Osip Mandelstam and the Modernist Creation of Tradition

Osip Mandelstam and the Modernist Creation of Tradition

Osip Mandelstam and the Modernist Creation of Tradition

Osip Mandelstam and the Modernist Creation of Tradition


If modernism marked, as some critics claim, an apocalypse of cultural community, then Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) must rank among its most representative figures. Born to Central European Jews in Warsaw on the cusp of the modern age, he could claim neither Russian nor European traditions as his birthright. Describing the poetic movement he helped to found, Acmeism, as a yearning for world culture, he defined the impulse that charges his own poetry and prose. Clare Cavanagh has written a sustained study placing Mandelstam's remembrance and invention of a usable poetic past in the context of modernist writing in general, with particular attention to the work of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Cavanagh traces Mandelstam's creation of tradition from his earliest lyrics to his last verses, written shortly before his arrest and subsequent death in a Stalinist camp. Her work shows how the poet, generalizing from his own dilemmas and disruptions, addressed his epoch's paradoxical legacy of disinheritance--and how he responded to this unwelcome legacy with one of modernism's most complex, ambitious, and challenging visions of tradition. Drawing on not only Russian and Western modernist writing and theory, but also modern European Jewish culture, Russian religious thought, postrevolutionary politics, and even silent film, Cavanagh traces Mandelstam's recovery of a world culture vital, vast, and varied enough to satisfy the desires of the quintessential outcast modernist.


Perhaps the strongest impulse towards a shift in the approach to language and linguistics … was—for me, at least—the turbulent artistic movement of the early twentieth century. the great men of art born in the 1880's—Picasso (1881–), Joyce (1882–1941), Braque (1882–), Stravinsky (1882–), Khlebnikov (1885–1922), Le Corbusier (1887–)—were able to complete a thorough and comprehensive schooling in one of the most placid spans of world history, before that “last hour of universal calm” (poslednii chas vsemirnoi tishiny) was shattered by a train of cataclysms. the leading artists of that generation keenly anticipated the upheavals that were to come and met them while still young and dynamic enough to test and steel their own creative power in this crucible. the extraordinary capacity of these discoverers to overcome again and again the faded habits of their own yesterdays, [joined] together with an unprecedented gift for seizing and shaping anew every older tradition or foreign model without sacrificing the stamp of their own permanent individuality in the amazing polyphony of ever new creations.

Roman Jakobson, “Retrospect” (1962)

I was born in the same year as Charlie Chaplin, Tolstoy's “Kreutzer Sonata,” [Gumilev] the Eiffel Tower, and, apparently, [T. S.] Eliot.

Anna Akhmatova, “Notes Towards a Memoir” (undated) . . .

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