Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 772

It is fitting that A Voice from the Chorus should conclude with a vision of a book, “hundred-mouthed,” fulfilling its destiny independent of its creator, for Sinyavsky believes that the writer serves as a “form” for a power greater than himself. “I have no program except art,” Sinyavsky said in an interview in The Times Literary Supplement (May 23, 1975). “All my life I have wondered what art is and why it exists.” Those questions are not definitively answered in A Voice from the Chorus; Sinyavsky suggests that it is of the essence of art to elude precise definition: “Art is always a more or less impromptu act of prayer. Try to catch hold of smoke.” Nevertheless, he does not cease exploring the nature of art; that quest lends continuity to his wide-ranging reflections.

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Above all, he emphasizes the absolute freedom of art. No demands for social utility, no partisan claims, may be allowed to constrain that freedom. Thus, despite the fact that it no longer serves the purpose of concealment, Sinyavsky continues to use the pseudonym Abram Tertz for most of his publications. Sinyavsky originally took this name from an underworld ballad; it suggests art’s perennially subversive nature. By the same token, Sinyavsky rejects the demands of realism: “Art is not the representation, but the transfiguration of life.” Indeed, Sinyavsky argues that “realism” is largely a fiction; so-called realistic painting, he notes, is a triumph of artifice, made possible by the viewer’s unconscious acceptance of countless conventional devices.

What he says about art in general, Sinyavsky reaffirms for writing in particular: “From the start, from the very first paragraph,” he declares,you must write in such a manner as to cut off every way of retreat and thereafter live only by the law of the train of words now set in motion. . . . not giving way to any hopes for some world other than this self-sufficient text. . . .

This emphasis on the freedom of the writer and the self-sufficient text would seem to align Sinyavsky with American postmodernists such as John Barth. Yet while it is true that Sinyavsky and the postmodernists have some common enemies, they are nevertheless separated by profound differences. The postmodernists typically stress the self-referential quality of literary texts, language feeding on language, texts feeding on other texts. For Sinyavsky, art is a vehicle for transcendence.

Sinyavsky frequently speaks of writing in religious, sometimes mystical, terms. The writer, he says, must learn to empty himself. In the realm of art, as in the spiritual realm, commonsense rules do not apply, and incapacity can become a virtue; a writer “knows nothing, remembers nothing, can do nothing,” but it is this very “impotence” that allows him to forget himself and write. In such passages, Sinyavsky’s aphoristic style recalls the deliberately provocative pronouncements of Viktor Shklovsky.

Since A Voice from the Chorus is not a treatise on aesthetics but is itself a work of art, the reader can readily see how Sinyavsky puts his principles into practice. Certainly, there is a “fairy-tale” quality to this book written in a labor camp. The twentieth century is unfortunately very rich in prison literature, but few works in this genre bear even a superficial likeness to A Voice from the Chorus. In one of his early entries, Sinyavsky writes, “Books resemble windows when the lights come on in the evening and begin to glow in the surrounding darkness.” So amid the routine of forced labor and confinement, he writes about painting and architecture, folktales and jokes.

Because he views art as a transfiguration of reality and not merely as an escape from it, Sinyavsky includes along with his own voice the many voices of the chorus. His use of these voices is stylized (to take an obvious example, virtually all profanity is eliminated); the chorus grounds his book in everyday reality—his meditations can never become too highfalutin—yet at the same time that everyday reality is transfigured, heightened. It should be noted, too, that while Sinyavsky often quotes his fellow prisoners to humorous effect, his attitude toward them is not condescending. Indeed, there are passages in which Sinyavsky’s voice is almost indistinguishable from those of the chorus: “I wonder what mice make of birds, and beetles—of butterflies? They are obviously able to see each other. But what do they think?” For the reader, coming across such a passage is like turning a corner on a busy street and discovering a plum tree in full blossom. Art, Sinyavsky says, is gratuitous, an extra; yet it is also “the very seal and token of existence, the means by which being is made manifest.”

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Critical Context