Brodsky: Mandelstam, 'The Child of Civilization'.
Note: "The Child of Civilization" dài hơn nhiều so với bài Intro. Sẽ thay thế sau.
For some odd reason, the expression "death of a poet" always sounds somewhat more concrete than "life of a poet." Perhaps this is because both "life" and "poet," as words, are almost synonymous in their positive vagueness. Whereas “death"—even as a word—is about as definite as a poet's own production, i.e., a poem, the main feature of which is its last line. Whatever a work of art consists of, it runs to the finale which makes for its form and denies resurrection. After the last line of a poem nothing follows except literary criticism. So when we read a poet, we participate in his or his works' death. In the case of Mandelstam, we participate in both.
One should bear that in mind while turning these pages, which are so light. Even if it is true that "he became his admirers," their total number is far less interesting than his concise version of them. I am saying this not out of humility (which admirers, especially when totalled, are always lacking), nor because there is no substitute for a genius (and there really is none). I am saying this because what matters in art is precisely the unique, unrepeatable, un-resurrectible mixture of flesh and spirit, and what makes the achievements of the latter all the more precious is the very moribundity of the former.
A work of art is always meant to outlast its maker. Paraphrasing the philosopher, one could say that writing poetry, too, is an exercise in dying. But apart from pure linguistic necessity, what makes one write is not so much a concern for one's perishable flesh but the urge to spare certain things of one's world—of one’s personal civilization—from one's own nongrammatical continuum. Art is not a better, but an alternative existence; it is not an attempt to escape reality but the opposite, an attempt to animate it. It is a spirit seeking flesh but finding words. In the case of Mandelstam, the words happened to be those of the Russian language.
For a spirit, perhaps there is no better accommodation: Russian is a very inflected language. What this means is that the noun could easily be found sitting at the very end of the sentence, and that the ending of this noun (or adjective or verb) varies according to gender, number, and case. All this provides any given verbalization with the stereoscopic quality of the perception itself, and (sometimes) concretizes and develops the latter. The best illustration of this is Mandelstam's handling of one of the main themes of his poetry, the theme of Time.
There is nothing odder than to apply an analytic device to a synthetic phenomenon; for instance, to write in English about a Russian poet. But it wouldn't be much easier to apply such a device in Russian either. Poetry is the supreme result of the entire language, and to analyze it is but to diffuse the focus. It is all the truer of Mandelstam, who is an extremely lonely figure in the context of Russian poetry, and it is precisely the density of his focus that accounts for his isolation. Literary criticism is sensible only when the critic operates on the same plane of both psychological and linguistic regard. The way it looks now, Mandelstam is bound for a criticism coming only from below in either language.
The inferiority of analysis starts with the very notion of theme, be it a theme of time, love, or death. Poetry is, first of all, an art of references, allusions, linguistic and figurative parallels. There is an immense gulf between “homo sapiens” and “homo scribens” because for the writer the notion of theme appears as a result of combining the above techniques and devices, if it appears at all. Writing is literally an existential process; it uses thinking for its own ends, it consumes notions, themes, and the like, not vice versa. What dictates a poem is the language, and this is the voice of the language, which we know under the nicknames of Muse or Inspiration. It is better, then, to speak not about the theme of Time in Mandelstam's poetry, but about the presence of Time itself, both as the entity and the theme, if only because Time has its seat within a poem anyway, and it is a caesura.
So, because of that, Mandelstam, unlike Goethe, never exclaims “O moment, stay! Thou art fair!" but merely tries to extend his caesura. What is more, he does it not so much because of this moment's particular fairness or lack of fairness; his concern (and subsequently his technique) is quite different. It was the sense of an oversaturated existence that the young Mandelstam was trying to convey in his first two collections, and he' chose the portrayal of overloaded Time for the medium. Using all the phonetic and allusory power of words themselves, Mandelstam's verse in that period expresses the slowing-down, lasting sensation of Time's passage. As he succeeds (which he always does), the effect is the reader's realization that the words, even their letters—vowels especially—are almost palpable vessels of Time.
On the other hand, his is not at all that search for bygone days with its obsessive gropings to recapture and to reconsider the past. Mandelstam seldom looks backward in a poem; he is all in the present, in this moment, which he makes continue, linger beyond its own natural limit. The past, whether personal or historical, has been taken care of by the words' own etymology. But however un-Proustian his treatment of Time is, the density of his verse is somewhat akin to the great Frenchman’s prose. In a way, it is the same total warfare, the same frontal attack—but in this case, an attack on the present, and with resources of a different nature. It is extremely important to note, for instance, that in almost every case when Mandelstam happens to deal with this theme of Time, he resorts to a rather heavily caesuraed verse which echoes hexameter either in its beat or in its content. It is usually an iambic pentameter lapsing into alexandrine verse, and there is always a paraphrase or a direct reference to either of Homer's epics. As a rule, this kind of poem is set somewhere by the sea, in late summer, which directly or indirectly evokes the ancient Greek background. This is partly because of Russian poetry's traditional regard for the Crimea and the Black Sea as the only available approximation to the Greek world, of which these places —Taurida and Pontus Euxinus —used to be the outskirts. Take, for instance, poems like “The stream of the golden honey was pouring so slow…," "Insomnia. Homer. Tautly swelling sails. . .," and "There are orioles in woods and lasting length of vowels" where there are these lines:
But once a year Nature is bathed in length,
Which is the source of Homer's metric strength.
Like a caesura that day yawns wide,
The importance of this Greek echo is manifold. It might seem to be a purely technical issue, but the point is that the alexandrine verse is the nearest kin to hexameter, if only in terms of using a caesura. Speaking of relatives, the mother of all Muses was Mnemosyne, the Muse of Memory, and a poem (be it a short one or an epic) must be memorized in order to survive. Hexameter was a remarkable Mnemonic device, if only because of being so cumbersome and different from the colloquial speech of any audience, Homer’s included. So by referring to this vehicle of memory within another one—i.e., within his alexandrine verse —Mandelstam, along with producing an almost physical sensation of Time’s tunnel, creates the effect of a play within a play, of a caesura within a caesura, of a pause within a pause. Which is, after all, a form of Time, if not its meaning: if Time does not get stopped by that, it at least gets focused.
Not that Mandelstam does this consciously, deliberately. Or that this is his main purpose while writing a poem. He does it offhandedly, in subordinate clauses, by the act of writing (often about something else), “never” by writing to make this point. His is not topical poetry. Russian poetry on the whole is not very topical. Its basic technique is one of beating around the bush, approaching the theme from various angles. The clear-cut treatment of the subject matter, which is so characteristic of poetry in English, usually gets exercised within this or that line, and then a poet moves on to something else; it seldom makes for an entire poem. Topics and concepts, regardless of their importance, are but material, like words, and they are always there. Language has names for all of them, and the poet is the one who masters language.
Greece was always there, so was Rome, and so were the biblical Judea and Christianity. The cornerstones of our civilization, they are treated by Mandelstam’s poetry in approximately the same way as Time itself would treat them: as unity—and in their unity. To pronounce Mandelstam as adept at either ideology (and especially at the latter) is not only to miniaturize him, but to distort his historical perspective, or rather his historical landscape. Thematically, Mandelstam's poetry repeats the development of our civilization: it flows north, but the parallel streams in this current mingle with each other from the very beginning. Toward the Twenties, the Roman themes gradually overtake the Greek and biblical references, largely because of the poet's growing identification with the archetypal situation of "a poet versus Empire." Still, what created this kind of attitude, apart from the purely political aspects of the situation in Russia at the time, was Mandelstam's own estimate of his work's proportion to the rest of contemporary literature, as well as to the moral climate and the intellectual concerns of the rest of the nation. It was the moral and the mental degradation of the latter which were suggesting this imperial scope. And yet it was only a thematic overtaking, never a takeover. Even in “Tristia," the most Roman poem, where the author merely quotes from the exiled Ovid, one can trace a certain Hesiodic patriarchal note, implying that the whole enterprise was being viewed through a somewhat Greek prism. Later, in the thirties during what is known as the Voronezh period, when all those themes—including Rome and Christianity—yielded to the "theme" of bare existential horror and a terrifying spiritual acceleration, the pattern of interplay, of inter- dependence between those realms, becomes even more obvious and dense.
It is not that Mandelstam was a "civilized" poet, he was rather a poet for and of civilization. Once, on being asked to define Acmeism— the literary movement to which he belonged—he answered: "nostalgia for a world culture." The notion of a world culture is distinctly Russian. Because of its location (neither East nor West) and its imperfect history, Russia has always suffered from a sense of cultural inferiority, at least' toward the West. Out of this inferiority grew the ideal of a certain cultural unity "out there" and a subsequent intellectual voracity toward anything coming from that direction. This is, in a way, a Russian version of Hellenisticism, and Mandelstam's remark about Pushkin’s "Hellenistic paleness” was not in vain.
The mediastinum of this Russian Hellenisticism was St. Petersburg. Perhaps the best emblem for Mandelstam's attitude toward this so-called "world culture" could be that strictly classical portico of the St. Petersburg Admiralty decorated with reliefs of trumpeting angels and topped with a golden spire with a silhouette of the clipper at its tip. In order to understand his poetry better, the English-speaking reader perhaps ought to realize that Mandelstam was a Jew who was living in the capital of Imperial Russia, whose dominant religion was Orthodoxy, whose political structure was inherently Byzantine, and whose alphabet had been devised by two Greek monks. Historically speaking, this organic blend was most strongly felt in Petersburg, which became Mandelstam's "familiar as tears" eschatalogical niche for the rest of his not-that-long life.
It was long enough, however, to immortalize this place, and if his poetry was sometimes called "Petersburgian," there is more than one reason to consider this definition both accurate and complementary. Accurate because, apart from being the administrative capital of the empire, Petersburg was also the spiritual center of it, and in the beginning of the century the streams of that current were merging there the way they do in Mandelstam's poems. Complementary because both the poet and the city profited in meaning by their confrontation. If the West was Athens, Petersburg in the teens of this century, was Alexandria. This "window on Europe," as Petersburg was called by Voltaire, this "most invented city," as it was defined later by Dostoevsky, lying at the latitude of Vancouver, in the mouth of a river as wide as the Hudson between Manhattan and New Jersey, was and is beautiful with that kind of beauty which happens to be caused by madness—or which tries to conceal this madness. Classicism never had so much room, and Italian architects who kept being invited by successive Russian monarchs understood this all too well. The giant, infinite, vertical rafts of white columns from the facades of the embankments' palaces belonging to the Czar, his family, the aristocracy, embassies, and the nouveau riches are carried by the reflecting river down to the Baltic. On the main avenue of the empire —Nevsky Prospect—there are churches of all creeds. The endless, wide streets are filled with cabriolets, newly introduced automobiles, idle, well-dressed crowds, first-class boutiques, confectioneries, etc. Immensely wide squares with mounted statues of previous rulers and triumphal columns taller than Nelson's. Lots of publishing houses, magazines, newspapers, political parties (more than in contemporary America), theaters, restaurants, gypsies. All this is surrounded by the brick Birnam woods of the factories' smoking chimneys and covered by the damp, gray, widespread blanket of the Northern Hemisphere's sky. One war is lost, another—a world war—is impending, and you are a little Jewish boy with a heart full of Russian iambic pentameters.
In this giant-scale embodiment of the perfect order, iambic beat is as natural as cobblestones. Petersburg is a cradle of Russian poetry and, what is more, of its prosody. The idea of a noble structure, regardless of the quality of the content (sometimes precisely against its quality, which creates a terrific sense of disparity—indicating not so much the author's but the verse's own evaluation of the described phenomenon), is utterly local. The whole thing started a century ago, and Mandelstam's usage of strict meters in his first book, Stone, is clearly reminiscent of Pushkin, and, that of his Pleiade. And yet, again, it is not a result of some conscious choice, nor it is a sign of Mandelstam's style being pre- determined by the preceding or contemporary processes in Russian poetry.
The presence of an echo is the primal trait of any good acoustics, and Mandelstam merely made a great cupola for his predecessors. The most distinct voices belong to Derzhavin, Baratynsky and Batiushkov. To a great extent, he was acting very much on his own in spite of any existing idiom—especially the contemporary one.
He simply had too much to say to worry about his stylistic uniqueness. But this overloaded quality of his otherwise regular verse was what made him unique.
Ostensibly, his poems did not look so different from the work of the Symbolists who were dominating the literary scene: he was using fairly regular rhymes, a standard stanzaic design, and the length of his poems was quite ordinary—from sixteen to twenty- four lines. But by using these humble means of transportation he was taking his reader much farther than any of those cozy- because-vague metaphysicists who called themselves Russian Symbolists. As a movement, Symbolism was surely the last great one (and not only in Russia); but poetry is an extremely individualistic art, it mocks isms. The poetic production of Symbolism was as quantitative and seraphical as the enrollment and postulates of this movement were. This soaring upward was so groundless that graduate students, military cadets, and clerks felt tempted, and by the turn of the century the genre was compromised to a degree of verbal inflation, somewhat like the situation with free verse in America today. Then, surely, devaluation as reaction came, bearing the names of Futurism, Constructivism, Imagism. Still, these were the isms fighting isms, devices fighting devices. To my taste, only two poets, Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva, came up with a qualitatively new content, and their fate reflected in its dreadful way the degree of their spiritual autonomy.
In poetry, as anywhere else, spiritual superiority is always disputed at the physical level. One cannot help thinking it was precisely the rift with the Symbolists (not entirely without anti-Semitic overtones) which contained the germs of Mandelstam's future. I am not referring so much to Georgi Ivanov’s sneering at Mandelstam's poem in 1917 which was then echoed by the official ostracism of the thirties, but to Mandelstam's growing separation from any form of mass production, especially linguistic and psychological, the result was an effect in which the clearer a voice gets, the more dissonant it sounds. No choir likes it, and the aesthetic isolation acquires physical dimensions. When a man creates a world of his own, he becomes a foreign body against which all laws are aimed: gravity, compression, displacement, and annihilation. Mandelstam’s world was big enough to invite all of these. I don't think that had Russia chosen a different historical path, his fate would have been that much different. His world was too autonomous to merge. Besides, Russia went the way she did, and for Mandelstam, whose poetic development was rapid by itself, that direction could bring only one thing—a terrifying acceleration. This acceleration affected, first of all, the character of his verse. Its sublime, meditative, caesuraed flow changed into a swift, abrupt, pattering movement. His became a poetry of high velocity and exposed nerves, sometimes cryptic, with numerous leaps over the self-understood, with somewhat abbreviated syntax. And yet in this way it became more a song than ever before, not a literary but a birdlike song, with its sharp, unpredictable turns and pitches, some thing like a goldfinch tremolo.
And like that bird, he became a target for all kinds of stones generously thrown at him by his motherland. It is not that Mandelstam opposed the political changes taking place in Russia. His sense of measure and his irony were enough to acknowledge the epic quality of the whole undertaking. Besides, he was a paganistically bouyant person, and, on the other hand, whining intonations were completely usurped by the Symbolist movement. Also, since the beginning of the century, the air was full of loose talk about a redivision of the world, so that when the Revolution came, almost everyone took what had occurred for what was desired. Mandelstam's was perhaps the only sober response to the events which shook the world and made so many thoughtful heads dizzy:
So we might as well try setting sail:
Huge and clumsy creaks the turning wheel. . .
(“The Twilight of Freedom”)
But the stones were already flying, and so was the bird. In the translator's introduction, the reader of this book will find some descriptions of their trajectories. Still, it is important to note that Mandelstam's attitude toward a new historical situation: on the whole he regarded it as just a harsher form of existential reality, as a qualitatively new challenge. Ever since the Romantics we have had this notion of a poet throwing down the glove to his tyrant. Now if there ever was such a time at all, this sort of action is utter nonsense today: tyrants are not that available any longer. The distance between us and our masters can be reduced only by the latter, which seldom happens. A poet gets into trouble because of his linguistic, and, by implication, his psychological superiority, rather than his politics. A song is a form of linguistic disobedience, and its sound casts a doubt on more than a concrete political system: it questions the entire existential order. And the number of its adversaries grows proportionally.
It would be a simplification to think that it was the poem against Stalin which brought about Mandelstam’s doom. This poem, for all its destructive power, was just a by-product of Mandelstam's treatment of the theme of this not-so-new era. For that matter, there is a much more devastating line in the poem called "Ariosto" written earlier the same year (1933): "Power is repulsive as were the barber's hands . . ." There were others, too. And yet I think that by themselves these mug-slapping comments wouldn’t invite the law of annihilation. The iron broom that was walking across Russia could have missed him if he were merely a political poet or a lyrical poet slipping into politics. After all, he got his warning (see the translator's introduction) and he could have learned from that as many others did. But he didn’t, because his instinct for self-preservation had long since yielded to his ethics. It was the immense intensity of lyricism in Mandelstam’s poetry which set him apart from his contemporaries and made him an orphan of his epoch, “homeless on an all-union scale." For lyricism is the ethics of language, and the superiority of this lyricism to anything that could be achieved within a human interplay is what makes for a work of art and lets it survive. Because of that, the iron broom, whose purpose was the spiritual castration of the entire populace, couldn't have missed him.
It was a case of pure polarization. Song is, after all, restructured Time, toward which mute Space is inherently hostile. The first has been represented by Mandelstam, the second chose the State as its weapon. There is a certain terrifying logic in the location of that concentration camp where Osip Mandelstam died in 1938: near Vladivostok, in the very bowels of the state-owned Space. This is about as far as one can get from Petersburg inside Russia. And here is how high one can get in poetry in terms of lyricism (the poem is in memory of a woman, Olga Vaksel, who died in Sweden, and was written while Mandelstam was living in Voronezh where he was transferred from his previous place of exile near the Ural Mountains after having a nervous breakdown). Just four lines:
. . . And stiff swallows of round eyebrows(a)
flew(b) from the grave to me
to tell me they've rested enough in their(a)
cold Stockholm bed(b).
Imagine a four-foot amphibrach with altered (a b a b) rhyme.
This strophe is an apotheosis of restructuring Time. For one thing, language is itself a product of past. The return of these stiff swallows implies both the recurrent character of their presence, and/or the simile itself, either as an intimate thought or a spoken phrase. Also, "flew. . . to me" suggests spring, returning seasons.
"To tell me they've rested enough" too suggests past, past imperfect because not attended. And then the last line makes a full circle because the adjective “Stockholm” exposes the hidden allusion to Hans Christian Andersen's children's story about the wounded swallow wintering in the mole’s hole, then recovering and flying home. Every schoolboy in Russia knows this story. The conscious process of remembering turns out to be strongly rooted in the subconscious memory and creates a sensation of sorrow so piercing, as if this is not a suffering man we hear, but the very voice of his wounded psyche. This kind of voice surely clashes with everything, even with its medium's—i.e., poet’s—life. It is like Odysseus tying himself to a mast against the call of his soul; this—and not only the fact that Mandelstam is married—is why he is so elliptical here.
He worked in Russian poetry for thirty years, and what he did will last as long as the Russian language exists. It will certainly outlast the present and any subsequent regime in that country, both because of its lyricism and its profundity. Quite frankly, I don't know anything in the poetry of the world comparable to the revelatory quality of these four lines from his "Verses on the Unknown Soldier," written just a year prior to his death:
An Arabian mess and a muddle,
The light of speeds honed into a beam—
And with its slanted soles,
A ray balances on my retina. . .
There is almost no grammar here but it is not a modernistic device, it is a result of an incredible psychic acceleration, which at other times was responsible for the breakthroughs of Job and Jeremiah. This honing of speeds is as much a self-portrait as an incredible insight into astrophysics. What he heard at his back "hurrying near" wasn't any "winged chariot" but his "wolf-hound century," and he ran till there was Space. When Space ended, he hit Time.
New York, 1977
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