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.