FUTURISM is a European phenomenon, and it is interesting because, in spite of the teachings of the Russian Formalist school, it did not shut itself in within the confines of art, but from the first, especially in Italy, it connected itself with political and social events.
Futurism reflected in art the historic development which began in the middle of the ’nineties, and which became merged in the World War. Capitalist society passed through two decades of unparalleled economic prosperity which destroyed the old concepts of wealth and power, and elaborated new standards, new criteria of the possible and of the impossible, and urged people towards new exploits.
At the same time, the social movement lived on officially in the automatism of yesterday. The armed peace, with its patches of diplomacy, the hollow parliamentary systems, the external and internal politics based on the system of Safety valves and brakes, all this weighed heavily on poetry at a time when the air, charged with accumulated electricity, gave sign of impending great explosions. Futurism was the “foreboding” of all this in art.
A phenomenon was observed which has been repeated in history more than once, namely, that the backward countries which were without any special degree of spiritual culture, reflected in their ideology the achievements of the advanced countries more brilliantly and strongly. In this way, German thought of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries reflected the economic achievements of England and the political achievements of France. In the same way, Futurism obtained its most brilliant expression, not in America and not in Germany, but in Italy and in Russia.
With the exception of architecture, art is based on technique only in its last analysis, that is, only to the extent to which technique is the basis of all cultural superstructures. The practical dependence of art, especially of the art of words, upon material technique, is insignificant. A poem which sings the skyscrapers, the dirigibles and the submarines can be written in a faraway corner of some Russian province on yellow paper and with a broken stub of a pencil. In order to inflame the bright imagination of that province, it is quite enough if the skyscrapers, the dirigibles and the submarines are in America. The human word is the most portable of all materials.
Futurism originated in an eddy of bourgeois art, and could not have originated otherwise. Its violent oppositional character does not contradict this in the least.
The intellectuals are extremely heterogeneous. At the same time, each recognized school of art is a well paid school. It is headed by mandarins with their many little balls. As a general rule, these mandarins of art develop the methods of their schools to the greatest subtlety, while at the same time they use up their whole supply of powder. Then some objective change, such as a political upheaval or a social storm, arouses the literary Bohemia, the youth, the geniuses who are of military age, who, cursing the satiated and vulgar bourgeois culture, secretly dream of a few little balls for themselves, and gilded ones, too, if possible.
When investigators define the social nature of early Futurism and ascribe a decisive significance to the violent protests against bourgeois life and art, they simply do not know the history of literary tendencies well enough. The French romanticists, as well as the German, always spoke scathingly of bourgeois morality and philistine life. More than that, they wore long hair, flirted with a green complexion, and for the ultimate shaming of the bourgeoisie, Theophile Gautier put on a sensational red vest. The Futurist yellow blouse is undoubtedly a grandniece to this romantic vest, which inspired such horror to the papas and mammas. As is known, nothing cataclysmic followed these rebellious protests of the long hair or the red vest of romanticism, and bourgeois public opinion safely adopted these gentlemen romantics and canonized them in their school textbooks.
It is extremely naive to contrast the dynamics of Italian Futurism and its sympathies to the Revolution, with the “decadent” character of the bourgeoisie. One ought not to represent the bourgeoisie as a withered old cat. No, the beast of imperialism is bold, flexible and has claws. Or is the lesson of 1914 already forgotten? For its war, the bourgeoisie used extensively the feelings and moods which were destined by their nature to feed rebellion. In France, the War was pictured as the final completion of the work of the Great Revolution. And did not the belligerent bourgeoisie actually arrange revolutions in other lands? In Italy, the interventionists (that is, those in favor of intervention in the War) were the “revolutionists”, that is, the Republicans, Free Masons, social Chauvinists and Futurists. Last of all, did not Italian Fascism come into power by “revolutionary” methods, by bringing into action the masses, the mobs and the millions, and by tempering and arming them? It is not an accident, it is not a misunderstanding, that Italian Futurism has merged into the torrent of Fascism; it is entirely in accord with the law of cause and effect.
Russian Futurism was born in a society which passed through the preparatory class of fighting the priest Rasputin, and was preparing for the democratic Revolution of February, 1917. This gave our Futurism certain advantages. It caught rhythms of movement, of action, of attack, and of destruction which were as yet vague. It carried its struggle for a place in the sun more sharply, more resolutely and more noisily than all preceding schools, which was in accordance with its activist moods and points of view. To be sure, a young Futurist did not go to the factories and to the mills, but he made a lot of noise in cafes, he banged his fist upon music stands, he put on a yellow blouse, he painted his cheeks and threatened vaguely with his fist.
The workers’ Revolution in Russia broke loose before Futurism had time to free itself from its childish habits, from its yellow blouses, and from its excessive excitement, and before it could be officially recognized, that is, made into a politically harmless artistic school whose style is acceptable. The seizure of power by the proletariat caught Futurism still in the stage of being a persecuted group.
And this fact alone pushed Futurism towards the new masters of life, especially since the contact and rapprochement with the Revolution was made easier for Futurism by its philosophy, that is, by its lack of respect for old values and by its dynamics. But Futurism carried the features of its social origin, bourgeois Bohemia, into the new stage of its development.
In the advance guard of literature, Futurism is no less a product of the poetic past than any other literary school of the present day. To say that Futurism has freed art of its thousand-year-old bonds of bourgeoisdom is to estimate thousands of years very cheaply. The call of the Futurists to break with the past, to do away with Pushkin, to liquidate tradition, etc., has a meaning in so far as it is addressed to the old literary caste, to the closed in circle of the intelligentsia. In other words, it has a meaning only insofar as the Futurists are busy cutting the cord which binds them to the priests of bourgeois literary tradition.
But the meaninglessness of this call becomes evident as soon as it is addressed to the proletariat. The working-class does not have to, and cannot break with literary tradition, because the working-class is not in the grip of such tradition. The working-class does not know the old literature, it still has to commune with it, it still has to master Pushkin, to absorb him, and so overcome him. The Futurist break with the past is, after all, a tempest in the closed-in world of the intelligentsia which grew up on Pushkin, Fet, Tiutschev, Briusov, Balmont and Blok, and who are passive, not because they are infected with a superstitious veneration for the forms of the past, but because they have nothing in their soul which calls for new forms. They simply have nothing to say. They sing the old feelings over again with slightly new words. The Futurists have done well to push away from them. But it is not necessary to make a universal law of development out of the act of pushing away.
A Bohemian nihilism exists in the exaggerated Futurist rejection of the past, but not a proletarian revolutionism. We Marxists live in traditions, and we have not stopped being revolutionists on account of it. We elaborated and lived through the traditions of the Paris Commune, even before our first revolution. Then the traditions of 1905 were added to them, by which we nourished ourselves and by which we prepared the second revolution. Going farther back, we connected the Commune with the June days of 1848, and with the great French Revolution. In the field of theory, we based ourselves, through Marx, on Hegel and on English classical political economy. We were educated, and we entered the struggle during an organic epoch, and we lived on revolutionary traditions. More than one literary tendency was born under our eyes, which declared a merciless war upon “bourgeoisdom”, and which looked upon us as not quite whole. Just as the wind always returns to its own circles, so these literary revolutionists and destroyers of traditions found their way to the Academy. The October Revolution appeared to the intelligentsia, including its literary left wing, as a complete destruction of its known world, of that very world from which it broke away from time to time, for the purpose of creating new schools, and to which it invariably returned. To us, on the contrary, the Revolution appeared as the embodiment of a familiar tradition, internally digested. From a world which we rejected theoretically, and which we undermined practically, we entered into a world which was already familiar to us, as a tradition and a vision. Here lies the incompatibility of psychologic type between the Communist, who is a political revolutionist, and the Futurist, who is a revolutionary innovator of form. This is the source of the misunderstandings between them. The trouble is not that Futurism “denies” the holy traditions of the intelligentsia. On the contrary, it lies in the fact that it does not feel itself to be part of the revolutionary tradition. We stepped into the Revolution while Futurism fell into it.
But the situation is not at all hopeless. Futurism will not go back “to its circles” because these circles do not exist any longer. And this not insignificant circumstance gives Futurism the possibility of a rebirth, of entering into the new art, not as an all determining current, but as an important component part.
Russian Futurism is composed of several elements, which are quite independent from one another, and are often contradictory; philologic constructions and surmises considerably imbued with the archaic (Khlebnikov, Kruchenikh), which at any rate lie outside the sphere of poetry; a poetics, that is, a doctrine about the methods and processes of wordmaking; a philosophy of art, in fact two whole philosophies, a formalistic one (Shklovsky), and another one, more Marxist (Arvatov, Chuzhak, etc.); finally, poetry itself, the living work. We are not considering their literary insolence as an independent element, because it is generally combined with one of these fundamental elements. When Kruchenikh says that the meaningless syllables, “Dir, bul, tschil”, contain more poetry than all of Pushkin (or something to this effect) it is something midway between phulologic poetics, and the insolence of bad manners. In a more sober form, Kruchenikh’s idea may mean that the orchestration of verse in the key of “Dir, bul, tschil” suits the structure of the Russian language and the spirit of its sounds more than Pushkin’s orchestration, which is unconsciously influenced by the French language. Whether this is correct or incorrect, it is evident that “Dir, bul, tschil” is not a poetic extract from a Futurist work – so there is really nothing for one to compare. Perhaps it is possible that someone will write poems in this musical and philologic key which will be greater than Pushkin’s. But we have to wait.
Khlebnikov’s and Kruchenikh’s wordforms also lie outside poetry. They are philology of a doubtful character, poetics in part, but not poetry. It is absolutely unquestionable that language lives and develops, creating new words from within, and discarding antiquated ones. Hut a language does this extremely cautiously and calculatingly, and according to the strictest need. Every new great epoch gives an impetus to language. The latter hurriedly absorbs a large number of neologisms, and then re-registers them in its own way, discarding all that are unnecessary and foreign. Khlebnikov’s or Kruchenikh’s making ten or one hundred new derivative words out of existing roots may have a certain philological interest; they may, in a certain though very modest degree, facilitate the development of the living and even of the poetic language, and forecast a time when the evolution of speech will be more consciously directed. But this very work, whose character is subsidiary to art, is outside of poetry.
One need not fall into a state of pious adoration at the sound of superrational poetry, which resembles verbal musical scales and exercises and which is perhaps useful to pupils, but entirely inappropriate to the platform. At any rate, it is quite clear that to substitute the exercises of the “superreason” for poetry would stifle poetry. But Futurism will not go along this line. Mayakovsky, who is unquestionably a poet, takes his words generally from a standard dictionary and very rarely from Khlebnikov or Kruchenikh, and as time goes on, Mayakovsky uses arbitrary word-forms and neologisms more and more rarely.
The problems raised by the theorists of the “Lef” group about art and a machine industry, about art which does not embellish life, but forms it, about conscious influence upon the development of language and systematic formation of words, about biomechanics as the education of the activities of man in the spirit of the greatest rationality, and therefore of the greatest beauty – are all problems which are extremely significant and interesting from the point of view of building a Socialist culture.
Unfortunately, the “Lef” colors these problems by a Utopian sectarianism. Even when they mark out correctly the general trend of development in the field of art or life, the theorists of “Lef” anticipate history and contrast their scheme or their prescription with that which is. They thus have no bridge to the future. They remind one of anarchists who anticipate the absence of government in the future, and who contrast their scheme with the politics, parliaments and several other realities that the present ship of State must, in their imagination, of course, throw overboard. In practice, therefore, they bury their noses before they have hardly freed their tails. Mayakovsky proves, by complicated and rhymed verses, the superfluousness of verse and rhyme, and promises to write mathematical formulas, though we have mathematicians for that purpose. When the passionate experimenter, Meyerhold, the furious Vissarion Belinsky of the stage, produces on the stage the few semi. rhythmic movements he has taught those actors who are weak in dialogue, and calls this biomechanics, the result is – abortive. To tear out of the future that which can only develop as an inseparable part of it, and to hurriedly materialize this partial anticipation in the present day dearth and before the cold footlights, is only to make an impression of provincial dilettantism. And there is nothing more inimical to a new art than provincialism and dilettantism.
The new architecture will be made up of two halves; of new problems and of a new technical means of mastering both new and old material. The new problem will not be the building of a temple, or a castle or a private mansion, but rather a people’s home, a hotel for the masses, a commons, a community house, or a school of gigantic dimensions. The materials and the method of using them will be determined by the economic condition of the country at the moment when architecture will have become ready to solve its problems. To tear architectural construction out of the future is only arbitrariness, clever and individual. However, a new style cannot be reconciled to individual arbitrariness. The writers of the “Lef” themselves correctly point out that a new style develops where the machine industry produces for an impersonal consumer. The telephone apparatus is an example of a new style. The sleeping cars, the staircases and the stations of the subway, the elevators, all these are undoubtedly elements of a new style, just as were metallic bridges, covered markets, skyscrapers and cranes. Thus beyond a practical problem and the steady work of solving this problem, one cannot create a new architectural style. The effort to reason out such a style by the method of deduction from the nature of the proletariat, from its collectivism, activism, atheism, and so forth, is the purest idealism, and will give nothing but an ingenious expression of one’s ego, an arbitrary allegorism, and the same old provincial dilettantism.
The error of the “Lef”, at least of some of its theorists, appears to us in its most generalized form, when they make an ultimatum for the fusion of art with life. It is not to be argued that the separation of art from other aspects of social life was the result of the class structure of society, that the self-sufficient character of art is merely the reverse side of the fact that art became the property of the privileged classes, and that the evolution of art in the future will follow the path of a growing fusion with life, that is, with production, with popular holidays and with the collective group life. It is good that the “Lef” understands this and explains it. But it is not good when they present a short time ultimatum on the basis of the present day art, when they say: leave your “lathe” and fuse with life. In other words, the poets, the painters, the sculptors, the actors must cease to reflect, to depict, to write poems, to paint pictures, to carve sculptures, to speak before the footlights, but they must carry their art directly into life. But how, and where, and through what gates? Of course, one may hail every attempt to carry as much rhythm and sound and color as is possible into popular holidays and meetings and processions. But one must have a little historic vision, at least, to understand that between our present day economic and cultural poverty and the time of the fusion of art with life, that is, between the time when life will reach such proportions that it will be entirely formed by art, more than one generation will have come and gone. Whether for good or for bad, the “lathelike” art will remain for many years more, and will be the instrument of the artistic and social development of the masses and their aesthetic enjoyment, and this is true not only of the art of painting, but of lyrics, novels, comedies, tragedies, sculpture and symphony. To reject art as a means of picturing and imaging knowledge because of one’s opposition to the contemplative and impressionistic bourgeois art of the last few decades, is to strike from the hands of the class which is building a new society its most important weapon. Art, it is said, is not a mirror, but a hammer: it does not reflect, it shapes. But at present even the handling of a hammer is taught with the help of a mirror, a sensitive film which records all the movements. Photography and motion-picture photography, owing to their passive accuracy of depiction, are becoming important educational instruments in the field of labor. If one cannot get along without a mirror, even in shaving oneself, how can one reconstruct oneself or one’s life, without seeing oneself in the “mirror” of literature? Of course no one speaks about an exact mirror. No one even thinks of asking the new literature to have a mirror-like impassivity. The deeper literature is, and the more it is imbued with the desire to shape life, the more significantly and dynamically it will be able to “picture” life.
What does it mean to “deny experiences”, that is, deny individual psychology in literature and on the stage? This is a late and long outlived protest of the Left wing of the intelligentsia against the passive realism of the Chekhov school and against dreamy symbolism. If the experiences of Uncle Vanya have lost a little of their freshness – and this sin has actually taken place – it is none the less true that Uncle Vanya is not the only one with an inner life. In what way, on what grounds, and in the name of what, can art turn its back to the inner life of present day man who is building a new external world, and thereby rebuilding himself? If art will not help this new man to educate himself, to strengthen and refine himself, then what is it for? And how can it organize the inner life, if it does not penetrate it and reproduce it? Here Futurism merely repeats its own ABC’s which are now quite behind the times.
The same may be said about institutional life. Futurism arose as a protest against the art of petty realists who sponged on life. Literature suffocated and became stupid in the stagnant little world of the lawyer, the student, the amorous lady, the district civil servant, and of all their feelings, their joys and their sorrows. But should one carry one’s protest against sponging on life to the extent of separating literature from the conditions and forms of human life? If the Futurist protest against a shallow realism had its historic justification, it was only because it made room for a new artistic recreating of life, for destruction and reconstruction on new pivots.
It is curious that while denying that it is the mission of art to picture life, the “Lef” points to Nepoputschitsa of Brick as a model of prose. What is this work, if not a picture of life, in the form on an almost Communist change? The trouble does not lie in the fact that the Communists are not pictured here sweet as sugar or hard as steel, but in the fact that between the author and the vulgar environment which he describes, there isn’t an inch of perspective. But for art to be able to transform as well as to reflect, there must be a great distance between the artist and life, just as there is between the revolutionist and political reality.
In reply to criticisms against the “Lef”, which are often more insulting than convincing, the point is emphasized that the “Lef” is still constantly seeking. Undoubtedly the “Lef” seeks more than it has found. But this is not a sufficient reason why the Party cannot do that which is persistently recommended, and canonize the “Lef” or even a definite wing of it, as “Communist Art”. It is as impossible to canonize seekings as it is impossible to arm an army with an unrealized invention.
But does this mean that the “Lef” stands absolutely on a false road, and that we can have nothing to do with it? No, it does not mean this. The situation is not that the Party has definite and fixed ideas on the question of art in the future, and that a certain group is sabotaging them. This is not the case at all. The Party has not, and cannot have, readymade decisions on versification, on the evolution of the theater, on the renovation of the literary language, on architectural style, etc., just as in another field the Party has not and cannot have readymade decisions on the best kind of fertilization, on the most correct organization of transport, and on the most perfect machine guns. But as regards machine guns and transportation and fertilization, the practical decisions are needed immediately. What does the Party do then? It assigns certain Party workers to the task of considering and mastering these problems, and it checks up these Party workers by the practical results of their achievements. In the field of art the question is both simpler and more complex. As far as the political use of art is concerned, or the impossibility of allowing such use by our enemies, the Party has sufficient experience, insight, decision and resource. But the actual development of art, and its struggle for new forms are not part of the Party’s tasks, nor is it its concern. The Party does not delegate anyone for such work. At the same time, a certain point of contact exists between the problems of art, politics, technique and economics. It is necessary for the inner interdependence of these problems. This is what the group of the “Lef” is concerned with. This group plays tricks, plunges to this side and that, and – let them not be offended by this – does a good deal of theoretical bluffing. But did we not, and are we not also bluffing in fields much more vitally important? In the second place, did we try seriously to correct errors of theoretic approach or of partisan enthusiasm in practical work? We have no reason to doubt that the “Lef” group is striving seriously to 'work in the interest of Socialism, that it is pro. foundly interested in the problems of art, and that it wants to be guided by a Marxian criterion. Why, then, do they begin with a rupture, and not with an effort to influence and to assimilate? The question is not at all so imminent. The Party, has plenty of time for an examining, for a careful influencing and a selection. Or have we so much skilled strength that we can so lightheartedly be wasteful of it? But the center of gravity lies, after all, not in the theoretic elaboration of the problems of the new art, but in its poetic expression. What is the situation as regards the artistic expression of Futurism and its gropings and accomplishments? Here there is even less ground for haste and intolerance.
Today, one can hardly deny entirely the Futurist achievements in art, especially in poetry. With very few exceptions, all our present day poetry has been influenced by Futurism, directly or indirectly. One cannot dispute Mayakovsky’s influence on a whole series of proletarian poets. Constructivism has also made significant conquests, though not at all in the direction it had marked out for itself. Articles are continually being published on the complete futility and on the counterrevolutionary character of Futurism between covers made by the hand of the Constructivist. In the most official editions, Futurist poems are published side by side with the most destructive summings up of Futurism. The Proletkult [the organization for proletarian culture] is united to the Futurists by living cords. Gorn is edited at present in a quite clear spirit of Futurism. To be sure, there is no use exaggerating the significance of these facts, because they take place, as in the great majority of all our groups of art, in an upper and for the time being quite superficial stratum, and are very feebly connected with the working masses. But it would be stupid to close one’s eyes to these facts, and to treat Futurism as a charlatan invention of a decadent intelligentsia. Even if tomorrow the fact will be disclosed that the strength of Futurism is declining – and I do not consider this quite impossible – today, at any rate, the strength of Futurism is greater than all those tendencies at whose expense Futurism is spreading.
The original Futurism of Russia, as has already been said, was the revolt of Bohemia, that is, of the semi-pauperized left wing of the intelligentsia against the closed-in and caste-like aesthetics of the bourgeois intelligentsia. Through the outer layer of this poetic revolt was felt the pressure of deep social forces, which Futurism itself did not quite understand. The struggle against the old vocabulary and syntax of poetry, regardless of all its Bohemian extravagances, was a progressive revolt against a vocabulary that was cramped and selected artificially with the view of being undisturbed by anything extraneous; a revolt against impressionism, which was sipping life through a straw; a revolt against symbolism, which had become false in its heavenly vacuity, against Zinaida Hippius and her kind, and against all the other squeezed lemons and picked chicken bones of the little world of the liberal-mystic intelligentsia. If we survey attentively tile period left behind, we cannot help but realize how vital and progressive was the work of the Futurists in the field of philology. Without exaggerating the dimensions of this “revolution” in language, we must realize that Futurism has pushed out of poetry many worn words and phrases, and has made them full-blooded again and, in a few cases, has happily created new words and phrases which have entered, or are entering, into the vocabulary of poetry and which can enrich the living language. This refers not only to the separate word, but also to its place among other words, that is, to syntax. In the field of word combinations, as well as in the field of word formations, Futurism truly has gone somewhat beyond the limits which a living language can hold. The same thing, however, has happened with the Revolution; and is the “sin” of every living movement. It is true, the Revolution, especially its conscious vanguard, shows more self-criticism than the Futurists, but in return for this, the Revolution has also had more resistance from the outside, and, one may hope, will receive more in the future. The superfluous will fall and does fall away, but the fundamentally purifying and truly revolutionizing work that is done in the field of poetic language will remain.
Nor can one help recognize and value the progressive and creative work of Futurism in the field of rhythm and rhyme. The indifferent and those who merely tolerate these things because they are bequeathed to us by our ancestors, may regard all Futurist innovations as a troublesome business which demands a certain expenditure of attention. In connection with this, one can raise the question in general: are rhythm and rhyme necessary at all? Quite curiously enough, Mayakovsky himself proves from time to time, in lines that have a very complex rhythm, that rhythm is unnecessary. A purely logical approach destroys the question of artistic form. One must judge this question not with one’s reason, which does not go beyond formal logic, but with one’s whole mind, which includes the irrational, in so far as it is alive and vital. Poetry is not a rational but an emotional thing, and human psychology, which has absorbed biologic rhythms, the rhythms and rhythmic combinations related to collective work, seeks to express them in an idealized form in sound and song and in artistic words. As long as such a need is a vital one, the Futurist rhythms and rhymes which are more flexible, bolder and more varied, represent a surer and more valuable acquisition. And this acquisition has already had its influence outside the purely Futurist groups.
In the orchestration of verse, the conquests of the Futurists are just as indisputable. One must not forget that the sound of a word is an acoustic accompaniment of its sense. If the Futurists have sinned, and still sin by their almost monstrous bias for sound as against sense, it is only the enthusiasm of the “infantile sickness of leftism”, which, of course, must be rejected as the ravings of a new poetic school, which has felt in a new way and with a fresh ear, sound as opposed to the sleek routine of words. Of course, the overwhelming majority of the working-class today are not interested in these questions. The greater part of the vanguard of the working-class is too busy for them – it has other, more urgent tasks. But there is also the tomorrow. That tomorrow will demand a much more attentive and accurate attitude, a much more masterly and artistic one towards language, as the fundamental instrument of culture – not only towards the language of verse, but also of prose, and especially of prose. A word never covers a concept precisely in the whole concrete meaning with which it is taken in each given case. On the other hand, a word has sound and outline, not only to our ear and for our eye, but also for our logic and imagination. It is possible to make thought more precise through a careful selection of words, only if the latter are weighed from all sides, which means acoustically as well, and only if they are combined in the most thought-out manner. Here hap. hazard methods will not do; micro-metric instruments are necessary. Routine, tradition, habit and carelessness must all make room for thoughtful systematic work. On its best side Futurism is a protest against the haphazard, which forms a powerful literary school of its own, and which has very influential representatives in every field.
In Gorlov’s unpublished work, which, in my opinion, traces incorrectly the international origin of Futurism, and which violates a historic perspective and identifies Futurism with proletarian poetry, the achievements of Futurism in art and form are very thoughtfully and weightily summarized. Gorlov points out correctly that the Futurist revolution in form, which grew out of the revolt against the old aesthetics, reflects in the plane of theory the revolt against the stagnant and smelly life which produced that aesthetics. And that this caused in Mayakovsky, who is the greatest poet of the school, and in his most intimate friends, a revolt against the social order which produced that discarded life with its discarded aesthetics. That is why these poets are organically connected with October. Gorlov’s outline is correct, but it must be made more precise and more definite. It is true that new words and new word combinations, new rhythms and new rhymes were necessary, because Futurism, in its feeling for the world, rearranged events and facts, and established, that is, discovered, for itself new relationships between them.
Futurism is against mysticism, against the passive deification of nature, against the aristocratic and every other kind of laziness, against dreaminess, and against lachrymosity – and stands for technique, for scientific organization, for the machine, for planfulness, for will power, for courage, for speed, for precision, and for the new man, who is armed with all these things. The connection of the aesthetics “revolt” with the moral and social revolt is direct; both enter entirely and fully into the life experience of the active, new, young and untamed section of the intelligentsia of the left, the creative Bohemia. Disgcust against the limitations and the vulgarity of the old life produces a new artistic style as a way of escape, and thus the disgust is liquidated. In different combinations, and on different historic bases, we have seen the disgust of the intelligentsia form more than one new style. But that was always the end of it. This time, the proletarian Revolution caught Futurism in a certain stage of its growth and pushed it forward. Futurists became Communists. By this very act they entered the sphere of more profound questions and relationships, which far transcended the limits of their own little world, and which were not quite worked out organically in their soul. That is why Futurists, even including Mayakovsky, are weakest artistically at those points where they finish as Communists. This is more the result of their spiritual past than of their social origin. The Futurist poets have not mastered the elements of the Communist point of view and world-attitude sufficiently to find an organic expression for them in words; they have not entered, so to speak, into their blood. That is why they are frequently subject to artistic and psychologic defeats, to stilted forms and to making much noise about nothing. In its most revolutionary and compelling works, Futurism becomes stylization. Nevertheless, the young poet Bezimensky, who is so much obligated to Mayakovsky, gives a really true artistic expression of the Communist point of view; the reason being that Bezimensky was not a poet already formed when he came to Communism, but was spiritually born in Communism.
It is possible to argue, and it has been argued more than once, that even the proletarian doctrine and program were made by members of the bourgeois and democratic intelligentsia. There is a great difference here. The economic and historico-philosophic doctrine of the proletariat consists of objective knowledge. If that cabinetmaker, Bebel, who was ascetically economical in life and thought, and who had a mind as keen as a razor, had been the creator of the theory of surplus value, and not that universally educated doctor of philosophy, Karl Marx, he would have formulated it in a much more accessible and simple and one-sided work. The wealth and variety of thoughts, of arguments, of images and of quotations in Capital, undoubtedly reveal the “intellectualist” background of this great book. But, as the question here concerns objective knowledge, the essence of Capital came to Bebel as his property, and to thousands and millions of other proletarians. In the field of poetry we deal with the process of feeling the world in images, and not with the process of knowing the world scientifically. The life, the personal environment, the cycle of personal experience exercises, therefore, a determining influence upon artistic creation. To reshape the world of feelings, which one has absorbed from one’s childhood, by means of a scientific program, is the most difficult inner labor. Not everyone is capable of it. That is why there are many people in this world who think as revolutionists and who feel as Philistines. And that 1s why we feel, in Futurist poetry, even in that section which has given itself entirely to the Revolution, a revolutionism that is more Bohemian than proletarian.
Mayakovsky is a big, or, as Blok defines him, an enormous talent. He has the capacity of turning things which we have seen many times around in such a way that they seem new. He handles words and the dictionary like a bold master who works according to his own laws, regardless of whether his artisanship pleases or not. Many of his images and phrases and expressions have entered literature, and will remain in it for a long time, if not forever. He has his own construction, his own imaging, his own rhythm and his own rhyme.
Mayakovsky’s artistic design is almost always significant, and sometimes grandiose. The poet gathers into his own circle war and revolution, heaven and hell. Mayakovsky is hostile to mysticism, to every kind of hypocrisy, to the exploitation of man by man; his sympathies are entirely on the side of the struggling proletariat. He does not claim to be the priest of art, at least, not a priest with principles; on the contrary, he is entirely ready to place his art at the service of the Revolution.
But even in this big talent, or, to be more correct, in the entire creative personality of Mayakovsky, there is no necessary correlation between its component parts; there is no equilibrium, not even a dynamic one. Mayakovsky shows the greatest weakness where a sense of proportion and a capacity for self-criticism are needed.
It was more natural for Mayakovsky to accept the Revolution than for any other Russian poet, because it was in accordance with his entire development. Many roads lead the intelligentsia to the Revolution (not all of them lead to the goal) – and therefore it is important to define and to estimate Mayakovsky’s line of approach more accurately. There is the road of the rustic school of the intelligentsia and of the capricious “fellow-travellers” (we have already spoken of them); there is the road of the mystics, who seek higher “music” (A. Blok); there is the road of the “Changing Landmarks” group, and of those who have merely reconciled themselves (Shkapskaya, Shaginyan); there is the road of the rationalists and of the eclectics (Briusov, Gorodetsky and Shaginyan again). There are many other roads; they cannot all be named. Mayakovsky came by the shortest route, by that of the rebellious persecuted Bohemia. For Mayakovsky, the Revolution was a true and profound experience, because it descended with thunder and lightning upon the very things which Mayakovsky, in his own way, hated, with which he had not as yet made his peace. Herein lies his strength. Mayakovsky’s revolutionary individualism poured itself enthusiastically into the proletarian Revolution, but did not blend with it. His subconscious feeling for the city, for nature, for the whole world, is not that of a worker, but of a Bohemian. “The baldheaded street lamp which pulls the stocking off from the street” – this striking image alone, which is extremely characteristic of Mayakovsky, throws more light upon the Bohemian and city quality of the poet than all possible discussion. The impudent and cynical tone of many images, especially of those of the first half of his creative career, betrays the all-too-clear stamp of the artistic cabaret, of the cafe, and of all the rest of it.
Mayakovsky is closer to the dynamic quality of the Revolution and to its stern courage than to the mass character of its heroism, deeds and experiences. Just as the ancient Greek was an anthropomorphist and naively thought of the forces of nature as resembling himself, so our poet is a Mayako-morphist and fills the squares, the streets and fields of the Revolution with his own personality. True, extremes meet. The universalization of one’s ego breaks down, to some extent, the limits of one’s individuality, and brings one nearer to the collectivity – from the reverse end. But this is true only to a certain degree. The individualistic and Bohemian arrogance – in contrast, not to humility, which no one wants, but to a necessary sense of the measure of things – runs through everything written by Mayakovsky. He has frequently a very high degree of pathos in his works, but there is not always strength behind it. The poet is too much in evidence. He allows too little independence to events and facts, so that it is not the Revolution that is struggling with obstacles, but it is Mayakovsky who does athletic stunts in the arena of words. Sometimes he performs miracles indeed, but every now and then he makes an heroic effort and lifts a hollow weight.
At every step Mayakovsky speaks about himself, now in the first person, and now in the third, now individually, and now dissolving himself in mankind. When he wants to elevate man, he makes him be Mayakovsky. He assumes a familiarity to the greatest events of history. This is the most intolerable, as well as the most dangerous thing in his works. One can’t speak about Stilts or buskins in his case; such props are too poor. Mayakovsky has one foot on Mont Blanc and the other on Elbrus. His voice drowns thunder; can one wonder that he treats history familiarly, and is on intimate terms with the Revolution? But this is most dangerous, for given such gigantic standards, everywhere and in everything, such thunderous shouts (the poet’s favorite word) against the horizon of Elbrus and Mont Blanc – the proportions of our worldly affairs vanish, and it is impossible to establish the difference between a little thing and a big. That is why Mayakovsky speaks of the most intimate thing, such as love, as if he were speaking about the migration of nations. For the same reason he cannot find different words for the Revolution. He is always shooting at the edge, and, as every artilleryman knows, such gunning gives a minimum of hits and tells most heavily on the guns.
It is true that hyperbolism reflects to a certain degree the rage of our times. But this does not offer a wholesale justification of art. It is hard to shout louder than the War or the Revolution, and it is easy to break down. A sense of measure in art is the same as having a sense of realism in politics. The principal fault of Futurist poetry, even in its best examples, lies in this absence of a sense of measure it has lost the measure of the salon, and it has not yet found the measure of the street. But one has to find it. If you force your voice in the street, it will become hoarse and shriek and break, and the impression of the word will be lost. You must speak in the voice given you by nature, and not in a voice that is louder than you have. But if you know how, you can use your voice to the fullest extent. Mayakovsky shouts too often, ’where he should merely speak; that is why his shouting, in those places where he ought to shout, seems insufficient. The poet’s pathos is destroyed by shouting and hoarseness.
Mayakovsky’s weighty images, though frequently splendid, quite often disintegrate the whole, and paralyze the action. The poet evidently feels this himself; that is why he is yearning for another extreme, for the language of “mathematical formulas”, a language unnatural to poetry. It makes one think that the self-sufficient imagery which Imagism has in common with Futurism (which is beginning to resemble our peasant-singing Imagism!) has its roots in the village background of our culture. It is more related to the church of Vassili the Blessed, than to a steel bridge But, whatever may be the historic and cultural explanation of this, the fact remains that the thing that is most lacking in Mayakovsky’s works is action. This may look like a paradox, for Futurism is entirely founded on action. But here enters the unimpeachable dialectics; an excess of violent imagery results in quiescence. Action must correspond to the mechanics of our perception and to the rhythm of our feelings, if it is to be perceived artistically, and even physically. A work of art must show the gradual growth of an image, of a mood, of a plot, or of an intrigue to its climax, and must not throw the reader about from one end to another end, no matter if it is done by the most skillful boxing blows of Imagery. Each phrase, each expression, each image of Mayakovsky’s works tries to be the climax. That is why the whole “piece” has no climax. The spectator has a feeling that he has to spend himself in parts, and the whole eludes him. To climb a mountain is difficult, but worth while, but a walk across plowed-up country is no less fatiguing and gives much less joy. Mayakovsky’s works have no peak; they are not disciplined internally. The parts refuse to obey the whole. Each part tries to be separate. It develops its own dynamics, without considering the welfare of the whole. That is why it is without entity or dynamics. The Futurists have not yet found a synthetic expression of words and images in their work.
The 150 Million was supposed to be the poem of the Revolution. But it is not. The whole of this work, which is big in its design, is devoured by the weakness and defects of Futurism. The author wanted to write an epic of mass suffering, of mass heroism, of an impersonal revolution of the one hundred and fifty million Ivans. And the author did not sign it. “No one is the author of this poem of mine.” But this state of impersonal ownership does not change the situation. The poem is profoundly personal and individualistic, and in the bad sense of the term. It contains too much purposeless arbitrariness of art. The poem has these images: “Wilson swimming in fat”, “In Chicago every inhabitant has the title of a general, at least”, “Wilson gobbles, grows fat, his bellies grow story on story”, – and other such. Such images are very simple and very rude, but they are not at all popular; at any rate, they are not the images that belong to the present day masses. The worker, at least the worker who will read Mayakovsky’s poem, has seen Wilson’s photograph. Wilson is thin, though we may readily believe that he swallows a sufficient quantity of proteins and fats. The worker has also read Upton Sinclair, and knows that Chicago has stockyard workers besides “generals”. In spite of their loud hyperbolism, one feels a certain lisp in these purposeless and primitive images, of the kind grownups use with children. The simplicity that looks at us from these images does not come from a gross and whole. sale and popular imagination, but it comes from a Bohemian silliness. Wilson has a ladder – “If you walk on foot, start walking young, and you will hardly reach the end by the time you are old!” Ivan marches upon Wilson, “the championship (!) of the world’s class struggle” takes place, and Wilson has “pistols with four cocks, and a sword bent in seventy sharp points”, but Ivan has “a hand and another hand, and that is stuck in his belt”. The unarmed Ivan with his hand in his belt against the infidel armed with pistols is an old Russian motif! Is not Ilya Murometz before us? Or maybe it is Ivan the Fool who is stepping forward barefoot against the shrewd German mechanicians. Wilson struck Ivan with his sword: “He Cut him for four versts ... But a man crawled forth suddenly from the wound.” And so on, and in the same way. How out of place, and particularly how frivolous do these primitive ballads and fairytales sound when hurriedly adapted to Chicago mechanics, and to the class struggle. All this was meant to be titanic, but, as a matter of fact, it is only athletic, and very uncertain athletics, a sort of parody with inflated balls. “The championship of the world’s class-struggle!” Championship! Self-criticism, where art thou? Championship is a holiday spectacle, quite often combined with charlatanism. Neither the image nor the word are appropriate here. Instead of a really titanic struggle of one hundred and fifty millions, there is a parody of a ballad, and a championship of a ballad-like circus. The parody is unintentional, but this does not make it lighter.
The purposeless images, that is, those which have not been worked out internally, devour the idea without leaving a crumb and spoil it artistically, as well as politically. Why does Ivan hold one hand in his belt against swords and pistols? Why such contempt for technique? It is true that Ivan is less armed than Wilson. But that is just why he has to work with both hands. And if he does not fall stricken, it is because there are workers in Chicago, as well as generals, and because a considerable part of these workers are against Wilson, and for Ivan. But the poem doesn’t show this. While running down a supposedly monumental image, the author strikes down its very essence.
Hurriedly and in passing, that is, without purpose, the author divides the whole world into two classes: on the one hand, there is Wilson, floating in fat, and with him are ermines, beavers and large heavenly stars, and on the other hand, there is Ivan, and with him are blouses and the millions of the Milky Way. “To the beavers – the little lines of the decadence of the whole world, to the blouses the iron lines of the Futurists.” But in general, though the poem has a richness of expression and quite a few strong apt lines and brilliant images, it has in truth no iron lines for the blouses. Is this for want of talent? No, for want of an image of the Revolution worked over by nerves and brain, an lmage to which the craftsmanship of words is subordinate. The author plays the strong man, catching and throwing about one image and then another. “We shall finish you, romanticist world!” Mayakovsky threatens. That is right. One has to put an end to the romanticism of Oblomov and of Tolstoi’s Karataiev. But how? “He is old – kill him and make an ashtray of his skull.”
But this is the most real and most negative romanticism! Ashtrays made of skulls are inconvenient and unhygienic. And its savagery is after all ... meaningless? By making such an unnatural use of the skull bones, the poet becomes caught in romanticism; at any rate, he has not worked out his images, nor has he unified them. “Pocket the wealth of all the worlds!” In this familiar tone Mayakovsky speaks of Socialism. But to pocket means to put it into one’s pocket like a thief. Is this word suitable when the matter hinges on the collective expropriation of the land and the factories? It is strikingly unsuitable. The author uses such vulgarisms so that he could be pals with Socialism and with the Revolution. But when he pokes the one hundred and fifty million Ivans familiarly “under the ribs”, it doesn’t make the poet grow to titanic dimensions, but only reduces Ivan to an eighth part of a page. Familiarity is not at all an expression of an inner intimacy, for frequently it is merely an evidence of political or moral slovenliness. An internally developed bond with the Revolution would exclude a familiar tone, and would bring forth what the Germans call the pathos of distance.
The poem has striking lines, bold images, and very apt words. The final “triumphal requiem of peace” is perhaps the strongest part of it. But the whole has been struck fatally, because of a lack of inner movement. There is no condensing of contradictions in order to resolve them later. Here is a poem about the Revolution lacking in movement! The images live separately, they collide and they bounce off one another. The hostility of the images is not an outgrowth of the historic materials but is the result of an internal disharmony with the revolutionary philosophy of life. However, when not without difficulty one reads the poem to the very end, one says to oneself: a great work could have been composed out of these elements, had there been measure and self-criticism! Perhaps these fundamental defects are not to be explained by Mayakovsky’s personal qualities, but by the fact that he works in an isolated little world; nothing is so adverse to self-criticism and measure as living in a small group.
Mayakovsky’s satirical things also lack profound penetration into the essence of things and relationships. His satire is racy and superficial. It takes more than the mastery of a pencil for a cartoonist to be significant. The world he exposes must be familiar to him through and through and inside out. Saltikov knew the bureaucracy and the nobility well! An approximate caricature (and such, alas, are ninety-nine Soviet caricatures out of one hundred) is like a bullet which misses the bull’s-eye by the width of a finger, or even by a hair; it has almost hit the mark, but still, it missed. Mayakovsky’s satire is approximate; his racy observations from the side miss the mark, sometimes by the width of a finger, and sometimes by the width of the whole palm. Mayakovsky seriously thinks that the “comic” can be withdrawn from its matter and be reduced to a form. In the preface to his volume of satires, he even presents “an outline of laughter”. If in reading this “outline” there is something that can call forth a perplexed smile, it is the fact that in this outline of laughter there is absolutely nothing funny. But even if one could make a happier “outline” than Mayakovsky has succeeded in making, the difference between laughter called forth by a satire which hits the mark, and giggling, which results from a verbal tickling, will not disappear.
Mayakovsky has risen from the Bohemia which brought him forth, to extraordinarily significant creative achievements. But the rod on which he has raised himself is individualistic. The poet is in revolt against the condition of his life, against the material and moral dependence in which his life, and above all, his love, is placed; and suffering and indignant against the masters of life who have deprived him of his beloved one, he rises to an appeal for revolution and to a forecast that it will fall upon the society that does not allow free space to Mayakovsky’s individuality. After all, his poem, A Cloud in Trousers, a poem of unrequited love, is artistically his most significant and creatively his boldest and most promising work. It is even difficult to believe that a thing of such intense strength and independence of form was written by a youth of twenty-two or twenty-three years of age. His War and Peace, Mystery Bouffe, and 150 Million are much weaker, for the reason that here Mayakovsky leaves his individualist orbit and tries to enter the orbit of the Revolution. One may hail the efforts of the poet, for in general no other road exists for him. About This is a return to the theme of personal love, but is several steps behind A Cloud, and not ahead. Only his wider grasp, and a deeper artistic volume, help him to maintain his creative equilibrium on a much higher level. But one cannot help seeing that his conscious turning to a new and essentially social direction is a very difficult thing. Mayakovsky’s technique in these years has undoubtedly become more skilled, but also more stereotyped. The Mystery Bouffe and the 150 Million have splendid lines side by side with fatal failures filled with rhetoric and with verbal tightrope walking. The organic quality, the sincerity, the cry from within which we heard in A Cloud are no longer there. “Mayakovsky is repeating himself”, some say; “Mayakovsky has written himself out”, others add; “Mayakovsky has become official”, others say maliciously. But is that so? We are in no haste to make pessimistic prophecies. Mayakovsky is not a youth, but he is still young. However, let us not close our eyes to the difficulties of the road before him. That creative spontaneity which beats like a living fountain from A Cloud cannot be regained. But one need not regret this. The youthful talent which beats like a fountain is replaced in maturer years by a self-reliant mastery, which signifies not only a mastery of the word, but also a broad historical and experiential grasp, a penetration into the mechanism of the live collective and personal forces, ideas, temperaments, and passions. Such mature artisanship cannot go hand in hand with social dilettantism, with shouting, with a lack of selfrespect and a tiresome boastfulness, with playing the genius with the left hand, and with the other making tricks and signs from the cafes of the intelligentsia. If the poet’s crisis – and there is such a crisis – will be solved with a wise insight which knows the particular and the general, then the historian of literature will say that the Mystery and the 150 Million were merely the inevitable and temporary decline on the turn of the road towards the creative peak. We sincerely wish that Mayakovsky will give the future historian the right to make such a summing up.
When one breaks a hand or a leg, the bones, the tendons, the muscles, the arteries, the nerves and the skin do not break and tear in one line, nor afterwards do they grow together and heal at the same time. So, in a revolutionary break in the life of society, there is no simultaneousness and no symmetry of processes either in the ideology of society, or in its economic structure. The ideologic premises which are needed for the revolution are formed before the revolution, and the most important ideologic deductions from the revolution appear only much later. It would be extremely flippant to establish by analogies and comparisons the identity of Futurism and Communism, and so form the deduction that Futurism is the art of the proletariat. Such pretensions must be rejected. But this does not signify a contemptuous attitude towards the work of the Futurists. In our opinion they are the necessary links in the forming of a new and great literature. But they will prove to be only a significant episode in its evolution. To prove this, one has to approach the question more concretely and historically. The Futurists in their way are right when, in answer to the reproach that their works are above the heads of the masses, they say that Marx’s Capital is also above their heads. Of course the masses are culturally and aestheticsally unprepared, and will rise only slowly. But this is only one of the causes of it being above their heads. There is another cause. In its methods and in its forms, Futurism carries within itself clear traces of that world, or rather, of that little world in which it was born, and which – psychologically and not logically – it has not left to this very day. It is just as difficult to strip Futurism of the robe of the intelligentsia as it is to separate form from content. And when this happens, Futurism will undergo such a profound qualitative change that it will cease to be Futurism. This is going to happen, but not tomorrow. But even today one can say with certainty that much in Futurism will be useful and will serve to elevate and to revive art, if Futurism will learn to stand on its own legs, without any attempt to have itself decreed official by the government, as happened in the beginning of the Revolution. The new forms must find for themselves, and independently, an access into the consciousness of the advanced elements of the working-class as the latter develop culturally. Art cannot live and cannot develop without a flexible atmosphere of sympathy around it. On this road, and on no other, does the process of complex interrelation lie ahead. The cultural growth of the working-class will help and influence those innovators who really hold something in their bosom. The mannerisms which inevitably crop out in all small groups will fall away, and from the vital sprouts will come fresh forms for the solution of new artistic tasks. This process implies, first of all, an accumulation of material culture, a growth of prosperity and a development of technique. There is no other road. It is impossible to think seriously that history will simply conserve the works of the Futurists, and will serve them up to the masses after many years, when the masses will have become ripe for them. This, of course, would be passaeism of the purest kind. When that time, which is not immediate, will come, and the cultural and aesthetics education of the working masses will destroy the wide chasm between the creative intelligentsia and the people, art will have a different aspect from what it has today. In the evolution of that art, Futurism will prove to have been a necessary link. And is this so very little?
Last updated on: 7.1.2007