Hope Against Hope Critical Context
by Nadezhda Mandelstam

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Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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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...

(The entire section is 544 words.)