Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 544

In tracing her husband’s—and her own—social and literary position, Nadezhda sympathetically addresses the Acmeist rejection of “symbolist” language in favor of precision and clarity and proceeds to outline the Mandelstams’ own joint but highly individual stance on nearly all matters. Osip was considered “impossible” by most orderly writers and by every writer’s organization, just as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sinyavsky have been found to be equally impossible. Early in his career, Osip’s art came to be considered illegal; in his isolation he came to believe, like Sinyavsky, that all authentic art is essentially illegal. Nevertheless, the tradition of being ungovernable runs deep in Russian letters. Fyodor Dostoevski would doubtless have been found to be altogether out of bounds and even more impossible, if not clearly mad, by the totalist democratic and socially homogenized standards of today’s empires.

Osip was impatient with Formalism and any division at all between form and content. Both he and Nadezhda were like Sinyavsky, the sui generis dissident, who considers himself, as an artist, constitutionally an enemy of all cant and systems. Osip, though kindly, had little truck with people, and Nadezhda was truculent about art and politics to the point where she was driven to declaring all organizations and most people’s ideas to be “rot,” pious or not. As artists, the Mandelstams were scarcely socially acceptable. Even in their struggle to find room to be themselves in a police state they never found altogether trustworthy allies, most certainly not at the top of their literary world. Like most dissident Russian literati, they found a world in which to believe only within themselves. Their politics were antipolitics, their poetics were idiosyncratic despite their great love for their peers of the past, with whom no school could ever be formed. Even their “religion” was not social but based on their sense of truth as intuited through the ages by the great figures in literature—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Dante, and their equals—through a sense of mystery rather than of any specific religion, of the Judeo-Christian tradition rather than of any ritual. When Osip spoke of himself as “the last Christian-Hellenic poet in Russia,” he apparently meant every word, including “last.”

Their days inspired mostly horror. Thus, the divinity of past prescience suited them best. Language lived nobly in those who had built it—and in those who would continue to use it nobly. The poem, any true poem, lived in and by itself, with a life of its own. As with great music, they could only suspect a world of the imagination, one of everlasting beauty, above and beyond any but divine laws; their art aspired to the condition of music, perhaps to the “music of the spheres,” and to the music of the eternal Russian language. Though the Mandelstams knew and practiced Dante’s Italian and other European languages as well, the Russian language was in their souls. As far as this autobiographical memoir, replete with literary and social criticism, adduces, they left behind no formal creeds or solutions for the excruciating magic of literary practice. Their faith was in themselves and in the eternal past of mankind’s sense and sensibilities. And this book is a joint testament to their truths.

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