Having finished the Ronen book, I’m trying to get through Nancy Pollak’s Mandelstam the Reader before Wednesday, when I have to return them both; it’s hard, because I keep investigating the detours she sends me off on (she studied with Ronen and has the same densely packed style of investigating webs of lexical reminiscences). I just ran across a coincidence that pleases me, and must have pleased Mandelstam much more; Pollak has been talking about the importance of the eighteenth-century German naturalist Peter Simon Pallas, who did his most important work in Russia, for Mandelstam’s writing of the 1930s (I’m quoting from pp. 20-21):
In the “autobiographical confession” of Conversation about Dante, where he admits to having “consulted” with stones in conceiving that prose, Mandelstam identifies the conjunction of spheres, taking stone, which chronicles atmospheric change, as an analogue to Dante’s revolutionary construction of time. The mineral form he calls a “diary of the weather,” disclosing the “synchronism of events sundered by the ages,” is another version of the layers of time turned up by the plow of poetry. Mandelstam represents Dante’s “union of what cannot be united” in terms of quartz: “The interior of quartz, the Aladdin’s space [prostranstvo] concealed in it, the luminescence, the incandescence, the chandelier’s suspension of the fish rooms heaped in it — is the best of keys to the comprehension of the Comedy’s coloration.”…
The stone discovered is substantially like the subject who finds it. In his Russian Travels, Pallas refers to mineral formations resembling the one Mandelstam describes as the traveler’s find in “Around the Naturalists” and consults in Conversation about Dante: he observes “globular pieces [of sandstone] of various sizes, which, on breaking them, were partly hollow, and contained sand not unlike regular geodites”; elsewhere he mentions “amygdalite” formations. The mineralogist A. E. Fersman, another source Mandelstam would have consulted, identifies similar formations in his comprehensive catalogue of stones found in Russia, calling them by various names: zheoda, mindal’nye porody, mindal’nyi kamen’, mindalina, mandel’stein. Brokgauz-Efron has an entry for mindal’nyi kamen’, alternatively mandel’shtein:
Porous varieties of ancient rocks in which the pores are filled with new mineral formations. These fillings of pores and empty places often have the form of almonds [mindalin] (and also of spheres, cylinders), whence their name. They appear especially often in the family of agate porphyries and melaphyres.
The geode, like the eye that discovers it, functions metonymically, its unprepossessing shell containing a crystalline treasure. It is one of Mandelstam’s “oxymoronic images of inner wealth and outer poverty.” As mindalina, which has the second meaning “almond,” the geode is linked to a fruit of which the antithetical varieties (bitter and sweet, hard-shelled and soft-shelled) originate in a single species (cf. Mandelstam’s treatment of the oxymoronic almond in the drafts to the fifth chapter of Journey to Armenia). Discovered by Mandelstam, who takes Pallas’s cat‘s eye (the eye of Felis manul) as the prototypical organ of vision, mandel’shtein is the poet’s name, his first word, and thus, as Mandelstam suggests in discussing the naturalist’s eye, itself an organ of vision: the poet’s way of cognizing and describing the universe.
For a poet named Mandelstam, ‘almond tree,’ who since the beginning of his career has used the stone as an important image for his poetry (his first collection was called Kamen’, ‘stone’) and who has lately been immersed in natural history and the geological record as an encoding of time, to have discovered that one of the “varieties of ancient rocks in which the pores are filled with new mineral formations” (an analogue of what he thought literary creation should be like) was called mandel’shtein ‘almond stone’ must have been tremendous.
Incidentally, the word almond has a twisty etymology: the OED summarizes it as “Gr. ἀμυγδάλη, L. amygdala = ă’migdălă, ă’mingdălă; early Rom. ă’mendǝlă (thence Pg. ă’mendŏă); splitting up into ‘mendǝlă (thence It. ‘mandŏla), al-’mend(ǝ)lă (thence Sp. al’mendră), and al-ă’mendǝlă, al-ă’mandǝla, whence OFr. alĕ’mandlĕ, alĕ’mandrĕ; OFr. and E. alĕ’mandĕ, al’mandĕ; E. al’maund, ‘almaund, ‘almŏnd, ‘āmǝnd.”
And if you’re wondering about the etymology of manul, the first edition of the OED simply had “Said by Pallas to be a Kirghiz word”: fortunately, the entry was revised just last September, and the new etymology is more enlightening (and will please commenter read, involving as it does her native Mongolian):
[< scientific Latin Manul (1776, in P. S. Pallas, Reise durch Verschiedene Provinzen des Russischen Reichs III. Anhang. 692) < Mongolian manūl (Pallas notes: ‘Tataris et Mongolis Manul’; distinct from Mongolian manūl, formerly ‘watchman’, now ‘bird-scarer’) probably < a form in a Turkic language, e.g. Tuvan manɪ wild cat, Uigur manu (in a list of predatory animals).]