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Brian Reed

Locating Zaum: Mnatsakanova on Khlebnikov

This piece is 2,345 words or about 6 printed pages long.

In 1983, Elizaveta Mnatsakanova (b. 1922) published a long homage to Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922) titled ‘Khlebnikov: Limit and the Unlimited Music of the Word.’[1] This article is a fascinating literary-historical document. Unlike Western Europe and the Americas, where one can trace continuous avant-garde activity from Duchamp and Stein onwards, there exists a near-total hiatus in the Russian experimental tradition. After Mayakovsky’s death in 1930, although Russian-language Soviets did continue to write verse (indeed quite fine verse in the cases of Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak), the state officially, forcefully discouraged formal innovation, which it deemed to be through-and-through bourgeois, elitist, and self-indulgent.

The writings of the Futurists, Cubo-Futurists, Hylaeans, and the other avant-garde circles of the 1910s became almost impossible to procure, let alone study seriously. Not until the late 1960s, during a comparatively lax period in Soviet micromanagement of culture, did poets begin to revisit and revive this long-suppressed body of work. Mnatsakanova’s now-classic, visually and aurally adventurous volumes Das Buch Sabeth, Beim Tode Zugast, and Autumn in the Lazaretto of Innocent Sisters date from these ‘thaw’ years. State control, alas, soon reasserted itself. In the mid-1970s many neo-Futurists were forced to choose between silence, secrecy, complicity, and flight. The historical avant-garde, though, was no longer in danger of historical oblivion. It had acquired a devoted, knowledgeable readership in dissident and other underground literary and artistic communities that has persisted down to the present day.

In 1975 Mnatsakanova chose to emigrate to Austria. Her Khlebnikov article is a retrospective, popularizing polemic. It attempts to explain and defend the earlier poet to a broader, mainstream audience in order to provide precedent and justification for her own break with socialist-realist forms and formulae. One could write at length about the essay’s themes, strategies, and idiosyncrasies. Like Olson in Call Me Ishmael and Howe in My Emily Dickinson, Mnatsakanova blurs the bounds between staid scholarly literary criticism and the farther reaches of creative writing. She interpolates numerous graphical experiments in which loops and whirls verge on then burst into and retreat from Cyrillic script. She varies the size of the typeface; alternates between objective and intimate and rhapsodic registers; leaps between topics; and interweaves unattributed quotations. Also like Olson and Howe, she rides a few hobby horses. She fulminates against verse that rhymes suffixes, declensional endings, and other ‘accidental’ terminations instead of basing its soundplay on words’ roots. She wishes to celebrate Khlebnikov in an international context but cites only German-language examples such as Blue Rider Expressionism and the post-World War II Vienna Group. She omits the word ‘Soviet’ altogether and speaks throughout as if there were a tradition of the ‘Russian soul’ (russkaja dusha) wending its merry apolitical way independent of wars, revolutions, tsars, five year plans, and politburos.

For the purposes of this essay, I wish to highlight only one aspect of Mnatsakanova’s article, an intriguing, far-reaching revision of Khlebnikov’s famous theory of a zaumnyj jazyk, that is, of a ‘transrational’ or ‘beyonsense’ language. In essays from 1919-21 such as ‘Our Foundations,’ ‘Teachers and Scholars,’ and ‘On Contemporary Poetry,’ Khlebnikov asserts with swaggering visionary boldness that poets are poised to unlock and understand the ‘fundamental units’ of language, its ‘sound elements.’[2] Soon they will be able to ‘construct something resembling Mendeleev’s law or Moseley’s law,’ a tabulation of ‘alphabetical verities’ that can concisely convey their essential meanings as well as clarify their relationships. By ‘penetrat[ing] to the depths of the word’ in such a fashion, Khlebnikov believes that writers will become ‘free of history... of the historical realities of tribes, of idioms, of latitudes and longitudes.’ Recognizing that ‘sound sequences constitute a series of universal truths passing before the predawn of our soul,’ they will be empowered to speak ‘over the head of the government’ to ‘the population of the feelings’ via a ‘direct cry.’

What would such ‘transrational’ speech look like? ‘[I]f we take a combination of these sounds in an unrestricted order, such as bo beh o bee, or dyr bul shchyl, or manch! manch! or chee breo zo!, then we obtain words that do not belong to any particular language but that do say something; something elusive but real nevertheless.’ Though understanding of the laws of zaumnyj jazyk still remains ‘in an embryonic state,’ it is nonetheless indubitably ‘the universal language of the future.’ ‘It alone will be able to unite all people. Rational languages have separated them.’

Khlebnikov’s arguments about zaum are an easily parodied mishmash of bad linguistics and millenarian dreaming. Moreover, his version of the novyj chelovek, the ‘new human’ so common in East European literature of the period, appears to be suspiciously deracinated, purged of all historical ties (ethnic, religious, national, literary, etc.). His writings suggest that once freed of limiting particulars people will at long last recognize that they are ‘continuous links in the universal soul’ and part of ‘a single entity.’ This liquidation of historical memory and individual difference in the name of communal uniformity might have appealed to an avant-gardist in the thick of a civil war, but it looks very different today, in the wake of nearly a century of mass murders carried out by totalitarian regimes committed ideologically and programmatically to erasing humanity-as-it-was — the Soviet Union during Stalin’s purges, China during the Cultural Revolution, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Few literary critics would argue that Khlebnikov’s utopian ‘supersaga’ Zangezi displays more accurate, probing insights into the Soviet state’s future than another 1920s work, Evgenij Zamjatin’s dystopian novel We.

Mnatsakanova has few illusions about her homeland. Her long poem Autumn in the Lazaretto of Innocent Sisters is, in part, a horrifying indictment of the Soviet health care system. She recounts what it was like to undergo serious surgery at the hands of incompetent doctors followed by a prolonged hospital stay tended by indifferent nurses in an unsanitary ward. Convalescence under such conditions was perhaps more dangerous than surgery itself; without the right political connections, and without diligent friends and relations, a patient could easily die from a postoperative infection, or from simple neglect. In addition, as an expatriate living in Vienna, Mnatsakanova is also acutely aware of the persistence, challenge, and occasional value of linguistic, national, religious, political, and other divisions between peoples in the later twentieth century. One might expect her to reject Khlebnikov’s beyonsense future as naive nonsense.

She does no such thing. Instead, she closely and carefully reads Khlebnikov’s poetry, above all the long narrative poem ‘L,’ in order to explore what one might call applied zaum, as opposed to the theoretical version propounded in his essays. She investigates the specific words and sounds to which Khlebnikov is drawn, as well as his resulting experiments with slovotvorchestvo, ‘wordsmithery.’ She observes, for instance, that Khlebnikov delights in the similarity between the Russian roots ljub- (‘love’) and ljud- (‘people’). On more than one occasion he takes the word ljubim — ‘we love’ — and substitutes a ‘d’ for the ‘b’ to produce ljudim — a neologistic verb that conveys something like ‘we are-becoming-people.’ The didactic lesson taught by this wordplay: the essence of being human is loving others. Human identity is founded on and realized through affective ties. This being-in-and-through-loving, moreover, is not abstract but situated in particular, particulate vremiri, or ‘timeworlds’ (vremen- ‘time,’ hybridized with mir- ‘world’) — Khlebnikov’s label for the plurality of ontologies that make up the human era past-present-future, each with its distinct knowledges, practices, and behaviors. The interpenetration of folklore, myth, natural science, and science fiction in Khlebnikov’s writings, Mnatsakanova explains, is intended to bring to light the assorted ways of knowing proper to humanity in all its assorted timeworlds.

This inductive scrutiny of Khlebnikov’s vertiginous wordplay leads Mnatsakanova to downplay zaum as an obshchij jazyk, a ‘general language,’ that is, one that everyone everywhere can (or will be able to) speak and understand. She argues that the near-complete failure of Russian speakers to embrace and promote Khlebnikov suggests that a different dynamic is at work. His verse, including his forays into zaum, exemplifies an old Aristotelian principle that poetry is a rechinojazychnaja, a ‘differently-languaged speech’ or a ‘speech tongued in a foreign manner.’ Khlebnikov’s inveterate inojazychie — ‘foreign-speaking-ness’ — has scared off, confused, and otherwise blocked readers from appreciating his true genius, which is to see the world and words newly and freshly, like a child seeing them for the first time. To bolster this point, she refers to his essay ‘On Poetry,’ in which he recounts the story of Sophija Kovalevskaja, whose nursery walls, Khlebnikov reports, ‘were covered with unusual wallpaper — pages of her uncle’s book on advanced algebra.’ He emphasizes the seductive ‘magic’ of sophisticated but wholly opaque systems of communication:

Could a child of seven really have understood those symbols — equal signs, powers, brackets — all those magic marks of sums and abstractions? Of course not; nevertheless... it was under the influence of the childhood wallpaper that she became a famous mathematrix.
    Similarly, the magic in a word remains magic even if it is not understood, and loses none of its power. Poems may be understandable or they may not, but they must be good, they must be real.

Mnatsakanova concludes from this anecdote that, although passages of zaum verse might contain deeper or inscrutable logics, their primary purpose is to convey the ‘magic’ of a child’s uncomprehending but welcoming encounters with new, strange environments. If a poet sees a lily and is moved to rename it eui, such a neologism might, from the standpoint of convention, mean nothing whatsoever — hence the usual response, to dismiss zaum as nonsense — but certain special readers might nonetheless find value in the odd three-vowel diphthong. True, they cannot learn from ‘eui’ the specifics of what the poet thinks about the lily — is she drawn to its color, shape, scent? — but sympathetic readers can nonetheless appreciate that the radical act of inventing a new word in itself conveys the weightiness and thrill of the encounter, the impulse to elevate it to the realm of the truly singular, the never-before-said.

Who is the most receptive audience for this kind of rhetorical gesture? First and foremost, other poets. They are most likely to share a zaumnik’s primal delight in scrambling syllables, aimlessly assembling sounds, punning, exploring etymologies false and true, and all other forms of nonpurposive wordplay. Mnatsakanova contends that the transnational zaum fraternity that Khlebnikov celebrates should not be seen as a fuzzy retooling of Marxist-Leninist communism. What he has in mind is a global fraternity of poets. Their solidarity, crucially, would not be founded on a shared, well-articulated platform or ideology. It would arise rather from a shared misunderstanding, or more precisely, a shared willingness not to demand comprehension when listening to each other speak. Subjectivity, memory, past experiences — such content may or may not be communicated in a given poem. If that poem is ‘good’ and ‘real,’ poets can relish it objectively, as a thing made ludically, without demanding of it psychological profundity, paraphraseable meaning, or an intelligible moral.

For Mnatsakanova, the childlike wonder and receptivity that are the precondition for such (non)communication are clearly extensions of the affective ties that are the essence and actualization of being-human. A community of poets willing to listen to each other nonjudgmentally and without preconceptions models for Mnatsakanova a humane way of inhabiting a world transected on every level by seemingly irresolvable differences. Whereas in his prose Khlebnikov always clings to the idea that zaum is founded on objective scientific fact — Kovalevskaja might not have understood her wallpaper as a child but she certainly did so as an adult — the later poet proposes that Khlebnikov’s actual practice of writing zaum, as exemplified by ‘Bobeobi Sings the Lips,’ ‘L,’ and other poems, exhibits the rudiments of an ethics of openness to foreignness (inojazychie) in which ultimate solutions and fundamental meanings are moot.

Mnatsakanova’s version of zaum remains modernist and utopian in important respects. She displays a characteristically Russian vanguardism by portraying poets as an ethically superior class capable of teaching others how to live. One need look no further, of course, than the biographical headnotes in any Norton anthology to see that poets are as fallible as anyone else. Similarly, her dream of a nonprejudicial being-with-others is intuitively satisfying, but it also has a détente-ish feel to it, a pollyannaish letting-be unsustainable in a world full of unpredictable, irrational acts of violence. Nevertheless, zaum as rethought by Mnatsakanova also displays intriguing points of contact with many contemporary discussions about ethics and literature, especially in the field of postcolonial studies, which has grappled with how to represent encounters with the absolutely other without subsuming its otherness under some rubric that would render it ‘the same.’ (Stephen Greenblatt’s attempted rehabilitation of ‘wonder’ as an ethically positive basis for colonial encounter in his book Marvelous Possessions is perhaps the best known example.) She also gives us a way to think about certain kinds of avant-garde writing — especially sound poetry and lettristic experimentation — that values their theatricality (their intimate face-to-face between author, text, and audience) without succumbing to simplistic assumptions about their ability to convey profound, nonrational, corporeal truths.

Finally, she gives us possible bearings for reading her own incomparable verse. I end this paper with two of her poem-experiments, left unlabeled untranslated and unexplained. What is understood, if anything?

Reed image 1
Figure 2. Poem appearing on the first page of Mnatsakanova’s essay “Khlebnikov.”

Reed image 2
Figure 1. Page 138 from Elizaveta Mnatsakanova, Shagi i vzdokhi: chetyre knigi stikhov. [Steps and Sighs: Four Books of Verse.] Vienna: Wiener Slawistischer Almanach, 1982.


[1] See Elizaveta Mnatsakanova, ‘Khlebnikov: Predel i bespredel’naja muzyka slova’, Sintaksis 11 (1983): 101-56. All quotations by Mnatsakanova that appear in this essay have been taken from this source. Instead of burdening the reader with extended passages of transliterated Cyrillic, I have translated the title and all quotations from Mnatsakanova’s article directly into English.

[2] All quotations from Khlebnikov in this essay have been been taken from the book Velimir Khlebnikov, Collected Works, vol. 1: Letters and Theoretical Writings. Trans. Paul Schmidt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1987.

Brian Reed

Brian Reed

Brian Reed is an assistant professor of English at the University of Washington, Seattle. His book “Hart Crane: After His Lights” is forthcoming in early 2006 from the University of Alabama Press series on modern and contemporary poetics. He has also published articles on the contemporary US poets Robert Grenier, Susan Howe, and Rosmarie Waldrop.

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