Even Blok recognized in Mayakovsky an “enormous talent.” Without exaggeration it can be said that Mayakovsky had the spark of genius. But his was not a harmonious talent. After all, where could artistic harmony come from in these decades of catastrophe, across the unsealed chasm between two epochs? In Mayakovsky’s work the summits stand side by side with abysmal lapses. Strokes of genius are marred by trivial stanzas, even by loud vulgarity.
It is not true that Mayakovsky was first of all a revolutionary and after that a poet, although he sincerely wished it were so. In fact Mayakovsky was first of all a poet, an artist, who rejected the old world without breaking with it. Only after the revolution did he seek to find support for himself in the revolution, and to a significant degree he succeeded in doing so; but he did not merge with it totally for he did not come to it during his years of inner formation, in his youth.
To view the question in its broadest dimensions, Mayakovsky was not only the “singer,” but also the victim, of the epoch of transformation, which while creating elements of the new culture with unparalleled force, still did so much more slowly and contradictorily than necessary for the harmonious development of an individual poet or a generation of poets devoted to the revolution. The absence of inner harmony flowed from this very source and expressed itself in the poet’s style, in the lack of sufficient verbal discipline and measured imagery. There is a hot lava of pathos side by side with an inappropriate palsy-walsy attitude toward the epoch and the class, or an outright tasteless joking which the poet seems to erect as a barrier against being hurt by the external world.
Sometimes this seemed to be not only artistically but even psychologically false. But no, even the pre-suicide letters are in the same tone. That is the import of the phrase, “the incident is closed,” with which the poet sums himself up. We would say the following: That which, in the latterday Romantic poet Heinrich Heine, was lyricism and irony (irony against lyricism but at the same time in defense of it), is in the latterday “Futurist” Vladimir Mayakovsky a mixture of pathos and vulgarity (vulgarity against pathos but also as protection for it).
The official report on the suicide hastens to declare, in the language of judicial protocol as edited in the “Secretariat,” that the suicide of Mayakovsky “has nothing in common with the public and literary activity of the poet.” That is to say that the willful death of Mayakovsky was in no way connected with his life or that his life had nothing in common with his revolutionary-poetic work. In a word, this turns his death into an adventure out of the police records. This is untrue, unnecessary, and stupid.
”The ship was smashed up on everyday life,” says Mayakovsky in his pre-suicide poems about his intimate personal life. This means that “public and literary activity” ceased to carry him high enough over the shoals of everyday life – and was not enough to save him from unendurable personal shocks. How can they say: “has nothing in common with”!
The current official ideology of “proletarian literature” is based – we see the same thing in the artistic sphere as in the economic – on a total lack of understanding of the rhythms and periods of time necessary for cultural maturation. The struggle for “proletarian culture” – something on the order of the “total collectivization” of all humanity’s gains within the span of a single five-year plan – had at the beginning of the October revolution the character of Utopian idealism, and it was precisely on this basis that it was rejected by Lenin and the author of these lines.
In recent years it has become simply a system of bureaucratic command over art and a way of impoverishing it. The incompetents of bourgeois literature, such as Serafimovich, Gladkov, and others, have been declared the classical masters of this pseudo-proletarian literature. Facile nonentities like Averbakh are christened the Belinskys of … “proletarian” (!) literature. The top leadership in the sphere of creative writing is put in the hands of Molotov, who is a living negation of everything creative in human nature. Molotov’s chief helper – going from bad to worse – is none other than Gusev, an adept in various fields but not in art.
This selection of personnel is totally in keeping with the bureaucratic degeneration in the official spheres of the revolution. Molotov and Gusev have raised up over literature a collective Malashkin, the pornographic literariness of a sycophant “revolutionary” with sunken nose.
The best representatives of the proletarian youth who were summoned to assemble the basic elements of a new literature and culture have been placed under the command of people who convert their personal lack of culture into the measure of all things.
Yes, Mayakovsky was braver and more heroic than any other of the last generation of old Russian literature, yet was unable to win the acceptance of that literature and sought ties with the revolution. And yes, he achieved those ties much more fully than any other. But a profound inner split remained with him. To the general contradictions of revolution – always difficult for art, which seeks perfected forms – was added the decline of the last few years, presided over by the epigones.
Ready to serve the “epoch” in the dirty work of every day life, Mayakovsky could not help being repelled by the pseudo-revolutionary officialdom, even though he was not able to understand it theoretically and therefore could not find the way to overcome it. The poet rightfully speaks of himself as “one who is not for hire.” For a long time he furiously opposed entering Averbach’s administrative collective of so-called proletarian literature. From this came his repeated attempts to create, under the banner of LEF [Left Front of the Arts], an order of frenzied crusaders for proletarian revolution who would serve it out of conscience rather than fear. But LEF was of course unable to impose its rhythms upon “the one hundred and fifty million.” The dynamics of the ebbing and flowing currents of the revolution is far too profound and weighty for that.
In January of this year Mayakovsky, defeated by the logic of the situation, committed violence against himself and finally entered VAPP [All-Union Association of Proletarian Writers]. That was two or three months before his suicide. But this added nothing and probably detracted something. When the poet liquidated his accounts with the contradictions of “everyday life,” both private and public, sending his “ship” to the bottom, the representatives of bureaucratic literature, those who are for hire, declared it was “inconceivable, incomprehensible,” showing not only that the great poet Mayakovsky remained “incomprehensible” for them but also the contradictions of the epoch, “inconceivable.”
The compulsory, official Association of Proletarian Writers, barren ideologically, was erected upon a series of preliminary pogroms against vital and genuinely revolutionary literary groupings. Obviously it has provided no moral cement. If at the passing of the greatest poet of Soviet Russia there comes from this corner only officialdom’s perplexed response – ”there is no connection, nothing in common” – this is much too little, much, much too little, for the building of a new culture “in the shortest possible time.”
Mayakovsky was not and could not become a direct progenitor of “proletarian literature” for the same reason that it is impossible to build socialism in one country. But in the battles of the transitional epoch he was a most courageous fighter of the word and became an undoubted precursor of the literature of the new society.
Trotsky Internet Archive.
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First published in Bulletin of the Left Opposition (Russian), May 1930.
From International Socialist Review, Vol.31 No.1, January-February 1970, pp.44-46.
Also in Leon Trotsky ‘On Literature and Art’.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive (September 2008).
Leon Trotsky arriving in Petrograd by train on May 4 1917.
See page for author [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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