A Safe-Conduct Critical Essays

Boris Pasternak


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 1218 words.)