“Net, ves′ ja ne umru”: Puškin, Mandel′štam, and “The Return of the Dead” in the Voronežskie tetradi

Though many share Iosif Brodskij’s and Anna Axmatova’s view that Puškin is Mandel′štam’s “predteča,” the extent to which Puškin’s life and art is a palimpsest underlying Mandel′štam’s life and art has not been fully appreciated. In this paper I argue that an understanding of what I term the “imitatio (of) Puškin” (after Thomas Mann’s notion of the “imitatio Goethe”) is particularly important for an analysis of Mandel′štam’s Voronež poetry. I also argue that a revised version of Harold Bloom’s theory of the anxiety of influence may assist us in studying the Puškin-Mandel′štam poetic relationship. Significant ways in which Puškin’s life and art are reflected in Mandel′štam’s have been analysed by Omry Ronen, E. Toddes, V. Musatov, B. M. Gasparov, M. L. Gasparov, A. Wachtel, and others, but the extent to which and the ways in which Puškin’s influence acquired for Mandel′štam a fatidic meaning has still to be fully recognised. Mandel′štam’s construction in his poetry of various myths of the poet is underwritten by a three-fold identification with kenotic models. He identifies himself with the values and “heroic character” of Russian literature and the Russian intelligentsia as a whole; more importantly, he views his life and death as an imitatio Christi; most important of all, he seems to have considered it his destiny to rewrite and relive Puškin’s art, life and death—but in his own way.

Too many of the apparently more straightforward Voronež lyrics have been read too “innocently” (notable exceptions include various readings by Pollak, Cavanagh and in particular Ronen). I shall analyse three poems written in January 1937 (during the centenary celebrations of Puškin’s death, when Mandel′štam’s identification with Puškin was most acute) and reveal the strange ways in which Puškin and key Puškinian themes inform works which, on the surface at least, appear to have little or no Puškinian content. Two of the poems, “V lico morozu ia gljažu odin” and “Ešče ne umer ty, ešče ty ne odin” look back to key Puškinian texts expressing the poet’s faith in life, love, nature, and poetry and embodying the poetic tongue’s ability to praise in spite of all (in particular, “Ja perežil svoi želan’ja,” “Èlegija” (“Bezumnyx let ugasšee vesel′e”), “Poètu,” “Zimnee utro”). Mandel′štam’s revisions of Puškin epitomize what Bloom terms “the magic of the successful apophrades”: although these defences of poetry owe much to Puškin (and to Blok), it is Mandel′štam’s poems which seem (for many readers in the West in particular) the most eloquent defence available of the poet’s aesthetic and ethical autonomy, of his inner rightness.

The third poem, “Kuda mne det′sja v ètom janvare?” is a variation on a favored “Puškinian” theme—the death of the poet. In it Mandel′štam, through a series of elusive (“transumptive”) allusions and echoes, composes a necrology of Russian poets and investigates which fate awaits him in his isolated, exiled disgrace. The poem is Mandel′štam’s version of “to be or not to be,” and a complex intertextual conversation involving Puškin, Belyj, Pasternak, Majakovskij, Gumilev, Fet, and Mandel′štam’s own poems ends by suggesting that Puškin has fixed his canon against self-slaughter for any true heir.

Pace Bloom, a Russian poet’s anxiety before his precursor or his ambivalence regarding the consequences of following in the father’s footsteps may in large part arise from his understanding that to experience what Mandel′štam called the “direct, canonical influence of Puškin” may somehow place one under an obligation to imitate his death too—not only symbolically, in the creation of one’s literary myths, but literally. I conclude by pointing out some ways in which Bloom’s ideas, if revised to take greater account of the importance of the life and the death of the poet in the Russian context, may nevertheless offer additional insights into how, in David Bethea’s words, “literary material seems to prefigure and shape the real-life outcome” in the tragic “učast′ russkix poètov.”