Osip Mandel′štam’s Criticism: Utopian and/or Viable

Nikita Nankov, Indiana University

In his critical writings (occluded by his poetry, biography, and fictional prose), Mandel′štam outlines a sophisticated literary and cultural theory which has not been analyzed in its integrity. This paper sketches the pivots of Mandel′štams criticism and its utopian and/or viable features for us today.

1) Holism. For Mandel′štam, literature and culture are holistic, i.e., they provide human community with cohesive forces which keep it together as a unity. The main cohesive forces in literature and culture are three: (a) social architecture and domesticity, (b) the word (“slovo”), and (c) dialogicity. I deal only with social architecture and domesticity, which best represent the holistic and utopian character of Mandel′štam’s thinking.

Cohesion, which procures social and cultural holism, is both synchronic and diachronic. In the first case, culture and literature coexist in space. This coexistence is most often represented by the relationship between Russian and Western culture. However, such a coexistence is possible and necessary between all the nations and cultures in Europe. In the second, diachronic case, culture(s) and literature(s) coexist in time following the principle of continuity.

2) Synchrony and coexistence. A recurrent image and notion of the national, cultural, and literary unity in Mandel′štam’s criticism is the spatial metaphor of architecture which, in more concrete terms, is depicted as a Gothic temple. For Mandel′štam, architecture is the ultimate human activity which, by overcoming brute natural matter, orders the world in a human fashion and turns man from a slave of nature into its master who feels at home in it. Architecture is the necessary condition of freedom. The architectural image of the Gothic temple is the locus of Mandel′štam’s thought where the synchronic and the diachronic variants of his holism coincide.

The topic of domesticity per se is entwined with the idea of architecture and Gothicism. Mandel′štam’s holism has as its final goal to turn the whole world into a comfortable home of man. To be a big cultural figure means to feel at home in the world by reorganizing it according to one’s own human nature.

On the basis of domesticity Mandel′štam opposes Acmeism and Symbolism: the Acmeists are good architects, builders, and, implicitly, love domesticity; conversely, the Symbolists lack the happiness of feeling at home.

3) Diachrony and continuity. Continuity or holism in the diachronic dimension is achieved by means of a fusion of the Russian present with the three major epochs which, for Mandel′štam, symbolize the eras of holism: (a) Hellenism, (b) classicism (ancient Greece and Rome), and (c) the Middle Ages.

To these three eras of holism, coexistence, and blissful human domesticity, Mandel′štam juxtaposes two others which stand for partiality, lack of cultural memory, and human homelessness and oppression: (a) the nineteenth century, which is the time of linear progress and evolution; it is rationalistic and monologically intolerant; (b) the extreme rationalism of the eighteenth century is criticized for its animosity to poetry which, for Mandel′štam, is human praxis as reshaping the world and feeling at home in it.

4) Critique of Mandel’štam’s holistic project. Today we can raise several major objections against Mandel′štam:

a) Philosophically, Mandel′štam’s holistic project tends to thinks of the Other (the cultural past) as a Self (the cultural present appropriating completely the past). This projest is idealistic, it is possible solely in the pure thought of its author. It is a cultural analogue of Collingwood’s idea of the reality of the past perceived as the past’s “enactment” in the present, an idea in philosophy of history convincingly criticized by Paul Ricoeur.

b) Read through our contemporary postmodern experience, the holism of Mandel′štam’s cultural project is not acceptable as any other totalizing project. However, today it is quite viable in its parts (the interpretive activity of the reader; polyphony and dialogicity, etc.).

c) Today it is also possible—and necessary—to read this criticism as a sort of applied, unformalized phenomenology comparable with Baxtin’s reworking of German phenomenology for theoretical purposes in the field of literature and culture. This interpretation would augment the humanistic and antitotalitarian fervor of Mandel′štam’s thought by a new and deeper intellectual dimension of his tragic resistance against the Stalinist regime. Yet, on the other hand, doesn’t the extreme antagonism between Stalinist rationalism and Mandel′štam’s applied phenomenology prove that each of these polar positions, by itself, is not practically viable and that, perhaps, Sartre was right after all, when, in the 1960s, he pleaded for their synthesis by grafting existentialism onto Stalinist Marxism?