Love and Its Concretions

Volume 2 ~ 2004

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Vvedensky in Love

Thomas Epstein

Respect the circumstances of place. Respect
what happens. But nothing takes place. Respect
the poverty of language. Respect low thoughts.1

Alexander Vvedensky2

Poetry, language and thought: this is the crossroads at which the poetry of Alexander Vvedensky (1904-1941) takes root. But it is a paradoxical meeting, for what results is not so much a synthesis of this trinity but rather a collision of meanings in which silence triumphs over voice, non-sense over meaning, fragmentation over unity—an unsettling compound that this brief essay will set out to explore. First, though, and especially for the non-Russian reader, a context must be developed—by turns literary, biographical, and cultural—within which to situate our analysis.


I

Russia has always been a land of profound contrasts: the splendor of St. Petersburg’s numerous palaces and the misery of its general population; the utopianism of Russia’s historical aspirations and the all too frequent nightmare of its various realizations; the greatness of its poetry and the tragedy of so many of its poets. For better or worse, the life of Alexander Vvedensky can serve as a model for what might be called ‘Russian fate.’

Alexander Vvedensky was born in St. Petersburg in December 1904—only months before the Russian revolution of 1905—into a highly educated and successful family: his father was an economist and his mother one of the city’s leading physicians, no mean feat for a woman at the turn of the 20th century. The years of Vvedensky’s childhood coincided not only with the triumph of the Bolshevik revolution but with what many consider the finest flowering of modern Russian culture, not only in poetry but in music, art, and philosophy. In poetry this period saw the rise of three distinct movements, all of which Vvedensky was exposed to: Symbolism (which comprised two generations, one led by Merezhkovsky, Gippius amd Sologub, the other by Blok, Bely and Ivanov), Futurism (led by Khlebnikov and Mayakovsky) and Acmeism (Gumilyov, Akhmatova, Mandelshtam). In this competitive and highly charged atmosphere Vvedensky nevertheless managed to come to the attention of his elders at a precocious age. By his mid-teenage years he had sent his poetry to his poetic idol Alexander Blok (there was no written answer but what got back to him second-hand was not encouraging); by his twentieth birthday he was under the wing of two of Petersburg’s leading Futurists, the zaumnik Aleksandr Tufanov and the theater director Igor’ Terent’ev; in 1926 he and his poetic comrade-in-arms Daniil Kharms3 had two poems published in the yearly anthology of the Writers Union; soon after that, they were in correspondence with one of the giants of the Soviet poetic avant-garde, Boris Pasternak, and no less an artist than Kazimir Malevich was seeking to collaborate with Vvedensky and Kharms in a venture that was to combine theater, poetry, music and painting; from 1927 to early 1930 he and Kharms were leaders of the last great Soviet-Russian avant-garde organization, Oberiu4 ; and in 1930 Mikhail Kuzmin was confiding in his diary that he considered Vvedensky the leading light of the young generation. But these, as it turned out, were false signals: the publication in the Writers Union anthology proved to be the only publication of adult poetry during his lifetime (like Kharms, Vvedensky wrote children’s verse for economic and social survival). This brief period of acclaim and public visibility was followed by arrest and exile (1931-32), then a return to a Leningrad of danger, obscurity, and semi-starvation. Following the repression of 1936 that cost the lives of many, including one of his best friends (the poet Nikolai Oleinikov), there was a kind of escape, into loneliness and creativity, to Kharkov, the hometown of his third wife. Finally, inevitably, there was his gruesome death in December 1941 from dysentery while on forced transit from Kharkov to Siberia. Although it is true that fate was merciless to all who lived to the 1930s (to mention only three: suicides by Mayakovsky and Tsvetaeva, death on the way to internment for Mandel’shtam), Vvedensky’s elders managed to live their poetic, personal and even political lives on the public stage. It was Vvedensky’s fate—and that of millions of others—to be slaughtered in silence and seemingly forgotten forever, consigned to Stalin’s ‘dustbin of history.’

But forever is a long time. And thanks to Yakov Druskin it didn’t come; or at least it hasn’t come yet. This ‘revival’ or second life of Vvedensky (and of Kharms) began with an act of rescue: in December, 1941, in siege-bound Leningrad, Druskin, ill and starving, along with Kharms’s second wife Maria Malich, trudged across the city to Kharms’s bombed-out apartment building to take charge of a trunk full of manuscripts.5 Druskin transported these materials to Siberia during the evacuation of Leningrad, then kept them hidden through the 1940s and 1950s. Only in the 1960s did he begin to share them with an emerging generation of young avant-garde Leningrad artists, poets, and thinkers. (This did not prevent one of them, Mikhail Meilakh, from serving jail time for ‘illegally’ publishing Vvedensky’s complete works abroad, with the Ardis Press in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1979.) What was discovered changed both our understanding and the course of 20th century Russian literature: in Kharms, Vvedensky, Vaginov and Oleinikov the young underground writers of the Leningrad and Moscow 1960s and 70s found the ‘missing link,’ the third generation, in the transmission of Russian Modernism. Here was poetry and prose written in the shadow of the Silver Age but with a decidedly post-apocalyptic, metaphysical and absurdist sensibility that perfectly resonated with the rising underground cultures of Moscow and Leningrad.6 With perestroika and glasnost’, Vvedensky and Kharms were finally brought to light and recognized as two of Russia’s signal twentieth century poets, and for many in post-perestroika Russia their lives became both a warning and a talisman to guard against the various temptations of post-Soviet life.

What then was Vvedensky’s artistic credo? In literary terms one might say that his poetic sensibility combines the Russian Symbolist concern for transcendence, God, and ‘other worlds,’ with the Futurist orientation toward syntactical and semantic deformations that draw attention to the artifices of language. In terms of method it is clearly to the Russian Futurists, and especially to Velemir Khlebnikov, 7 that Vvedensky owes his poetic beginnings. However, unlike most Futurists (Western European well as Russian), Vvedensky was neither a nihilist nor a Utopian world-maker, he was a believer, an apophatic Christian: the semantic kenosis to which he subjects language has a theological purpose. In analyzing his critique of language, poetry and thought we must keep in mind the absurd faith (particularly pronounced after 1930) that fires his poetry: the alogical communication for which his poetry strives is an act of communion. For this reason we must radically distinguish between Vvedensky’s deformations of poetic language and Futurist practice: the former is religiously inspired and oriented toward communication, the latter is linguistically inspired and oriented toward expression. Moreover, while in one way or another the Futurists sought to overcome meaning, Vvedensky celebrated and used non-meaning and non-sense to suggest, in a kind of poetic apophasis,8 a transcendent meaning that simultaneously underpins and negates our human understanding. At the same time, unlike the Symbolists, his aim is neither to create an aesthetic paradise nor to suggest or build a bridge to another world—Vvedensky’s is an aesthetics of martyred aesthetics, of not knowing, of the defeat of ‘poetry’ in the service of truth.9 As he writes in the opening of his poetic dialogue of 1930, “The Demise of the Sea”:

SEA DEMON

and the sea too means nothing
and the sea too is a round o
and in vain does man hop
into the deep from guns and blades
and in the sea as well the fishies go
dogs run around violins play
and seaweed sleeps like aunts
and boats skip up and down like fleas
and in the sea there is as little sense
it obeys the same numbers
it is deserted and dark
maybe o sea you are a window?
maybe o sea you are a widow?
10

With this quote (but how long could we go without letting the poet speak for himself?), the author of this essay finds himself in something of a corner: whether to proceed with an account of the general outlines of Vvedensky’s aesthetics or to plunge into a detailed, although incomplete, analysis of this masterful translation. Perhaps the fragmented world into which Vvedensky’s poetry thrusts us—and the space between English and Russian that we are entering—will justify what now becomes a necessary detour.

Given Vvedensky’s attention to the tension between language and thought, between poetry and meaning, it is no wonder that poetic form plays a crucial role—although a profoundly ‘negative’ one, as we shall see—in his aesthetics.11 Vvedensky’s metrical practice is marked by what can be called an extreme primitivism, even infantilism (recall that Vvedensky wrote children’s verse) that is in constant conflict with the ‘seriousness’ of his subject matter.12 Moreover, in this poem in particular and in Vvedensky’s poetry in general, there is a pronounced tension between the rationality, even overdetermination of the form (in the case of “The Demise of the Sea,” lines of irregularly rhymed iambic tetrameter) and the “absurdity” and grotesquery of the content (I refer here both to the poetic lexicon—the incongruities of the sea, the fishies, the fleas—, and to much of the imagery—the seaweed sleeping like aunts, the boats skipping like fleas). Often, as here, Vvedensky strikes a comic note, navigating between high and low, tragedy and comedy, archaic and avant-garde, meaning and non-sense. Miraculously, the translator, Eugene Ostashevsky, is in large measure able to communicate to the reader this zero sum game. For purposes of this discussion I will draw attention to only a few features of the relationship between the original and the translation, and generally between the form and the content. The first thing to note is the use of the conjunction “and” (Russian i): in the English as in the Russian the word  “and” is found in the line-initial position (an excessive) seven times. Why? For one, it reminds us—with a sledge hammer—of Russian folklore and one of its archaic tropes (i.e. the anaphoric “and”). No less importantly, this rather ‘weak’ conjunction is what so to speak guarantees—and in a forthrightly mechanical way—the very strong iambic rhythm that ‘directs’ the poem. Semantically, this foregrounded poetic weakness, even ‘laziness’ is made even more obvious and frequently grotesque by joining together a series of meanings that are dangerously redundant, perhaps self-canceling, certainly ‘in vain’ (the sea/ the sea/in vain/ in the sea / seaweed / boats / in the sea). Thus while securing us regular poetic meter, the word “and” simultaneously draws attention to its own conventionality and the redundancy of the things it links (indeed we are left ‘only’ with a hollow—but insistently regular—cadence, like the sea itself).

Translating Vvedensky’s rhymes is particularly daunting—in their self-conscious impoverishment they walk a constant tightrope between meaning and doggerel, pathos and bathos. Ostashevsky, using his expert knowledge of both English and Russian versification, translates the simple Russian rhymes using the arsenal of modern English rhyme: a combination of off, assonantal, visual, weak and strong rhyme (nothing / hope / o / go / blades / play / fleas/ sense / numbers / window / widow). The last pair (window / widow) deserves special attention In the Russian they are the words okno / odno. This rather ‘obvious’ rhyme is made to bear a special semantic tension by the fact that this final couplet is in essence the same sentence except for one letter’s difference: the k in okno, the d in odno.  Moreover, these two Russian words not only refer us back semantically to an earlier rhyme in the poem (that is, to the Russian word nul’ and pul’, the English “null” and the genitive plural of “bullet”) but also suggests a crucial—if ironic—Parmenedian preoccupation of Vvedensky: everything culminates in oneness, in a transparency, redundancy and immobility equal to zero (both as sum and form), which is analogous to the rounding of the lips for the letter o. For his part, Ostashevsky altogether abandons a semantically literal translations of the words “bullets” (pul’) and “one” (odno). In its place, and with considerable skill, he achieves o / nothing and play / blades for the one rhyme, and provides what can only be described as a brilliant example of poetic translation with his apophatic window / widow (again, only one letter prevents the two sentences from being identical).13

The author (and the reader) of this article is thus up against at least a double resistance: that of Vvedensky’s inherently, “non-sensical” poetic semantics and the limits of translation. Happily, some of Vvedensky’s own, extremely perceptive comments about his work have survived. It is to them, and to the context in which they were made, that we will now turn.


II

I carried out a so to speak poetic critique of reason, more fundamental than Kant’s abstract one. For instance, I doubted whether the words “house,” “tower” and “cottage” could be subsumed under the concept of “building.” Perhaps “shoulder” should be connected to “four.” I did this in practice, in poetry, and showed it to be so. I became convinced of the falseness of conventional ties but am unable to say what the new ones should be. I don’t know whether there should be one system of connections or many. What I have is a fundamental intuition of the disconnectedness of the world and the fragmentation of time. And since this intuition contradicts reason, reason does not comprehend the world.14

Alexander Vvedensky

As mentioned earlier, Vvedensky and Kharms enjoyed a period of public visibility as leaders of the group Oberiu. After the ‘scandal’ surrounding their performance of December 1929, and the subsequent furor it provoked, Oberiu was disbanded and its leaders later arrested and briefly exiled. However, this ‘exoteric’ formation concealed another, ‘esoteric’ one whose activities began earlier (in the mid-1920s) and lasted longer (until 1937). These are the Chinars (from the Russian word chin, designating spiritual rank), and included the poets Vvedensky, Kharms and Nikolai Oleinikov, and the philosophers Leonid Lipavsky and Yakov Druskin.15 These five friends, these ‘amateurs’ cut off from the institutions of public life, engaged in a continuous, extraordinary conversation.16 By 1931, with publication out of the question and physical survival rather than glory the fundamental challenge, Vvedensky and his friends began to write only for and even through each other, developing a hieroglyphic language17 and a sacred-foolish ideal that differentiates them artistically from almost any other group aesthetic of the 20th century.18 In their works and conversations they roamed freely amidst the entire heritage of world culture: from the Gospels to Lenin, from Plotinus to Cusanus and Bergson, from Dante to Christian Morgenstern and Edward Lear. What emerged from Vvedensky’s pen was a religio-absurdist poetry that questioned, along lines later followed by Lewis Worf and Ludwig Wittgenstein, language’s ability to escape its own prison house: identity and  difference, signified and signifier, self and other, mind and body, text and metatext, all of them were set up, sent up, ‘bracketed.’ As Vvedensky wrote: “ Before every word I put the question: what does it mean, and over every word I place the mark of its tense.”19 This is because, as Vvedensky saw it, it is time that both embodies and occults the two essential mysteries of life: God and death; and it is this triadic mystery that poetry must  reveal, even if in the mode of failure. In the Gray Notebook20 he explains why:

Our human logic and our language do not in any way correspond to time, neither in its elementary nor in its complex understanding. Our logic and our language skid along the surface of time.21

Thus a poetry that aspires to telling the truth about time will have to be non­logical. This is because human logic and language falsely spatialize all of reality (including time); it then divides and quantifies this falsified spatiality into discrete units (words or moments). Once this is accomplished—and it requires ruse and self-deception to be carried off—we can now pretend that time is quantitative (numerical) and that past time can be talked about like the house we saw yesterday: but in truth where is yesterday? How can you compare the last “three months” to “three newly grown trees?”22 Vvedensky, with Rimbaud, challenges language with the request “give me a kilo of four o’clock,”23 knowing full well that our language is set up so that we do not experience the novelty of each moment, its utter non-cognitive independence; for if we experience this autonomy, this paradoxical fragmentation, we (temporarily) exit time and experience—in terror—both our own nakedness and the utter conventionality of all our human concepts, our words and ideas in the face of eternity. Suddenly it is not only verbs that bear time—everything (and every thing ) is in time; and time, Vvedensky writes, “turns everything into null.”24 Try this experiment:

Let a mouse run over a stone. Count only its every step. Only forget the word every, only forget the word step. Then each step will seem a new movement. Then, since your ability to perceive a series of movements as something whole has rightfully disappeared, that which you wrongly called a step (you had confused movement and time with space, you falsely transposed one over the other), that movement will begin to break apart, it will approach zero. The shimmering will begin. The mouse will start to shimmer. Look around you: the world is shimmering (like a mouse).25

This slowing down of time, this annihilation of memory and logical meaning, this poetics of aphasia is the linguistic equivalent of the approach of God and death: its shimmering is as close as we can come to experiencing reality, which always lies beyond us, in what Vvedensky calls “finality” (okonchatel’nost’). Only in fragmentation and incoherence can we experience the finality that allows for a true communicative act. Only at the moment of death do we experience real “finality” and end the illusion of time. Indeed at the moment of death “miracle” is possible. This is because “death is the stopping of time.”26 In this sense death, for Vvedensky, is the only real event: all else is seeming.

All our logic, our language, is ultimately nothing more than a convenient, useful—and not even always useful—fiction that actually serves to disguise our real, and onlytrue, condition: one of total ignorance. In this Vvedensky shares the apophatic view of the early Renaissance Christian mystic Nicholas of Cusa who asserted that knowledge, which is relative, complex and finite, is incapable of grasping the truth, which is simple and infinite. The best we can hope for, Vvedensky writes, is to “to determine those few basic principals underlying our superficial feeling of time; and on the basis of them perhaps the path to death and comprehensive incomprehension will become clear.”27 To do this we must abandon our knowledge of 1. logic, 2. language, and 3. understanding. This is precisely the aim of Vvedensky’s poetry:

In art the plot and action are vanishing. Those actions that exist in my poems are illogical and useless, they cannot be called actions. Of a person who used to put on a hat and walk outside, we used to say: he walked outside. This was meaningless. The word ‘walked’ is an incomprehensible word. But now: he put on his hat and it was getting light and the (blue) sky took off like an eagle. Events do not coincide with time. Time has eaten the event. Not even the bones are left.28

Although this kind of “knowledge” is not satisfactory to logic,29 such an approach to experience produces two positive results: the possibility of communion and the necessity of faith in—in the form of waiting for—God (and God alone). As for the first, Vvedensky writes that, with the growth of this non-understanding, “it will become clear to you and me that there is no woe, neither to us, nor to those pondering, nor to time “30 The entire world of conventional thought—and its distance—is annihilated in this immanent not-knowing, which is “clear to you and me.” Through this paradoxical indirectness, which is alogicality, the walls—which are the creation of reason—between “worlds” (words) evaporate. At the same time “…in the walls of time’s vessel he  thought he saw God show himself. “31 In this breakdown of conventional reality, in this emptying of our logico-material self, in this not quite human comedy, we find ourselves thrust into God’s invisible hands, enveloped—or surrounded—by his final and alogical finality. As Vvedensky wrote in the Gray Notebook: “Our last hope is Christ risen.”32 Vvedensky’s art seeks to be poetic “proof” of just that postulate.

Perhaps we can now briefly return to the epigraph to this section. Clearly, part of Vvedensky’s poetic effort is aimed at discrediting normative semantics: his poetry seeks to show the unreality of conventional reality as expressed in language. Neither the language of common sense nor of science tells us anything about the ultimate nature of things or of our relation to them. In this sense, Vvedensky and Kant start with an identical point of departure—that is, the assumption of a world beyond mind—but head in opposite directions. The noumenal world, according to Kant, is the world of things in themselves: it is the limiting concept that assures the reality of the phenomenal world. Vvedensky asserts that the noumenal world is the limiting concept that assures the unreality of the phenomenal world. This, of course, cannot be proved logically: it can either be lived existentially or expressed poetically in what Vvedensky calls “the star of non-sense,” which both reveals phenomenal unreality and opens the door to a glimpse of the unseeable real, the noumena:

The star of non-sense shines
It alone is bottomless
A dead gentleman comes running in
And silently removes time.33

Here and now, time, death, and God meet. Here too meaning ends, and the zero experienced at the bottom of the sea  in “The Demise of the Sea” proves to be not nihilistic play or stoic resignation but the ultimate affirmation of a reality beyond thought and meaning that glimmers through things even as they consume us.


III

The poem for which this brief article serves as preface Kuprianov and Natasha, was written in 1931, during the same period in which Vvedensky wrote his great theological Mystery play, “Perhaps God is All Around” (Krugom Vozmozhno Bog) and before the writing of a great cycle of other works, including “Four Descriptions” (Chetyre opisaniia), “An Invitation to Me to Ponder,” (Priglashenie menia podumat’), and “It’s a Pity that I’m not a Beast” (Mne zhalko chto ia ne zver’).34 In all these works we can observe the major aspects of Vvedensky’s poetic maturity: “the star of non-sense,” ‘impoverished’ writing, the constant use of dialogic and dramatic forms, a conscious—and often exaggerated—dualism, and a growing mystical spirituality. Although sharing these traits, Kuprianov and Natasha is nevertheless something of an anomaly. For one thing, unlike almost all of Vvedensky’s dialogue poems, Kuprianov and Natasha is unremittingly anthropocentric: there are none of the speaking rocks, seas, angels or meteors that are so often found in Vvedensky’s dialogues. Also, unlike so many of the poems of this period, Kuprianov and Natasha abjures the depiction of the participation of any transcendental realm, whether spatial or temporal, within the immanent: not only is there no use of the fantastic, no journeys to the heavens or underworld in ‘posthumous’ time, but the two potentially ‘transcendent’ elements in the poem (the worm and the icon of Christ) are portrayed as outside, or at least out of phase, with the very earthly goings-on here below. Perhaps most importantly, the poem is intensely emotional, utterly material, and personal, all of which are highly unusual for Vvedensky.35 Indeed the poem takes up what is perhaps the most anthropocentric and emotional of purely human relations: romantic-sexual love, this ultimate concretion. It is a dialogue in part tawdry, in part elevated, infantile and philosophical at the same time, that ends in apparent—and utter—failure: tears, masturbation, and daylight (which is the dark for Kuprianov). Yet in this defeat, in the radical dualism of mind and body, God and man, man and woman, word and thing, glimmers an alogicality that signals the presence of eternity in time.

Structurally, Kuprianov and Natasha is perhaps Vvedensky’s most ‘oppressive’ work: it is certainly his most rigidly, indeed asphyxiatingly, linear as it describes the passage from night to day, the lovers’ undressing, their dialogue, their failure to merge and become ‘like tuna,’ then their re-dressing and self-abandonment to the day. It is in some sense a ritual of defeat, a parody of seduction and love’s ecstasy, perhaps based on The Song of Songs, the story of Adam and Eve, or the Troubadour alba.36

The poem-dialogue begins with stage directions—strange, linguistically ambiguous stage directions: the pronouns “his” and “those” are—in the Russian—perfectly ambiguous: “his” may refer to Kuprianov, or to someone else (just as we never know whether Kuprianov and Natasha are husband and wife or illicit lovers: even the “marriage bed” that is later named is not defined as theirs). “Those swinish guests” remain unidentified, although the word “those” points to a previous identification beyond the limits of the poem. Indeed the language of the poem’s beginning seems to suggest that Kuprianov and Natasha are seeking to establish a sacred sphere, closed off from all ‘others,’ in which they can perform their holy ritual. However, attaining this communion proves to be not so easy, nor so linear a process as the poem’s form would suggest. Rather, the opposite proves to be true: it is only by surrendering to the profane, to nature and time, and to the discrediting of eros, that Kuprianov can “disappear,” dematerializing into eternity. From Kuprianov’s first words the atmosphere of fear (provoked by the possibility of the sacred, that is of death, time stopped), and the fundamental dualisms of language and existence, take hold: everywhere body confronts soul, light struggles with dark, self with other, unity with multiplicity, nature with spirit. The overarching problem of identity—what object corresponds to what word, who belongs to whom—comes immediately to the fore when Kuprianov names Natasha as his lover, then “forgets” it  (for Vvedensky the abyss of aphasia always yawns), calling her Marusia, Sonia.37 Next, (mis)identifying her with the earth, Kuprianov talks about discovering her multiplicity, her difference (‘I want to dig around in you/ in search of interesting things’). But Natasha will have none of Kurpianov’s ‘categories,’ she has her own: not his candle (light, phallus, mind) but her breasts (darkness, body, multiplicity): “Kuprianov, there’s little sense in this candle,/I fear it wouldn’t have lit up a poodle,38 /and there’s two of us here.” Perhaps most important of all we have the insoluble problem of movement and desire (“why do you stroll about yearning”) which will undermine the goal of lovemaking (transcendence, eternity, unity) from the start.

As the lovers undress Kuprianov describes the “funny recreation” upon which they are about to embark. Although Kuprianov doesn’t know it, they are already doomed: the funny (smeshnoe) state of humanity is, for Vvedensky,39 the very sign of original sin: humor—along with boredom—is emblematic of our divided, fallen condition. Interestingly, it is now, for the first time in the poem, when she realizes that she is naked, that Natasha appeals to God (“O God, I’m left without a skirt”); and it is here too that the crucial images of the monk (asceticism) and the worm (the eternal suffering of evil, which is endless chronos, evoked in the last lines of the Book of Isaiah and mentioned in the Gospel of Mark) first appear. Natasha feels the disruption, the disorientation (“I resume”) and contradictoriness that desire inflicts on individual identity.40 Where does she begin, where end? Is she a spirit or a mechanism? This sense of disorder culminates in her confession of her dread of the sex act (“but soon a star will glitter. / It’s so disgusting”).

This dreadful attraction-repulsion to the promise of oblivion, embodied in the mechanical pleasures of the body, infects not only Natasha and Kuprianov (who suddenly remembers his misperception of the color of Natasha’s “fountainhead”) but spreads to poetic language itself. Rhymes generate rhymes and rhythms that generate meaning. The poem navigates between the apparently absurd (reed and duck, for example, are ‘produced’ via the Russian pair dudka/utka) and the legitimacy of the need for that absurd—we truly are funny, and bored, Natasha’s clothes really are a kind of plumage. But we are also truly separated, both from ourselves and from each other: language, desire, coupling only increase the awareness of distance, death, sin, nature, time, and God:

How everything is boring
And monotonously nauseating,
Look, like a naked herring,
I stand before you, luxuriating
And my fourth arm
points mightily to the skies,
If only someone came to look at us,
we are alone with Christ
upon this icon.
It’s interesting to know how long we took to undress.
Half an hour, I reckon. What’s your guess?

As Christ finally appears above them (and at what a moment!), making them three, Natasha waits to receive Kuprianov—to receive his darkness, hoping to experience “the last ring of the world/that isn’t yet pried apart.” For Kuprianov, however, the distance between his physical existence and spiritual desire only grows greater, reaching the breaking point when life’s only ‘real’ issue is raised; Natasha’s entreaty that he hurry up (Kuprianov has said the same earlier) because “we will die soon.” What is he to do, torn between the ultimately solitary yet impersonal ecstasy of the body and the feeling of finality/death/self that inhabits him? “No, I don’t want to.” But why doesn’t he want to? Is it that he doesn’t want to die soon (perhaps he wants rather to die now?); or does he not want to die at all (thus his fear)? Moreover, who is this “I” that doesn’t want to (in Russian, translated literally, he simply says “No, don’t want to”), the spiritual or animal self? And what does he want? From his actions, from his growing desperation, it would appear that Kuprianov is kenotically  surrendering his right to desire anything beyond nature; surrendering completely to his solitary animality in order to overcome it: paradoxically surrendering to materiality (to nature and death) in order to experience immateriality. Thus he “exits” and does what ‘comes naturally’: he pleasures himself, just as nature does (note Kuprianov’s “indulging in solitary pleasure” and the repetition of this phrase in the poem’s last line, after Kuprianov’s “disappearance,” when nature does the same). In the opposite direction (for eros is ‘stuck’ in the logic of the body), as the lovers mechanically dress, as Kuprianov tries to ‘understand’ what has gone wrong, Natasha in contrast engages in reproach, in self-reproach, and finally in her own pleasure:

I tickle myself.
I swell with marvelous joy.
I am my own fountainhead.

A sense of defeat, of anti-erotic despair, and on Natasha’s part anger, now grips the poem. Kuprianov was wrong: the way to the sacred was not through the body. Or rather: it was through the body but not in the way he ‘thought’; not in the purported unity of the sex act but in the fragmentation of desire; not in the power of naming but in its futility; not in coupling but uncoupling. The attempt to enact the sacred has revealed the profane, nature the masturbator. Yet in this failure and blindness there is an unveiling: Kuprianov and Natasha are fallen. Kurprianov is likened to ‘ordure,’ but he is nevertheless—as Natasha sees—the stuff of which eternity (and salvation) is made: indeed it is only because of faith in the “one star” (the one Natasha feared) that we strive—and fail—to be ideal lovers. And it is also why we must fail. We are not Gods—we are sinners in love. It is only when we at last “understand nothing” and “disappear” that we might begin (not) to understand something: that only beyond understanding—beyond poetry, language and thought—, where time ends and death shimmers, does God perhaps appear, invisible.




Footnotes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are mine. The epigraph for this article is taken from the poetic dialogue entitled “A Certain Quantity of Conversations” (1936-37).
  2. In normative transliteration his name is Aleksandr Ivanovich Vvedenskii. For the purposes of this article I have chosen to anglicize his name.
  3. Daniil Kharms (1905-1942, real last name Iuvachev) is the best known of the group of writers and artists centered around Vvedensky and Kharms. Although very little of his poetry has been translated, several excellent volumes of prose are in print. He is also the subject of numerous monographs, the best of which remains Jean-Philippe Jaccard’s Daniil Harms et la fin de l’avant-garde russe (Bern, 1991).
  4. Oberiu, or Ob’edinenie real’nogo iskusstva, translates as “The Association for Real Art.” It was a short-lived group (late 1927-early 1930), disbanded under political pressure after the group’s famous, and to many notorious, “Three Left Hours.” Held in December, 1929, this group performance featured theater, poetry, cinema, and music. Oberiu is generally considered the last large-scale avant-garde grouping in post-revolutionary Leningrad.
  5. This turned out to be, with a few minor exceptions, the only surviving archive of Vvedensky’s work. Although there is some dispute (Vvedensky himself was legendarily unconcerned about the preservation of his works), the scholar Mikhail Meilakh, who is usually a very reliable source, estimates that we probably have less than twenty-five percent of Vvedensky’s complete oeuvre.
  6. In the international context the work of the Oberiuts can be seen to prefigure, in a number of ways, the Western European literature of the Absurd.
  7. Thankfully, we have the late Paul Schmidt’s English translations which do manage to give an authentic feeling for the achievement of this amazing and truly monumental figure.
  8. A good and brief overview of this theological term can be found in Yaroslav Pelikan’s The Melody of Theology (Harvard University Press, 1988), pp. 6-8.
  9. In this regard, Daniil Kharms said, “It’s interesting how almost all the great writers served an idea that they considered higher than their artistic creations. Blake, Gogol, Tolstoy, Khlebnikov and Vvedensky are of this kind.” See Ustinov, A. and Kobrinsky A. (eds). “Devnikovye zapisi Daniila Kharmsa.” Minuvshee: Istoricheskii Almanakh 11 (1992): p. 477.
  10. For the entire poem see Fence, vol. 4, number 2, (Fall-Winter 2002), 161-66; available online www.fencemag.com/v4n2/text/vvedenskii/html.
  11. It should be noted that while in the mid-1930s Vvedensky began to experiment with non-metrical and mixed forms (plays and prose dialogues with ‘metrical’ interludes), in the period we are concerned with virtually all of Vvedensky’s work was metrically regular, and rhymed.
  12. Vvedensky told his friend Yakov Druskin that his poetry had only three subjects: God, time, death.
  13. All translation is imperfect. Even the best translations can benefit from a kind of philological commentary that our culture rarely tolerates. I will limit myself here to two such glosses: the title of the poem (it is in fact the second of a diptych, the first of which is entitled “The Meaning of the Sea”) in the Russian is Konchina Moria . The word “konchina” is well translated as demise but obscures the Russian root for end and the obsessive theme of okonchatelnost’ (finality) that is central to Vvedensky (see below). Also, the English verbs ‘hop’ and ‘skip up and down’ are covered by the single Russian verb skakat’. This is important to note because in a later poem Vvedensky uses this verb to categorize God’s mode of movement: Bog skachet vechno. “God skips eternally.” Man skips in vain.
  14. Polnoe sobranie. Vol. 2, pg. 157.
  15. Mention must be made here of the formidable Russian poet Nikolai Zabolotsky who was a member of Oberiu but who ultimately ‘opted out’ of the Chinars.
  16. Thankfully, Tamara Lipavskaya-Meyer took notes of the meetings of the Chinars. Her husband, Leonid Lipavsky, before his death on the front in 1941, edited them. They were preserved for some fifty years and finally published in 1993 in the Russian magazine Logos.
  17. Although the fascinating topic is beyond the scope of this article, it should be mentioned that the kind of communication engaged in by the Chinars resulted in something deeper than mutual influence: they developed and shared a special vocabulary that permeates and echoes through their works.
  18. Perhaps the only analogous phenomenon is René Daumal’s group Le Grand Jeu (a relationship to Surrealism is also viable).
  19. Vvedensky, Alexander, The Gray Notebook, trans. by Matvei Yankelevitch (Ugly Duckling Press, 2003), p. 4.
  20. Its name is conventional: the text, a poetic dialogue followed by a series of prose fragments, was found in a gray notebook.
  21. The Gray Notebook , p. 4.
  22. Ibid. p. 5.
  23. From the poem “5 or 6” (1929).
  24. The Gray Notebook , p. 4.
  25. Ibid. p. 5.
  26. Ibid. p. 4.
  27. Ibid. p. 4.
  28. Ibid. p. 5.
  29. Indeed it is not knowledge at all: as “first” (pervyi) says, in “A Certain Quantity of Conversations”: “First (looking through a window that has the shape of the letter A): Nowhere do I see any inscriptions connected with any concept whatsoever.” See Polnoe sobranie. Volume 1. p. 211.
  30. Ibid. p. 4
  31. Ibid. p. 5
  32. Ibid. p. 4.
  33. Polnoe sobranie, Vol. 1, p. 152.
  34. Some of these poems are available in Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s 20th Century Russian Poetry (New York, 1994). Of greater moment is the work of Eugene Ostashevsky, Matvei Yankelevich, and to a lesser extent myself and Genya Turovsky. On our site, along with a link to Kuprianov and Natasha, there is also a link to a list of recently published translations of Vvedensky, Kharms, Druskin and Zabolotsky. A volume of Oberiu translations will be published in 2005 by Northwestern University Press.
  35. Vvedensky’s second wife, Tamara Lipavskaia-Meier, read the poem as a farewell to her. See Sborishche druzei, ostavlennykh sud’boiu (Moscow, 1998), Vol. 2, pp. 1016-1020.
  36. See Meilakh, M., “Neskol’ko slov o Kuprianove i Natashe Aleksandra Vvedenskogo,” in Slavica Hierosolymitana (1978:3), pp. 252-264, and Katsis, L. Russkaia eskhatologiia i russkaia literatura (Moscow, 2000), pp. Pp. 467-489.
  37. This “doubling” of the lover seems to serve both a parodic—i.e., the (un)Romantic double—and a theological end: Sonia and Marusia are nicknames for Mary and Sophia, incarnations of divine wisdom. The “(o)usia” itself—perhaps more so in the English translation than in the original Russian—is highly suggestive of the Greek word made famous by Aristotle (Being, Substance) and crucial to Orthodox spirituality.
  38. The Russian word here is “sheep,” whose biblical resonance is lost (and replaced with a Faustian one?) in translation.
  39. As he says in “God is Perhaps Around”: “The Prince of Peace transformed the world / He was a divine brigadier / But we are sinners. / We became bored and funny.”
  40. The English translation does not quite catch the flood of pronouns that nakedness produces in the original Russian.