Posts Tagged ‘Osip Mandelstam’

The questionable utility of the dancing bear, or, the future of the humanities

Saturday, November 2nd, 2013
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dancing-bear

The role of the humanities in our society

The New York Times has run an article “As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry,” once again decrying declining enrollment.  I don’t understand why this should come as a surprise to anyone. The humanities are devalued everywhere you look in our society – so why should kids study them?  The humanities are prized only when we can hook them up to consumer interests, make them turn a coin, demand that they entertain us.  There’s always the implicit threat that if we can’t get the bear to dance, the poor old fellow will be put down.

In the world of education, we value humanities only if we can team people onto digital projects that make cool onscreen images or turn them into rap lyrics to make them palatable for the kids. I applaud a lot of these efforts, and appreciate their intent, but they’re rather beside the point.  Coolness and likeability aren’t the reason Ovid was exiled, why Osip Mandelstam died scavenging a rubbish heap in a transit camp, why Reinhold Schneider was slated for trial and probable execution had the Third Reich not fallen first, or why André Brink was banned in South Africa.  And it certainly wasn’t why Joseph Brodsky, when I studied with him, made us memorize hundreds of lines of Robert Frost, W.H. Auden, Thomas Hardy, and others – in fact, it made him distinctly unfashionable; some kids fled the class rather than make the effort.  William Shakespeare can be mutilated, but he can’t be tamed.  As one teacher said, after a student had made a snarky, sophomoric comment about Hamlet:  “Mister, when you read Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s not on trial. You are.”  And that is the point.

André_Brink_Portrait

Censored in South Africa (Photo: Creative Commons)

The tacit, self-calming assumption behind our continual cuts in the arts and humanities has always been always that the eternal things are durable, and will survive our neglect.  However, these values must be inculcated and passed on – a baby isn’t born appreciating the subtleties of Piero della Francesco or Raoul Dufy, after all.  Anything that isn’t fed eventually withers.  (I know; I have a garden to prove it.)  I’m told by those who teach that we now have a generation of young people who, in large measure, no longer ponder the terms of their existence or question their reason for being.  Tomorrow is for another pizza, aceing the PSAT, or another video game.  The “Holocaust” is a description of a description of Black Friday sales; the Civil Rights movement has something to do with … what?  Will I be graded on it?  I know, I know – it’s the “same old,” isn’t it?  But a serious study of history, another one of the humanities, would show that civilization is a delicate, perishable thing, appearing and disappearing throughout the centuries, and we can never take its continuance for granted (read Constantine Cavafy, Zbigniew Herbert, or the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam). When we don’t pass it on, we break a fundamental chain of civilization. We’ll pay the price down the road … wait, we already are … but it’s not taking the form we had anticipated.

Reinhold-SchneiderI’m also tired of cheesy efforts to defend the humanities, which pander to the standards of our society, which are themselves a broken fence in need of repair. In any case, he fence is broken, in part, by the abandonment of literature, art, and music as the commitment of a civilized society, rather than a “frill.” I’m not saying a Haydn string quartet will save your life, but what often passes for music when I’m put on “hold” when calling my credit card company might be seen as the shocking invasion of psychological space that it is.  Sloppy thinking is everywhere, and not the province of one political party or the other – and the fact that it is inevitably attributed to the “other” in itself shows what a bad pass we’ve come to (it’s something that might have been corrected with an introductory study of Carl Jung, or René Girard, for that matter). Our political life is riddled with clichés that should be jeered offstage, because it’s a nasty way to use your Mother Tongue.  Technology, which has the power for good, has accelerated our race to the bottom, just as nuclear power, which could rescue nations, propels us toward annihilation.

Rant over.  Whew!  Not to worry!  I’m back on my medication now.  More on this subject in the coming days…from better minds than Humble Moi!  I’ll start with one of them, Michel Serres, of Stanford and the Académie Française.  I’ve featured it before, and recently, but if you haven’t seen it, please listen to his description of the fate of the humanities.  It’s not pretty.

 

Who knew that Stalin was a lit critic?

Monday, June 25th, 2012
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Everything you wanted to know and lots, lots more. (1902 photo)

Just can’t get enough of Jozef Stalin?  Yale University Press is putting lots more online.  Two decades ago, who would have thought that visitors to a public library could  pore over Stalin’s marginalia and notes? Thanks to an effort by the press and the Russian State Archive for Social and Political History,  Stalin’s personal archive has been digitized, including of thousands of documents, letters, and books. You can read about it here.

According to Vadim Staklo, who heads the project, the Stalin archives are the latest in a research and publishing program that has its roots in the Annals of Communism series that Yale started in the early ’90s, which has already unearthed rich material from the Communist Party archives. Said Staklo:

“The popular perception of Soviet leaders mainly comes from the movies – you know, sclerotic stodgy men with thick eyebrows and golden stars on the lapel,” says Staklo. “In real life however many early Bolshevik leaders were very active, lively unorthodox people from very different walks of life. Some were refined intellectuals, others came from humbler origins, some were good writers… and some knew how to draw. These are the images people drew in the margins during the long hours of party meetings. There are caricatures, and also satirical depictions of current events and issues. They went unseen for decades as most of the artists fell victim to repression. They’re not just pictures however – they tell a story about early Soviet politics and personal relations on the Bolshevik Olympus, and the problems they had to deal with on the daily basis.”

There was, for example, the man Lenin called “The Golden Boy of the Revolution” – Nikolai Bukharin.  We wrote about him here. He probably had lots of marginalia, too.  That might be why Stalin had him executed in 1938.

“The common perception is that Stalin was brutal, paranoiac and senseless. But if you read the notes he was making you can see that, yes he may have been brutal and paranoiac – but he was not stupid. For example, he was very keen on the arts as the most important vehicle for propaganda and he read every important play or screenplay offered by a theater or screenwriter. He read them carefully, and wrote long letters to the authors or producers with his comments. He also personally supervised and heavily revised the Short Course In The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This was one of the most important books in the USSR, and you can see that it went through many drafts and that Stalin essentially rewrote the entire volume completely.”

One rather wishes, in fact, that he had been less attentive.  His interest in Osip Mandelstam and his poems – in particular, some verse ridiculing the Soviet chieftain – proved fatal.   (Mandelstam wrote that the words and influence of this “Kremlin crag-dweller” and “peasant-slayer” on literature were “leaden,” his “fat fingers … greasy as maggots.”)  Mandelstam died in a transit camp in the same momentous year that killed Bukharin – 1938.

In a recent interview with Chris Wiman, who recently published some “versions” of Mandelstam’s poems, the editor of Poetry Magazine was asked: “Was there a sense in which the horrors of the Stalinist era ‘made’ Mandelstam as a poet?”  Wiman replied:

Honestly, I don’t think so, though they certainly made that one poem. The horrors have made the legend of Mandelstam and are inevitably the lens through which we read his work and life. But if there had been no Stalin and no purge, Mandelstam still would have been a poet of severe emotional and existential extremity.

"The Sun!"

Then there’s this: Mandelstam was an artistic genius, the sort that any century produces only a handful of. If he hadn’t been driven mad and killed by Stalin, he might have managed to write something of Dantean proportions, that sort of huge unity and music. Dante, after all, was one of his literary gods: one of Mandelstam’s best pieces of prose is also one of the best essays on Dante ever written.

Joseph Brodsky would have agreed: ‘It’s an abominable fallacy that suffering makes for greater art. Suffering blinds, deafens, ruins, and often kills.  Osip Mandelstam was a great poet before the revolution. So was Anna Akhmatova, so was Marina Tsvetaeva. They would have become what they became even if none of the historical events that befell Russia in this century had taken place: because they were gifted.  Basically, talent doesn’t need history.”

In any case, Mandelstam had the last word after all.  Poets always do.

The ranks of human heads dwindle: they’re far away.
I vanish there, one more forgotten one.
But in loving words, in childrens’ play,
I shall rise again, to say – the Sun!

Joseph Brodsky: How the 15-year-old dropout became a university professor

Sunday, May 27th, 2012
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1972: The poet and the Proffers

Curious synchronicity:  On 19 March, drama critic John Freedman, writing in the Moscow Times, remembered Carl and Ellendea Proffer, the critical link in bringing Joseph Brodsky to the U.S.  I discussed this connection in my post a few days ago here.  It’s not like they show up in ink that much nowadays.

Freedman begins with a panegyric:

One of the most inspirational people in my life was a scholar and publisher whom I never met. His name was Carl R. Proffer and I can’t imagine living the life I have without him.

Along with his wife Ellendea C. Proffer, he founded Ardis Publishers in the early 1970s. This was a case of someone taking the idea of a publishing “house” quite literally. The Proffers began printing unpublishable Soviet and Russian literature at home and selling it by mail. Here you could read the latest stories, novels and poems by contemporary writers Joseph Brodsky,  Vasily Aksyonov and Andrei Bitov, to say nothing of banned works by Osip Mandelstam, Mikhail Bulgakov, Nikolai Erdman and many others from the early Soviet period. By the late 1970s I was unloading as much of my meager paychecks on books from Ardis as I was on records by Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and the Kinks.

One of my greatest joys in those years was receiving the latest edition of the Proffer-edited almanac Russian Literature Triquarterly in the mail. This was a scholarly journal like no other, past or present. There wasn’t a stuffy word in it. Each issue was jam-packed with incredible new translations, fascinating essays, groundbreaking memoirs and eye-opening scholarship. Each deliciously fat issue was also accompanied by oodles of rare, historical photographs and fabulous drawings and caricatures. RLT was an unsurpassed treasure trove of Russian letters.

Vintage republished Ardis edition (with commentary by Ellendea Proffer)

I followed one of the journalist’s hyperlinks and found a 1996 article by Benjamin Stolz and Michael Makin, and tells how Carl Proffer diverted the Russian poet to Ann Arbor:

He happened to be in Leningrad visiting Brodsky in May, 1972, when the poet received notification from the authorities that he was being issued an exit visa for emigration to Israel.  After responding that he was not interested in leaving his native land and culture, Brodsky was warned that the coming winter would be very cold — a threat that was not lost on a man who had been convicted of “social parasitism” for living on his poetry and had served a stretch in exile working on a collective farm in the Russian far north.  He decided to discuss the matter with his American friend, and Proffer, in his optimistic way, told Brodsky that he could come and teach in Ann Arbor.  Brodsky accepted the idea, and Proffer contacted Benjamin Stolz, who at the time chaired the Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures.  After receiving authorization to hire Brodsky, Stolz obtained an immigration visa personally approved by William Rogers, Secretary of State, and flew to Chicago to get a federal work permit.

Brodsky began teaching for the first time in his life in September, 1972 — a daunting assignment for anyone, but especially for a young man who had dropped out of high school at fifteen, even if he was accustomed to declaiming his poetry to large groups of admirers.  He asked Stolz how he should teach his courses, one of which was a course in Russian titled “Russian Poetry” and other, in English, titled “World Poetry.”  Stolz replied, “Joseph, they’re your courses, teach them the way you want to, you’re the expert, ” — a piece of advice that Brodsky didn’t need but never forgot.  Brodsky was an inspiring and unorthodox teacher, who combined significant demands on his students — he insisted that a person who was serious about poetry must know at least 1,000 lines by heart — with  a sense of the absurd.   He was known, upon listening intently to a long theoretical exposition from a graduate student, to respond with a concise “meow.”  His presence at the University offered the chance, in the words of a former student, to experience the dynamics of the poet’s perspective and his relationship to language.

Freedman recounts a recent visit to my old stomping grounds in the University of Michigan’s Modern Languages Building, to the office of the  Nobel poet:

Ugly building, gorgeous literature

Invited in by Professor Shevoroshkin, I spent a few moments in Brodsky’s former office. It is now entirely the domain of a linguist, but a few items have been left as they were the last time Brodsky stepped out into the corridor in 1980. A random gallery of postcards and pictures that Brodsky scotch-taped to the inside of the door still hang there helter-skelter. They include photos of an old Soviet china plate, the Venice canals, a view of St. Petersburg, and several simple designs that surely had little meaning for anyone but the poet.

Shevoroshkin explained that numerous items have fallen off the door over the years but that he hasn’t gotten around to taping them back up. “I’ve got to do that sometime,” he said with a smile suggesting he may never get around to it.

Important as his service to Brodsky was, bringing the poet to Ann Arbor was only one of Proffer’s many significant contributions in bringing Russian literature to America. I well remember that when Vasily Aksyonov was deported from the Soviet Union in 1980, his first stop was Ann Arbor. By that time, for those of us following events, it was the natural, the only, destination Aksyonov could have had in America. Not New York, not Los Angeles, but Ann Arbor, Michigan. Where Carl and Ellendea Proffer were located.

A year earlier I met the poet Bulat Okudzhava and the novelist Sasha Sokolov in California. Both had been published by the Proffers at Ardis.

I interviewed Sokolov for the Michigan Daily, in the Proffers’ basement, where Ardis was situation, shortly after he emigrated. Ardis was publishing his School for Fools at that time.

I also remember those postcards in the Modern Languages Building office.  As for his claim, “There isn’t that much of substance about the Proffers on the Internet, and that is an injustice” – well, this is a start.

Antoine Jaccottet’s Le Bruit du Temps: Fresh air for French readers

Monday, February 13th, 2012
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Translation is the poor stepchild of literature – academics get more applause for producing their own books, not for translating the writing of others; for writers, it’s a distraction from their own work and not terribly well remunerated. Hence, a welter of books never appear on the international stage the way they deserve.

So it’s cheering to see a venture like the Paris-based Le Bruit du Temps, a publishing house crowded in one large room in one of the more picturesque neighborhoods in a city that has plenty of them.  Founder and director Antoine Jaccottet has a desk in one corner; his collaborator, Cécile Meissonnier, has a desk on the other side.  Pictures of Osip Mandelstam, Isaac Babel, and others are stuffed into the edges of a large mirror – they are the real masters here. The window next to it gives a clear view on a plaque indicates that James Joyce finished Ulysses across the street here, on rue du Cardinal Lemoine in the Latin Quarter.

Antoine Jaccottet, son of the poet and translator Philippe Jaccottet (who translated Goethe, Hölderlin, Mann, Mandelstam, Góngora, Leopardi, Musil, Rilke,  Ungaretti, and Homer into French), worked for 15 years at the famous French publisher Gallimard, publishing classics, before he broke out on his own for a shoestring enterprise in 2008. The tight-budge endeavor, however, produces elegantly designed, finely crafted volumes.

Masterpieces don’t die, he says, but they can get lost in the noise of time.  It’s the job of publishers to rediscover them for the public, and what better place than the small adventurous publishers who have a freedom and esprit not usually tapped by large publishing houses.

As I gaze over the offices teeming bookshelves, I notice an entire shelf of W.H. Auden in English.  He’s one of the house’s authors.  Le Mer et le Miroir … Auden in French? How does he come across?  It’s difficult, Antoine admits, for the French to “get” Auden’s sensibility.

He’s also published  Zbigniew Herbert in French, Lev Shestov‘s Athens and Jerusalem, the complete works of Isaac Babel, and Henry James‘s The Ambassadors.  Even Shakespeare‘s (cough, cough) Henry VIII.

Mandelstam is, in a sense, the reason for the place.  The title of the publishing house itself – “the noise of time” – is taken from the title of Mandelstam’s prose collection, which includes perhaps his most autobiographical writing.  Antoine had been taken with the Russian poet in the 90s, and the translations and biography by the eminent scholar Clarence Brown.  One of the first books the house published was Le Timbre égyptien (The Egyptian Stamp).  The Ralph Dutli biography will be published this month.  (The house published Dutli’s poems in 2009).

A piece of old France

Le Bruit du Temps’ books by and about Mandelstam illustrate an underlying principle at the house:  Antoine publishes works that develop and deepen recurrent themes like a symphony.  In 2009, he published published Browning’s L’Anneau et le Livre, republished G.K. Chesterton‘s out-of-print 1903 Robert Browning (Chesterton’s first book), Elizabeth Barrett Browning‘s Sonnets from the Portuguese and Henry James‘s Sur Robert Browning. That’s probably more Browning than Elizabeth Barrett ever saw.

Literary journalism, apparently, is as much in a crisis in France as it is here – the media often publishes book blurbs intact, and critics are famous for not reading the books they review.  So how do people hear about books?  Often, they don’t, he says.

As I leave, Antoine gives me a little souvenir of my visit, the publishing house’s brand new Le Bruit du Temps, a slim and elegant volume, fresh from the press.  What could be more fitting?

He also shows me a rarely seen landmark as he shows me the door – at the back of the courtyard, between the buildings, in the soft sunlight of the late afternoon, the ancient Paris city walls of  Philippe Auguste, the oldest surviving city walls, about the time of the poet Marie de France.

Postscript on 3/16:  Nice mention on the University of Rochester’s “Three Percent” blog over here.

 

Pablo Neruda: Greatest pick-up artist evah?

Thursday, January 12th, 2012
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The conversation erupted on my Facebook page, debating the eternally recurring subject of unjust Nobel awards. It’s recently been revealed that J.R.R. Tolkien had been snubbed by the Nobel committee because his writing wasn’t up to snuff.

Other poor Nobel choices came to mind among my FB friends – the 1971 Nobel to Pablo Neruda over Tolkien?  Or over W.H. Auden, for that matter?  Or Jorge Luis Borges?  Or Vladimir Nabokov?

Another Nobel laureate, Octavio Paz called Neruda “the greatest bad poet of the century,” a much-repeated soundbite that sticks.  Yet Nobelist Gabriel García Márquez called him “the greatest poet of the twentieth century – in any language.” To which one can only reply Osip Mandelstam, W.H. Auden, Marina Tsvetaeva, T.S. Eliot, Czeslaw Milosz.

Our view of Neruda is now inevitably colored by his Stalinist politics.

Apologists say the Stalinists couldn’t possibly have known about the murderous excesses of the U.S.S.R.  Couldn’t possibly have known?  Despite a generation of slaughtered, imprisoned and exiled writers from Russia?  Despite a man-made famine that starved millions?  Despite the writings of Robert Conquest?  If Neruda had any questions, all he had to do was ask Czeslaw Milosz, who defected in 1950.  Instead, he infamously penned a denunciation of Milosz as “The Man Who Ran Away.”

There is nothing so dangerous to us as the thing we do not want to be true, the thing we turn our backs to.

Not bad for a dumpy-looking guy

In time for the 2004 Neruda centenary, Stephen Schwartz (not a literary critic, but a conservative political commentator), wrote in a seminal article that has been cited all over the internet:

There is probably no more chance of halting this current binge of Neruda worship than there is of banishing the cicadas, but, still, the truth does need to be said: Pablo Neruda was a bad writer and a bad man. His main public is located not in the Spanish-speaking nations but in the Anglo-European countries, and his reputation derives almost entirely from the iconic place he once occupied in politics – which is to say, he’s “the greatest poet of the twentieth century” because he was a Stalinist at exactly the right moment, and not because of his poetry, which is doggerel.

So does Neruda’s poetry have a future?

Eternally.  On Facebook, my friend Kevin assured me that Pablo Neruda has enduring market value in the Spanish-speaking world for his … pick-up lines. Not bad for a dumpy-looking guy (see right).

Hard to argue that point – an award-winning film was made on precisely that subject, Il Postino/The Postman.  The plot: nerdy Italian postman wants to pick up pretty girl.  He befriends the exiled Neruda and voilà!  Plagiarism is born in a small Italian village.

As Schwartz himself admitted:

Yes, his work is still plagiarized by teenage boys in Latin America, who see his Twenty Love Poems and a Desperate Song and figure there is nothing wrong with borrowing from it–just as one poem in the book is itself stolen from Rabindranath Tagore – and presenting its overwrought lines to their girlfriends. But if those boys grow up to be serious writers, they leave Neruda behind.

No luck with the line

But Kevin had a story of his own.  During a summer studying at the London School of Economics, an attractive young Spanish woman caught his eye.  How to attract her attention? His friend Pedro (there were a lot of Spaniards around that summer)  said it was very important to open with a sure-fire line.  Neruda was the ticket.

A dormitory lunchroom discussion of Neruda and the art of line-by-line seduction followed.  The young woman demanded an example of a florid Iberian pick-up line: “Let me hear it.”

Kevin recalled the line Pedro had taught him:  “The sentence would be something like “Oh, cielito mío, que Dios me dió” [Oh, my little heaven, given to me by God].

“It’s the cheesiest thing in the world.  And she said, ‘Wow, that’s really good.’”

Did he get the date?  No.  But he learned his lesson: “That’s how it’s done in España.”

 

William Jay Smith on “the cinders of your city,” Richard Wilbur on the power of yielding

Saturday, October 15th, 2011
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Native American poet Smith

Thursday’s post on Joseph Brodsky reminded me of the hundreds of lines of poetry the Nobel poet made us memorize at university – an exercise some students defied and ridiculed, but my earlier training in Shakespearean theater taught me to appreciate.

If you want to own a poet, memorize his or her lines.  In this sense, as once said Brodsky, Nadezhda Mandelstam was more deeply married to poet Osip Mandelstam in her widowhood than her marriage, as she preserved his poems against the Soviet regime that would erase them:

“…repeating day and night the words of her dead husband was undoubtedly conneced not only with comprehending them more and more but also with resurrecting his very voice, the intonations peculiar only to him, with a however fleeting sensation of his presence … And gradually those things grew on her.  If there is any substitute for love, it’s memory. To memorize, then, is to restore intimacy. Gradually, the lines of those poets became her mentality, became her identity. They supplied her not only with the plane of regard or angle of vision; more importantly, they became her linguistic norm.”

But what do to do in an era when reading a 300-page book seems like an insurmountable task, and memorizing a poem seems – oh, such a leisurely activity in an increasingly hectic world?  OK, here’s two 8-line poems for you. See if you can get these out of your head – then memorize them, so you can’t.  No excuses.

Frequent euphoria: Richard Wilbur

The first, by William Jay Smith, is dark, cryptic, compact, and layered.  I think it’s one of the finest short poems of the 20th century. The second encapsulates one of Richard Wilbur‘s moments of incandescent euphoria.  (As he once said, “Giving up doesn’t always mean you are weak; sometimes it means that you are strong enough to let go.”)  Jay Parini writes that, in this poem, one of two in “Two Voices in a Meadow”: “Wilbur aspires to a Blakean intensity, with his casual lyricism achieving a kind of perfection rarely found among his contemporaries.”

Elizabeth Frank wrote nearly two decades ago in The Atlantic: “When the whole history of twentieth-century American poetry is eventually written, it will surely be revealed that despite the apparently larger and often noisier triumphs of ‘open’ forms, astonishingly good verse that we can call ‘metrical’ or ‘formal’ has continued to be written by some of the country’s best poets – Smith himself along with his contemporaries and near-contemporaries Richard Wilbur, John Hollander, and Anthony Hecht. That Smith has written poems replete with rhythm, rhyme, wit, and melody – what Louise Bogan called ‘the pleasures of formal poetry,’ in an essay by the same name – is cause for celebration, homage, and gratitude.”

I’ve had the privilege of meeting both nonagenarian poets – but that’s another story, for another time.  Both live in Cummington, Massachusetts.  Must be a delightful place for a visit, for that reason alone!

 

“Note on a Vanity Dresser”

The yes-man in the mirror now says no,
No longer will I answer you with lies.
The light descends like snow, so when the snow-
man melts, you will know him by his eyes.

The yes-man in the mirror now says no.
Says no. No double negative of pity
Will save you now from what I know you know:
These are your eyes, the cinders of your city.

 

“A Milkweed”


Anonymous as cherubs
Over the crib of God,
White seeds are floating
Out of my burst pod.
What power had I
Before I learned to yield?
Shatter me, great wind:
I shall possess the field.