Prof. Katherine Lahti and the Dithyramb of Russia

3 min read


Sitting across from me in an office filled with books on Vladimir Nabokov, Dostoevsky, Myakovksy, and Anna Akhmatova, is Prof. Katherine Lahti. She looks like she just walked off the stage of a production of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Her long braids and maroon knit cap reminded me of the primitive dancers in the composer’s early 20th century ballet, depicting the sacrifice of a young woman in a seasonal rite.

Her new book, published in May, The Russian Revival of the Dithyramb: A Modernist Use of Antiquity (2018) is appropriate to her style. Before we go any further, we have to explain what a dithyramb is. As she wittily places at the start of chapter one as a quote from her colleague at a conference:  “Just tell us one thing: What is a dithyramb?”

Well, she says, it all started about 2000 years ago. “The dithyramb is an ancient Greek wild poem (or song, since dithyrambs were sung to music played by instruments), and the ancient Greeks sang it to the god Dionysus.” She told me, “A dithyramb was originally a wild rite sung to the god Dionysus performed by women in the hills. They would kill and eat bulls with their bare teeth and hands.” “They might have killed goats with their bare teeth, too, we don’t know.” The dithyramb was always a group exercise led by a singular, entrancing leader.

Crazy stuff. Don’t see a lot of that today. Or maybe we do. Lahti traced the revival of the dithyramb forward through Russian poetry and music. Russians, and France’s Matisse, became interested in the dithyramb and the character of Dionysus at the turn of the 20th Century. Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring is a dithyramb, as she explains in Chapter nine. Matisse’s La Danse   is also a dithyramb.

But why did the Russians have to revive this dance that had been dead for thousands of years?    Why the Russians? Prof. Lahti explains, in a tone that convinces you that her broad judgement of the Russian people is definitively correct: “Russians have always loved group action. They don’t like individualism. They’re natural communists. They like things in groups. The Dithyramb was a group form.” Also, she says, “everyone likes sex, and the dithyramb incorporated all sorts of sex.” Her book is a whirling exercise of a not-often discussed topic in Russian literature, and once you pick it up, you won’t be able to put it down.

Lahti is teaching a class on Dostoevsky in the spring which she would love students to sign up for. Her passion that is evident in the book is even more contagious in the clasroom

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