Art in the Light of Conscience

by Marina Tsvetayeva

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1104

The themes of Tsvetayeva’s essays often overlap, echoing and complementing one another. Even when written in response to a particular event or statement—“The Poet and the Critic,” for example, is a frontal attack on critic Georgy Adamovich—they overtake the specific event and race on to far-reaching conclusions. In routing Adamovich, Tsvetayeva establishes in general what makes a poet different (different, she emphasizes, not better or “higher”) than other people. Given their essential affinity, what makes poets different from one another? What is the nature of creativity? What is the role and duty of the critic—and the reader? What is the poet’s relationship to the times in which he or she lives, and to time and history?

There is, Tsvetayeva argues, a poet-in-general—and whatever poets share, it is not the prettified “poetic soul” of cliché. “Equality in gift of soul and gift of language” and “indivisibility of essence and form” are what determine who becomes a poet and who does not, but in that equality of gifts all similarities end, just as the likeness between planets—worlds—ends with their definition as such.

In essays on her contemporaries Boris Pasternak, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Osip Mandelstam, and Anna Akhmatova, Tsvetayeva begins with their essential planetary likeness, their essential largeness of being—that is, that in some way poets are too much for themselves, that quantity of soul becomes quality—and then formulates what might be called the natural laws of development on these disparate planets. For example, in “Epic and Lyric in Contemporary Russia,” Pasternak is the lyric and Mayakovsky is the epic: Pasternak absorbs, Mayakovsky explodes; Mayakovsky is a chorus, a collective noun, Pasternak is the solo counterpoint, an adjective; Maya-kovsky is “our measure of power,” Pasternak “our measure of depth.”

Another opposition controls her discussion of “Poets with History and Poets Without History.” Here she contrasts two universal types, what she calls lyric genius and (simply) genius; the former is circular, self-enclosing, innate feeling expressing what it has known from birth, a wave that always returns but always returns different; the latter is linear, never looks back, “an arrow shot into infinity” that discovers its path as it goes along. Akhmatova, Mandelstam, and Pasternak are the lyrics, while Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Alexander Pushkin are the geniuses. What she has in mind here is inner history, inner life; the life and times of a nation are another thing altogether.

Yet in “The Poet and Time,” she rejects facile notions of modernity or progress in art, just as she rejects the notion of a poetic canon ossified and stratified for the ages. The poet is both creator and creation of a time, the poet is an event in time, and the timeliness of poetry, its “contemporality,” has nothing to do with content and everything to do with genuineness. Speaking of one of the leading lights of émigré literature, Tsvetayeva writes: “X is uncontemporary not because he doesn’t accept the contemporary age, but because he has stopped on his creative path—the one thing a creator has no right to do.”

She consigns those who define poetry as pure inspiration and those who define it as craftsmanship or technique to the poles of “equal stupidity”; in doing so she searches for the reader/critic who is both willing and able, like the god Janus, to look forward and back. Desire, willingness, is linked to will, which for Tsvetayeva is an essential component of the creative process. Her understanding of that process was always aural rather than visual, and she said that she first heard her poems as a melodic or rhythmic picture, and only then sought the words: “All my writing is careful listening.” Neither the careful listening nor the search for words can be forced, but they must be willed, and she echoes Martin Luther: “To hear correctly is my concern. I have no other.”

This declaration of faith (what Joseph Brodsky calls her “almost calvinistic spirit of personal responsibility”) should not be taken for an identification of art and ethics. It is wrong to treat art as holy or to confuse it with moral instruction, because art is magic, seduction, the descent of an elemental spirit, not a holy one. It is as amoral and as elemental as nature. The poet, in writing, if not in life (and sometimes there too) suffers “a necessary atrophy of conscience, a moral flaw without which art cannot exist.” Tsvetayeva does not diminish goodness or morality or conscience—on the contrary, she exalts them—but she argues that while they may be the by-products of art, they are not its justification or its reason for being.

Tsvetayeva loved to walk and climb, and mountain climbing was one of her favorite metaphors. She knew the energy, the mental muscle, that went into her own pursuit of thought, and she challenges her reader to the same expenditure of effort. Her essays are speech: a dialogue with the self, or else a monologue spoken in the presence of a sympathetic and alert listener who allows the speaker to work out the argument as she goes along and scurries to keep up.

What makes her prose sometimes difficult to follow is not obscurity, but wealth of association concentrated in small units. She assails cliché by turning it on its head. Striving for both clarity and laconicism, she defines and redefines, and every clarification leads to new, branching associations in its upward, mountain-climbing movement. She once remarked that for some poets the essential unit of meaning was the line, or the word, while for her it was the syllable. For example, in “Art in the Light of Conscience” she plays on the shared roots of isskustvo (art), iskushenie (temptation), and iskus (test). Homonyms, puns, wordplay, and sound repetition all create movement toward the next step or several possible next steps. She sets up oppositions, doubles that become triples, in what Brodsky calls “crystalline” growth. Again from “Art in the Light of Conscience”: “There is no thing which is taught by art, there is no thing the reverse of that, which is not taught by art, and there is no thing which is the only thing taught by art.” Even her binary oppositions are not reduction, but expansion: “Genius, the highest degree of subjection to the visitation—one; control of the visitation—two: the highest degree of being mentally pulled to pieces, and the highest of being—collected—the highest of passivity, and the highest of activity.” In her life and in her art, Tsvetayeva delighted not in the reconciliation of opposites, but in their impossible coexistence.

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