III: Zangezi “Zangezi” (1920-22), Khlebnikov’s last major work, and perhaps his crowning achievement, draws together a vast array of themes and motifs. This is indicated from the very start. The text is divided up into twenty-one “planes”, independent yet connected scenes or poems. The metaphor that Khlebnikov uses to describe supersagas is that each of the sections is a single word in a sentence, and the difficulty in reading "Zangezi" is as much about the syntax between the planes as it is about the reading of individual planes. A story is made of words, the way a building is made of construction units. Equivalent words, like minute building blocks, serve as the construction units of a story.
A superstory, or supersaga, is made up out of independent sections, each with its own special god, its special faith, and its special rule. To the old Muscovite question about one’s orthodoxy, “How dost thou believe?” each section must answer independently of its neighbor. Each is free to confess its own particular faith. The building block of the supersaga, its unit of construction, is the first-order narrative. The supersaga resembles a statue made from blocks of different kinds of stone of varying colors – white for the body, blue for the cloak and garments, black for the eyes.
It is carved from the varicolored blocks of the Word, each with its own different structure. Thus do we discover a new kind of operation in the realm of verbal art. Narrative is architecture composed of words; an architecture composed of narratives is a “supersaga.”
The artist’s building block is no longer the word, but the first-order narrative.102 The introduction to “Zangezi” is a defining passage for the text. In the same way that titles delineate the possible readings of a poem, this introduction is a title delineating the reading of a “stack of word planes”. Two main paradigms are presented which organise the units of the supersaga. Architecturally, it is a building of “varicolored” blocks. This image reinforces the Babel mythology underwriting Khlebnikov’s approach to language: Originally, Khlebnikov believed, language did express everything directly and clearly, and “one savage understood another”; but later all the clarity and directness were lost in everyday usage.103 In “Zangezi” Khlebnikov is attempting to restructure this original clarity and directness. The second paradigm is a multi-faith milieu. Each section of the supersaga stands independently, and adheres to its internal coherency, without the need for a coherent meta-narrative to enforce structure on the whole. The first paradigm seems more true to what Khlebnikov writes, in that an over-arching structure is seen throughout “Zangezi”. The first of the planes, "The Birds", contains the linguistically coded calls of various birds, drawn from Khlebnikov's ornithological experience104. They, quite obviously, do not lend themselves to the form of analysis applied in the previous works. Understanding the significance of a series of bird calls only comes by reading it next to the second plane, "The Gods", which is a dialogue of various gods, a similar list to that seen in the land-of-the-gods passages in previous works, as well as the play, "The Gods". The dialogue is conducted almost entirely in the same coded sound-language of the bird-calls: Eros Mara-ro,
Ook, kooks, ell!
Peeree, pe, pa-pa-pee!
Chogi, goo, gegan!
Ahl, Ell, Eeell!
Ahlee, Ellee, Eelee!
Ek, ak, ook!
Gamch, gemch, ee-o!
Both the bird-speech and God-speech are instances of zaum, of transrational language. One is typically seen as below humanity in the chain-of-being, the other above, but both transfigure the meaning and reason of human language, to emerge as unfettered zaum, a pure expression of being.
Plane Three introduces another clause to the supersaga: the speech of "The People". Their interaction is predominantly contextual – they describe and set the stage for the figure of Zangezi, whose proclamations are central to the saga. Plane Four is an excerpt read by one of these people, of Zangezi’s writing. The context just established sets up the prophetic-paradigm in which this plane is read. … The Tables of Destiny! Read them, read them you Passersby! Number-warriors will pass before you like projections filmed in different segments of time, in different planes of time, and the sum of all their bodies, their various ages added together, equals the block of time between the downfalls of empires that had once been mighty and threatening.106 Unlike previous poems, Plane Four combines poetic-prophetic proclamation with actual mathematics. The picture of “number-warriors” is distinctly non-calculus in its “segments of time” – Khlebnikov worked with natural number sequences, not infinite divisions. The characterisation of numbers as warriors continues the motif of Time at war; here it is the numbers as soldiers who bring down empires.
Plane Five completes the sequence of Plane Four and Three, by having the people affirm and enthrone Zangezi, whereas in three they are sceptical. This progression establishes Zangezi’s authority over the people. This leads to Plane Six, Zangezi’s first direct speech: I have come like a butterfly
calls to number; number calls me home.107 The self-generated image of life developed by Zangezi is built on two poles: the butterfly and the window. The butterfly is Zangezi, and is characterised by its “bright blue glow”, “bright motes”, which it is seeking to “spatter…as signature across its bleak windows”. Zangezi describes this task as almost done, hence he “droop[s] despairing” – the colour is being drained. The window that is the object of this inscription is “fate’s”, but also the “windows of the human world”. The human world is windowed-in by fate and Zangezi is spending his life (quite literally) in colouring that window. This is a vocation generated by the call of “Numbers”, which take on a quasi-divine role in this passage, somewhat akin to a perception of the music-of-the-spheres.
Plane Seven is the second direct speech of Zangezi, responding to calls in the last plane to “recite us some of your self-sounding poems! Tell us the story of L!”. It is the tale of R and L, K and G. Such figures have appeared in “Lightland”, but are developed more fully here. You tell me the Ruriks are dead, the Romanovs are dead,
Kaledins and Krymovs, Kornilovs and Kolchaks have fallen –108 R, the Russian Rulers, the heads of Russia, and K, the Russian generals, the agents of death – because K is the occurrence of immobilisation, of rest – both have fallen. Each in turn, R, then K, falls, until “The weather changes – L days are upon us!”109, “and in the distance stood G, a rod broken in twain”110– the associations from Lightland hold true here: L for Lenin, for “the sweet light of laziness, of love and languor!”111, and G for Germany. What differs here is the extent to which this conflict is characterised, and the wordplay it engenders. Schimdt’s translation preserves some of this, with the contrast of “raw life” and “life of law”, “lavishes”/“ravishes”, “self” and “serf”112– the interchange of L and R creates distinct meanings in keeping with the principles of L and R: L being “the cessation of fall”113, R “a point that penetrates”114; L a gentle diffusive force, R a violent, vicious one.
Plane Eight is central to this section of the supersaga. The consonant principles that are found in Plane Seven have their fullest expression in Plane Eight. It is the natural culmination of the chain begun in Plane Three – from context, to prophetic number proclamation, to popular acclamation, to prophetic language proclamation, to zaum proclamation. Plane Eight consists of “A Song in Star Language”, and a glossary of consonants.
More than this, it is the fulfilment of a language-project that Khlebnikov has been working on since 1912: Early in this work he looked for conceptual units beyond individual words, the silent meanings common to words in several languages. Another approach to this problem convinced him that the deep meaning of a word was controlled by its initial consonant, and that the semantic elements common to words beginning with the same letter might indicate a meaning inherent in that language sound. Between about 1913 and 1916 Khlebnikov worked in a concentrated way on deciphering the meanings of letter and developed an “alphabet of the mind.” Initially he was concerned with the consonants as units of semantic information – his “simple names” – but as he attempted to generalize meaning from ever greater numbers of words, the idea of purely conceptual abstractions emerged, an alphabet of formal geometric relationships as the deepest meaning of the letter sounds.115 This “alphabet of the mind” develops as Khlebnikov amasses words and compares the shifts in aural and graphic qualities with shifts in referential meaning. In doing so, he constructs both elaborate “false” etymologies for words, and creative neologisms from the patterns that emerge. Eventually the work takes on an abstract quality, as he reduces his focus to consonants, particularly initial consonants, and their “formal geometric relationships” as expressed in the groups of words they generate. These “deep meanings” form the basis of Khlebnikov’s approach to zaum, and underwrite not only Plane Eight, but all of “Zangezi”. The reading of this song in Plane Eight is quite simple on one level, with the application of the glossary, which is a short-hand to the “alphabet of the mind”. By substituting in a single concept-word for each consonant used, the force of the poem can be seen: […] A CHE of girls – golden shirts,
a brief KA of rest.116 […] A vesselof girls – golden shirts,
a heightof girls – garlands of wildflowers.
A radiationof rays of happiness,
circle of people in a ring
with radiationof springtime pleasure,
dispersion of sadness grief, and sorrow.
And the expansionof happy voices,
the expansionof peals of laughter,
the circleof branches when the wind blows
a brief restof rest. Despite the artificial nature of the substitutions and their often tautological nature (a function more of the song than the substitutions), the surface ease with which the song can be read is apparent. A more complete understanding is gained from not using these single word substitutions, but taking each of the consonant definitions presented, and thinking on these, generally geometric-physics principles, in relation to their position in the song. This song is not meant to be awe-inspiring, but a demonstration of the new “star language” which Khlebnikov is developing.
There is a point to this, which Zangezi elaborates: […] Have you heard all I’ve said, heard my speech that frees you from the fetters of words? Speech is an edifice built out of blocks of space.
Particles of speech. Parts of movement. Words do not exist there are only movements in space and their parts – points and areas.
You are now set free from your ancestral chains. The hammer of my voice has shattered them; your frenzied struggle against those chains has ended.117 The construction of the song in star-language is a project of liberation from the “fetters of words”. It is the ability to speak without speech as speech, to see and know the building blocks of language, and use them – the most basic units of signification, not the arbitrary and impure signification of everyday language. It is poetry conceived in its most pure form – pure formality approaching sheer musicality and materiality. No longer do meanings matter, but only the interplay of sound and image, the form of language, which bears its own deep signification, the iconic signification of the principles of destiny and the universe.
Plane Nine bears many similarities to Plane Eight, in being mainly a compilation of neologisms, all involving the morpheme “–oom” meaning mind. Plane Ten, however, introduces a new subsection of the supersaga.
It is a plane dominated by the supplanting of Bog by Mog. Bog is Russian for God, Mog is a neologism based on replacing that initial B with M; the typical associations of M as a leading consonant are with words denoting strength, might, power, etc., although interestingly its association in Plane Eight is directed towards a concept of dispersion, and of sadness and grief. The major portion of the plane is a chant of M-words, a shamanic invocation, summoning M(og) to usurp B(og). Zangezi goes on to commentate: Now M has invaded the lands and the holdings of Bog, destroying all fear of Him, achieving our necessary victory. Now the infantry army of M has ground down the rock of impossible impassible, the stone-age savage!… The one whole becomes the many, a mass of minute elements.118 The whole action of the invocation is to eradicate the fear of God, and to usurp His “lands” – the lands of the gods, and those lands are none other than the abode of Destiny, the seat of power with respect to Destiny. Moreover, in this short commentary on his actions, the link between M as might and M as dispersion is drawn – the dispersion of the whole into infinite parts is seen as the dethroning of God and the decentralisation of that essence and power into the universe. It is the dissolution of God into the world.
Plane Eleven continues this process, depicting the flight of the Gods, and their final ‘song’. They are the same gods from Plane Two, deserting their place and leaving it to the invaders. Plane Twelve completes this advance of the power of language, by returning to a (much shorter) description of the great conflict between G and R, L and K, leaving only L standing. The usurpation of the land of the gods by the power of language leads to this reign of L.
Planes Thirteen through Seventeen deal with this post-conquest situation. Thirteen depicts in a word-play monologue the flight of beings into a “nowhere”, “the source of pre-knowledge”, a transrational “heaven”. It is the (counter)-destiny of humanity being depicted – their transfiguration. Plane Fourteen consists of self-explication by Zangezi, uttering poetic-prophetic proclamations of himself as “God-Maker” and “Fool-Maker”, between two extremes, which are different but the same. Plane Fifteen is “some songs in soundwriting”, though different from the star-language of Plane Eight. It is the natural progression for Zangezi: this is the language he is looking for – pure, unadulterated zaum – but the people find it too much to deal with. Plane Sixteen seems to depict an epileptic fit119, possibly Zangezi’s: it is the only natural response to the outburst of zaum – the line between transrationality and irrationality120is both thin, and indistinguishable to the rational.
Plane Seventeen completes this ‘phrase’ by turning again to the ‘people’, but this time particularly to the “Trio” of original passers-by who appeared in Plane Three. Here they are leaving Zangezi, wondering what to do now that the gods have disappeared. Plane Eighteen introduces the final phase of the supersaga, returning to major motifs. It is similar to Plane Four in nature, although the mathematics behind Plane Eighteen are not foregrounded as they are in Plane Four. Plane Eighteen is the series of historical episodes used as proof for what has been called the “Law of Negative Return”121, that events of significance in opposite ways occur every 3ndays. The data brought forward here bears very close similarities to those presented in the “Tables of Destiny”122which presents Khlebnikov’s most developed theories on the equations which govern the universe. He writes: I discovered the pure Laws of Time in 1920 in Baku, the land of fire, in a tall building that housed the naval dormitory where I was living with Dobokovsky. The exact date was December 17th.123 Khlebnikov’s discovery is the reduction of his previous thoughts, which built events around multiples of 365 ± 48, more usually 317, to a new system based around powers and multiples of two and three. This system is the basis of his summary thought in the “Tables”, and “Zangezi” expresses this position.
Plane Eighteen opens: Nossir. The gathering storm is never an illusion.
Ardent, impassioned Ryleev
demanded death from the royal House of Rurik
(poison flows in the veins of every king
and he dangled in the gallows-dance.
For Ryleev, Death was sweeter than chains.
The naked storm rushes above us.
The cause of freedom is afoot!124 Ryleev was a participant in the 1825 Decembrist revolt, and was hung in 1826. The reference to the storm, and to freedom, sets the tone of the passage – it is dominated by political events and the struggle between forces for freedom and for stasis. The “Nossir” of the first line is in response to a final “Yessir!” in Plane Seventeen. The Plane goes on to events such as the election and assassination of President Garfield in 1880 and 1881, separated by 35days, the sacking of Rome by Alaric in 410 (East defeating West), to the battle of Kulikovo where Moscow defeated the Tartars, ‘stopping’ Eastern invasions, in 1380, ie. after 2 x 311. Zangezi goes on, listing a whole list of events, comparable to those found in the first “Table of Destiny”125. He also explicates the goings-on: Here, there, everywhere, the sword submits
to the ancient power of odd and even.
A watchtower is built of twos and threes
and the abbot of time paces its summit.
Where tattered military banners pecked the air
and horses are stubbornly silent,
only their echoing hoof resounds.
The Dead! The Living! Alike, all discarded!
These are the iron batons of time,
the axes of events, armature for the straw man of the universe.
The scarecrow of war is supported by rods
like the iron rods that frame up a straw man.
Number is the wire of the universe.
What are these? Vessels of Truth?
Or empty stories?126 There are two main images drawn in these lines. First is the fortification image, a symbol of the rule of Time in military terms – hence a watchtower. Moreover, the “power of the sword” submits to it. The silent imagery of the “tattered military banners”, the dead, continues that military image, emphasising instead the human subjection to the rule of Destiny, which results in “all discarded!” because they are “iron batons” – tools of Time. It is not, though, a general of king who rules this watchtower, but an “abbot” – a nod toward “religion” as arbiter of Fate. Khlebnikov elsewhere writes “Risky to think religion is the price / for landing safe on a shore we intended / to reach”127; religion constantly functions as an interpreter of Destiny to humanity, even as it renders people powerless to challenge Destiny, which is Khlebnikov’s project.
The second image is of the “scarecrow of war”, “the straw man of the universe”. This symbol is one of fear and frailty – it inspires fear by the appearance of substance, but its substance is misleading, being inanimate and frail. The conclusion is that although it inspires fear, although Time rules by the wire of number, it has not the substance to do so – that perceiving its weakness, it can be overcome. Plane Nineteen is Zangezi’s victory march. It opens with him launching into another long speech. The second passage of this speech128is quite familiar, and is the same rivers-for-hair passage from “Azia Unbound”. Its appearance here signifies the universalising tendency of this “march” (Zangezi is riding towards the city – a march of conquest), it is a march that encompasses the “destiny” of the humanity. This exemplifies one of Khlebnikov’s continual themes – a counter-destiny for human beings, in which they find fulfilment in overcoming destiny, in exerting their Will over Destiny. It is often depicted in terms of the march of Planet Earth, or in flight to the stars, in a very real sense (Science Fiction, the “Beyond”). An example of this is “Planes of Earth! Forward, march!”129
This counter-destiny has Khlebnikov as its messiah: I am the master carpenter of time.
They move and work the way they did before.130 The depiction presented here clearly demonstrates the characteristics of Khlebnikov’s attitude to Destiny. The clockwork-paradigm in which the symbolism functions reinforces a conception of Time/Destiny as working according to laws, principles akin to physics, and all that is needed for their manipulation is an understanding of their nature and control. This is expressed variously in being a “master carpenter”, in having “deciphered the timepiece of humanity”, and in the description of his “work”. The use of “decipher” opens up a linguistic paradigm – that the key to understanding the workings of Destiny are found in a code, a language device, as much as in mathematics. The close correlation between the two is again noted. The final couplet echoes the line “It ticks more quietly now, the way it used to”, drawing a parallel between the “timepiece of humanity” and “brains” – the implicit control over humans themselves is nowhere more explicitly presented as it is here. It is either a reference to the persuasive power of a prophetic nature, as Zangezi could realistically claim (although then the parallel is discontinuous, as the clockwork metaphor is not of such an order), or a stronger claim to control. The wearing of the timepiece “like a wristwatch” echoes the end of “War in a Mousetrap” – a casual claim to ruling the vagaries of Time and Destiny. See the patterns of waves of sand
and the curly hair of the sea –
the beach, the branches, the debris.
Pinetree branches move a hand
and a book is written on the sand –
The book of the pine, the shore, the sea.131 This passage echoes the opening of “Azia Unbound”, with its depiction of a book created out of nature. The “writing” is the “patterns of waves of sand”, and similar phenomena. The significance of the book of nature is exactly in noting its connection with the previous passage. It is the cipher of the timepiece of humanity – because the author of the world in a Khlebnikovian sense can be none other than Fate, therefore the indelible mark left on the world, natural and human, is the mark of Fate. The deciphering of this trace of authorship is a reverse engineering of the Laws of Destiny. We are the wild sounds!
We are wild horses:
We will carry you off
to other worlds,
faithful to the wild
Trumpet the charge, humanity!
Round up the herd of wild horses!
Saddle and bridle the Cavalry of Sound!132 This is the final call of the march-speech: after this Zangezi exits. His identification of horses with sounds is interesting on two accounts. First, it continues a Khlebnikovian exaltation of the horse133, perhaps derived from his childhood experience of the Kalmyk nomads. Second, the basis of this charge, this assault, which is the whole of the Khlebnikovian Will versus Destiny project, is ‘carried’ quite literally on “Sound” – on the ability of zaum language to be a trans-language, transrational. Only by breaking the structures of language and the reality it creates can humanity break out of the cycle of Destiny. The connection of Plane Eighteen and Nineteen is clear. The former establishes the basis of the Laws of Time, the latter is an imperative verb and an adjective-noun: it describes the project of Zangezi, of Khlebnikov, in their assault on Destiny, and calls for humanity to join. Plane Twenty all but completes this phrase, but it is radically discontinuous in exterior content to what has gone before.
Plane Twenty consists almost entirely of the interplay between the figures of “Sorrow” and “Laughter”, who give self-characterising speeches. The only interruption is by an “Old Man”, a Time/Death figure who ultimately sets up the circumstances of Laughter’s death at the end of the plane. The function of this drama is to set-up the death of Zangezi in Plane Twenty-One: (Two people reading a newspaper.) What’s this? Zangezi is dead!
Not only that, but he did it himself, with a razor!
What terrible news!
What a sad story!
All he left was a little note that said:
“Razor, cut my throat!”
A lotus flower of shining steel opened its petals,
pushed through the water of his life,
and now he’s dead.
The motive seems to have been the destruction
of all his manuscripts by fiendish
villains with big broad chins
and lips that went smack-smack, chomp-chomp. (Zangezi enters.) Zangezi Zangezi lives!
It was all just a simpleminded joke!134 The whole joke-paradigm is essential to reading “Zangezi”, because it defines the context of the final planes. Zangezi, despite all the seriousness of his prophetic persona, is also a fool-figure, both a part of the Russian tradition and a Khlebnikovian appropriation of it, he undermines his seriousness, in order to be taken seriously135.
By understanding the two preceding planes in their relation to the Tables of Destiny as both serious proclamation and ultimate joke, the ambiguity of the whole project becomes clear. Zangezi’s resurrection introduces a Christian typology to the scene, but the ambiguity of the joke remains dominant, forever placing the Khlebnikovian project in doubt: it is never certain whether he actually believes in the power of the human Will to determine History
It is no surprise that Khlebnikov’s final words throw the whole project into jeopardy. There are three ways to interpret such an ending. It could be a final admission of failure, resolving the problem that arises in section eight of “War in a Mousetrap”. This would mean that Khlebnikov was in earnest about desiring to overthrow Destiny and replace its rule with that of the human Will, but came to understand this as a futile attempt. It could be that Khlebnikov was always joking, that in fact Khlebnikov was never serious about overthrowing Destiny, it was just the framework for the free-play of words and sounds. This is problematic in light of extra-textual considerations: Khlebnikov in all his other writings appears to be completely serious about his Laws of Time.
Alternatively, the characterisation of it all as a joke could be the coup de grace. The joke nature of Khlebnikov’s writings, from “Incantation by Laughter” right through to “Zangezi”, is the exact means by which Khlebnikov fulfils his project. It is the nature of jokes to be self-sufficient: a joke refers only to itself, and its completion generates laughter; and a joke succeeds exactly to the degree in which it engages in defamiliarisation. Khlebnikov’s endeavour is not essentially about the Bolshevik revolution or utopian proposals, it is about zaum, the way language in its purest poetic form approaches the limit of pure musicality, which is self-sufficient and thus free from the rule of Destiny: Of course truth borrows the voice of the one who said: Words are only the numbers of our existence made audible. Is that not why the supreme arbiter for a wordworker has always been found in the science of numbers? Is it not here that the boundary runs between what has been and what is to come136 The pure musicality of language is the expression of the numbers of existence. “Zangezi” is the expression of these numbers in language, the poetic counterpart to the revelation of the Tables of Destiny, which Khlebnikov believes he has unravelled. The direct applicability of this doctrine is that: We teach that the word controls the brain, the brain controls the hands, and the hands control kingdoms. Self-sufficient speech is the bridge to a self-sufficient kingdom.137 This is not some mystical doctrine of numbers, the revolution of the word leads directly to the revolution of the world. Khlebnikov’s “Presidents of Planet Earth”, his Tables of Destiny, and his practice of zaumall meet in the proclamation of his alter-ego, Zangezi, as the Numbers of our existence find expression in the self-sufficient word, which brings about the self-sufficient kingdom of the “King of Time”.