Campus & Community

Conjuring up a self:

6 min read

From Pushkin’s virtuosity to Shvarts’ ventriloquism, Sandler searches for the ‘created self’

Stephanie Sandler
Stephanie Sandler, professor of Slavic languages and literature, fell into Russian poetry almost in spite of herself, initially attracted to the “passionate chaos” of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novels and later, the virtuosity of Pushkin’s prose. (Staff photo by Jane Reed)
Stephanie Sandler wears a deep blue stone on one hand and a wide gold wedding band on the other. These are idiosyncratic pieces – large for her fingers, a little irregular in shape, strong statements for such a slight and self-contained woman. She has something of the ballerina’s mien about her – erect, watchful – and indeed, she danced for 11 years, from the time she was 4 until she started reading Russian novels as a teenager. Then she stopped dancing; but her mind has continued to sketch precise and unpredictable movements, always graceful in their arcs, a little dangerous in their turns, absorbing to behold.

Sandler, professor of Slavic languages and literature, comes to Harvard after 20 years at Amherst College; she has taught at Mount Holyoke and Princeton as well. She specializes in Russian poetry, especially the 19th century writer Alexander Pushkin and contemporary women poets such as Olga Sedakova and Elena Shvarts.

“She’s definitely regarded as one of a handful of really superb students of Russian poetry in this country,” says William Todd, Curt Hugo Reisinger Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at Harvard, and a former teacher of Sandler’s at Yale. “And among the people who study issues of gender and sexuality, she is one of very few in Slavic studies who do this in an informed and theoretically sophisticated way.”

Sandler fell into Russian poetry almost in spite of herself, initially attracted to the “passionate chaos” of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novels and later, the virtuosity of Pushkin’s prose.

Growing up in Houston, Texas, she was “very verbal” – a high school debater and an endless reader. In her mid-teens, she says, “I became increasingly interested in ideas and history and philosophy. And among the things that really sustained my interest were a couple of Dostoevsky’s novels.”

“Crime and Punishment” and “The Possessed” introduced Sandler to unusual characters, an intensity of emotion, and a range of philosophical ideas. “I was fascinated. It was truly a test to understand a very different culture and a very different way of thinking about the world,” she says. And unlike American and British novels, which exerted subtle pressure on her to master them, Russian literature, in its very foreignness, gave her the freedom to dwell in ambiguity. “This was a chance to really be in the presence of something that I could think about in an open-ended way, and meditate on, and come back to.”

In graduate school at Yale in the late 1970s, Sandler moved from a study of Pushkin’s prose to focusing on his poetry.

“Even more than the most indirect narratives in novels, poems put you in a position of figuring out the story,” she says. “And within Russian culture, poets end up being symbolic, creative figures – they have much more symbolic status than I think they do in other cultures – and that in itself was fascinating to me.”

Her dissertation on Pushkin’s historical writings led to a several-year exploration of a theme she continues to mine today: self-creation. Pushkin, who is often called Russia’s “national poet” – an early, and enduring, figure in its literary culture – cultivated remoteness as part of his image as a poet, yet asserted a powerful hold on his readers’ imagination. “I began to be less interested in how he wrote history, and more interested in how he wrote about himself,” Sandler says.

The facts: Stephanie Sandler

  • Born: May 1, 1953
  • Education:
    A.B. summa cum laude, Princeton University (1975), M.A. Yale University (1978), Ph.D. Yale University (1982)
  • Career highlights:
    Career highlights: 1980-1981 Princeton University: part-time Lecturer in Romance Languages and Slavic Languages and Literatures; 1981-1984 Mount Holyoke College and Amherst College: Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian; 1984-2000 Amherst College: Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, Professor of Russian and Women’s and Gender Studies; 1999-2000 Harvard University: Visiting Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature; 2001- Harvard University: Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature
  • Selected publications:
    “Self and Story in Russian History,” co-edited with Laura Engelstein, 2000
    “Rereading Russian Poetry,” edited collection, 1999
    “Sexuality and the Body in Russian Culture,” co-edited with Jane Costlow and Judith Vowles, 1993
    “Distant Pleasures: Alexander Pushkin and the Writing of Exile,” 1989
  • Personal: Married, one son, two step-daughters
  • “How a writer imagines himself as a writer, how characters imagine themselves – it’s a sort of magic that’s created, if you think about it. We’re just looking at these words on a page, and somehow you read a description of somebody and you see a face, you conjure up a person. And of course, in poetry, if the poet’s writing in what seems to be an act of self-expression, then we’re imagining some kind of identity for that poet. I’m intrigued with the way in which that happens, and also the ways in which poets get us to do that. They shape our responses, they’re not passive in any way.”

    Elena Shvarts, a contemporary author who interests Sandler, paradoxically defines a poetic self that speaks in other people’s voices. Her personae include a mad nun named Lavinia; and Cynthia, an actual woman who lived in ancient Rome, the beloved of Sextus Propertius.

    “I wouldn’t say you have the direct act of self-creation that you might find in other writers,” Sandler says, “but you have this wonderful indirection, which I think is very compelling.”

    What sort of self has Sandler created? She seems to have the turbulence of Dostoevsky, the limpid, sparkling quality of Pushkin, the discipline and force of the Russian language, and something of Shvarts’ “wonderful indirection.”

    Sandler both concedes and resists any equations between the writers she loves and herself.

    “I do think on some level when we read and read deeply, we probably do see ourselves in many ways. But I hope that the self that we see is always changing and variable. And that we wouldn’t just project who we are, who we want to be, on the text. Texts have an extraordinary integrity of their own and, as deeply as I want to engage with that, I still have to respect that integrity.”