Iazyk prostranstva: Dante and Mandelstam’s Geography of Exile

Marilena Ruscica, Stanford University

This paper proposes an investigation of Mandelstam’s use of Dante’s Divina Commedia in the Voronezhkie tetradi. Begun as a search for poetic affinity and sustained by the recognition of biographical similarities, Mandelstam’s passionate interest in Dante seems to settle on the realization that a tragic discrepancy lies precisely in the management of this shared biographical experience.

There is a geographic translation of exile in Dante’s Commedia that, I suggest, Mandelstam discerns and appropriates. Dante submits the landscape to a progressive and uninterrupted transformation, proceeding in his journey from the selva oscura to the selva antica and, finally, to the great celestial rose of paradise (Robert Harrison 1992, 86). Elements of the physical geography—such as forest, trees, rivers and skies—undergo a continuous necessary metamorphosis. Some of these elements are found reconfigured in Mandelstam’s modern exilic poetry. Such a poetic geography serves the ontological agenda of both poets, who use their best tool—poesis—to make the unknown into a comfortable and habitable world.

Mandelstam, however, seems to understand that Dante is a successful model of exile: Dante’s exceptional verbal achievements in the Paradiso and his role of initiator of a new glorious literary tradition are the forms of this success. Dante was able to turn exile into a condition of privilege, one on which he could build up his literary fame. As Mandelstam increasingly perceives the discrepancy between Dante’s mastery and his own inability to ignore what Edward Said called the “tragic historicity” of exile (Said, 2003), in the last of the three Voronezhkie tetradi, the Italian poet figures as an intertextual comparative negative. In the end, poesis fails to rescue the exile poet Mandelstam.