Self-consciousness, the quintessential modernist preoccupation, is the central concern of Boym’s early works. Dissecting semi- and pseudo-autobiographical writing of modernist poets, from Mallarmé to Mandel’shtam, Boym revises and expands such structuralist and post-structuralist concepts as “literary fact,” “art’s autonomy,” and “death of the author.” Barthes’s famous phrase takes on a new meaning in Boym’s first book Death in Quotation Marks, which analyzes literal and figurative suicides in poets’ lives and art. It is a daring enterprise to address the author’s biography amid its devaluation in literary criticism of the post-structuralist era. Boym’s aim is to map out the constellation of contradictory impulses toward self-effacement and self-fashioning of the modern poet. Boym argues that poets exploit and reshape numerous cultural and literary myths and masks while creatively making and unmaking the self. She investigates how this theater of the self affects both literature and life, blurring the boundaries between them. Not aiming to resuscitate the outdated notion that an artist’s life can explain her writing, Boym nevertheless puts into question the possibility of art’s complete autonomy from life, and vice versa, by demonstrating the “uncanny literariness of life and the transgressive vitality of texts.” Furthermore, Boym’s case studies of self-mythification shed light on the process of myth-making itself. In the excerpts provided, Boym offers ingenious readings of the mutually impactful relationships between text and tradition in Mandel’shtam, poetry and politics in Maiakovskii, and writing and gender in Tsvetaeva.
Finally, in the last excerpt of this section, Boym turns her attention to those elements of public personas’ private realm that are untheorizable, sentimental, mundane, or banal. Analyzing the diaries of Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin, she investigates these critics’ choice to write about the facets of their lives that complicate their personal myths or contradict their theories of authorship. She posits that these aspects of the everyday, when put in writing, become tools of rebellion against restrictively neat constructions of the self, a form of self-resistance.
Лирический поэт по природе своей,—двуполое существо, способное к бесчисленным расщеплениям во имя внутреннего диалога.
OSIP MANDEL’SHTAM, “Fransua Villon”
[The lyrical poet is a hermaphrodite by nature, capable of limitless fissions in the name of his inner monologue.
OSIP MANDEL’SHTAM, “François Villon”]
Развитие романа заключается в углублении диалогичности, ее расширении и утончении … Диалог уходит в молекулярные, и наконец во внутриатомные глубины.
MIKHAIL BAKHTIN, “Slovo v romane”
[The development of the novel is a function of the deepening of dialogic essence, its increased scope and greater precision… Dialogue moves into the deepest molecular, and ultimately, subatomic levels.
MIKHAIL BAKHTIN, “Discourse in the Novel”]
The two epigraphs disclose a crucial “genre gap” between Osip Mandel’shtam and Mikhail Bakhtin. If for Mandel’shtam dialogue is essential to lyric, for Bakhtin the dialogical discourse identifies the novel as a genre in opposition to monologic, self-centered and self-sufficient
poetic language. In his essays “Fransua Villon” [“François Villon”] and “O sobesednike” [“On the Addressee”], Mandel’shtam discusses different dimensions of dialogue—the dialogue between various historical epochs—modernity and Middle Ages, Ancient Greece and Renaissance, the dialogue between the author and the distant reader, and finally, the dialogue between the poet’s diverse selves. The latter is called “lyrical hermaphroditism” and described in its multiple incarnations, including “ogorchennyi i uteshitel’, mat’ i ditia, sudiia i podsudimyi, sobstvennik i nishchii” [“the aggrieved and the comforter, the mother and the child, the judge and the judged, the proprietor and the beggar…”]1
Mandel’shtam’s “lyrical hermaphroditism” does not signify a Platonic ideal of androgynous wholeness, a reconciliation of two polarities. On the contrary, it is viewed as a peculiar kind of poetic dvupolost’
[hermaphroditism] that reveals multiple splittings of the poet’s self and suggests an open-ended and continuous interplay of sexual and social roles, of nuances of intonation and artistic styles.
Bakhtin’s early conception of dialogue is deeply rooted in the narrative structures of the nineteenth century novel. In contrast to the Russian formalists with their interest in modern experimental literature and “poetic language,” Bakhtin chooses the nineteenth century novel, particularly that of Fedor Dostoevsky as a model for his theory. Yet, Bakhtin’s “dialogical principle” is not a “monological” concept in itself; it acquires a different “intonation” in different contexts of discussion. In the early essay “Avtor i geroi v esteticheskoi deiatel’nosti” [“Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity”] as well as in Problemy poetiki Dostoevskogo
[Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics
], the dialogue is conceived as an interaction between “embodied consciousnesses” or “dialog cheloveka s chelovekom” [“a dialogue between human beings”] with the emphasis not so much on its psychological but on its epistemological dimension.2
In “Slovo v romane,” however, Bakhtin stresses that “dialogue” could not be reduced exclusively to the contradictions between characters; rather, it is embedded in the linguistic and social heteroglossia of narrative discourse. Furthermore, the dialogue encompasses narrativity in general, pointing beyond the novel at different contexts of literary and extraliterary communication. Such a broad understanding of the dialogical principle seems particularly applicable to modernist literature. Yet, one notices a conspicuous absence of references to twentieth century fiction and poetry and virtually no discussion of modernism in the works of Bakhtin. In his posthumously published notes, Bakhtin touches upon,
in very general terms, the crisis of contemporary literature, possibly referring to the French new novel:
Поиски автором собственного слова… это сейчас самая острая проблема современной литературы, приводящая многих к отказу от романного жанра, к замене его монтажем документов, описанием вещей, к леттризму, в известной мере и к литературе абсурда. Все это в некотором смысле можно определить как разные формы молчания. Достоевского эти поиски привели к созданию полифонического романа.
[The author’s quest for his own word ... is the most topical problem of contemporary literature, leading many to the rejection of the novelistic genre, its substitution with the montage of documents, description of things, lettrism, and to a certain extent, the literature of the absurd. All this can be defined in a certain sense as various forms of silence. These quests led Dostoevsky to the creation of the polyphonic novel.]3
Thus Bakhtin does not acknowledge the specificity of the twentieth century situation and the differences between nineteenth and twentieth century (modernist) conceptions of the self. Even in his later notes he does not challenge the status of Dostoevsky’s text as the model for his theory and as the exemplary embodiment of the dialogical principle.
In order to bridge the gap between Mandel’shtam and Bakhtin in the context of twentieth century writing, I turn to Mandel’shtam’s fictional prose, Egipetskaia marka (1928 [The Egyptian Stamp]) published in almost the same year as Bakhtin’s Problemy poetiki Dostoevskogo (1929 [Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics]). The poet’s experimental narrative presents a challenge to both the lyric and the novel and blurs the established boundaries between genres. In Egipetskaia marka one may confront different conceptions of dialogue and genre further adulterated by cultural mythologies of gender. I will explore the practice of lyrical hermaphroditism in the novella and the ways in which it is linked to the specifically twentieth-century problems of national and sexual identity.
According to Mandel’shtam, after the revolution poetry itself demanded prose, a new kind of prose, which belongs to no one and that together with the author’s personality, manages to get rid of “vse sluchainoe, lichnoe i katastroficheskoe (lirika)” [“everything incidental, personal, and catastrophic (the domain of lyric).”]4
As Bakhtin regards
the novel, so Mandel’shtam regards prose as essentially multivoiced. The model for this prose is not the polyphonic novel of Dostoevsky, however; it is rather the work of Mandel’shtam’s contemporaries, especially Boris Pil’niak, in whose writings the literary collage, the juxtaposition of notebooks, construction estimates, Soviet circulars, fragments, an almost completely dehumanized dialogue of things and words, substitutes for the dialogue between characters and narrators. Mandel’shtam praises this kind of prose for its radical impersonality, its attempt to efface the subjectivity of the author, and its revival of “the folkloric principle” that allows the writer to reconcile modernity and tradition. It also allows the writer to reconstruct an alternative history of Russian prose beyond and in spite of the age of great psychological novels. Moreover, in Mandel’shtam the classical image of the poet competes with the modern image of the “author as a producer,” “bezymiannyi prozaik, eklektik, sobiratel’.” [“the anonymous prose writer, the eclectic, the collector.”] The figure of an impersonal modern author is a common modernist myth baptized by Roland Barthes as “the death of the author,” which has been reenacted and described by poets from different traditions, including Stephane Mallarmé, Paul Valéry, T. S. Eliot, and, to some extent, Boris Pasternak.5
Mandel’shtam’s own shift from poetry to prose in the late 1920s is of critical significance. Between 1926 and 1931, a period of painful cultural isolation, Mandel’shtam did not write a single poem. Yet Egipetskaia marka, which can be considered Mandel’shtam’s exemplary prose work, does not offer us an example of an ideal prose writer, eclectic and collective. Instead, it presents a typical lyrical narrator, a would-be author, an amateur, who together with his would-be hero Parnok seeks voice and identity. The novella searches for a genre, both ironically and desperately, and reflects upon its own literary “pedigree.”
begins with an almost impersonal description of a dream in which “protivniki b’iut iz pistoletov v gorki s posudoi, v chernil’nitsy i v famil’nye kholsty.” [“the opponents fired their pistols at cabinets of chinaware, at inkpots, and at family portraits.”]6
The first “affair of honor” culminates in a triple destruction: of things, of writing instruments and of family memories. This beginning recurs word for word in chapter 5, this time as a literary cliché, a typical “scandalous event” of a Russian psychological novel: “skandalom nazyvaetsia bes, otkrytyi russkoi literaturoi ili samoi zhizn’iu v sorokovykh chto li godakh” (p. 27) [“Scandal is the name of the demon discovered by Russian prose
or by Russian life itself sometime in the Forties” (p.150)]. In “Razgovor o Dante,” Mandel’shtam associates “scandal” with the novels of Dostoevsky, with their psychological intensity and dramatic (or melodramatic) collisions. Published almost simultaneously with Bakhtin’s fundamental study on Dostoevsky, Egipetskaia marka
presents a completely different reading of the great Russian novelist. The beginning of Mandel’shtam’s novella can be read as a parody of a beginning, a subtle anti-novelistic gesture. The conflict of the characters of a psychological novel becomes a conflict in the novel as a genre, a scandal not in but of literature.
In the next paragraph, the narrator appears in the first person and makes an attempt to begin again, this time in the autobiographical mode: “Sem’ia moia, is predlagaiu tebe gerb: stakan s kipiachenoi vodoi. V rezinovom privkuse peterburgskoi vody ia p’iu neudavsheesia domashnee bessmertie. Tsentrobezhnaia sila vremeni razmetala nashi venskie stul’ia i gollandskie tarelki s sinimi tsvetochkami” (p. 5).
[“I propose to you, my family, a coat of arms: a glass of boiled water. In the rubbery aftertaste of Petersburg’s boiled water I drink my unsuccessful domestic immortality. The centrifugal force of time has scattered our Viennese chairs and Dutch plates with little blue flowers. (p. 133)]
But here he experiences another ironic failure. In order to write an autobiography, one must have a certain noncontradictory sense of the self (auto), and adequate means of writing one’s life (bio-graphe). In the novella, neither of the three is taken for granted. The self, writing, and the personal life of a Petersburg dweller in “the summer of Kerenskii” lack authenticity; his story becomes more and more fictionalized and undiffe...