Osip Mandelshtam:On the Interlocutor

translated by Philip Nikolayev

Tell me, what is it about a madman that conveys the most terrifying impression of madness? Dilated pupils, because they are unseeing, trained on nothing in particular, blank. Deranged speech, because even in addressing you, the madman ignores you, has absolutely no interest in you, will not acknowledge your existence. The thing we fear most about the madman is the chilling and absolute indifference that he manifests toward us. Nothing is more frightful to a person than another person who does not care a whit about him. Cultivated make-believe, politeness whereby we incessantly emphasize our interest in each other, makes profound sense.

A man who has something to say typically goes to the people in search of listeners. The poet, on the contrary, flees "to the banks of deserted waves, into broadly rustling oak groves."[1] This being obviously abnormal, a suspicion of madness falls upon the poet. People would be right to brand as a madman him whose speeches are addressed to soulless objects, to nature, rather than to his living brethren. And they would have the right to shun the poet as a lunatic, were his words not addressed to anyone at all. Yet this is not so.

May the reader pardon a naïve example, but the case of Pushkin's "bird of God"[2] is hardly simple. The little warbler "harkens to God's voice" before going into song, obviously bound with the textbook sort of God by a "contract of nature" – an honor that a poet, even one of the highest genius, dares not dream of...

To whom does the poet speak? The question is painful and always contemporary. Leaving aside the purely juridical relation that accompanies an act of speech (I am speaking, therefore I am being listened to, not out of politeness but out of obligation), let us suppose that someone set his attention exclusively on acoustics. He throws a sound into the soul's architecture and, with the self-love so typical of him, follows its wanderings under the vaults of another's psyche. He takes into account the sound's accretion resulting from the fine acoustics, and calls this calculation magic. In this regard, he will be much like the "prestre Martin"[3] of medieval French proverb who serves the Mass by himself for himself, his only listener. The poet is not only a musician, he is also the Stradivari, the great master violin-maker, preoccupied with calculating he proportions of that acoustic box, the listener's psyche. Depending on these proportions, the strike of the bow either takes on a regal fullness or sounds pathetic, uncertain of itself. But, my friends, does a musical piece not exist independently of those who perform it, of the concert hall in which, of the violin on which it is performed? Why is the poet expected to show so much foresight and care? And where, lastly, is that supplier of live violins for the poet's need, of listeners whose psyche is of a quality equivalent to that of a violin crafted by Stradivari? We do not know, we never know, where those listeners are... François Villon wrote for the Parisian rabble of the mid-15th century, yet we find a lively charm in his poems...

Everyone has friends. Why would the poet not be addressing his own friends, people who are naturally close to him? The seafarer at a critical moment casts into the ocean a sealed bottle that contains his name and a description of his fate. Many years hence, I find it in the sand while roaming among the dunes, read the letter, learn the date of the event and the last will of the deceased. I am within rights to do so. The letter sealed in the bottle is addressed to whoever finds it. Being the finder, I am thereby the mysterious addressee.

My lyric gift is weak, my voice not loud,
Yet I'm alive, and on this earth my being
Meets in some hearts with favorable feeling,
And in my verse, who knows, may too be found

By a far future kindred soul with whom
My soul will enter into a relation:
I have found friends among my generation,
And readers in posterity—will come.

Reading Baratynsky's poem, I feel as if such a bottle has fallen into my hands, the fulfillment of its mission assisted by the whole enormous element of the ocean. A sense of the providential grips the finder. The bottle tossed into the sea waves and Baratynsky's poem clearly exhibit two things in common. The poem, as much as the letter, is not addressed to anyone particular. Yet each has an addressee: the letter is addressed to whoever descries it in the sand, and the poem to the "reader in posterity." I wonder how anyone who happens to read these lines by Baratynsky could ever fail to feel a joyful and terrifying shudder, the kind experienced on unexpectedly hearing one's name called.

No, I know no wisdom suitable for others,
All I fill my verse with are evanescent wonders.
I perceive whole worlds in each such evanescence
Brimming with a playful, changeful iridescence.

Curse me not, o wise men! What do you all care?
I'm a tiny cloud that churns with solar glare,
Yes, the merest cloud that you see drift along
Calling out to dreamers, not you, my in song.

The unpleasant, sycophantic tone of these verses by Balmont stands in contrast to the deep and humble dignity of Baratynsky's lines. Balmont is justifying himself, as if apologizing. This is inexcusable! Impermissible for a poet! The only thing that cannot be forgiven. For poetry is the awareness of being right. Woe is him who has lost this awareness. He has forfeited his footing. The first line kills the whole poem. The poet unequivocally declares from the start that we hold no interest for him:

No, I know no wisdom suitable for others.

Unexpectedly for him, we repay him with a coin of the same currency: if we hold no interest for you, then you are of no interest to us. What do we care about some cloud? There are too many of them floating about. Real clouds at least do not mock people. The disavowal of the partner-in-conversation is a common thread running through the kind of poetry that I call Balmontian. The "interlocutor" is not to be disparaged: he exacts a cruel revenge when misunderstood and scorned. It is from him that we seek our sanction, the confirmation that we are right. Especially the poet. Notice how Balmont loves to baffle us with his shrill and overly familiar syntax of address, in the manner of a bad hypnotist. His "you" never finds an addressee, flashing past like an arrow that has escaped from an overly taut bowstring.

I have found friends among my generation,
And readers in posterity—will come.

Baratynsky's astute gaze is directed beyond his generation—although he does have friends within his generation—so as to settle on the unknown yet definite "reader". Anyone who happens upon Baratynsky's verse feels that he is that "reader"—elect, called by name... But why not a living, specific interlocutor, why not a "representative of the very epoch," a "friend among my generation"? I reply: addressing a concrete person slashes poetry's wings, robs it of air, of flying power. The air of verse is the unexpected. In addressing the known, we can only say what is known. This is a compelling, unshakable psychological law. Its importance for poetry cannot be stressed enough.

The fear of the specific conversation partner, of the listener "from the very epoch," of the very "friend among one's generation," has persistently haunted poets of all times. The greater the genius of a poet, the more acute the form of this fear that ails him. Hence the notorious hostility between the artist and society. What is true of the author is absolutely inapplicable to the poet.

The difference between literature and poetry is as follows: the litterateur always addresses the specific listener, the living representative of the epoch. Even when prophesying, he has the contemporary of the future in mind. The litterateur must tower "above" society, be "superior" to it. Edification is the nerve of literature. Therefore the literary author requires a pedestal to stand upon. But poetry is a whole different matter. The poet is connected only with the providential interlocutor. There is no need for him to be above, better than, his era and his society. The aforementioned François Villon ranks below the moral and intellectual standards of fifteenth-century culture.

Pushkin's quarrel with "the rabble" may be regarded as an expression of the antagonism between the poet and the specific listener that I am trying to describe here. With striking impartiality, Pushkin gives the rabble the opportunity to justify itself. The rabble turns out to be not at all savage or unenlightened. What offense has this highly delicate and best-intentioned "rabble" committed to anger our poet? In striving to justify itself, the rabble blurts out a careless phrase that is precisely the drop that overflows the cup of the poet's patience, igniting his fury.

And we shall have a listen of you—[6]

That is the tactless statement. The idiotic vulgarity of these seemingly innocuous words is obvious. Significantly, this is the very moment that the poet, indignant, interrupts the rabble... The sight of the panhandling hand is revolting, and the ear pricked up to listen can inspire anyone—the orator, the tribune, the literary author—but never the poet. The rabble, comprised of specific people, "philistines of poetry," permits the poet to teach it "bold lessons," and will listen to just about anything, but only so long as the poet's parcel displays a precise destination address. Children and simpletons feel flattered when they read their own name on an envelope. History has seen whole eras that sacrificed the sublime essence of poetry to this far-from-harmless requirement. Such are the faux-civic lyric and the tedious poetry of the 1880s. The original civicist and tendentious movement in poetry was splendid:

A poet, not necessarily;
A citizen you needs must be.

Those are fine lines flying on strong wings toward the providential interlocutor. But replace the latter with the Russian philistine of such and such a decade, known in advance, utterly familiar—and instantly you are seized with boredom.

Yes, when I am speaking to someone, I have no idea who it is, and I do not, cannot wish to know him. There is no lyric poetry without dialogue. The only thing than prods us into the interlocutor's embrace is the desire to be surprised by our own words, enchanted by their startling novelty. The logic is inexorable. If I know to whom I am speaking, I also know beforehand what attitude he will hold toward my statement, regardless of what it states, and for that very reason I will be unable to feel amazed by his amazement, to rejoice at his joy, to fall in love through his love. The distance of separation effaces the features of one dear to my heart: not until then do I sense the desire to say to him that essential thing that I could not have said when I had his countenance before me in the fullness of its reality. I will permit myself to formulate this observation as follow: our taste for communication is inversely proportional to our actual acquaintance with our conversation partner and directly proportional to our wish to interest him in us. It is not acoustics that we should worry about: acoustics will come. More important is the distance. Exchanging whispers with your neighbor is boring, and drilling holes in one's own soul is infinitely dull. Trading signals with Mars—there's a task worthy of a lyric poetry that respects the interlocutor and is conscious of its own causeless rightness. These two most excellent characteristics of poetry are closely tied to the "vast expanse of distance"[8] that presumably separates us from our unknown friend, the interlocutor.

Have a look, secret friend,
Distant one:
I'm the icy and sad
Light of dawn...
And as icy and sad,
Morning come,
I shall die, distant friend,
And be gone

These lines require astronomical time to reach their destination address, like a planet that forwards light to another planet.

To sum up, albeit individual poems, composed in the form of epistles or dedications, may address specific persons, poetry—as a whole—is ever moving toward that more or less distant, unknown addressee, whose existence the poet cannot doubt without also doubting himself. Only a reality can bring to life another reality.

It is all very simple: if we had no one of acquaintance, we would write no letters, and would be unable to enjoy the psychological freshness and novelty inherent in that activity.


Translator's Notes

  1. The last two lines of Alexander Pushkin's poem, "The Poet" (1827). Throughout the essay, Mandelshtam omits the attributions of various verse quotations, because those would have been familiar to the Russian literary reader of the day.  // back
  2. From a song in Pushkin's long narrative poem, "The Gypsies" (1824). See my translation of it in this issue of The Battersea Review.  // back
  3. Father Martin. [Mandelshtam's footnote]  // back
  4. A 1828 poem by Yevgeny Baratynsky (Boratynsky).  // back
  5. A 1902 poem by Konstantin Balmont.  // back
  6. From Pushkin's dramatic dialogue in verse, "The Poet and The Crowd" (1828).  // back
  7. From Nikolai Nekrasov's 1855 dramatic dialogue in verse, "The Poet and the Citizen."  // back
  8. A popular phrase from Alexander Griboyedov's verse play, Woe from Wit (1823).   // back
  9. From a 1898 poem by Fyodor Sologub. Although the three dots at the end of the first quatrain formally indicate an omission, Mandelshtam, leaving out two more stanzas in the middle, effectively joins the opening and closing quatrains of the original into an eight-line poem that rings complete of itself.  // back

PHILIP NIKOLAYEV is a poet and literary scholar. He is co-editor-in-chief of Fulcrum: an Annual of Poetry and Aesthetics. His latest poetry collection is Letters from Aldenderry (Salt).