a little paper about a little psyche
In his 1778 mock epic Dushenka, Ippolit Bogdanovich presents a “modern” retelling of Apuleius’s tale of Eros and Psyche, taking Psyche as his heroine and renaming her Dushenka. A common term of endearment in Russian, this word takes dusha, “soul,” as its root and riffs on it, producing a “little soul,” a “darling soul,” perhaps a “sweetheart” or even a “little Psyche.”
Dushenka is objectified throughout much of the epic: she is treated as an object of sexual desire, a possession in her husband’s palace, an object acted-on by narrative events. Because so much of the epic treats her, Dushenka’s psyche, or psychology, is of major concern in this work, and I would like to look closely at one rare instance that does reveal her interiority: the scene in which she consummates her marriage to Eros without seeing him. This is a moment in the text where Dushenka’s uncertainty about her lover is transmuted onto the narrative level—the narrator, too, begins to profess ignorance of the details of Eros’s identity, and of the details of their nights together. As Dushenka’s experience of ignorance grows to become the reader’s own ignorance, her character sheds its earlier shell of objecthood and gains subjectivity.
This scene takes place perhaps a few hours (a few paragraphs, some fifty lines) after a really remarkable moment: Dushenka dresses in fine clothes—gifts from her husband—and desires to inspect her appearance. No sooner has the narrator conveyed this wish than “at her very glance mirrors sprang up everywhere and stood in a great row along the walls before her so that her beauty might in this way be multiplied.” As the image of her body multiplies, so that she becomes more and more visible, more and more easily seen, Dushenka tries to read her own body for clues of her anonymous husband’s identity—and judges from the quality of her new clothing that he is a rich man. Later, alone in bed, she nervously awaits her husband, and her wedding night commences:
…all the servants bowed and then took leave of her. Suddenly, it is not known from where, her husband appeared to her, unseen. And if people ask how did he appear unseen, it is not difficult to answer: he appeared in the dark, and although she could feel him in her embrace she still could not see him. He was like a spirit or a sorcerer, but he did not reveal himself.
Nobody has dared to part the veils of mighty deeds. I do not know what they said to each other nor what the circumstances were at the time. This secret has remained with them forever. But on the following morning the cupids noticed that the nymphs were softly giggling among themselves…the secrecy seemed inexplicable to her. One could say that Dushen’ka did and did not have a husband. He came to her at night and left at dawn.
Just as Dushenka both has and does not have a husband, so the events of their first night together are both known and unknown to her readers. The narrator’s sudden profession of ignorance does not read as a gesture of modesty so much as a sharing in Dushenka’s experience of unknowability. As she has tried to know him by reading his signs on her body in the multiplying mirrors, now she tries to know him by the feel of him on her body. And then the whole experience becomes “inexplicable”—literally impossible to describe—and so the narrator stops trying, and resorts to second-hand evidence: the giggling nymphs the morning after. One could say that we have read and not read of Dushenka’s wedding night.
But this scene differs from the mirror scene: whereas earlier, Dushenka was simply performing the act of reading her husband-to-be, treating her own image as the page and the mirrors as her lens, in this scene she comes to know Eros in the flesh. The night Psyche meets Eros, she ceases to be a mere interpreter of symbols and attains knowledge somehow prior to language. In this moment, behind the “veil of nightly deeds,” Dushenka has an unrepresentable experience—an experience, for all intents and purposes, of the sublime.