Monday, February 1, 2010

Daniil Kharms' Orchestra

I'll begin with a few of Kharms' texts:


Once there lived a red-haired man who lacked eyes and ears. He was also lacking hair, so he was called red-haired only in a general sense.

He couldn't speak, as he was lacking a mouth. The same with his nose. Even arms and legs, he just didn't have any. Nor stomach, nor backside, nor spine. And no intestines. He didn't have anything! Therefore it is totally unclear who is being discussed.

It's better if we don't talk about him anymore.

* * *


Once Orlov overate on mashed peas and died. And Krylov, having found out about it, died too. And Spiridonov died of his own accord. And Spiridonov's wife fell off the cupboard and died too. And Spiridonov's children drowned in the pond. And Spiridonov's grandmother took to drink and went off panhandling. And Mikhailov stopped combing and got sick with dandruff. And Kruglov drew a lady with a whip and lost his mind. And Perehrestov was wired 400 roubles and started acting with such self-importance that he got fired from his job.

All decent people, but they don't know how to keep a firm footing.

* * *

March 28, 1931 at 7 o'clock
in the Evening

Lord, smack in the middle of the day
a laziness came over me.
Permit me to lie down and go to sleep, Lord,
and while I sleep, oh Lord, pump me full of Your Strength.
There is much I wish to know
but neither books nor people will tell me.
Only You can enlighten me, Lord,
by way of my poems.
Wake me up strong for the battle with meanings
and quick to the governance of words
and assiduous in praising the name of God
for all time.

* * *


Anton Mikhailovich spat, said "ech," spat again, said "ech" again, spat again, said "ech" again and left. To hell with him. Instead let me tell you about Ilya Pavlovich.

Ilya Pavlovich was born in 1893 in Constantinople. When he was still a boy, they moved to St. Petersburg, and there he graduated from the German School on Kirchnaya Street. Then he worked in some shop; then he did something else; and when the Revolution began, he emigrated. Well, to hell with him. Instead, let me tell you about Anna Ignatievna.

But it's not so easy to tell about Anna Ignatievna. First, I know almost nothing about her, and second, I've just fallen off my chair, and have forgotten what I was about to say. So let me instead tell about myself.

I am tall, fairly intelligent, and dress prudently and tastefully. I don't drink, I don't bet on horses, but I like the ladies. And the ladies don't mind me. They like it when I go out with them. Serafima Izmaylovna has invited me home several times, and Zinaida Yakovlevna also said that she was always glad to see me. But I was involved in a strange incident with Marina Petrovna, which I would like to tell about. A quite ordinary thing, but rather amusing. Because of me, Marina Petrovna lost all her hair, became bald as a baby's bottom. It happened like this: Once I went over to visit Marina Petrovna, and bang! she lost all her hair. And that was that.

* * *


It's hard to say something about Pushkin to a person who doesn't know anything about him. Pushkin is a great poet. Napoleon is not as great as Pushkin. Bismarck compared to Pushkin is a nobody. And the Alexanders, First, Second and Third, are just little kids compared to Pushkin. In fact, compared to Pushkin, all people are little kids, except Gogol. Compared to him, Pushkin is a little kid.

And so, instead of writing about Pushkin, I would rather write about Gogol.

Although, Gogol is so great that not a thing can be written about him, so I'll write about Pushkin after all.

Yet, after Gogol, it's a shame to have to write about Pushkin. But you can't write anything about Gogol. So I'd rather not write anything about anyone.

* * *

Daniil Kharms (1905-1942) was one of the key members of the Russian avant-garde literary collective OBERIU, Union of Real Art. Kharms’ work cannot really be classed as surrealist, and Matvei Yankelevich, the most dedicated Kharms scholar working in English, argues that the frequently used epithet “absurdist” is not accurate either. How then to characterize these texts?

Kharms is working at the kind of destructive narrative techniques one finds in another writer in my personal canon: the master French prose poet Max Jacob.

One might also note, from the above, that Kharms was a believer, again like Jacob. The “Prayer before Sleep” is heartfelt, and the line Only you can enlighten me, Lord, / by way of my poems reveals how Kharms understood poetics as it relates to faith or revelation. Kharms considered his work a channel of grace; a quest, through his creative/destructive poetics, for enlightenment.

“Blue Notebook #10” is frequently quoted in introductions to Kharms. When I first read this text, it reminded me of Lichtenberg’s famous paradox: “A knife without a blade, from which the handle is missing.” Kharms was fluent in German and knew German literature well (Gustav Meyrink’s uncanny novel
The Golem was one of his favorite books). Was #10 written in response to Lichtenberg?

“Symphony #2” is of particular interest. It's the most brilliantly orchestrated piece of non sequitur I know of. Kharms moves from an unknown old man hacking, to the dryness of an encyclopedia entry, to self-ridiculing slapstick, to what starts to shape up as something approaching the erotic, but finally collapses in a totally shameful, ridiculous, utterly deadpan blast of absurdity--an anticlimax that couldn't be improved on. I say the progression here is orchestrated, and it is: thus the aptness of the title "Symphony." In a sizable handful of texts, Kharms, like Max Jacob, is above all a consummate conductor.

Both Kharms and Jacob died as victims of the extremist ideologies of the mid-century: Kharms in 1942 of starvation in a Soviet mental hospital; Jacob in 1944 of pneumonia while awaiting transfer to a Nazi concentration camp. Both writers practiced an art of intractable ambiguity, though Jacob, it is true, was victimized for being Jewish rather than for his playfully Cubist texts.

Kharms is best read in Matvei Yankelevich’s collection
Today I Wrote Nothing. I offer two of the pieces quoted above (the prayer and “Something about Pushkin”) in Yankelevich’s translation. The book has been widely praised for giving English readers access to this important voice in Russia’s literature. It is only in the recent couple decades that the Russians themselves have rediscovered Kharms’ work. In his introduction, Yankelevich explains how close the manuscripts came to being lost forever. We are lucky to have them.

No comments: