Osip Mandelshtam

The Word and Culture

Galatea and Acis, Moscow, (Ovid,Metamorphoses, book XIII) (1651)

‘Galatea and Acis’
(Ovid,Metamorphoses, book XIII) (1651)

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2022 All Rights Reserved

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The blades of grass growing in the streets of St. Petersburg are the first shoots of a virgin forest which will clothe the sites of modern cities. This bright, tender greenery, amazing in its freshness, belongs to a new, spiritualized nature. Truly, St. Petersburg is the most advanced city in the world. It is not the metropolis, not the skyscraper, that measures the pace of modernity – not speed, but the cheerful grass that breaks out from beneath the city stones.

Our blood, our music, our state – all this will find its continuation in the gentle existence of a new nature, Psyche-Nature. In this realm of the spirit, devoid of humankind, every tree will be a dryad and every phenomenon will speak of its own metamorphosis.

Halt it? Why? Who shall halt the sun as it races, harnessed to a sparrow, to its father’s house, filled with a thirst for a return? Wouldn’t it be better to praise it, than beg it for handouts?

He understood nothing

He was weak and timid, like children,

Strangers, for him,

Caught beasts and fish in their nets...

(Pushkin, ‘The Gypsies’)

Thank you, ‘strangers’, for your touching care, for your tender guardianship of the old world, which is no longer of ‘this world’, that has all been subsumed in aspiration and preparation for the coming metamorphosis:

Cum subit illius tristissima noctis imago,

Quae mihi supremum tempus in urbe fuit,

Cum repeto noctem, que tot mihi cara reliquit,

Labitur ех oculis nunc quoque gutta meis.

When the saddest memory comes to mind,

of that night, my last hour in the city,

when I recall that night when I left so much

so dear to me, even now tears fall from my eyes.’

(Ovid, Tristia I.3. lines1-4)

Yes, the old world is ‘not of this world’, but is more alive than ever. Culture has become our religion. A religious separation has arisen between culture and the state. Secular life no longer concerns us, we do not have dinner, but a meal, not a room, but a cell, not clothes, but a habit. Finally, we have found inner freedom, real inner joy. We drink water in clay jugs as if it were wine, and the sun prefers the monastery eating-hall to a restaurant. Apples, bread, potatoes – from now on, satisfy not only our physical, but also our spiritual hunger. A Christian, and now every cultured person is akin to a Christian, does not know only physical hunger, only spiritual food. For him, the word is flesh and plain bread is a joy and a mystery.

Social differences and class oppositions pale before the division of people into friends and enemies of the word. Truly lambs and goats. I sense an almost physically impure goatish spirit rising from the enemies of the word. Here, the argument that ends any serious disagreement is quite appropriate: my opponent ‘has a rank smell’.

The separation of culture from the state is the most significant event of our Revolution. The process of secularization of the state did not end with the separation of church and state, as understood by the French Revolution. Social upheaval brought a deeper secularization. The state now shows that peculiar attitude to culture best conveyed by the term ‘toleration’. Yet at the same time, a new type of organic relationship is emerging, linking the state and culture, just as by ‘appanage’ princes in the past were associated with monasteries. The princes held monasteries on behalf of the Council of State. That says it all. The extraordinariness of the state in relation to cultural values makes it completely dependent on culture. Cultural values colour statehood, grant it a hue, a shape and even, if you will, a gender. Inscriptions on state buildings, tombs, and gateways insure the state against the destructive powers of time.

Poetry is a plough that uproots time so that time’s deeper layers, its ‘black earth’, are on top. But there are epochs such as these when humanity as a whole, not content with today, longs for the deep layers of time, like a ploughman it craves the virgin soil of time. A revolution in art inevitably leads to classicism. Not because David reaps Robespierre’s harvest, but because that is what the earth requires.

You often hear: this is good, but this is of yesterday. And I say, yesterday is not yet born. It is, as yet, not truly present. I desire, once more, Ovid, Pushkin, Catullus, and am dissatisfied with the historical Ovid, Pushkin, Catullus.

It is truly amazing that everyone toys with poets, and fails to unleash them. Read and done with, it would seem. ‘Superseded’, as they say these days. Not at all. The silver trumpet-call of Catullus:

Ad claras Asiae volemus urbes’ –

We’ll flee to Asia’s bright cities’ –

(Catullus, poem 45)

torments and disturbs more than any futuristic riddle can. It is not in Russian. But it ought to be in Russian. I take a line of Latin as my example, since Rome is clearly perceived by the Russian reader as an allegory of duty; the imperative sounds more clearly in the Roman poets. But this is a property of all poetry, once it is regarded as classical. It is perceived as something that must be, not as something that was once created.

So, there has not been a single poet as yet. We are free of the burden of memories. But how many rare premonitions there have been: Pushkin, Ovid, Homer. When a lover, in the silence, confuses one tender name with another, and suddenly remembers that this has already occurred before: the words, and her hair – and the cock crowing outside the window, that has already crowed in Ovid’s Tristia (Book I, 3), the deep joy of repetition engulfs him, a vertiginous joy:

I drink the turbid air like a dark water.

The rose was earth: time, ploughed from underneath’.

(From his poem: ‘Sisters – Heaviness and Tenderness – you look the same’)

Thus, the poet is not afraid of repetition, and is easily inebriated by classic wine.

What is true of one poet is true of all. It is not necessary to create schools. You do not need to invent your poetics.

The analytical method, as applied to word, movement, and form, is a perfectly legitimate and skilful technique. Recently, destruction has become a wholly formal premise of art. Decay, decay, decay – decadence forever. But the decadents were Christian artists, in some ways the last of the Christian martyrs. The music of decay was for them also the music of resurrection. ‘Charogne’ (‘Carrion’), Baudelaire’s poem, is a noble example of Christian despair. It is quite another matter to deliberately destroy form, in the painless manner of Suprematism. A denial of the reality of phenomena. Suicide out of convenience, for the sake of curiosity. You can take it apart, and put it together again, as if the form were being tested, but in fact the spirit rots and decomposes (incidentally, having named Baudelaire, I would like to recall his significance as an ascetic, in the most authentic Christian sense of the word ‘martyr’).

A heroic era has begun in the life of the word. The word is bread and flesh. It shares the fate of flesh and bread: to be consumed in suffering. People are hungry. The state is even hungrier. But there is something which is more than hungry: Time. Time wants to devour the state. A trumpet voice sounds, like a threat scrawled by Derzhavin on a slate board (cf. Derzhavin’s last poem: ‘The flow of Time’s rushing river’). Whoever lifts up the word and shows it to the age, as a priest of the Eucharist, will be the second Joshua. There is nothing hungrier than a modern state, and a hungry state is worse than a hungry person. Compassion for the state that denies the word is the social task and feat of the modern poet.

Let us glorify the deadly weight

the people’s leader lifts with tears.

Let us glorify the dark burden of fate,

power’s unbearable yoke of fears.

How your ship is sinking, straight,

he who has a heart, Time, hears.

(From his poem: ‘Brothers, let us glorify Freedom’s twilight…’)

Do not demand from poetry pure corporeality, concreteness, materiality. It partakes of the same revolutionary famine. A doubting Thomas, why do you need to touch it with your fingers? And most importantly, why equate a word with a ‘thing’, with grass, with the object that it denotes?

Is the ‘thing’ the master of the word? The word is Psyche. The living word does not denote objects, but freely chooses, as it were, for its dwelling-place, this or that object of significance, materiality, a sweet body. And around the ‘thing’, the word wanders freely, like the soul around that abandoned but unforgotten body.

What is said about materiality sounds somewhat differently when applied to imagery:

Prends l’éloquence et tords-lui son cou!

Take eloquence and wring it’s neck’

(From Verlaine’s poem ‘Ars Poetica’)

Write ugly poetry if you can…if you can. The blind man recognizes the sweet face, barely touching it with ‘sighted’ fingers, and tears of joy, the real joy of recognition, fall from his eyes after long separation. The poem is alive inwardly, that resounding shell of form that precedes the written poem. Not a single word exists, and yet the poem is already heard. It echoes like an image, internally; it is this act of being heard that touches the poet’s hearing.

And but a moment of recognition is sweet to us!

There is a phenomenon apparent now, a kind of glossolalia (speaking in tongues). In a sacred frenzy, poets are speaking the language of all times, of all cultures. Nothing is impossible. Just as the dying man's room is open to all, the door of the past is wide open to the crowd. Suddenly, everything has become common property. Go forth, and seize it. Everything is available: all labyrinths, all hidden caches, all secret passages. The word has become not a seven-reeded but a thousand-tubed set of pan-pipes, animated at once by the breath of all the ages. The most striking thing about glossolalia is that the speaker does not know the language he speaks. He speaks a completely unknown language. And it seems to himself and to everyone that he is speaking ancient Greek or Chaldean. A state which is the complete opposite to erudition. Modern poetry, for all its complexity and inner cunning, is naïve:

Ecoutez la chanson grise...

Listen to the simple song...

(A concatenation of lines from two poems by Verlaine – ‘Ecoutez la chanson bien douce: Listen to the sweetest song’ and, from his Ars Poetica, ‘Rien de plus cher que la chanson grise: nothing dearer than the simple song’.)

For him, the whole complexity of the ancient world is the same as Pushkin’s reed-pipe (cf. ‘Eugene Onegin’ Chapter V, verse 9). He sings of ideas, scientific systems, theories regarding the state, precisely as his predecessors sang of nightingales and roses. It has been said that the cause of revolution is a form of hunger in interplanetary space. There is a need to scatter wheat in the ether.

Classical poetry is the poetry of revolution.

Translator’s note: Mandelshtam’s comment on the cause of revolution being a form of hunger (famine, starvation) in interplanetary space is probably derived from the cosmological teachings of Gurdjieff, perhaps via Ouspenskii (For example: ‘It has been said before that organic life transmits planetary influences of various kinds to the earth, and in turn serves to feed the moon and to enable it to grow and strengthen.’)

Written 1921