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Poetry and Anthropology
We are grateful to the Publishing house Bucknell University Press for the permission to use the fragment of the book on this site. The complete article is published in: Olga Sedakova. Freedom to believe: philosophical and cultural essays. Bucknell University Press, 2010.
To speak about poetry (and about art in general) in connection with anthropology is not a trivial task at all. Is poetry as "An Experiment about Man"? What does it mean: poetry as a source of knowledge about man? Or about his concrete species homo poeta? Or about this homo poeta as about a certain special and universal state, which to this or that degree is inherent in anyone (as it is suggested in the well known words of Holderlin: Dichterisch wobnet der Mensch)? Or are we speaking here about poetry as about some kind of anthropological practice, as about an act of "recognizing yourself?" However, each of these two great words will be under question as soon as we begin speaking about poetry. First of all, does art teach you to know yourself or to do something else with yourself? If we believe Pushkin, then it is something else:

And they teach us the first lesson:
To respect ourselves.

And secondly, if man learns something through art, then does it mean that it is about himself? In any case, from what many artists are saying, we can conclude that it can be anything you want, but not yourself. In fact you should forget about yourself. How? For example, in the most widespread method — to run, to run away from human society, from man, that is, from the "human, all too human" in yourself. To run into either the solitary desert or into inner immigration: to assume a superhuman position in human reality. For example, the position of the tragic chorus or of "a contemplator of the quiet and witness of the necessary" (author's comments of Aleksandr Blok to his poem "A Girl from Spoleto"). A poet and if not man then people definitely are too often divided by two different sides of the truth:

O people, the wretched kin...
How often does a man pass you
At whom the blind and tempestuous age swears
And whose lofty look in the next generation
Will bring delight and affection to a poet.

>i>People, as we see from this contrast drawn by Pushkin, are wild and irresponsible. Meanwhile, the poet is not humanly attentive. Perhaps, this obvious and often defiant thrust of poetry to run away from everything human explains the fact that it rarely becomes the subject of anthropological interest.

Mythology and anthropology are a different matter, this combination is already traditional: after all, the turning to archaic society, to a different person, to the living experience of pensée sauvage laid the foundation of modern scholarly works on anthropology. It was turning to non-concrete themes of archaic beliefs and thought, but to the very structure of that consciousness, called "pre-logic" or "metaphoric" (Olga Freidenberg): the consciousness that learns everything that it learns through complacency and co-participation and not subject-object distancing.

Shouldn't we treat poetry as a relic of this pensée sauvage, as something like an Indian reservation in the civilization of skyscrapers, as an island of the pre-conceptual, that for some reason survived on the margins of the cultural man of a completely different nature, in a safe "aesthetic" zone, the first characteristic of which is the separation from the practical? Unlike the primal myths and metaphors, these later ones are private, "for a single person," but they are also whole in some way, they also compose a certain systematic whole that is called the "world of a poet." Essentially, such a mythology gives a good monographic study of someone's "poetic world": for example, "the Poetic World of Tyutchev." From such a description we would be able to determine what in this world happens with Night, Day, Chaos, etc. However, a naïve question is not posed here: what is, properly speaking, the relationship of each of these "worlds" to our common world, which of the two is real for the author, and if both are, then in what way — one as "external" and another one as "internal"? But "mythological man" did not have two worlds at his disposal! A poet, to the contrary (with the exception of such special cases as Velimir Khlebnikov), as a rule, distinguishes "poetic truth" from a "prosaic" or "physical one."

The earth is immobile. You, Creator,
Support the vault of the heavens.
Let them not fall onto the lands and waters
And bury us under their weight.

"Bad physics, but what a daring poetry!" Pushkin noted in his self-commentaries. And what is poetry here? What do we share with the author without "aesthetic" or ironic estrangement? The ancient image of a firm sky, supported by pillars or its de-objectified power?

Translated by Slava I. Yastremski
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"In the Vestal Abyss of a Line of Verse": On Meaning in Poetry and Meaning in Doctrine
Mediocrity as a Social Danger
The Light of Life. Some Remarks On the Russian Orthodox Perception
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The Morality of Art, or the Evils of Mediocrity
Once again about Childhood, Poetry, and Courage. Answers for Elena Stepanian
Hermes. The Invisible Aspect of Classical Literature
A Discourse on Method
 Poetry and Anthropology
On the Nature of Tradition
Freedom as Eschatological Reality
Waiting for a Response
Totus Tuus
In Memory of John Paul II
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