Passion and Death: Gandel′sman’s “Medea” Cycle

Natalie Smith, University of Texas, Austin

One of the most interesting, yet little-known voices in Russian émigré literature is the poet Vladimir Gandel′sman. Although his roots lie in the literary traditions of the past—Nabokov, Xodasevič, Cvetaeva, and more recently Brodskij—Gandel′sman’s poetry has been acclaimed by Brodskij himself as the greatest poetic innovation printed in the twentieth century. At once postmodern in its lyrical cacophony and in its appropriation of wide-ranging sources, Gandel′sman’s poetry also has traditional foci of love and loss. It is the yearning of an émigré for his homeland and the preservation of enshrined memory, which for an exile never becomes worn or faded by contact with reality. Particularly in “Stixi odnogo cikla” from Dolgota dnja (1998), sex and death are explored in the context of two myths: the garden of Edenic innocence before realization that passion, love and life are all transitory—and Medea, who has given up her life to Jason, and when he pushes her out of his life there is nothing left (see Shklar, Ordinary Vices). This paper analyzes three interrelated themes in “Stixi odnogo cikla”: 1) mythological symbolism, 2) passion, at once creative and desirous to control, and 3) death/preservation of memory.

These poems take as their first point of departure the mythological garden of Eden. The impossibility of lovers’ true oneness inspires Gandel′sman’s violent image of peeling skin, the removal of physical barriers. Intangible barriers, including jealousy and eventual estrangement of lovers, are even harder to overcome. Thus the narrator confesses: “ja tebja ljublju, slovno ty umerla,” and, “neuželi tebja ne budet potom,” predicting the temporary nature of relationships and human mortality after the Fall. At the same time sex is equated with loss of the self or death; sexual union is “zabven′e” and “gibel′”. Passion is momentary (“na mgnoven′e”), yet beyond is only nothingness. The desire to limit the beloved, to control, fixes the beloved and the affair in the past.

Gandel′sman then interprets Medea’s murderous rage as violence inherent in physical passion. Passion’s drive to possess and annihilate both the self and the beloved is blamed on an insane God, who created humankind and sexual passion. The sex/violence dyad is expressed in the narrator’s remark that nothing is more natural than destruction (“net ničego estestvennej, čem gibel′”). Thus jealousy is natural in Medea’s liaisons with Jason and the sculptor Oistr; indeed, this passionate vicious circle inspires the poetic cycle. Likewise Oistr’s gravestone sculpture marks the transformation of flesh, blood and bones into artistic reminders of dead loved ones preserved within a tomb. Even the earth’s rock skeleton becomes a tomb, incorporating the bodies of Medea’s children. After all, the passion that inspired these twelve poems is also buried in the irretrievable past. Therefore sex and death are a metaphor for destructive creativity—destructive, because while it seeks to create, it also traps the original inspiration as if in a tomb of poetry.