It is the intention of this thesis to examine the conflict between Will and Destiny as an intrinsic concern in the works of the Russian Futurist, Velimir Khlebnikov. Khlebnikov’s obsession with the Laws of Time, known as the Tables of Destiny, proposes a war between the human and the divine will, and this preoccupation is central to the thematic sources of his poetry. In seeking to demonstrate this, three long poems and four supersagas will be the object of close readings, to examine how this idea emerges from his works, and how it reflects the linguistic program of the Futurist movement.
I will commence with an introductory survey of Khlebnikov’s position, through a brief biography, an account of the fundamental tenets of Russian Futurism, and a consideration of the theoretical framework in which this study will take place.
Viktor Khlebnikov was born on November 9, 1885, his father a Russian administrator for the Kalmyk nomads on the west bank of the Caspian Sea. He spent his first six years here, then four in the province of Volynia, bordering Poland, and another four in the village of Pomaevo1. In 1898 he came to Kazan, and completed his secondary education, enrolling in mathematics at the University in 1903. The mathematics faculty was dominated by the figure of Lobachevsky, who developed and worked with a non-Euclidean geometry of curved space. In this conception, Khlebnikov was to find a parallel for his later ideas concerning time; like Lobachevsky, he was to challenge the dominant paradigm with a new, controversial, and revolutionary formulation. After a year, Khlebnikov changed his studies to natural science. Throughout his childhood he had demonstrated a keen interest in nature, especially birds; this is evident throughout his work, and led him to make an ornithological trip with his brother in 1905, and to eventually employ bird-sounds in his development of the radically new conception of language he would call “zaum”.
Also at this time, Khlebnikov turned seriously to poetry, under the influence of the Symbolist journal Libra2. In 1908, having sent some poems to Viacheslav Ivanov, a leading Symbolist poet, Khlebnikov moved to St. Petersburg. Here, he was drawn into the emerging political movement of Pan-Slavism; his dedication to Slavic culture and civilisation led to his intense linguistic studies, and to his changing his name from Viktor to the Slavic form Velimir. Slavic preoccupations are particularly explicit in Khlebnikov’s earlier works, though they are an important influence through his writings.
Khlebnikov’s initial publication, was “Sinner’s Seduction” (Iskushenie greshnika) in the almanac Spring (Vesna), edited by Vasily Kamensky. He also moved in Symbolist circles, centred on Viacheslav Ivanov and his Wednesday evening discussions. Since the 1890s Russian Symbolism, had become more than just a dominant literary school, it was the Establishment, and had developed the complexity and sophistication of a well-established form. By this time, however, a certain decadence – evident in a strangling of creativity and a trend toward unoriginal imitations – was evident in the movement.
Khlebnikov had arrived with his own developed poetics, and the two were irreconcilable. He had hoped for publication in the Symbolist journal Apollon, but the Symbolists had no place for his work. In 1910 he abandoned these circles, and was introduced by Kamensky to Mikhail Matiushin and Elena Guro; through them he also met David Burliuk and Nikolai Kulbin. These introductions mark the start of Khlebnikov’s association with those who were to be known as The Futurists. It should not be thought, however, that Khlebnikov’s work signifies a total break from the Symbolist bloc that precedes him – his own work bears a distinctive nature that is both Futurist and Symbolist, or perhaps neither.
In 1910 began a series of publications that can more properly be considered Khlebnikov’s entry in to the literary world. In The Impressionists’ Studioappears “Incantation by Laughter”, perhaps his most famous work, comprised entirely of neologisms based on smekh– laughter; of all the neologisms coined by Khlebnikov, generally only those from this poem passed into everyday Russian. April 1910 saw the publication of A Jam for Judges (Sadok Sudei), first major Futurist publication. The title, with “jam” also meaning “trap”, was aimed directly at the Symbolists; this work is generally considered as something akin to a declaration of aesthetic war. After a time with his family, Khlebnikov returned to St. Petersburg in 1911, when he was introduced to the other luminaries of Russian Futurism, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Alexei Kruchonykh. Kruchonykh came to be Khlebnikov’s chief collaborator, both in poetry and manifesto writing. Together they published The World in Reverse (1912), The Word as Such (1913), Forestly Rapid (1913), Oldfashioned love. Forestly Rapid (1914), and Te-li-le (1914). The year 1912 also saw the publication of Teacher and Student, a booklet revealing Khlebnikov’s studies in equations and time to this point, as well as A Game in Hell (Igra v adu), jointly written by Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh. The most famous publications of Russian Futurism, A Jam for Judges II(Sadok Sudei II), and A Slap in the Face of Public Taste (Poshchochina obshchestvennomu vkusu), were being compiled at this time.
In 1913 Khlebnikov returned to St. Petersburg from Moscow, where he and the others had spent much of 1912. This year saw the publication of one of Khlebnikov’s first books, Roar! Gauntlets!under Kruchonykh’s EUY imprint. Also in 1913, he collaborated with Kruchonykh on The Word as Such The Letter as Such, important theoretical statements for the Futurists. Two futurist operas were performed at the end of 1913, “Victory over the Sun”, for which Khlebnikov wrote an opening prologue, and Mayakovsky’s “Vladimir Mayakovsky: A Tragedy”. The following year saw the publication of two books, Worksand Selected Verse.
Marinetti, the leading figure of Italian Futurism, visited Russia in 1914; his reception was less than warm.3Khlebnikov attacked him virulently with pamphlets, and actively dissociated himself from those who received him. For Khlebnikov, Italian Futurism was a foreign threat – both aesthetically backward in relation to an independent Russian Futurism, and culturally suspect, in that it was a European influence that threatened to lead Russia into once again aping Western fashions.
The War years mark a curious stage in Russian Futurism, and there is a dispersion of its energies during this period. Khlebnikov’s Pan-Slavist militancy ebbs in the face of real war, and like his Futurist colleagues, his poetry takes on distinctly pacifist themes. In April 1916 Khlebnikov was drafted, and spent the rest of the war doing basic training while applying for release on medical grounds; he never saw active duty, and continued to work on his ideas about time and language. The revolution in 1917 was a welcome reprieve. Khlebnikov spent the first few years of Bolshevism in St. Petersburg, working on Futurist collaborations. In 1919 he found himself caught up in the civil war in Kharkov, which fell alternately to the Reds and Whites. Khlebnikov checked himself into a psychiatric hospital, as much for refuge as for reasons of mental health. In 1920-21 Khlebnikov found work “as a civilian publicist with the army and navy on the southern front”4in Baku, which left him free to pursue his writings. He lectured to soldiers, while himself being paid food rations and a minimal wage. In 1921 he travelled to Persia with the Army, and, almost free from duties, wandered around like the holy fool he was seen by others to be5.
The return to Russia brought him back to a country torn apart by Civil War and starvation. In the midst of tragedy, Khlebnikov continued to write poetry of astounding radicality. In 1921 he arrived back in Moscow, in poor health. It appears that at this time Khlebnikov came into conflict with his Futurist colleagues, accusing them of stealing manuscripts and publishing works (often “unfinished”) without his permission. He was busy working on both “Zangezi”, and “The Tables of Destiny”, which together recorded his work on numbers and destiny to this point. In 1922, Khlebnikov left to visit his parents in Astrakhan, stopping first to visit Pyotr Miturich in Santalovo, near Novogorod. There he fell ill, his legs paralysed and gangrenous. He died on June 28, 1922.
There are four main aspects of the Russian Futurists’ approach to language to consider: the Destruction of Syntax, Defamiliarisation, the Self-contained word (samovitoe slovo), and Zaum.
1. The destruction of syntax is a destructive/creative approach to the structures of language. It implies a conscious disregard for the regular arrangement of grammatical structures. In Italian futurism, parole in libertà, “words in freedom”, led to the use of the imperative and the discarding of conjunctives and prepositions. The Russian destruction of syntax was a more thoroughgoing technique, which by breaking the ordinary flow of language, disrupting the expected, forced the reader to focus on the words themselves.
2. Defamiliarisation is the taking of the familiar and making it unfamiliar. It translates the Russian word ‘ostranyii’, making-strange, estrangement. This occurs on two levels. Firstly, it can refer to the estrangement of words through visual or aural distortion. This disrupts the reader’s perception of the word and forces them to perceive it anew. Otherwise, it can refer to imagery, the distortion of everyday perception. In this case, the reader is forced to reconsider the perspective through which they view the object.
3. The Word as Such, the Self-Contained Word, the Self-Sustained Word, the Self-Referential Word: these are the various ways samovitoe slovohas been translated. The essential idea being developed in this concept is a change of focus in poetry. The word is no longer considered as a means but as an end. What is important is not any object being perceived, and content being communicated, but the perception, the communication. Therefore, the word, the unit-of-meaning, becomes the central concern of the poet. Markov identifies four basic ways of realising this:6neologising, or word-play; focus on sound-image, sound-metaphor, rhythm and alliteration as semantic factors; “hard texture” (tugaja faktura), ie. difficult, “ugly”, hard/harsh language, which forces awareness on the reader.
4. Zaumis the last of these techniques, though it can also be considered an independent phenomenon. Zaum beyonsense, or transrational language; it is language freed from everyday usage, from ordinary meaning, for pure poetic purpose. Language in ordinary use relies on meaning, and meaning restricts the usefulness of language as language. Language in traditional poetic use constricts real poetry, because until this point traditional poetry was relying on the meaning of words, ie. signification. In going beyond this, to surrender the use of meaning, there were two main approaches: Alex Kruchonykh wrote zaumpoetry out of neologic sound-words, eg ‘euy’ for lily. Khlebnikov took a much more involved and technical approach. He conceived of the idea that individual letters function as morphemes, as carriers of semantic significance. On this basis, he studied similar words to understand the shifts in meaning associated with shifts in sound, and derived a dictionary of letters. Primarily he concerned himself with the meaning of initial consonants, and this is seen in the works studied, eg. Planes Seven through Ten of “Zangezi”.
Zaumis the summation of all the other technical aspects of Futurism. In searching for a pure language for poetry, in laying bare the word, the object becomes obscure, and the medium becomes opaque. Zaum is language in its most material, most musical, state, where perception of the object becomes infinitely distorted, and awareness of the medium becomes infinitely reflexive.
Khlebnikov puts it in these terms:
A word contains two parts: pure essence and everyday dross. We may even imagine a word that contains both the starlight intelligence of nighttime and the sunlight intelligence of day. This is because whatever single ordinary meaning a word may possess will hide all its other meanings, as daylight effaces the luminous bodies of the starry night. But for an astronomer the sun is simply another speck of dust like any other star. And it is a simple, ordinary fact, a mere accident, that we find ourselves located so close to the sun in question. And our Sun is no different from any other star. Set apart from everyday language, the self-sufficient word differs from the ordinary spoken word just as the turning of the Earth around the sun differs from the common everyday perception that the sun turns around the Earth. The self-sufficient word renounces the illusions of the specific everyday environment and replaces self-evident falsehoods with a star-filled predawn.7
This emphasis on the tools of poetry led to a new and radical approach by the Futurists. Whereas the Symbolists cast themselves as seers, the Futurists were to be technicians, craftsmen, scientists of the word. The Symbolism that preceded Futurism differs in other ways: although the mystical aspects of Symbolism are vigorously opposed in Futurism, a careful consideration will reveal that a transformed mysticism is apparent in Futurism. For example, Symbolist doctrine sees the world in terms of a duality, with correspondences linking the material realm with an ideal: through the manipulation and control of language and ritual, this other-world is made accessible. The context for this is entirely Western – it is disciplined and ritualistic, and has its roots in hermetic magic: Symbolism has its chief archetype in the hierophant.
For the Futurist, sacred space is not a secondary plane of existence, but a transformed and transformative one. It too is discovered through the manipulation and manufacture of word and ritual, but in an entirely different context – not the control of the word in order to perceive the other world, but the science of the word in order to transfigure this world. Khlebnikov combines both east and west in his approach – a careful analytical study coupled with a primitive, shamanistic content. Letters become not symbols, but icons. Khlebnikov differs from Symbolism primarily in his iconicism: signifiers do not bear either an arbitrary or distant relation to signifieds, but an intrinsic and immanent relation – they bear the signified within them. It is this iconicism that allows Khlebnikov to achieve meaningfulness in a poetic enterprise concerned with the disjunction between signifier and signified. By dissociating the two, he severs ordinary meaning; by postulating intrinsic meaning, he allows meaning to come along of its own accord, being inevitably bound up in the free-play of signifiers. This allows Khlebnikov engage in serious play – being free to play with the material of poetry, knowing that meaning will take care of itself.
Symbolism, by the late 1900s, developed a rarefied and systematic body of theory and verse, a poetic equivalent to late medieval scholastic theology, a sort of vast esoteric edifice. They had carried their hierophantic role to its logical conclusion in an elitist and exclusive poetry that resulted in escapist mysticism. Khlebnikov and other Futurists reacted against this. Like the Italians, they saw themselves as militant-poets smashing the old order of the world, represented by the Symbolists. Their poetry was to be a poetry of the streets, of the people. This populist, revolutionary, and militant stance generates certain aesthetic motifs in Futurist writings. The objects of writing and the vocabulary employed reflect consciously this arguably non-aesthetic agenda.
One of the paradoxes of Russian Futurism is its simultaneous embrace of both a primitivist and an urbanist theme. Khlebnikov develops a primitivist aesthetic throughout his works, both in content and execution: he continually draws upon folklore and history, from mainstream Russian traditions, as well as regional and minority traditions. At the same time he extends his grasp of language to include dialects, unusual words, and even a non-Russian Slavic vocabulary. Khlebnikov rarely deals with urban themes in his poetry: one exception is “Zhuravl”, a bleak prophetic look at the future, which may be contrasted with the utopianism of “Lightland” (Ladomir). Mayakovsky, conversely, exemplifies the urbanist trend in Russian Futurism, and in this way his work intersects more obviously with European Modernist contemporaries such as Apollinaire.
The tension between Primitivism and scientism is another interesting and productive paradox of Futurism. Futurism has a problematic relation to reason and rationality. On the one hand, the language-project of Futurism is transrational; on the other hand, the approach to transrationality is highly technical and scientific in method. This is seen most clearly in Khlebnikov’s theories – his neologisms and other word-play are always carefully constructed artifices, which are not employed to support reason, but to transcend it. In doing so the reader is led into both the future and the past: the future, because it is through such a revolution that futurism establishes its new Edenic language; the past, because it recollects an original ur-language. The backward glance to the vatic utterance of primitive cultures and shamanistic invocation is the exemplification of this. Khlebnikov’s work from “Incantation by Laughter” in 1910 through to “Zangezi” in 1922, demonstrates this technician-as-shaman approach.
The technical features of Futurism gave rise to more than just Futurist literature, they also provided the foundation for Russian Formalism. This was primarily a theoretical and linguistic movement, concerned with understanding what it is about literature that makes it literary. Its two leading exemplars were Viktor Shklovsky and Roman Jakobson. Both had a close ongoing relationship with the Russian Futurists at the time: Shklovsky came to be particularly associated with Mayakovsky, while Jakobson was influenced by Khlebnikov. Russian Formalism articulated key concepts concerning literary theory as linguistic theory, based on their exposure to Futurist writing.
One of these is ostranyii: as Shklovsky says in his “Art as Technique”,
“and art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art it to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object: the object is not important”8
This concept also leads to reflexivity, or the poetic use of language. The fundamental question from which to this principle emerges is, “What makes literature literary?” Jakobson identifies six “constitutive factors in any speech event”9: Addresser, Message (ie. content), Contact (ie. physical media), Context (ie. referent), Code, and Addressee. “Each of these six factors determines a different function of language”10: these are the Emotive, which expresses the Addresser’s attitude, eg. interjections; the Conative, which focuses on the Addressee, such as in the vocative and imperative; the Referential, which is a communicative function referring to the referent, ie. the Context; the Phatic, which concerns itself with the Contact, and is exemplified in such phrases as “Hello”, “are you there?” and so forth; the Meta-lingual, which is language focussing on the Code itself; lastly, the Poetic. His important conclusion is that “the set toward the MESSAGE as such, focus on the message for its own sake, is the POETIC function of language.”11While the different types of poetry have different secondary emphases (eg. lyric – addresser), all poetry focuses primarily on the Message. Reflexivity is the underlying key to the various techniques employed by the Futurists – all are based on directing the perception of the reader back to the medium of perception.
Jakobson was especially involved with Khlebnikov’s work, and his essay, “The Newest Russian Poetry: Velimir Xlebnikov”12explains his basic ideas with reference to Khlebnikov’s work. Jakobson takes the idea of the self-sufficient word to develop a definition of poetry, and the nature of literary scholarship:
[…] and poetry is the formulation of the self-sufficient, “selfsome,” word, as Xlebnikov puts it.
Poetry is language in its aesthetic function.
Thus the subject of literary scholarship is not literature but literariness (literaturnost’), that is, that which makes of a given work a work of literature.13
This idea of literariness comes directly out of the reflexive nature of Futurist poetry. The techniques of this are also drawn out in the essay, with reference to Khlebnikov’s work. “In poetry[…] the operation of mechanical association [between signifier and signified] is reduced to a minimum, while the dissociation of verbal elements acquires great importance”14. Jakobson goes on from this point to demonstrate this point with examples of neologisms from Khlebnikov based on words with either identical roots but different formants (ie. prefixes, suffixes, etc.), and identical formants with different roots, which intensify this dissociation. In discussing Khlebnikov’s poetry in which “meaning is reduced in importance and euphonic constructions are created for their own sake”15, Jakobson arrives at the conclusion that the “language of poetry strives to reach, as a final limit, the phonetic, or rather – to the extent that such a purpose may be present – the euphonic phrase – in other words, a trans-sense speech”16.
Russian Formalism led to the development of several new movements in Literary Theory, and was particularly influential in the development of Structuralism and Semiotics. Many of the ideas discussed here have their counterpart in Riffaterre’s Semiotics of Poetry(1978), which serves as a theoretical foundation for the approach of this paper. Riffaterre’s basic principle is that poetry differs from other forms of language in the way that it conveys meaning. Ordinary language use operates through mimesis, the representation of things by words. Poetry creates meaning by disrupting mimesis, whether by displacement, distortion, or creating.17These disruptions to ordinary perception, including what he calls ungrammaticalities (cf. the destruction of syntax), force the reader to take note of the disruptions, and attempt to integrate them into a higher order unity, that is, semiosis. As a reader scans a text, they become aware of the things that don’t fit, the difficulties of the text. By perceiving the text as a whole, the reader attempts to read not the mimetic representation, but the sum of the difficulties, the disruptions. Only by finding the unity of the disruptions can the significance of the poem be perceived.
With reference to Futurism, the techniques outlined are all directed at increasing disruption. To offer an analogy, Futurism is a music where harmony is not the end, but rather, an awareness of the sound as medium is the purpose of the work. Therefore it consciously seeks to amplify dissonance and distortion, in order to foreground sound-values themselves. The ‘limiting sum’ of Futurist poetry is zaum, where disruption swallows the text. In such a case, ‘reading’ becomes impossible, because there is no mimetic ground out of which to resolve disruptions. Language becomes static, total in its dominance of perception: there is no getting past its materiality, no going around its aural texture.
Of further interest in Riffaterre’s work is the idea of matrix, model, and text. “The unit of significance is the [whole] text”18, that is, a text is a totalising construct, which confines meaning within itself. It cannot be understood as a text without reading the whole of the text, nor by reading externalities into the text. This is of particular interest in the readings of supersagas, which are texts composed of texts. It throws doubt on the idea of delimitability with regards to the totality of a text.
Riffaterre indicates how the significance comes to translate itself into a poetic text. Take the statement, “The significance is shaped like a doughnut, the hole being either the matrix of the hypogram or the hypogram as matrix.”19. By “matrix”, Riffaterre refers to the invariant concept, which is the significance of the poetic text at an abstract level. This is contrasted with the “model”, which is the first or primary actualisation of the matrix within the poetic text. The text itself is a sequence of variations derived from the model, based on the matrix – it is a sequence of variants of an invariant.
Returning to the statement, Riffaterre is stating that the text essentially says what it means by saying what it doesn’t. The matrix of the subtext, or the matrix as subtext, is unrealised, but made present by the realised “stuff” about it. To invoke a different, parallel image: The significance of the poem is a submerged land formation, and the text is the wave and current patterns formed by wind blowing from each direction – variants revealing an invariant.
For the purpose of this study, three long poems, all from Khlebnikov’s later years, have been chosen for exegesis: “Night in the Trenches”, “Cracking the Universe”, and “Lightland”. I will also be examining for of Khlebnikov’s “supersagas”: “Otter’s Children”, “War in a Mousetrap”, “Azia Unbound”, and “Zangezi”. The supersaga is a form created by Khlebnikov, which combines elements of prose, drama and poetry. He conceives of it as being made up of independent units, called “planes” in “Zangezi”, which interrelate like words in a sentence or a story.
The basis for these readings is Paul Schmidt’s translation of Khlebnikov’s works, in three volumes. This presents several problems, and it can be argued that this is not only a study of Khlebnikov, but also a study of Schmidt’s translation. This also means that I am not engaging in a strongly technical analysis, based on Russian root-words and neologisms, as for example Markov does in his “Khlebnikov’s Longer Poems”20, but intend to focus on key concepts within the texts, since meaning is easier to translate than word-play. My work also differs from Cooke’s analysis, Velimir Khlebnikov: a critical study21in a number of ways: I am not engaging in a study of Khlebnikov himself, but of Khlebnikov’s ideas as seen through his texts; however, I do acknowledge Cooke’s groundbreaking work, and am indebted to his prior work.