Utopia in the Genre of Poèma: Vladimir Majakovskij's War and the Universe

Ludmila Shleyfer Lavine, Bucknell University

This paper will examine the idea of a utopian poèma in Vladimir Majakovskij's works, concentrating on War and the Universe (War). War is Majakovskij's first attempt at a utopian poèma, a notion that theoretically appears to be a contradiction in terms. As opposed to the vaguely defined spatial and temporal coordinates of lyric poetry, the traditional understanding of epic verse is strongly rooted both in space and time. The concept of u-topia ("no-place, no-where") denies the epic genre its basic premise. One of the main features of an epic is its developed sense of the past tense. According to Mixail Baxtin, action in epic genres unfolds exclusively in the "absolute past" ("Epic and Novel"). It is not only the classical epic verse, however, that is past-heavy. Though in romantic narrative poetry the present tense begins to dominate, it is nevertheless contextualized in some recent past that determines the protagonist's choices in the present. Furthermore, as noted by Jurij Mann, along with the romantic hero's obsession with the past, this type of poèma "does not have a future tense" (Poètika russkogo romantizma). Majakovskij's introduction of the idea of utopia into the genre of poèma goes against previously understood notions of epic time.

War presents a curious reversal of an epic chronotope in general, and of a romantic poèma in particular. Consequently, the vision of the future in War is just as inaccessible and "absolute," from the point of view of the present, as the harmonious past of a romantic protagonist. In fact, Maksim Gor'kij takes issue precisely with this component of Majakovskij's poèma, claiming that the utopian vision does not appear to follow organically from the events of the present. By choosing a slice of time where all tensions are resolved (utopian future), the poet also undermines the most fundamental tension of the genre of poèma in general: the individual versus his/her context. Literary utopias are understood as representations of group-specific experiences and forms of collective actions. Hence, the epic categories of subject and its context become irrelevant in Majakovskij's utopian poèma. In my paper I will discuss some implications of this generic move.