The Elements of Impressionism in the Early Poetry of Mandel'shtam

Yuliya Minkova, University of Southern California

In this presentation I will offer a reading of Mandel'shtam's early poetry, in particular the poem "'Morozhenno!' Solnce. Vozdushnyj biskvit" according to the Impressionist aesthetic. I will discuss the issue of representation in Mandel'shtam in terms of its three constituents: the unity of content, the treatment of color, and the role of the reader's visual imagination.

Edmond Duranty, a contemporary spokesman for the movement, argued that the Impressionists recognized that the colors of contiguous objects reflect sunlight in its primary prismatic divisions. These reflections in red light, green light, etc., become an aura surrounding the objects and seemingly transforming them into a new light source within the canvas. Mandel'shtam unites separate objects of his poem into one experience that unfolds in space by fusing them with the glance of the subject that is outside of the image, a technique that recalls the Impressionist use of light to join the objects on their painting into a single "luminous unity" by means of a harmonious use of the palette. For example, in the first stanza the scarcity of verbs imbues the poem with the stasis which draws attention to the absence of linear movement, and therefore of causality and time. Narrative movement is replaced by shifts in focus. The mirror-like symmetry of the envelope rhyme slows down the rhythm and invites one to look inward rather than forward. The only verb in the stanza, "letit," is used in conjunction with the only abstract noun ("mechtanie"), while the rest of the concrete inanimate nouns are connected with one another through the contact of their colors (for example, in the phrase "vozdushnyj biskvit" blue and yellow penetrate each other) and can only be made out by the deliberate focus of the reader.

The picture is conveyed through the temperature of color: the cold white of the ice cream and the milky Alps; the cool blue of the air and the icy water inside the thin transparency of the plastic cup, which invokes clear sky and crisp air; the warm yellow of the sun and the airy sponge-cake; the softer and warmer browns of the chocolate and the ruddy dawn over the mountains. These colors develop into forms rather than filling outlines, and their values are so palpable that they appear to vibrate with life. Like Cézanne, the poet creates a parallel reality where the objects establish their identity by interacting with one another rather than with the real world, and encourages his reader to view the picture in its entirety.

The Impressionist use of undiluted color may be likened to the Acmeist treatment of the "pure" word. The application of complementary colors directly on the canvas in a divided state, being left for the eye to integrate, parallels the "cluster" principle of introducing verbal material in a Mandel'shtam poem, as Mixail Lotman points out in "Mandel'shtam and Pasternak." I will also discuss the rest of this poem in terms of the interplay between the various subjects that appear on the canvas in the last two stanzas, and the divine, creative glance of the artist. Finally, I would like to invoke Walter Benjamin's essay on Kafka, where critic describes attentiveness as "the natural prayer of the soul." Perception of reality is the cornerstone of representational art. The arrangement of objects on a canvas may be the result of a transitory impression, but the feeling that unites them is not; rather it is conditioned by the observer's focus. I would like to investigate the roots of the elements of Impressionism in Mandel'shtam's aesthetic, which may partly lie in the poet's understanding of spirituality.