Blok’s Place in Russian Literature – The Pre-Revolutionary Element of Blok’s Symbolism – Why The Twelve is not a Poem of the Revolution. – Dualism – Blok and the Bourgeoisie
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.
Blok’s anxious state of chaos gravitated into two main directions, the mystic and the revolutionary. But in neither direction did it resolve itself to the end. His religion was unclear and infirm, not imperative like his lyrics. The Revolution which descended on the poet like a hail of facts, like a geologic avalanche of events, refuted or rather swept away the pre-Revolutionary Blok, who was wasting himself in languor and presentiments. It drowned the tender, gnat-like note of individualism in the roaring and heaving music of destruction. And here one had to choose. Of course, the parlor poets could continue their chirping without choosing, and needed merely to add their complaints about the difficulties of life. But Blok, who was carried away by the period, and who translated it into his own inner language, had to choose, and he chose by writing The Twelve.
This poem is unquestionably Blok’s highest achievement. At bottom it is a cry of despair for the dying past, and yet a cry of despair which rises in a hope for the future. The music of the terrible events inspired Blok. It seemed to say to him: “Everything which you have written up to now is not right. New people are coming. They bring new hearts. They do not need this. Their victory over the old world signifies a victory over you, over your lyrics, which voiced only the torment of the old world before its death.” Blok heard this, and accepted it, and because it was hard to accept, and because he sought support for his lack of faith in his revolutionary faith, and because he wanted to fortify and convince himself, he expressed his acceptance of the Revolution in the most extreme images, that the bridges behind him might be burned. Blok does not make even a shadow of an attempt to sugar the revolutionary change. On the contrary, he takes it in its most uncouth forms and only in its uncouth forms – a strike of prostitutes, for instance, the murder of Katka by a Red guard, the pillage of a bourgeois home – and, he says, I accept this, and he sanctifies all this provocatively with the blessings of Christ, and perhaps tries even to save the artistic image of Christ by propping it up with the Revolution.
But nonetheless, The Twelve is not a poem of the Revolution. It is the swan song of the individualistic art that went over to the Revolution. And this poem will remain. The twilight lyrics of Blok are gone into the past, and will never return, for such times will not come again, but The Twelve will remain with its cruel wind, with its placard, with Katka lying on the snow, with the revolutionary step, and with the old world like a mangy cur.
The fact that Blok wrote The Twelve and that he became silent after The Twelve, that he stopped hearing music, is due as much to Blok’s character as to the very extraordinary “music” which he grasped in 1918. The convulsive and pathetic break with the whole past became, for the poet, a fatal rupture. Aside from the destructive processes which were going on in his organism, Blok could have been kept going perhaps only by a continual development of revolutionary events, by a powerful spiral of shocks that would embrace the whole world. But the march of history is not adapted for the psychic needs of a romanticist who is struck by the Revolution. And to be able to maintain oneself on the temporary sand-banks, one has to have a different training, a different faith in the Revolution, an understanding of its sequential rhythms, and not only an understanding of the chaotic music of its tides. Blok did not and could not have all this. The leaders of the Revolution were all people whose psychology and behavior were strange to him. That is why he withdrew into himself, and became silent after The Twelve. And those with whom he had lived spiritually, the wise men and the poets, the same who are always “negative”, turned away from him with malice and with hate. They could not forgive him his phrase, the mangy cur. They stopped shaking hands with Blok, as with a traitor, and only after his death did they “make peace with him”, and tried to show that The Twelve contained nothing unexpected, and that it was not of October, but of the old Blok, and that all the elements of The Twelve had their roots in the past, and let not the Bolsheviks imagine that Blok was one of theirs. This contention is not hard to gather from Blok’s various other works. There are rhythms, alliterations, strophes which find their full development in The Twelve. But one can find in the individualist Blok other rhythms and moods also; and it was this same Blok who, just in 1918, found in himself (certainly not on the pavement, but in himself) the broken music of The Twelve. The pavement of October was needed for this. Others escaped abroad from this pavement, or moved into interior islands. Here is the crux of the matter and this is what they do not forgive Blok for!
Thus rave all the fed,
Thus longs the satisfaction of important bellies,
Their trough is overturned,
And confusion is in their foul pen.
– A. Blok, (The Fed)
But just the same, The Twelve is not a poem of the Revolution; because, after all, the meaning of the Revolution as an element (if one were to consider it as an element only) does not consist in releasing individualism that had been driven into a blind alley. The inner meaning of the Revolution remains somewhere outside the poem. The poem itself is eccentric in the sense of the word as it is used in physics. That is why Blok crowns his poem with Christ. But Christ belongs in no way to the Revolution, only to Blok’s past.
When Eichenvald, expressing the bourgeois attitude towards The Twelve, says openly and most maliciously, that the acts of Blok’s heroes are characteristic of the “comrades”, he fulfills the task he has set himself, namely, to slander the Revolution. A Red guard kills Katka, for jealousy. Is this possible, or is it impossible? It is entirely possible. But had such a Red guard been caught, he would have been sentenced to be shot by the Revolutionary Tribunal. The Revolution which applies the frightful sword of Terrorism, guards it severely as a State right. Were Terror used for personal ends, the Revolution would be threatened by inevitable destruction. As early as the beginning of 1918, the Revolution put an end to anarchistic unruliness, and carried on a merciless and victorious Struggle with the disintegrating methods of guerrilla warfare.
“Open up the cellars; the sansculottes are now having their holiday.” And this happened. But what bloody collisions took place for this very reason between the Red guards and the hooligans! “Soberness” was written on the banner of the Revolution. The Revolution was ascetic, especially in this most intense period. Therefore Blok does not give a picture of the Revolution, and certainly not of the work of its vanguard, but of its accompanying phenomena which were called forth by it, but which were in essence contrary to it. The poet seems to want to say that he feels the Revolution in this also, that he feels its sweep, the terrible commotion in the heart, the awakening, the bravery, the risk, and that even in these disgusting, senseless and bloody manifestations is reflected the spirit of the Revolution which, to Blok, is the spirit of Christ rampant.
Of all the things which have been written about Blok and about The Twelve, perhaps the most impossible are the writings of Mr. Chukovsky. His booklet about Blok is not worse than his other books. They reveal an external vivacity combined with an inability to bring the least order into his thoughts, an unevenness of exposition, a provincial newspaper rhythm, as well as a meager pedantism and a tendency to generalize on the basis of external antitheses. And Chukovsky always discovers what no one else has ever seen. Has anyone ever considered The Twelve as the poem of the Revolution, that very Revolution which took place in October? Heaven forbid! Chukovsky will immediately explain all about it, and will reconcile Blok with “public opinion”. The Twelve does not sing the Revolution, but Russia, in spite of the Revolution: “Here is an obstinate nationalism which, unembarrassed by anything, wants to see holiness even in ugliness, as long as this ugliness is Russia.” (K. Chukovsky, A Book About Alexander Blok) Blok then accepts Russia, in spite of the Revolution, or, to be more exact, in spite of the ugliness of the Revolution. This seems to be his reasoning; that much seems definite. At the same time, however, it turns out that Blok was always (!) the poet of the Revolution, “but not of the Revolution which is taking place now, but of another revolution, national and Russian ...” This is jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Thus Blok in The Twelve did not sing of Russia in spite of the Revolution, but sang of a revolution, not of the one which has taken place, but of another one, the exact address of which is fully known to Chukovsky. This is the way this talented fellow says it: “The Revolution he sang of was not the Revolution which was taking place around him, but another one, a true one, a flaming one.” But we just heard that he sang of ugliness, and not of a burning flame, and he sang of this ugliness because it was a Russian one, and not because it was revolutionary. And now we discover that he did not make his peace with the ugliness of the true revolution at all, just because that ugliness was Russian, but that he sang exaltingly of a revolution, of another one, a true and flaming one, only because that revolution was directed against an existing ugliness.
Vanka kills Katka with the rifle which was given him by his class to defend the Revolution. We say that this is incidental to the Revolution, but not of the Revolution. Blok means his poem to say: I accept this also, because here, also, I hear the dynamics of events, and the music of the storm. Now comes his interpreter Chukovsky, and explains it. The murder of Katka by Vanka is the ugliness of the Revolution. Blok accepts Russia, even with this ugliness, because it is Russian. But at the same time when he sings of the murder of Katka by Vanka and of the pillaging of the houses, Blok sings of a revolution, but not of this ugly present-day real Russian Revolution, but of another, a truer, flaming one. The address of this true and flaming revolution Chukovsky will tell us soon, right away.
But if the Revolution to Blok is Russia herself, just as she is, then what is the meaning of the “orator”, who looks upon the Revolution as treason? What is the meaning of the priest who walks by the side? What is the meaning of “the old world like a mangy cur”? What is the meaning of Denikin, Miliukov, Chernov and the émigrés? Russia has been split in half. That is the Revolution. Blok called one-half a mangy cur, and the other halt he blessed with the blessings at his command, that is, with verses and with Christ. But Chukovsky declares all this to be a mere misunderstanding. What charlatanism of words, what an indecent slovenliness of thought, what a spiritual devastation, what a cheap and mean and shameful jabber of speech!
To be sure, Blok is not one of ours, but he reached towards us. And in doing so, he broke down. But the result of his impulse is the most significant work of our epoch. His poem, The Twelve, will remain forever.