Monday, July 20, 2015

'Man' by Bengt Jangfeldt

 In the midst of the most hectic cafe period, In February 1918, Mayakovsky brought out his new poem, “Man”, under the imprint of ASIS (Association for Socialist Art) and with money from a few friends. The other, uncensored edition of “A Cloud in Trousers” came out at the same time and under the same imprint.

When at the end of January Mayakovsky recited “Man” at a private poetry evening on the theme “Two Generations of Poets Meet,” it caused a sensation. Those present included large sections of the Russian poetic Parnassus: Symbolists such as Andrey Bely, Konstantin Balmont, Vyacheslav Ivanov and Jurgis Baltrusaitis; the Futurists David Burlyuk and Vasily Kamensky, and some other poets who defied any such categorization, like Marina Tsvetayeva, Boris Pasternak, and Vladislav Khodasevich.  “Poets read in order of seniority and without much success,” Pasternak recalled: “When it came to Mayakovsky’s turn, he got up, curved one arm around the empty shelf at the back of the divan, and began reciting “Man”. Like a bas-relief  [.  .  .] he towered above the people that were seated or standing there. And now with one arm propping his handsome head, now bracing his knee against the bolster, he recited a work of uncommon profundity and exalted inspiration.”

Andrey Bely listened as if transfixed. When the reading was over, he rose, shaken and pale, and declared he could not imagine how poetry of such power could be written at such a time.  The reading at the Polytechnic Museum a few days later was equally successful. “I had never heard Mayakovsky read like that,” recalled Roman Jakobson: “He was nervous, wanted to get everything out and read quite exceptionally.” It was a recognition that Mayakovsky has long been waiting for.

“Man” was written during the course of 1917. Work on the poem began during the spring and finished sometime toward the end of the year, after the October Revolution. The almost one-thousand-word poem occupies a central place in Mayakovsky’s oeuvre from a chronological point of view: on the threshold between the old times and the new. But it has an almost equally central status thematically. Nowhere does Mayakovsky’s existential alienation find more desperate expression than here.

The structure of the poem is modeled on the life of Jesus, and it is divided into sections like “Mayakovsk’s Nativity,” “Mayakovsky’s Life,” Mayakovsky’s Passion,” Mayakovsky’s Ascension,” “Mayakovsky’s Heaven,” “Mayakovsky’s Return,” “Mayakovsky’ to Eternity.” The religious connection is emphasized by the typography of the cover, where the author’s surname and the title are intertwined like a cross.

Mayakovsky’s birthday – “the day of my descension”- was the most mundane of days. No one thought to notify a distant star that there was something to celebrate.  And yet it is an event of the same caliber as Christ’s birth. Every movement Mayakovsky makes is a miracle; his hands can enfold any throat, his tongue form any sound it wants; he possesses an intellect that sparkles like precious stones; he can change winter into summer and water into wine. Within his magic sphere everything becomes poetry –stout washerwomen are transformed into “daughters of the sky and the dawn”; the baker’s buns are bent into the necks of violins; the bootlegs that the shoemaker is working on becomes harps. Everything is the result of Mayakovsky’s birth; “It is I/ who hosted my heart like a flag. / A matchless wonder of the twentieth century!”  Faced with this miracle, pilgrims come streaming from Our Lord’s grave, and Mecca empties of the faithful.

However, far from everybody is equally impressed by the poet’s transforming power. The real world, represented by “bankers, tycoons and doges,” feels under threat and goes on the attack: If everything is “heart,” what have they accumulated heaps of money for? And who gave him permission to sing? Who asked the days to bloom in July? No, lock up the sky behind bars, twist the earth into streets, poison the tongue with gossip! Chased into the ”earthly pen” the man/poet drags along his “daily yoke,” his brain oppressed by “The Law” and with “Religion” like a chain over his heart. He is locked inside a “senseless story”; all fantasy is proscribed; everything is ruled by money. Everything, large and small, drowns in the golden maelstrom of money: geniuses, hens, horses, violins, elephants. On an island in the middle of this whirlpool lives the “Ruler of All,” the poet’s “rival” and “invincible enemy,” in “thin stockings with fine polka dots, elegant trousers, and natty tie that glided down from his enormous neck / over the globe of his belly.”

Although Mayakovsky’s enemy bears the clichéd characteristics of the bourgeois, it would be too simplistic to reduce the “Ruler of All” to a social or economic phenomena. In Mayakovsky’s poetic world the concept “bourgeois” is first and foremost a symbol – for stagnation, conservatism, repletion. “To be bourgeois / is not to own capital, / scatter gold coins around, / it is the mouth stuffed fill with fat,” as he defined the phenomena a couple of years later, in the poem “150,000,000.” The “Ruler of All” is “the universal bourgeois,” whose cheap and vulgar taste dominates and corrupts the world. The conclusion that Mayakovsky formulates in “Man” can stand as a motto for the whole of his work:

Revolutions shake the bodies of kingdoms,
The human herd changes drovers,
But you,
Uncrowned lord of the hearts
Not a single rebellion can disturb!

The Ruler’s power of attraction is so strong that even the poet’s beloved is seduced by it. He tries to stop her, but it is too late, she is already with Him. His skull shines; He is completely hairless; only on his final finger joint do three small hairs peek out from under a jewel. She bends over his hand, and her lips whisper the names of the hairs – one is called “Little Flute,” the other “Little Cloud.” In this way, not only Mayakovky’s love but his poetry too is vulgarized by the “uncrowned lord of the hearts.”

The woman is in His power, and the longing and sorrow call forth thoughts of suicide in the pet, whose ”heart longs for the bullet / and throat yearns for the razor.” During a stroll alongside the Neva his soul falls to the ice like a “frozen emerald.” He finds a pharmacy, but when the pharmacist produces a bottle market “Poison”, he remembers he is eternal, the roof opens of its own accord, and he climbs up to heaven. Once there, he shrugs off his “baggage / of things / and an exhausted body” on a cloud. The contrast between the high-flown theme and the prosaic tone is huge! To begin with he is disappointed. Hinting that the “invisible enemy” is also within himself, he complains that there is not a single corner where he can sit and drink tea and read the paper in peace. But he gets used to it; life in heaven turns out to be a mirror image of life on earth, and here too one’s existence is regulated from morning to night. Someone is repairing a cloud, another is shoveling coal into “the sun’s oven.” But what is he, the poet, to do? After all, he is “all about heart, / and where is the heart in those who lack a body?” When he wants to “stretch out the body on a cloud and watch you all,” he is given to understand that it will not do at all. Heaven too has no place for a poet.

His existence drags itself out; one year is just like another; in the end his heart begins to pound in his body again, and Mayakovsky wants to return to earth. Perhaps everything will be new, after ‘1,2, 4,8, 16, thousand, millions of years?” But when he tumbles down to earth like “a painter off the roof,” he soon realizes that everything has stayed the same; human beings are burdened by the same workaday tasks as before; it is ‘the same invisible baldhead / in charge / the chief choreographer of the earthly cancan” now “in the form of an idea, /now like the Devil, / now like God behind a cloud.” The enemy comes in many guises!

[ .  .  . ]

Mayakovsky fled the earthy scene because of a love that was impossible and when he returns to earth his love is no longer there. Where can he go? To which heaven this time? To which star? Mayakovsky has no answer to give. Everything is doomed to perish, he says, because “he / who controls life / will burn out / the last ray / of the last suns” He himself will die the love-death, “embraced by fire, / on the pyre of impossible love / that never burns down” – a variation on the closing lines of the first section of “A Cloud in Trousers”: “Moan / into the centuries / if you can, a last scream: I’m on fire!”

“Man’ is the culmination of the existential theme that characterizes Mayakovsky’s writing from the very beginning: the solitary I who battles against the enemy of poetry and love whose name is legion: “necessity,” philistinism, the triviality of everyday life, what in Russian is called byt – “my invincible enemy,” “The Ruler of All.” The Russian philosopher Lev Shestov talks of the “tragic souls” who are doomed to fight the battle on to fronts: “both against ‘necessity’ and against their neighbors, who have no trouble at all fitting in and who, without knowing what they are doing, thereby take the side of mankind’s worst enemy.” - daily life with its routine and insipidity.

Whatever the security organs were searching for, it was clear that they suspected there were more factors behind the poet’s suicide ( April 14th, 1930) than purely private ones – a perception share by Leon Trotsky, who refused to accept the official explanation that the suicide was “wholly unconnected to the poet’s public and literary activities” “That’s like saying Mayakovsky’s death had nothing to do with his revolutionary poetic works,” the former war commissar commented from his exile in Constantinople.  “ That is both untrue and unnecessary . . . and stupid! ‘[Love’s] boat was smashed against the reef of the everyday,’ is what Mayakovsky wrote about his private life. That means precisely that his ‘public and literary activities were no longer capable of elevating him sufficiently over everyday life [byt] to save him from his painful inner urges.”


  1. “Hatred of the bourgeois,” wrote Flaubert, “is the beginning of virtue.” Also, “Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when all the time we are longing to move the stars to pity.”

  2. “We are a nation of father haters,” wrote V.S. Pritchett, ‘The eighteenth century father is a pagan bursting a blood vessel in the ripeness of time; the nineteenth-century father is a Jehovah dictating an inexhaustible Deuteronomy. We pass from the illusion of fate, luck, and fortune, in the eighteenth century, with its speculations, profits, and losses, the good receiving sentimental and material rewards, to the wary husbandry of the nineteenth, when money gains an ordering autonomy and men have at last and abstract master to serve, a master whose demands outweigh all others. Endings are no longer tidy; after Balzac the conventional happy ending is suspect and classical closure to which readers had become accustomed could no longer be depended upon.

    ”Imperfection”, The Novel: A Biography by Michael Schmidt

  3. The theologian John Drury reflects “if one is to think of a central thing about being human, it is the need for a response from some other – a person, or it could be a work of art or music - - and the fulfilling joy of getting one. It applies at home and at work, needs urgently to be there when we are born and when we are dying, and really everywhere and always: you take on another (all that other, not just the nice bits), and that other takes on you (all of you). Religion, not the least the Christian religion, is deeply aware of this. Sacrifice, so central to the Gospel texts of Bach’s Passions, is such a mutual exchange: pitched beyond morals into the realm of amazing grace and its unclenched exchanges- the whole new Testament is saturated in it. This longed for reciprocity (it has an erotic ache to it) seems to be what makes life worth living.” (private correspondence, April, 2013, in Bach; Music in the Castle of Heaven by John Eliot Gardener, footnote page 76)