MANDELSTAM ON LANGUAGE.

I keep going back to Mandelstam, one of the most important writers to me even though I often find his thought hard to follow, and my latest attempt at his 1922 essay “On the Nature of the Word” (О природе слова) brought to my attention a passage I thought I’d translate and pass along:

As such a criterion of the unity of the literature of a given people, a conventional [or "conditional" or "theoretical": uslovnoe] unity, only a people’s language can be recognized, for all other signs/indicators [priznaki] are themselves conventional, transient, and arbitrary. But language, even though it changes, does not stiffen into repose even for a minute, [moving] from one point to another, [each] blindingly bright in the consciousness of philologists, and within the bounds of all its changes it remains a fixed quantity, a constant, it remains internally unified. For each philologist such an identity of personality in application to the (self-)consciousness of the language is natural. When the Latin language, having spread throughout the Roman lands, blossomed with a new flower and put forth the shoots of the future Romance languages, a new literature began, childish and poor by comparison with Latin, but already Romance.
When there sounded forth the living speech of the “Lay of the Host of Igor,” full of images, thoroughly secular, worldly, and Russian at each turn, Russian literature began. And when Velimir Khlebnikov, a contemporary Russian writer, plunges into the thick of Russian root words, into an etymological night dear to the heart of an intelligent reader, that same Russian literature, the literature of the “Lay of the Host of Igor,” is alive. Russian literature, exactly like Russian nationality, is compounded of numberless adulterations, interbreedings, graftings, and alien influences, but in one thing it remains true to itself, until our own kitchen Latin sounds forth for us as well, and on the mighty ruins spring up pale young shoots of new life, like the Old French song of the martyr Eulalie:
Buona pulcella fut Eulalia.
Bel auret corps bellezour anima.

(Original below the cut.)


Таким критерием единства литературы данного народа, единства условного, может быть признан только язык народа, ибо все остальные признаки сами условны, преходящи и произвольны. Язык же, хотя и меняется, ни одну минуту не застывает в покое, от точки и до точки, ослепительно ясной в сознании филологов, и в пределах всех своих изменений остается постоянной величиной, «константой», остается внутренне единым. Для всякого филолога понятно, что такое тождество личности в применении к самосознанию языка. Когда латинская речь, распространившаяся по всем романским землям, зацвела новым цветом и пустила побеги будущих романских языков, началась новая литература, — детская и убогая по сравнению с латинской, но уже романская.
Когда прозвучала живая и образная речь «Слова о полку Игореве», насквозь светская, мирская и русская в каждом повороте, — началась русская литература. А пока Велимир Хлебников, современный русский писатель, погружается в самую гущу русского корнесловия, в этимологическую ночь, любезную сердцу умного читателя, жива та же самая русская литература, литература «Слова о полку Игореве». Русский язык так же точно, как и русская народность, сложился из бесконечных примесей, скрещиваний, прививок и чужеродных влияний, но в одном он останется верен самому себе, пока и для нас не прозвучит наша кухонная латынь и на могучих развалинах не взойдут бледные молодые побеги новой жизни, подобно древнефранцузской песенке о мученице Евлалии:
Buona pulcella fut Eulalia.
Bel auret corps bellezour anima.

Comments

  1. John Emerson says:

    Mandelstam is the poet I most regret not being able to read.
    In other news, I’m reading Nabokov on Gogol, and he makes Gogol and his mother seem no less strange than Gogol’s strangest fictional characters. It makes me rethink Gogol’s intent. Maybe all those people in Dead Souls were intended to be ordinary, everyday people, and maybe Gogol intended his work to be boringly realistic.
    Apologies for going off topic on the first post, but I waited for hours and hours. And the post looked so lonely.

  2. John Emerson says:

    Mandelstam is the poet I most regret not being able to read.
    In other news, I’m reading Nabokov on Gogol, and he makes Gogol and his mother seem no less strange than Gogol’s strangest fictional characters. It makes me rethink Gogol’s intent. Maybe all those people in Dead Souls were intended to be ordinary, everyday people, and maybe Gogol intended his work to be boringly realistic.
    Apologies for going off topic on the first post, but I waited for hours and hours. And the post looked so lonely.

  3. A.J.P. Snork says:

    Gogol — is that like google?

  4. It’s like Google, but for Russians.

  5. John: If you’re interested in Gogol, you might want to read Donald Fanger’s The Creation of Nikolai Gogol (1979).

  6. «Русский номинализм, то есть представление о реальности слова как такового, животворит дух нашего языка и связывает его с эллинской филологической культурой не этимологически и не литературно, а через принцип внутренней свободы, одинаково присущей им обоим.»
    As someone researching ancient Greek (esp. post-hellenistic) philosophy of language, the sudden move from ‘hellenistic’ («Русский язык — язык эллинистический.») to ‘hellenic’ is not (at least to me) at all transparent. Greek philological culture usually means Alexandrian (largely hellenistic – and literary) philological culture (doesn’t it?), though Greek nominalism survives classical, hellenistic, and post-hellenistic periods. What completely escapes me though is what the ‘principle of inner freedom’ – inherent in ‘hellenic philological culture’ (understood in either the Alexandrian, or nominalistic sense) and the spirit of the Russian language – can be, even given the Russian nominalism that links the two by means of it.

  7. John Emerson says:

    On my list!

  8. John Emerson says:

    On my list!

  9. Yeah, I’m not sure about that either, fiosachd, but I think it’s safe to assume that M. wasn’t deeply familiar with Alexandrian theories—his Hellenism was his own creation and expressed more his own desires for a tradition than actual research.

  10. I wonder if he’d read Florensky’s 2nd letter on doubt in «Столп и утверждение Истины» (published eight years earlier) and had something like the following observation in mind.
    «в понимании русского и эллина Истина имеет непосредственное отношение к каждой личности, тогда как для римлянина и еврея она опосредствована обществом.»

  11. I’ll bet he had; that sounds right up his alley.

  12. http://www.tsvetayeva.com/prose/pr_iskustwo_pri_sovesti.php
    there is an excerpt about Gogol and the poem of a unknown nun
    it’s a pity i can’t translate this
    i wonder whether there are good translations of her prose

  13. I don’t know how good the translations are, but there are a bunch of them here.

  14. i linked from that site
    i was interested in Languagehat’s opinion how good those translations are, or even in reading his own translations
    b/c you are fluent in both languages

  15. I’m afraid Tsvetaeva translations are not high on my list of priorities right now. But you never know what I’ll get interested in!

  16. Wish you would do more of this. I’ve read most of Mandelstam that’s in translation, and find it difficult too, but worth the effort. His comments here made me think of my father-in-law talking about the inseparability of Arabic literature and language.

  17. I’m not familiar with Mandelstam (apart from the name), but the passage you quote resonates for me with the outdated notions of 19th century thought. We catch glimpses of the ideology of the Volk, the concept of Great Languages and Great Literatures, and much more besides.
    I have come to entertain grave doubts about this kind of ‘religious’ view of language and literature. It is fine if you believe in the undying nature of the “Russian soul”, or the sanctity of the folk vernacular as a fount of great new literatures, but in a world where great peoples and great cultures of the past have been assimilated or disappeared completely, can we really cling to these romantic notions of race and culture?

  18. Nationalistic bluster aside, is it possible that Hellenic philological culture is the one that gave rise to the idea of logos and in his own time the Imiaslavia controvery? And that Russian nominalism is adapting the medieval nominalists’ anti-Realism as anti-Symbolism? And that the principle of inner freedom is a mix of Saussure’s arbitrariness of the sign and Potebnia’s etymological inner form, so that Acmeism can use words poetically, according to their innate image, as opposed to Symbolism’s broader misuse? This Bergsonian inner whatever being elsewhere in the essay preferred over external Evolution and its demon child Progress.
    I think there was a lot of this mix-and-match in immediate post-Revolutionary Russia. The Futurists had their almost-autonomous, almost-personified word, too.

  19. If you scratch the surface a little deeper you will find Dravidians.

  20. I think there was a lot of this mix-and-match in immediate post-Revolutionary Russia.
    You’re no doubt right, though even pastiche may be critically appreciable. Osip Èmil’evič both selected and arranged (perhaps even innovated upon) his parts borrowed.

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