by Mara Naselli
Osip Mandelstam spent a lifetime moving from one place to another. His family moved often during his childhood; his exile, however, began after he recited to a gathering of friends a poem he had composed in the fall of 1933. The poem mocked Stalin and his totalitarian rule: “He forges decrees like horseshoes—decrees and decrees: / This one gets it in the balls, that one in the forehead, him right between the eyes. Whenever he’s got a victim, he glows like a broadchested / Georgian munching a raspberry.”
The following spring, Mandelstam was arrested and his apartment searched. The poem was not found and was probably never written down. After his arrest, Mandelstam went to prison for a time and he and his wife Nadezhda were condemned to move from one place to another. “It has been said that Soviet citizens do not need to build houses for themselves because they have the right to demand a free apartment from the state,” wrote Nadezhda Mandelstam in her memoir Hope Against Hope. “But whom does one demand it from?” Soviet propaganda boasted everyone deserved a place to live, but residency required permission, to which all kinds of coercion could be attached. Nadezhda writes,
Your permit to reside went with your accommodation and if you lost it you could never return to the city you had lived in. For many people their apartments turned out to be real traps. The clouds were already gathering, their friends and colleagues were being picked up one after another, or, as we used to say, the shells were falling nearer and nearer, but the possessors of permanent titles to apartments stayed put for the police to come and get them.
Soviet logic worked in two directions at once. A right to live meant a right to be traced, monitored, interrogated, moved. Nadezhda lived in twelve cities between the time of her husband’s arrest in 1934 and his death in 1938. “Every time we joined all the other people making the rounds of offices to get our bits of paper,” she writes, “we trembled in case we should be unlucky and be forced to move in some unknown direction for reasons not revealed to us.” Osip’s first city of exile was Cherdyn, where he was required to report to a bureaucratic office every three weeks. The reporting, the applications for permits, the constant threat of informants. The state forced on the Mandelstams and countless others a life of dislocation.
No wonder Osip Mandelstam loved Dante. When the police took him to prison in the middle of the night, he brought The Divine Comedy with him. When Nadezhda followed him, months later, she brought another copy in case the first had been lost or confiscated.
Dante’s exile is so complete, the only way to recount it is to create a new encyclopedic universe, a work of art that articulates a new location for every dimension of life. Everywhere Dante is a stranger. And yet, he moves through heaven and hell guided by a poet. He cannot simply tell us what he learned. We won’t understand the fullness of his insight until we have travelled with him.
The aggressive interrogations, deprivation, and threats made Osip Mandelstam ill. He began to hallucinate sounds and voices—everything he heard and saw as a sign, an indicator of his immanent demise. He became so deranged that he jumped from a second story window, slipping out of his jacket as his wife clutched his sleeves.
Two kinds of dislocation emerge in Hope Against Hope. First is the dislocation of place, the uprootedness and exile of living in a constant state of motion. The second is dislocation of meaning. Words come to mean something more and less in Soviet Russia. Against the state, words were subject to interrogation or “the highest measure,” a euphemism for death. From the state, words promised one thing and delivered another. Soviet totalitarianism had dislodged meaning from words just as it dislodged people from their lives.
The shared dislocations of place and meaning would have had special significance to any poet. Poets speak not just to minds, but to bodies, shaping rhythms and sounds above the cognitive machinations of understanding. The dissolution of meaning and the dislocation of place under Soviet totalitarianism, shared something in the body.
“One interrogator’s approach,” wrote Nadezhda, “was to seek an explanation for every single word in the poem on Stalin.” But how could one answer in a world where meaning became so disconnected with its referent?
Three years later after his initial imprisonment, in the winter of 1937, Osip Mandelstam composed an ode to Stalin. For decades the assumption had been that the ode to Stalin was inauthentic—a poem written under pressure in a state of self-imposed madness in an attempt to improve a desperate situation. Nadezhda described her husband’s composition of the ode a self-imposed hypnosis. “Without this,” she writes, “a real poet could never compose such a thing: he would never have had that kind of ready facility.”
In his article, “Osip Mandelstam and the Stalin Ode,” J. M. Coetzee writes that ode was considered lost until an anonymous contributor published a short version in an American journal in 1975. With the full ode, published in 1976, explains Coetzee, “came evidence—again from sources who did not wish to be named—that Mandelstam had not been ashamed of the ode, as Anna Akhmatova and Nadezhda Mandelstam had claimed.” Once the ode surfaced, readers could assess the poem themselves. Coetzee writes: “The task in reading Mandelstam’s ode should not, then, be a task of searching it for an ineffable sincerity or insincerity, but for searching for the nature of its madness and, more importantly, for signs of reflection within the ode upon the ode’s own madness. That is to say, our eyes should be open not to the representation of Stalin in the ode but to the representation of Stalin, that is, to the representation of representation itself.” Mandelstam is not simply elevating Stalin in the ode. Rather he addresses the problem of writing an ode as an open question. Whether the ode succeeds or fails becomes, in part, the subject of the ode itself. Here are a few of the beginning lines.
Were I to take up the charcoal for the sake of supreme praise—
For the sake of the eternal joy of drawing—
I would divide the air into clever angles
Both carefully and anxiously.
To make the present echo in his features
(My art bordering on audacity),
I would speak about him who has shifted the world’s axis.
Coetzee’s close read takes up the hypothetical conditional mode as Mandelstam avoids not only a representation of Stalin, but also a representation of the act of representation. Mandelstam is not yielding to the state’s adulteration of language. His resistance is a reassertion of language’s claim on meaning. The ode, Coetzee writes, is “about all that would be entailed by speaking the father’s language as the father’s. . . . Mandelstam’s performance . . . is to fabricate a the body of an ode without actually inhabiting it.” Mandelstam’s authorial presence makes itself accountable to both the state and to himself at once.
Language, like bodies, is susceptible to the threat of violence and dislocation. Long before the threat of arrest, long before he saw how language could be hollowed out by tyranny, Mandelstam describes language as a kind of fluid cohabitation. “The word is a psyche,” he writes in “The Word and Culture.” “The living word does not signify an object, but freely chooses, as though for a dwelling place, this or that objective significance, materiality, some beloved body. And around the thing the word hovers freely, like a soul around a body that has been abandoned but not forgotten.”