“Conversation About Dante” is a dense, complex, metaphoric essay that works on many levels of understanding—a brilliant vehicle for Mandelstam’s perceptions about art, poetry, Russian and European culture and history, philology, psychology, semantics, man, and himself and Dante.
Given the extant literature that was already focused on Dante and upon The Divine Comedy, any historical narrative about the poet or any line by line exegesis of his greatest work, as Mandelstam realized, would have been redundant—not, to be sure, in Russia but certainly in the wider world of letters and posterity to which he hoped to appeal. Consequently, the essay is indeed about Dante as his literary genius was anatomized through revelatory passages in The Divine Comedy. Mandelstam essentially treats the work as a massive and spectacular vein of gold, from which his spadework flecks superb samples indicative of the whole geological structure surrounding it.
“Conversation About Dante,” while suffused with what he may have regarded as objectivity, is still as reverential as any miner’s discussion of having struck the mother lode. Mandelstam, in fact, proclaimed that for him Dante was the supreme, indeed, the “ideal” poet. The Italian was a writer and social outcast whose life was rooted in cultural history. Yet he was not merely the critical intellectual implied by too literal a translation of the term raznochinets from the Russian—a variation of which Mandelstam had even applied to himself as a young poet. Far more than that, Dante, in his estimate, was a “reader and interpreter of poetry” through whom poetry could at last be perceived as something more than so many tropes, or figurative expressions. It could be grasped in its intellectual, symbolic, and emotional dimensions as “performance.” Thus, Mandelstam chose Dante as the theme of his conversation not because he wanted to use him to stimulate an interest in classical studies or to place him in some pantheon for comparison with other great writers. Rather, he chose him simply because he was, in his estimate, the “unrivaled master of transmutable and convertible poetic material.”
Mandelstam’s “Conversation About Dante” was not intended to be readily understood outside accomplished literary circles. It challenges the reader, as do all Mandelstam’s writings, with dozens of historical allusions, with animadversions to his beloved Greek and Roman myths, and with both direct and oblique references to major literary figures of the past—most notably nineteenth and early twentieth century Russian poets. Like an archaeological dig, the essay has many levels that still reinforce one’s basic understanding of the culture, and thus the message, being examined.
Essentially an analysis of the nature of poetry, “Conversation About Dante” explains its hybrid character by constantly referring to Dante as the grand strategist of poetic transmutation and hybridization. It removes Dante, in that sense, from what Mandelstam depicted as the common European perception of poetry. The hybridization with which Mandelstam begins his explanation resulted from a...
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Mandelstam’s essay was less a novel departure from his long-maturing perceptions about the nature of poetic creativity than it was a rich synthesis and a brilliantly reflective culmination of what proved to be his life’s work. His inventiveness and literary idiosyncrasies were present in many of his earlier works, although in germinal form. He had always been, as he correctly defined himself, a raznochinets, although he is now regarded as one of Russia’s premier poets: a lofty tribute from a culture always distinguished by its regard for poetry.
Thus, while Mandelstam was indeed appreciated by many of his peers, his literary career was an unsuccessful one. Although he frequently published in pre-Revolutionary journals, he seemed in many ways cut off from his age, perhaps because he had spent two years of study abroad in a particularly xenophobic era, perhaps because he lacked some of the prestige that might have come from successfully completing his work at St. Petersburg University, or perhaps because he was a Jew. Moreover, unlike most Russian males in their twenties, he neither fought in World War I nor was actively caught up in the Bolshevik Revolution—however much, as was true of most intellectuals, he favored it.
Continuing to write after 1917, during those years when the state organized or controlled literary activity for its own purposes, he was out of favor. After 1928, efforts by the Stalinist state to discredit him intensified to such an extent that he kept few notes or manuscripts, preferring that he and his remarkable wife, Nadezhda Yakovlevna Khazina, memorize his works. Commencing in the early 1930’s and continuing until his death, he was subjected to arrests or, in company with Nadezhda, to exiles.
Very much a man caught in the harsh realities of his times, Mandelstam dealt with them as directly as he could. He vigorously engaged in the discussions and polemics between Symbolists and Acmeists and the splinter groups that they spawned, and he was alert to the main intellectual currents that had developed over the centuries in the West as well as in the Soviet Union. On balance, however, he was in many ways a noncontextual figure; the most important aspects of his life were rooted in “literary time.”