|II: Later Works
“Azia Unbound” (1920) marks the beginning of a period distinct from that of the previous pieces. The longer works Khlebnikov produces from 1920 onward all emerge from a developed and largely coherent position. In particular, the basis of Khlebnikov’s project, his theories concerning time, destiny, language, and so forth, are well established. Several images, and whole passages, recur throughout these poems and fragments.
The opening section of “Azia Unbound” is entitled “The One, The Only Book”55, and contains two important symbols. The first of these is the Book:
… the One, the Only Book,
whose pages are enormous oceans
flickering like the wings of a blue butterfly,
and the silk thread marking the place
where the reader rests his gaze
is all the great rivers in a dark blue flood:56
The book is described as the fulfilment and replacement of “the black Vedas, / the Koran and the Gospels / and the books of the Mongols”,57the holy books of the world. This compares with the passage in the latter (1922), “Tables of Destiny”:
Doctrines of good and evil, Ahriman and Ormuzd, eventual retribution – all these express the desire to speak of time before any measure for it was available, using only a bucket of paint.
And so the face of time was painted in words on the old canvases of the Koran, the Vedas, the Gospels, and other doctrines. That great face is adumbrated here also in the pure Laws of Time, but this time with the brush of number58
Khlebnikov clearly outlines his attitude to the holy books of the world, and the doctrines of religion. They are the human reaching out to express the inexpressable understanding of Time, and its rule over nature. Khlebnikov’s work is to uncover that inexpressable, to put it in proper terms of mathematics, and thus replace the books of the world with the “One Book”, which is written on creation, and is both a unity in itself and the encompassment of all others.
Race of Humanity, you are Readers of the Book
whose cover bears the creator’s signature
The sky-blue letters of my name!59
The speaker is unidentified, though it can be read as a Khlebnikovian persona, as many of his poems seem to take on a lyric stance: even where he generates a specific persona, the line between Khlebnikov and speaker is always blurred. If this is the case, the assumption that he is the creator of this Book can be read as a restatement of the rebellion that asserts Will over Destiny. There are two ways to view this particular assertion here. It could be a claim to be the actual “Creator”, which is not without precedent – Khlebnikov previously identified himself with the figure of “Son of Otter” in “Otter’s Children”, straight out of the Oroches’ creation mythology. In what sense such a claim could be true is not clear, but there are several possibilities, for example it could be seen as an archetypal identification. Alternatively, his claim to creatorship could refer not to the book itself, but to the writings within the book, which have yet to be spoken of.
The second major image introduced in this opening section is that of rivers. Following on from the initial quotation is a passage listing various rivers of the world, and their associated peoples (here the Nile, Yangtse-Kiang, Mississippi, Ganges, Danube, Zambezi, Ob, and Thames). The rivers he names build a global pattern, a universalism based on rivers, which reflects the unity of the Book.
I have rivers for hair …
See! Danube streams upon my shoulders,
and this turbulent tousle is Dnieper’s blue rapid!
This is Volga falling through my fingers,
and with a mountain range
I comb my hair.
But this long hair –
I draw it through my fingers –
this is Amur, where geishas pray to heaven,
folding their hands against the storm.60
Although the number of rivers is more restricted here, it is revealing that they are all local to Khlebnikov’s Asian and Slavic sensibility. However, the key to this rivers-for-hair fragment is understanding it as a rusalka-image. The rusalka figure has become a universal one, her “rivers for hair” extending over the globe. Khlebnikov has taken over that rusalka persona – he is the pre-rational, or transrational, figure.
The second section of “Azia Unbound” is entitled “Asia”. It addresses Asia anthropomorphically. Its opening passage continues the book theme:
… you turn the pages of this book
written with strokes of ocean’s pen.
Ink from the well of human beings!
a tsar is shot – an exclamation point!
Triumphant armies are commas
And crowds are lines of dots,61
The “you” of the first line is Asia personified and throughout this section she is depicted not as the sum of her parts within history, but as an active divine force intervening in her own domain. Here, though, she is an observer, a reader of history. The writing of the book is the writing of history on earth, and the ink is the lives of human beings. This makes reading the Khlebnikovian persona as the author more difficult: either he is the author writing the lives of people, or he is one of these people writing his life across the book. In the first case, it would be a claim to be the Will behind Destiny, which would render all Khlebnikov’s talk of war-on-Destiny an exercise in meaningless deception – he would be God pretending to be Satan62. In the second case, the claim becomes something completely ordinary, the claim to be a human being, and that seems not to be the implication of the opening section. This leads back to an interpretation of Khlebnikov as some sort of archetypal figure, “Son of Otter”, “Zangezi”, etc., all of which point to Khlebnikov’s engagement in a myth-creation process. This crosses-over into real life – Khlebnikov takes quite seriously his coronation as “King of Time”63. In one sense, then, Khlebnikov really positions himself as the creator of this book, and as a writer in it – a revolutionary writer in “the One, the Only Book”, whose project is to change the whole course of the narrative, the nature of the Book itself.
What follows in the text is a collection of incidents from the history of Asia, including the introduction of one of Khlebnikov’s martyrs (cf. “Otter’s Children”, Panel Six), Qurrat al-Ain, a Bahai martyr. It is, more or less, a particular history of Asia because Khlebnikov is engaging in the creation of his own canon. The fragment that ends this section is another recurrent passage, “the land of the gods”:
The land where Izanagi
reads Monagatorito Perun,
And Eros sits on Shang-ti’s knees,
and the top-knot on the god’s
head looks like snow,
the land where Amor embraces Maa Emu
and T’ien sits talking with Indra;
where Juno and Tsintekuatl
and admire Murillo;
where Unkulunkulu and Thor
with folded arms
play peaceful games of checkers
beside Astarte, who worships Hokusai –
take me to that land.64
This passage marks a shift in Khlebnikov’s use of the gods. Like the rivers passages, the land of the gods is eclectic, drawing divinities from throughout the world; there is, however, a commonality in that most of them have a sky-storm-creator aspect. The difference here is in the aspect of their depiction: no longer are they necessarily malevolent or capricious beings, but playful and peaceful entities. This does not diminish their status as the determinants of Fate; Khlebnikov still puts them to flight in Planes Ten and Eleven of “Zangezi”. The final line, “take me to that land”, marks the culmination of traditional star-heaven imagery. The “land” or abode of the gods has been given a definite spatial form, whereas before it was somewhat abstract and ambiguous. Having been given form, it can be assailed and usurped.
The third section, “The Present Day”, is a counterpart to the historicity of the previous section. It is a picture of Asia in chains, an Asia dominated by death. The text describes time as a Rag-and-Bone man, swallowing up dead history, then directly addresses Asia herself. The final section, “Incantation by the Plural”, seems strangely out of place, filled as it is with personal references to Vera Demianovna Siniakova65, and disconnected from the main themes of Asia, such as pan-Asian ideals.66
“Cracking the Universe” (1921) is explicitly a poem concerning the revolt of Will against Destiny. The opening passage is of a dream: a little girl playing with a red beetle, the nation, which drowns. The whole poem is contextualised by this – it is a prophetic dream by the main voice (student/son/young leader/young warrior). The second voice, the older man, replies:
All things are waves. We have left the crest,
and wallow in a trough.
When Lobachevskian space
shone on our banner,
when we began to perceive
his transparent polygons
in every living face
and our poems decomposed like the flesh of the dead
into the simplest of particles,
and the poem-skull smiled
the death of prophetic language
leaving only the skull of rational language – 67
The first two lines indicate a view of historical occurrences as wave-patterns. Khlebnikov elsewhere considers possible applications of wave theory to other unorthodox subjects, such as the distribution of peoples and location of major cities, the movements of history, the forces of people as waves emanating from points, such as the wave that pulses out of Asia; all these theories come out of a view of the world fundamentally conceptualised in terms of rays:
Now that the great rays of human destiny have been studied, rays whose waves are inhabited by human beings, where a single stroke is of a century’s duration, the human mind hopes to apply such mirrored control devices to them as well, to construct a power that consists of double convex and double concave lenses. We may even hope that scientists will be able to manipulate the century-long vibrations of our gigantic ray as easily as they do the infinitely small waves of a ray of light. Then the human beings who populate the ray’s wave and the scientists who direct the path of those rays, able to change their direction at will, will be one and the same.68
Since the world works in terms of rays, the physics that applies to light rays will have its parallel in people rays. The work of understanding history is the research into the properties of these rays, the length of their vibration, their direction, their interaction with other rays. The work of understanding language in its essence is the research into the fundamental geometric forces of the universe. The conjunction of these studies is the liberation of humanity from its bondage to natural law.
Elsewhere, Khlebnikov calls his political view “Rayism”, because the assessment of the world he makes is based on viewing everything in terms of rays. His comment here draws on a more traditional understanding of history: the nation’s fortunes have fallen, after riding high. This idea of Destiny as fortune is in contrast to Destiny as providence. Fortune represents the seemingly random occurrences of life, on any scale, which lead to success or failure (from whatever perspective). Providence describes events in terms of ultimate outcomes. The former takes on the pattern of a wheel or wave, whereas the latter has the teleological pattern of a definite chronological movement to a final state. Khlebnikov’s idea of Destiny does take on the pattern of waves, and is in this way akin to the idea of Fortune, especially since he disregards the idea of a “guiding hand”, the God of medieval Providence. Conversely, he conjectures a sort of anti-providence, in terms of humanity having a final means of controlling Fortune.
“Lobachevskian space”69and the perception of “polygons” refer at the most obvious level to the cubist aspect of the futurist movement. The group Khlebnikov was associated with is known as the Cubo-Futurists, and Cubism in visual art was one of Russian Futurism’s main theoretical influences, especially in terms of perception and time. It goes beyond this, actually referring to the new perception of reality, both through the new understanding of time (especially in Khlebnikov’s work), and the defamiliarisation of language. The following lines underwrite the new approach to language, to poetry. It is poetry stripped down to basics, atomised poetry: “The Word as Such”, “The Letter as Such”. Such a focus on the “particles” of poetry is exactly the Poetic function Jakobson speaks of, “The set toward the MESSAGE as such, focus on the message for its own sake”.70The final two lines, in opposing “prophetic” to “rational”, continue the anti-symbolist vein of futurism, an attack on all that looks “spiritual”; however, the “rational” must be understood in a certain way. It is a rational, even scientific, approach to the construction of poetry. Poetry is no less prophetic for that; rather, it is prophetic in the very fact of its rationality, because the rational construction of zaum, of the transrational, is prophetic of the future. This “future” is discontinuous with all that has gone before, in that the transrational opens up the possibility for controlling Destiny, as the poem goes on to elaborate.
This poem goes back to beginnings to reach ends. The Son’s reply to the Older Man recalls Khlebnikov’s promise concerning Tsushima, “I made a promise then […] I scratched the names of the ships / that I took from the chronicles”.71He describes his work, “I gathered old books, / harvested numbers with the rotary sickle of memory”72; and his success, “I discovered truths, majestic and straightforward […] Time does not exist […] I saw the powers of twos and threes”.73Twos and threes are the key to Khlebnikov’s Tables of Destiny, in which events are separated by periods formed from powers of two and/or three. The practical consequences of this are shown in the Tables of Destiny, or at least what was prepared of them before his death. The poetic account of the establishing events for these equations occurs in “Zangezi”.
The second section of the poem, depicts “The Young Leader”74making a battle speech. This is how it opens:
You see before you the rational skull of the universe
and the dark entwinings of the Milky Way –
the Horde-road, they call it sometimes –
Let’s raise a scaling ladder
to besiege the fortress stars!
Let us batter our shields like warriors,
let us breach the walls of the rational skull of the universe,
let’s storm our way in – like ants
swarming over a rotten stump hissing with death – to the mechanism of its
and shake up the strings of this heavenly puppet.75
Several aspects of the depiction of destiny are combined here. First, the target is “the rational skull of the universe”. This is repeated twice, and echoes the egg-metaphor implicit in the poem’s title76. The skull signifies the seat of power and reason in the universe, the abode of Destiny’s controlling power. This is further reinforced by the traditional star-association. The whole image is cast in martial terms, “fortress stars…warriors…storm our way”; it is an assault on Destiny. The final outcome of such an assault is control of the brain, “the strings of this heavenly puppet”. The puppet is the universe itself: control of the brain, and thus of the puppet, represents the triumph of Will over Destiny.
The third section of the poem is the enactment of this siege, describing the assault on the “rational skull of the universe”; the assault is successful, and the leader finds himself:
…in the mechanism
a screen for shadow-pictures begins to glow
and there’s the same face still, reflected in the blue opalescence.
Look! It’s her, she’s still here,
the girl who held the beetle in her hand,
still sitting at the darkened window, dubious still;
yes and nostill brandish their wings
and here’s a notice in human characters,
and beside it a valve…77
The screen and valve-mechanism is a 1920s computer of sorts. The valve “is the valve of my will”78, the determinant of Fate in the universe, and here the choice is between saving the red beetle by the girl’s actions or not, whether to save the nation or not. The Young Leader turns the valve – he asserts his own Will over the course of history, over Destiny, and saves the nation. It is important that the death threatened is drowning – in the context set up in the opening of the poem, the choice is between the fulfilment of the Khlebnikovian promise, and the triumph of the sea. Khlebnikov continually positions the sea as an agent of Fate and the drowning threatened here is an embodiment of that conflict.
“Lightland” (1920-21) is the penultimate poem in the expression of Khlebnikov’s vision. It combines an elegant depiction of his proposals for a Khlebnikovian world, alongside a vital expression of his conception of destiny. The poem is characterised by fierce political overtones. The whole frame of reference works by using the Bolshevik revolution as enacted metaphor for Futurist revolution. This can be seen in the opening lines:
And the fortified centers of world trade
where poverty’s fetters shine in the many-paned windows,
the day will come when you turn them to ashes,
and the look on your face is a rapturous vengeance.
You who were weakened in ancient struggle and argument,
Whose torments are figured in the constellations above you79
The depiction of the economic institutions by solid architectural realities allows a very vivid identification of them as bastions, castle, forts – “fortified” structures. This places the action of the poem within a definite context, one of established power versus revolutionary forces. The second line builds on the “world trade” of the first, locating the central pivot of conflict around “poverty”, and economic disparities. The third line actively engages an addressee, the revolutionary masses (sometimes en masse, sometimes through a representative individual), and from that point on identifies with them. The characterisation is of “rapturous vengeance”, the desire to “turn them to ashes”. The basis of such rage is in the “ancient struggle”. This struggle has two aspects: it is both the endless class struggle found in Marxist theory, as well as the endless struggle of humanity against Destiny. This is why their “torments are figured in the constellations” – Khlebnikov again turns to the traditional star-fate association. Destructive actions will “throw down the gauntlet, a challenge to destiny”80– a line which reveals the real target of the revolution:
Tear out the dripping beard of Aquarius,
and the Dog Stars, whip them yelping from heaven.
And from this moment on, let Lobachevskian space
stream from the flagpoles of night-loving Petrograd.
The Time of the Takers is over; the Might of the Makers
parades; T had fallen; M occupies the stage.
These are the high priests of LIGHTLAND,
and “Workers of the World” is their banner’s device.
This is the havoc that Razin unleashed,8182
This assault on the stars is nothing new to the poems, and it has been seen particularly in “Cracking the Universe”; though the use of actual constellations serves to solidify the metaphor. In their place, “Lobachevskian space” is to fly as a banner of sorts. Lobachevsky has already appeared in “Cracking the Universe”, and his theories have underwritten Khlebnikov’s thoughts since his time at the University of Kazan. Here a redefinition of space is signified, and by extension, a new temporal paradigm: in space, Lobachevskian; in time, Khlebnikovian.
Next is the opposition of T and M, of Takers and Makers. While Khlebnikov has been working on a theory of meaning, of linguistics, in which individual characters have semantic value as morphemes in themselves, it is not until now that he has explicitly in his poetry depicted these letters as forces. “Let us consider two words” was written back in 1912, and begins to formulate what L, T, and D represent. By 1915, in “On the Simple Names”, Khlebnikov characterises M, V, S, and K. A year later, in 1916, Khlebnikov has put together “A Checklist: The Alphabet of the Mind” which gives definitions for nearly all the Russian consonants, in a form closely corresponding to the notes that accompany “Zangezi”.
By the time of “Lightland” consonants start to appear as “characters” in Khlebnikov’s poetry. In his construction of neologisms, and general selection of words, Khlebnikov has diligently applied his theory of consonantal semantics. At this stage, he considers each consonant to be intrinsically linked to the geometric-physical principle/force it represents. They have an explicitly extra-lingual existence. Therefore, the conflict being played out in the Bolshevik revolution is as much about the overcoming of T by M as it is about the human players. According to “The Alphabet of the Mind”83and the text of “Zangezi”84, “M is the dispersion of volume into infinitely smaller parts”85, whereas T represents a contradiction of nature, something hidden from light. Furthermore, M generally corresponds to “might”, and Plane Ten of “Zangezi” plays on that association. The neologism for “Makers” is based on a word for nobility, and is better rendered “creatorcrats” or something similar. This opposition parallels that made elsewhere (outside the texts being considered here) between investors/inventors, and exploiters/explorers. The common element of the opposition is clear.
Also, the concept of “Lightland” appears within the text of the poem. The word is “Ladomir” – which could also be translated harmony-world. It is a utopian projection. The defining factor of Lightland here is the “high priests”, the Makers. Lightland is to be a world characterised by the freedom to explore/invent/create, and the freedom from “taking”, exploitation, and investment. Their banner is definitively Marxist. There is no avoiding the fact that Khlebnikov embraces the revolution, and sides with “the poor” against “the rich”. The whole anti-establishment character of Futurism, coupled with the general sensibilities of Russians during the first world war (ie. the general suffering provoked by Tsarist rule) almost inevitably leads the Futurists, alongside other large sections of the population, to embrace the revolution.
Given the ultimate consequences of the revolution, it is difficult to reconcile the Futurist program with the Bolshevik project. In the case of Khlebnikov, he at various times criticises the work of the revolution, for example in “Don’t Mess With Me!”86. Unlike Khlebnikov, those who lived longer came to see that the Bolshevik project would prove inimical to the avant-garde. This is not to undermine the fact that Futurism has direct political implications – it is not a movement divorced from the world, but a revolutionary movement that engages with the world. Khlebnikov’s work overtly interacts with the reality in which he finds himself seeking to transform reality by transfiguring it – the project of zaum. This can be seen in Khlebnikov’s claim to be “Marx squared”87– his work parallels the revolution. In the same way that zaum is poetry where the sign is cut loose from the referent, futurist poetry is revolution cut loose from the historical referent.
Khlebnikov again harkens back to one of the saints of his canon – Stenka Razin. His appraisal of the current political events, and future hopes, is built against the backdrop of rebels, iconoclasts, and other individuals who, for him, define a tradition of freedom leading to himself as the liberator of the world. Nothing short of this liberation of Will from Destiny is his goal: it is the lens through which he reads the world. This is also the distance that grants perspective on the Bolshevik revolution; he is not a Marxist, but rather interprets Marxism in terms of throwing down the gauntlet to destiny: the revolution is really all about Will versus Destiny.
Germany’s G fell away from its name,
likewise the R dropped from the name Russia.
And I myself beheld the rise and extension of L.88
The use of initial consonants to represent dominant concepts appears again in these lines, this time linked to nations. Although this is developed more fully in “Zangezi”, its basis is found here. The initial consonant represents the head of the nation, its rulers. Both Germany and Russia witness the fall of the head of the nation, and the drastic change that ensues. The principle of L is threefold: it signifies Lightland (Ladomir), the rise of Lenin, and “the cessation of fall, or motion generally by a plane lateral to a falling point.”89
Where the Volga says, “I”
the Yangtze-Kiang says “love”
the Mississippi answers “the”
Old Man Danube adds “whole”
and the Ganges-waters finish “world.”90
These lines continue the rivers theme in the texts. The naming of the five rivers, and their speech, is an extension of those other passages such as in “Otter’s Children”, “Azia Unbound”, and the associated rusalka images, such as in “War in a Mousetrap”. The universalising theme of the rivers’ speech points to the utopianism of Lightland, and of Khlebnikov’s internationalist vision, extending from pan-Slavism, to pan-Asianism, to universalism.
From heaven’s case of drawing instruments
you chose the hurly-burly of revolt,
and it will fall across the anvil
beneath the hammer’s blow – God’s own design!
You have pounded horseshoes onto the feet of God
to make him serve you as a faithful slave91
The image of hammer, anvil, and revolt drawn here is a strong one – the revolt is shaped by the forces of Destiny, “God’s own design”, into the “horseshoes” that make of God a “faithful slave”. This image is central for two reasons. First, it is vivid, and labor-based: it comes forcefully to mind, and the association with manual labor reinforces the basic premise of the metaphor. Second, it is ironic, in the manipulation of “God’s own design” to enslave God. The movement to “horseshoes” is continued:
It makes its horse’s head look human,
entangled in the mane of man’s intelligence.
Its eyes blinded with the splash of whitewash,
the chalky city strikes tinder, sets fire.
Who is the horseman, who the horse?
Is this a city, or is the city God?92
The shift of metaphor to the depiction of the city, “whitewash[ed]”, on “fire”, the city in revolt, creates crisis in the metaphor, exposed in the final couplet. It is a tension Khlebnikov creates, in order to leave unanswered; having already identified, to some extent, that the horse is God, the mapping of that metaphor to the second one becomes problematic. The middle couplet appears to map the horse to the city, that is, the city as God; however, the city could be seen as humanity in revolt, the horsemen. Khlebnikov continues:
But the clattering racket of beating hooves
calls out for galloping, for a great wild rush!
To the land where Izanagi[…]93
The horse-metaphor carries into the land-of-the-gods passage. This time, the call is for all to go there, an aspiration to collectivity rather than the solitary quest of the prophetic visionary, as it ends with “go there, go there!” This fragment has already appeared in “Azia Unbound”, and also forms the basis of the play, “Gods” (1922), which is similar to some portions of “Zangezi”.
There will be armor, a breastplate of time
on the chest of international labor,
and the reins of power will be transferred
to number, understood as farmsteads.94
How exactly to understand the rule of number as farmsteads is unclear. The idea of the rule of number has been seen elsewhere as the guiding control of the forces of destiny. The image of “armor” is not new either, “the Futurian merely adjusts a screw, / seeking to build a shield that fits.”95The association with “international labor” carries on the concern seen in the banner of the high priests of Lightland. The association with “farmsteads” brings about an agricultural aspect, which complements the more factory-based, industrialised images of labor (eg. the hammer-anvil passage above). Khlebnikov’s assault on Destiny continues to parallel the particular revolution of the proletariat. Following sections elaborate on the rule of “number, understood as farmsteads”, in the figure of a farmer who “trusts his crops to the power of equations, / and carries a series of numbers in his heart.”96The practical consequences of the rule of number are an orderly approach to civic life, an almost Confucian-view97. Such an approach to civic life is evident in Zamyatin’s We98, a dystopic novel where number is the ruling principle of life. The parallels between some of Khlebnikov’s proposals (eg. cities as glass skyscrapers of movable cubes), as well as his more fundamental principles (eg. the natural rhythms of lives), and those found in the novel, point to a more than casual association.
The bard who sings the uprising of writing
seeds workbenches as he sows plowed fields,
and a band of youths, all of them sworn
to the destruction of all languages –
I know you have no trouble guessing their names!99
The close connection between Futurist literary pursuits and the proletarian uprising is drawn here. A parallel is constructed between the “uprising of writing”, the seeding of “workbenches”, and the sowing of fields. Two elements of labour, agricultural and manufacturing, are coupled with writing. The seed/sowing points to creation, germination – of the future, of revolution. There is little question as to the “names” of the “youths” – the futurist coterie. Their avowed aim, “destruction of all languages”, continues the violent upheaval implicit in all the militant-revolutionary language employed more generally by the movement. Destruction is a necessary part of the process of creation – Khlebnikov understands that in creating transrational language, the dislocation of ordinary language involves its destruction.
In love with wandering, he reached for
a row of numbers, as if they were a walking stick,
and squaring the root of minus 1
cleverly noticed the rusalkait contained.
He discovered the double-visaged root
of one who has nothing, never had,
in order to perceive in the land of the mind
the rusalkahidden at the roots of the tree.100
The opening line of this section is a somewhat autobiographical reference to Khlebnikov’s life as a “wandering fool”. The tradition of holy fools was a strong one in Russia, and Khlebnikov consistently characterises himself as such a figure, an outcast, a Sufi or prophet.101The “row of numbers” signifies his studies in understanding the Laws of Time and in particular alludes to his method of serial analysis. These are familiar to him, comfortable as “a walking stick”, which is also good for metaphorical “walking”, life. The root of –1, the irrational number i, is important for Khlebnikov in several ways. It represents something not merely irrational – unable to be understood – but something transrational, beyond the sensible. While the root of –1 makes no sense, it is vital in (some forms of higher) mathematics, and although it figures little in Khlebnikov’s theory of destiny, which focuses on powers of two and three and natural number series, it is always lurking in the background. To square this root gives –1 again, however the root of a number is always + or -, so the root of –1 is in fact +i or –i, perhaps the key to understanding the phrase “double-visaged root”. The square of the root contains a “rusalka”, and the association of the rusalka with the Öreinforces their transrational nature, one pre-rational, the other almost post-rational.
The empty-handed nature of the person “who has nothing”, has several possible elements. It reflects the nature of the wanderer, as mentioned above. In this, it carries mystical overtones, in terms of a visionary perception “in the land of the mind”. The verb “perceive”, and the whole sight-complex, brings into play prophetic interpretations of sight. In order to perceive the divine, it is necessary to be empty, a common teaching in mystical traditions. The object of perception is here the “rusalka hidden at the roots of the tree”. It is the perception of the transrational. The location at the roots of the tree has several aspects. First it echoes the mathematical roots, in both word and concept, above; second, it constructs a visual/concrete picture of the hidden rusalka.
Following on as it does from the passage depicting the “band of youths”, it is natural to read this passage as self-referential. It is a self-portrait in the context of the poem, positioning Khlebnikov within the wider revolution he is depicting. The major portion of “Lightland” consists in the depiction of the revolution, or imperatives to revolution; passages such as this locate the speaker within the contextual frame he constructs.