From Adamites to Adamists—Mandel′štam and Bosch

This paper will be devoted to the analysis of Mandel′štam’s poem “Ja po lesenke pristavnoj …” in comparison with Bosch’s triptych The Hay Wain. This poem has been studied by such eminent scholars as Taranovskij, Faryno and Ronen, who briefly mentioned the parallel with Bosch, yet left it unexplored. My paper will continue this line of investigation. We will argue that Bosch’s painting is the pictorial key to Mandel′štam’s poem. Only when we place this arcane poem in the broad artistic context we can discern its principal theme—the theme of the poet as Adam and also as adam kadmon and his life journey.

A careful analysis of the poem in itself discloses a departure from the creative principles Mandel′štam held dear before. If the canons of acmeism presupposed the taming of the universe achieved through the poetic appropriation of the cultural treasures accumulated during the centuries, now the poet begins with a seemingly idyllic picture of a hay barn. However, this image acquires cosmic dimensions and loses its tame qualities. The universe returns to its wild state, and even poetry is powerless to shape it and bring it back into the state of cosmos. Mandel′štam is no longer certain of the nature and strength of his art. The poet’s vision of the world changes, and with it changes the artistic model he chooses to base his vision on. Before he adhered to the classical models, and his vision was harmonious, measured, proportionate. Now, he turns from classical models to the fantastic art of Bosch whose paintings show the same doubts in art Mandel′štam’s poem betrays.

Many images in “Ja po lesenke prestavnoj …” (scales, etc.) are borrowed from Bosch’s triptych. However, the influence goes deeper than that. We might conjecture that having departed from the acmeistic principles, Mandel′štam might have recalled another name the acmeists occasionally used: “Adamists.” Bosch, Mandel′štam’s new artistic model, supposedly was a member of the ancient sect of Adamites who believed that after the Coming of Christ man’s sins were expiated and humankind was reborn as a new Adam. However, those remaining in the old Adam suffer from the trials of earthly life and head straight for hell.

The theme of Adam appears in “Ja po lesenke pristavnoj …” through one of its subtexts, Fet’s poem “On a Haystack at a Southern Night.” We would like to suggest that Mandel′štam combines Bosch’s vision of two Adams with the cabbalistic legend of adam kadmon, a being of light in whose image the earthly Adam was made. Adam kadmon is a creative principle, transcendent manifestation of God Himself. Some of the lights forming adam kadmon broke their vessels leaving sparks of light trapped in the broken pieces. Although the creative process was partially rectified by God, it is up to man, the earthly Adam, to complete the rectification by raising the remaining sparks back to their divine source. We suggest that the tension in Mandel′štam’s poem is created by the conflation of both earthly Adam and adam kadmon in the poet’s notion of Adam the Poet. As adam kadmon, the poet is the cause of the alienation within the sphere of the holy. The light that makes up adam kadmon could be seen as the symbol or synonym of poetry. This would explain then the ambiguity in image of the poetry. As adam kadmon, the poet is responsible for the current state of affairs, and yet as the Adam, as an earthly poet, he is the one who can finally rectify the process of creation, return the rogue lights into their heavenly abode and thus restore the ideal state of the world. Mandel′štam includes all these elements into his poem and gives them yet new treatment through the system of allusions outlined above. Bosch with his grotesque vision guides the interpretation. The lyrical persona travels through several stages, from being an unwitting lover of art on top of the hay to the depths of chaos and death and then to the new understanding of his place and task in the universe.