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  • Osip Mandelstam and the Modernist Creation of Tradition
  • Harold D. Baker
Osip Mandelstam and the Modernist Creation of Tradition, by Clare Cavanagh; xii & 365 pp. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995, $39.50.

The great, enigmatic poet of twentieth-century Russia, Osip Mandelstam (1891–1938), employed a poetics based on recollection. The word-soul or psyche is not contained within a linguistic body but hovers amorously over it, [End Page 257] fleeing any too crude attempt at capture. The reader must trace out Mandelstam’s personal networks of association, both inside and outside the text, before a kernel of thought and emotion can be recognized (“only the moment of recognition is sweet to us,” goes a famous line from his “Tristia”). Although Clare Cavanagh’s book does not emphasize this theme, her tactics could hardly be better suited to Mandelstam’s peculiar poetic sensibility.

Osip Mandelstam and the Modernist Creation of Tradition is an exhaustive exploration of historical and cultural context. It opposes itself explicitly to the traditional structuralist and semiotic approaches to Mandelstam, and takes his works in their “secular” rather than their “hermetic” aspect (to borrow terms from Robert Scholes). In that sense it seeks to recollect and bring to mind everything that might affect our understanding of Mandelstam’s oeuvre. This turns out to be a varied field: Pound and Eliot (coeval modernists whose ideas resonate significantly with his), François Villon, Byzantine and Gothic church architecture, the marginalized yet culturally dynamic position of the Russian Jew, Pindar (an exemplar of the social-economic relation of poet to state), Dante, the psychology of literary play, and even Charlie Chaplin. Although it does not use extensive biographical framing, the book proceeds through Mandelstam’s poetry and prose in chronological order, alternately pursuing aspects of context and concentrating on selected works by Mandelstam for sustained analysis.

What results is perhaps the most serious comprehensive work on the poet produced so far. Cavanagh’s approach may appear diffuse at first, but it enables her to capture a great deal of this elusive genius without confining Mandelstam within a narrow critical purview. The book’s argument is that Mandelstam qualifies as a central modernist poet through his agonistic relation to an ideal of “world culture.” He attempts to recreate an authoritative literary and cultural tradition that his own innovative work would both continue and transform. And it is from this point of view that Mandelstam’s Jewishness appears so significant to Cavanagh (a chief issue in three out of eight chapters): it gives a precise formula for that position both inside and outside of the dominant culture. Cavanagh even contends quite suggestively that, for Mandelstam, both Dante and Chaplin function as avatars of Jewishness.

All this is well-founded and important, but perhaps the best thing about her book is that its central argument doesn’t do justice to the richness of Cavanagh’s own materials. Her discussion does not weaken, for instance, as it leaves Mandelstam’s early period, when the notion of “world culture” was indeed an obsessive one for him. The book is equally effective on the brilliant late poems of the Voronezh cycle, by which time not only a place in world culture but even a secure place in human society seemed futile dreams to Mandelstam. Cavanagh’s readings of the prose and especially the poetry are flexible and sensitive; she gives beautiful accounts of the poetic wordplay and follows closely the ebb and flow of musicality in the verse from one period and [End Page 258] collection to another. More than a milestone in Mandelstam studies, this book brings the poet closer to realizing his fondest dream: a responsive, understanding readership or “interlocutor.”

Harold D. Baker
University of California, Irvine

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pp. 257-259
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