Mikhail Epstein

Judaic Spiritual Traditions in the Poetry of Pasternak and Mandel’shtam

Trans. from Russian by Ruth Rischin. Symposium. A Quarterly Journal in Modern Literatures. Issue on Judaic Literature. Identity, Displacement, and Destruction. Vol. 52, No. 4, Winter 1999, pp. 205-231.

The Russian original published:

1. Tsadik i talmudist. Sravnitel'nyi opyt o Pasternake i Mandel'shtame. "22" (Moscow - Jerusalem),  #77, 1991, pp. 186-209.
2.  Khasid i Talmudist. Sravnitel'nyi opyt o Pasternake i Mandel'shtame (A Khasid and a Talmudist: A Comparative Essay on Pasternak and Mandelshtam). Zvezda, 2000, No. 4, 82-96 (revised version).

Mikhail Bakhtin’s well-known statement that culture is created on the border of cultures is borne out by twentieth-century letters, in which a leading place belongs to writers of non-native origin who have cross-bred diverse languages and national traditions. Who is Kafka? A Czech, an Austrian, a German, or a Jewish writer? And Nabokov? Is he a Russophone American or an Anglophone Russian author? At the very least, the language of twentieth-century art is diglossia--another of Bakhtin’s concepts.

In the cases of Boris Pasternak and Osip Mandel’shtam this diglossia may be grasped even more literally than has been usual, as a conversation in, or even a convergence of two national languages. One language, Russian, forms the external plane of expression, but the other language belongs to a hidden, biblical plane of internal form and content. It must be deciphered in intricately encoded lines that at times are strange and alien to the Russian ear. Even intuitively, the discourse of Pasternak and Mandel’shtam seems thicker, more gelatinous, more mixed with polyglot elements than does that of their predecessors in Russian poetry. Listen carefully to these lines:

Xnj, ghbxtcre jckf,bd> b xfqysq b ifksq>

Pfxf;tyysq ,enjy pfrjkjd pf reifr>

Ghjdfkmcbhjdfnm r ckfdt> ienz> gjkeifkjr

Pfrecbdib> rfr vere> b tkt lsif.

Gfcnthyfr> $Pfvtcnbntkmybwf$ (1, 401)

Hair dishevelled, you stuck in your waist

A smoky, crazed,tea-rose bud.

Waltzing in your glory, jokingly,

You bit your shawl, tormented, out of breath.

-Pasternak, "The Replacement"

Ckjdyj ntvye/ djle z gm/ gjvenbdibqcz djple[.

Dhtvz dcgf[fyj gkeujv> b hjpf ptvkt/ ,skf.

D vtlktyyjv djljdjhjnt nz;tkst yt;yst hjps>

Hjps nz;tcnm b yt;yjcnm d ldjqyst dtyrb pfgktkf.

--Vfyltkminfv> $Ctcnhs--nz;tcnm b yt;yjcnm-- jlbyfrjds dfib ghbvtns$ (1, 108)

I drink the roiled air like a dark water.

Time has been plowed, and the rose was earth.

In a slow whirlpool the heavy tender roses,

The roses of heaviness and tenderness are plaited in double wreaths.

Mandel'shtam, "Heaviness and tenderness--sisters: the same features" Words are pressed together so closely that there is no breathing space for the sonorous, drawn-out quality of the line and the transparent literal meanings of the words that so captivate us in Pushkin and Nekrasov, Blok and Esenin. The speech of Pasternak and Mandel’shtam proceeds as if against the current of language itself, raising up semantic storms--tearing from their roots the figurative meanings of the words, loosening and overturning the settled layers of the language that have become caked by the effects of time.

The "bud" in Pasternak's lines is simultaneously "tea-rose," "smoky," and "crazed"--each epithet being a way to dislodge the meaning of "bud" from its semantic nest. In reading such enigmatic lines as Pasternak's "a smoky, crazed, tea-rose bud" or Mandel'shtam's "time has been plowed, and the rose was earth," it is impossible to relax, to lose oneself in the musical flow: the words must be divined, their meaning guessed at, holding readers taut and tense, sending them from one level of meaning to another. Speech is estranged from language, as if another language were showing through it, making it subject to an intricate polysemic deciphering. In order to understand what has been said--the transferred meanings, allusions, that show through the system of references by means of another, as yet unread text--every reader unwittingly becomes an intrepreter and a sort of Kabbalist. The capaciousness, essential to a sustained, sonorous pronunciation of the lines, is here replaced by a profusion of meanings and interpretations that make difficult not only a critical reading but any reading of this poetry.

In the writings of these two poets, the figurative overload, the text’s "overwhelming burden," exceeds its vocal sostenuto. "...As image enters into image and as object intersects object," is Pasternak’s formula of his own semantic superabundance. Many linguistic roots are crammed into a single line, as if the respiratory "vowelled" component of the verse were being forced out by the semantic, "consonantal" component. Per aural unit, more roots are present than is usual in a poem. The word is squeezed into its root, and the root is then squeezed into the dry consonantal sounds that comprise it.

Mandel’shtam wrote: "Poetic speech animates the wandering polysemic root. The multiplier of the root is the consonant, the indicator of its vitality... A word multiplies not by its vowels but by its consonants. The consonants are the seed and pledge of a language’s posterity. A lessening of linguistic awareness atrophies the feeling for the consonant" (2, 261). In Mandel’shtam’s definition, the sonority of the poetic line, sustaining its long, mellifluous vowels, is squeezed, so that by the grouping of the consonants, the root meanings come swarming in, overlapping each other. Poetry does not hold a wide-open mouth, affirming its inherent "stupidity," as Pushkin suggested ("poetry must be slightly stupid"). On the contrary, poetry presents the diversity of barriers arising on the path of a respiratory element, so as to transform it into the "clattering," "cracking," "whistle"--the tactile tickling of language, the flesh of the consonants. The word is hardened to its semantic skeleton, from which is wrung its vocal sonority.

There is a striking correspondence between Mandel’shtam’s poetic preferences and the linguistic flair of his ancestors. In biblical Hebrew, the meaning of a word is defined by the root, which consists exclusively of consonants; to this day, Torah scrolls omit vowels. After the eighth century, vowels were added to guide the pronunciation of texts and clarify the grammatical form of words. This aural minimalism creates the basis for a semantic maximalism. If one takes into account the fact that in Hebrew there are only twenty-two letters in all, then almost any combination of them turns out to be of significance and moreover, even words whose roots have two or three common consonants, turn out to be, as it were, cognates.

Hence the endless potential to interpret each word as a derivative of another: since they all descend from one branching-out root, they all are intertwined in fraternal union around one Paternal name. Hence the Kabbalistic notion of the totality of biblical texts as a paraphrase and a self-disclosure of the one sacred primal word--the inexpressible four letter name of God. Hence also the interpretive inexhaustibility of each biblical word, which by its own root elements is inscribed in a multitude of other words, and which interweaves with them through all of the twists and nuances of its own meanings.

And so this wandering polysemic consonantal root begins to plough up the rich undersoil of Russian poetry, to incorporate variant vowels and thus luxuriously branch into many verbal formations.

Ghtjljktd pfndth;tyyjcnm ghbhjls>

Ujke,jndthlsq ukfp ghjybr d t= pfrjy>

D ptvyjq rjht /hjlcnde/n gjhjls>

B rfr helf bp uhelb hdtncz cnjy...

Vfyltkminfv> $Djcmvbcnbibz>$ V (1, 199 )

Once surmounting Nature’s rigidity,

The hard blue eye penetrated her law,

At Earth’s crust cavort her species

And from the chest’s quarry a moan comes up like ore.

Mandel'shtam, "Octets," Y

The words of this fragment from Mandel’shtam’s series of octets, are the off-shoots of one consonantal root: p-r-d. Sometimes it becomes voiceless ("t" instead of "d"), rings out ("b" instead of "p"), intermingles with another sporadically arising root g-l-z-n (golubotverdyi, glaz, zakon, zemnoi), or absorbs into its porous depths the liquid vowels: o-e-u--germinating with their help into a multitude of diverse words and meanings. But they are all produced in the poem from one hardy, generative primary root, so that preodolev (surmounting), zatverzhennost’ (rigidity), prirody (nature), golubotverdyi (hard blue), iurodstvuiut (to cavort, behave like God's fool), porody (species), ruda (ore), grudi (chest), rvetsia (burst, come up)--all of these lexical units, pressed together within the poem, turn out to be the resilient offshoots of the same polysemantic root, PRD, and of its variant, BRT.

With other poets, of course, the consonants also play among themselves, echoing one another, but the difference is one of degree. In the case of Mandel’shtam, this is not simply an instance of alliteration, as when the consonants of two or three words chime; it is, rather, the proliferation of a single root in the guise of different words.

These lines, too, reveal an underlying Hebraic component:

{hfvjdjq d vfkf[bnt kb [jkty>

Djpktktzy d cht,ht km rjcjujh--

Vyjujljkmye/ ujkm rjkjrjkty

Vtkrjdjlysq ytctn vtkm[bjh... $Vtkm[bjh$ (1, 507)

Be the malachite cathedral well-formed

Or the silvery hillside cherished,

The many-fractioned poor of the bell towers

Are reflected in the metal-colored shallow waters.


At the very outset, in its title "Mel’khior" ("Cupro-Nickel"), this early Pasternak poem presents the consonantal root that then wanders from line to line, swelling with vowels and intermingling with other roots. In his analysis of these complex and transsensical lines, Christopher Barnes has noted that "a phonetic rendering demonstrates the dense alliterative patterning derived from the ‘key-word’" (Barnes, 168). "Khramovoi v malakhite li kholen..." The entire first stanza is a derivative from the primordial root MLKhR. And while the poem is written in Russian, this persistent grinding down of the consonants "m-l-kh-r" seems to have entered by way of another language. This cluster sounds exotic to the Russian ear, but it is a component of familiar Hebrew words such as "melekh" (king) and "mal'akh" (messenger, angel). It is as if the young Pasternak's poetry has not yet selected its definitive linguistic channel and has mixed into the viscous Russian syllables an abundance of the non-syllabic, dry substance of the Hebrew roots. Hence the remarkable, bilingual resonance of these lines.

In the poetry of Pasternak and Mandel’shtam, the vowels can easily be pressed from those words whose semantic form consists of consonants. One cannot but recall in this regard Pasternak’s well-known definition of poetry as a sponge, where he polemically counterposes it to the traditional understanding of poetry as a spring or fountain: "Modern poets have imagined art to be like a fountain, whereas it is a sponge. They have decided that art must gush forth,while it must suck and be satiated" ("Neskol’ko polozhenii" ["Several Tenets"],152). This very image of poetry-as-sponge, appears in Pasternak’s poem "Spring":

Gj'pbz^ Uhtxtcrjq ue,rjq d ghbcjcrf[

<elm ns> b vt; ptktyb rktqrjq

Nt,z , gjkj;bk z yf vjrhe/ ljcre

Ptktyjq cfljdjq crfvtqrb.

$Dtcyf$ (1, 81)

Poetry! Turn into spongy Greek fossils

With suckers. Amid sticky swards then

I’d set you to rest on a wet board

Of this green bench in the garden.

Grow fluffy frills and farthingales,

Suck in clouds and ravines,

And at night, Poetry, I’ll squeeze you out

For the good of the thirsty page.

From this standpoint, poetry is not the gushing forth of content, nor is it comparable to an eruption of water; like the squeezing of a sponge, it is the pressing of content from form. And the stronger the squeeze, or the more densely the verse line is packed with roots and meanings, to use the terminology of Iurii Tynianov ("tesnota stikhovogo riada"), the more the line is charged with poetry. This process of condensation, this pressing of thought from form, is the very reverse of the melodic dimension of poetry--of its "singing" breadth, that expansiveness of a resonant lyric composition, that is so characteristic of Blok’s and Esenin’s poetry. In another essay, Pasternak defines the poetic image as the squeezing and compressing of the forms of existence, as a precipitate abbreviation: "Figurative language is the stenography of a great individuality, the shorthand of the spirit" ("Stat’i i vystupleniia"["Essays and Speeches"], 194).

Independently of Pasternak’s formulations, the same idea of poetry as a compression or squeezing is developed by Mandel’shtam in his essay, "Razgovor o Dante" ["Talking about Dante," 1933]. After citing the line from Canto XXXII of the Inferno , "Io premerei di mio concetto il suco (line 4) ["I would squeeze the juice out of my conception"], Mandel’shtam develops this image into an entire concept of poetic creation as that of the squeezing of form from content. "That is, form is conceived of by him [Dante] as something wrung out, not something that envelops. Thus, strange as it may seem, form is pressed out of the content--the conception--which, as it were, envelops the form" ("Talking about Dante," 75). In the writings of Mandel’shtam, as in those of Pasternak, the image arises of poetry-as-sponge, with the one difference that the content from which form is wrung, is itself form. Mandel’shtam attests to this when he writes: "But only if a sponge or rag is wet can anything, no matter what, be wrung from it. We may twist the conception into a veritable braid, but we will not squeeze from it any form, unless it is in itself a form" ("Talking about Dante," 75).

We would do well to recall that compression or contraction, tzimtzum , is one of the most important terms in Kabbalah, defining the reason and the very potential for the creation of the world. The doctrine of tzimtzum holds that God condensed or "contracted" His own being so that the universe might come into existence. Otherwise, how could the world have come into existence, if at the outset all of space was occupied by the Deity? Isaac Luria (1534-1572), who produced perhaps the most influential texts of the Kabbalah, explains Creation as a sacrificial act of God’s self-contraction, whereby something other than God, the World outside of God, became possible. In other words, God "squeezes" a space for the world from Himself, by means of His own "contraction."

This very act of self-condensation is recreated continuously in Logos, in language as a demiurge, when the world of poetry "is wrung" from it. The packed quality of the Hebrew language, concentrated into consonants alone--is the pledge of its capacity to engender an extended world of meanings. Poetic polysemy, like the moisture in a sponge, is pressed from the porous friable language, through a maximum compression. The image of "the sponge" that seems so audacious and unexpected when applied by Pasternak to poetry, originates in this idea, well known in educated Jewish circles, of compression and squeezing as the primal creative act.

To suggest that the poetic discourse of Pasternak and Mandel’shtam is somewhat alien to the Russian language, in which it is created, disparages neither Russian poetry nor these poets. Poetry is "an estrangement," "a defamiliarization," to use Formalist terminology: the ordinary is made strange, different from itself, and language also estranges itself from commonly accepted speech--it appears as if it were "foreign," and those who do not appreciate poetry take this "gibberish" or "abracadabera" for another language. It may be for this reason that "outsiders" play an important role in Russian letters, and not in Russian letters alone; this innate non-native quality helps to give ordinary speech poetic tension, to transpose it into another, "foreign" dimension. Viktor Shklovsky writes in his programmatic article "Art as Technique": "According to Aristotle, poetic language must appear strange and wonderful; and, in fact, it is often actually foreign: the Sumerian used by the Assyrians, the Latin of Europe during the Middle Ages, the Arabisms of the Persians, the old Bulgarian of Russian literature..."

Elements of Hebrew in Russian poetry of the 20th century can fall under the same category of aesthetic "foreignness" which is connected to an author's ethnic origins in a complicated and unpredictable way. Ethnic background in some instances hinders a writer from gaining organic mastery of any given language, but it incites other writers to transcend the limitations of language. Emil Mandel’shtam spoke a limp, leaden Russian, whereas his son, Osip, became one of the greatest Russian poets.

Even those poets who are acknowledged as "the most Russian," as "purely Russian"--Zhukovsky, Pushkin, Lermontov, Nekrasov, Fet, and Akhmatova--are ethnically mixed. They are both insiders and outsiders in relation to the Russian language. The issue in general is not one of belonging to a different tribe, but of the intrinsic multiethnicity of culture itself, in which national purity is the exception rather than the rule. And, to use Lomonosov’s phrase, the more distant [dalekovaty ] are the images and languages that cross in a national culture, the more significant is that crossing as a phenomenon of world culture.


Pasternak and Mandel’shtam are drawn toward each other and invite comparison: their very names, by the exact assonantal rhyme (a-e-a ), pull them fast phonically. While they may be placed in a single line with other renewers of Russian poetic speech--with the shamanist Velimir Khlebnikov, or with the dionysian Viacheslav Ivanov--still, they occupy a special niche in any avant-garde or modernist assemblage. Not their similarity, but precisely the dissimilarity between them, the diametrically opposed forces that set one off against the other, allows us to fathom in their art a single circle of influence.

The impact of the Jewish spiritual tradition on Pasternak and Mandel’shtam reveals itself most clearly at the very point of its split into two streams, each of which, for the most part, has nourished them. The split between these two forms of Jewish religious mentality appeared in Russia toward the close of the eighteenth century, as the countermovements of Hasidism and Talmudism. The interrelatedness of the poetic systems of Pasternak and Mandel’shtam gains bold definition precisely against this background.

For more than a millenium, adherents to the Talmud have proposed that the Jews were scattered by God for their sins; they must weep and pray, study Talmud, and follow the spirit and letter of the Law, for this is the path to the redemption of sins and a return to Divine favor. The Hasidim,whose approach may be correlated with that of other charismatic movements such as the Sufis in the Muslim religion, or the Pentecostal sect in Christianity, hold that it is given to the believer to perceive God by the fullness of a rapturous and receptive heart. Hasidism emerged as an existentialist mystical current in East European Jewry. If the Talmudist submits to comprehending the laws inscribed in Holy Scripture and their commentary by his mind, the Hasid reads them in his heart. The tzaddik, or saint of Hasidism, is open to the most minute events of the universe that he perceives as expressions of Divine inventiveness, in which man is called upon to be a blessed collaborator.

"The more accidental, the more true"--this line of Pasternak’s, from the poem "February," is one that might have been taken from Hasidic teachings. The more accidental the phenomenon, the more divine its nature, for the divine is what has not been envisioned, what cannot be deduced from general rules, nor irreducible to them. The entire spirit of Pasternak’s poetry is its quality of the here-and-now , of a blessed lightness of being in which nothing is stable, in which the heavy spirits of duty and teaching release the soul, in which "the passion for breaking away lures me," as in "Ob’iasnenie" ["Declaration of Love," a poem from Doctor Zhivago].

To a certain extent, the Hasidic tradition is close to what in Russia has been the cult of the Holy Fool (iurodivyi ): these two charismatic countertrends in Judaism and Christianity correspond to each other. It holds dear not the cleric prophesying from the pulpit, but the Holy Fool splattered with mud from a puddle, who lives at one with the entire universe, who does not insulate himself from the world and from the mundane. There may be a temptation to include Pasternak in the tradition of God’s Fool, if we consider his phrases "I’m more blessed than a saint" ("Marburg") and"Who commanded the words of God’s Fool to burn?" ("Balashov"); or even if we take into account Stalin’s memorable sally that allegedly saved Pasternak from arrest, "Leave this fool [iurodivyi ) alone." Yet too much keeps Pasternak apart from the Russian concept of divine foolishness.

Pasternak and his lyrical hero have none of the hysterical outbreak, the clowning eccentricities, the stinging insult --nothing of that pathos of negation, that unmasking of the surrounding world that are so characteristic of the Russian Holy Fool as a type, with his "sickliness," his affectation of weak-mindedness, and his zealous self-abasement. There is not the heavy, somber flagellation of his own flesh and clothing. In Pasternak, rather, there is a truly spontaneous and blissful, good-natured, immediate, rambling joyous acceptance of actuality as having been vindicated and blessed. "Mastering my adoration/Yet worshipping, I observed:/ Here were locksmiths, suburbans, /Students, and peasant women" ("On Early Trains"). The simple listing induces a poetic trance, because everything in the world structure is adored by him.

From this follows both the enumerative syntax in Pasternak’s writings, recalling the biblical "and...and...and," as well as his inclination to break up the world into the tiniest particles, so as to disclose the sacral in each of them--what we may call Pasternak’s own "theology of singuarity," the vision of divine sparks, so characteristic of Hasidism. In Pasternak’s conception, life itself is a torrent, broken up into a myriad of drops, as in "Sister my life burst forth today/In torrents of spring rain, everywhere." Or life is perceived as colorful flashes--as arrow-like flights of martins and red-gold wads flying from the dawn aflame: "The dawn will make the candle light up,/ Will flare up and shoot a martin./I burst in with a reminder:/May life be as fresh!"

If we attempt to single out figurative units in Pasternak’s writings, they seem to be smaller than in the writings of any other Russian poet. They include raindrops, snowflakes, bits of fluff, leaves, branches, sparks, tears, crickets, ants, calyces, spouts, icicles, cloves, corpuscles, needles, stars, diamonds, cuff-links, beads, knuckles, pieces of glass, rosettes. Phenomena are reduced to ultimate fragments of the universe, prefigured by the Pasternakian "almighty god of details"--whose all-merciful powers extend not only to his creatures, but to the smallest things of the tangible world:

Ns cghjcbim> rnj dtkbn>

Xnj, fduecn ,sk dtkbr>

Rjve ybxnj yt vtkrj>

Rnj gjuhe;ty d jnltkre

Rktyjdjuj kbcnf...

Dctcbkmysq ,ju ltnfktq>

Dctcbkmysq ,ju k/,db...

..."izn;, kak tiwina

Osennqq, - podrobna.

$Lfdfq hjyznm ckjdf...$

You will ask, who commands

The month of August to be majestic,

And for whom is nothing too small,

Who is absorbed in trimming/

A maple leaf...

--The almighty god of details,

The almighty god of love

... And life, as autumn stillness,

Is deep in detail.

"Let us drop words..."

Numerous examples of this attitude can be found in Pasternak’s poetry :

D nhfdt> yf rbckbwt> vt; ,ec

<hbkmzyns> [vehzcm> dbckb...


In the grass, on the red currants, between the beads

Hung frowning diamonds.

"What We Had"

E rfgtlm--nz;tcnm pfgjyjr>

B cfl cktgbn> rfr gktc>

J,hspufyysq> pfrfgfyysq>

Vbkmjyjv cbyb[ cktp.

$Ns d dtnht> dtnrjq ghj,e/otv...$

Raindrops are as heavy as cuff-links

And the garden dazzles as a river reach,

Splashed and dripping

With a million blue tears.

--"You are in the wind, testing with a branch"

Nzyekjcm d ;f;lt r [j,jnrfv

B ,f,jxrfv b gznyfv...


Summer distends thirstily to the bee’s proboscis,

To butterflies and sun-spots...


...Cnhebncz ljhj;rjq> d cexrf[ b ekbnrf[

Vthwf/obq ;fhrbq rdfhw.


And mixed with twigs and snails

Streams the little road of hot glittering quartz.

"The Mirror"

...Hjcrjim rhjityjq hjvfirb d hjct--

Ue,s b ue,s yf pdtpls dsvtybdfnm^

$Ckj;f dtckf$

Richness of crumpled daisies in the dew--

Lips and lips in exchange for the stars.

"Resting Oars"

The human being is broken down into lips, collarbones, elbows, palms, fingers, wrists, joints, vertebrae--into particles of corporeal existence. Sounds, too, are fragmented into "gulps," "lappings," "sobs," or into multi-segmented, repetitive configurations of "trilling," "chirping," "clattering"...

"Nothing can be seen, only sounds,

Gulps and flappings in bedroom slippers,

And sighs and tears in the pauses."

"The Weeping Garden".

The more clairvoyant the poet, the more generous to him is "the god of details." To one in a state of illumination, "every trifle living and paying [him] no heed/ became augmented in its farewell meaning" ("Marburg"). In this trance of noting and enumerating details, Pasternak emerges as a tzaddik , one of the blessed, holy men of Hasidim, to whom the grace of God is revealed in the minutest of insignificant things.

Here one may recall the central Hasidic image of "the spark," as the authentic form of God’s visible presence in the world. According to Kabbalah, in the process of Creation, the divine light was splintered into sparks that descended to the depths of the lower worlds, in order to deposit in the shells of earthly things the kernels of attraction to the higher worlds. Let us turn again to Isaac Luria, who most directly influenced eighteenth and nineteenth century Hasidim. In Luria’s version of Kabbalah, we have a thoroughgoing explanation of the process by which the world was created, linking the concept of the "spark" to the idea of "compression" that we have discussed earlier. After God absented Himself from primal space and thereby created the universe outside of His Being, the divine light, extending back into this external world, encountered an alien milieu--and the vessels of light were broken. This "breaking of the vessels" is regarded as the very crux of Kabbalah. In consequence of the chaotic and catastrophic dispersion of the Divine light, holy sparks came into being, imprisoned in the dark regions of the material world, ever after to seek their liberation and return to their primal source.

The essence of this belief may be seen in the following account taken from Martin Buber's anthology of Hasidic legend and parable: "[Some] serve God with learning and prayer; others, with eating, drinking, and earthly delights, raising all of this to holiness[...]Those of the one sort learn and pray the livelong day and hold themselves far from lowly matters in order to attain to holiness, while the others do not think of themselves but only of delivering the holy sparks which are buried in all things back to God and they make all lowly things their concern" (Buber, 53-54). In a related vein, one commentary on Hasidic tales reads: "It turns out that these transitory, practical, ordinary, immediate, short-term, common animalistic, vulgar, crude, primitive activities are full of the divine sparks--the emanation of the Almighty Himself. How could this be? The answer lies in the simultaneous cultivation of a vivid imagination, bordering on the mystical and a strong faith that God is truly everywhere and therefore can be reached not only through Talmudic and Kabbalistic studies, but even more directly by the ordinary concerns of everyday life" (Polsky and Wozner, 241-242).

To these frail sparks of the ordinary, it is not given either to flare up brightly nor to fade in the dark, but only to gleam in the enveloping obscurity, filling all objects with the presence of the Divinity, diminished yet preserved. The sin of pride is to see the world as all-radiant; the sin of despondency is to see it as all dark, whereas the tiny spark is the precise measure of the holiness of the world.

Pasternak’s oeuvre offers glimpses of these flashings: in raindrops and icicles, in elbows and collarbones, in willow branches and oarlocks, where they appear as the wandering of points of holiness in the circles of matter, as flashes of light in the tiniest portions of everyday actuality. The tzaddik 's vocation is to capture these sparks, to transfer them into the human heart, where they may fuse in the warmth of faith. And in Pasternak’s poetry, Hasidic through and through, these spiritual sparks swarm unceasing, as if they were flying out of some invisible bonfire.

Poetry is "the crackling of crushed icicles"; a garden is "sprayed and dripping with a million blue tears"; a forest is "filled with the tiniest gleams, as if in a watchmaker’s pincers." Everything is split up into autonomous , luminescent, and resonant particles. The very spirit of Pasternak’s poetry is the fanning of these innumerable sparks; they cannot and must not flare up into some kind of "pure flame," which "devours the imperfection of existence" (Pushkin). They must remain sparks, no darker and no lighter than the very smallest light, raindrop, or icicle. God is present , not in the All, but in every fragment of it--unique and separate from any other.

It may be said that the quiver is the state most often experienced by the Pasternakian hero, whose soul is one trembling spark. For instance:

$Z dplhfubdfk. Z pfujhfkcz b ufc.$


"I shuddered. I blazed up and burned."


$Cjkjdmb ;t pfdjlzn ukfpf c cjlhjufymtv...$

@Zdes; prowelsq zagadki tainstvennyj nogot;..@

"Even the nightingale, with a quiver, sets his sight."

"A mysterious nail of a riddle stamped itself here..."

$J,(znsq lhj;m/ cjrhjdtyyjq...$

@@Kogda razgulqetsq@

"Enveloped by a concealed quiver..."

"When the Weather Clears"

$Z hfp,bdfk ,s cnb[> rfr cfl.

Dctq lhj;m/ ;bkjr...$

@Vo vsem mne xohetsq dojti...@

"I’d lay out a poem like a garden,

With all of my fibres aquiver..."

"In everything I want to reach..."

This quiver is the sparking of the spirit through each particle of the universe, the glimmering, twinkling existence of the spark itself that comes into being with the minute, the most sudden of breaths. The quiver is a physiological element of Pasternak’s religious ecstasy--an excess of bliss in each trifle, the upsurge of delight and the impossibility of going beyond the limits of one’s own corporeality.

Hasidism discloses the holiness of each thing through its "whimsicality" and "randomness," a rejection of the paths of reason and law. Hence arises Pasternak’s perception of nature, which in his poetry plays tricks, behaves eccentrically, goes mad, or discovers in itself a wild, naughty, rambunctious creature. Such is the childishness of all nature--like a mischievous child, it is in the bosom and under the surveillance of the Creator.

How much courage is needed

to play forever,

as the ravines play,

as the river plays.


This tender, non-offensive wildness is revealed in numerous landscape images: a small stream is "a half-mad gossip"; a river is "the speech of high water--the delirium of existence"; a month in summer is "July, an uncombed touslehead"; a thunderstorm is "the moisture ran crazed from one calyx to another"; a nightingale "hung amid the bird-cherry like mercury of crazed rains./It held the bark spellbound [...]the crazed trilling vibrates"

"Maddened," "manic," and "crazed" are characteristic Pasternak words, appropriate to the world view of this "blessed eccentric" of Hasidic culture, for whom "all is not proper...all is not as it should be," and who is pleasing to God, precisely because he expresses spontaneous joy.

Thus Pasternak mistrusts book wisdom, and he believes that one can sooner extract the spark of holiness from Nature than from books of religious instruction. In yet another poetic teaching, the Moscow quasi-Hasid writes:

$Xnj d vft> rjulf gjtpljd hfcgbcfymt

Rfvsibycrjq dtnrjq xbnftim d genb>

Jyj uhfylbjpytq Cdznjuj gbcfymz>

{jnz tuj cspyjdf dc= gthtxnb.

$Ctcnhf vjz ;bpym b ctujlyz d hfpkbdt...$ (1.112)

So in May when you read the timetables

Of the Kamyshin trains en route,

They are more grandiose than Holy Scripture,

Even if you will read it all anew.

"Sister my life burst forth today..."

Here it would be worthwhile to dwell on Pasternak’s view of Christianity which he often set off against Judaism that is a religion of the Law. In many ways, however, Pasternak’s Christianity itself bears an imagined dream-like character. This quality comes through in the philosophical disquisitions in Doctor Zhivago , both in the debates of the heroes and in the author’s speculations. Organically, his Christianity grew out of the unconscious roots of a Hasidic world view that also is anti-legalistic, but that is far more fused with the life of things and nature, and as such, is a driving fresh force, infusing Pasternak’s poetry and prose. The interpretation of Christianity in Doctor Zhivago seems to be an intellectual projection of what organically lived in Pasternak, as a sensing of God through the sparks of holiness in Nature, in everyday life, in love, in the physical interaction of people and things.

To what in the Gospels did Pasternak feel the greatest affinity? Not to its religious revelation and not to its moral instruction, but to its depiction of the ordinary, where everything, as it were, is brought down to an illumination of what happens in everyday life. One character states: "Until now people considered that what was most important in the Gospels was its moral utterances and laws, included in its preachings, but for me what was most important was that Christ spoke in parables taken from life, explaining truth in the light of daily occurrences" (Doktor Zhivago , 42).

These words are spoken by Nikolai Nikolaevich Vedeniapin, a former Orthodox priest, who is now a free thinker and writer, to whom Pasternak in his novel entrusted many of his own cherished ideas. But behind the concept of "the priest defrocked at his own request" lurks that of a shtetl wise-man, who rereads one Judaean heresy--Christianity--through the eyes of another--Hasidism. And it turns out that the essence of the Gospel teachings lies not in their soul-saving effect, but in their blessing of a mustard seed, a vineyard, flour, millstones, lamps, fish, bread, and oil, in their illuminating for man the holiness that surrounds him in his daily life. The usual practice of the parable--explicating the exalted by means of the ordinary--here is turned upside down: glimmers of light and truth come from the everyday, so that Pasternak sanctifies and even theologizes the life of nature:

Rfr ,hjypjdjq pjkjq ;fhjdtym>

:erfvb csgktn cjyysq cfl.

Cj vyjq> c vjtq cdtxj/ dhjdtym

Vbhs hfcwdtnibt dbczn.

B rfr d ytcks[fyye/ dthe>

Z d 'ne yjxm gtht[j;e...

$Rfr ,hjypjdjq pjkjq ;fhjdtym...$ (1. 48)

As braziers drop bronzed cinders,

Beetles drop in the drowsy garden.

Against me, level with my candle,

Worlds abloom hang over....

I enter this night

Like a convert to a faith unfathomed.

"Like a brazier with bronze ashes..."

J cdt;tcnm> j rfgkz cvfhfulf

D egbdib[cz kbdytv rbcnz[>

J cjyysq yfxtc ,tcgjhzlrf>

J lbdysq <j;bq gecnzr^

--$Ytcrexysq cfl$ (1, 205)

Oh freshness, oh, a drop of emerald

In the branches drunken from the downpour,

Oh, the uncombed and dreamy disorder,

Oh, the marvelous trifle of God.

"Neskuchnyi Garden"

Ghbhjlf> vbh> nfqybr dctktyyjq>

Z cke;,e ljkue/ ndj/>

J,(znsq lhj;m/ cjrhjdtyyjq>

D cktpf[ jn cxfcnmz> jncnj/.

$ Rjulf hfpuekztncz$ (2, 86)

Nature, the world, the universe’s hiding place

With inherent trembling,

In tears of happiness,

I will stay for your long liturgy.

"When the Weather Clears"

These stanzas, in which night is an unfathomed faith, a drop of rain is a trifle from God, and nature is a prayer service, are worthy of an honored place in Hasidic wisdom.

Moreover, no image in this liturgy for nature turns us back from Christianity to a stylized paganism. Objects are treated not in their overwhelming grandeur, but in their diminishing smallness that has been called upon as witness to the power and plenitude of the Creator. Things slip away, melt, twinkle in the wind, flicker, consist of flashes and glimmers. Erasing their own existence in the world, they represent Hasidism as an anti-paganism. Rilke, to whom in many ways Pasternak was so indebted, wrote that not a single monk could sufficiently disparage himself to beg comparison with a thing, for a thing is pleasing to God, precisely because it observes a more profound reticence than does a monk, it dwells in abject poverty and selflessly serves all of those who are in need of it.

Man is somewhat more demanding. To view his historical and moral concerns as the center of the universe remains alien to Pasternak, whose intuition is sharpened to the utmost precisely by the play and sparking of essences outside of history--by everyday life and nature, by the humble diurnal cycle. Despite some of Pasternak’s declarations, both age-old Christian historicism and the newest Marxist historicism were outside of his creative interests. Just as parables of everyday life in the Gospels moved him, so did the unsophisticated intertwining of the events of the October Revolution with the most everyday prosaic occurrences. "This unprecedented thing--a marvel of history--this revelation banged right into the very thick of ongoing daily life, without any concern for its course. It begins not at the beginning but in the middle, without any date fixed in advance, on the first weekday that comes along. This is genius. Only the very greatest can be so out of place and ill-timed" (Doktor Zhivago , 199). The miracle for Pasternak is marked off by the measure of its matter-of-fact entry into the most trifling circumstances of everyday life.

"Genial’nyi dachnik" ["a summer cottage genius"]--is the sarcastic formula that circulated in the 1930s about Pasternak--one that was not so very superficial after all, and if cleared of its pejorative connotation, borders on the truth. A country place is the most humble home of man in his world, for there, outside of "the larger" world of history, he finds himself amid the surroundings of everyday life and Nature. The country place might have been described as the primordial home of the lyrical Pasternak hero, or as his shtetl , not only in its narrowly national sense, but in its metaphysically humble resonance.


The art of Pasternak is diametrically opposed to that of Mandel’shtam, yet within the same cultural circle. Their contemporaries grasped this intuitively. Each poet has been compared to an exotic animal from the Near Eastern world, where the poets’ common historical homeland lies. Writing of both poets, Marina Tsvetaeva coins the following comparisons. "Pasternak’s physical presence is magnificent. There is something in his face both of the Arab and of his horse: a watchful, tense alertness; and at any moment, utter readiness for flight. And the enormous, steed-like as well, wild, and timid sidewise glance of his eyes" ("Svetovoi liven’"["A Downpouring of Light"], 354). Of Mandel’shtam she states: "The eyes look downward, the head is thrown back. Bearing in mind his long neck, his head is set like a camel’s. Three-year-old Andriushka asks, "Uncle Osia, who pushed your head that way?" ("The History of One Consecration," in Mandel’shtam 3, 322-323). In his memoirs, Emil Mindlin similarily depicts Mandel’shtam’s "delicate, large hooked nose and [his ] head, with a proud air, independently tossed back"(in Mandel’shtam, 2, 511).

Thus Mandel’shtam, in the tilt of his head, has been likened to a camel; Pasternak, on account of his elongated face and the impetuosity of his gait, gestures, words--to an Arabian steed. These are more than merely physiognomic comparisons, although they match the features of both poets. Perhaps even before they begin to create symbols, the poets themselves are symbols. The camel and the Arabian steed might be emblematic of a relationship between these two creative worlds. The difference in the poetic approach of Mandel’shtam and Pasternak is analogous to the contrast between the heavy, measured gait of the camel and the light run of the Arabian race horse. In the structure of their poetic beings, so is Mandel’shtam is as unhurried and solemn as Pasternak is impetuous and restless.

The comparison to a camel may be extended further. Mandel’shtam carries a hump, formed by his posture vis-a-vis world culture--the hump of a man who, for his entire life, has been bent over the world as over a book, leafing through its pages and endlessly rereading it. His is the posture of the Talmudist, bent over the text of the Law, and it is characteristic of all of Mandel’shtam’s poetic thought. As we know from his rather caustic reminiscences entitled "The Judaic Chaos" chapter in The Noise of Time , the father of the future poet prepared for the rabbinic profession and studied at a Berlin yeshiva. Then Emil Mandel’shtam forsook the vocation that had been passed down from one Mandel'shtam generation to another, chose a secular profession, and gave up all of his religious interests--preserving only in his dessicated Russian conversation, in his "tongue-tied speech and languagelessness[...] the capricious syntax of a Talmudist" (Mandel’shtam, 2, 66, 67).

The irony of origins and the revenge of the cultural unconscious are, however, evident in the fact that the son of Emil Mandel’shtam became one of the greatest Talmudists, making the secular profession of poetry into a distinctive, Talmudic exegesis of the signs of world culture. In Mandel’shtam’s writings, all of culture comes forward as a holy book, continually demanding rigorous commentary and deciphering.

More than any of his predecessors in Russian poetry, Mandel’shtam views the world through the prism of a cultural-historical exegesis. "Literary competence" and "poetic competence"are at the foundation of Mandel’shtam’s demands on talent. In Dante he honors "a good education--a school of the most rapid associations,[...] a keyboard promenade along the entire mental horizon of antiquity,[...] an orgy of quotations" ("Talking about Dante," 68-69). The citations present in all great poetry seem to him to be not simple borrowings; they are atmosphere that is aquiver the the resonant dialogue of times and cultures. Mandel'shtam comments that "A quotation is not an excerpt. A quotation is a cicada. It is part of its nature never to quiet down. Once having got hold of the air, it does not release it "("Talking about Dante," 69). A quotation is not an alien intrusion into a text, but the very nature of the text itself, resonating with all of the reality of signs, with the world of the all-embracing Book.

For Mandel’shtam, the writer is less an original creator--which would hardly coincide with the traditional Jewish view of the Lord as First Creator--and more the translator and intrepreter of a primary text. He registers his beloved Dante, whose very name symbolizes the limitless power of the imagination, merely as a pupil and copyist of some primordial text. Dante "is set in motion by everything except fabrication, except inventiveness. Dante and fantasy--why, these are incompatible![...]What fantasy is there in him? He writes to dictation, he is a copyist, a translator[....]He is bent double in the posture of a scribe who squints in fright at the illuminated original that has been lent him from the prior’s library" ("Talking about Dante," 100). This portrait of Dante is also a self-portrait of Mandel’shtam, "bent double in the posture of a scribe," over the pages of world culture. In one way or another each line of Mandel’shtam’s corresponds to some chapter and page in a literary anthology. Each poem is an inscription on the margins of "The Book," a form of commentary on Homer, Ovid, Dante, Ossian, Edgar Allen Poe, Batiushkov, Pushkin, Baratynsky, Tiutchev, or on some entirely still unknown, unearthed, but pre-existing primary source.

Mandel’shtam changed the hierarchy of values in Russian poetry. Earlier it was esteemed for an author to be considered "the first"; subsequently it became prestigious to be "the last"--not to open up, but to close a theme, having set forth its most capacious interpretation, having transposed it into various languages of culture. In so traditional a sphere of spontaneous inspiration as poetry, "the divine word," Mandel’shtam was the first Russian poet to canonize intentional secondariness. While the word remains divine, the poet serves as its interpreter: he has to transmit it through all registers of meaning, to adapt it to the sensibilities of his own epoch, to lead it into the tangible strata of culture. Rather than the caprice of self-expression, art is a tenacity of reception. It teaches: "Beauty is not the whim of a demi-god/but the plain carpenter’s fierce rule-of-eye" ("The Admiralty," I, 29).

A similar orientation to intentional secondariness prevails amid new Russian authors and new currents that became well known in the 1980s. Hence they have constantly been reproached for being "bookish"--but must this word resound as a reproach? They share with Mandel'shtam an understanding of art as a self-consciousness of culture, an exploratory and accumulatory work with language. The conceptualists prefer to "recycle" the language of Soviet ideology; the meta-realists focus on the languages of earlier artistic epochs; the presentalists utilize the languages of new sciences and technologies. Secondariness, or what is now called intertextuality, is the means for a text to exist amid other texts; more precisely, it is the means by which a text can absorb them into itself and recreate the universal scope of styles and codes within the microcosm of a single work. This is the porosity of poetic matter, which does not gush forth from its own depths as an instinctive creativity, but which "sucks and is saturated" by the entire system of world culture.

Thus Mandel’shtam, with his inherently Talmudic mind, has influenced Russian literature in the formation of a growing zone of self-reflexivity--"writing to dictation, copying, transcribing" ("Talking about Dante," 100). This kind of secondariness does not exclude genuine originality, but makes it stand out in relief from what has already been accomplished in culture. When artists feel summoned to create "from within," as if "for the first time," the result most often turns out to be sheer banality, the first cliché they hit upon. Pasternak, in one of the entries of Iurii Zhivago, speaks of this seeming artlessness: "In present conditions, pastoral simplicity doesn’t come out of the blue. Its false artlessness is a literary fraud, an artificial manneredness, a phenomenon of the bookshelf, transported not from the countryside, but from the shelves of an academic archive" (Doctor Zhivago , 500). When the artist creates a "variation on a theme" while aware of its preceding interpretations, then a new interpretation has a chance to become a genuine discovery in its repulsion from what had been created previously. Conscious reproduction is the path to innovation.

For Mandel’shtam nature, like culture, turns out to be an open page, strewn with the inscriptions of brooks and crags. Hence the cosmogony and the cosmography of his "The Slate Ode," which represents the world in the process of being inscribed, "written by a milky lead stick." The world has been created by the Word and is written like a Book. All of the elements are depicted in terms of schooling: all of nature is a student who diligently brings forth piles of scribbles, and who is bent over the notebook of naked rocks and species, cutting into it deep lines. Rocks are "students of running water," while "the plumbline preaches to them, the water instructs them, time hones them"; "memory, are these your voices, instructing, breaking the night?" "I break the night, the burning chalk, for a firm notation of a moment," and so on. The various elements teach each other, and the universe as a whole learns from a higher law, whose weight is felt in the slightest blade of grass. Causality haunts us even in the fortuitous events that are inevitably hung on the hooks of causes and effects:

In needle-shaped pestilential glasses

We drink our obsession with causes,

Like light death

We touch the smallest substances with our hooks

"Octets," X

All of Mandel’shtam's creativity is, to use his own expression, "the schooling of worlds." This is a typically rabbinic outlook in which all that exists has been created for study, with the poet cast as the most diligent and laborious of pupils. As Mandel'shtam writes: "And I now study the scratched diary of the slate summer." The universe turns out to be a kind of yeshiva , the place where the greatest zeal is demonstrated by seminarians who are immersed in the study of the law: "And your textbook, Infinity, I read by myself, alone..." ("Octets," XI)

Nothing of the kind is to be found in Pasternak. "What is not in Pasternak?" inquires Tsvetaeva. "I listen attentively, and an answer comes: the sense of weight. Weight for him is only another form of action--to be thrown off. You’re more likely to see him hurling down an avalanche than sitting in a snow-covered hut awaiting the avalanche’s deadly thud" ("Svetovoi liven’," 357). But the very quality that is absent in Pasternak is paramount in Mandel’shtam:

Rjve pbvf--fhfr b geyi ujke,jukfpsq>

Rjve--leibcnjt c rjhbwt/ dbyj>

Rjve--;tcnjrb[ pdtpl cjktyst ghbrfps

D bp,eire lsvye/ gthtytcnb lfyj. (1,96 ).

To some, winter is arrack and blue-eyed punch.

To some, wine fragrant with cinnamon,

To some, the salty commands from the cruel stars

Fated to be carried into a smoky hut .


D gktntyre hjuj;b ukzltkb rjk/xbt pdtpls>

B ,bkb dhfphzlre rjgsnf gj rkfdbifv vthpksv.

The prickly stars glanced into the plaited wicker basket

And spaced-out hooves beat along the congealed keys.


Gecnm z kt;e d ptvkt> ue,fvb itdtkz>

Yj nj> xnj z crf;e> pfgjvybn rf;lsq irjkmybr (1, 214 ).

Though I am lying in earth, my lips moving,

What I say, every schoolboy will memorize.

Mandel’shtam’s place truly is in "a snow-covered hut awaiting the avalanche’s deadly thud" (precisely what Tsvetaeva finds incompatible with Pasternak's lyrical sensibility). He lies under a deadly tread that will trample him into the earth--or under the weight of the Law, by which man is sentenced and which he must transmit to others, like a lesson.

Whereas Pasternak grasps the world in images of free play, Mandel’shtam apprehends it in images of strict law and painstaking learning. Therefore, Mandel’shtam's world is full as well of "unkind loads," of "petrified elements." Stone, the poet’s favorite element, predominates, because it is the element most dependable and obedient to the law, one that abides by the will of the Creator. Almost everything in Mandel’shtam appears in stony or earthen images: "the warmed sand cools down"; "the rose was earth." Elements thicken: "like dark water, I drink the roiled air"; "the heavy steam falls down"; "the deposit of lime in the sick son’s blood hardens"; "wasps suck the axis of the Earth."

This transition of matter into a solid state, this encumbering of the elements by hardening and darkening, may be the fundamental principle of Mandel’shtam’s poetics. It is especially striking that in Mandel’shtam’s poetry, air becomes statuesque and seems more like a tree or a tower than like air. We encounter images such as, "the translucent forest of the air," "in the transparent air, as in a light-blue Colisseum," and so on. Mandel’shtam never whips up a blizzard or a snowstorm, dynamic forces that are endemic to the Russian poetic landscape.

If we turn to images of winter in Pasternak and Mandel’shtam, the contrast becomes especially clear. In Mandel’shtam’s poetry, winter is as a rule hard, like a diamond; it lies on the earth like a heavy ice crust , emitting a sharp, terrifying crunch: "Let the dark people hurry along the snow / Like sheep in a flock, and let the brittle ice crust crunch." Or "everything is shaggy--people and objects./And the hot snow crunches" ("Barely gleams the ghostly scene"). Elsewhere,"the white, white snow eats one’s eyes to the quick"--this snow is impregnated by the whiteness of the fatefulstars, fixed and cruel as the law ("To some winter is arrack and blue-eyed punch..."). And in "1 January 1924": "As of old, I respect the fraternity of the deep frost and the justice of the pike." The strong frost is both a litigation and sentence; it is also the legalistic representation of Nature as a judgment against Man.

In Pasternak, it is just the opposite. Winter is swirling snowflakes: "White starlets in a snow-storm"; "As in summer a swarm of gnats /fly into the flame, /Snowflakes sweep from the yard /up to the windowpane"--there is an impetuous sporadic glimpsing of the most minute airy particles forming soft woven patterns. Winter "knits stockings from snowflakes," "descends from heaven in a patched coat," trails "like a fringed curtain"--in a word, it enters into the category of "matter from which snowflakes are sewn together."

Cytu bltn> b dc= d cvzntymb>

Dct gecrftncz d gjk=n%

Xthyjq ktcnybws cnegtyb>

Gthtrhtcnrf gjdjhjn. (2, 108)

The snow is falling, and all is in disarray,

Everything breaks into flight:

The steps of the black ladder,

The turning of the crossroads.

Finally, if for Mandel’shtam, "the frost of eternity streams in the icy diamonds " ("More slowly than the snowy beehive..."), then for Pasternak, "time perhaps slips by with that same rapidity " ("The snow is falling"). These images of snow illustrate the distinction between Law and caprice, between eternity and time, between ice crust and snowflakes, as the poetic metaphors corresponding to the Talmudic and the Hasidic world views.

Both poets are attracted to the Caucasus, the area of their geographic homeland (Russia) that lies closest to their historic homeland (the Land of Israel). This is not, however, the Romanticists’ dream of the Caucasus "that rises like a wall under the heavens"; rather, it is an inhabitable, homey land in that region and beyond it, the dim distant vision of an inconceivable "promised Land." Mandel’shtam refers to "Armenia, the younger sister of Judaea" ("Fourth Prose," 183).

Even in their attraction to the Caucasus, Pasternak and Mandel’shtam are divided between two "Judaeas," two southern poetic homelands, as if they were exemplars of two religious traditions. In every aspect of his poetry, Pasternak gravitates toward Georgia; Mandel’shtam, toward Armenia. One country "plays the prankster" and curls up by its forest trifles, among which "the air breathed and clambered out, necks of hornbeams craned upward" (Pasternak). The other, Armenia is "the country of ploughed-up stones," the bookish land," "the hollow book with its black blood of baked clay." Georgia turns green, lightly sparkles and froths, like the joy of the Hasid. Armenia becomes sallow and is trodden down into its own dead clay, like the seriousness and heaviness of the Law.

Unlike the impressionistically excitable Pasternak, Mandel’shtam primarily addresses the intellectual level of perception. But this does not mean that he is a philosophical poet in the same sense as were Baratynskii, Tiutchev, or Zabolotskii. Usually we equate the intellectual and the philosophical in literature, without noting a vital difference. The Biblical-Talmudic tradition has its sages and the most discriminating of intellects, but not philosophers in the ancient sense associated with the thinkers of antiquity. As is well known, the origin of philosophical knowledge goes back to pagan Greek wisdom, whereas Mandel’shtam, despite his often declared love for Hellenism, is nonetheless closer to the Jewish spiritual tradition.

What is an intellectuality that is alien to a philosophical cast of mind? In Mandel’shtam’s writings, we are not in the presence of an abstracting, generalizing reason, but of an exquisite, explicating intellect. Mandel’shtam’s poetic mind is remote from the generalizing philosophical temper that we encounter in Baratynskii or Tiutchev. It is remote from meditation, from aphorisms, and from maxims of the kind "A thought expressed is false" or "Nature has no inkling of the past" (Tiutchev). Even where Mandel’shtam overtly expresses a general judgment, he gives only a partial, narrow interpretation of a broader phenomenon. Compare, for example, two very similar quatrains about Nature. In Tiutchev we read:

Ghbhjlf--Cabyrc. B ntv jyf dthytq

Cdjbv bcrecjv ue,bn xtkjdtrf>

Xnj> vj;tn cnfnmcz> ybrfrjq jn dtrf

Pfuflrb ytn b yt ,skj e ytq (220 )

Nature is a Sphinx. And all the more confidently

She destroys Man by her seduction,

Maybe, she never did possess

A riddle to be divined.

In Mandel’shtam: Ghbhjlf--njn ;t Hbv> b jnhfpbkfcm d y=v.

Vs dblbv j,hfps tuj uhf;lfycrjq vjob

D ghjphfxyjv djple[t> rfr d wbhrt ujke,jv>

Yf ajhevt gjktq b d rjkjyyflt hjob. (1, 40 )

Nature equates with Rome and is reflected in it.

Its images of civic might we see reposed

In the transparent air, as in the light-blue Colisseum,

In the forums of the fields and the colonnades of the groves .

These statements at first seem to be perfectly matched in their thematics of nature, in their structure ("Nature is such-and-such"), and by the source of their comparison--the selection of proper nouns from antiquity (Sphinx, Rome). Yet we note a subtle difference. Tiutchev attempts to resolve the riddle of Nature, while Mandel’shtam describes nature in images of Roman civilization. The Tiutchev poem is a meditation on a philosophical problem: What is Nature? What is its essence? Generalizing speculation of this kind is absent from the Mandel’shtam poem. Rather, it is structured by a transposition from one "language" to another, from the language of nature to the language of culture. Here Mandel’shtam is the explicator of nature-as-text, not the philosopher of nature-as-essence.

In this distinction lies the difference between philosophical ratiocination and Talmudic explication. Each type of thinking is concentrated on a process of understanding, but while the philosophical moves from the concrete to the general ("this is that"), the Talmudic is driven from the general to the concrete ("that is manifest through this"). Essence is disclosed only to God; therefore the explication must be more partial, no more general than what is explainable. The Natürphilosophie of Tiutchev’s world view is an indication of the general attribute of nature as Sphinx: "...She destroys Man by her seduction,/Maybe, she never did possess/A riddle to be divined." In Mandel’shtam, on the contrary, Roman civilization is more concrete than nature, which can be translated into the language of "civic might"--into the architectural images of the Colosseum, the Forum, colonnades. For this reason, the Talmud is more detailed than the Torah, which it explicates. The task of the interpreter is not to pronounce the one absolute truth, but to expound what has been said about it; not to enter into the secrets of nature, but to clarify what is manifest in it.

* * *

Both poets, then, evoke a Jewish spiritual dimension. As Pasternak’s poetry is not so much Christian as it is Hasidic, so Mandel’shtam’s poetry is not so much philosophical as it is Talmudic. To be sure, the creativity of Pasternak and Mandel’shtam is attendant upon Christian ethical and classical philosophical traditions.. But their divergence from the Christian ethical and the classical philosophical traditions bespeaks their (mostly subconscious) affinities with expressions of Jewish spirituality.

Finally, what vital cultural principles underlie these two creative intuitions that Pasternak and Mandel’shtam transmitted into Russian culture? Russian Jewry was divided not only spiritually and ideologically, but geographically as well. The North was the home of Talmudically educated Baltic Jewry, the "Mitnagdim" (opponents of the Hasidic renewal), who established a stronghold in Vilna. Faithful to rabbinic principles, the Mitnagdim insisted on the teaching of the Book and lifelong erudition, and they were staunch advocates of the legalistic path to a cognition of God. In the South, above all in the Ukrainian provinces of Podoliya and Volhynia, lived a more densely settled Jewish population, which on account of persecution and suffering was more distant from the traditions of learning and was more inclined to seek God in lightheartedness, through the carefree joys of the humble heart. In this setting, the preaching of the Ba’al Shem Tov, or the "Master of the Great Name" (often known by the acronym, Besht), had great success. For followers of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the law is not inscribed in books once and for all, but rather is marked in the human heart, as an openness to God and the celebration of every trifle, so as to hint at or indicate His will.

In the North, a more reclusive and contemplative character emerged, whereas the more elemental and open tenor of life in the South may have been a factor in the formation of the spontaneous temper of its residents. In any case, these two movements, coming from the North and the South, reveal the territorial context of the two varieties of Jewish spirituality that penetrated Russian letters. The ancestors of Mandel’shtam came from the North--his paternal forebears from Riga, and his maternal, from Vilna. The family of Pasternak originated in Odessa, in the most southerly area of the geographic entrenchment of Jewish culture in Russia.

The predominance of creative Talmudism in Mandel’shtam and of creative Hasidism in Pasternak may, to a certain degree, be attributed to the spiritual milieu that nourished their ancestors. After all, if these influences of origin and ancient homeland skirt the conscious life and nurturing environment of the individual, they are nevertheless passed along. To cite a well-known example, when Leo Tolstoy's heroine Natasha Rostova finds herself at the country place of her uncle, "the little countess"--who has been taught by a French dancing master--breaks into a Russian dance. How is a manner of speech or gesture inherited?

The question is as irresolvable as it is clear, but perhaps one should not sink into the debris of creative physiology. In any case, in discussing the indigenous roots of poetry, one need go no further than the attestation of the poet himself: "As a little bit of musk fills an entire house, so the least influence of Judaism overflows all of one’s life. Oh, what a strong smell that is!" Thus Mandel’shtam transmits to the reader his almost unconscious olfactory impression of his "genuine Jewish house" (The Noise of Time, 56). He makes the point especially strongly in regard to Hebrew, in which he was instructed though he never mastered it. His ears were filled to the brim: "The speech of the father and the speech of the mother--does language not feed throughout its long life on the confluence of these two, do they not nourish our speech our life long, do they not compose its character?" ( 66).

These are the elements that contributed to the creative formation of two of the greatest figures in twentieth-century Russian poetry--its Talmudist, Osip Mandel’shtam, and its Hasid, Boris Pasternak.



I am grateful to Ruth Rischin, translator of this essay, for her assistance in identifying relevant sources and for her editing of subsequent authorial additions and revisions. I also would like to thank Anna Muza (University of California at Berkeley) for her sensitive reading of the translation in draft form. A special thanks to Ken Frieden (Syracuse University) for his thoughtful editing of this article and valuable proposals that led to a significant improvement of the manuscript.

In citations from Boris Pasternak and Osip Mandel'shtam, the first number indicates volume, the second, page.

Except for those quoted passages that are otherwise identified, all citations in English are the work of the translator of this essay.

The Russian, "mel’khior " is derived from French maillechort (cupro-nickel), named for the metallurgist who first produced the alloy. There is also a Christian association with the word. In the apocryphal oral tradition, Melchior was one of the Magi who brought gifts to the baby Christ.

For a detailed analysis of this poem’s historical background, see John E. Malmstad, "Boris Pasternak: The Painter's Eye," The Russian Review 51.3 (July 1992): 301-318. Malmstad suggests that this poem was inspired by a painting by Aristarkh Lentulov (1878-1943). [Translator’s note].

Iurii Tynianov, Viktor Shklovsky, and Boris Eikhenbaum are the three major representatives of Russian Formalism, which became renowned as a school of literary theorists in the 1920s. Ensuing from the above discussion, the question might be raised as to what extent the Jewish origin of all three of these theorists impacted on the basic concepts of the Formal school, in particular, the theory of art as "defamiliarization" (Shklovskii), and the theory of "the crowdedness [or tightness] of the verse line" (Tynianov). This is a notion in which one can identify the very intuition of a maximum phonetic and semantic squeezing of poetic speech that is expressed also in the free associative formulations of Pasternak and Mandel’shtam. See Tynianov, Problema stikhotvornogo iazyka [1934] (Moscow, Sovetskii pisatel', 1965).

Shklovsky refers to Aristotle's Poetics, ch. 22.

Throughout this discussion, Hasidism is to be understood as the spiritual current within East European Jewry of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, rather than that of contemporary Hasidism in Israel or the United States.

The most authoritative exposition of the foundations of Jewish mysticism, including Kabbalah and its Lurianic variant, may be found in the works of Gershom Sholem. See, for instance, his Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism , 3rd revised ed. (New York: Schocken Books 1995); and Kabbalah (New York: Schocken Books, 1974).

Shtetl (a small town, in Yiddish) in Russian is "mestechko," literally, "a small place."

In Pasternak’s own words, "A person attains the maximum greatness when he himself, all his being, his life, his activity have become a paradigm, a symbol" ("What is Man?," 671).

Although one can speak about the influence of medieval, monastic culture on Mandel’shtam’s representation of art as the copying of texts and their exegesis, this culture itself is of biblical origin. According to Sergei Averintsev, "The early Byzantine metaphoric tradition of 'the notation' goes back to the ancient Hebrew and more widely to Near Eastern culture, the works of which were created ‘by scribes and bookmen for scribes and bookmen.’ " Therein lies the distinction between Near Eastern, European tradition proper, and Graeco-Roman antiquity. At the center of the last-mentioned was the free citizen and the orator, but not the scribe. "The visual symbol of a citizen of classical antiquity was not at all the bent-over posture of the scribe, carefully and respectfully entering the Emperor’s words or recopying a text of sacred legend, but the free bearing and lively gesticulation of the orator" (S. S. Averintsev, 188, 190, 191).

On these trends in contemporary Russian poetry, see Mikhail Epstein, After the Future: The Paradoxes of Postmodernism and Contemporary Russian Culture, 19-50.

Considerably earlier, in connection with some poems of Sergei Esenin, Iurii Tynianov had noticed this secondariness of the "naive": "The poet who is so dear to those who revere ‘what is inside him’ [nutro], and who complain that literature has become a craft (i. e. an art--as if it had not always been that)--this poet discloses that 'what is inside him' is more literary than ‘craft’" (Arkhaisty i novatory , 546).

Stone (Kamen’ ) is the title of Mandel'shtam's first book (1913; extended and revised edition, 1915).

As early as 1772, the Vilna Gaon issued the ban against the Hasidim, especially condemning their neglect of Torah study and their irrational belief in the powers of the tzadikim .

15The great Jewish historian, Simon Dubnow, describes the geographic distribution of these spiritual trends as follows: "In the Northwest, rabbinic scholasticism reigned supreme, and the caste of scholars, petrified in the ideas of talmudic Babylonia, was the determining factor in public life[....]Matters, however, were different in Podolia, Galicia, Volhynia, and in the whole southwestern region in general. Here the Jewish masses were much further removed from the sources of rabbinic learning, having emancipated themselves from the influence of the Talmudic scholar. While in Lithuania, dry book-learning was inseparable from a godly life, in Podolia and Volhynia it failed to satisfy the religious cravings of the common man. The latter was in need of beliefs easier of understanding and making an appeal to the heart rather than to the mind." (Dubnow, 221-222).

Information on the Jewish spiritual traditions of Pasternak’s forebears is, unfortunately, very limited. However, given that his ancestors settled in the southern Ukraine in the mid-eighteenth century, and that his grandfather, Osip (the father of the artist, Leonid Pasternak) was a synagogue cantor--all suggest a familiarity on the part of the Pasternak family with Hasidism. Sources describing Pasternak’s ethnic and cultural origins include: Leonid Pasternak (1975); Christopher Barnes (1989); Lazar Fleishman (1990); and Peter Levi (1990).


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