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Journey to Armenia , by Osip Mandelstam

Journey to Armenia - Osip Mandelstam


Sevanavank monastery on an island in Sevan Lake, Armenia



In 1930 Osip Mandelstam was deep in the bouillabaisse - only Bukharin's protection held the Soviet authorities off of him, a vindictive bureaucrat was taxing him for plagiarism, and his internal sources of poetic inspiration had been dry for five years already. To put some food on his plate and to get him out of Moscow and away from his enemies, Bukharin arranged a trip to Armenia for Mandelstam and his infinitely loyal wife, Nadezhda. He was supposed to produce a text demonstrating how socialist progress had made great strides in that particular backwater.(*)


Well, he didn't write that text. Instead, he fabricated an episodic and impressionistic poem in prose, Journey to Armenia (1933), in which the ancient land of Armenia - outpost of Hellenism, first Christian state, vassal of Byzantium, occasional independent kingdom - helps Mandelstam find his place in time. Certainly, he found what he had needed, because after he wrote this text, his poetic sources flowed freely again, and he recommenced his true calling until Bukharin could protect him no longer.


It is with an image redolent of history that Mandelstam invites the reader into his text:


On the island of Sevan, which is conspicuous for two most dignified architectural monuments that date back to the seventh century, as well as for the mud huts of flea-bitten hermits only recently passed away, thickly overgrown with nettles and thistles, but not scarier than the neglected cellars of summer houses, I spent a month enjoying the lake water that stood at a height of four thousand feet above sea level and training myself to the contemplation of the two or three dozen tombs scattered as if they were a flowerbed amidst the monastery's recently renovated dormitories.


Full of wry, fanciful little portraits of the people he met and quick snapshots of the places he visited, Journey to Armenia also records his slow realization that the murderous and paranoid Moscow environment had deformed him.


The Armenians' fullness of life, their rough tenderness, their noble inclination for hard work, their inexplicable aversion to any kind of metaphysics, and their splendid intimacy with the world of real things - all this said to me: you're awake, don't be afraid of your own time, don't be sly.


But he also cuts in with whatever is on his mind: Lamarck,(**)  Linnaeus, Paul Signac's "Law of Optical Blending," wild strawberries in Abkhazia, a book found under a staircase in Moscow, anything at all. In an impressionistic report on a dinner party with a gaggle of young university students he slips in this:


I don't know how it is for others, but for me a woman's charm is augmented if she happens to be a young traveler, who has spent five days of a scientific trip lying on a hard bench of the Tashkent train, who knows her way around in Linnaean Latin, who knows where she stands in the dispute between the Lamarckians and the epigeneticists, and who is not indifferent to the soybean, the cotton plant, or the chicory.


Thanks to Gifford, I know that he is not in the least ironic here. The next paragraph, which apparently wraps up the description of the dinner party, reads:


And on the table there is an elegant syntax of confused, heteroalphabetical, grammatically incorrect wildflowers, as if all the preschool forms of vegetative being were coalescing into a pleophonic anthology-poem.


I believe I can safely say that Mandelstam was an associative thinker; Gifford speaks of Mandelstam's "code" without, unfortunately, getting very far with the de-coding.


There are moments of great charm in this text full of lines like Leopards have the sly ears of punished schoolboys and passages like


Linnaeus painted his monkeys in the tenderest colonial colors. He would dip his brush in Chinese lacquers, and he would paint with brown and red pepper, with saffron, olive oil, and cherry juice. And he managed his task with dexterity and gaiety, like a barber shaving the Bürgermeister, or a Dutch housewife grinding coffee on her lap in a big-bellied coffee mill.


One certainly learns more here about Mandelstam's interests and thought processes than one does about Armenia. On the other hand, I'll bet that after a few vodkas around his kitchen table the conversations were incredible. Journey to Armenia will have to be our substitute for the real thing.



(*) Thirty years later, Vasily Grossman would find himself in a nearly identical circumstance and produced the ironic and sharply observed An Armenian Sketchbook.


(**) This edition(***) includes an essay on Mandelstam and the Journey by Henry Gifford, and one of the few useful points Gifford makes is that Mandelstam was pro-Lamarckian and anti-Darwinian, because he abhorred any form of determinism and any kind of fatalism. 


(***) San Francisco, George F. Ritchie, 1979