Mandelshtam, Osip Emilyevich

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MANDELSHTAM, OSIP EMILYEVICH (1891–1938?), Russian poet. Mandelshtam was born in Warsaw but as a child moved with his parents to St. Petersburg, where his father, a scion of an obscure Kurland branch of the well-known Mandelshtam rabbinic family, was a leather merchant and taught himself German and Russian, becoming a student of Schiller, Goethe, and Koerner. His mother, Flora Osipovna née Verblovsky, was born and educated in Vilna, belonging to an enlightened and assimilated Jewish family related to the Wengeroffs. A piano teacher and of discriminating literary taste, she passed on to her son her love for music and Russian literature.

Mandelshtam grew up in St. Petersburg. In 1907 he finished the Tenishev School, one of the best and most modern and liberal private institutions in Russia. His teacher for Russian literature was Vladimir Gippius, a pioneer of the Russian Symbolist movement. Between 1907 and 1910 he traveled in France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland, spending one term at the Sorbonne and two at Heidelberg, where he studied Old French. Forced to interrupt his education abroad owing to financial difficulties, he converted to Lutheranism in order to be able to enter the University of St. Petersburg.

During these years Mandelshtam attended the poetic circle (Proacademia) of the learned Symbolist poet Vyacheslav Ivanov. His earliest poems, enclosed with his letters to Ivanov, were recently found in the latter's archives in Russia and published in the West. In these poems, as well as in the pieces selected for his literary debut in 1910 (in the pages of Appolon, a trend-setting journal of art and letters), young Mandelshtam emerges as a thoughtful preserver of the European Symbolist heritage and a courageous seeker of new means of poetic expression, combining Verlaine's musique with a conscious and creative stock-taking of the 19th-century Russian poetic vocabulary (especially that of Pushkin and Tyutchev), which receives a new and unexpected meaning in the framework of his complex symbolism.

In 1911 Mandelshtam joined the Guild of Poets (Tsekh poetov). Its founder N.S. Gumilev, whom Mandelshtam had earlier met in Paris, became his closest friend and literary associate, as did another member of the Guild, Anna Akhmatova. By 1912 Mandelshtam's Symbolist apprenticeship was over. Gumilev proclaimed a new poetic trend, Acmeism, demanding a "more stable balance of forces" in poetic texts and a "more accurate definition of the subject-object relationship" than the mystically inclined Russian Symbolists could provide. To these demands Mandelshtam added, in his programmatic essay "Utro akmeizma" ("The Morning of Acmeism"; written c. 1913 but published only in 1919), the requirement that "the conscious meaning of the word, Logos," be redefined in formal aesthetic terms and granted "equal rights" with such constructive elements of poetry as rhythm, sound texture, etc. Employing the already existing cultural codes to effect shifts of meaning, Acmeism, after some initial crises, developed into a major trend in modern Russian poetry and a powerful rival of Futurism, which sought to emancipate the poetic language from everyday meanings by purely linguistic means. In Mandelshtam's own poetry the semantic potentialities with which the poetic word is endowed through the history of its use in other poetic contexts are activated by means of elliptic riddle-like quotations that force the reader to turn to their sources in order to find a frame of reference (the so called "subtext") in terms of which an Acmeist text has to be decoded.

The essential features of this method are already evident in the compact and erudite poems of Mandelshtam's first collection, Kamen ("The Stone," 1913; 2nd and 3rd eds., greatly enlarged, 1916 and 1923); the title of the book represents an etymologically justified anagram of the Greek work akme ("sharp point," "summit,") from which Acmeism derived its name. During World War i, Mandelshtam published, in addition to Kamen, several remarkable literary and historical essays ("Chaadayev," "François Villon," "On the Interlocutor," etc.). The revolution of 1917 found Mandelstam in St. Petersburg. His attitude toward the Bolshevik takeover, as reflected in his poetry, gradually changed from initial revulsion ("When the October favorite of fate prepared for us/A yoke of violence and malice …") to manly acceptance of whatever "the vast, clumsy, squeaking turn of the rudder" might bring. In the spring of 1919 Mandelshtam moved to Kiev, where he met his future wife, Nadezhda Yakovlevna Khazina (see previous entry). After the arrival of the White Army, which brought in its wake a terrible pogrom, Mandelshtam moved to the Crimea, where he was jailed by General Wrangel's counterintelligence, but was freed shortly after through the intervention of a friendly White colonel. He left the Crimea for Tiflis, and was promptly jailed again as a Red spy, this time by the Menshevik secessionist government of Georgia. In the fall of 1920 Mandelshtam returned to Soviet Russia in the company of I. *Ehrenburg. Later, despite the execution of Gumilev on conspiracy charges, followed by a political drive against Acmeism, Mandelshtam and Akhmatova staunchly refused to emigrate. In 1922–23 Mandelshtam's second collection of poetry appeared first in Berlin (under the title Tristia, given in Mandelshtam's absence by M. Kuzmin), then in Moscow (Vtoraya kniga, "The Second Book"). Three longer poems composed by him in 1923, "The Horseshoe Finder," "The Slate Ode," and "1 January 1924," marked a turning point in Mandelshtam's art. Their artistic and intellectual complexity and tragic power remain unsurpassed in modern poetry.

After 1923 Mandelshtam's name disappeared from the lists of contributors to literary periodicals, and during the rest of the decade he was effectively silenced as a poet and confined himself almost entirely to prose (the publication of his collected poetry in 1928 was brought about by the personal intervention of N.I. Bukharin). A collection of autobiographical essays, Shym vremeni ("The Noise of Time," 1925), described by Prince Svyatopolk-Mirsky (D.S. Mirsky) as "one of the most significant books of our time," was followed by the long story "Egipetskaya marka" ("The Egyptian Stamp," 1928), and, in 1930, by "Chetvertaya proza" ("Fourth Prose"), which could not be printed in the U.S.S.R. During these years Mandelshtam was forced to make a living as a translator and in 1928 became the victim of a vicious campaign, in the course of which he was accused of "plagiarism" by A. Gornfeld, a minor literary critic (these events are described in "Fourth Prose").

In 1930, following a trip to Armenia (see Puteshestviye v Armeniyu. 1933), Mandelshtam resumed writing poetry, some of which he succeeded in publishing. However, in May 1934 he was arrested for having written an epigram on Stalin and sentenced to three years' exile in Cherdyn in the Urals. There Mandelshtam attempted to commit suicide as he developed hallucinations and other symptoms of mental disorder following interrogation and torture at the Lubyanka prison. An intercession by Bukharin, the last one, resulted in his transfer to a less severe place of exile, Voronezh, where, in 1935–37, he wrote his last book of poetry (known as The Voronezh Notebooks).

In 1937 Mandelshtam was allowed to return to Moscow. Arrested again on May 1, 1938, he was sentenced without trial to five years' hard labor and, according to unverifiable reports, died of inanition either in the Vtoraya Rechka transit camp near Vladivostok on December 27, 1938 (the "official" date of his death), or early in 1940 in a labor camp on the Kolymar River.

A major part of Mandelshtam's unpublished work was saved by the heroic efforts of his widow. Some of the Voronezh poems appeared after his "rehabilitation" in Soviet literary journals, and his Razgovor o Dante ("Talking about Dante"), edited by L. Pinsky and A. Morozov, was published in Moscow in 1967. However, the edition of his collected poetry, announced on three occasions by the series "Biblioteka poeta," never materialized.

In the U.S., the collected works of Mandelshtam were published by G. Struve (Sobraniye sochineniy, 1955; Sobr. soch., 1–3, 1965–71, 2 editions).

During the 1960s intensive studies of Mandelshtam's work gained momentum in various scholarly centers, e.g., Cambridge, Mass. (R. Jakobson and K. Taranovsky, and their students), Moscow (V.V. Ivanov and his colleagues), Tartu (members of the Summer School on Secondary Modeling Systems), Uppsala (N.A. Nilsson), etc.

Jewish Themes in His Art

Unlike another modern Russian poet of Jewish origin, B. *Pasternak, Mandelshtam never renounced his spiritual Jewish identity. However, his attitude toward the world of Judaism was marked by the tragic ambivalence that no great Jewish writer working in European literature could ever escape. His autobiographical essays, Shum vremeni, contain a painfully frank description of an assimilated Jewish childhood in a great center of European culture, with its vulgar official brand of Judaism, ostensible pride in Jewish history, and deep day-to-day shame. He never learned Hebrew but appreciated "the admirable equilibrium of its vowels and consonants in the clearly enunciated words, which imparted an invincible power to the chants." Of the Yiddish language, he wrote with tenderness: "… that melodious, always surprised and disappointed, interrogative speech with sharp pitches on half-stressed syllables."

In his earliest poems Mandelshtam spoke of himself as "a rustling reed growing out of an evil and muddy pool to breathe forbidden life" and then sinking back into "the cold and boggy abode," "the beloved ooze" (1910). In 1915, the same image appeared in his poem about Christ (never included in his collections): "He reigned and drooped, as a lily, into the native pool, and the depth, in which stems sink, celebrated its law." In the poem about his mother's funeral (1916), Mandelshtam contrasted the "terrible yellow sun" illuminating the Jewish temple with the black sun of Apocalyptic Christianity rising at the gates of Jerusalem (the black and yellow colors of the tallit are associated in his poetic vocabulary with Judaism). Religious critics made much of Mandelshtam's so-called Christianity as reflected in a number of his poems and essays. In point of fact, however, Mandelshtam turned with equal enthusiasm to Chaadayev's Catholic universalism, Kautzky's Marxism, Florensky's Orthodoxy, Greek mythology, neoplatonic mysticism, medieval nominalism, the heresy of the Russian "Name-Praising" sect, and the evolutionary theories of Goethe and Darwin in his search for an "integral world view" and an "internal sense of rightness" without which he found writing poetry unthinkable. In Tristia, Mandelshtam actually wrote: "I drink the cold mountain air of Christianity"; but this opposition between the "water" of Judaism and the "air" of Christianity was canceled in 1923 by a belated admission: "Air can be as dark as water … Air is mixed as thickly as earth …" ("The Horseshoe Finder").

Mandelshtam's realization that the Jewish predicament cannot be escaped by turning to alien cultures and religions was expressed with greatest force in his 1920 poem addressed to Leah, the exegetic symbol of creative life. Here he predicts the eventual return of his muse to the bosom of Judaism, a reunion that he describes as "incestuous":

Return to the incestuous bosom, whence, Leah, you have come, because you have preferred the yellow dusk to the sun of Ilion.

Go! Nobody shall touch you. Let the incestuous daughter drop her head on her father's breast.

Yet a fatal change must be accomplished in you: you shall be Leah, not Helen. You have been so named not because

It is harder for royal blood than for any other blood to course in veins. No! You shall fall in love with a Jew, disappear in him – and so be it.

Ten years later, in "Fourth Prose," Mandelshtam wrote with a conviction born out of hard-earned experience: "I insist that writerdom, as it has developed in Europe, and above all in Russia, is incompatible with the honorable title of Jew, of which I am proud. My blood, burdened with the inheritance of sheep breeders, patriarchs, and kings, rebels against the thieving gypsyishness of the writing tribe."

The motif of the prodigal son's return to the faith and the land of his fathers found its final culmination in the "Canzona" (1931): "I shall leave the land of the Hyperboreans to fill with vision the outcome of my fate. I shall say 'selah' to the head of the Jews for his raspberry-colored caress."

Some of Mandelshtam's writings have appeared in translation: The Prose of Osip Mandelstam, transl., with a critical essay, by C. Brown (1967); "Talking About Dante," Books Abroad, Special Issue: A Homage to Dante (1965), 25–47; "Fourth Prose," transl. by C. Brown, in Russia's Other Writers (1970), 130–45; Gedichte (transl. by Paul Celan, 1959).


N. Nilsson, in: Scande-Slavica, 9 (1963); B. Bukhshtab, in: Russian Literature Triquarterly, i (1971), 263–82; K. Taranovsky, in: Calif. Slavic Studies, 6 (1971), 43–48; Slavic Forum (1975); V. Terras, in: seej, 10 (1966), 251–67; O. Ronen, in: Studies Presented to R. Jakobson… (1968), 252–64; essays by S. Broyde, D. Segal, Yu. Levin. L. Foster, et al., in: Slavic Poetics: Essays Dedicated to K. Taranovsky (1975); N. Mandelstam, Hope against Hope (1970); J. Harris (ed.), The Complete Critical Prose and Letters of Osip Mandelshtam (1978).

[Omri Ronen (2nd ed.)]

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Mandelshtam, Osip Emilyevich

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