THE REVOLUTIONARY FUNCTION OF THOUGHT
Confusion is a phenomenon with a permanent, organic character in bourgeois society. Confusion grows ever thicker when it is addressed as already confusing problems by the very historical terms of its utterance. The latter occurs with the brand new and, at once, very old problem of the intellectual’s obligations with regard to revolution. As posed by historical materialists, this problem is already a tangle. When formulated or simply outlined by bourgeois intellectuals, it acquires the aspect of insoluble chaos.
“The philosophers,” Marx says, “have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point is to change it.” 37 The same can be said of intellectuals and artists in general. The finalistic function of thought has allowed them only to interpret the interests and other valid forms of life—leaving them intact—when it should have enabled their transformation. The finalism of thought has been conservative, rather than revolutionary. The point of departure in this transformational or revolutionary doctrine of thought stems from the fundamental difference between the idealist dialectic of Hegel and the materialist dialect of Marx. “In its mystified form,” says Marx, “dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and to glorify the state of existing things. In its rational form it is a scandal and abomination to bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors because it includes in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose upon it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary.” 38
The object or matter of transformational thought resides in things and events of immediate presence in tangible reality. The revolutionary intellectual always operates near life in flesh and bone, facing beings and phenomena in his surroundings. His works are vitalistic. His sensibility and method are this-sided 39 (materialist in Marxist language), that is, of this world and not of any other, extraterrestrial or cerebral. No astrology or cosmogony. No abstract masturbation of some hotshot lawyer. The revolutionary intellectual sets aside the messianic formula that says, “my kingdom is not of this world.” 40
By the transformational nature of his thought about and action on immediate reality, the revolutionary intellectual incarnates a danger for all the forms of life around him, which he tries to abolish and substitute with other, new, fairer forms that are closer to perfection. He becomes endangered by the prevailing laws, customs, and social norms. Thus, he turns into the target par excellence of the prosecutors and reprisals of conservatives. “It is Anaxagoras, banished,” says Eastman, “Protagoras, prosecuted; Socrates, executed; Jesus, crucified.” 41 And, let’s add, it’s Marx, vilified and driven out; Lenin, shot. Therefore, the revolutionary intellectual’s spirit of heroism and personal sacrifice is an essential characteristic of his destiny. 42 [ JM ]
THE WORK OF ART AND THE SOCIAL SPHERE
Is there even a narrow correlation between the life and work of the artist? Is there absolute synchronism between the work and life of the author? Yes. Synchronism exists in artists great and small, in conservatives and revolutionaries alike. Synchronism has been produced in the past, is currently produced, and will be produced forever. Even in the case of artists whose work seems to lack the peculiar tone of their life at first sight, the profound and sometimes underlying concordance is evident. To reach that tone, suffice an auscultation in good faith, with a bit of sensibility.
Let’s look at a few examples. Nietzsche was a physically weak, sickly man. Is one to deduce from this that The Birth of Tragedy is the wincing of a wasted loser? Tolstoy never had financial burdens. He didn’t know what it means to put bread on the table by working. He lived the life of a petite bourgeois man or, rather, a feudal lord. Is one to deduce from this that Resurrection is a feudalizing work? Mallarmé lived in perpetual political abstention, neural to the ebb and flow of parliaments, absent at elections, assemblies, and political party gatherings. Is one to deduce from this that The Afternoon of the Faun is devoid of political spirit and social meaning? Of course not. Such conclusions are reached only by run-of-the-mill, empirical critics. Akin to a poor photographer who seeks in photography the formal reproduction and external imitation of the original, the poor critic scours the work of art to find the literal reproduction and reflection of repetition in the artist’s life. When he does not find that reflection—which, let us add, occurs precisely with the great artists—he concludes by saying that there is no synchronism in the life of the author and his work. This is how people proceed who believe that concordance exists in some but not all artistic objects.
To find truly profound aesthetic synchronism, one must bear in mind that the phenomenon of artistic production, as Millet says, is an authentic operation of alchemy, in the scientific sense of the word—a transmutation. 43 The artist absorbs and concatenates the social unrest of the environment as well as his own individual unrest, not to return it exactly as he absorbed it (which is what the poor critic would want and what occurs with inferior artists), but rather to transform it within his spirit into other essences, distinct in form and identical at the core, into the raw materials as absorbed. At first sight, as we said, one might not recognize the vital raw material as absorbed in the structure and emotional movement of the work, just as at a glance one might not recognize in a tree the nutritional chemical bodies extracted from the soil. However, if one analyzes the work in depth, one will necessarily discover—in its innermost viscera and through the personal peripeteia of the artist’s life—not only the circulating currents of socioeconomic character, but the mental and religious currents of its epoch. An alchemical analysis of a vegetal substance would likewise establish a similar biological phenomenon in the tree.
The correlation between the individual and social life of the artist and his work is therefore constant. It operates consciously or subconsciously, whether the artist wants it to or not, no matter if he accepts or denies it, and even if he tries to escape it. The challenge for the critic—we repeat—is knowing how to discover it. [ JM ]
Grammar, as a collective norm in poetry, lacks a raison d’être. Every poet forges his personal and nontransferable grammar, his syntax, spelling, analogy, prosody, his meanings. He is sufficed by not leaving language’s jurisdiction. The poet can even change, in a certain way, the lexical and phonetic structure of a word itself, depending on the case. And this, rather than restraining the socialist and universal scope of poetry, as one might suspect, expands it unto infinity. For it’s well known that the more personal (again, I don’t say individual) an artist’s sensibility, the more universal and collective his work. [ JM ]
POETRY AND IMPOSTURE
Makers of symbols, appear in public nude and only then will I accept your pants.
Makers of images, return your words to men.
Makers of metaphors, forget not that distances announce themselves from three to three.
Makers of borders, see how the water flows, on its own, without a need for floodgates; the water, which is water made to come, yet not to make us comely.
Makers of heights, one can see from afar that never in your life have you died. [ JM ]
TELL ME HOW YOU WRITE AND I’LL TELL YOU WHAT YOU WRITE
Technique doesn’t lend itself much, as a simple view might suggest, to falsification or simulation. Technique, in politics and art alike, reveals the true sensibility of a man better than all programs and manifestos. There’s no document more convincing or data more authentic of our sensibility than our own technique. The original schism of Russian social-democracy between the Bolsheviki and Mensheviki arose from nothing less than a discrepancy of revolutionary technique. “But we agree on everything except the technique,” the Mensheviki argued to Lenin in 1903, to whom he replied, “Yes, but precisely, technique is everything.”
There are artists who call themselves surrealists and would like to practice the aesthetic of Breton, but his sculpture, his drawing, or his literature reveals, by means of its technique—a complex display of profound personal and social factors—a sensibility that is, let’s say, impressionist or cubist or simply pompier . 44
Many believe that technique is the refuge for the trick or the simulation of a personality. It seems to me, on the contrary, that it always undresses what in reality we are and where we’re going, albeit by contradicting the false pretenses and external parvenu cerebrations with which we’d like to dress up and be seen. [ JM ]
UNIVERSALITY OF VERSE FOR THE UNITY OF LANGUAGES
A poem is a vital entity much more organic than an organic being in nature. The limb of an animal gets amputated, and the animal continues to live. A branch gets cut from a plant, and the plant continues to live. But if from a poem one amputates a verse, a word, a letter, a punctuation mark, it dies. Since the poem, when translated, cannot preserve its absolute vital integrity, it should be read in its original language, and naturally this limits, for now, the universality of its emotion. But one must not forget that this universality will be possible the day all languages unify and fuse, through socialism, into one single universal language. [ JM ]
AESTHETIC AND MACHINISM
The heavenliness of the moonlight in poetry has been superseded by the heavenliness of the cinema, the airplane, the radio, or whichever other quasi-“futurist” smack you please.
Bourgeois professors, philosophers, and artists have a concept sui generis of the role of the machine in social and artistic life and attribute a sort of divine character to it. The idealism and inclination toward mysticism, located in the foundation of these people’s criterion, made them see the machine, at the onset of Fulton’s invention, 45 as an idol or new divinity as mysterious as all divinities, before which one had to kneel in simultaneous adoration and fear. And even now they take up this attitude. Bourgeois artists and writers, particularly, have used the machine to symbolize Beauty with a capital B, while philosophers use it to symbolize Omnipotence with a capital O. Among the former is the fascist, Marinetti, inventor of futurism, and among the latter, the patriarch, Tagore, whose shouts and cries for help against the Jupiterian empire of the machine haven’t managed to jostle the accursed Fordic mindset of capitalist “culture.”
But the revolutionary artist has a different concept of and feeling toward the machine. For him, a motor and a plane aren’t more than objects, like a table or a toothbrush, with one difference: the former are more beautiful and useful, in sum, they possess greater creative efficiency. Only that. Following this hierarchical evaluation of objects in social reality, the revolutionary artist can do more when placing them in the work of art. The machine isn’t an aesthetic, moral, or even economic myth. Just as no worker with class consciousness sees a deity in the machine or falls to his knees before it like a resentful slave, so too does the revolutionary artist refrain from using it to symbolize Beauty par excellence, the new aesthetic prototype of the universe, or the unseen and revealed muse 46 of artistic inspiration. Nor has the Marxist sociologist assigned the tractor a totemic value in the proletarian family and socialist society.
In the wake of the October Revolution, the futurist wave that rolled through Russian art and, specifically, through poetry was quite explainable and fortunately has been ephemeral. It was an undercover, old-fashioned surge of the recently crushed capitalist era. Mayakovsky, its major representative at the time, ended up recognizing it as such very quickly and, together with Pasternak, Esenin, and others, boycotted all machinist residuals in literature.
When Gladkov exclaims, “the nostalgia for machines is stronger than the nostalgia for love,” 47 he says it only as one could say, “the nostalgia for machines is stronger than the nostalgia for my room” or anything else. It’s not that the machine is elevated, but that love is terrifying. And in this case the sentiment that Walt Whitman possesses is excluded, for he, unaware of its social and aesthetic value, set it in motion and applied it with impressive justness.
So mistakenly wander today’s poets who make the machine a goddess, like those who before them made a goddess out of the moon, sun, or sea. Neither deification nor heavenliness of machines. This is but an instrument of economic production and, as such, only an element of artistic creation, like any other, similar to a window, a cloud, a mirror, or a path, etc. Everything else amounts only to a newly coined animism that is arbitrary, morbid, decadent. [ JM ]
AUTOPSY OF SURREALISM
Among other symptoms of its agony, the capitalist intelligentsia offers the vice of the cenacle. It’s curious to observe how the most recent devastating crises of economic imperialism—war, industrial rationalization, misery of the masses, financial and stock market crashes, development of the workers’ revolution, colonial insurrections, etc.—synchronously correspond to the furious manipulation of literary schools, as improvised as they are short-lived. Around 1914, expressionism was born (Dvorack, Fretzer). Around 1915, cubism was born (Apollinaire, Reverdy). In 1917, dadaism was born (Tzara, Picabia). In 1924, surrealism (Breton, Ribemont-Dessaignes). Not to mention the preexisting schools: symbolism, futurism, neosymbolism, unanimism, etc. Finally, since the advent of surrealism, a new literary school bursts forth on a nearly monthly basis. Never before has social thought been sectioned off into so many and such fleeting formulas. Never before did it experience such a frenetic pleasure and such a need to be stereotyped into prescriptions and clichés, as though it were afraid of its freedom or unable to emerge in all its organic unity. Such anarchy and disintegration hadn’t been seen except among the decadent philosophers and poets at the dawn of Greco-Latin civilization. Those of today, in turn, reveal a new decadence of the spirit: the dawn of capitalist civilization.
The last school of the main cartel, surrealism, has just officially died.
The truth is that surrealism, as a literary school, didn’t represent any constructive contribution. Instead, it was a prescription for making poems about restraint, as are and will be all literary schools of any period. And yet. It wasn’t even an original prescription at that. The entire pompous theory and abracadabrant 48 method of surrealism was condemned by and, in a few thoughts on the topic, sketched out at the hand of Apollinaire. Based on these ideas of the author of Calligrams , the surrealist manifestos limit themselves to creating intelligent parlor games of automatic writing, morality, religion, and politics.
Parlor games, I say, and intelligent ones at that—cerebral games, rather. When surrealism arrived through the ineluctable dialectic of things to confront the living problems of reality, which don’t exactly depend on the abstract metaphysical lucubrations of any literary school, it seemed to be in a hurry. To stay consistent with what the surrealists themselves used to call the “critical and revolutionary spirit” of this movement, it had to jump into the middle of the street and take charge of, among other things, the political and economic problems of our time. Surrealism then turned to anarchism, this being the most abstract, mystical, and cerebral form of politics that best reconciled the ontological and even occultist character of the cenacle par excellence. As anarchists, the surrealists were able to keep gaining recognition, given that, as such, they managed to cohabit and even cosubstantiate with the organic nihilism of the school.
But over the course of time, the surrealists came to see that, outside the surrealist catechism, there was another revolutionary method as “interesting” as what they were proposing: I’m referring to Marxism. They read, thought about it, and, out of a very bourgeois miracle of eclecticism or out of an inextricable “combination,” Breton proposed to his friends the alignment and synthesis of both methods. The surrealists immediately became communists.
It’s only in this moment—not before or after—that surrealism acquires certain social importance. From the simple fabric of poems in series, it transforms into a militant political movement and into live, revolutionary, intellectual pragmatism. Surrealism then deserved to be acknowledged and qualified as one of the most vibrant constructive literary trends of the age.
However, this concept wasn’t devoid of inventive benefit. One had to follow the ulterior surrealist methods and disciplines in order to know the extent to which certain contents and actions were truly and sincerely revolutionary. Even when it was known that aligning the surrealist method with Marxism was nothing more than juvenile nonsense or provisional mystification, there remained the hope that they’d gradually continue to radicalize the brand new, unforeseen, militant Bolsheviki.
Unfortunately, while agitating and refuting in shrieking claims of Marxist faith, Breton and his friends subconsciously and unavoidably kept being incurable intellectual anarchists. The pessimism and desperation from surrealism’s first moments, which were able to effectively set the conscience of the cenacle in motion, became a permanent static system—an academic lesson plan. Those moral and intellectual crises, which surrealism claimed to promote but (yet another lack of originality in the school) shied away from, had debuted most expressively in dadaism, ankylosed in psychopathic legalese and literary cliché, despite the dialectical injections from Marx and the restless youngsters’ formal and unofficial dedication to communism. Pessimism and desperation must always be stages, not goals. To stir and ignite the spirit, they must develop until transforming into consecutive affirmations. Otherwise, they don’t amount to more than pathological germs, condemned to devouring themselves. While mocking the law of vital transformation, the surrealists became academics, I repeat, for their own sake and intellectual crises and didn’t have the strength to go above or beyond them with truly revolutionary destructive-constructive forms. Each surrealist did as he pleased. They broke off with numerous members of the party and its publishing organizations and took up everything, in constant divorce with the great Marxist directives. From a literary viewpoint, their productions continued to be characterized by evident bourgeois refinement. The commitment to communism wasn’t at all a reflection of the essential meaning and forms of their works. For all these reasons, surrealism declared itself incapable of comprehending and practicing the true, unique, revolutionary spirit of our age: Marxism. Surrealism rapidly lost the social prestige that had been its only raison d’être and began its irremediable agony.
At present, surrealism—as a Marxist movement—is a corpse. (As a merely literary cenacle—I repeat—it always was, like all schools, the imposture of life, a regular scarecrow.) The certification of its bereavement has recently transformed into two documents of interest: The Second Manifesto of Surrealism by Breton and another, with the title of A Corpse , which numerous surrealists, headed by Ribemont-Dessaignes, have signed against Breton. Along with the death and ideological decomposition of surrealism, both manifestos establish its dissolution as a physical group or aggregate. It’s a split or complete collapse of the chapel. Now the most serious and last of the series emerges from the rubble.
In his Second Manifesto Breton revises surrealist doctrine, showing that he’s satisfied with its performance and result. Breton continues to be, until his final moments, a professional intellectual, a scholastic ideologue, a rebellious lawyer, a recalcitrant dominus, a Maurrasian 49 polemicist, and, finally, just another anarchist on the block. Once again he declares that surrealism has triumphed, because it has obtained what it proposed: “to provoke a crisis of conscience, from the intellectual and moral point of view.” Breton is wrong: If he really has read and subscribed to Marxism, this doesn’t explain how he forgets that the role of the writer in that doctrine isn’t to provoke moral and intellectual crises, serious or general as they may be, that is, by creating the revolution “up above,” but rather on the contrary, by creating it “down below.” Breton forgets that there’s only one revolution—the proletarian—and that this revolution will be created by workers in action and not by intellectuals in their “crises of conscience.” The only crisis is the economic crisis, and for centuries now this has been put forth as fact and not simply as a concept or as “dilettantism.” As for the rest of the Second Manifesto , Breton wields attacks with the vitriol and personal insults of a literary cop aimed at his old brotherhood—insults and vitriol that evince the bourgeois character of his “crisis of conscience” as bourgeois to the bone.
The other manifesto, A Corpse, offers lapidary and necrological passages about Breton. “For an instant,” says Ribemont-Dessaignes, “we were smitten by surrealism: youthful loves, the loves, if you will, of manservants. Youngsters are authorized to love even a guard’s woman (this woman is incarnated in the aesthetic of Breton). A false companion, a false communist, a false revolutionary, but a true and authentic farce, Breton must beware of the guillotine. What am I saying!? One does not behead a corpse.” 50
“Breton scribbled,” Roger Vitrac says. “He scribbled in revolutionary and holier-than-thou style about subversive ideas and obtained a curious result, which continued to astonish the petite bourgeoisie, the petite merchants and industrialists, the minions of the seminary and the cardias of the first schools.”
“Breton,” says Jacques Prevert, “was a deaf-mute who confused everything: desperation and liver pain, the Bible and Les Chants de Maldoror , God and God, the ink and the table, the barricades and the divan of Madame Sabatier, the Marques de Sade and Jean Lorrain, the Russian Revolution and the surrealist revolution … This lyrical foreman handed out diplomas to lovers who wrote poems and, in the days of indulgence, to newcomers, out of desperation.”
“The corpse of Breton,” Michel Leiris says, “disgusts me because, among other reasons, he is a man who always lived among corpses.”
“Naturally,” says Jacques Rigaud, “Breton spoke quite well about love, but in life he was one of Courteline’s characters.” 51
Etc., etc., etc.
These evaluations about Breton can be applied without exception to all surrealists and to the defunct school itself. It will be said that this is their circumstantial prankster side and not the historical foundation of the movement. Quite right. Assuming that this historical foundation really exists, which in this case is not so. The historical foundation of surrealism is almost null, from whichever perspective it’s examined.
But this is how literary schools come to pass. Such is the fate of all unrest that, instead of becoming an austere creative laboratory, merely amounts to a formula. Useless then are the booming complaints, the calls for the vulgate, the color advertisements, in the end, the sleights of hand and professional tricks. Alongside the aborted tree, dead leaves asphyxiate. [ JM ]
New poetry has been used to classify verses whose lexicon is made up of the words “cinema,” “jazz-band,” “motor,” “radio,” and in general all terms of science and contemporary industry. It doesn’t matter whether or not the lexicon corresponds to an authentically new sensibility. It’s the words that matter.
But this isn’t new poetry, or old poetry, or anything else. The artistic materials offered by modern life must be assimilated by the artist and transformed into sensibility. The radio, for example, is destined to awaken a newly nerve-stricken mentality, a more profound sentimental perspicacity, proof, and understanding that amplify an ever-denser love, rather than just making us say “radio.” So it is that anxiety builds and one takes the breath of life. This is the true culture that makes progress. That is its only aesthetic purpose: not to fill our mouths with newly coined words. There’s often a lack of new words. A poem may not say “airplane” and still possess the emotion of aviation in an obscure and tacit, yet effective and human way. This is the real new poetry.
Otherwise, there’s barely enough to combine such and such artistic materials, and, accordingly, a more or less beautiful perfect image is produced. In this case, it’s no longer a matter of “new” poetry based on new words, but on new metaphors. Yet this too falls into error. There may be a lack of new images in truly new poetry—its function being one of ingenuity and not genius—but in a poem the creator relishes and suffers a life in which new relations and rhythms of things and men have become blood, cell, something anyway that’s been incorporated vitally and organically into sensibility.
“New” poetry by means of new words or new metaphors is distinguished by its novel pedantry, its complications, and its baroqueness. New poetry by means of new sensibility, on the contrary, is simple and human and, at a first glance, could be taken as ancient or doesn’t call into question whether it’s modern or not. [ JM ]
THE IMAGE AND ITS SYRTES
In an image by Guyau, life is represented as a mad virgin, the delusional bride of a groom who doesn’t exist and for whom she joyfully waits each dawn and weeps each dusk because he hasn’t arrived. In this image, life—life itself—disappears and what we have before us is a mad bride. By trying to communicate a greater visible pulse to the presence of life, Guyau, on the contrary, makes life disappear and shows us, in its place, another presence, something else: a woman. For no one will deny that life is one thing and a woman, another.
Such is the fate of all images by way of substitution. Ambiguous, hybrid, inorganic, false, these images lack poetic virtuality. They aren’t aesthetic creations, but rather painful, artificial articulations of two natural creations. One mustn’t forget that grafting isn’t a phenomenon of artistic biology. Nor is reproduction. In art, each form is an infinity that begins and ends with itself.
Cubism hasn’t managed to avoid this genre of images. Nor has dadaism. Nor surrealism. Much less, naturally, populism. [ JM ]
THE MAYAKOVSKY CASE
At a gathering of Bolshevik writers in Leningrad, Kolbasiev said to me, “Contrary to what’s presumed abroad, Mayakovsky isn’t the greatest Soviet poet or anything of the sort. Mayakovsky is nothing more than a thespian hyperbolist. Before him are Pasternak, Biedny, Sayanov, and many others …”
I knew Mayakovsky’s work, and my opinion was in absolute agreement with Kolbasiev’s. And, a few days later, when I spoke in Moscow with the author of 150,000,000, our conversation confirmed Kolbasiev’s judgment for all of eternity. In reality, Mayakovsky isn’t the greatest Soviet poet. He’s merely the most published. If one read more of Pasternak, Kaziin, Gastev, Sayanov, Viesimiensky, the name Mayakovsky would vanish from many radio waves.
But, why did my conversation with Mayakovsky have to be the definitive key to his work? To what degree can a conversation define the spirit and, even more, the aesthetic value of an artist? In this case, the answer depends on the method of critical thought. If we start with a surrealist, Freudian, Bergsonian, or any other reactionary method, we cannot ground ourselves in a simple dialogue with an artist to locate the tendency of his work. According to these different spiritualist methods, the artist is an instinct or, to express ourselves with a more orthodox lexicon, an intuition. His work flows from him naturally, unconsciously, subconsciously. If one asks his opinion on art or his art, he will surely respond with banalities and many of them; the exact opposite of what he does and practices. Accordingly, a genius denies, contradicts, or almost always loses in his debates. Therefore, to abide by one of these, as critical grounds, results in falseness, absurdity. Yet this doesn’t happen if we start with the method of historical materialism, so dear to Mayakovsky and his communist friends. Marx conceives of life solely as a vast scientific experiment in which nothing is unconscious or blind, but rather is reflective, conscious, and technical. According to him, the artist must proceed with a rigorously scientific method and complete understanding of his means so that his work may dialectically reverberate through history. That’s why there’s no better exegete of a poet’s work than the poet himself. What he thinks and says about his work is or should be more accurate than anyone else’s opinion. In the statements he made to me, Mayakovsky thus described, better than any critic, the true meaning and sum of his work.
Mayakovsky spoke to me with a visibly pained and bitter accent. Contrary to what all his critics say of him, deep down he was suffering an acute moral crisis. The revolution had arrived in the midst of his youth, when the forms of his spirit were already settled and even consolidated. The effort it took to suddenly turn around and face that new life with a boxing glove broke his spine and made him lose his center of gravity, converting him into a désaxée , 52 as occurred with Essenin and Sobol. Such has been the fate of this generation. It has suffered in a completely individual aorta the psychical consequences of the social revolution. Situated between the pre-and postrevolutionary generations, this generation of Mayakovsky, Essenin, and Sobol has been crucified. Within this generation, the cavalry has been greater for those whom the revolution took by surprise, dispossessed of all tradition or revolutionary initiation. The tragedy of personal, psychological transmutation has therefore been brutal, and only the indifferent have managed to escape from it by wearing a revolutionary mask—the numb posing as Bolsheviki. The more sensitively and warmheartedly the individual were to penetrate social events, the deeper the disturbances must have been in his persona, derived from political convulsion, and the more exacerbated the pathos of his inner and individual revision of history. The final judgment has therefore been terrible, and suicide (material and moral) was fatal and inevitable, the only solution to the tragedy. On the contrary, for the others—for the insensitive and indifferent “Bolsheviki”—it has been easy and not at all risky to pipe out “revolutionary” cries, since for them the revolution stayed outside, as a phenomenon or spectacle of the State, and didn’t end up becoming an inner, psychological, personal revolution. Thus there was neither difficulty nor danger in associating with the trend started by others. This is what most writers have done and do in Russia and elsewhere. What? Are these other writers going to go so far as to be put to death for the “sacred cause”? Well, are they? … That proves nothing. History shows that many have been put to death for much less.
In the case of Mayakovsky, two aspects must be distinguished: his life and his work. After his suicide, the former has reached completion as one of the greatest and purest individual expressions of collective action. Without a doubt the suicide has been nothing more than the millionth stage of the long moral via crucis of the writer, a déraciné 53 of history, and a powerful will to fully understand and live in powerful social relationships. This inner struggle between the past, which resists, despite its complete lack of leverage, and the present, which demands authentic thunderous transformation, in Mayakovksy was drawn out fiercely, terribly. At the bottom, the tenacious, irreducible, petite bourgeois sensibility would survive with the set of all its fundamental social values of life, and only on the outside would the voluntary thirst, virile from suffocating the profound being of the old history, slave away to replace it with the equally profound being of the new history. The grafting of the latter on the former was impossible. On the day after the revolution, in vain he exchanged his futurist vest for the Bolshevik poet’s button-down shirt. In vain he walked around thereafter reciting his Soviet poems in the streets and plazas, factories, fields, izbas, 54 unions, in the barracks of the Red Army … In vain he sought in the masses the suggestion necessary to sovietize his intimately désaxée spirit. With a gigantic strong body, with a robust steely megaphonic voice, he would recite, “Oh my country! You are a beautiful child. Oh my young Republic! You pull up and buck like a youthful filly. Our momentum is aimed at the future. And to you, old countries, we shall leave you one hundred kilometers back. Fare thee well, oh my country, you the youth of the world …” In vain, all of it … In vain … Shackled to counterfeit formulas of an external and inorganic Leninism, on the inside the poet truly continued to suffer in silence, feeling the complete opposite of what his poems were saying. While Mayakovsky continued to get mixed up in literature with that entourage of “revolutionary” artists, who appear to be so with the same ease that they would appear to be brave, senior citizens, or creatures of the night, the inner life of the poet, in open disagreement with an art that did not translate it, continued to struggle under the surface, debating itself in agony. It was the tragic, piercing breakdown of all synchronicity between the work and life of the author. And neither a revolutionary nor reactionary poet became of him. His inner struggle completely neutralized his sensibility and artistic expression. Mayakovsky was a mere intellectual, a simple wordsmith, a hollow rhetorician. “War on metaphysics,” he said to me in Moscow.
“War on the subconscious and the theory according to which the poet sings as sings the bird … War on apolitical poetry, on grammar, on metaphor … Art must be controlled by reason … It must always serve as political propaganda, and even work with preconceived, clear ideas, and it even must be developed with a thesis, like an algebraic theory. The expression must be direct, point blank …”
Did his poetry respond to these claims? Evidently, it did. However, the theory of Mayakovsky served to turn him into a manufacturer of cold, dead poems sur commande. 55
The claims of Mayakovsky express the truth about his work in the sense that they confirm the fact that it responds to an art based on formulas and not on affective personal sincerity.
By binding himself to an artistic platform, taken from historical materialism, Mayakovsky merely made unprecedented poems deprived of inner warmth and meaning, produced by external, mechanical traction, that is, by an artificial heater.
Mayakovsky was a soul exemplary of his environment and his time, but he wasn’t a poet. His life was likewise great due to its tragedy, but his art was declamatory and null since it betrayed the authentic and truly critical moments of his life. [ JM ]
REGARDING ARTISTIC FREEDOM
“I protest,” a poet said to me, au dessus de la mêlée, 56 “that the artist and writer should submit to the yoke of any government or social class, whether it’s the Soviet government and the proletarian class or not. The artist and writer have nothing to do with political parties and classes and must work on their art with absolute freedom and independence.”
“Do you think,” I argued, “that in all of history there have ever been artists and writers who were free and independent in this regard?”
“Naturally. Even today, we have Bernard Shaw, Stravinsky, Picasso, Chaplin.”
“Is that right? Free of what? Independent of what?”
“Of the politics of Chamberlain, Stalin, Chautemps, Roosevelt.”
“Hold it right there. Let’s understand each other. Suppose one day Picasso paints a cubist Laval, making the French weavers scrounge off the police, because they demand a raise in their wages. What would happen? This is what: neither Mr. Rosember— marchand of Picasso—nor any other marchand de tableaux 57 of Paris would want to show that painting to the public in their galleries; second, the public of rue la Boétie—a crowd indeed chic, le tout Paris cultivé et riche, capable of buying Picasso’s most expensive paintings—would be indignant and find the theme and even the artistic execution of the canvas drôles, 58 in poor taste, crafty, and, finally, annoying, if not pas intéressants 59 (and we already know why!); third, the critics of Le Temps , Le Figaro , Paris Midi … etc. would cry out to Heaven; and, fourth, the secret police of famous Mr. Chiappe would visit Picasso one afternoon and serve him a surely not so desirable summons. In the end, the painter would lose his prestige, and his career (aside from earning him premeditated surveillance) could consequently end up sending the artist to Irun. What happened to the painter’s freedom? And let it be known that the theme of the painting wouldn’t be Picasso’s invention, but would be taken from the reality of what happened in July 1930, when Laval was minister of labor. 60 And let it be known, finally, that the tragedies—and all the more if they’re social—contain premium artistic suggestions.”
“But, exactly,” the poet said to me somewhat defeated, au dessus de la mêlée, “the artist is not to mess with political themes.” Picasso will never paint such a canvas and, thus, what you say never will happen …”
“But of course. Surely not. Picasso and the other ‘free’ artists don’t mess with political themes for this reason: so that nothing happens to them. They’re ignorant to Zola’s phrase: ‘My duty is to speak; I don’t want to be an accomplice.’ 61 It’s very pleasing to watch the bulls from a safe distance. What does it matter if those themes are extraordinarily great on their own account? As soon as you mess with them, say good-bye to ‘freedom.’”
“But, Picasso, like other great artists, is far from doing this out of cowardice or egotism.” “Okay, okay. It’s an unconscious egotism and a dependence on class and the bourgeois government, which is equally unconscious.” 62
[ JM ]
MY SELF-PORTRAIT IN THE LIGHT OF HISTORICAL MATERIALISM
A portrait must contain the essence of a life, that is to say, the infinite personality, the past, present, and future figure, in brief, the entire role of a life. The artist will poke around the mystery of that life, discover its permanent and changing sense of beauty and will make it felt in lines, colors, surfaces, movement, mass, directions. A portrait is, then, the revelation of a life, from the beginning to the end of its trajectory. A portrait is data from an oracle, the cipher of a prophecy, an explanation of the mystery, the excavation of a fable. All this is the character of a portrait.
But the creation of the portrait, like all creations, has its heroic side. This heroism is rooted in a battle between the infinity of a being, or rather his character, which is revealed by the artist, and the situation or circumstance of that being in space and time. This situation, this finiteness is his appearance, what he looks like. The artist will dole out aspects of the conflict according to his emotions. The circumstances of space and time within which we unexpectedly encounter the infinity of his life must not be subordinated to the point that we cannot recognize the person in the portrait. Upon a certain mysterious balance between what is visible and invisible in a portrait, between circumstance and permanence, or, what amounts to the same thing, between appearance and character is what the greatness of a creation depends.
Character and appearance are embattled values in the portrait, which is why they harmonize and integrate with each other. The feeling of plenitude in the portrait, as in a compass, resides in both. They constitute the thesis and antithesis of dialectical movement in this art. [ SJL ]
[ SJL ] Suzanne Jill Levine
[ JM ] Joseph Mulligan
37 Section 11 of Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach . Translation from the German provided by Foreign Languages, Moscow, reprinted in Marx and Engels: Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy , ed. Lewis S. Feuer (New York: Anchor Books, 1959), 245.
38 The passage from Marx appears in the preface to the second edition of Capital: A Critique of Political Economy . The translation from the German is by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, based on the third edition of the original German text, reprinted in Feuer, Marx and Engels , 146.
39 this-sided In the Spanish, we find the word terrestres , literally translated as “terrestrial,” “earthly,” or “worldly,” but I sense that Vallejo is applying a Spanish translation of Marxist lingo, namely, of the concept of Diesseitigkeit , which can be translated from the German as “worldliness” or, as seems more accurate, as “this-sideness.”
40 “Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.’” John 18:36 (New American Standard Bible).
41 Max Eastman (1883–1969). We have translated Vallejo’s Spanish version of the English.
42 These passages have been excerpted from a longer text by the same title, “La function revolucionaria del pensamiento,” in Priego 2002, 369–75.
43 Probably Jean-François Millet (1814–75), French painter, known for his realistic portrayal of rural peasants.
44 pompier French, pompous.
45 Robert Fulton (1765–1815), American engineer credited with developing the first commercial steamboat.
46 muse In the Spanish, numen , literally translated as “numen,” can refer to what is perceptible to the mind but not the senses; however, the phrase numen poético is more appropriately rendered as “poetic inspiration.” In view of the latter, a nonliteral translation has been preferred.
47 This probably comes from Cement by Fyodor Gladkov. See the English translation by A. S. Arthur and C. Ashleigh (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 1994).
48 abracadabrant Adjective coined by Vallejo, in Spanish abracadabrante , meaning pompously clever.
49 Maurrasian Maurras-like, in the style of Charles Maurras (1868–1952), French writer, poet, and political theorist.
50 Vallejo translates these passages from the French to the Spanish. The English translations are based on Vallejo’s Spanish version. For more, see the pamphlet Un cadavre . André Breton, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, and Jacques Prévert (Paris: “Du Cadavre,” 1924).
51 Georges Courteline (1858–1929), dramatist and novelist, whose work, for the surrealists, would surely have seemed outmoded.
52 désaxée French, literally, imbalanced; figuratively, a madman, lunatic.
53 déraciné French, rootless, ungrounded.
54 izba Traditional Russian countryside home, similar to a log cabin.
55 sur commande French, made to order.
56 au dessus de la mêlée French, over the [noise of the] tussle.
57 marchand de tableaux French, art dealer.
58 drôles French, weird, odd.
59 pas intéressants French, uninteresting.
60 The reference is likely to Laval’s large-scale investment, between August 1927 and June 1930, of around 50 million francs, all of which was not his own but was backed by several financiers and banking institutions.
61 From Émile Zola’s open letter to the president of the republic, “J’accuse …!” ( L’aurore , no. 87, January 13, 1898), Vallejo translates from the French, “Mon devoir est de paler, je ne veux pas être complice.”
62 This translation is selected from a longer article by the same title.