The Noise of Time Essay - Critical Context

Osip Mandelstam

Critical Context

The Noise of Time was commissioned by Isay Lezhnev, the editor of Rossiya, in the early 1920’s, but he rejected the work as “not what the age demands.” So far from wanting a work that brilliantly caught the world that had passed forever, Lezhnev wanted a reminiscence suitable for the new Soviet politicized literature. He himself supplied it with a story of a poor Jewish boy who grew up to become a Marxist-Leninist. The Noise of Time was published only in 1925, well after other Soviet publishers also had rejected it.

This disjunction between what was wanted and what interested Mandelstam culminated in Joseph Stalin’s time with the poet’s isolation, arrest, and death in a transit camp for political prisoners. The fissure between the poet and the new regime became apparent with The Noise of Time, though the poet at the end of the book accepts the responsibility of the poet to speak to and for the new age.

In his own artistic development, The Noise of Time represents a culmination of Mandelstam’s first phase as an artist and the definition of his role. In prose, he asserts the power of the poet and poetry to be a part of the age and to transcend time. He comes to terms with his Jewish heritage and with his calling, blending autobiography and new fictional techniques to achieve a new genre. The historical milieu is not only represented but also poeticized.

Intellectual influences on Mandelstam’s work are multiple. The emphases of the Acmeists in poetry, with their shift away from Symbolist transcendence to the immediate and the present; the Bergsonian view of time as space rather than succession; his friend Lev Vygotsky’s link of language and history; Maxim Gorky’s autobiographical trilogy; Aleksandr Blok’s unfinished autobiographical poem “Vozmezdie” (retribution); Innokenty Annensky’s renewal of Hellenism; Velemir Khlebnikov’s interest in the origins of Russian language and culture—all of those and others contributed to the form and content of The Noise of Time. Jane Gary Harris sees the work also in the context of twentieth century autobiographical modes, arising from the individual search for truth, when, in Geoffrey Hartman’s phrase, “personal experience becomes the sole authority and source of conviction, and the poet a new intermediary.”