Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2004
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; villagers apparently had celebrated harvest festivals for countless generations. Mandelstam was not averse to stating his conclusions about national Character: Although he was a stranger in their midst, he felt a sense of kinship with the Armenians; their rough vitality and willing capacity for hard work, as well as their preference for real and tangible, as opposed to metaphysical, forms of thought were qualities he admired.
As an ancient realm situated astride Asia and Russia, Armenia historically had been at the confluence of cultural currents which the author also found appealing in their effects. Iran and the Persians were known not merely from conquests and conflicts of past centuries; seemingly more mundane objects and books also could convey the aura of Eastern civilizations. For example, scattered amid Mandelstam’s musings on travel are offhand but vivid depictions of an antique, enameled pen case and Persian chess pieces; a gracefully executed Persian miniature, sensuous and lifelike, could show a particularly moving, beautiful face with fiery, slanted eyes. Chinese ambassadors laden with gifts could be envisioned from a copy of Firdusi’s epic poetry, which was brought to Mandelstam by the state librarian of Armenia. (Upon hearing it, however, Mandelstam found that spoken Persian could be disagreeable.) Tatar ways crop up at intervals: Mandelstam noted his friend Kuzin’s visit to a Tatar family; his hosts were friendly, though somewhat lacking in table manners. Among cattle and sheep breeders, nomadic pursuits seemed essentially similar among neighboring peoples; Armenian and Kurdish camps appeared to be arranged so that they were virtually indistinguishable.
Contrasts with more familiar sights in Russia did not entirely favor Mandelstam’s native land; in one section of the work, Mandelstam wrote about an older district of Moscow, where he had become exasperated with monotonous urban landscapes and indifferent neighbors. In recalling stern and unfriendly families whose features seemed frozen into photographer’s poses, the poet thought that even some traces of malice could be detected in their postures. Drabness and emptiness might obtrude where elsewhere more lustrous images might be found; sunsets over the Moscow River produced colors that could not compare with the dusty red hues around Mount Ararat. In Russia, dullness and meanness seemed reflected in people and places both present and past; while pointing out a place where serf girls once had been sold, the author pondered the thick haze of bureaucratic inertia that seemed to permeate everyday life. In an outlying farm area, pale green cabbages stacked together reminded him of a pyramid of skulls; a famous painting had utilized just such a setting in depicting events from Mongol times. Even literary allusions did not necessarily benefit Russian themes: A popular, though somewhat shallow, writer, whose works steadfastly had attempted to maintain proletarian standards, provoked some half-serious, deflating criticism. When a man in the Caucasus asked him about past events in Revolutionary Russia, Mandelstam was struck by the incongruity of pondering Marxist theory in what were otherwise pastoral surroundings.
In other connections, Mandelstam evinced some interest in ways by which Armenians had accommodated themselves to the Soviets while retaining their own characteristic habits and manners of speech. For example, the inflections of those who could speak Russian with regional accents he thought worthy of comment; one man, a renowned archaeologist, seemed more proficient in German than in the language used by most Soviet citizens. Elsewhere, it is noted in passing that dissenting religious sects which long ago had left the established Russian church had maintained settlements in the area.
On a literary plane, the author fittingly recalls fictional journeys. Mandelstam acknowledged that his conception of a purpose to travel, and his quest for new means of ordering the manifold impressions gained in transit, owed much to major works by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; indeed, characters from Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre: Oder, Die Entsagenden (1821, 1829; Wilhelm Meister’s Travels: Or, The Renunciants, 1827) are mentioned in contexts which suggested that restrictions on their movements could be likened to the constraints with which Mandelstam himself had to contend. Mandelstam also conceived of Goethe’s protagonists as subject to the surveillance of clandestine informers in a way that was broadly analogous to practices in the Soviet Union during a later period. Impetuous inquiries about natural surroundings thus necessarily had to be tempered by sober discretion. The example of Goethe may have been significant as well in Mandelstam’s musing about the resuscitation of creative powers after prolonged visits to southern lands. It is known that on his journey the poet brought along a copy of Goethe’s Italienische Reise (1816, 1817; Travels in Italy, 1883), a work which deals with a portion of the German author’s life that Mandelstam also discussed in later writings. Although concerns about his own position as an author seem muted in Mandelstam’s travel work, the kindred themes of renewal and reexamination during times of creative struggle are common to both writers.
Mandelstam also greatly admired the works of Dante, particularly in his conception of place and position within spheres of an iniquitous abode. Perhaps in response to reproaches that his works were neither useful nor uplifting, Mandelstam conjured up the image of a fledgling writer who, having resolved to forsake merely aesthetic endeavors, would be consigned as a bleeding thornbush to a circle of the inferno where tourists would inadvertently injure his limbs. Moreover, Dante’s belief in a descending order of creatures could be brought into accord with Mandelstam’s convictions about normal forms of life on the planet. On other counts, Mandelstam found Dante’s refined and subjective mode of association a suitable point of departure in seeking his own means of expression.
In yet more imaginative excursions into other fields of thought and speculation, Mandelstam considered the bearing biological ideas might have upon his perceptions of the natural world. During the composition of his travel study, Mandelstam consulted the work of Peter Simon Pallas, a German naturalist who had journeyed across the Caucasus and other parts of Russia during the later eighteenth century; Charles Darwin was also cited, partly so that Mandelstam could take issue with his theory of natural selection. Mandelstam, in raising doubts about mechanistic views of the development of living organisms, particularly wished to consider contrary hypotheses in which environmental adaptation might be part of a larger moral scheme. Thus, for his essentially literary purposes Mandelstam found it instructive to reflect upon the ideas of Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck, the French naturalist whose theory of acquired characteristics had been largely repudiated by Darwin and later biologists. The applications that could be found for older conceptions of natural history were among the topics raised in Mandelstam’s remarks to his friend Boris Kuzin; an adaptive morphology was important for the writer’s view that human character could adjust to varied circumstances. Moreover, as though to demonstrate Mandelstam’s intuitive and eclectic qualities, these ideas are preceded by a discussion of the optical principles of modern art in which the creations of French masters are considered alongside impressions of the Armenian journey. Southern lands that were depicted by Eugene Delacroix in the course of his travels in Morocco influenced later painters in ways that Mandelstam could call to mind during his prolonged visit to another exotic land. In the end, Mandelstam benefited from the creative impressions and impulses that arose during his journey.