Zamiatin: I am Afraid

Evgenii Zamiatin, I am Afraid. 1921


I am afraid that we preserve too fondly too much of what we have inherited from the palaces. Take these gilded chairs-yes, surely, they must be preserved: they are so graceful, they embrace so tenderly any rear end deposited in them. And it may, perhaps, be true that court poets resemble the exquisite gilded chairs in their grace and tenderness. But is it not a mistake to preserve the institution of court poets with as much solicitude as we preserve the gilded chairs? After all, only the palaces remain; the court is no longer here.

I am afraid that we are too kind, and that the French Revolution was more ruthless in destroying everything connected with the court. On the eleventh day of Messidor, in 1794, Payan, chairman of the Commission on Public Education, issued a decree, which stated, among other things:

We have a multitude of nimble authors, who keep a constant eye on the latest trend; they know the fashion and color of the given season; they know when it is time to don the red cap, and when to discard it … As a result, they merely corrupt and degrade art. True genius creates thoughtfully and embodies its ideas in bronze, but mediocrity, hiding under the aegis of freedom, snatches a fleeting triumph in its name and plucks the flowers of ephemeral success.

With this contemptuous decree, the French Revolution guillotined the masquerading court poets. But we offer the writings of these “nimble authors, who know when to don the red cap, and when to discard it,” when to sing hail to the tsar, and when to the hammer and sickle-we offer them to the people as a literature worthy of the revolution. And the literary centaurs rush, kicking and crushing one another, in a race for the splendid prize -the monopoly on the scribbling of odes, the monopoly on the knightly pursuit of slinging mud at the intelligentsia. I am afraid Payan was right-this merely corrupts and degrades art. And I am afraid that, if this continues, the entire recent period in Russian literature will become known in history as the age of the nimble school, for those who are not nimble have been silent now for the past two years.

And what was contributed to literature by those who were not silent?

The nimblest of all were the Futurists. Without a moment’s pause, they proclaimed themselves the court school. And for a year we heard nothing but their yellow, green, and raspberry red triumphant cries. However, the combination of the red sans-culotte cap with the yellow blouse and yesterday’s still visible blue flower on the cheek proved too blasphemously glaring even for the least demanding. The Futurists were politely shown the door by those in whose name these self-appointed heralds galloped. Futurism disappeared. And as before, a single beacon rises amid the tin-flat Futurist sea-Maiakovskii. Because he is not one of the nimble. He sang the revolution when others, sitting in Petersburg, were firing their long-range verses at Berlin. But even this magnificent beacon is still burning with the old reserves of his “I” and “Simple as Lowing.” In the “Heroes and Victims of the Revolution,” in “Doughnuts” and the poem about the peasant woman and Vrangel, it is no longer the same Maiakovskii, the Edison, the pioneer whose every step was hacked out in the jungle. From the jungle he has come out upon the well-trodden highway; he has dedicated himself to perfecting official themes and rhythms. But, then, why not? Edison, too, perfected Bell’s invention.

The “horsism” of the Moscow Imaginists is too obviously weighed down by the cast-iron shadow of Maiakovskii. No matter how they exert themselves to smell bad and to shout, they will not outsmell and outshout Maiakovskii. The Imaginist America, alas, has been discovered long before. Back in the era of Serafino, one who considered himself the greatest of poets wrote: “Were I not fearful of disturbing the air of your modesty with a golden cloud of honors, I could not have refrained from decking the windows of the edifice of fame with the bright vestments with which the hands of praise adorn the backs of names that are the portion of superior beings” (Letter from Pietro Aretino to the Duchess of Urbino). “The hands of praise,” “the backs of names”-isn’t this Imaginism? An excellent and pungent means-the image-has become an end in itself; the cart pulls the horse.

The proletarian writers and poets are diligently trying to be aviators astride a locomotive. The locomotive huffs and puffs sincerely and assiduously, but it does not look as if it can rise aloft. With small exceptions (such as Mikhail Volkov of the Moscow “Smithy”), all the practitioners of proletarian culture have the most revolutionary content and the most reactionary form. The Proletkult art is, thus far, a step back, to the 1860s. And I am afraid that the airplanes from among the nimble will always outstrip the honest locomotives and, “hiding under the aegis of freedom,” will snatch a fleeting triumph in its name.

Fortunately, the masses have a keener nose than they are given credit for. And therefore, the triumph of the nimble is only momentary. Thus, the fleeting triumph of the Futurists, and the equally fleeting triumph of Kliuev, after his patriotic verses about the base Wilhelm and his enthusiasm over the “rebuff in decrees” and the machine gun (a ravishing rhyme: machine-gunning and honey!). And even this brief measure of success was apparently denied to Gorodetskii: at the evening in the Duma hall he had a cool reception, and his own evening at the House of the Arts was attended by fewer than ten people.

And the non-nimble are silent. Blok’s “Twelve” struck two years ago-and after the last, twelfth stroke, Blok fell silent. Barely noticed, the “Scythians” rushed, long ago, down the dark, trolleyless streets. Last year’s Notes of Dreamers [a series of anthologies of the Symbolist group, published by the Alkonost publishing house in 1919-22], published by Alkonost are but a dim, solitary glimmer in the dark yesterday. And in them, we hear Andrei Belyi complaining:

The conditions under which we live are tearing us to pieces. The writer often collapses under the burden of work that is alien to him. For months, he has no opportunity to concentrate and finish an uncompleted phrase. Frequently of late the author has asked himself whether anyone needs him-that is, whether anyone needs Petersburg or The Silver Dove. Perhaps he is needed only as a teacher of “poetic science”? If so, he would immediately put down his pen and try to find a job as a street cleaner, rather than violate his soul by surrogates of literary activity.

Yes, this is one of the reasons for the silence of true literature. The writer who cannot be nimble must trudge to an office with a briefcase if he wants to stay alive. In our day, Gogol would be running with a briefcase to the Theater Section; Turgenev would undoubtedly be translating Balzac and Flaubert for World Literature; Herzen would lecture to the sailors of the Baltic fleet; and Chekhov would be working for the Commissariat of Public Health. Otherwise-to live as a student did five years ago on his forty rubles-Gogol would have to write four Inspector Generals a month, Turgenev would have to turn out three Fathers and Sons every two months, and Chekhov would have to produce a hundred stories every month. This sounds like a preposterous joke, but unfortunately it is not a joke; these are realistic figures. The work of a literary artist, who “embodies his ideas in bronze” with pain and joy, and the work of a prolific windbag – the work of Chekhov and that of Breshko-Breshkovskii – are today appraised in the same way: by the yard, by the sheet. And the writer faces the choice: either he becomes a Breshko-Breshkovskii or he is silent. To the genuine writer or poet the choice is clear.

But even this is not the main thing. Russian writers are accustomed to going hungry. The main reason for their silence is not lack of bread or lack of paper; the reason is far weightier, far tougher, far more ironclad. It is that true literature can exist only where it is created, not by diligent and trustworthy officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and skeptics. But when a writer must be sensible and rigidly orthodox, when he must make himself useful today, when he cannot lash out at everyone, like Swift, or smile at everything, like Anatole France, there can be no bronze literature, there can be only a paper literature, a newspaper literature, which is read today, and used for wrapping soap tomorrow.

Those who are trying to build a new culture in our extraordinary time often turn their eyes to the distant past-to the stadium, the theater, the games of the Athenian demos. The retrospection is correct. But it must not be forgotten that the Athenian agora, the Athenian people, knew how to listen to more than odes; it had no fear of the harsh scourge of Aristophanes either. And we-how far we are from Aristophanes when even the utterly innocuous Toiler of Wordstreams by Gorky is withdrawn from the repertory to shield that foolish infant, the Russian demos, from temptation!

I am afraid that we shall have no genuine literature until we cease to regard the Russian demos as a child whose innocence must be protected. I am afraid that we shall have no genuine literature until we cure ourselves of this new brand of Catholicism, which is as fearful as the old of every heretical word. And if this sickness is incurable, then I am afraid that the only future possible to Russian literature is its past.

Source: Evgenii Zamiatin, A Soviet Heretic: Essays by Yevgeny Zamyatin (Chicago: University Press of Chicago, 1970).

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