Friday, November 6, 2009

Berborova on Blok

Nevsky Prospekt

As one of Russia’s leading writers of the White Russian Diaspora, Nina Berborova’s writing is exquisite, so it’s a real pleasure to read her short, unfinished biography of Aleksandr Blok. In Berborova’s estimation, Blok is a central figure in the history of Russian poetry, a figure that captured the mood of the fin-de-siècle while helping to invent the consequential school of poetry known as Russian Symbolism. For Berborova, Block and his close friend Bely almost single handedly helped to revive poetry as an innovative and relevant art form in Russia.

However, Berborova’s respect for Blok is rooted in the language Blok used, in the poetry itself, rather than in Blok’s literary significance or influence on Acmeism and other schools of poetry. And Berborova never really attempts to analyze that poetry so the book reads rather oddly, full of strange and fragmented allusions to Blok’s poetic themes. The book ultimately fails to capture the personality of Blok, to say nothing of his mental or artistic processes. Be that as it may, the book is a useful primer to Russian poetry of the period.

Most dramatically, it captures the dilemma Russia’s artists faced in World War I and the early revolutionary period. Some artists attacked the revolution; others made feverish attempts to embody it. Blok tried hard to embrace the revolutionary tidal wave. In terms of his class background, one might have expected Blok to have joined the counter-revolution. In fact, he had an official job within the Provisional Government, which overthrow the tsar and preceded the Bolshevik takeover. Yet Blok, like many others of his social milieu, was often shocked by revolutionary excesses. A former employee’s letter to his wife makes for sad reading. Peasants sacked his estate while he was in St. Petersburg, taking or destroying everything he owned, including his books and archives and family heirlooms. The employee was instructed to warn the revolutionary mob if the owner made an attempt to return to his property. Blok never returned to his beloved home.

Despite his reservations, Blok attempted to make a case to his peers that they should support the Bolsheviks. To paraphrase Blok, the intelligentsia has waited about 100 years for the Revolution to occur. Now that it had occurred, it was short-sighted (unpoetic?) to quibble over its excesses. They had wanted revolution, and it was absurd to think that the phenomenon of revolt could be easily channeled into safe, predictable pathways.

As Blok knew, it was tempting to remain caught up in a sentimental nostalgia in the face of massive, and often violent, change. If one wanted equality, social justice, peace, and freedom, one needed to be reconciled with sacrifice. The Old Regime would not pass away quietly. According to Berborova, Blok’s "The Twelve," a poem that equated revolutionary violence with the person of Jesus Christ and his disciplines (Bunin was sicked by the sacrilege) encapsulated Blok’s attempt to conjure up a stunningly innovative poetic response to the imperative of revolution.

“I do not know why you do not see the greatness of October behind its grimaces—there weren’t many of them, and they might have been worse.” Letter from Aleksandr Blok to Madame Gippius.

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