BLACK SUN IN MANDELSHTAM.

In a comment to an earlier entry, Beth asked for an explanation of the image “black sun” in Mandelshtam. I replied that it was an apocalyptic image (see Isaiah, Mark, and Revelations) but had more specific and complex meanings for Mandelshtam. So let’s look into how he uses it.


First, let’s go all the way back to January 1837, when Russia’s greatest poet, Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin, got himself killed in an idiotic duel over the virtue of his wife. A colleague of his named Andrei Kraevsky said in his famous obituary of Pushkin Солнце нашей поэзии закатилось! ‘The sun of our poetry has set!’ We now leap ahead to 1915 and the death of Scriabin, which prompted Mandelshtam to begin an essay, of which we have only fragments, called either “Pushkin and Scriabin” or “Scriabin and Christianity.” The essay begins:

Pushkin and Scriabin are two transformations of a single sun, two interruptions of a single heart. Twice the death of an artist has gathered together the Russian people and kindled its sun above them. They gave an example of a sobornyi [joint, combined; synodal; of a spiritual collectivity], Russian demise; they died a full death, as people live a full life; their personality, dying, widened into a symbol of a whole people, and the sun-heart of the dying man remained forever at the zenith of suffering and glory.
…Tear away the covering of time from this creative life, and it will flow freely from its cause, death, settling itself around death as around its own sun and absorbing its light.
Pushkin was buried at night. They buried him secretly. Marble St. Isaac’s—that magnificent sarcophagus—just didn’t end up with the solar body of the poet. At night they laid the sun in the grave, and in the January frost the sledge runners squeaked along, carrying the poet’s ashes away for the burial service.
I have recalled the picture of Pushkin’s burial to arouse in your memory the image of a night Sun, the image of a late Greek tragedy by Euripides, the vision of unhappy Phaedra.

These images reoccur throughout Mandelshtam’s collection Tristia. Phaedra is featured in the opening poem of this 1922 edition, “How heavy is the splendor of these veils and this attire amid my shame!” Particularly striking are the lines “And for the mother in love/The black sun will rise” and “I have stained the sun with black love,” and the final quatrain

But we, bringing the dead
With a funeral song into the house,
Will soothe the black sun
Of wild, sleepless passion.

So the “buried sun” of the dead poet becomes the “night sun” and then the “black sun” of the passionate sinner Phaedra. In “This night is irretrievable” (page 24 of the linked edition) the black sun rises at the gates of Jerusalem, where “the Jews have buried my mother”; it ends “I awoke in a cradle, illuminated by a black sun.” The association with funerals links this poem closely to the essay, but the sun seems to be playing a very different role, influenced by the Christian apocalyptic tradition.
Now we move ahead a few years to the terrible winter of 1920, of which Akhmatova said “All of the old Petersburg signs were still in place, but behind them, except for dust, darkness, and yawning emptiness, there was nothing. Typhoid, hunger, executions, darkness in the apartments, damp logs, people emaciated to unrecognizability…. All the cemeteries were destroyed. The city had not simply changed, but had completely turned into its opposite.” (tr. Broyde) The two-year civil war was supposedly over—the major White armies had been defeated—and “according to official historiographers, the young republic of workers and peasants was now ready to turn all of its attention to socialist construction.” (Brovkin, p. 300) And yet the peasant war, the war against the “Green army” of peasants fed up with endless expropriations and official violence, not only went on but spread to new provinces. The Bolsheviks had not expected it and refused to acknowledge it, but it required more and more “burned villages, mass deportations, and famine.” Meanwhile the cities were freezing and starving. As Brovkin says (p. 270):

Life in a Soviet city of 1920 can be compared to the theater of the absurd. There were two worlds: one was the ideal and the other real… Newspapers reported on the heroic work of labor collectives and new victories on the external and internal fronts against the bourgeoisie and kulaks and wreckers and all the other enemies of Soviet power… In the real world factories were mostly idle, railroads barely functioned, tramlines stood still, and electricity was supplied only to party and government agencies. Water and sewage services did not function…

Mandelshtam too was living in two worlds. He had welcomed the Bolshevik revolution and continued to see himself as part of it, clearing away the dead past and bringing about new forms of civilization; at the same time, he was no fool, and couldn’t ignore the evidence of his senses. More and more he realized something was going badly wrong. Although he never unambiguously renounced the revolution (as far as I know), the strain of the contradiction increasingly made itself felt in his poetry, and I think the “black sun” image represents this contradiction.
Mandelshtam’s 1920 poems mostly seem to take place at night. In “Sisters, heaviness and tenderness,” “Yesterday’s sun is carried away on a black stretcher”; in “I want to serve you,” “And in the midnight drama… I will call you”; in “A phantom scene barely glimmers,” “And the night is pitch black”; in “The meaning of somber and barren Venetian life is clear to me,” “Black Hesper glimmers in the mirror. Everything passes, the truth is dark,” in the wonderful “I have forgotten the word that I wanted to say,” “A night song is sung in forgetfulness,” and in “Because I couldn’t hold on to your arms” (bizarrely translated in the linked version as “If I am to know how to restrain your hands”), “I must wait for daybreak in the dense acropolis… Achaian men equip their steeds in darkness… The gloom has still not dispersed.” But the central exhibit for us is the famous “In Petersburg we’ll meet again As though we’d buried the sun there.” Mandelshtam was revising the Scriabin essay at this time, and the image of burying “the solar body of the poet” (“At night they laid the sun in the grave…”) is reproduced almost unchanged, except that Pushkin is no longer explicitly mentioned; instead, the sun seems to represent, as Broyde says (p. 92), Petersburg’s cultural heritage as a whole. Here the night is “Soviet” (in the 1928 edition this was changed, for obvious reasons of censorship, to “January,” which reinforces the connection with Pushkin’s burial), and the second stanza describes the frightening circumstances of life in newly Soviet Petersburg—except that the narrator doesn’t need a “night pass,” because he will have the “blessed senseless word” (“senseless” implying non-utilitarian, the opposite of the “socialist realism” still to come). The whole complex of images is summed up in the last four lines:

Well, blow out our candles
In the black velvet of worldwide emptiness,
The rounded shoulders of the blessed women still sing,
And you won’t notice the night sun.

“You”—as opposed, that is, to the “we” who will meet in Petersburg, the immortal center of Russian culture; you can blow out our candles in your Soviet night, but there’s a night sun that you’ll never notice, the sun that shines the brighter for being buried. Or, as Bulgakov (another conflicted Soviet writer) put it in another “senseless word,” manuscripts don’t burn.
Update. See this 2009 post for more on the subject.

Comments

  1. Thanks so much — you’ve outdone yourself! What a wonderful explanation. So it seems that this burial of the sun, or the black sun, represents not only the death of specific people (Pushkin, Scriabin, M.’s mother) but becomes a symbol of Russia itself? or even more generally, of the death of what M. prizes most? Did Akhmatova ever use this image herself? I seem to remember something similar but can’t remember anyting specific.

  2. What a lovely, lovely entry. I love Mandelshtam. Thank you so much for writing about him in such a gorgeous post. (And Nadheza was quite something herself, as well!)

  3. Might Nerval’s poem El Desdichado also have an influence?:

    Ma seule Etoile est morte, – et mon luth constellé
    Porte le Soleil noir de la Mélancolie.

  4. of course the Black Sun as an alchemical image goes back hundreds of years; i’d be quite surprised if M. wasn’t at least aware of this.

  5. I was just reading Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” and found, in the passage (the fourth “memorable fancy”) in which an angel takes him deep beneath a church vault to “a void boundless as a nether sky” where they sit in “the twisted root of an oak” and get used to the darkness, the following description:
    “By degrees we beheld the infinite Abyss, fiery as the smoke of a burning city; beneath us at an immense distance was the sun, black but shining…”
    Nothing to do with Mandelshtam, I suppose, but striking in its own right.

  6. Shiralunacy says:

    How stupendous (a word I don’t use often) to search Google for the Mandelshtam/Pushkin midnight sun/black sun connection that I only vaguely remembered and to immediately find this wonderful exchange. Even moreso to see the appreciation of Mandelshtam. I look forward to visiting this site again. P.S. I used to own a hardcopy of the second volume of Nadezhda M’s memoirs,_Hope Abandoned_, loaned it to someone and never got it back. If any of you know how I could find this again without selling my soul at the pawnbroker’s, that would be wonderful.
    Shiralunacy aka Sonia

  7. Hi, Sonia! I’m glad you like this entry; I put a lot of work into it, and it’s one of my favorites (as Mandelshtam is one of my favorite poets). As for the book (don’t you hate it when people don’t return books?), I just checked Best Book Buys and found the cheapest available copy is for $22 from Amazon — and that’s the paperback! Remind me never to lend out my copy. (I’ll keep my eye out for it when I go to used bookstores, though — are you only interested in the hardcover, or will you take a paperback if it’s available at a decent price?)

  8. The black sun, as a symbol, sounds quite medieval/occult/cabalistic and seems, indeed, to have long been in currency in certain circles. If it refers to the eclipse, then there is no way to avoid its Biblical roots. Note that the black sun should be better known to Russian audiences from another literary work created in the 1920s and the 1930s, Sholokhov’s (or someone else’s) Quiet Flows the Don. In the next-to-last chapter, Grigory, having buried Aksinya, “raised his head and saw above him a black sky and a blindingly shining black disk of the sun.”

  9. Thanks for the excellent additional reference. I’m afraid I still haven’t read Tikhii Don.

  10. How glad am I this post came up in the recently commented on so I could read it again? This glad.
    Biblical roots:
    And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood.
    Revelation 6:12.
    6:11 is also interesting, in this context:
    And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellowservants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled.
    Also:
    Vril was supposedly one of the languages spoken by the Atlanteans. It was composed of sounds and clicks.
    Sounds and clicks! You don’t say – how unusual, for a language!
    During this ten-year period, the Thule Society members were supposedly the first group to attempt the back-engineering of an extraterrestrial spacecraft…German aircraft historian Henry Stevens says Haunebu 1 was supposedly the first large flying saucer developed in Germany.

  11. John Cowan says:

    Almost certainly Sholokhov’s. There is no real evidence against, and plenty of statistical evidence for.

  12. Chris Lovett says:

    Compare with an Akhmatova poem from 1919:

    Чем хуже этот век предшествующих? Разве
    Тем, что в чаду печали и тревог
    Он самой черной прикоснулся язве,
    Но исцелить еë не мог.

    Ещë на западе земное солнце светит,
    И кровли городов в его лучах блестят,
    А здесь уж белая дома крестами метит
    И кличет воронов, и вороны летят.

    Scriabin was a Muscovite, but his death registers dramatically as the end of en epoch, and his last concert appearance was in St. Petersburg, when he played his last piano pieces (as apocalyptic as they were epigrammatic). As with the death Pushkin, it’s hard to separate the individual passing from the oeuvre, as well as the pivotal moment in Russian history. Pushkin’s death may have been senseless, but it was at least willful, while Scriabin’s was more inadvertent, and all the more shocking by the triviality of its physical cause.

    The personal details don’t concern Mandelshtam. In the decade before Scriabin’s death, he was practically the foremost Russian musical innovator, pushing the boundaries of musical language by exploring new harmonic possibilities. Skirting the weeds of musical analysis, Mandelshtam describes this language in almost mythological terms as a shift from the prevalent “Christian” notion of harmony (resolving conflict into closure or redemption) to the ancient Greek or “Hellenistic”–the force of unredeemed nature, moving from intoxication to collapse. Instead of striving for righteousness on a human scale, Scriabin wagered audacity against larger forces with more indifference to human fate (maybe what Mandelshtam meant by the sword of the Seraphim). For Mandelshtam, Scriabin’s music was a microcosm of the whole Silver Age. An artificial narrative, perhaps, but one for which Scriabin’s music–especially his later piano pieces–readily serves as a soundtrack.

  13. Thanks for a very interesting comment, and for reviving one of my favorite posts! I’ll provide a literal translation of the Akhmatova for those who don’t read Russian:

    How is this century worse than the preceding ones? Perhaps
    because in the fumes of grief and alarms
    it touched the blackest sore
    but couldn’t cure it.

    Still in the west the earthly sun shines,
    and the roofs of cities glitter in its rays,
    but here the white one marks houses with crosses
    and calls the ravens, and the ravens come.

    The notes to the Hemschemeyer translation say “the white one” is death; I don’t know what that’s based on.

  14. Skeletons, corpses (in Europe), perhaps. Tuberculosis used to be called the white plague.

  15. Yeah, I can imagine chains of reasoning, but that’s not an explanation. I mean, you could use “the black one” for death and have at least as valid chains of reasoning. What I’d like is evidence showing that “the white one” is a traditional Russian expression for death, but I haven’t found any.

  16. From Sydney Goodsir Smith’s long poem “The Refugees: A Complaynt” (1940):

    Across the drouth of Polska’s steppes a black sun burned ye […]

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