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

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The breadth and depth of Khlebnikov’s project is astounding. He has sought to reverse the Fall as it takes form in the scattering of languages/people at the Tower of Babel. In his understanding of the world, the diverse nature of peoples, faiths, nations, and languages, are the rays of human history, variously intersecting and impacting on each other. The world is the objectification of natural laws, and human beings, conditioned by the world as it is, are “at the mercy” of those natural laws.

Khlebnikov’s attempt to overcome these circumstances of existence takes the form of a modernist Pentecost. It is no coincidence that the Futurists draw the link between speaking in tongues and their own self-sufficient word. What is at stake is the restoration of universal language, which would signify the end of the divisions among people. But to do this, it is necessary to understand the natural laws that underwrite not only language, but also the universe. Khlebnikov thus applies himself equally to the study of language and history, the one revealing the natural laws of meaning, the other natural laws of being.
In the analysis which I have done, I have been working to show this central theme in Khlebnikov’s poetry. The motif of the conflict between Human and Divine Will is just this: the revelation of the natural law of the universe, as seen in history and language. This is the “why” of zaum, it is not simply an exercise in self-indulgence, a nonsensical transcendent poetry, but rather a very real and practical attempt at revealing the roots of language, in order to speak the language of the future, which is characterised by the unity of human beings. It is not simply a tool for that utopian future; it is the means of its instigation and the basis of its existence.
Beyonsense language is thus the universal language of the future, although it is still in an embryonic state. It alone will be able to unite all people. Rational languages have separated them.138
Khlebnikov’s legacy is not to be found in the liberation of humanity through transrational language. His project lies abandoned in the terms of which he conceived it, a modernist dream no longer appropriate to the poetics of today. It is, however, precisely his transrational language that has echoed throughout the last century. The work of Jakobson, drawing so strongly from Khlebnikov’s work and poetics, on the foremost nature of the sound of words, on their self-sufficient nature, has carried forth a legacy of Khlebnikov. Such a linguistic focus in the study of poetry is seen in Kristeva, and also in Barthes, who is saying many of the same things as Khlebnikov has been writing. Kruchenykh comments on translation:
It is better to replace a word with one close in sound than one close in meaning…it is IMPOSSIBLE to translate from one language into another; one can only transliterate a poem into Latin letters and provide a word-for-word translation. The verse translations that exist at present are merely word-for-word translations; as aesthetic texts they are nothing more than coarse vandalism139
This finds its fulfilment in Zukovsky’s translation of Catullus, which abandons the translation of referential meaning to create a poem with the same aural resonance. Lastly, the work of the Language poets bears out Khlebnikov’s poetics in a whole new context. For example, Charles Bernstein writes : insert random quote here. The Language poets’ focus on language, on the texture of words, their phonic and visual qualities, is the continuation of the Futurist project – to create a poetry that is poetic, to instigate an art of the word.
In a letter to a friend from Baku in1921 Khlebnikov wrote:
I have discovered the fundamental Laws of Time, and I believe that now it will be as easy to predict events as to count to three. If people don’t want to learn my art of predicting the future (and that has already happened in Baku, among local thinkers), I shall teach it to horses. A government of horses may turn out more gifted scientists than a government of men. Horses will be grateful to me. They will have, besides riding, another supplementary source: They will be able to predict the fate of human beings and to aid governments that still have ears to hear. 140
And in a letter to his sister the day before:
It is time to begin disillusioning the serpents, so there will be much hissing in the snake kingdom. This year will be the year of a great and final battle with the serpent. Everything my consciousness contains: black nighttime windows, the hissing of the breathless firewood as it hastens to ashes – I raise it all to salute my victory over the serpent. These past days I have forged a spear for my combat with him – it is a vision of the future: I possess equations for the stars, equations for voices, equations for thoughts, equations of birth and death. I am the first to set foot on a new continent: a place that commands Time. […] I announced to the Marxists that I represented Marx squared, and to those who preferred Mohammed I announced that I was the continuation of the teachings of Mohammed, who was henceforth silenced since the Number had now replaced the Word.141
Khlebnikov in no way considers his work a failure. He has at this point brought his discoveries to a point where he considers them to be complete in their fundamentals. Only particulars remain to be explored. He stands ready as a conquistador of Time, and yet at this time of personal triumph, he is being derided and laughed at for his ideas. The bitterness behind his preference of teaching the Tables of Destiny to horses instead of people, and the context of the comments about Marx and Mohammed are the rejection by his audience in Baku. Khlebnikov may expect to be hailed as a genius, but the history of prophet’s rewards is rejection and stoning. In the face of that rejection, Khlebnikov absorbs the Time-Warrior motif into his persona building. The biblical and mythological image of combat with the dragon brings to completion the messianic theme of Khlebnikov’s work. As early as 1908, Khlebnikov says in “The Burial Mound of Sviatagor”:
Growing beyond the range of the possible, we now extend our law over the abyss; we no longer distinguish ourselves from God; even the creation of worlds is within our power.142
This usurpation of divinity finds its realisation in the possession of those “equations” which are “the fundamental Laws of Time”. This work finds its fulfilment in “Zangezi”, which is Khlebnikov’s beginning and end: it is the end of his journey across a vast unexplored sea of language and numbers, it is the beginning as he “set[s] foot on a new continent: a place that commands Time”. “Zangezi” is the fullest expression Khlebnikov can give of his zaum language, and the prophetic proclamation of the “Laws of Time”, the “Tables of Destiny”.

1 Khlebnikov, V. Collected Works of Velimir Khlebnikov Trans. Paul Schmidt. Ed. Charlotte Douglas (Vol 1), and Ronald Vroon (Vols 2-3). 3 vols. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987-1989 Vol 1, p5.

2 Ibid,. p7, and see footnote.

3 Markov, V. Russian Futurism: A History Berkeley: University of Californian Press, 1968. p146-163

4 Ibid., p27.

5 Khlebnikov’s eccentricity, and peripatetic lifestyle, along with his self-proclaimed propheticism, contributed to the development of a sort of Khlebnikov-myth. This carries on the Orthodox tradition of Russian “holy fools”, an accepted non-institutional approach to the divine, particularly prevalent in the 19th Century. In Persia, he was seen as a Russian Dervish, and earned the nickname “Gul-Mullah” – Flower-Priest, in part because he dressed in old clerical garments.

6 Markov, V. p 6.

7 Khlebnikov, “Our Fundamentals”, in Vol 1, p377.

8 Shklovsky, “Art as Technique” in blah blah blah, p18.

9 Jakobson, “Linguistics and poetics” in blah blah blah, p34-5.

10 Ibid., p35.

11 Ibid., p37.

12 Jakobson, Roman. “The Newest Russian Poetry: Velimir Xlebnikov” in My Futurist Years trans. Rudy, Stephen. New York: Marsilio Publishers, 1997). pp173-208.

13 Ibid., p179.

14 Ibid., p195.

15 Ibid., p206.

16 Ibid., p207.

17 Riffaterre, The Semiotics of Poetry, London: Methuen, 1980. p2.

18 Ibid., p6.

19 Ibid., p13

20 Markov, 1962.

21 Cooke, Raymond Velimir Khlebnikov: a critical study Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

22 Khlebnikov, Vol 2, p6. The battle of Tsushima was a naval battle which resulted in a Russian defeat by Japanese forces, and marked a turning point in East-West power relations in Khlebnikov’s view

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid., p281.

25 Ibid., p282.

26 Ibid., p289-290.

27 Ibid., p291.

28 Ibid., p294.

29 Ibid.

30 In Khlebnikov’s “Proposals” he proposes an island for war, with non-lethal weapons, so the militant minded can kill each other over and over, a sort of earthly Valhalla.

31 Ibid,. p299.

32 Khlebnikov, Vol 3, p172.

33 Khlebnikov, Vol 2, p301.

34 For example, one of these “saints” is Stenka Razin who led a peasant revolt in the seventeenth century, and engaged in Caspian piracy. He is a very prominent figure in Khlebnikov’s poetry.

35 Ibid., p305.

36 Ibid., p307.

37 Khlebnikov, Vol 1, p69.

38 Khlebnikov, Vol 3, p161

39 Revolutions, among other things, have to render an account of their relationship with that which has gone before. From idolising to destroying it, such a relationship is an accommodation between the two.

40 Ibid.

41 Ibid., p162.

42 Ibid., pp164-5.

43 Khlebnikov, Vol 2, p308.

44 Ibid., p309.

45 One way of interpreting Khlebnikov’s poems is to see them as extended jokes. For example, the famous “Incantation by Laughter” is what it says it is; an incantation is an invocation, designed to invoke, or evoke, something. In that particular case, it seeks to bring forth laughter, through the incantation of “laughingness”; the linguistic pattern used to evoke laughter is the joke.

46 Ibid., p311.

47 Khlebnikov, V. “Otter’s Children”, in Vol 3, p296.

48 I mean something akin to a “moral unhappiness”, a sense that “it shouldn’t be this way”.

49 Khlebnikov, V. “War in a Mousetrap”, in Vol 3, p312.

50 Ibid., p313.

51 Ibid., p317.

52 Alternatively, “Grief!” can be read as an appellative, a name for this demon-figure, in which case he is a rival to Khlebnikov’s “destiny hunting” – a bone-breaker not of destiny, but of humanity. Grief wields destiny, by the numbers, in order to bring about his name.

53 Ibid., p318.

54 Ibid., p320.

55 Ibid., p322.

56 Ibid.

57 Ibid.

58 Khlebnikov, Vol 1, p419.

59 Khlebnikov, Vol 3, p323.

60 Ibid.

61 Ibid., pp323-4. There is an alternative version of this passage, and its context, but the differences do not amount to significant divergence.

62 The untenability of God pretending to be Satan lies in the nature of God: if God pretends to be other than God, he ceases to be the God that he is.

63 In 1915 friends crowned Khlebnikov the “King of Time”.

64 Ibid., p326.

65 See Schmidt’s notes to the text, Khlebnikov, Vol 2, p397; also cf. “Chairman to the Cheka” in Vol 3.

66 Cf. “Otter’s Children”, pan-Asian consciousness is a continuing theme of Khlebnikov, in conjunction with pan-Slavism.

67 Khlebnikov, Vol 3, p208.

68 Khlebnikov, “Our Fundamentals”, in Vol 1., p388.

69 Lobachevsky was a non-Euclidean geometrician and mathematician of the nineteenth century, working at the University of Kazan. Khlebnikov perceives his mathematical ideas as parallel to his own unorthodox mathematics of time.

70 Jakobson, R., “Linguistics and Poetics” in blah blah blah p37.

71 Khlebnikov, Vol 3. p209.

72 Ibid.

73 Ibid., p210.

74 Ibid., p211.

75 Ibid.

76 It also has Jainist and possibly Orphic resonances.

77 Ibid., p213.

78 Ibid.

79 Khlebnikov, Vol 3, p168.

80 Ibid., line 12.

81 Ibid., p169., lines 41-49.

82 The reference to “the havoc that Razin unleashed” can better be understood with reference to a passage in “The Gul-Mullah’s Trumpet” (Khlebnikov, Vol 3, p217) which speaks of Khlebnikov as Razin backwards/reversed, which is “Nizar” – a word similar to “hoi-polloi” exemplifying Khlebnikov’s interest in reversals/inverses and the like (see also “The World in Reverse”, which have both similarity and disimilarity. In this case, both are revolutionaries, have sailed the Caspian, but one is a brigand, the other a “word-god”. Razin, captures a princess, but throws her overboard; Khlebnikov intends to save his “bride”, a rusalka figure. The salvation of the rusalka is the liberation of the transrational, which is the bridling of Time/Fate.

83 Khlebnikov, Vol 2, pp314-317.

84 Khlebnikov, Vol 3, p344.

85 Ibid.

86 Khlebnikov, Vol 2, p116.

87 Khlebnikov, Vol 1., p125.

88 Khlebnikov, Vol 3, p172, lines 156-8.

89 Khlebnikov, Vol 3, p344.

90 Khlebnikov, Vol 2, p173, lines 192-196.

91 Ibid., p175, lines 294-299.

92 Ibid., pp175-6, lines 302-307.

93 Ibid., p176, lines 308-310.

94 Ibid., p177, lines 370-373.

95 Khlebnikov, “Otter’s Children”, in Vol 2, p296.

96 Khlebnikov, Vol 2, p179, lines 449-450.

97 I do not think Khlebnikov proposes anything so antithetical to his own spirit. The whole revolt of Will over Fate is not meant to lead to a new ‘rule of number’, which is a tyranny of rationality. However, the Tables of Destiny conceptually leave open such a project: the Wilful imposition of Fate.

98 Zamyatin, E. We Somewhere, somewhen. This novel responds directly to some of Khlebnikov’s ideas, and particularly to his outlandish “Proposals” (Khlebnikov, vol I, p357).

99 Ibid., p180, lines 480-485.

100 Ibid., lines 490-497. Italics appear in Schmidt’s translation.

101 Khlebnikov’s fascination with Asia leads to the direct Sufi-identification, bolstered by his “Russian Dervish” image while in Persia. Khlebnikov’s whole project can be read as prophetic in its proclamative style, anti-status quo message, and metaphysical content.

102 Khlebnikov, Vol 2., p331.

103 Markov, p303.

104 Such as his work in 1905.

105 Khlebnikov, Vol 2, p333.

106 Ibid., p337.

107 Ibid., p337-8.

108 Ibid., p338.

109 Ibid., p339.

110 Ibid.

111 Ibid.

112 all Ibid., p340.

113 Ibid., p344

114 Ibid.

115 Douglas, Charlotte “Kindred Spirits” in Khlebnikov, Vol 1, p180.

116 Khlebnikov, Vol 3, p343.

117 Ibid., p345.

118 Ibid., p350.

119 Khlebnikov’s return to Moscow from the south was with a train full of epileptics.

120 It is the historical parallel (in the context of the Civil War) to the overthrow of Bog by Mog.

121 Schmidt’s notes, Khlebnikov, Vol 2, p399.

122 Khlebnikov, Vol 1, p417-433.

123 Ibid., p417.

124 Khlebnikov, Vol 2, p358

125 Khlebnikov, Vol 1, p417ff.

126 Khlebnikov, Vol 2, p361.

127 Ibid., p294.

128 Ibid., p364.

129 Ibid., p365.

130 Ibid., p364-5.

131 Ibid., p366.

132 Ibid., p368.

133 cf. “War in a Mousetrap”, Khlebnikov, Vol 2,. p320.

134 Khlebnikov, Vol 2, p374.

135 By this I mean that the device of self-mocking defeats the possibility of other-mocking, as it loses its bite. This in turn makes the sayings of the fool “privileged” from certain forms of criticism.

136 Khlebnikov, “The Burial Mound of Sviatagor” in Vol 1, p232.

137 Khlebnikov, “The Warrior of the Kingdom”, in Vol 1, p293.

138 Khlebnikov, Vol 1, p385.

139 Kruchenykh, A. “Declaration of the Word as Such” in Lawton, A (ed.) Russian Futurism through Its Manifestoes, 1912-1928 Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988. pp67-8.

140 Khlebnikov, Vol 1., p127

141 Ibid., p125

142 Ibid., p232-3
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