Leon Trotsky: Alexander Blok
BLOK belonged entirely to pre-October literature. Blok’s impulses – whether towards tempestuous mysticism, or towards revolution – arise not in empty space, but in the very thick atmosphere of the culture of old Russia, of its landlords and intelligentsia. Blok’s symbolism was a reflection of this immediate and disgusting environment. A symbol is a generalized image of a reality. Blok’s lyrics are romantic, symbolic, mystic, formless and unreal. But they presuppose a very real life with definite forms and relationships. Romantic symbolism is only a going away from life, in the sense of an abstraction from its concreteness, from individual traits, and from its proper names; at bottom, symbolism is a means of transforming and sublimating life. Blok’s starry, stormy and formless lyrics reflect a definite environment and period, with its manner of living, its customs, its rhythms, but outside of this period, they hang like a cloud-patch. This lyric poetry will not outlive its time or its author.
Blok belonged to pre-October literature, but he overcame this, and entered into the sphere of October when he wrote The Twelve. That is why he will occupy a special place in the history of Russian literature.
One should not allow Blok to be obscured by those petty poetic and semi-poetic demons who whirl around his memory, and who to this very day, the pious idiots! cannot understand how Blok recognized Mayakovsky as a great talent, and yawned frankly over Gumilev. Blok, the “purest” of lyricists, did not speak of pure art, and did not place poetry above life. On the contrary, he recognized the fact that “art, life and politics were indivisible and inseparable”. “I am accustomed,” writes Blok in his preface to Retaliation, written in 1919, “to put together the facts accessible to my eye in a given time in every field of life, and I am sure that all together they always create one musical chord.” This is much bigger and stronger and deeper than a self-sufficient aestheticism, than all the nonsense about art being independent of social life.
Blok knew the value of the intelligentsia: “I am none the less a blood-relation of the intelligentsia,” he said, “but the intelligentsia has always been negative. If I did not go over to the Revolution, it is still less worth while to go over to the War.” Blok did not “go over to the Revolution”, but he took his spiritual course from it. Already the approach of the Revolution of 19o5 opened up the factory to Blok, and for the first time raised his art above lyrical nebulousness. The first Revolution entered his soul and tore him away from individualistic self-contentment and mystic quietism. Blok felt the reaction between the two Revolutions to be an emptiness of spirit, and the aimlessness of the epoch he felt to be a circus, with cranberry sauce for blood. Blok wrote of “the true mystic twilight of the years which preceded the first Revolution” and of “the untrue mystic after-effect which immediately followed it.” (Retaliation) The second Revolution gave him a feeling of wakening, of movement, of purpose and of meaning. Blok was not the poet of the Revolution. Blok caught hold of the wheel of the Revolution as he lay perishing in the stupid cul de sac of pre-Revolutionary life and art. The poem called The Twelve, Blok’s most important work, and the only one which will live for ages, was the result of this contact.
As he himself said, Blok carried chaos within himself all his life. His manner of saying this was formless, just as his philosophy of life and his lyrics were on the whole formless. What he felt to be chaos was his incapacity to combine the subjective and the objective, his cautious and watchful lack of will power, in an epoch which saw the preparation and afterwards the letting loose of the greatest events. Throughout all his changes, Blok remained a true decadent, if one were to take this word in a large historic sense, in the sense of the contrast between decadent individualism and the individualism of the rising bourgeoisie. ...