Saturday, December 09, 2017

Streams, falling from the heights

'Cliffs stand on both sides like parallel walls.  Here it is so narrow, so very narrow, writes one traveller, that one not only sees but actually feels the narrowness, it seems.  A patch of blue sky appears like a ribbon above one's head.  Streams, falling from the heights of the mountains in thin spurts of spray, reminded me of The Abduction of Ganymede, that strange painting by Rembrandt.  Moreover, the pass is illuminated entirely in his taste.  In some places the Terek is eroding the very feet of the cliffs, and rocks are piled high on the road, like a dam.  Not far from the post a small bridge has been boldly thrown across the river.  Standing on it is like being on a mill.  The whole bridge shakes, while the Terek roars, producing a sound like wheels driving a millstone.'
- Alexander Pushkin, A Journey to Azrum at the Time of the 1829 Campaign, trans. Ronald Wilks
This description of Sublime scenery can be found in the Penguin edition of Tales of Belkin and Other Prose Writings, a book I recall really enjoying when it came out in 1998.  I always seem to be drawn to Russian literature as winter closes in (this month I've been reading Vladimir Nabokov and Svetlana Alexievich); the freezing wind yesterday felt like it had come straight off the Siberian steppes.  John Bayley wrote in his introduction that A Journey to Azrum, a valuable fragment of Pushkin's autobiographical writing, had hitherto been 'impossible to find in translation.'  In five short chapters, Pushkin describes his journey south with the Russian army, who were fighting Turkey at the time.  He was not officially allowed to travel beyond Tiflis but ignored this, much to the annoyance of the Tsar.

Rufin Sudkovsky, Darial Gorge, 1884
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Darial Gorge, which Pushkin describes in his book, is a key site in Russian Romanticism.  In Lermontov's poem 'Demon', the River Terek is compared to a roaring lioness, heard by all the mountains beasts and 'eagles in the azure heights.'  This valley, with its mists and menacing crags, is contrasted with the beautiful fertile plain where the Demon first lays eyes on the Georgian princess, Tamara.  Such contrasts were fundamental to Romantic appreciation of nature and had been theorised with reference to great art, so that travellers in search of the picturesque could relate what they saw to, for example, Salvator Rosa (the Sublime) or Claude Lorrain (the Beautiful).  This habit had became the subject of satire by the end of the eighteenth century and Pushkin was clearly aware of it when he refers to Rembrandt.  If you were unfamiliar with Rembrandt's The Abduction of Ganymede, you might think Pushkin was writing in all sincerity of a heroic landscape painting, one in which Zeus, the eagle, swoops on Ganymede from the azure heights, past cliffs and waterfalls.  Instead, well, one can only say that Pushkin, with typical light-heartedness, was taking the piss. 
Rembrandt, The Abduction of Ganymede, 1635
Source: Wikimedia Commons

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