Transitions №6

Author: Vladimir Gandelsman

Translated by Anna Halberstadt


The text is in forthcoming at New Meridian Arts book by Vladimir Gandelsman «A Man Needs Only a Room», translated by Anna Halberstadt, Olga Livshin and Andrew Janco.


I will express a few thoughts here that will not impress you with their novelty. Moreover, I feel free to use existing definitions, without cluttering the text with references to authors, because these definitions are mine, – meaning that I understand only that to which I have come on my own; therefore, it makes no difference who authored them.

Historic time provokes us to sum up. The end of the twentieth century, the end of the millennium, etc. Historic time is a book keeper’s abacus on which we count events and dates, proud of our profits or of our bravery when looking at losses; of the ability to analyze the past and predict the future, in short, proud of our intellect and foresight.

Historic time provokes us to speak our mind, inevitably repeating someone else or having someone else repeat what we had said, and in this fashion it makes life easier, herding us into groups, societies, parties; it also baffles us by forming some kind of cultural mafia, since mafia is defined by numbers: where you have more than one person, it’s a mafia. In our case – esprit de corps of intellectual complementarity.

Historic time relieves a person’s loneliness, involving him or her into an endless game with dates and events, either assigning him an honorary rank of a co-creator of History, or in shameful cases, allowing a person to arrogantly disavow them, by referring to them in the third person: “they started a war. . .”, or – switching the conversation into the inanimate sphere:” the revolution is to blame…”

Historic time is entropic, it being, in essence, a sequence of wars, and by using human flesh, it offers him in exchange earthly fame.  By gathering at conferences and international forums of philosophers, by determining ratings and sitting in juries, we are playing the role of artistic design, so necessary for historic time, because the time, just like us, is not satisfied just being what it is, chasing after progress and importance, boastful of its accumulated experience and wisdom. It desires to have a brass band of culture take the rap for it at the plaza by the railroad station, promising the soldiers of History a triumph and eternal fame, – a brass band that, in its turn, considers itself nothing else but a performer of spiritual music. Foaming at the mouth, which does not bear Aphrodite, but just produces a soap bubble – since soap is being made from bones,– we try to prove our belonging to the world culture, and we would not agree to anything else than the world context.

Culture is being written in this imaginary sphere, where there is an imaginary event delayed on one axis, and on another– imaginary (presumptuous) mind. In a majority of cases, it is being written by those who have time on their hands: critics and art historians, in idleness coming to believe that reading and looking at pictures constitutes a profession, and making their best discoveries when they follow the principle: “Shouldn’t I think of the reverse?”

Some of us in a museum find ourselves in the false position of a critic, when  brief and internally-silent viewing of a painting passes and immediately a fidgety thought appears, something like: “ It would be great to have one’s own opinion,”– and in the meantime, your stare, as if feeling nostalgia for the veritable, turns for the window– without a doubt, the best exhibit at every museum, even if it is not a window to Europe, – and your physical body demands a cup of coffee. Now, at the table, one could write an article – why not? The clock’s ticking.

Time passes where you have an investigation going, and investigation, as we know, is meant to find a cause. And in the same way as the criminal who is being executed is not the same person who committed the crime (therefore execution is so questionable, as is any punishment), a piece of art, which takes time in a cultural dimension, has little relation to the act of creation, especially because an act of creation has no causality.

Those events, says a philosopher, that are considered to be groundbreaking and create work for chroniclers, mean so much less, taking place in silence and barely discernible to a historian, than constant efforts of a human mind to understand the mystery of human existence. The same – in culture.

A spiritual event does not depend directly on, nor is it in an inverse relationship to, the scope of a historic event, generally speaking. The spirit blows wherever and whenever it pleases. A spiritual event does not have any of those dimensions characteristic of a historic event; and the most important dimension of it is falling out of time: of all accumulated, handy, conceivable time– into the novelty of solitude.

Imagine yourself on a train. You are a cultured person, you have good company in your compartment, are having a pleasant conversation accompanied by tea and cognac; you are with your mistress, wife is at home, and ahead of you – a symposium and your brilliant presentation etc. etc.  A complete package. You stop in the middle of nowhere. Go out for a smoke and miss your train, it leaves without you, in a blink of an eye you lose all your titles: of professor, husband, lover,– all ties with the familiar are torn, you are a naked person on naked earth.

It’s an entirely creative event, and if you are capable of coping with the fact that you have become a nobody, you find yourself at the point of continuous renewal of self-invention, at the point of endless rebirth of life in the presence of death. This is exactly what a poet has in mind, saying that all that art does is thinking of death and creating life in this manner. There is nothing more natural than lines of another poet: “Religiously, I bid farewell/To every day and year that passeth,/Striving among them to foretell/The pending hour of my own death.”[1]

It is impossible to be born once and forever in this point, because it keeps pulsing. You keep falling out into it each time – into a point of continuous discreteness. Going back to the railroad metaphor: in the next second all is lost for the second time; a fear metaphysical in quality is replaced by regular philistine cowardice, and you run after it, at least in your mind.

And here it makes sense to point out one more time – psychology. It is connected with memory, expectations and hope, with the past and the present. It’s as simple as this: Tomorrow I will start a new life. But it’s the same, as if you would say: I will start believing in God this Friday. Subjunctive mood, that in an absurd version would sound like: “if only I had time. . .” – absurd, because it is being wasted on this fruitless question, this most banal subjunctive mood or expectation of something desirable in the future which have nothing to do with creation, when all psychological connections are torn. Psychology is like a cobweb wood of relationships. What kind of relationship does Pushkin have with Anna Petrovna Kern in the poem “The wondrous moment of our meeting. . .”? None.

When a poem is being written, time, and therefore psychology as well, disappear. The poet, if you will, sacrifices it, and in the alembic of this state, namely inspiration, it gets crystallized, gratefully returning in the form of untouchable present, since time in a poem is always– the present, even if the verb is being weakened by a flaccid ending of the past “ed.” “I loved you once. . .”

The man, as we know him, began in Pushkin’s work: ambivalent, insightful, ironic.

At the graduation in 1817, the youth by the name Pushkin read “Unbelief”.  Its hero– “Deprived of all support, of faith the ousted son,” “This secret God again is nowhere in his sight”, “His mind is seeking God, and yet his heart is empty.”[2] At the end of his life, in 1835, Pushkin writes “The Wanderer”:– “Maybe like this? My heart grieves: I, not ready to face judgment, / Am terrified of death. . .”[3], and even though the lines are written by a man who had traveled a long spiritual path, he is still the same who had written the “Unbelief”.

This man goes through the XIXth century and comes out in the XXth, having eaten Dostoevsky’s dog. This man, whether it happened in literature or his life, had swung the historic and psychological pendulum so far that the amplitude of the movement turned out to be threatening. Especially if you keep in mind the specifically Russian attitude towards literature, which, according to a researcher, since the second half of the XVIII century already replaced “the traditional place of church as the keeper of the truth.”

So, one should not be surprised that, having such an attitude, letters start jumping out of books, getting united into words; sometimes, in a rush, getting confused and turned into gibberish, all of it turning into a sentence, which, due to its insanity, has already stopped questioning: as a result, we have a paragraph, and this, wouldn’t you agree, sounds horrible. Letters turn into people. And people, imagining themselves as literary characters, start attempting to save the world.

There is nothing more dangerous than a heroic stereotype; that is nothing but the beginning of a crime.

State is a stereotype. State criminal is tautology. State equals law. A man equals faith. Law is relative, since it is based on concepts of morality, rational thinking etc. Faith is absolute, true and lawless, since it’s not based on anything. If statemen are capable of putting up with their captivity and not retaliate against the free artist for being alive, thank God for this! Russia did not succeed here, not in the XIXth, nor in the XXth century.

Not long before his death, in his speech “ On Poet’s Designation”, dedicated to Pushkin, and read in 1921– a fateful year for Russian culture– Alexander Blok utters the famous works about “peace” and “liberty: “They are necessary for a poet for the liberation of harmony. But peace and liberty are also being taken away. Not the external freedom, not a liberal’s freedom, but the creative free will, secret freedom. And the poet dies because he has got no air to breathe in.”

All true, but if for a minute you give up logic for truth, then we should say that things are not what they seem. Time commits violence, but Russian poetry, as opposed to Russian history, is brilliant.

I would reverse the topic, offered for our meeting: it is not Russian poetry in the context of world poetry, but world poetry– in the context of Russian. This topic is as inexhaustible as it is obvious. That’s why I am not going there and I am completing mine: creativity and time.

A poet, who confirms my ideas on the nature of creativity, obviously, is Mandelstam. To be precise, his life and his poems happen to be the source of my thought on the subject. Disappearance of time– I am not talking here about some kind of signs of time that, obviously, exist, but to be more precise, of the temporal– disappearance of descriptiveness when a word, uttered from the very depths of the being, finally gets clarified, as if not being concerned with meaning, but becoming it. – this is the late work of Mandelstam.


Alone I stare into the frost’s white face.
It’s going nowhere, and I — from nowhere.
Everything ironed flat, pleated without a wrinkle:
Miraculous, the breathing plain.

Meanwhile the sun squints at this starched poverty —
The squint itself consoled, at ease…
The ten-fold forest almost the same…
And snow crunches in the eyes, innocent, like clean bread.

                                                       January 1937


Here we have everything. Art happening, by the fact of its existence, makes it impossible for anything else to take place in its vicinity; in particular, it does not tolerate opinions about itself. Neverthless, we should note that “Alone I stare into the frost’s white face. . .”, here is that same naked man on naked earth:  “I — from nowhere”; that he sees “Miraculous, the breathing plain” in the year 1937, that the speed of sound, achieving the speed of light– “And snow crunches in the eyes,”– removes time and, accordingly, sinfulness as its inevitable сonsequence: «And snow crunches in the eyes, innocent, like clean bread.”[4]

I would like to end my presentation with two statements:

1. If Pushkin created a man, well familiar to us (“I, not ready to face judgment, / Am terrified of death” ), then Mandelstam’s man (“ I am ready to die”) does not yet exist.

2. Writng poetry equals – killing time.


February 2000






The wondrous moment of our meeting…
I well remember you appear
Before me like a vision fleeting,
A beauty’s angel pure and clear.

In hopeless ennui surrounding
The worldly bustle, to my ear
For long your tender voice kept sounding,
For long in dreams came features dear.

Time passed. Unruly storms confounded
Old dreams, and I from year to year
Forgot how tender you had sounded,
Your heavenly features once so dear.

My backwoods days dragged slow and quiet —
Dull fence around, dark vault above —
Devoid of God and uninspired,
Devoid of tears, of fire, of love.

Sleep from my soul began retreating,
And here you once again appear
Before me like a vision fleeting,
A beauty’s angel pure and clear.

In ecstasy the heart is beating,
Old joys for it anew revive;
Inspired and God-filled, it is greeting
The fire, and tears, and love alive.

Alexander Pushkin
Translated by Genia Gurarie


I loved you once, and still, perhaps, love’s yearning
Within my soul has not quite burned away.
But may it nevermore you be concerning;
I would not wish you sad in any way.

My love for you was wordless, hopeless cruelly,
Drowned now in shyness, now in jealousy,
And I loved you so tenderly, so truly,
As God grant by another you may be.

Alexander Pushkin
Translated by Julian Lowenfeld



O you who scornfully condemn the evil moral
Of dismal unbelief; and who escape in horror
The senseless one that happened from the very start
To madly shut the light endeared by every heart —
Tame all your raging cruel arrogance, and rightly
Show him the graciousness to which he is entitled.
Feel for your brother’s ache, let go of your disdain, 
For wicked he is not, he gives himself the pain. 
Who in the world will ease his torture and despair?
Alas! The utmost consolation is not there!
Should the oblivious fate afflict him with a blow,
Or the momentary joy desert him, once bestowed,
Should love or friendship turn betrayal one sad hour 
And thus reveal to him their ephemeral power —
Deprived of all support, of faith the ousted son,
He then observes with dread that in the world he’s one,
The bountiful gifts of the almighty hand    
From outside the world to him do not extend…
In vain the guilelessness of nature’s casual grace
In its magnificence unfolds before his face;
In vain he looks around, his misery aplenty:
His mind is seeking God, and yet his heart is empty.
The children of afflictions, sufferings and hurts,
To die a dreadful death we all are doomed from birth.
Each instant may deprive us of the earthly burdens,
Our life is but a day, a transient disturbance.
When death embraces us as chilling as a knife
And moves the curtain of eternal afterlife,
What torture is to cry in final desperation –
And to desert this world in fatal separation!
But then, conversing with the unrestricted soul,
O faith, you stand beside the grave’s horrendous hole,
Its funereal dusk you lighten with a glow
And with a cheerful hope you calmly let it go …
But, mind it! It is worse if you outlive your friends!
And faith alone amidst the desolation sends
Diversion to the heart that lost its joy and cheer:
“It’s coming,” it assures, “the day you see your dear!” 
Yet he, the blind wise man! He groans beside the dead,
The poor one is apart from joys that cure the sad,
By promise’s regard abandoned in his blindness,
And by the coffin’s side he calls … and yet hears silence.      
Of that deserted place the solitary guest
Where loved ones’ remnants find the final peaceful rest, 
Have you once seen him stand above the cold tombstone
Where lovely Delia’s dear ashes lie alone?
He’s led by evening calm to this abode of loss,
His unresponsive head is pressed against the cross,
In tears of dark despair, in mad exasperation, 
In frantic agony, in voiceless trepidation,
He sobs – while at that time, beneath a willow tree
Beside her mother’s grave, and standing on her knee,
A youthful maiden dreams in simple melancholy,
Her mourning eyes upon the heaven fondly calling,
In quiet solitude, touched by the misty moon,
She seems an angel bringing on the mournful doom;
Lets out a doleful sigh, enfolds the gravestone, grieving —
All silence is around, but she appears receiving.
The hapless one beholds in shock and disarray,
Stands still in awe, then nods and promptly walks away;
And yet numb apathy, disguised, with him is staying.
Inside the church of God, amid the others praying,
He multiplies the desolation of his heart.
The altar’s jubilation in luxurious art,
The preacher’s stately voice and the consoling choir
Perturb his faithless pain, insufferably dire;
This secret God again is nowhere in his sight,
Before the shrine his soul comes with a darkened light,
Oblivious of all, strange to divine sensation,
To prayers he returns his envious frustration.
“You lucky ones!” he damns, “Why must I always fail
To part me from the mind, both adamant and frail,
To tame the passion’s storm and heresy, and rather,
With faith alone to kneel before the Holy Father!” 
So does his heart bemoan. Alas, no use! Unknown
Joy will remain to him! Grim unbelief alone
Along the earthly path is dragging him, relentless,
Continuing his pain until the grave’s cold entrance,
And in that darkest desert, what he has to miss —
Who’ll say! But only there he visions rest and bliss.

Alexander Pushkin
Translated by Evgenia Sarkisyants


Osip Mandelshtam
Alone I stare into the frost’s white face…

Alone I stare into the frost’s white face.
It’s going nowhere, and I — from nowhere.
Everything ironed flat, pleated without a wrinkle:
Miraculous, the breathing plain.

Meanwhile the sun squints at this starched poverty —
The squint itself consoled, at ease…
The ten-fold forest almost the same…
And snow crunches in the eyes, innocent, like clean bread.

Translated by John High




[1] Translated by Philip Nikolayev.

[2] Translated by Evgenia Sarkisyants.

[3] Translated by Philip Nikolayev.

[4] Translated by John High.