Journey to Armenia Critical Essays

Osip Mandelstam


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

As they were set down, Mandelstam’s impressions of his journey resonated with thematic motifs from his poetry. These motifs have been interwoven about what otherwise would be rather disparate subject matter. Mandelstam’s vibrant and ebullient mind considered archaeology, philology, aesthetic theory, and natural history; such concerns might be taken as digressions in his writing but also could be regarded as manifestations of his gentle but restless curiosity. Moreover, while some might be perplexed at the author’s handling of matters that properly would lie within the provinces of esoteric scholarship, from the poet’s standpoint passing glimpses of other disciplines summoned forth insights of a different order. The actual detours are of a twofold nature: changes of place occur rather abruptly, and the author has a remarkable penchant for commencing with certain metaphors, then moving on to others while still in the same train of thought.

Mandelstam’s tour begins with an account of architectural monuments on Sevan Island, in an inland lake, which exemplify that quality of antiquity which seemed to exert a particular fascination over him. Ancient buildings and relics of the past were not enveloped in some morbid gloom; rather, they embodied the ageless and distinctive character of Armenian civilization. Time and its ravages seemed transfixed in images that revealed a culture and a way of life in their archetypal modes. Indeed for several historical periods, visible remnants of the past could be found: Stone structures date from the seventh century, while monks’ graves lay across the paths of playing children. Not long before, buried urns had been discovered on an isolated spit of land. Excavations there had revealed a cemetery for a settlement from the Iron Age; in his description, Mandelstam was moved to add that he could not forbear making off with a souvenir skull fragment. Influences from other regions had also left their traces. Artifacts of a more recent vintage, such as the haft of a knife produced in imperial Russia, were unearthed as well; a cooperative dining hall for Armenian workers seemed reminiscent of log structures from the period of Peter the Great. The tomb of a giant Kurd conjured up images of an epoch when Asian peoples had entered the area in force; at the end, the author reflects upon the plight of Armenian monarchs when the hegemony of the Eastern Roman Empire had yielded to Persian domination. The captivity of King Arshak III, who was imprisoned by the conquering Shapur II, is depicted disquietingly: Physical atrophy and degeneration were accompanied by abject servility; for even the most ordinary functions Arshak had to depend upon the Persian ruler. Even his heart was controlled by the invader. Soviet readers probably needed little help in uncovering the modern implications of such unsettling vignettes; this vision of Oriental despotism could readily call to mind the overweening growth of Stalin’s dictatorial powers. Nevertheless, while Mandelstam’s predicament could be felt even in a distant land, in their own way Armenian motifs provided some solace.

Repositories of Armenian learning evidently aroused Mandelstam’s interest; in Moscow, he had visited the Institute of Peoples of the East to obtain books about the classical Armenian language, and he was intrigued by spiky, pointed characters which have no outward resemblance to Cyrillic or Roman alphabets. Although somewhat ingenuously he had expected all Armenians to be philologists—a preconception which he abandoned rather early—distinctive patterns of speech fascinated him, and here and there he would cite the meanings of Armenian words to illustrate that such phonetic expressions were as apt as any that could be devised for common use. The spoken language had an effervescence that resembled black tea brewing in furiously boiling water; during brief moments, Mandelstam also had the sensation of being able to utter sounds that were secret and forbidden to Russian lips. Verb tenses could signify styles of life; a village teacher’s existence might be typified by the past imperfect, while imperative forms, like those in Latin, had a praiseworthy air to them.

At the beginning of his journey, Mandelstam passed through Sukhumi on his way across Georgia; there he heard some Abkhazian, which struck him as powerful and sonorous but with so many gutturals that it could be enunciated only by native speakers. As a poet whose sense of pitch and rhythm seemed to yield uncanny acoustical effects, Mandelstam could find exotic and enchanting qualities even in passing encounters with the speech of other peoples.

In other ways, local, time-honored ways of life were pleasantly different from others he had observed. Armenian proverbs, with their grains of folk wisdom, could be cited with approval. Some settlements, nestled in craggy redoubts, were older than most European cities;...

(The entire section is 2004 words.)