The once and future Mandelstam
Borges got bored easily, especially in the decades he spent as an old and blind man, and his claim that conflict and chaos are the seedbeds of art may have been intended as a provocation, rather than a serious argument. When we consider the masterpieces created by writers, painters, architects, auteurs, and even poster-makers in early twentieth century Russia, though, it is hard not wonder whether Borges might have had a point.
Men and women like Malevich, Pasternak, Khlebnikov, Akhmatova, and Eisenstein had to cope with three revolutions, the German invasion of their homeland, a Civil War, and first Tsarist then Stalinist dictatorship, and yet they managed to produce work which still resonates around the world today. How many of us, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, would be brave enough to predict that the feted artists of our era will enjoy the same longevity? Damien Hirst may have made a lot more money than Kasimir Malevich, but his images look derivative and trivial besides the great visionary canvases of the man who invented and then went beyond absolute abstract art. James Cameron may have bigger budgets and fancier gadgets than Eisenstein enjoyed, but his Titanic looks pretty flimsy besides the Marxist master's Battleship Potemkin.
Osip Mandelstam was perhaps the most singular of all the geniuses who flourished amidst the chaos of revolutionary Russia. Raised in St Petersburg by Jewish parents, he was one of the young modernists who sought to revolutionise Russian poetry in the first two decades of the twentieth century, by replacing the over-elaborate language and cliched imagery of nineteenth century trends like Romanticism and Symbolism with work that was both crisply phrased and elliptical. From the start of his career, though, Mandelstam had a fiercely idiosyncratic understanding of the modernist mission.
Since the early nineteenth century, at least, Russian intellectuals had been divided in their attitudes toward the wealthier nations to their west. Russian governments encouraged them to study abroad, and to appropriate some of the new knowledge and technologies which had appeared in industrial societies like Britain. But while some Russian writers and thinkers looked to the West for inspiration, others reacted against what they saw as the devaluation of their own culture and people, and tried to ground their work in the Russian countryside and peasantry. The conflict between Westernism and Russophilia was exemplified by Dostoevsky, who denounced the West as decadent and proclaimed Russia the cultural and spiritual centre of the world, yet spent years in the literary salons and gambling dens of Paris and Geneva.
The division over European modernity was replicated inside Russian radical politics, as groups like the Narodniks and the Social Revolutionaries advocated agitation in the countryside and the creation of an agrarian form of socialism, while the Bolsheviks insisted on the urban working class as the main agent of revolution, and on industrialisation as the way to a new society.
Like their forebears, the modernist intellectuals of the early twentieth century agonised over their relationship with the West. Some of them thought that Russia had to be ruthlessly rationalised and modernised, so that science and industry took the place of priests and the plough. Others, like the great Futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov, insisted that the answers to Russia's many problems lay in the country's remote rural interior, with the folk stories and folk magic of peasants and nomads. After wandering deep into the woodlands and marshes of the east and also exploring dictionaries of various medieval Slavic tongues, Khlebnikov developed a dialect of his own called 'Zaum', which he thought capable not only of describing but also magically altering reality, after the manner of the imps and goblins which inhabit Russian mythology.
Osip Mandelstam opted out of the great debate between Westernising and Russophile intellectuals. Born in Warsaw to middle class Jewish parents and raised in St Petersburg, he was fascinated from an early age not with industrial northern Europe but with the ancient civilisations of the Mediterranean. Mandelstam's poetry brings together, in a strange but unaffected way, the turbulent Russia of the early twentieth century, with its barricaded streets and cavalry charges over frozen lakes, and the warm, pagan, sensual Greece of Homer and Aristophanes. The black soil of the ancient south is slipped under the blood-stained snows of revolutionary Russia. Mandelstam welcomed the overthrow of Tsarism in February 1917, and he was able to publish his poems and earn a living as a journalist during the first few years of Bolshevik rule, but Stalin's rise to power in the mid-'20s was a disaster for him.
Like so many megalomaniacal dictators, Stalin had appalling taste in art. He despised the avant-garde writing and painting which had proliferated in the early days of the Soviet Union, and he demanded that artists abide by the miserable propagandistic aesthetic known as 'socialist realism'. Suddenly the penalty for innovation was prison or death.
Late in 1933, during a walk through a frozen Moscow with Boris Pasternak, Mandelstam whispered the words to a new poem into his friend's ear:
We live, deaf to the land beneath us,
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches,
All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer,
The murderer and peasant-slayer.
His fingers are fat as grubs
And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips,
His cockroach whiskers leer
And his boot tops gleam...
Pasternak turned on his heel, looked urgently at Mandelstam and said "You didn't say that - and I didn't hear it". Despite Pasternak's urgings, Mandelstam failed to suppress his criticism of Stalin, and in 1934 he was sent into exile in the small provincial town of Voronezh. Lonely and frightened, the poet had a mental breakdown, and attempted to redeem himself by producing the sort of 'Ode to Stalin' that was becoming popular amongst Soviet writers. But Mandelstam's aesthetic conscience kept interfering with his desire to placate 'the Kremlin mountaineer', and his poem evolved from a sonorous piece of grovelling into 'Lines to an Unknown Soldier', a long, anguished meditation on destruction and tyranny. Mandelstam was sent to a labour camp in Russia's far east in 1938, and seems to have died later that year. In a number of the poems he wrote in the last decade of his life the vast cold pine forest of Siberia is imagined as both sinister and somehow welcoming place. Like Homer's land of the lotus eaters, Siberia's taiga offers both sanctuary and oblivion:
The wolfhound age springs at my shoulders
though I'm no wolf by blood.
Better to be stuffed up a sleeve like a fleece cap
in a fur coat from the steppes of Siberia...
Lead me into the night by the Yenesey
where the pine touches the star.
I'm no wolf by blood,
and only my own kind will kill me.
Osip Mandelstam's continuing hold over readers far from his homeland is shown by the publication of a new book of English-language translations of his work. In a review of Ecco Press' Stolen Air: Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam for the Washington Post, Michael Dirda quotes Mandelstam's claim that 'Only in Russia' is poetry properly 'respected', because only in Russia is poetry 'so common a motive for murder'. Borges might have smiled sadly at that piece of irony.
Mandelstam's poems have not been forgotten by twenty-first century New Zealand writers. In 'Ovid in Otherworld', the final, feverish section of his 2008 novel EMO, Jack Ross quotes Mandelstam at length, as he meditates on the connections between exile and creativity.
Hamish Dewe and I discovered Mandelstam as undergraduates at the University of Auckland back in the 1990s, and over the years we've swapped copies of various editions of his work, arguing over the merits of this or that version of this or that poem.
When Hamish edited the 43rd issue of brief last year, I took the opportunity to fling numerous submissions at him, and in return received the expected series of laconically enlightening criticisms. Here's one of the poems Hamish did accept for brief #33, along with his commentary:
pick up the radio set
carry it out of the living room
walk down your street
walk past the hairdressers
the park emptied punctually
at half-past five
walk into the taiga
find the fir tree
the fir tree I
find the axe growing
like a smooth perfect branch
pull the axe from its wound
swing it into the earth
break open the permafrost's empty
bury the radio standing up
like a horse
and cover your work with pine needles
in three thousand years a Mapuche-Hungarian miner
will pick the radio from his day's dredgings
and remember a fossilised trilobite
he will lay his ear on the sodden cloth of the speaker
and hear Ulysses returning to Ithaca
in orderly hexameters
From: Hamish Dewe
I think it is better without the first lines, starting mysteriously in medias res. With the first lines, the first stanza begins to feel either slightly quotidian or perhaps a little Gogol-surreal (a feeling reinforced by the almost shamanistic repetitiveness of some of the phrasing (find the fir tree / the fir tree I / described // find the axe).
Mandelstam as a b-boy with a ghetto-blaster on his shoulder.
Isn't it 'delicatessEn'?
Without agency, in the guise of fate, Osip transmits the gossip of the wireless century (news that stays news) into the mestizo future.
Lift the carcass to your ear, imagine you hear the sea, across which the hero attempts home. At this distance, who remembers the names of the crew, or M's siberian jailers?
Walk out of the trivial, the familiar and hence unknown, into the oracular preordained wilds. Spend your years in the wilderness to return as the voice of Mosaic Truth.
The axe is surely a much better symbol than the sword (pulled out of the stone, or revealed from the still waters of the lake) for the people's Arthurian hero (the once and future Mandelstam!)
[Posted by Maps/Scott]