:: Article

A straight gaze

By Richard Marshall.

Lidiya Ginzburg’s Alternative Literary Identities. A Collection of Articles and New Translations, ed. Emily Van Buskirk and Andrei Zorin, Oxford: Peter Lang 2012

Outside of history many of us get by with borrowed answers, rumours and hearsay. To the question ‘How should I live?’ our ethical, aesthetical, practical, religious, philosophical and political values settle down in half-baked and shapeless forms. Received wisdoms will do. We mostly fit in with whatever prevails in whichever rooms we accidentally inhabit. Those of a certain poetic sensibility strive for a purer shape and greater intensity of concentration. Answers become, for this species, essences of their self-definition and teleology. Habits of received wisdoms are disdained for something more sustaining and reflexive. For these the hum of the humdrum is silenced. Life is not a walk through a field. But when history comes then they too are swept up. Many find themselves cannibalised.

Lidiya Ginzburg lived in Russia from 1902 to 1990. Her work is a constant engagement with a history that was more spontaneous combustion than immaculate conception. Her Russian century was historicism regnant. She lived asking whether and how – and to what degree – any poetic intelligent vision could survive it. This important volume of essays about various aspects of her work, coupled with some of her own selected writings, confirms her status as an essential voice.

A writer can either grow or shrink and, in times of history, surrendering to mediocrity finds easy justification in multitudinous displays of precedent. Her uncompromising realism refuses self-serving or sanitised verdicts. Her sympathetic knowledge of the Russian Revolutionary tradition strengthened her resolve throughout. Her socialism raised suffering to a higher level but she saw through to the dull, low philistinism of the Soviet Union of Stalinism and after. Her analytical and demystifying accounts of her own milieu under the most extreme pressure are uncompromising, vivid and reachy. They are truthful, analytical and psychologically insightful accounts offering neither bromide nor sensationalism. In this they astonish. Her portraits of her doomed writers are of legendary children.

A contrast with the better-known Bakhtin is instructive. His neo-Kantian phenomenological hinterland includes elusive tinctures of the religious. It is soft compared to her naturalised Petrograd Formalism-plus materialist knuckle. She knew her French literature from Montaigne to Proust. She was raised on Vyazemsky, Tolstoy, Belinsky, Herzen and Blok. Her insistence on honest human expression and psychological realism became realised in a social context where history goose-stepped in. It expressed what she understood as a necessary, unfashionable moral dimension for aesthetic and intellectual activity. Ginzburg swallows her times whole. By comparison Bakhtin swallows nothing but just rearranges the food on his plate. His theories release him from his time. His idea of carnival turns revolution into spectacle and his phenomenology of self seems fuzzy, idealised and unearthly compared to her deft sociologised materials. After reading Ginzburg, the idea of the fragmented and unfinished self developed out of his reading Dostoevsky seems just a brilliant fortune born turning away from pressing immediacy.

He’s perfectly within his rights to do so of course. But Ginzburg refused herself the intellectuals’ prerogative of turning away to higher things. She maintained a straight gaze and refused to redact herself from her times via vertical abstraction. Hers was a hermeneutics of suspicion, tearing away protective veils of any self-mythologising. She strips her times bare and is implacable. Her admiration for Tolstoy is rooted in this deep realism. This Bakhtin/Ginzburg contrast finds its correlative in the terms of her preference for Tolstoy over Dostoevsky.

Ginzburg distinguishes Dostoevskian ideas from Tolstoyan thoughts. Contra Bakhtin, she read Dostoevsky as showing characters animated by ideas and considered this a fatal delusion. She denied that self knowledge was possible such that people might formulate it to such pristine resolution. Self knowledge was always hidden, dark, secretive and mysterious. She insisted on thoughts rather than ideas. For her, thoughts were lively, held concealed impulses in their utterances, were sporadically inarticulate, embarrassable, social, interruptible, shared, leaving and arriving as if from nowhere amidst social exchange. Thoughts were conversational, spermy exchanges embodying an unfathomability as spontaneous as life.

Ideas, however, answered to no social reality, were part of no exchange, were impermeable like glinting hard daggers of steel, Socratic dialogues of impressive paradox, philosophy and rhetorical flourish whose very last and dubious responsibility, if it existed at all, was to communication. For Ginzburg they were stubbornly un-conversational, ironically non-dialogic. ‘No responsible prose act can issue from a place of pure ideas for it isn’t answerable to experience,’ Ginzburg wrote. The cold elegance of ideas shot out from the surface of the planet answerable only to God and Spirit. To Ginzburg, Dostoevsky’s characters are merely embodied ideas, and as such are lifeless, ventriloquised and, most importantly, unfaithful to embodiment. Ginzburg’s Tolstoy, on the other hand, cherished the massy stew of a life on the ground. In her reading of him he is denied any mystical vertical chute. Her own horizontal empiricism was completed in him.

Her times both tested these insights, and required them. Ginzburg understood the landscape of the collapse of the intelligensia during the 1930s and 40s in terms of how self-image survived or adapted to immense forces. And if realism was important to her, so too was a rigorous Romanticism. This made Lermontov, alongside Tolstoy, also important to her. His Romanticism linked to her requirement that modernism answer to the new questions arising from her century. Most pressing in answering to the brutalities of her twentieth century was the question of how to retain the very image of the human at a time when brute survival is doubtful. Lermontov’s hero impressed Ginzburg, presenting her realism with a Romanticism that did not escape realism but included an ethical and heroic responsibility in its expression.

Ginzburg admired the Romanticism of Lermontov because it preserves the human image within a disciplined rebelliousness. For Ginzburg the obligations of the prose act are never more clear than in an act of rebellion. She argues that the revolutionary spirit is betrayed by acts working against this ethical grain if motivation is merely adolescent or decadent boredom. She read Lermentov’s Romanticism as twisting away from the dead hand of conventionality but only in a spirit of tough discipline. She approved the reproach of his romantic rebellion because it was thorough. It ate through to both the self and God. Nothing remained sacred.

Understood thus, she wrote that a tragic absurdity results where ‘[I]ndividualism without supre-individual values and without self-valuable personality could only end in absurdism…[or with Camus] … a pleasure derived from the very process of meaningless existence.’ For Ginzburg, too little of the hundred years of avant-gardism has been severe enough to corrode through to the very self itself. This indulgence erodes its ability to sincerely analyse the times. She remained distrustful of sensationalism and chaos because sensationalism and chaos don’t confront but rather screen out threats, fail the annihilation of the human image.

Ginzburg disliked the interior monologues of Joyce, seeing in it no advance in the honest expression of the human image. She rejected decadence for its timidity, acidly noting that ‘it can’t even manage without the idea of sin’. Mailer commented that no heart is as hard as a timid heart, and I think Ginzburg would have agreed. She deplored French surrealists and the nouveau roman for eliminating the hero. This elimination made the novel merely a playground for authorial intervention and renounced obligations to the human image placed under threat by historical forces that sought its extinction.

The avant-garde is Romanticism twisted away from the dry formalist grounds of Tolstoyan realism and Lermontav’s heroic Romantic rebellion without their thorough analytic discipline. Would she have liked the recent Pussy Riot rebellion? She would have admired their heroism and moral fibre but probably questioned whether their anti-art was disciplined enough to corrode to the absurdist pitch required to avoid sentimentalism.

Her empiricist realism roots itself in her revolutionary formalism, tutored by Eikhenbaum and Tynianov. Her preferred forms of writing were the essay and the notebook. Positioning herself as an outsider witnessing history that nevertheless possessed her (‘no one was unscathed’) her model for her notebooks was Prince Pyotr Viazemsky, a friend of Zhukovsky and Pushkin, who recorded his epoch in a series of fragmentary and disjointed sketches, notes and bon mots.

Ginzburg’s formula gathered up the innovations of Viazemsky with the literary trajectories of Russian Romanticism – Lermontov and Herzen – and forged a mid-ground art between fiction and non-fiction. She gives us impressions of Mayerkovsky, Oleinkov, Tyninov, Akhmatova through sharp analysis of the psychological and philosophical options of life in the Leningrad blockade, the Stalinist purges of intellectuals and in their aftermath, during the fifties when youthful acolytes sought out their own historical meanings in these survivors.

Her ‘in-between’ literature is literary social psychology. Her ruthless examination and portrayal of the intellectuals and artists shocks in its remorseless truthfulness. Refusing the rigid façade of an immovable self-image we may prefer to have, she replaces such self-serving fantasies with what actually occurred. The messy compromises, evasions, double thinking and unheroic survival strategies are laid out not to deflate, however, but rather to fulfill the imperative of compassionate Tolstoyan honesty.

There came a moment, in the 1930s onwards, when the issue of her times and place was, ‘how do we survive intact under threat of imminent destruction?’ Living through times of traumatic history, as when in the 1930s Stalin turns against bourgeoise professionals, intellectuals and artists, Ginzburg registers a key shift from the revolutionary fervour and excitements of the previous decade to the stark interrogation that whispers, ‘who will go to pieces?’

In her essay ‘What Is A Line?’ she examines this question. Pasternak in ‘Second Birth’ fascinates her. She reads it as his attempt to remain true to his vision whilst not seeming reactionary. He impresses her for remaining true to his vision. But he also accommodates through a mixture of playing dead and obeisance to the spirit of the age. When Stalin rings him to decide Mandelstam’s fate, it is the personified horrible enchantment of the modern age telephoning. Pasternak is evasive and survives.

It is in measuring the degrees of accommodation and capitulation that Ginzburg measures her poets. ‘Intellectual utilitarianism’ is her phrase for capitulation, whereby for status and survival a poet’s vision is shifted. Pushkin is for her the prototype of the poet to the fullest degree. He stayed true to both talent and integrity. Her aesthetical and moral toughness insists poets are not to be judged poets merely through literary achievement and textual dexterity. In addition to these, she analyses them in terms of the strength of their creative psychology. The 1930s placed unbearable pressures on this latter element and so only one of her writers survives to the fullest degree as poet. Yet only someone not threatened by extinction could write, as the posturing Mailer sometimes did, that ‘…it is rational not to avoid physical death at all costs.’ That sort of idea fails Ginzburg’s test of honesty and is chicken bravado done in bad faith.

The intensity of the suffering, the seemingly limitless pressure on this milieu, requires Ginzburg’s honest appraisals. Who could not fall apart to some degree? An intellectual and a poet’s self-definition just is her vision. Ginzburg’s contrast between the literary giants Dostoevsky and Tolstoy instructs us to recalibrate our responses to how people have to corrupt themselves in violent bad days. Ginzburg forces us all to understand personality in terms of the social context, the hot mash of conversation and to and fro responsiveness that pristine ideas belie. Ginzburg shows how trying to survive traumatic history tests ones initial vision by pressurizing its realism and psychological honesty. Ginzburg’s test is whether vision and honest human image coincide. They mostly don’t.

Under pressure Pasternak accommodated to a degree, in a way that Pushkin’s Mozart or Schiller’s naïve poet did not. Pasternak accommodates because his initial vision involved romantic separation from others, the idea of the poet as an elite, oracular ‘other’, separate from and lording it over others. For Ginzburg this visionary image was defective. The self-regard of the elitist poetic stereotype was a delusion squashed when history stamped down on it.

Ginzburg is clear-eyed in her analysis of the mechanisms in play, paying attention to the emotional processing of the situation undergone by her extraordinarily formidable protagonists. She takes her poets as being in the vanguard of the coming traumas before becoming its eventual victims. The adolescent furies of the Russian revolutionary spirit are embraced before they become cannibalistic. Ginzburg presents her intelligentsia as speculative, artful, foolish and ethically lofty. The intellect, she writes, is ‘fool, hero, intelligent – and maybe just a fool.’ In analysing the 1920s she finds in her group sensibilities in which everything is felt and experienced as history. From revolutionary democrats to liberal barristers a complex of dissent summarised by Pasternak as a ‘supreme malady’ is the magnetic tape binding everyone.

She finds historical precedent in Pushkin’s 1830s where simultaneous energy-loops of abstract enlightenment ideals (both rational and concrete) corral class-based parliamentarianism (‘in the English manner’ as Ginzburg bags it) coupled to the irrefutable reality of the authoritarianism of Nicholas 1st, vain hopes of culture plus government getting free and a generally felt, subliminal disgust for the dullness and coarseness of reality.

Pre-Revolution is a grand mix of populist ideas of the people and their will, terrorism and avant-gardism and combined misevaluations of both political and aesthetic imperatives. Foolish, creative and imaginatively engorged with a sense of moral superiority, Ginzburg shows the intelligentsia working like a hive of Vanessa Redgraves, carnivalesquely disvaluing poverty in a magnificent speculation of modernist hubris. Combining self-assertion through ideals of sacrifice, thus trumping humility with a fatal triumph of egoism, the intellectuals and poets in these heady days float on seemingly limitless oceanic feelings of engaged history believing that what they feel, think and experience transcends the limits of their individuality.

Seeking without hesitation or calculation the blessing of the peasants and easily moved to high idealism through the stimulation of various texts – Tolstoy on vegetarianism being the parade case – the inflamed Russian intelligentsia threw away prosperity and the very conditions of old visions for a promised new world. These three mechanisms – the Russian Revolutionary zeal, the desire to act and live and the sense of an old world disappearing – are what Ginzburg implacably deconstructs. Ginzburg’s hard-headed analysis of the ‘regime of engagement’, as Laurent Thevonot calls it, attends to all this with a compassionate but detonating realism.

Ginzburg notes that only after the revolution, when forces of liberation suddenly become forces of prohibition – a rough draft of fate befalling them, history becoming trauma and pornography – do its dangers and reality strike home. At this moment Ginzburg’s analytic powers delve further than others dared. Her shocking news is that in times of trauma there is more than trauma. She notes with her cold eye how people survive. She detects further mechanisms.

Puskin’s portrayal of the character of Pugachev as both villain and hero captures the era. Reacting to the new situation, poets and intellectuals inhabit more than one version of themselves, moving backwards and forwards from their new to their old selves, and then back again in an unceasing movement of contradictory stances. The image of the two Pugachevs becomes a symbol of this delusional state of existence. Ginzburg understands the psychological motivation for the attraction of Pugachev the peasant czar: ‘Pushkin is right when presenting him as lofty and daring, for a delusion that exalts us is dearer than the multitudes of base truths…’

She identifies the different possibilities of the decades. The 1920s required either opposition or absolute belief. The 1930s offered drama, excitement, participation and glory where collectivization, the Ukraine famine and the trials of ’37 were both traumas and enchantments of history. From ’46 to ’53 what settled into the psyche was the sense of impending doom: a realisation that if ‘before it was a lottery, now it’s a queue.’

In this context, how did life go on? She identifies two psychological mechanisms. One is the evasion of suffering and the other is the pursuit of pleasure. Life continues through the deployment of distractions, the nurturing of illusions. A whole paraphernalia of adaptive mechanisms are brought to bear on the situation by the threatened participants. An ingenious indifference is cultivated to anything out of sight. Ginzburg’s tautology is incisive: ‘Nobody talks about things that you don’t talk about.’ She brings to light the mutuality of adaptation and indifference. There is, after all, always something terrible happening elsewhere, but nevertheless lives are lived. Ginzburg notes the role of the mass media in ordering and supporting this.

Ginzburg analyses the self-regulation of adaptive mechanisms. People reconcile themselves with the existing social order and offer post-hoc rationalisations. Ginzburg resists any sense that this is a universal cynicism in operation. She offers a much more nuanced and subtle analysis of the mechanisms operating. Rather than submitting to the 1870s cult of the ‘weak and oppressed’ the new revolutionary spirit asked for submission rather to the ‘spirits of life’. Stalin’s fulfillment of this role was an exact duplication of Napoleon in Jena before Hegel – historicism on a horse. Combined with this was a cult of simplicity, as found in Zoshchenko, Zabolotsky and Pasternak. Finding superiority in belittlement, combining intellectualisation with mediocrity, such visions paradoxically sustained feelings of elitism.

Ginzburg shows that talented people presented segments of compatibility with their social reality and times. Through the populist legacies of adaptation, indifference, justification, fashion crystallising social relevance, people were able to find possibilities for self-actualisation. Ginzburg identifies four types of people in this milieu: those honestly in accord with the new regime, self-delusionists desperately developing post-hoc rationalisations of their capitulisations and accommodations, cynics resigned to their plight and those – like Pasternak – who stood by their opinions within narrowing boundaries of possibility. Ginzburg doesn’t release herself from the grip of her analysis. She finds herself too lifeless to be capable of action. Too analytic, too abundant of thought and attracted to analysis, and so willing to forgo material and social advantage, she is nevertheless scathed, willing to offer any ‘hurried display of compatibility with the ruling order’ to stay alive.

After the 1920s where the intelligentsia were vanguards of the new culture, all of them Herzens coming to life, the 1930s and 1940s show the historical individual under such pressures none escaped. Out of this Ginzburg produced remarkable accounts of unflagging honesty. They are portraits that fix her poets memorably both as figures in their time and as part of a context nailed sociologically rather than psychologically. Kahn’s essay on Ginzburg’s Mandelstam shows this extraordinary poet as perhaps the only one whose vision remained intact to a finished degree even as he perished in Kolyma, Gehenna’s twin.

Ginzburg’s approach to her literary figures begins in Formalism and then goes on. She examines them in terms of process, cultural awareness, outlook, system and aesthetic consciousness. She confines her information about them to facts and the interrelationships between values of an individual and the group. In this she works against the grain of that Romantic poetic stereotype of the poet as genius. Yet this rich collocation of ideas – the cult of Pushkin, rituals of power and kingship, messianism, spiritual elitism, visionary insight, hierophantic fusions of otherworldliness, genius, charisma, hieraticism, awesomeness, shamanism, spiritual leadership and marginalised mystic knowing – were ingrained particulars of the revolutionary tradition in Russia and were inevitably entrenched in the revolutionary zeal of poetic youth encapsulated in the figure of Blok at the end of the nineteenth century.

It is because of this that the beady, realist eye of Ginzburg is so necessary, cutting down this ornate individualism and setting up a socialised conversationalism in its place. Yet with the figure of Mandelstam she offers something different, in that her deflationary approach to the cults of Russian Romantic genius shows the sociologically analysed Mandelstam – and he alone – to have actually been such a genius.

She writes about him in both academic papers and notebooks. Her essay, ‘The Poetics of Osip Mandelstam’ of 1966 is scholarly, deep and wide. It emphasises the semantic potential of metaphor in Mandelstam, of work irreducible to any single unifying system, a poetics that was attentive to the texture and internal logic of each poem and one fully aware of its Acmeist aesthetic context. Ginzburg took poetry to be objectified personal statement not the expression of biography. Texts were linguistic events.

But in her notebooks she examines him in different terms and offers a vivid psychological portrait. Ginzburg presents poetry as a source for biography, as in Baudelaire. Her biographical portraits of the poets express how life ‘becomes witness to the poet’s life, not art to the life.’ So Pasternak ‘is unable to produce second-rate work’, Tichonov speaks with lively and frantic energies, Mayerkovsky is like a tensed coiled spring and Zabolotsky’s strength is that of ‘genuine poetic madness.’

But when Ginzburg writes of Mandelstam we are confronted with a bewildering energy, a creator of a fourth dimension wherein ‘you follow his speech with the feeling of a hunter.’ Ginzburg responds to his vitality, his verbal dexterity, humour, boldness and irascibility where she witnesses in him ‘an ethos of an existence perpetually plugged into these values’ and an organic unity between his personality, behaviour and poetry. Suddenly we are presented with a being completely alive even in the historical time. Ginzburg shows how Mandelstam’s flow of speech, metaphorical sense, non-referentiality, musicality, obliqueness, indirectness, mental movement and bodily expression combined to create poems where, quoting Mandelstam; ‘space is enclosed as in the carat of a diamond … the proportions of this space are not essential … but the relation of this space (its microscopic size) to real space is essential. Poetic space and the poetic thing are four-dimensional. It is no good when three-dimensional objects from the external world fall into poems, that is, when poems describe.’

In her 1933 notebook Ginzburg uniquely discusses Mandelstam in terms of genius. He didn’t compromise his vision because it was ‘one out of all, one who understood on behalf of all’. Ginzburg displays her delight in his contradictions and contrasts. Mandelstam is physically small but his concentration vast, he and his clothes are shabby and yet his poetics are exquisite, he craves recognition, money and a publishers deal and yet his disappointments are transcended by his creative fulfillment and inexhaustibility.

She writes:

‘He is a spectacle that affirms optimism. We see a person who wishes money and recognition and is upset because his poems are not published. But we see how insignificant this disappointment is by comparison with the sense of his creative fulfillment in combination with the sense of his creative inexhaustibility. We see the very best thing possible: the actualized value of a man who inhabits the world of his work completely. He has removed himself to this world by any means possible, and what he left behind turned out to be hodgepodge: scandals, popular courts. People have sacrificed to activity their life, health, freedom, career, property. Mandelstam’s state of foolishness is a sacrifice of the everyday appearance of a person. This means that not a single particle of the straining of his will is lost outside poetic labor. Poetic labor requires a state in which the poet compels himself; without this ceaseless self-compulsion he quickly becomes course and trivial. Everything has gone into this area, and in real life he remains an eccentric, a “madman” whose wishes are unregulated. He is full of rhythms, thoughts and words that move. He does his business on the move, shameless and indifferent to viewers. It was terrible, as though you were catching a glimpse of a biologically specific process of creation.’

Hers is fierce and thrilling prose showing how Mandelstam’s poetic intellect remains intact because his vision doesn’t presuppose genius but rather knows that his poetic whisper was born before himself and that receivers of his poetry acquired themselves long before that. The historic present, she is saying, came too late to destroy his vision, even though it killed the man.

For anyone whose self definition and purpose is her vision, then only earthly dreams make it. What once took flight into perfect zealous light seems more a comtemptible lie when made to stand self reliant like a cat. This is Ginzburg’s tough line, written as she stood right in the middle of a history offering merely a well-executed grave. If sometimes her analysis seems like desecration, she writes knowing that some of our contemporary visions wouldn’t have lasted.

The hallucinatory madness of our present times threatens to transform this contemporary landscape into history as pornography, just as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and the other crazies from the not so distant past did to their times. Our current ruling classes are sociopathic autocrats of vast plutocratic wealth and increasingly unchecked power. They fear the very slaves they abuse. Their fantasy pathologies mix Prada orgiastic perversion with an insanely murderous, messianic delusionism, as if Caligula married into the Manson Family. We face these monsters with our self-protective muddles. Our ability to avoid truths, compromise, look away, avoid cognitive dissonance is inherent and quite normal. Few are able to even begin to formulate a poetic intellect shape that is true to all this without cracking up. Ai Weiwei, Ekaterina Samutsevich, Maria Alekhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Wole Soyinka, Stewart Home, Samar Yazbek are my tiny random sample of those I know about who are trying. Of course there are many more. In this context, Lidiya Ginzburg’s example of reality seeking literature is inspirational and gives us guidance and a perspective born out of her case studies.

This book, with superb essays about various aspects of her by Sergei Kozlov, Alexander Zholkovsky, Caryl Emerson, Andrei Zorin, Emily Van Buskirk, Andrew Kahn, Irina Sandomirskaia, Kirill Kobrin, Stanislav Savitsky, Laurent Thevonot and Alyson Tapp plus translations of some of her important prose pieces is a wonderful testament to an essential writer. Her ‘At One With The Legal Order’ is still shockingly apt.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, December 14th, 2012.