It has been said many times that Mayakovsky’s espousal of the proletarian cause was not a chance occurrence. This means that the prerequisites for taking him in this direction existed within him, for in our times there are many people and not a few poets, but not all people, not all poets follow this road. However, this inner voice would never have led him as it did, if not for our times, for no one determines his own way, but the way of any man is determined, to a great extent, by his times and surroundings. In speaking of Mayakovsky’s work and life, we speak of his encounter as an individual with the proletarian revolution as a colossal social phenomenon.
The proletariat and its revolution existed in a latent form long before October 1917, and even before 1905. Mayakovsky knew of the existence of this great force and at times he came quite close to it in his everyday life, yet, during his early period, he was still quite removed from it. One can say that when Mayakovsky embarked upon his career, he was still beyond the sphere of influence of this gigantic social body, the revolutionary proletariat. The first step Mayakovsky took on the road to revolution, understood in the broad sense of the word as the rejection of and attempt to destroy that which exists for something else, better and nobler, he did as an individual.
Mayakovsky often provides definitions and self-portraits in which he says that he, Mayakovsky, is too large for the surroundings in which he must live. He puts a double meaning into the word “large.” On the one hand, he is simply stating the fact that he, Mayakovsky, is a very tall, big man; on the other hand, there is a corresponding largeness of spirit, the scope of his ideas, his passions, his demands up life, his creative powers; they, too, are out of proportion with his surroundings.
It is characteristic that in this respect the words “greatness” and “largeness” merge. As far as he is concerned, these passions, these thoughts, this dissatisfaction, these hopes and this despair of his are not something born of his mind, they do not revolve in some “empyrean consciousness”; all this is of his body, it is all taking place within his Herculean frame. Mayakovsky was a materialist (I will later discuss whether or not he became a dialectician): he experienced intensely everything that was of the earth, of the flesh, washed with hot blood, full of a natural thirst for life, and he experienced it as Mayakovsky, the corporeal being and as Mayakovsky, the psyche corresponding to this being.
Well, this Mayakovsky found that he was cramped in the world. This does not mean he was cramped in the universe. He liked the universe, the universe was very big, and he wanted to be on very close terms with it: he invited the Sun to come down and visit him and the Sun came down and talked to him. But the Sun came to him in his dreams, whereas those who were truly close to him and those with whom he tried to come in close contact were none of them as large as he. This is why Mayakovsky felt so melancholy and so terribly lonely. He found it difficult to find true friends. And only towards the end of his life did he begin finding them in a cross between the great vastness of the forces of Nature and individual persons, among whom he still found very few true friends. He never succeeded in closely approaching the greatest men of our epoch, men concerned with other matters in another sphere, the political leaders of our revolution. And yet, he finally found the entities, towards which he lunged with the great force of his desire to end his loneliness. These were social entities: the Proletariat and the revolution.
The proletariat and the revolution were close to his heart, firstly, in their Herculean, vast scope, the great battles which they unleashed in the spheres of direct political struggle and labour and, secondly, because they were the key to the future. He obviously did not have a very clear concept of what the future would be like. But he knew that it would be the sort offuture in which he, a big man, would finally be able to breathe freely, in which he would be able to draw himself up to his full height, in which his heart would find in heaven. That is why, while all but foreseeing his fateful end, he says, in the introduction to his poem At the Top of My Voice, that he, this big man, should be revived in the future.
comrade heirs and descendants, to an agitator,
poetic deluge, I stride to you
through lyrical volumes, as the live with the living speaks.
When freedom is won, when great, erect people come to live on earth, then one can love and sing as one wishes But now –
in our lexicons,
look up the flotsam that floats down from Lethe,
odd remnant-words like “prostitution"
“blockades.” For you,
who’re so healthy and nimble, a poet
consumptive spittle with the crude rough tongue of placards.
Mayakovsky did all he could to pave the way for the man of the future. This was the starting-point from which Mayakovsky began his fight for the big man in pre revolutionary times. There was no road to the future in the bourgeois world, there were no entities of social order, of the collective which he could come to love, there was only a petty-bourgeois void, and it was against this petty-bourgeois void that he protested.
There were some social notes in Mayakovsky’s protest from the very start. However, the essence of this protest was the world is too shallow to accept a great individual, and the great individual rejects with indignation and disgust this shallow world, this mercenary world, degraded as it is to a bourgeois level to a bourgeois level. This was Mayakovsky’s first revolt.
Mayakovsky’s second revolt resulted from his youth. It not a matter of a man being young and, therefore, loving to behave defiantly, like a king-of-the-castle, towards others. No, youth meant something else to Mayakovsky: he felt that the world he had been born into, and of which he id become an integral part, was old and decrepit. It had its own famous personages and museums, revered by all, but these famous personages and museums served only to sanctify and bless the worthless, decrepit world in which he lived.
Mayakovsky realised full well that there were priceless treasures in mankind’s past, but he feared that if these treasures were acknowledged, all the rest must be acknowledged, too. Therefore, it was better to revolt against everything and say: We are our own ancestors! May our youth proclaim its own young words, such as will make it possible to rejuvenate society and the world!
Youth usually wants to stress the fact that it will say things that have never been said before. This desire produces in Mayakovsky’s revolutionary writings the contrasts which many critics have noted and which, undoubtedly, are often paradoxical, are often an unexpected trick, are often rudeness, are often a young boy’s prank. And those who, like Shengeli and all the other “old maids,” said: “Oh, dear! This is terrible! This is hooliganism!” were horrified because they had no youth left in their blood. One can even be young at an advanced age or be dog-old at an early age, it is not a matter of years, but of creative power. And those who lack it could not understand how the wine fermented in Mayakovsky, how it blew out the cork and even blasted the bottle, how a young, impetuous talent was fermenting. These pranks of the young Mayakovsky were signs of his future growth, just as a pure-bred puppy has large and clumsy paws, true signs of his future great size.
His third revolutionary step was born of his skill and, first and foremost, of his skill in the formal sense of the word. He felt in himself a great love for words, he felt that words obeyed him, that they formed into battalions at his command. He was carried away by this power he had over words. He felt that if a person did not know how to command words, but merely repeated what others had said before, he was like a conductor who comes to a well-rehearsed orchestra and waves his baton after the musicians have already played a particular phrase, while the listeners think he is conducting. Such a state of affairs is similar to one in which an epigonus thinks he is writing new poems, while he is actually possessed by old words and thoughts. Mayakovsky was always exasperated by formal impotency, and he said that one should write in an entirely new way. He did not yet know what this new way would be, in form and content, but, above all, it had to be new. And he who would write according to the old tenets should be castigated as a servant of the decrepit world.
Mayakovsky’s next revolt (similar to his castigation of his surrounding’s which was born of his skill) was a revolt which resulted from production. Here, to a great extent, we have approached the very essence of his works. Who, Mayakovsky asked himself, are those poets whom I renounced for being imitators, for continuing the process of the world’s growing decrepitude, regurgitating, as they do, songs that have already been sung? What is the content of their songs? Is there any usefulness in what these poets are producing? Perhaps, then, poets cannot produce anything of use at all?
Mayakovsky was incensed by poets who proudly stated: “A poet does not produce useful things, a poet produces useless things. Herein lies my charm as a poet, this is the exalted nature of things poetic.” If one were to listen attentively to the useless things these poets sing about, one would discover they were nothing more than a soulful rigmarole. Historical themes, genres, and what-have-you are put through the so-called subject, pulled through the stomach and intestines, and then only are they presented to you. If a person is a poet, he must be a “lyricist” first, he must know how to be very musically nauseous in front of the whole world.
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