A Deconstruction of Mandel'shtam's Map in Journey to Armenia

Colleen McQuillen, Columbia University

The Russian Orientalist tradition, as Susan Layton, Monika Greenleaf and Harsha Ram have described it, mainly comprises the nineteenth-century Romantic of the Caucasus. The paradigmatic exemplars of this tradition are Pushkin, Lermontov, and Bestuzhev-Marlinskij. While Mandel'shtam's twentieth-century mode of Orientalism deviates from the nineteenth-century Romantic mode in many ways, in nonetheless exhibits some fundamental tendencies of the Russian Orientalist tradition, including mythologization, appropriation and manipulation of Armenia to satisfy a personal creative and political agenda, and finally, the temporal paralysis of Armenia--its inability to move beyond its past and into the modern age. Mandel'shtam is, however, acutely aware of his participation in the Russian Orientalist tradition: he is conscious of his role as artist, teller of tales, arbiter of images, and he is cognizant of the observing eye's subjectivity and his own 'imperialist gaze.' It is this condition of self-awareness that creates an interesting twist in the poet's approach to the Russian Orientalist tradition.

Mandel'shtam's relationship to the Russian literary Caucasus as defined by his travelogue, Journey to Armenia, was not that of a rebellious son to his father, as Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence might posit; rather, his relationship to the tradition is best summarized as that of a nephew to his uncle. Viktor Shklovskij's short essay, "The Horse's Move" ("Xod konja", 1921), suggests such an indirect relationship by asserting that art never moves in a straight-forward, predictable manner; instead, "the horse moves sideways" because of the "conventionality of art."

For Mandel'shtam, the "conventionality of art," that which the artist must challenge--and which drives his sideways movement--is represented by the uninspired and dnagerously suffocating literary environment of Moscow in the late 1920s and early 1930s. As I will argue, the poet's ambivalent, and at times hostile, relationship to the Empire alters his attitude toward and consequent representation of Armenia; additionally, it undermines the appropirateness of Said's politically unambigiuous Orientalist discourse as a model for making sense of Journey to Armenia. In Russia's Orient, Mandel'shtam finds artistic inspiration and spiritual regeneration that culminate in his ability to write poetry again after a five-year silence. His depiction of the Orient is thus colored by the fact that he embraces Armenia as a source for the cutural and spiritual sustenance that Russia's "watermelon emptiness" cannot provide.

With this personal quest for creative and historic mooring propelling his journey, Mandel'shtam becomes aware of how his own needs and his own agenda influence his narration of Armenian culture. He feels his inherent biases and is conscious of his 'imperialist gaze' that falls on the relics and residents of Armenia. As a metaphor for his tendency toward generalizations and categorizations (and that of every anthropologist-bricoleur)--a destructive tendency which the poet passionately fights--he uses the methodology of the Linnaean naturalists. By mocking Linnaeus and celebrating Lamarck in Journey to Armenia, Mandel'shtam points to his own philosophical and artistic values: he scorns the closed-minded, inflexible and predictable approach to life that, in his opinion, Linnaeus practiced and celebrates the freshness and spontaneity of Lamarck's methology.

Mandel'shtam's travelogue is thus not an explicit attempt to overturn the nineteenth-century Russian tradition of the Caucasian travelogue as the poet is aware of his inability to escape fully that mode of narration and its conventions. Rather, Journey to Armenia is an attempt to re-inscribe respect for individuality, autonomy and diversity in a literary tradition which, for Mandel'shtam, exemplifies the oppressiveness and restrictiveness of Empire with which he himself struggled.