• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Mandelstam’s Power

Hope against Hope: A Memoir

by Nadezhda Mandelstam, translated by Max Hayward, Introduction by Clarence Brown
Atheneum, 431 pp., $10.00

Poetry is power,” Osip Mandelstam once said to Anna Akhmatova, thinking of the extraordinary destiny of the Acmeist movement to which the two had belonged. In the West this observation may hold true for the happy few, but it does not for society, or even for the cultivated public. In Russia, however, it holds true not only for an elite but for society in general. For in Russia, literature, and especially poetry, has long been a major moral force, has, indeed, possessed political “power.” Mandelstam himself is one of the most powerful Russian poets of all time, in every connotation of the word power.

At first glance his manner and career would seem to preclude any such stature. Born into a well-to-do, cultivated Jewish family of St. Petersburg, he received the most elite and cosmopolitan of educations, first at the famous Tenishev school and then at the universities of Paris, Heidelberg, and Petersburg. Highly sensitive and self-consciously learned, he first became known to the public, on the eve of 1914, as the most abstruse representative of the Poets’ Guild, as the Acmeist or neoclassical school of the great poetic revival of prewar Russia was called.

A celebrity among the avant-garde until the Twenties, he soon fell into official disfavor, and in the Thirties he was the first poet to become a victim of the purges. In his lifetime he published only three short collections of verse and several prose pieces. A good half of his work has never appeared in Russia at all. For although he was legally “rehabilitated” after Stalin’s death, his work has not been reprinted since 1928 (except for token selections); and a volume of his verse, for ten years now allegedly ready for the press, must be considered an official myth designed to convince the naïve that his work is no longer suppressed. For all practical purposes Mandelstam remains a non-person who exists only in samizdat.1

Just how this blighted career should be the source of a power that called down the wrath of Stalin himself is the subject of the reminiscences of Mandelstam’s widow, which remain unpublished in Russia. From a background similar to that of her husband, Mme. Mandelstam lived with the poet for twenty years in a closeness and devotion that made of the couple almost a single person. During the thirty years since his death she has had scarcely any other purpose in life than to preserve his memory. She speaks, therefore, almost with his voice. (For this reason one would have hoped for a translation more rigorous than the present one, and especially for a title other than the awkward pun, Hope against Hope, on her first name; for in spite of Mme. Mandelstam’s extraordinary vitality, there is far more horror than hope in her account.)

Still, this memoir is not just another exposé of Stalin’s system of terror. It is also a vindication of Mandelstam’s values and a commentary on his work. It is, in fact, a work of art in its own right, in a specifically Russian tradition of humane letters which, to a degree unparalleled in any other nation, has consistently held that beauty and truth are one.

Neither Mandelstam nor his wife can be considered apart from this tradition, which goes back to the birth of modern Russian culture, in the 1820s, and to what all Russians regard as the “miracle” of Pushkin. To attempt to explain in English the aesthetic quality of this miracle is next to impossible; perhaps the best one can do is to resort to analogy by saying that Pushkin wrote poetry with the purity and effortless grace with which Mozart wrote music. The essential point here, however, is that this miracle was more than aesthetic; for such formal perfection also signified the absolute triumph of human creativity and hence, by implication, affirmed the value and dignity of man—qualities Russian critics later called Pushkin’s “humanism.”

There was yet another dimension to this miracle, for Pushkin was the first to achieve this fusion of form and human values by means of the resources and rhythms of the national idiom, thereby assimilating European humanism in Russia as a natural, creative, and not just an imitative force, and thus defining for his compatriots their higher national identity. So Belinsky hailed Pushkin in 1834 as the first “genius who gave us a Russian world, a Russian humanity.”

Yet with Pushkin Russia entered humanistic culture only in the domain of art. Otherwise, the nation remained the “gendarme of Europe,” a barbarous despotism founded on serfdom. As a result, to the nascent intelligentsia for whom Belinsky spoke, art came to be all, the sole refuge of individual freedom, of human dignity, and of national honor. This is the origin of the special power of literature in Russian life and of the vast moral and social responsibility borne by virtually all its practitioners.

It is a power that survived throughout the vicissitudes of Russian literary history. Indeed, these vicissitudes only reinforced this power, for Russian culture after Pushkin was dominated in unique fashion by a continuous struggle over the meaning of art which was also a struggle for the soul of the nation. Above all, after the mid-century the ideologists of “civic” or utilitarian art not only largely equated literature with the “realistic” novel but also demanded that literature serve humanity directly by becoming, in effect, propaganda. For decades they succeeded in imposing their tyranny on Russian culture, denouncing Pushkin, poetry, and all forms of “art for art’s sake” as virtual treason to the cause of the people.

As a result, when “pure art” made its comeback the mood was one of Orphic intoxication with exploring all the re-conquered rights of formal beauty. Thus, after 1900, came a glorious poetic revival, from the rhapsodical mysticism and the Baudelairean correspondances of the Symbolists, to the celebration of the terrestrial city and the syncopated language of the Futurists, to the arcane “modernism” of Pasternak and Tsvetaeva, and to the earthy lyricism of Esenin and the peasant poets.

The revival led, finally, to the Acmeists, who went back beyond the Symbolists to the Parnassians of the previous century, and even more to the classicism of godlike Pushkin. Akhmatova, her husband Gumilev, and Mandelstam, building on the remarkable work of the Hellenist Annensky, made their themes the celebration of everyday experience, the tangible, the intimate, expressed in the measured mode of the Greco-Roman and Renaissance traditions and in architectural and sculptural imagery, as opposed to what they considered the facile “musicality” and nebulous supernaturalism of the Symbolists.

Yet in spite of the differences among these schools, they all shared an almost sacramental view of the power of language, founded on the endless play of rhythm, suggestion, and association to which the complex structure and the lexical richness of Russian so readily lend themselves. Through this medium, moreover, they proclaimed the principle that individual expression, like art itself, exists “for its own sake,” and not for “civic” uplift. This new fusion of form and value, grafted as it was onto the heritage of Pushkin, conferred on the poet in Russia a supreme authority he never subsequently lost.

In 1917, then, the ideological implications of the “Russian Word” made it a matter of national importance which side the poets would choose. A few, including Tsvetaeva, emigrated. The Futurists, however, went along with the new order enthusiastically, and Mayakovsky cast himself as the “drummer of the Revolution.” Most of the Symbolists rallied to the Revolution and the greatest of them, Blok, hailed it as the moral apocalypse of history. Esenin shared this messianic misunderstanding, while Pasternak accepted the new order with faith, though without fanfare.

Only the Acmeists proved unable to adapt. Gumilev was executed in 1921 for alleged participation in a monarchist conspiracy, an event that obviously cast a pall over the remaining members of the group. Even apart from this event, however, Akhmatova and Mandelstam were both too deeply committed to artistic freedom and individuality to accommodate themselves to the new situation. The pair thus became the first “internal émigrés” (a term coined to describe them); and Gorky, the patron of Soviet letters, sensing that there was no point in attempting to convert such incorrigible aesthetes, refused to issue Mandelstam a new pair of trousers to get through the Petersburg winter of 1921! (It is of the accumulation of such details that Mme. Mandelstam’s manner is made up.) So the two surviving Acmeists, together with such prose writers as Olesha and Zamiatin, formed the nucleus of a new, dissident tradition of Russian letters, which, by Stalin’s death, came to include most of the great twentieth-century Russian writers.

Nor is this result any accident, for by the very nature of the Soviet situation literary greatness has sooner or later come to coincide with the defense of human integrity against overweening state power. Hence it has usually entailed political disaffection, resistance, and personal catastrophe; and the list of great Soviet poets reads like a martyrology. Among the officially recognized but genuinely revered poets, Blok died early in despair and Mayakovsky committed suicide; Esenin, the most popular poet among the working classes (as Mme. Mandelstam testifies), also killed himself. But most revered of all are the four great figures who lived long enough to come into open and articulate conflict with the regime.

Mandelstam and the later Pasternak are obviously among these four. So, too, are Akhmatova, who lost two husbands to the regime and whose son by Gumilev spent fifteen years in Siberia, and Tsvetaeva, who returned to Russia in 1939 to find her family destroyed and who hanged herself during the war. Such sufferings and the genius to express their universal meaning have made these four figures the great moral powers of modern Russian poetry. For this reason liberal intellectuals in the Soviet Union cite their verses as if repeating a religious liturgy—for example, after Pasternak’s funeral, a crowd of young people stood for four hours in the churchyard of Peredelkino reciting his poems by heart.

Among the four, Mandelstam occupies perhaps the highest position. This is so because a work of formal perfection is combined with an especially tragic personal fate to epitomize, for Soviet readers, the age’s tragedy itself. In his wife’s words: “The work of a poet…has a social character…concerned with the doings of the poet’s fellow men…whose fate he shares. He does not speak ‘for them,’ but with them’…otherwise he would not be the source of truth.” Mandelstam’s “truth” may be summarized as a celebration of and lament for all humanism in an iron age.

Mandelstam, his wife tells us, once defined Acmeism as “nostalgia for world culture,” and he saw the Mediterranean—Greece and Italy, the pagan and the Christian heritages, Homer and Santa Sophia and Dante—as a “holy land,” “the land by which people learned.” This creed is the burden of his first volume, Stone (1913), the most classical of Acmeist productions in its style and allusions. A few years later, in 1916, he proclaimed that the mission of the true poet was to adapt the eternal Mediterranean tradition to raw Russia, to effect the miracle of “a tender Assumption—of Florence into Moscow.” The domes of the Kremlin cathedrals, built by Italian masters, evoked for him “the rising of Aurora, but with a Russian name and clothed in a peasant fur-coat.” Yet from the beginning this faith was fissured with doubt: “Within the walls of the Acropolis a sadness consumed me / For the Russian name and Russian beauty.” Mandelstam’s most basic theme, surely, is the glory of the humanist tradition and the fragility of its “assumption” into Russia.

  1. 1

    Boris Philippoff and Gleb Struve have provided an admirable edition of his complete works in the West.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print