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Lyceum Day – Independence Day for the Soul

© RIA Novosti . Vsevolod Tarasevich / Go to the photo bankTsarskoye Selo
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Almost 200 years ago today (October 19, 1811, in the Russian “old style” Julian calendar, or October 31 “new style – happy Halloween!), Alexander Pushkin was officially inducted with 29 other boys into the Imperial Lyceum established by Tsar Alexander I in the Summer Palace in Tsarskoye Selo, a suburb of St. Petersburg.

Друзья мои, прекрасен наш союз!   
Он как душа, неразделим и вечен – 
Неколебим, свободен и беспечен,   
Срастался он под сенью дружных муз.
Куда бы нас ни бросила судьбина  
И счастие куда б ни повело, 
Всё те же мы: нам целый мир чужбина;
Отечество нам Царское Село.

***

My friends, how beautiful our union is!
Eternal like the soul, it can’t be broken.
It withstands all, free, careless and outspoken
Our links were formed by friendship and the Muse.
Where’er we’re cast by Fate, whate’er it’s storing
Wherever happiness might let us roam
We’re still the same: the whole world’s strange and foreign
And Tsarskoye Selo is our true home.

Almost 200 years ago today (October 19, 1811, in the Russian “old style” Julian calendar, or October 31 “new style – happy Halloween!), Alexander Pushkin was officially inducted with 29 other boys into the Imperial Lyceum established by Tsar Alexander I in the Summer Palace in Tsarskoye Selo, a suburb of St. Petersburg. Six years’ continuous education (with no visits home or leaving school grounds allowed) was to be provided free of charge to young nobles destined for “highest offices in the service of the state.” The Lyceum was housed in a wing of the Imperial Palace itself. Its library was the Tsar’s personal library.The teachers included some of the most liberal minds in the Russian Empire: Kunitsyn, professor of moral sciences, boldly lectured against serfdom, and preached “natural law” and the teachings of Adam Smith. The French master was none other than the brother of the French revolutionary leader Marat.

On October 109, a date Pushkin would revere all his life and commemorate in seven separate poems, the Lyceum was opened with due formality and pageantry; the Tsar took particular pride in this noble experiment he had launched. Yet no sooner was the imperial pomp of the inaugural ceremony concluded, than all the boys ran out and got into a rousing snowball fight. It was as if from the very moment of the Lyceum’s founding, a certain mischievous joyousness dispelled the dreariness of millennial un-freedom.

In passionate friendship, and wild spirit of boisterous boyish freedom, sheer play, joyous excess, rivalry mixed with puerile, yet cheerful humor, these boys, blithe to dictates of officialdom and hitherto unquestioned hierarchical norms, cheerfully matured through deliberate immaturity. It was their very willingness to be silly that somehow gave them that abiding reverence for a higher purpose in life, a devotion to art, honor, freedom, friendship, and above all love, that came to be called “the spirit of the Lyceum.”

С младенчества дух песен в нас горел,  Since youth, in us Song’s spirit ever burned,
И дивное волненье мы познали;             With a divine disquiet us inspiring
С младенчества две музы к нам летали, Since youth towards us two Muses fleet
                                                                           came flying
И сладок был их лаской наш удел:         Sweet was our lot caressing them in turn.

The Lyceum’s curriculum seemed almost absurdly ambitious, especially for such young pranksters as these: “1. grammar: instruction in the Russian, Latin, French, and German languages; 2. moral sciences: introduction to religion, philosophy, ethics, and logic; 3. mathematics and physical sciences, algebra, physics, and trigonometry; 4. historical sciences: history of Russia and foreign countries, geography, and chronology; 5. foundations of literature: excerpts from the best authors, analysis, rules of rhetoric; 6. fine arts, gymnastics, calligraphy, drawing, dancing, fencing, horsemanship, and swimming…” 

    We all did study (more or less so)
    Something or other at some time...

Had Pushkin taken it all seriously, maybe he would have become, like Prince Gorchakov, first head boy, then, one day, heaven forbid - Chancellor of the Russian Empire. But in his Notes on Pushkin, the Decembrist Ivan Pushchin (Pushkin’s beloved “Jeannot”) remembered about his best friend that:

We all saw Pushkin was way ahead of us, had read many things of which the rest of us had never even heard, and had remembered all he’d read. Yet the best thing about him was that he never showed off or acted important as gifted people often do at that age. On the contrary, he held all learning to be nonsense, and was only ever busy trying to prove that he was a swift sprinter, or could jump over piled up chairs, or hurl a ball…

Above all, Pushkin loved strolling in the magnificent park of the Imperial Palace.

И часто я украдкой убегал                         And often on the sly I used to slip
В великолепный мрак чужого сада,        Through a forbidden garden’s splendid murk,
Под свод искусственный порфирных скал.    Beneath the artificial purple cliffs.   
Там нежила меня теней прохлада;               In shadows’ cool I basked, an idle boy:
Я предавал мечтам свой юный ум,               I gave my youthful mind up to my dreams
И праздномыслить было мне отрада.            And idle musing was my greatest joy.

In a first draft of Eugene Onegin, Pushkin reminisced:

В те дни, когда в садах Лицея                    Back then, when in the Lycée’s garden
Я безмятежно расцветал,                           I unrebelliously bloomed,
Читал охотно Елисея,                                Read keenly Elisey’s Tale charming,
А Цицерона проклинал,                             Thought Cicero an old buffoon,
В те дни, как я поэме редкой                     Back then, when even a rare poem
Не предпочел бы мячик меткий,                  Meant less to me than balls well thrown,
Считал схолистику за вздор                       And I thought schoolwork was a bore,
И прыгал в сад через забор,                       Into the park the fence leaped o’er.
Когда порой бывал прилежен,                     When I at times could be quite zealous,
Порой ленив, порой упрям,                         Lazy at times, other times tough,
Порой лукав, порою прям.                          Sometimes quite cunning, sometimes gruff,
Порой смирен, порой мятежен.                   Subdued at times, at times rebellious,
Порой печален, молчалив,                          Sometimes so sad, in silence pent,
Порой сердечно говорлив,                          Sometimes heartfeltly  eloquent,

Когда в забвенье перед классом                 When, lost in trances before lessons,
Порой терял я взор и слух,                         I’d lose my sight, my hearing dimmed,
И говорить старался басом,                        Tried answering with new bass voice questions,
И стриг над губой первый пух,                    And shaved the first down off my lip,
В те дни…в те дни, когда впервые               Back then…back then, when I first noted
Заметил я черты живые                              The traits and ways, with eyes devoted,
Прелестной девы и любовь                         Of maids enchanting, and when love
Младую взволновала кровь,                       Was always stirring my young blood,
И я, тоскуя безнадежно,                            And I, just sighing for love vainly,
Томясь обманом пылких снов,                     Thrashed in the wake of passion’s dreams,
Везде искал ее следов.                              I sought love everywhere, it seems,
Об ней задумывался нежно,                       And daydreamed just of love so gently,
Весь день минутной встречи ждал               All day for one fleet meeting yearned,
И счастье тайных мук узнал.                      The joys of secret suffering learned.

В те дни - во мгле дубравных сводов,         Back then, ‘neath oak-groves’ arching sadness,
Близ вод, текущих в тишине,                      By waters flowing quietly,
В углах лицейских переходов                     In my Lyceum’s corner pathways
Являться муза стала мне.                         The Muse began to come to me.
Моя студенческая келья,                          My little student cell monastic,
Доселе чуждая веселья,                           Which, until now, had not known gladness,
Вдруг озарилась! Муза в ней                     At once was gleaming, and the Muse   
Открыла мир своих затей;                         Laid there a feast of songs to choose.
Простите, хладные науки!                         Farewell to ye, cold sciences!
Простите, игры первых лет!                       I’m now from youthful games estranged!
Я изменился, я поэт,                                I am a poet now; I’ve changed.
В душе моей едины звуки                         Within my soul both sounds and silence
Переливаются, живут,                              Pour into one another, live,
В размере сладкие бегут.                         In measures sweet both take and give.

И, первой нежностью томима,                   Still of first tenderness a dreamer,
Мне муза пела, пела вновь                       My Muse could never sing enough
(Amorem canat aetas prima)                      (Amorem canat aetas prima)
Все про любовь да про любовь.                All about love, and love, and love.
Я вторил ей - младые други                      I echoed her, and my friends youthful
В освобожденные досуги                         In leisured hours at ease, unrueful,
Любили слушать голос мой.                     Would love to listen to my voice.
Они, пристрастною душой                        How passionate their souls rejoiced
Ревнуя к братскому союзу,                      With zealous brotherly enthusing:
Мне первый поднесли венец,                    They first of all did laurels bring
Чтоб им украсил их певец                        To me, that for them I might sing
Свою застенчивую музу.                          The fruits of my still timid musing.
О, торжество невинных дней!                    Oh, joy of innocence of old!
Твой сладок сон душе моей.                     How sweet your dream is to my soul!

Pushkin’s teachers were hardly thrilled by his deliberate and principled flippancy. His favorite teacher Kunitsyn complained: “Pushkin expresses himself clearly, intelligently, and wittily, but is extremely lazy.” Together with Pushchin and Malinovsky, Pushkin was always getting up to some prank or other, chasing the coquettish maids-in-waiting in the Palace, and brewing illicit hot egg creams laced with rum. For this he would be denied meals and made to kneel in prayer for two days, but to no avail, for “he wrote everywhere, especially in math class.”

Even his very first poem in 1813 “To Natalya” (a young actress in the famous serf theater of Count Tolstoy) was already about love, and even his first publication was a prank played by his friends, who sent his manuscript of  “To a Friend who Writes Poems” to the journal Herald of Europe, listing its author as “N.K.CH.P.”  (Pushkin backwards). But the healing beauty of nature itself was also a deeply powerful theme: there is something about Tsarskoye Selo that truly evokes a sense of longing, of missing even the place in which one still is, for one feels its eternal beauty within its ephemeral autumn grace. Somehow it reminds me of famous haiku by the 17th century Zen master Matsuo Basho:

Strolling through Kyoto
In spring as the songbirds call,
I long for Kyoto…

In 1815, with his voice “ringing out youthfully,” Pushkin declaimed his “Recollections of Tsarskoye Selo” at a Russian literature examination attended by Russia’s most famous poet at the time, Gavriil Derzhavin. This got him so emotional that: “I don’t remember how I finished reading; I don’t remember where I ran away. Derzhavin was full of admiration, demanded to see me, wanted to embrace me…They looked for me, but couldn’t find me.”

The paradox that those who tried to program young minds for genius, while scowling at the genius that emerged is that the “lazy good-for nothing” Pushkin wrote over 120 poems during his days in the Lyceum, over twenty to young Yekaterina Bakunina, a pretty maid-in-waiting at the palace, while also composing his ironic mini-epic Ruslan and Lyudmila.

In his last year, Pushkin frequently cut class, preferring to carouse with various hussars stationed near the Palace. Yet even these punch-flavored pranks only furthered his education. One of those hussars was Pyotr Chaadayev, a penetrating critic of serfdom and autocracy, who introduced the poet to the English language, the philosophy of Hume and Locke — and to the freedom-loving, lyrical verse of Byron. Forever thinking for himself, rather than just doing what he was told, Pushkin educated himself, befriending the famed Russian historian and sentimental novelist Nikolai Karamzin (and also Karamzin’s wife Yekaterina, whom some scholars believe was Pushkin’s “secret love”). 

On June 9, 1817, Pushkin graduated, scraping by 26th out of 29 in his class, with top marks only in Russian literature (not that he had to study!), French, and fencing. Years later, when Pushkin became famous, one teacher grumbled:  “What’s all this fuss about Pushkin?  He was a scamp — nothing more!” Engelhardt, the Lyceum headmaster, took an even stronger dislike to his most famous pupil, and wrote in Pushkin’s school report in 1816:

Pushkin’s only higher goal is to shine — in poetry, to be precise, though it is doubtful indeed he will ever succeed, because he shuns any serious scholarship, and his mind, utterly lacking in perspicacity or depth, is a completely superficial, frivolous French mind. And that is in fact the best thing that can be said about Pushkin.  His heart is cold and empty: there is neither love nor religion in it. It is perhaps as empty as ever any youth’s heart has ever been.

Let us remember today, as we reflect with gratitude on the good fortune of the coming to naught of Pushkin’s parents original plan to send their young scapegrace to a strict French Jesuit academy in St. Petersburg (which would hardly have nurtured him as he was nurtured with all the warmth of typically Russian benign neglect in the Imperial Lyceum) that in Buddhist meditation practice, “emptiness” is extremely high praise – an achievement of the highest order. Perhaps the very “emptiness”— or openness — of Pushkin’s heart made it such a perfect vessel for sublime expressions of love. At any rate, he knew his “emptiness” was a treasure, a gift not to be cluttered with mere skills for “the service of the state.” 

Служенье муз не терпит суеты;              The Muses’ service brooks no vanity.
Прекрасное должно быть величаво:        The beautiful must always be majestic.

Pushkin always adored the October 19th holiday, celebrating it as his spiritual birthday. How I regret that today I am stuck here in America, missing all the pomp and circumstance and balls and parties of the bicentennial commemoration of the Lyceum’s opening! But I offer a transatlantic word of caution: let us not confuse the glitter with the gold, and wood for the trees. Let us remember always the real essence of “the spirit of the Lyceum” –  chumminess, not snobbery, and deep friendship over frivolous and artificial distinctions of rank. Instead of arid academic drudgery, these boys valued freedom and passion, instead of prim prudishness, sheer joy in the goodness of love, and instead of the church and all its dreary preaching, the trees in the Park, where “I loved, o’er shimm’ring waters, stirring leaves…” 

The true spirit of the Lyceum has nothing to do with the ceremony 200 years ago, and more to do with the ridiculous snowball fight (which reminds us, by the way, as I look out the window at the still entirely green leaves of Central Park, that global warming is real). “The spirit of the Lyceum” is the spirit of freedom. The real holiday we celebrate this Lyceum Day is the independence of the human soul, which makes this, in the end, a holiday for love.

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