Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1299
“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 crossing of two sound modes: first, in the modulation and spontaneous flow of poetic discourse, that is, in the versification; second, in the intonations and sounds given to the words themselves.
Neither the versification nor the phonetic intonations lent it, once poetry was exposed to readers or listeners, were expected to be recalled or to be reproduced in any meaningful way. Meaning, as well as understanding, resulted just as they might have from obedience to a command: The words, sounds, or signals had passed, but the sense of the command’s impact remained. For these purposes, Mandelstam believed that the Italian language (and Dante had been first to exploit it), with its innate harmony and rhyme, with its compulsory movements of the tongue and lips—indeed with the totality of its facial expressions—was an unsurpassed poetic vehicle.
Delving selectively into The Divine Comedy’s Inferno and Purgatorio, Mandelstam proceeded with his own self-definition by stressing the vitality, the unprecedented movement, of Dante’s poetry. In the process, for didactic purposes, he also demonstrated a comparative metaphorical reach that he hoped to encourage among his Russian contemporaries. While denying any attempts at a tour de force, claiming that he intended only to make Dante’s contribution comprehensible, Mandelstam nevertheless drafted scores of similes and metaphors from nearly all the sciences of his day as well as from ancient and modern chronologies, from biblical exegesis, from the works of Aristotle and Europe’s major poets to attain this end. Just as the best physicians understood that their diagnostic skills depended upon knowledge of the entire organism, so poets, Mandelstam explained, were required to develop the same approach to the great Florentine. Dante’s work was like a flow, a current; his stanzas were like crystallographic structures (indeed, Mandelstam had studied crystallography because of Dante); like bees, Dante had evinced a stereometric vision, creating many small cells but retaining a master view of the whole creation and of the space to be filled. Like natural scientists, critics of Dante thus could comprehend him only when they attained a similar precision. According to Mandelstam, Dante avoided mere representations or description; instead, Dante’s figures of speech, far from being logical necessities, were intended solely to reveal the inner structure of his work. There, within the work, Mandelstam was struck by Dante’s genius for transmutation, for his ability to change thousands of richly detailed materials into a brilliant tapestry.
Throughout his own rich discourse on The Divine Comedy, Mandelstam continually draws parallels between his own creative life and the great Italian’s. Although Dante’s public career was more impressive than Mandelstam’s, both poets, failing to satisfy their political masters, suffered as outcasts and exiles. Each was destined to be misunderstood. Both men evinced strong antiurban biases—though not toward their ideal, universal city—and both deplored the ethnocentrism of their native cultures. Both complicated and enriched their work with biblical and classical allusions, particularly allusions to Greco-Roman myths; consequently, neither encouraged examination by any but the most resourceful of readers. Moreover, Mandelstam’s “Conversation About Dante,” without loss of its literary objectivity, like The Divine Comedy, is powerfully autobiographical: It is a revelation of one person’s experiential analysis and vision of his own inner world and its dovetailing with the “real” world.
Mandelstam’s “Conversation About Dante” reverentially exploits Dante’s The Divine Comedy to lend additional authority to his own literary convictions. The reader must presume that Dante figuratively nodded in acquiescence. Thus, to follow Mandelstam-Dante, great poetry as art is clearly immortal. It is a transcendent phenomenon: It is neither bound to culture nor merely “national”; its foundations are anchored in a “world culture,” and it enjoys an existence of its own within “literary time.” Poetry must be crafted with a scientifically precise, objective mastery of the word, which is at once the most supple, expansive, and illuminative of tools. For Mandelstam-Dante, at least within the bounds of “Conversation About Dante,” poetry should not be descriptive merely in adherence to cultural conventions, nor should it be thought that its essences can be captured by mere reproduction or by paraphrasings. Efforts to comprehend it in this fashion are predestined to failure. Its meanings are clear once the reader-listener accepts its evanescence, accepts its transmuted, hybridized nature. Described in a more familiar, if parochial, modern idiom, for the poet the medium is the message. Like the reaction to a “command,” poetry moves the reader with its imperative after the command itself has been pronounced and dissipated. In Mandelstam’s view, it does not represent the result of evolutionary progress; rather, like a storm, it is a singular event. Above all, it is analogous to a “performance” in which neither the lines nor the characters may remain clearly etched but as a result of which profound impressions remain of the process.