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Another Language, Another World: The Linguistic Experiments of Velimir Khlebnikov Willem G. Weststeijn THE FACT THAT THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION OF 1917 succeeded can partly be attributed to the great energy of certain sectors of the Russian people. As is well known, a large part of the Russian intelligentsia supported the Revolution. One had enough of the ossified tsarist system, which only half-heartedly or sometimes not at all carried through the necessary social and political reforms, and one looked forward eagerly to a new time, in which Russia's remarkable economic and intellectual development at the beginning of this century would not be hampered anymore by a long since hated autocratic power. The just-mentioned energy was in any case clearly present in the Russian intelligentsia; it expressed itself in an unprecedented flowering of the arts and sciences. In the nineteenth century, Russia, with authors such as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Turgenyev, for the first time in its history contributed to European literature a number of works (especially novels) which could compete with Western European literary prose. At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, Russia turned out to be a completely equal partner in other fields of culture as well, sometimes even surpassing Western Europe. To mention only a few names: scientists like Pavlov and Mendeleyev were already internationally famous during their lives. In the arts there was a veritable explosion of talent. Malevich and Tatlin introduced important innovations into pictorial art; Stravinsky did the same as regards music. The theater was dominated by producers such as Stanislavsky and Meyerhold; in literature there was an entire Pléiade of extremely gifted poets: Mayakovsky, Khlebnikov, Akhmatova, Pasternak, and Tsvetayeva. Diaghilev's Russian ballets conquered the world and Sergei Eisenstein stood in the forefront of all kinds of innovative experiments in the new medium of the film. One of the more remarkable figures in the cultural renaissance in Russia at the beginning of this century was the futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922). He was born in a small town in the region of the Southern Russian city of Astrakhan, where his father was a district administrator. Halfway through his study of mathematics and natural science at the University of Vol. XXXVIII, No. 4 27 L'Esprit Créateur Kazan, Khlebnikov went to St. Petersburg, where he enrolled at the Faculty of Arts of St. Petersburg University to study Slavic languages and Sanskrit. In the capital city, for the first time he came into contact with the literary world. The symbolist poet Vyacheslav Ivanov invited him to take part in his famous Wednesday literary soirées and showed an interest in his work. When, however , Khlebnikov's poems were rejected by the leading symbolist journal Apollon, being too experimental for the taste of its editor, the young poet turned away from the symbolists. Khlebnikov was more successful with the poet (and one of Russia's first pilots) Vasily Kamensky. In his journal Spring (Vesna) Kamensky published in 1908 one of Khlebnikov's early stories; moreover, he acquainted him with a group of young avant-garde poets and painters under the inspiring leadership of David Burliuk. In one of the joint publications of the group appeared Khlebnikov's programmatic and for that time (1910) remarkable poem Incantation by Laughter (Zaklyatie smechom), which is entirely composed of neologisms based on the root smekh- (laugh). Two years later, in 1912, Khlebnikov became a member of the so-called Hylaea group, which was founded by the poet Benedikt Livshits and the brothers David and Nikolai Burliuk and which was soon joined by the poets Vladimir Mayakovsky and Aleksei Kruchenykh. In this group, better known as the Cubo-futurists,' Khlebnikov's poems were highly appreciated. The poet was considered someone who could play an important role in bringing about a sorely needed renewal of Russian poetry. Although Khlebnikov had his own conception of the role of poetry and poetic language in the world, a conception which far surpassed the ideas of his fellow Cubo-futurists, he was held up by them as one of their leaders and made important contributions to a number of manifestoes with which the Cubo-futurists presented themselves...


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