The Absolute Nonsense of Daniil Kharms.

I’m surprised I’ve never posted about Daniil Kharms on LH, considering how much I love him, so I’m happy to find Alex Cigale’s The Absolute Nonsense of Daniil Kharms (Numéro Cinq IV:1, 2013), which presents translations of his poetry and prose with a preface, which I will excerpt:

The artlessness of Daniil Kharms, in accord with his age (in the wake of Satie, and Duchamp and Ernst, Kokoschka and the German Expressionists, yet almost certainly unaware of them and without precedent other than say Gogol in Russian) is Anti-art. […] Thumb-twiddling boredom, repetition, hoaxes, and other violations of expectations in evidence here are dissonant and discomfiting in themselves. Elsewhere, Kharms strikes a more distasteful, even offensive pose, an epatage that practically wallows in degradation and self-degradation. Explaining his “program” he wrote: “I am interested only in absolute nonsense, only in that which has no practical meaning. I am interested in life only in its absurd manifestation. I find abhorrent heroics, pathos, moralizing, all that is hygienic and tasteful … both as words and as feelings.” In his other work we may find a precedent, for example, for The Theater of Cruelty, but also in its minutia of daily life for the post-modernist, documentary yet ironic and paradoxical approach of the Moscow Conceptualist artists and poets of the 1970s who acknowledged Kharms as an essential influence.

One of them, Ilya Kabakov, wrote: “…Contact with nothing, emptiness makes up, we feel, the basic peculiarity of Russian conceptualism….” Kharms was similarly central for the non-conformist poets of the 1950s and 60s (Yevgeny Kropivnitsky, Vsevolod Nekrasov, Jan Satunovsky, Igor Kholin, Genrikh Sapgir, Alexei Khvostenko) and the Minimalist poets of the 1970s and 80s. Just to enumerate some of the aesthetic (or anti-aesthetic) values: plain speech, written as it is spoken, folksy simplicity, daily life or byt, but also the spiritual values of Absurdism: the ridiculous as a reaction and an alternative to revulsion and resignation before an Absurd age.

As I believe is true of all minimalist practice, the above not only doesn’t preclude a spiritual dimension, but makes it necessary. This particularly (also Kharms’s silly rhyming) is what is likely most incomprehensible to Anglophone readers of Kharms, and of the work of his colleague and friend, the proto-existentialist poet Alexander Vvedensky. How may their seeming nihilism (I would argue they were not) be made coherent with and even motivated by their conceptions of God?

Cigale ends by noting that Kharms “falls squarely within the Russian tradition of the yurodivy, the ‘holy fool’”; here are a couple of his translations:

Olga Forsh approached Alexei Tolstoy and did something.

Alexei Tolstoy did something too.

Then Konstantin Fedin and Valentin Stenich ran out into the yard and began searching for an appropriate stone. They didn’t find a stone, but they did find a shovel. With this shovel, Konstantin Fedin smacked Olga Forsh across her mug.

Then Alexei Tolstoy stripped off all his clothes and completely naked walked out onto the Fontanka and began to neigh like a horse. Everybody was saying: “There neighing is a major contemporary writer.” And no one even lay a hand on Alexei Tolstoy.

(1931)

A Northern Fable

An old man, for no particular reason, went off into the forest. Then he returned and said: Old woman, hey, old woman!

And the old woman dropped dead. Ever since then, all rabbits are white in winter.

(undated)

You can make comparisons, but there’s really nobody else like him.

Comments

  1. AJP Crown says:

    A Northern Fable

    I love that. Also the fantastic (in all senses) work of Ilya Kabakov.

  2. David Eddyshaw says:

    An old man, for no particular reason, went off into the forest. Then he returned and said: Old woman, hey, old woman!
    And the old woman dropped dead. Ever since then, all rabbits are white in winter.

    Makes sense. I’ve often wondered about the rabbits.

  3. Stu Clayton says:

    Nonsense is powerful medicine with dangerous side effects, and is highly contagious. It should be taken only in homeopathic doses.

  4. Charles says:

    Nonsense is powerful medicine with dangerous side effects, and is highly contagious. It should be taken only in homeopathic doses.

    But of course in fact it is swallowed whole and wholesale every day and not every fool is holy.

  5. Stu Clayton says:

    I like that whole in your argument.

  6. I like the most his children verses. Here’s one.

    Иван Топорышкин пошёл на охоту,
    С ним пудель пошёл, перепрыгнув забор.
    Иван, как бревно, провалился в болото,
    А пудель в реке утонул, как топор.

    Иван Топорышкин пошёл на охоту,
    С ним пудель вприпрыжку пошёл, как топор.
    Иван повалился бревном на болото,
    А пудель в реке перепрыгнул забор.

    Иван Топорышкин пошёл на охоту,
    С ним пудель в реке провалился в забор.
    Иван, как бревно, перепрыгнул болото,
    А пудель вприпрыжку попал на топор.

    My attempt at translation. It almost certainly doesn’t make sense as poetry, just read the words.

    John Axenhand went out for some hunting
    His poodle went along jumping over a fence
    John, like a log, has dropped into a mire
    And the poodle sunk down in a stream like an ax.

    John Axenhand went out for some hunting
    His poodle went along jumping silly like an ax
    John, like a log, has dropped onto a mire
    And the poodle in a stream has jumped over an ax.

    John Axenhand went out for some hunting
    His poodle in a stream has dropped into a fence
    John, like a log, has jumped over a mire
    And the poodle jumping silly ran into an ax.

  7. Quite a few masterpieces of Kharms are only marginally absurd in comparison with the convoluted samplers in the post. Absurdity just spices them up, but the reader totally digs the plot. I mean he was not THAT stubbornly wedded to the program principle of absurdity, he was too easy going a person for that. BTW Kharms also wrote a famous translation too, of the German classic “Plisch und Plum” (just to link to this site’s overriding theme).

  8. Quite a few masterpieces of Kharms are only marginally absurd in comparison with the convoluted samplers in the post.

    True, but the hyperabsurd ones are a good gateway drug.

  9. Stu Clayton says:

    Plisch und Plum -> Wilhelm Busch. Many phrases from his rhyming illustrated stories became part of the language.

    I have no idea how much Busch is still known and read here. It may be mostly a thing for old fogeys like me, though I haven’t even one story by him on my shelves any more.

  10. SFReader says:

    Northern fable sounds pretty realistic, not even a parody.

    Very often animal tales, myths and legends of various peoples around the world make even less sense (especially in translation, I suspect).

    This one is pretty mild actually.

  11. Громко вскрикнула соседка
    И с печальным звуком “у”
    Как подломленная ветка
    Повалилась на траву

  12. Trond Engen says:

    @D.O. I like it. But I think something went wrong with your axes and fences.

  13. January First-of-May says:

    Quite a few masterpieces of Kharms are only marginally absurd in comparison with the convoluted samplers in the post. Absurdity just spices them up, but the reader totally digs the plot.

    For a particularly blatant example, How Kolka Pankin Flew to Brazil, and Petka Yershov Didn’t Believe Anything is hardly absurd at all once you figure out what happened.

    (I had to look it up to confirm that it was even by Kharms; the snippets I remembered didn’t sound much like his style.)

  14. SFReader says:

    One of Kharms’ absurdist poems made into a clip by folk group Otava Yo

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eIa7ZfJUeGU

  15. David Marjanović says:

    I have no idea how much Busch is still known and read here. It may be mostly a thing for old fogeys like me, though I haven’t even one story by him on my shelves any more.

    I still grew up with Max & Moritz, but the rest of his work is not very widely known anymore.

    This thread is not complete without

    a celebration of [r].

  16. @D.O. I like it. But I think something went wrong with your axes and fences.

    Most definitely. Line 8 should be about jumping over the fence, not over an ax.

  17. My parents had Busch’s collected works in one volume, and it was one of my favourite books as a child. But I probably count as an old fogey already 🙂

  18. Trond Engen says:

    Dmitry: Line 8 should be about jumping over the fence, not over an ax.

    Thanks. I did get that. But looking at it once again, I see that line 3 and 7 are more different in the original than their English translations. Did John drop a log into the mire?

  19. Most definitely. Line 8 should be about jumping over the fence, not over an ax.

    Yes, of course, stupid mistake. There obviously should be one fence and one ax in each quatrain.

    In line 3, Ivan, or as I call him, John, got bogged down in a mire like a log (quite natural occurrence for a log, but AFAIK doesn’t have any special connotations, alternatively, like a log here might mean like a total fool) and in line 7 he just dropped onto the surface of the mire like a log. To drop like a log means like inanimate object, without any attempt to soften the fall. My English is clearly insufficient to express such subtle distinctions by moving around a few suffixes or other similarly “unimportant” linguistic minutia.

  20. John Cowan says:

    My mother gave me Max and Moritz in English and German; I think they were on facing pages, with the pictures on the German side, but that may be a different book altogether (Struwwelpeter?). I’m glad they are not culturally extinct.

  21. David Marjanović says:

    Well, in my case we’re talking about 30 years ago… and the moral of Max & Moritz is that naughty children sooner or later fall into a mill and are ground to meal…

  22. John Cowan says:

    And eaten by ducks. But what the hey, if you miss them, you can just open the book at the beginning again.

  23. Sashura says:

    oh, I am so glad there is a new set of Kharms translations.

    Unique as he was, Kharms wasn’t the only one. Kharms’s literary group in 1920s, Oberiu (Association of Real Art) included at least five people, Nikolai Oleinikov, Doyvber Levin, Igor Bakhterev (stage and film director) and the very well known, though later, Nikolay Zabolotsky (whose wife left him for Vassily Grossman in 1950s, but then returned back to him). Alexander Vvedensky was a very close associate of Kharms. And the great Samuil Marshak was their friend and mentor, and a saviour in a sense, he gave them work in children’s magazines in 1930s. Kharms and Oberiu also worked closely together with Malevich and Filonov.

    My all time favourite by Kharms is the Blue Notebook No.10

    There was once a red-haired man who had no eyes and no ears. He also had no hair, so he was called red-haired only in a manner of speaking.

    He wasn’t able to talk, because he didn’t have a mouth. He had no nose, either.

    He didn’t even have any arms or legs. He also didn’t have a stomach, and he didn’t have a back, and he didn’t have a spine, and he also didin’t have any other insides. He didn’t have anything. So it’s hard to understand whom we’re talking about.

    So we’d better not talk about him any more.

    Translation by George Gibian from my cherished 1971 ‘Russia’s Lost Literature of the Absurd’. Hats off to Alex Cigale.

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