June 29, 2008

Queen of Spades

The Queen of Spades is a short story written by Pushkin. It is incredibly macabre. A young officer learns that one of his friend's grandmothers has a secret ability to win games of cards, having been told of how to win by the Comte de St Germain, the famous occult figure. She henceforward is able to win in every game she gambles in. She passes this secret on once, on the understanding that the man she passed it to would never use it ever again once he had played three times. The story concerns events set years afterwards, when a young officer, called Herman, who desires the secret and will do anything- including seducing the grandmother's young companion, to get the secret and obtain a fortune. The story sounds and is simple enough, it has macabre twists and dark moments aplenty.

But beyond the fantastic story, there is something else here. The story is not just a thrilling yarn, it is also a description of a society. Russia at the eve of the 19th Century was a society in flux. The social reforms of Peter the Great had produced a society where rank was assigned on the basis of service to the state. That left a society filled with minor civil servants and junior officers. A society one might think of useless butterflies. All of the characters in Pushkin's tale are beautiful and brilliant, but they are also all useless. They have charm and sophistication but they are all superfluous. The grandmother for instance was a beauty at the court of France, but her beauty has faded and now she is merely an imperious old woman, holding court at balls amongst the children of people she knew. Her grandson is an officer, fine eppaulettes but basically frivolous, he exists in the whirl of balls and losing games. Chasing princesses and cards, he lives for nothing but his idleness. Her companion Lizaveta is the most useful character, but she is confined by the demands of her Grandmother and her imperious hauteur. Lastly there is Herman.

Herman announces right at the beggining of the short story his attitude to cards:

Cards interest me very much but I am not in a position to risk the neccessary in the hope of acquiring the superfluous.

Herman's statement is incredibly interesting. It demonstrates a cleverness, a mannerdness which produces the paradox. But paradox is dangerous, it demonstrates cleverness but also demonstrates an ability to twist concepts around in a morally dubious way. Herman furthermore is developed from another story of Pushkin that involved the seduction of a girl called Lisa (again) by letters, as in a Richardson novel. The point of Herman therefore is that he is a skilled seducer with words, hiding his disdain for the superfluous, whilst really fiercely desiring it. Of course wealth in this world is superfluous, it is not needed for the good life, but on the other hand as there seems to be no view of the good life, wealth in a nihilist world is the only thing that is there to be desired. Herman is a logical decendant of Valmont and the other cynical schemers of 18th Century European high society.

Pushkin of course merges that high society with the darkness of witchcraft and psychological breakdown. This is high society with an undershade of the macabre. The macabre is there to denote the victims of the intrigues- what the 18th Century critics of High Society got, just like a Fellini, was the dark side of the worlld of balls and gamblers. The dark side here is partly deception and partly magic, in truth there is little difference between the supernatural and the natural here. Magic is just another form of deceit. Ultimately the macabre, Pushkin reminds us, is the essence of the courtly life- of the superfluous life.


Anonymous said...

It would have been nice to have lived then wouldn't it? I would like to be a superfluous butterfly thingey chasing Princesses and cards and whatnot...sounds fun! There used to be a brand of flavoured Vodka called Pushkins... just thought I would mention it.