November 20, 2015

Unexpected parallels between famously troubled musicians and 19th century Russian novelists (Part 1/4)


Lana del Rey                            Lana Del Rey


What makes a martyr? According to Merriam-Webster, it’s “a person who sacrifices something of great value and especially life itself for the sake of principle.” And while religious martyrs are perhaps the first kind that comes to mind when we think of this word, significant consideration can also be lent to artists of the past. These are the ones who have been famously labelled as tortured geniuses of practically mythic proportions, extraordinarily talented libertines fuelled by a greater cause, who suffered as a combined result of bearing the burden of their talent and the inability to save themselves from the destruction that their genius pulled them towards.

In the next three parts of this series, I’ll explore the various similarities between three Russian literary giants and three of who could be construed in some ways as their modern-day, musical counterparts: Lana Del Rey, Amy Winehouse, and lead singer Layne Staley from the band, Alice in Chains.

The three aforementioned writers are considered to be the founding fathers of Russian literature: Aleksander Pushkin (1799-1837), Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841), and Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852). To understand how mentally fraught these writers were one must first understand the history of Russian literature. It’s remarkably brief. It only entered into its own national and global consciousness about two hundred years ago. Before that, Russian intellectuals wrote in French, German, English, or other European languages in large part because they were schooled in those languages, spoke several of them fluently, and could connect with other great thinkers of the Western world that way. However, after the expulsion of Napolean (1812-1815) and the concomitant emergence of Russia’s great poet, Pushkin, the rise of Russian literature was unprecedentedly rapid and intense.

The burden that therefore fell on the first writers of that new literary tradition was a heavy one. They somehow had to articulate that which distinguished their literary heritage as rooted in Russian songs, prayers, and folklore, and combine it with borrowings from their up-to-date knowledge of other European literary traditions, colloquial Russian, and Church Slavonic language. In short, they were responsible for creation of their national literature. The great weight of this immense undertaking, in conjunction with their intense personalities, gradually manifested itself in the personal struggles that Pushkin, Lermontov, and Gogol each faced, which eventually led to their demises: both Pushkin and Lermontov died in dramatic duels while Gogol starved himself to death.

The hauntingly strange part, however, is that the ways in which they died bear striking resemblances to the deaths and attitudes towards death of Del Rey, Winehouse, and Staley. And while the term ‘genius’ is a relative one that may not apply to all the figures discussed here, the duty of carrying on the sacred flame of literature or music is what unifies them and provides the lens through which we will conduct our examination.

Next (part 2/4): Lana Del Rey and Aleksander Pushkin



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