I was deeply shocked and saddened to learn last year of the death of Svetlana Boym. A few weeks ago, at the American Comparative Literature Association annual meeting at Harvard University, I joined colleagues, friends, and family for a session of “Readings in Memory of Svetlana Boym.” Below is my brief contribution to the commemoration of a brilliant scholar.
I first encountered Svetlana’s work, while writing my honours dissertation on Osip Mandelstam and Vladimir Mayakovsky. Her book Death in Quotation Marks was, at that time, a revelation. It opened my mind to the complex intermingling of everyday life and literary fact in Mayakovsky and in Russian literary theory from Viktor Shklovsky to Lidiya Ginzburg and Yuri Lotman. Svetlana’s book also introduced me to the field that would become my own: comparative literature.
I spent the 2003–4 academic year at Harvard University, where I was closely connected to the Slavic Department and so was finally able to meet Svetlana. My book, A Common Strangeness, owes a great deal to her response to a talk I gave that year and to her subsequent invitation to me to contribute to a special issue on estrangement that she edited for Poetics Today.
In my talk, I quoted a passage from Svetlana’s essay “Estrangement as a Lifestyle” where she writes of Shklovsky harbouring “the romantic and avant-garde dream of a reverse mimesis: everyday life can be redeemed if it imitates art, not the other way around.” She commented afterwards that she had come to revise her view. Indeed, in The Future of Nostalgia, she adds a qualification: “Yet estrangement does not allow for a seamless translation of life into art, for the aestheticization of politics or a Wagnerian total work. Art is only meaningful when it is not put entirely in the service of real life or realpolitik, and when its strangeness and distinctiveness is preserved.” Here, Svetlana echoes Walter Benjamin’s caution against the aestheticization of politics, while also worrying––as a child and student of Soviet culture––about the politicization of art for which Benjamin called in the same breath.
In my memory, I can still see Svetlana sitting in Café Pamplona just off Harvard Yard engaged in an intense and raucous discussion with conceptual artist and poet Dmitri Prigov, who famously turned his own life into a literary fact. This memory might lead me to speculate that Svetlana lived life with the same persistent questioning of everydayness and strangeness that I find in her writings––from the Russian opposition between everyday grind and spiritual existence to the relationship between artistic and political freedom. “But,” as Svetlana warns, “responsible theorists should not speculate about unrealized twists of plot. They only try to see how fiction is made, not how life is made.”
I’m glad that Svetlana did not heed her own half-serious admonishment. Without her exploration of the relationship between strangeness and everydayness, art and life would be much the poorer.