Sunday, December 8, 2013

Nadezhda Mandelstam on Poetry and Socialist Morality

Some random samples of Nadezhda' Mandelstam's musings on poetry and socialist morality:

"If this life was given to us, it must have a meaning, although the very idea was dismissed out of hand by everybody, young and old, whom I have ever known in my lifetime."

"He always had children's socks hanging up to dry on his balcony, and I remember being astonished that people should have children during all this turmoil."

"Our grim-faced parents went to their doom while we enjoyed life hugely."

"I had the impression that death for him was not the end, but a kind of justification for one's life."

"Cruelty is anathema to any true artist.  I could never understand how Mayakovsky, who certainly was one, could say the brutal things he did.  He probably keyed himself up to utter such words, believing it was the modern and manly thing to do.  Weak by nature, he trained his delicate soul to keep up with the times, and paid dearly for it."

"The peculiar feature of this society--after it had been gripped in any iron vise and reduced at breakneck speed to a state of what is called here "unanimity"--was the fact that it proved to consist of individuals working for their own self-advancement either singly or in small groups."

"Nationalism is at a lower level of consciousness.  When it comes to the forefront, crowding out fundamentals, it is a sign not of health but of sickness;  not of depth but of shallowness."

"...bogus poetry is a poison."

"Poets should not be murdered, but neither should they be overpraised."

"It is said that every nation gets the rulers it deserves.  This is even truer of its poets."

"Briusov, it must be said, really had become a Leader (all my life there has been no getting away from Leaders!)."

"The mania for innovation always leads to speculative traffic in arbitrary notions;  and reliance on pure inventiveness invariably brings with it the spurning of man's accumulated riches, with all the fateful consequences this entails."

"In 1922, when this was written, everybody around us was talking about the new regime being hard, but nobody paused to consider that we are each one of us responsible for what happens in the world."

"The "strong" men of our heroic age always demanded praise from their womenfolk.  This was by way of compensation for all the indignities inflicted on them in their public life."

"This is a very good poem, Osip, but when it is finished, not a single one of the present words will remain."  Gumilev to Mandelstam.

"In the terrible years she had been  much more courageous, but now, with age, she had turned into a real specimen of Soviet womanhood."

"I do not fancy myself as the historian of Acmeism.  I think it can do without a history."

"...leading him back to a normal way of life, on one side or other of the barbed wire..."

"In our life, civic courage is a much rarer things than military valor."

"The Union of Poets applied to Gorky on his behalf for a pair of trousers and a sweater.  Gorky agreed to the sweater, but the trousers he crossed out with his own hand."

"They smelled too much of dust and a kind of prosperity strange in a city that was dying so catastrophically."

"...hauled of at night to the incredible jails of the twentieth century..."

"Evil is never greater or lesser--evil is always simply evil."

"..everybody now dreamed of a strong regime, so that they could rest and digest the experience of the years of chaos."

"In Kharkov we were struck of the fact that nobody conversed any more.  Conversation had come to an end--forever.  On the other hand, there was no end of talkers, all vying with one another to tell their stories."

"This apparat has stood the test of time and exists to the present day, even though the individual members of it have constantly been replaced by more efficient ones, like cogs in a machine, their predecessors being thrown out to moulder in concentration camps or in the provinces."

"All the same, I am glad that my capital is Moscow, not Kiev--my native language, after all, is Russian, and if the Jews are going to be slaughtered in both places, better it happen to me in Moscow.  In Moscow there will always be some kindly old soul who will try to stop the mob with a good good-humored oaths.  "Don't touch this one," she will say, "you so-and-so sons of bitches!:"  It will be easier to die to the familiar sound of Russian swearing."

"One can already see the tooth-mark of the times on you."  Nadezhda citing Sologub.

"The new regime's call for complete openness in public affairs--particularly in international relations--was followed by an unparalleled mania for secrecy about absolutely everything, down to the prettiest of details."

"One can live only with people one is close to--though better still is to live alone.  I rapidly learned the art of doing this and discovered that the worst part is sitting down to eat by yourself.  You never accustom yourself to that, but living with a person you are not close to is even harder."

"No woman without her folly," as the Russian saying has it.

"There are still many ordeals ahead, and nobody should be allowed to forget that you have to put all of yourself into the battle for another man's life--as Frida Vigdorova's example showed."

"We were on the threshold of a new era in which "men" ceased to exist."

"It brought home to us that madness is contagious--one madman just hands over to the next, as in a relay race.  The nature of the mania may change, but the torch of lunacy has been passed on and continues to burn."

"M. could not stand "omnivorousness in anything, and he regarded a capacity to select and define the components of one's inner world as the most important thing about a person."

"But if you think about it, a society is no better than its rulers.  It would be well for people to remember this, instead of putting on a resigned air or an innocent smile--nothing strikes me as more indecent."

"It does not matter what place a poet has in it, however small it may be.  The very smallest place--just a couple of successful lines, one good poem, a single well-said word--entitles him to enter the fellowship of poets, to be one of "us," to partake of the feast."

"Another things that distinguishes a poet is a sense of his own sinfulness--particularly important in the twentieth century, now that the very concept of sin has been abolished."

"Living in Petersburg is the same as lying in a coffin."  Nadezdha citing Mandelstam.

"It is easier to live with a pistol pointing at your head than in a necropolis with an immigrant, constantly shifting, always lifeless population, its citizens walking the streets like automons, their already dead eyes glazed by the worst terror in the country."

"A certain philosopher noted for his inordinately brilliant insights once publicly declared that an eschatological mood is the hallmark of dying classes."

"...poetry, even more than philosophy, is a preparation for death."

"The highest honor they can confer on a writer is to steal his body--as happened with Pushkin--or throw him in a mass grave.  A nation which has chopped up icons to light its stoves has given proof of an incredible failure of love."

"And there was not one of us who did not weep real tears when the high heel--a legacy from a very different life--broke on her beloved only pair of those foolish shoes which had once been designed for stepping from one's gracious residence into a waiting carriage, and no farther."

"But do you have any icons?"  "I don't believe in icons," she said.  "I believe in Soviet power."

"I did not understand the difference between a husband and a lover, and I must confess that I still don't."

"Today all my ideas are out of date."

"I have been told about an old man who walked out on his wife after forty years with her.  He left a note saying the past has been one big mistake."

"We all lived on a volcano--and still do.  Love and passion apart, a wife is there to build a home and organize a domestic routine.  In our times a girl friend was handier than a wife."

"He knew everything from all the cannibal talk he heard in the houses of his wife's relatives.  The only people who knew nothing were those who did not want to know--and that's no excuse."

"I think that at the beginning our rulers still believed in the rightness of their cause--hence their willingness to let out some of those who wanted to go."

"The great beauties of the day must all have managed to get away after the Revolution--at least I have seen only the leftovers, all of whom struck me as funny in a somewhat excruciating way."

"Poverty trying to look its best is comic."

"I have read in Sergei Trubetskoy that miracles convince only those who believe already."

"We answer for everything-for every deed and every word--and memory invites us to consider why we have lived, what we have done with our lives, whether we had a preordained purpose, and if so, whether we have fulfilled it;  whether our life had a unifying thread of meaning, or whether it consisted only of random and absurd happenings."

"Fifty years hence nobody will ever be able to clean up this gigantic mess."

"...but I lied and hid my real thoughts every day and every hour:  in the classroom, in the lecture hall, at home, in the kitchen.."

"This whole experience of the age of nihilism is highly significant, and it is most important that we fully understand it, as something eventually destroying life altogether."

"It clearly pays to read only as M. did:  turning only to the best and passing over the bad and the bogus."

"Those who once advocated realism and called on us to fight prejudice were quite remarkably quick to lose all sense of reality, and none are now so mortally afraid of facts."

"...the greater the success of the plans, the worse everybody lived..."

"I would like to think that all of today's scoundrels, murderers, and bureaucrats are descended from domestic serfs, not from real peasants."

"Ahkmatova and I once confessed to each other that the most powerful sensation we had ever known--stronger than love, jealousy, or any other human feeling--was terror and what goes with it..."

"A man possessed of inner freedom, memory, and a sense of fear is the blade of grass or wood chip that alter the course of the swift-flowing stream."

"In Russia," he used to say, "there is no space, only kilometers."

"...everything that goes on in our literature smacks of something concocted in a monstrous kitchen."

"But with us peace was always accompanied by unspeakable outbreaks of self-destructiveness."

"The funeral of Lenin was the last flicker of the Revolution as a genuine popular movement.."

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