The Stalinists Wife (Essential Translations Series)
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Chukovsky provides a brilliant characterization of the work of Walt Whitman, the American poet, who commands enthusiastic followers in Western Europe and little fame among us. Chukovsky in the introduction. Europe has already made use of him. Without him the history of world literature would be incomplete. In France, especially, there has been in recent years a strengthening of the cult of his spirit.
All poetry has turned in the direction pointed out by the American poet. Unfortunately, my efforts to make his works known in Russia have had little success up to now. Perhaps this small book will finally win a response. We cite some of the most striking passages from K. Chukovsky's beautiful book: "Regardless of our wishes, one of these days, if not today then tomorrow, we shall be forced to face the problem of democracy and cope with it in some way.
In Europe, as in America, the springs of inspiration had dried up.
Classical antiquity and medieval romanticism could no longer nourish contemporary art. Literature and art, if they were to maintain their position, had to adapt themselves to new, to changing conditions. They were compelled to find a new faith—not in an esthetic, a style, a rhythm, but in their mission, their destiny: to give concrete and forceful embodiment to the new life, to its religion and essence, and to do so as powerfully as the Greek sculptors expressed paganism and the Italian artists medieval Catholicism.
Whitman undertook to accomplish this grandiose task, asserts the author of the cited book. He was the first to understand and to declare that in our renascent world it is necessary that democracy have a religious pathos, a religious ecstasy of its own—even though in secret—and he boldly announced himself the first priest of that universal religion.
That secret faith was for him the road that democracy must take, and when, at times, he saw, with amazement, that despite enormous successes in the achievement of purely material prosperity democracy failed to realize its religious potentialities, he was prepared to turn his back on it. The tremendous struggle of workers for better wages left him indifferent: their meetings, parties, proclamations, and strikes were not mirrored in his book.
As for myself, I believe that the present role of democracy begins only when she goes farther and farther. Her real and permanent grandeur is her religion; otherwise she has no grandeur. Just as the people contain all, assimilating all nations, climates, ages, points of view, natures, religions, so the democratic bard rejects nothing and no one in the world: I left no one at the door, I invited all; The thief, the parasite, the mistress—these above all I called— I invited the slave with flabby lips And invited the syphilitic!
In former ages no one ever dreamed of such mindless expansiveness. He never forgot, even for a moment, that around him were myriads of worlds and behind him were myriads of centuries. In each drop he saw the ocean; in each second he sensed eternity. Nothing petty, nothing small! He had a soul like a telescope: he knew only the far and the wide. There is neither better nor worse—no hierarchy! Everything is divine and everything is equal: I'm glad for all the weeds that grow; I'm ready to water them!
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A frog is a masterpiece; there can be none greater! I do not call a turtle evil because it is only a turtle. Life is as beautiful as death; honor as good as dishonor. Victory and defeat are one. I tell you that defeat is good too! It is all the same: to destroy or to be destroyed! Universal equality, identity! And science, toward which every microbe and vibrio contributes as much as the greatest among us in this universal life, and according to which the metals and gases under my feet are the same as those on the farthest suns, and even the erratic comet moves by the same laws as the ball of a playing girl—science strengthens, broadens the contemporary spirit's democratic feeling of equality.
For the poet it has come to this, that he speaks for whatever he sees: and this is I! He feels in every nerve his equality with everything and everyone. Away with the sweetness of meter! In the name of democracy he rejected the heroes of the old balladry, all former themes, the old esthetic:. Affix this placard on Parnassus: Removed. To Let.
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Traditional poetry was nailed up in a coffin. But I fear that the singer of the gray multitude, among whom everyone is equal, among whom all are as one and one as all, does not see or distinguish separate human beings. If he regards Hamlet as identical with Chichikov and Shakespeare as Smerdyakov's twin, then we are not dealing with Shakespeare or Hamlet or personalities but with some sort of statistics or algebra that is both horrible and oppressive. If the poetry of the future is to be found in this depersonalized personality, then I do not want either poetry or the future!
I would not give up even the nose of Cyrano de Bergerac, the famous fundamental nose without which Bergerac is not Bergerac, or even the hunchback of Quasimodo, or the scent of Petrouchka, for these are distinguishing traits—and I find it painful to read poems dedicated to the First Met. Why should he look, if everyone is alike?
The First Met, some depersonalized personality, is the new Aeneas, the Ulysses of the future democratic epoch, and all we know about him is that he is like a million others. But no, he is not a single person: He is not alone! He is the father of those who themselves become fathers! A many-peopled kingdom flourishes inside him, proud, rich republics, And do you know who stems from the descendants of his descendants? And the woman whom he praises is a general woman, everybody's woman, and not this one or that one, marked by a mole, who has the most distinctive and peculiar gait in the world.
He sees her as a productive womb, but does not sense the fascination of her personality. When you love—how powerfully, how keenly, you sense the individuality of the loved one, her singularity, her "inequality with anyone": This hair-line running to the left Is the only one in the world; This childish, wistful glance Is singular and best. But can one discern anything singular in these crowds, legions, billions of the loving, compassionate poet?
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Here he is blind, and hopelessly blind. From the world turn to the ocean, my love; I, too, am but a drop in the ocean. And, characteristically, when he wished to mourn the death of President Lincoln, he mourned for all those who are dead, for every death, and the personality of the great warrior found no place at all in his majestic poem.
The Stalinists Wife (Essential Translations Series)
He is the wholesale poet of the herd! And the enemies of democracy exult: what else can one expect of poets of the crowd, of the commonplace and the ordinary!
O divine banality, platitude! Now these many, happily enough, are in error, and I am as wrong as they are. The poetry of democracy is especially the poetry of personality! Never before has personality been expressed so impetuously, so enchantingly, as in this bard of the gray, undistinguished mass! And the first personality that he celebrates is himself: I celebrate myself, I sing myself!
Isn't this the revolt of personality, unbridled, satanic, Promethean? The poet falls before the mirror and kisses his reflection as the image of God. I too work wonders. He is ready to build himself a shrine and perform his own liturgy and cry out on every side that all the universe is one and that he is the center of all world-views: "It is for me, earth, that you have set forth these flowering apple trees which now perfume the air. He has brought up all the gods, they are in his pocket, and on every altar before which people worship he sits sacrilegiously in order to banter with the gray, equal multitude which he has just sanctified.
He is not false to them; he does not betray. Now what if one sees mean little eyes in the mirror, the face of a syphilitic, a hangman, or an idiot? Is this indeed God? It is! Psalms and exaltation are due to the most abominable among us! You do not know of yourself how great you are!
These boundless rivers! You are measureless and boundless like them! And soon not a single human being is left on earth: all have been transformed into gods. The old ikon painters placed a golden crown on one Head and left all others dark and uncrowned; on the poet's ikonostasis there are numberless crowds of heads, and each has a golden halo. The former God-man has been replaced with a throng of man-gods; they swarm on the street, in the stores, on the Exchange, and each of them is a messiah, each has come from heaven to work miracles, and each is himself a wonder incarnate.
In this, then, lies the triumph of democracy, that she considers every man Unique, that she not only does not scorn personality but, indeed, brings it out and sanctifies it. The wails of the fearful have been meaningless: Huns! Save yourselves, those who can: run. Well, the Huns came, and they not only failed to crush anyone, but—according to their poet—they said to all: you are divine.
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It is precisely for that reason that the poet joins Derzhimord, Schiller, Smerdyakov, and Hamlet under the same crown: he senses, he plainly sees, that at the root, in their mystic essence—under deceptive covers—their souls are equal, alike, similarly divine, immortal, and beautiful; and he denies that the envelope of the soul distinguishes Smerdyakov from Schiller.
Remove the shell, the husk, dispel the mirage, and only them will you see their authentic, eternal personalities. Only then will you realize that the famous nose of Bergerac and the scent of Petrouchka and the mole of Karamazov's Grushenka and the genius of great men and the vulgarity of the vulgar are not aspects of personality, the expression of personality, but masks behind which it hides.
The mockeries are not you, Underneath them and within them I see you lurk, I pursue you where none else has pursued you. In these magnificent words the poet gives us the eternal, granite basis for the development of democratic equality: a belief in the mystic essence of man's immortal ego—so that democracy might "with flower, fruit, radiance, and divinity achieve true humanity" and strengthen the new religion of universal divinity. Democracy has given mankind a new word: comrade. The sense that we are the soldiery of some Great Army which goes from victory to victory without Napoleons and marshals has sprouted in the people who fill the public squares, theaters, banks, universities, restaurants, cinemas, street-cars of today's teeming cities.
Now this wonderful sense which, as we know, the poet felt so strongly that it drew him to the wounded and dying in hospitals, wards for infectious diseases, fields washed by blood—this sense has not yet found full expression in contemporary poetry. The chivalrous adoration of woman, proper to the Middle Ages, the cult of the Beautiful Lady which ennobled sexual love and achieved social refinement, is now insufficient: the future of humanity needs a cult, too—the cult of the comrade, the cult of democratic union, for a new tenderness suffuses the hearts of men, a love of the fellow warrior, co-worker, fellow traveler, of him who journeys with us shoulder to shoulder and takes part in the general movement; it is this still weak feeling, this embryo or beginning of feeling, that the poet strengthened in his gigantic soul, brought to flame, to passion, to that all-encompassing, grand emotion with which, as he believed, he transfigured himself in a vision of the world triumph of democracy.