We are four: On Anna Akhmatova’s poetic cosmology
  • Chapter 7 (from high to low mimesis). Bashmachkin’s overcoat and the clothes of the soul
  • Chapter 8 (from low to high mimesis). Fred Dobson and the Dwarf Nose
  • Bibliography
  • Earlier publications
  • Index of names

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Conception and method. In 2015, the Moscow publishing house NLO had published my monograph “Hypogrammar: The Book on Mandelstam,” being a reviewed and extended version of my Ph.D. thesis. The book I am now offering to the reader is comprised of eight research papers, some of which were written during my work on the Mandelstam project, and some after it had been completed. Only one of them is focused on Mandelstam, but, composed as a singular cycle, they are supposed to develop and generalize the interpretative strategy fleshed out in my thesis. After a brief summary of that strategy, I will proceed to describe this book.

The time when I was working on my thesis coincided with the years in Mandelstam studies when the so-called subtextual method, developed by Kirill Taranovsky and his adherents in the 1970s and dominant in Mandelstam poetic studies ever since, started to seriously frustrate many researchers. The theoretical background of this method was the idea that in Mandelstam’s poetic system, every aesthetically significant component was not just explicitly motivated by being present in this or that obvious parallelism (a rhyme or other figure, a metaphor or other trope), but also implicitly motivated by a concealed but detectable and verifiable genetic link to an equal or similar element of the antecedent text called the subtext. Thus, the motivating subtextual device was a concealed quotation (reminiscence) of a text (not necessarily verbal) in the text in question. That quoted text usually had a high cultural status, since the object of the imitation or application (i.e. inspiring the idea of similarity or contiguity) was supposed be recognizable.

One of the most salient points of the subtextual method was based on the idea of essential polygenic nature of Mandelstam’s text, where any aesthetically relevant element needed more than one implicit motive. However, the main reason for the increasing unhappiness related to the subtextual method was the permanently increasing number of Mandelstam’s isolated subtexts found by Mandelstam scholars. Against the background of outstanding non-narrative character and logical incoherence of Mandelstam’s writing, especially in his poetry, such abundance was causing perplexity and discomfort. The found subtexts of a poem did not always help in the task of its fruitful interpreting; their mutual combinations seemed dubious; unknown but imminently detectable subtexts, contrary to all theoretical claims, threatened to bring the existing ones in doubt rather than join a productive interchange.

My initial assumption was about the true reason of the gnoseological dead end in studying Mandelstam’s poetic: it was not the abundance of found and ←6 | 7→cracked ‘riddles,’ but something quite contrary: their still insufficient number while there was no overall drive towards a complex analysis of various subtexts. Based on that, I had consistently analysed a number of Mandelstam’s poems, focusing on trying to reveal semantic unity between all the found subtexts in each of them. I called this unity, generally not subject to any strict lexical capture but thematising a quite definite poetical ideomyth, using Michael Riffaterre’s term (which he in his turn had borrowed from Ferdinand de Saussure) – a hypotext. Based on every reconstructed hypotext, I offered an integral interpreting of each of the poems. During the final stage of my work I ventured to review all hypotexts as a total, and reached the second-level hypotext, the ethical and metanarrative matrix which, it seems, had been immutable throughout Mandelstam’s literary career irrespective of his changing psychological or ideological precepts. This second-level hypotext turned out to be the soteriological imperative, driving the theurgist poet to self-sacrifice for the sake of saving everything that is deprived, down to the most primitive biological organisms and minerals.

The foundation of this book ascends in the final count to the well-known idea of Roman Jakobson: the dominant aesthetic function of the artistic text (message) is revealed on all of its levels through the fundamental principle of parallelism. The subtextual method had demonstrated that this principle is double-barrelled: it can be explicit or implicit. An implicit parallelism indicates the presence of just one of the paired elements in the text, while the second, absent one, is obviously absent. The source of the absent parallelism element is the subtext in the conceptual framework of Mandelstam scholars.

I.P. Smirnov had revised Jakobson’s concept in the book “The Generation of Intertext: Elements of Intertextual Analysis with Examples from the Works of Boris Pasternak” (1985; 1995). This research was based, on the one hand, on intertextual models of French structuralists, and, on the other hand, on the achievements of the subtextual method and the contributions to the idea of the Moscow/Tartu semiotic school. I had already discussed the key assumptions of Smirnov’s book in the introductory section of “Hypogrammar,” where I was claiming that though Smirnov had developed the achievements of Mandelstam studies, the Mandelstam studies had not yet made the best of his book. Now, based on my own experience of applying Smirnov’s model to analysing Mandelstam’s work, I hope to extend the area of practical application of the model. First, I’m extending it far beyond the pale of Mandelstam studies; second, I’m testing it on literary phenomena which belong to various and quite different levels of artistic communication.

Smirnov suggested that Jakobson’s parallelism principle could be replaced with a different, more complex principle of artistic text organization – the principle of repeating the dropped repeating, i.e. “double parallelism, which exists ←7 | 8→both between every sequence of meaningful elements, and between the sequences themselves,” which eo ipso inserts “into the linear sequence of the text the third link of the kind that […] points at dropping the repeating” [Смирнов 1995: 17–18]. In other words, the adjacency or any other juxtaposition of any two parallelisms implies their mutual dropping out. Thus, the primary unit of artistic communication is a double parallelism, in which the connection between the elements of each couple and between both couples of elements might be both synchronous (like, for instance, the case of two examples of doubles in the same narration), or diachronous (like in the case of two couples of successive rhyming lines). In implicit intertextual devices, double parallelism can be implemented through quoting such an element of an antecedent text which is in itself a quotation, or through the intention of the consequent text being directed not on the reproduced element as such, but on the element contiguous to it in the antecedent text. The principle of repeating the dropped repeating, according to Smirnov, is applied on all levels, starting from intratextual micro-levels up to the intertextual level etc., all the way to interstylistic, intergenre, and interfabular levels. In case of subtextual devices, the ‘repeating’ is the very fact of quoting the antecedent text by the consequent text; the ‘dropping’ of that repetition is another analogous repetition, i.e. the quoting by the same consequent text of a different antecedent text. Thus, the old idea about the polygenetic nature of Mandelstam’s text is generalized to the artistic text in general. The sense unity, created by two or more subtexts, is what Smirnov calls preintertext.1

Smirnov’s model implicates one condition, which I find necessary to explicate and stress: in any artistic message, even the most elementary one, there is a certain intelligible semiosis which is created not just within the preintertext framework, but within any double parallelism (or, in Smirnov’s term, “repeating the dropped repeating”), and this succinct cohesive sense is the channel which is used for moving the recipient to higher levels of interpreting. Thus, the process of decoding an artistic message calls for, initially, reducing a certain set of devices to their “common denominator,” and then, bypassing this reduction of the initial semantic field, emerging towards broader sense horizons thanks to finding additional semantic parallelisms which confirm and specify the previously found hypotext. Obviously, such reading must be a re←8 | 9→construction of the sense-making process, but in reverse order, in the order of its decoding.

I’ll cite the simplest example of such restriction and further expansion of the semantic field from Velimir Khlebnikov’s “Заклятие смехом” (“Incantation by Laughter”):

…смешики, смешики,

Смеюнчики, смеюнчики.

[…laughlings, laughlings

Laughlets, laughlets.]

Here, as we can see, one literal repetition is intercepted by another literal repetition. The elements of each couple are not just grammatically equivalent, but, being cognate neologisms, create a semantic unity connected with the element of laughter. From this reduced sense, threads are spinning to all other segments of the text produced from the same root. The title of the poem, which is something like the solution to the riddle, is its hypotext, only in its explicit shape.

I will call the manifestation of the hypotextual “common denominator” in the text the bottleneck effect. In population genetics, this term means a sharp reduction in the size of a biological species genetic diversity and the accompanying shrinking of its population, which is supposed to be subsequently restored from a low-capacity genetic pool. Transferred from genetics to literature, the metaphorical bottleneck image also relates to the transmission of genetic information. While not addressing the catastrophic side of the real bottleneck effect, this metaphor however is fully compliant with the bottleneck concept in its broader idiomatic sense, as a weak, problematic, overwhelmed section of a large system. Finding that kind of vulnerable section is what allowed a code breaker to break the system code. The system, however, is deliberately inviting this kind of a break, basically determining it through the multiplicity of information channels which all lead the code-breaker to the same innermost point. When speaking about the retrospective decoding process, it makes more sense to speak about the reverse bottleneck effect.

It is of crucial significance for my approach that the basic artistic message as part of a broader and highly organized message – the whole artistic work, for instance – is different from the latter only in its degree of complexity, while being analogous to it in structure. Indeed, imagining double parallelism, an elementary message is thus ensuring its own verification, helping the reader to recognize the aesthetic motivation of a certain textual unit and making it possible to make sure the motivation is non-contingent. Essentially, within a unidirectional communication (author to reader only), the double parallelism is ←9 | 10→manifesting not just the aesthetical function, but the phatic function as well. Something similar is happening in the text as a whole: elementary messages convey similar information, sometimes supplementing one another, sometimes overlapping, sometimes even coinciding. Thanks to that, the interpreter receives the opportunity to confirm, negate, or correct their hypotheses, thus compensating for the inevitable failure to detect some of the elementary messages. Just like explicit devices, according to Jakobson, project the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection to the axis of combination, implicit devices create their own syntax, a system of syntagmatic connections between subtexts. This ensures the existence of various routes alternative to one another which lead the reader to the highest levels of the content plane.

The same mechanics acts on supratextual levels. For example, on the scale of an author’s corpus, the hypotexts of various works can lead to the next-order hypotext, like it is in Mandelstam’s case. Everywhere, on both micro- and macro-levels of artistic communication, the interpreter’s work means identifying the bottleneck effect.

The structure and composition of the book. In this book, the set of theoretical tools described above is variously applied to the phenomena of Russian literature of the 19th through the first half of the 20th century. The only exception is the small chapter on one local device in “Gargantua and Pantagruel,” but even in that case the oblique verification of the device is made possible through the comparative analysis of the fragment in a number of censored Russian translations of Rabelais’s work.

The book consists of eight chapters, which are autonomous from the subject point of view but divided into two-chapter pieces due to thematic affinity and similar articulation of the problem. These couples form four sections. The binary chapters are contrasting to one another in some salient feature within the same invariant. Four sections, in their turn, are quite different in the scale of the interpreted artistic messages and, if one can say so, in the bottleneck calibre.

The first section (chapters 1 and 2) deals with the phenomenon of the author mythologizing his own name: for its bearer, it is a motivation of an auto-projection to a notional remote ancestor, a basis for manufacturing one’s own literary genealogy. This personal myth, shaped around the text (the author’s name) and subtext (the name of the symbolic “ancestor”), is reduced to hypotext (auto-projection to the “ancestor”) which is a bottleneck, that largely defines the strategies of literary and everyday behaviour of the author throughout his creative career.

Chapter 1 studies the auto-projection of Mandelstam against Joseph the Fair, based on the poet’s name, Osip (Joseph). Thanks to comparing two bio←10 | 11→graphical contexts of different time, each of them furnished with the poet’s parallels from the history of his biblical namesake, it becomes obvious why in his “Fourth Prose” Mandelstam depicted himself as a victim of anti-Semitic harassment, but at the same time in a paradoxical manner ascribed to his persecutors (in the “Till Eulenspiegel affair”) the cartoonish features of Jews from anti-Semitic mythology. The solution of this curiosity helps reconstruct the hypotext common to Mandelstam’s polemical rhetoric in 1913 and 1929 and consequently define the position of that hypotext in the united hypotextual invariant of Mandelstam’s lifetime work.

Chapter 2, unlike the first one, does not analyse the poet’s real name, but rather his pen name: it aims to prove that the original auto-projection to Pushkin, typical for many Russian modernist authors, received with one of them an a posteriori motivation in the shape of his pen name – Sasha Chorny. The chapter also tells the story of my lucky discovery of Chorny’s autograph which provided the key to the very serious meaning of his apparently jocular pen name. The uncovered secret of the pen name helped, in its turn, read many of Chorny’s émigré poems and prose works under a new light, and phrase his ideological program of the time as a succinct hypotext.

In the second section (chapters 3 and 4), the analysed objects are the smallest textual segments whose understanding cannot be reduced to the language norm. In chapter 3, the solution is found thanks to the narrow context, i.e. the whole phrase which the segment in question is the part of; in chapter 4, thanks to the subtext. If in the first of these two cases we deal with a neologism which cannot be unequivocally explained outside the context, in the second one, on the contrary, we analyse a fixed phrase, which in isolation, outside the context, is no more than a frozen language formula.

Chapter 3 is focused on a raunchy hint in Rabelais’s novel contained within a phrase which consists of two same-root neologisms: resvoient aux resvoirs. Since this phrase is a part of a listing jointly with four other similar phrases, which, however, do not deviate from the standard literary norm, it can be confidently interpreted: this is about the use of a special recipient for a certain bodily need, which is a routine for the Abbey of Thelema monks. The history of Rabelais’s Russian translations offers the interpreter a unique possibility to check his intuitive guess. Unlike their English-language colleagues, for example, Russian translators and their editors of various eras, acting within the framework of pre-emptive censorship and definitely scandalized by a suave hint in the usually very direct Rabelaisian text, went on to falsify the classical text, either omitting the shocking phrase, or replacing it with something else, quite innocuous. Rabelais’s ribald hint presents itself as the bottleneck which we can use to correct our customary view of the nature of Rabelaisian humour.

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The phrase used in chapter 4 (earthly gods) appears in two different verse fragments by Pushkin, both referring to his Cleopatra conception. In neither of them it can be defined offhand who exactly are specified as earthly gods, but comparative analysis seems to demonstrate that in these two cases they cannot be the same subjects. I tried to prove that Pushkin, while remaining within the invariant of standard meanings of the earthly gods formula (though combining these standard meanings quite fancifully), in both cases added to that an additional implicit formula-free semiosis by means of an exquisite subtextual device, alluding to the leitmotif image of the four elements in Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra.” The overall analysis of that Shakespearean leitmotif offers us a hypotextual key to interpreting these fragments by Pushkin as an integral whole.

The third section (chapters 5 and 6), contrasting with the second, analyses macro units of artistic communication. They can be defined as ideostyles. The bottleneck through which the texts of an author’s corpus run into a single artistic system is a certain rhetorical unit in both cases, a figure or trope.

Chapter 5 offers a unified synchronous approach to Leo Tolstoy’s poetics within a four-part narratological algorithm. It is known that working on his estrangement theory, Viktor Shklovsky was inspired by Tolstoy’s work and for that reason focused mostly on the kind of estrangement typical for Tolstoy: the estrangement oriented against the automated perception, overvaluing (not undervaluing) its object. The main motivation for that kind of estrangement is an auxiliary device which can be called an incomprehension figure. It is manifested through the character’s or narrator’s sincere or pretended incomprehension of something that is perceived by other characters or the reader as self-evident. This is, for instance, the incomprehension of cultural codes by the bearer of the natural essence or a member of a different culture; incomprehension of nature by a representative of civilization, etc. With Tolstoy, the application of the incomprehension figure had snowballed into a principle which became the foundation of his whole artistic system and, with time, penetrated the writer’s very personality. Depending on this or that function of the incomprehension figure, Tolstoy chooses one of the four basic narratological combinations created by two dichotomies: the diegetic or non-diegetic narrator, and personal or narratorial point of view. Each of these combinations points to a certain ethical status of the recipient or the object perceived; their hierarchized invariant creates an ethical vertical which is pivotal for the whole Tolstovian worldview.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (June)
literary interpretation strategies anti-Semitism censorship estrangement four elements
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 222 pp., 9 fig. b/w

Biographical notes

Evgeny Soshkin (Author)

Evgeny Soshkin holds a PhD from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem where he now participates in a collective research project. He is the author of the Russian language monograph Hypogrammar: A Book on Mandelstam (2015) as well as articles on literary theory, history, and poetics.


Title: Bottlenecks