The noise of time: The prose of Osip Mandelstam

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In the s Mandelstam supported himself by writing children's books and translating works by Upton Sinclair, Jules Romains, Charles de Coster and others.

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He did not compose poems from to but turned to prose. In he made a trip to Armenia to escape his influential enemies.

Mandelstam's Journey to Armenia became his last major work published during his life time. Mandelstam was arrested the first time in for an epigram he had written on Joseph Stalin. In the transit camp, Mandelstam was already so weak that he couldn't stand.

His body was taken to a common grave. International fame came to Mandelstam in the s, when his works were published in the West and in the Soviet Union. There is evidence that Mandelstam used to recite poetry to other prisoners, many of them ordinary criminals, and that his last days were cheered by a fellow inmate who told him of seeing in one of the death cells at Lefortovo Prison a line from a poem of his scratched on the wall. Such considerations are important because they form the background to Mandelstam's letters and prose works.

His letters, mostly charming personal communications to his wife or family, are not in themselves of any special interest; he was passionately interested not in himself, as the most talented poets in America and England have to be nowadays, but in the status of poetry and what he considered its true function: to escape from time. Prose instructs, but poetry preserves. Hence Mandelstam's sovereign contempt for all literary cliques, coteries and fashions, whether official and bureaucratic or merely narcissistic.

In his essay on Vasily Rozanov, the Russian thinker, mystic and critic, Mandelstam implied a further distinction between the social function of literature and the private nature of poetry and philology:. Literature is a social phenomenon, while philology is domestic, intimate.

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The Noise of Time

Literature is a lecture, the street; philology is a seminar, the family. Philology is the family because every family clings to its own intonations I would derive Rozanov's attraction to the domestic quality of life, which so powerfully defined the entire structure of his literary activity, from the philological nature of his soul. That anarchistic, nihilistic spirit recognized only one authority: the magic of language, the power of the word.


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The idea of a philological soul would seem quite natural to a Russian poet, and these words apply to Mandelstam as well as to Rozanov. But for Mandelstam the power of the word was familial, in the sense that Russia was and ought to be one family. The love of the word could help to hold it together.

Marriage and family

Mandelstam's poetry — perhaps all Russian poetry is responsible and political in this profound sense. But again, like most Russians, Mandelstam had no use for parliamentary institutions and laws made by the representatives of the people. Poetry and the soul are more important to Russian freedom, he suggested, than democratic arrangements. One of the more important essays in this book, an essay that defined the young Mandelstam's attitudes, concerns Peter Chaadaev, the intellectual who undertook to examine the West for Russia in the 19th century and returned with the message that it had nothing to offer the Russian soul.

A negative censorship is perfectly tolerable, even desirable.

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Mandelstam had nothing but contempt for establishment literature, which he regarded as the abode of fashion and nonphilological values; in his view, literary groups and establishments of all kinds were more interested in the power of intrigue than in the power of the word. Chenier profoundly believed in the classic ideals revived by the French Revolution that destroyed him, just as the Russian Revolution was to destroy Mandelstam.

And it is a paradox MandelStam was well aware of that the horrible conventionality into which revolution invariably congeals seizes on a degradedly classic ideal — something ever correct and ever the same — as its official view of art. Mandelstam was far from being an admirer of the mystical and symbolist writers who had dominated the St.

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