Died and Survived - Alexander Blok



''I AM glad that you are studying Blok,'' Vladimir Nabokov wrote to Edmund Wilson in 1943. ''But be careful: he is one of those poets that get into one's system - and everything (else) seems unblokish and flat.'' Most people who read poetry in Russian - whether their command of the language is native or learned - sooner or later succumb to Blok's magic. Of the dazzling galaxy of Symbolist and post-Symbolist Russian poets who wrote in the first two decades of this century, Alexander Blok (1880-1921) was the most spellbinding. Much of Russian poetry, from Pushkin to Mandelstam, is lucid and appeals to the intellect. But Blok's poems and plays are hypnotic, a blend of sorcery, banality and subtle verbal music. As the critic Kornei Chukovsky put it, ''Blok's poetry affected us as the moon affects lunatics.''
Blok retained his popularity throughout the post-revolutonary period. His writings remained in print even in Stalin's time, when Symbolism and other modernist trends of the early 20th century were treated as non-existent. In the 1960's he was honored with an eightvolume annotated edition of his collected writings that included even earlier drafts, diaries and a selection of letters. With the exception of the two official patron saints of Soviet literature, Maxim Gorky and Vladimir Mayakovsky, such complete editions are normally reserved only for 19th-century classics.
In the 1970's, with the approach of the centenary of the poet's birth, there was a flood of Blok biographies, textual and documentary studies and memoirs published in the Soviet Union, among them the three excellent Blok miscellanies brought out by the Tartu University in Estonia and the currently appearing four volumes in the prestigious Literary Heritage series. As if that were not enough, Progress Publishers in Moscow has taken to exporting translations of books by and about Blok, as exemplified by the ''Selected Poems'' and an abridged version of Vladimir Orlov's biography, ''Hamayun,'' the latter published in Russian in 1978 and again in 1980. Also coinciding with the recent centenary is the appearance of the monumental two-volume biography of Blok by Avril Pyman, an English scholar and translator who spent 12 years in the Soviet Union, where she gained access to archival sources not usually available to researchers and interviewed a number of Blok's associates who were still alive in the 1960's.
The significance of the current explosion of Blok scholarship and publication in the Soviet Union can be best understood by looking at the situation of other major figures of early 20th-century Modernism. The poet and novelist Andrei Bely, who was linked to Blok through a complex mixture of amity and enmity, which was central to both of their lives, also had, in 1980, a centenary of his birth. But there were no new editions or critical studies to commemorate the date. Other important literary associates of Blok - Vyacheslav Ivanov, Zinaida Gippius, Mikhail Kuzmin - had complete collections of their poetry published in recent years by foreign scholars who live in the West. But in the U.S.S.R. there was only one slim volume of Ivanov's poetry and nothing at all for Gippius or Kuzmin. There are no Soviet biographies of, or collections of critical articles about, Blok's great younger contemporaries - Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam or Marina Tsvetaeva.
The reasons, as for everything else in Soviet cultural life, are ideological. Blok gave his allegiance to the Bolshevik regime at the time of the October Revolution, and he wrote a famous, if ambiguous, narrative poem about that revolution, ''The Twelve,'' which Soviet authorities found objectionable in 1918 but which later exegetes proclaimed politically acceptable. And Blok died in 1921, thus escaping the denunciations and literary hounding that was the fate of all modernist poets in the next three decades. In a cycle of poems about Blok, ''The Wind,'' which Boris Pasternak wrote shortly before his death in 1960, he lashed out at the ''influential flunkeys'' who alone decide which poets are ''to be alive and lauded and which to be silenced and slandered'' in the Soviet Union. Pasternak rejoiced that Blok was beloved ''outside of programs and systems,'' ''has not been forced on us by anyone'' or compelled to adopt Soviet writers retroactively as his offspring.
As the propagandistic blurbs in the English editions of Blok's ''Selected Poems'' and the Orlov biography show, subsequent developments have proven Pasternak wrong. Ways have been discovered to reduce Blok's complex biography and outlook to a catechistic instance of a wayward nobleman's conversion to the verities of socialism. It is precisely as the progenitor of Soviet poetry, as a ''citizen-poet'' that this life-long Symbolist and mystic is now being popularized at home and abroad and put to the task of indoctrinating later generations.
Alexander Blok was a scion of two notable academic families, and he married into a third one. Like many young intellectuals of his generation, he turned away from the positivistic values of the milieu into which he was born to espouse a more idealistic and mystical view of reality. In the philosophy and poetry of Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900), a seminal figure for the whole of Russian Symbolism, Blok found the central image of his poetic vision: St. Sophia, the personification of Divine Wisdom in female form, the female hypostasis of Christ according to Byzantine mystics, and the equivalent of das Ewig-Weibliche of German 19th-century philosophers and poets. In his first collection of poems, ''Verses About the Most Beautiful Lady'' (1902-02), Blok announced her imminent advent, destined to transform the world. Blok perceived the incarnation of St. Sophia not only in future history and his own poetry, but also in the woman he married, the daughter of the famed scientist Dmitri Mendeleyev, developer of the periodic system in chemistry.
An aspiring young actress, Lyuba Blok was cast by her husband and his circle of friends in the part of God's wisdom personified and, for good measure, the Blessed Virgin. Blok's almost medieval separation of love into sacred and profane spheres has been often blamed for their strange, almost sexless marriage. Avril Pyman, who had access to Lyuba's frank and rancorous memoirs (published only in fragments in the Soviet Union and in complete form by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1977) suggests a hitherto unperceived factor which is a key to much in Blok's poetry and plays. Blok's life-long compulsive search for casual sex with prostitutes and pickups was the reason why he left untouched the wife he loved and revered, eventually driving her into other men's arms. This was preferable to exposing her to the risk of venereal disease, for which he himself had to be periodically treated.
The revelation of this side of Blok in the Pyman biography and his wife's memoirs is not merely a piece of lurid literary gossip. It places into focus his cardinal theme of woman exalted vs. woman degraded. It can now be seen that the situation between the poet and his wife was the point of departure for his three dramatic masterpieces: the lyric comedy ''The Puppet Booth,'' the visionary drama ''The Incognita'' (both written in 1906; the latter also translated as ''The Stranger'') and the historical tragedy ''The Rose and the Cross'' (1913). In the three plays, for all their disparities, the hero yearns for a woman who loves him and is yet totallty unattainable. While these three plays belong at the summit of Russian poetic drama, Blok's other works for the stage, where this theme is absent, are all curiously lifeless and contrived.
The momentous events of the Russo-Japanese War and the first revolution of 1905 did not bring about the coming of St. Sophia, as Blok had hoped. What they brought instead was the suppression of the revolutionary groundswell. Then came gradual reforms, followed, around 1910, by unprecedented economic prosperity. Like Gogol and Dostoevsky before him, Blok detested the civil liberties and the elective forms of government that existed in the West. Like Tolstoy, he mistrusted material well-being if it was not accompanied by improvements in the spiritual and moral spheres. His poetry of 1906-16, which contains his most haunting and melodious lyrics, is permeated with the poet's sense of an impending universal catastrophe, which he welcomed. ''Retribution,'' the title of both an important cycle of lyrics and a long narrative poem on which he worked during the last 10 years of his life, was what Blok yearned to be visited upon the Russian Government, the Orthodox Church, and all educated or prosperous Russians for delaying with their materialistic values the spiritual transfiguration of the world.
Many of his readers ignore this side of Blok. The brilliant emigre poet of the 1920's, Boris Poplavsky, who saw himself as Blok's disciple, wrote that Blok ''is a poet of absolute pity, angry at nothing, condemning nothing.'' In a memorable 1914 poem, Blok himself expressed the hope that posterity would forgive him his misanthropy and see him as ''a child of goodness and light'' and a ''triumph of freedom.'' But freedom was the last thing that interested Blok. Soviet critics are quite right when they stress his negativism (though they interpret it simplistically as an indictment of the czarist regime). Vladimir Nabokov had the same thing in mind when he wrote that Blok was ''a superb poet with a muddled mind,'' in whom there was ''something somber and fundamentally reactionary ... a murky vista with a bonfire of books at the end.'' This is indeed an essential dimension of Blok, which the prophetic historical vision of ''On the Field of Kulikovo'' poems, the iridescent textures of his ''Italian Poems'' or the festive love lyrics of the'' Carmen'' cycle should not make us overlook.
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