Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1218
Safe Conduct is an intellectual autobiography, tracing in memory Pasternak’s choice of poetry as the dominant preoccupation of his life. The turning points arise from subconscious motives, but the work is the effort to bring these choices into the light of the mind, showing the poet’s emerging understanding of art and of his poetic aims. Safe Conduct is rich in the theoretical formulations that, carried out in his works, constitute the real life, the biography, of this artist. Just as he sees the value of Rilke’s poetry in its influence on his own work, so Pasternak’s unique legacy is his ideas about art, embodied in his works. His autobiography shows the coming into being of these governing preoccupations.
Safe conduct is a document allowing a person to proceed without interference. What Pasternak seems to have meant by this title is some benevolent protection, perhaps within himself, allowing him to find his way to his vocation. The purpose of the account is to achieve a new artistic orientation. The method is reflection on past events involving five significant human figures in his life: Rilke, Scriabin, Cohen, a beloved girl, and Mayakovsky.
In Safe Conduct, the importance of Rilke is in Pasternak’s definition of what the biography of a poet must contain. It cannot follow the “vertical” line of chronological narrative. The subconscious of the poet operates in the lives of his readers, as Rilke does in his, and it is in these multiple responses that the “life” of the poet is written.
Pasternak’s ten-year absorption in music and Scriabin throughout his adolescence he sees as a means to self-definition: “We have all become people in the measure in which we have loved people and had the opportunity to love.” Failure to love unreservedly is to be afraid of the “sacrifices tradition demands of childhood,” to choose to remain common, uncreative. Scriabin, responding favorably to the young Pasternak’s musical compositions, emphasized simplicity as necessary in great art; works rich in content, he said, are simple. According to critic Henry Gifford, Pasternak’s intense experience in music and his insights from Scriabin’s music and personality inform his later poetic techniques. He learned intricate organization of sound effects, the power to communicate meaning through sound devices, and musical structure in verse and prose.
While still ostensibly committed to music, Pasternak began to explore more general questions about the nature of art. He describes his student existence with random details: reading in philosophy, becoming acquainted with poets such as Andrey Bely and Aleksandr Blok, the way the sun moved over the house where he lived. This randomness becomes part of his theory of poetry: What causes poetry to be born of this reality? He answers that experience comes in irregular ranks. Love and the sun (or weather) are the most important elements, but the slower ranks of experience lag behind; a backward glance at them is the source of inspiration.
Pasternak devotes almost a third of Safe Conduct to the time he spent in Marburg studying philosophy. The exploration with Cohen of primary works of philosophy and the rigorous discipline of scientific thinking left a lasting imprint on Pasternak’s work. He continued to pursue his effort to see the eternal in the momentary. Nevertheless, the young man realized that philosophy was only an aspect of his interest, not the center.
The visit of the girl he had loved since age fourteen, and her rejection of his marriage proposal, precipitated the perception of reality that became the key to his approach to poetry. The city looked totally changed after the emotional torrent at his rejection, a change that showed him that poetry (and art in general) concerns such “coming into being.” Art records the dislocation of actuality caused by feeling; the new world exists independently of himself.We cease to recognize reality. It presents itself in some new category. This category seems to us to be its, not our, condition. Except for this condition everything in the world has been named. It alone is unnamed and new. We try to name it. The result is art.
The insight accounts for the disappearance of the poetic “I” in Pasternak’s work; his poetry depicts the outward. The function of the artist is to name the reality newly seen; finding out how to describe the external brings it into being, and that is the excitement of the poem. Almost any detail of the reality may be chosen, since it all participates in the eternal reality. The poet must choose, in his haste to catch what he sees, established words that must be newly understood.
Pasternak’s dream before he left Marburg shows how the poet knows what he knows. The dream made clear that the intuitive life of poetry is the life he must follow. The deep encounter with Mayakovsky provided the means for distinguishing further the nature of Pasternak’s own poetic gift from that of other poets. The vitality of the groups committed to new poetry sharpened his understanding of his own views; he could not long stay a part of any group, so individual was his stance. In characterizing Mayakovsky, Pasternak develops his concept of the Romantic poet. Mayakovsky’s poses represent the highest self-expression, never achieved among the untalented, but this presentation of the self becomes “biography as spectacle.” It is in fact a view of poetry as the life of the poet, what Pasternak calls Romantic. He sees that this view is “vivid and irrefutable in its symbols,” but he himself rejects it because it “needs the veil of mediocrity in order to be seen.” Romanticism requires philistinism.
Pasternak sees the discontinuity between the outward and the inward Mayakovsky, and he deeply admires Mayakovsky’s representation of reality and, in his early work, the “infinity which opens out in life from any point and in any direction.” Pasternak, however, chooses to deemphasize the self, finding it displaced in “the created world and the world yet to be created.” The background of his own work is not mediocrity but the miracle of being.
By the time Pasternak absorbed the fact of Mayakovsky’s suicide, his own direction as a poet was defined. He sees Mayakovsky’s life, “now utterly past,” as moving down into and becoming “some quiet tree-planted street.” Mayakovsky is the one who has had the “newness of the times climatically in his blood,” as strange himself as the new age is strange and half realized. The new age provides a displacement of reality paralleling the displacement Pasternak suffered upon his rejection by the woman he loved. The future, which Mayakovsky had understood but violated in his propaganda poetry, is the focus at the book’s conclusion.
Angela Livingstone’s translation of Safe Conduct gives an accurate sense of its richness of style. Pasternak later repudiated this shifting, metaphorical style in favor of greater simplicity, but readers find the style of the early autobiography valuable in itself. The tone is contemplative and appreciative. The book’s vividly realized details seem at times casually chosen as if the writer could choose others and more, suggesting the richness of the world represented. At other times the details are selected with great discrimination and economy, to communicate the quality of important characters and episodes.
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