Chronologically and thematically, Osip Mandel’shtam’s essays reflect the three distinctive phases in his brief but intense life as a major poet and seminal figure in 20thcentury Russian cultural life: the youthful prerevolutionary years as a student and Acmeist poet; the soul-searching and gradual turning away from verse to prose during the 1920s; and the mature years of the Stalinist 1930s as a time of spiritual renewal and rebellion, mental and physical hardship, arrest and exile, as well as his most complex and powerful essays and two-thirds of his verse. His output as both poet and essayist was slim, the result of artistic, personal, and political restrictions. Stylistically, two modes of expression dominate the essays: the dense metaphorical style evocative of the problematics of poetry and culture, and focused on “the word” (logos) as the condensed verbal manifestation of cultural continuity, and the polemical rhetoric invoked to assess and attack the state of contemporary arts, culture, and the literary establishment.
Mandel’shtam’s career as an essayist began while a student of Romance languages and philosophy in Heidelberg. In 1910, his first essay, “François Villon,” identified his mentors, Villon and Verlaine, with an “astronomical miracle” and epochal “mission” analogous to his own inchoate Acmeism. Praising their revolt against “artificial, hothouse poetry,” he defined poetry’s function as the actualization of the human experience in all its precision, vitality, and complexity, and juxtaposed the poet’s capacity “to wield precise details” against the “suggestive hints” of the symbolists. Poetic craft, he claimed, made “the passing moment…endure the pressure of centuries.”
“François Villon” appeared along with his fellow Acmeists’ prose and verse manifestos in 1913 in Nicolai Gumilev’s Acmeist organ, Apollon (Apollo). Another essay, “Utro Akmeizma” (1913; “Morning of Acmeism”), emphasized semantic consciousness as the ultimate “reality,” employed mathematical and architectural metaphors to “restrain” the “immense emotional excitement associated with works of art,” and underscored both the historicity and continuity of art’s highest forms, the “acme” of human creativity. The poet’s synthesis of the common cultural experience into dynamic verbal forms, he asserted, reveals monuments of the past as impulses and vehicles of awe and surprise, concrete reminders of the “blessed legacy” of world culture conjoining the artists and monuments of all time.
“O sobesednike” (1913; “On the Addressee”) presents Mandel’shtam’s theory that a genuine poem is a letter to a future “providential addressee,” while the prose essay engages the contemporary reader directly in a conscious interpretation of the world in motion: “the prose writer is compelled to stand ‘higher’ than…society, since instruction is the central nerve of prose…” Analytical skepticism is emphasized as a function of both
logic and rhetoric.
Essays on the problematics of Russian culture begin with “Zametki o Shen’e” (1915; “Remarks on Chenier”) and “Peter Chaadaev” (1915). The Russian philosopher’s journey to the West and his independent decision to return home is reinterpreted as a paradigm of moral commitment for future Russian thinkers and writers. His vibrant self-image of the “raznochinets-author” (the raznochintsi were 19th-century Russian intellectuals who
were not of noble origin) grows out of Chaadaev’s ideal of his “sacred obligation” to express Russia’s legacy of moral freedom.
If the early essays focus on the basic aesthetic and cultural vision of Acmeism, the poetics of cultural continuity and memory, and the expression of poetic freedom, those of the early 1920s raise the central question of the poet’s relationship to the new Soviet age: the complexity of allegiance to the Revolution without sacrificing moral conscience and humanistic values. For example, “Slovo i kul’tura” (1921; “Word and Culture”) seeks to redefine the role of culture in the new Soviet State, emphasizing its dependence on the “sacred power of the word.” “Culture has become the church” and “cultural values ornament the State, endowing it with color, form, and if you will, gender.” “O prirode slova” (1922; “On the Nature of the Word”), a paean to the Russian language, endeavors to synthesize the basic tenets of Acmeism with a broader, more metaphysically-oriented aesthetic vision, simultaneously broadening the role of civic and moral obligation. “Buria i natisk” (1923; “Storm and Stress”) seeks to redefine the relationship between the culture of the recent past and the present, symbolism and futurism, by “knitting together the spines of two poetic systems, two poetic epochs.”
Mandel’shtam is at his finest when his logic is discursive and indirect, his ideas correlated through rich and striking images rather than predetermined by patterns of logical subordination. A powerful interpretive design challenging the reader to rethink conventional concepts and prescribed paths grows out of his active engagement in the critical discourse of his argument and the seductive literariness of metaphor. For example, “Humanizm i sovremennost’” (1923; “Humanism and the Present”) offers a conception of the ideal society, a new “social Gothic,” which turns out to have the same structure as an ideal building or poem. An optimistic view of the Revolution is implicit in this ideal: just as the stone or the word must maintain and fulfill its individual creative self, so it must be a part of a collective “we,” a social architecture, to best realize its potential. However, this vision of harmony is preceded by a prophetic warning: a contrasting cruel and formidable vision of inhumanity in human society, a recollection of epochs when individual life was crushed by the social architecture and treated as insignificant: “Assyrian prisoners swarm like baby chicks under the feet of an enormous king…”
Mandel’shtam’s Jewish thematics, which first emerge in the essays in 1926
(“Mikhoels,” “Kiev”), are further developed in the 1930s in association with the image of the outsider, the “raznochinets-writer.” Mikhoels, the spirit of Judaism, is described as “All the power of Judaism, all the rhythm of abstract ideas in dance…whose single motive is compassion for the earth—all this extends into the trembling of the hands, the vibration of the thinking fingers, animated like articulated speech.”
The essays of the 1930s dramatically transform the view of the poet’s place in society.
Nadezhda MandePshtam, the poet’s widow, credited his unpublishable jeremiad, “Chetvertaia proza” (wr. 1919–30; “Fourth Prose”), with returning the poet to health, reconfirming his faith in his creative powers, reasserting his demands for intellectual freedom, and paving the way for the verse of the Voronezhskie tetradi (wr. 1930–37; Voronezh notebooks) and the prose of “Puteshestvie v Armeniiu” (wr. 1930–32.; “Journey to Armenia”) and Razgovor o Dante (wr. 1933; “Conversation About Dante”).
“Fourth Prose” gave new force to the self-image of the outsider and outcast as the voice of moral and spiritual freedom. The Jewish pathos and “compassion for the earth” is superimposed on the image of the “raznochinets-writer” and his ideal of moral freedom as “sacred obligation.” Envisioning himself carrying his “Jewish staff” to Armenia, “the younger sister of the Jewish nation,” as Chaadaev carried his staff to Rome, Mandel’shtam invokes the Mosaic law “Thou shalt not kill!” as his fundamental moral and aesthetic principle, excoriating and exorcising the entire literary establishment as the forces of death and destruction.
His last published essay, “Journey to Armenia,” a philosophical travelogue, is simultaneously a hymn to the gift of life and language, the struggle against death, and the grace of spiritual resurrection. Armenia is his metaphor for Mediterranean or world culture and cultural memory.
“Conversation About Dante,” Mandel’shtam’s unique and intimate tribute to his Florentine mentor as the “first internal raznochinets,” culminates his career as an essayist.
It is his supreme apologia for poetic freedom and challenge to the establishment.
Unpublishable until the mid-1960s, it reiterates and reformulates the poetics of cultural memory and cultural synchrony. Dense metaphors synthesizing physiological and philological essences reinvigorate his style, demonstrating precisely how the poet is “a master of the instruments of poetry” and how an impulse in the mind of the creative artist is realized as living verbal expression.
JANE GARY HARRIS
Osip Emil’evich Mandel’shtam. Born 15 January 1891 in Warsaw; moved to St. Petersburg as an infant. Studied at the Tenishev Commercial School, St. Petersburg, 1899–1907; studied in Paris, 1907–08; University of Heidelberg, 1909–10; attended meetings of Viacheslav Ivanov’s Bashnia (Tower) group and the St. Petersburg Society of Philosophy; enrolled at the University of St. Petersburg: never graduated. First poems published, 1910; joined the Guild of Poets, 1911. Married Nadezhda lakovlevna Khazina, 1922. Translated Petrarch, Henri Barbier, Jules Romains, Old French literature, and other works. Traveled to Georgia and Armenia, April-November 1930. Moved to Moscow, December 1930. Lived in Koktebel’, Summer 1933. Arrested twice: first for writing a poem critical of Stalin, May 1934: sentence of hard labor commuted to exile in Cherdyn and later Voronezh, ending 1937; second arrest for “counterrevolutionary activities,” May 1938: sentenced to five years in a labor camp. Died in a transit camp at Vtoraia rechka, near Vladivostock, 27 December 1938 (official date on certificate).
Essays and Related Prose
O poezii (On poetry), 1918
Prose, edited and translated by Clarence Brown, 1965; revised editions, 1967, and as The Noise of Time and Other Prose Pieces, 1986
Razgovor o Dante, edited by A.A.Morozov, 1967; as “Conversation About Dante,” translated by Jane Gary Harris, in The Complete Critical Prose and Letters, 1979
Selected Essays, edited and translated by Sidney Monas, 1977
The Complete Critical Prose and Letters, edited by Jane Gary Harris, translated by Harris and Constance Link, 1979; as The Collected Critical Prose and Letters, 1991
Slovo i kul’tura: O poezii; Razgovor o Dante; Stat’i, retsenzii (Word and culture; On poetry; Conversation about Dante; articles, reviews) edited by S.Vasilenko, lu. Freidin, and P.Nerler, 1987
Stikhotvoreniia; Perevody; Ocherki; Stat’i (Poetry; translations; essays; articles), 1990
Chetvertaia proza; Ocherki, sbornik (Fourth prose; essays; notebook), 1991
Other writings: several collections of poetry and five notebooks of poems unpublished during his lifetime.
Collected works editions: Sobranie sochinenii, edited by Gleb Struve and Boris Filippov, 1955, and in 4 vols., 1967–81; vol. 1 revised, 1967; vol. 2 revised, 1971;
Sochineniia, edited by P.M.Nerler, 2 vols., 1990; Sobranie sochinenii, 4 vols., 1993–94.
Brown, Clarence, Osip Mandelstam, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973
Cavanagh, Clare, Osip Mandelstam and the Modernist Creation of Tradition, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995
Freidin, Gregory, A Coat of Many Colors: Osip Mandelstam and His Mythologies of Self- Presentation, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987
Harris, Jane Gary, Osip Mandelstam, Boston: Twayne, 1988
Levin, lu. I., “Zametki k Razgovor o Dante O.Mandel’shtama,” International Journal of Linguistics and Poetics 15 (1972.)
Mandel’shtam, Nadezhda, Hope Against Hope: A Memoir, New York: Atheneum, 1970; London: Harvill Press, 1971
Mandel’shtam, Nadezhda, Hope Abandoned, New York: Atheneum, and London: Harvill Press, 1974
Mandel’shtam, Nadezhda, Kniga tret’ia, Paris: YMCA Press, 1987
O.E.Mandel’shtam, “I ty, Moskva, sestra moia, legka…” Stikhi, proza, vospominaniia, materialy k biografii: Venok Mandel’shtamu, Moscow: Moskovskii Rabochii, 1990
Osip Mandel’shtam: K 100-letiiu so dnia rozhdeniia: Poetika i tekstologiia: Materialy nauchnoi konferentsii 27–29 dekabria 199l g., Moscow: Gnosis, 1992
Poilak, Nancy, Mandelstam the Reader, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995
Ronen, Omry, An Approach to Mandelstam, Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1983
Ronen, Omry, “O ‘russkom golose’ Osipa Mandel’shtama,” in Tynianovskii sbornik:
Piatye Tynianovskie chteniia, Riga: Zinatne, 1994
Shtempel’, N.E., “Mandel’shtam v Voronezhe,” Novyi Mir 10 (1987): 207–34
Slovo i sud’ba: Osip Mandel’shtam: Issledovaniia i tnaterialy, edited by P.Nerler and others, Moscow: Nauka, 1991
Stoletie Mandel’shtama: Materialy simpoziuma: Mandel’shtam Centenary Conference
(SEES, London 1991), edited by Robin Aizlewood and Diana Myers, Tenafly, New Jersey: Hermitage Press, 1994
Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo O.E.Mandel’shtama, edited by O.G. Lasunskii and others, Voronezh: Izd. Voronezhskogo Universiteta, 1990
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