Yakov Druskin, p.1

Excerpts from The Star of Absurdity and The Stages of Understanding

In the late 1920s Aleksandr Vvedensky and Daniil Kharms founded the last of Leningrad avant-garde poetry groupings—OBERIU—which disbanded upon their first arrest in 1931. For the philosopher Yakov Druskin, Vvedensky’s school friend, OBERIU was an “exoteric organization, a group of poets who gave readings together,” whereas the real creative center were the chinars, an underground “esoteric union” which, apart from Druskin, Vvedensky and Kharms, also included the philosopher Leonid Lipavsky and the poet Nikolai Oleinikov. The only member of the group to have survived the Stalinist purges and the war, Druskin saved his friends’ writings and passed them on to posterity. For the young members of the sixties underground, Druskin, as the last chinar and a profoundly original Christian existentialist philosopher, became a living window unto an eradicated world. What follows is a selection of Druskin’s studies of Vvedensky’s poetry, composed in the last decade before his death in 1980.
Eugene Ostashevsky

The theme of these remarks is Vvedensky’s absurdity [bessmyslitsa]. (1) One cannot understand absurdity: absurdity understood is no longer absurdity. Nor can one look for the meaning of absurdity: the meaning of absurdity is the same absurdity as absurdity itself, or greater. What then can one say about absurdity and how can one define the theme of these remarks? <…>

For Fichte, existential understanding also included the comprehension of the incomprehensible as incomprehensible. Vvedensky would have said: the incomprehension of the incomprehensible as incomprehensible [neponimanie neponiatnogo kak neponiatnogo]. There is neither scepticism nor nihilism in this: Vvedensky’s incomprehension, just as his absurdity, is not a negative but an affirmative notion. <…> He once said to Lipavsky: “I raised my hand against concepts, against initial generalizations that no one previously had touched. Thereby I performed, you might say, a poetic critique of reason—more fundamental than that other, abstract critique,” i.e. that of Kant. The comparison with the Critique of Pure Reason is not haphazard. Vvedensky’s poetry touches on epistemology: it is epistemology by poetry. He once said: “one shouldn’t speak of poems as beautiful or not beautiful, but as true or false.” Twenty years later Schoenberg will say the same thing: “When the arts flourish, they are evaluated according to the criteria of true or false; when they are in decadence, they are evaluated as beautiful or not beautiful.” In another conversation with Lipavsky Vvedensky said: “I am reading Veresaev’s book on Pushkin. (2) It’s interesting how witness testimonies contradict each other even about things that cannot be subjective. Dubiousness and resistance to our logical parameters are present in life itself. And I can’t understand how there appear worlds so fantastic as to manifest exact laws, as to be so entirely unlike real life. Take, for example, a meeting or a novel. A novel describes life, there time seems to flow but it has nothing in common with real time: there’s no change of day and night, characters easily recall almost their whole lives whereas in fact one can rarely recall even yesterday. Anyhow, all descriptions are incorrect. ‘A man sits, there’s a ship over his head’ is still more true than ‘a man sits reading a book’.”

In his statements on poetry Vvedensky moves past the limits of epistemology and into ontology. He could have said, with Igor Stravinsky, that art does not express anything, that it is a union with what is. He did not want poetry only to perform a verbal miracle, he wanted it to be an authentic miracle. Hence he did not consider the poetic world he created to be fantastical or overwrought [zaumnyi]; on the contrary, the everyday “normal” view of the world and of life appeared fantastical and overwrought to him. Reading one popular article, he said: “My poetry isn’t zaum, but this article is.” (3) <…>

Vvedensky <…> lived in the now, lived, as he said, with the latest poem he wrote. All the previous pieces made no difference to him at that point. He would lose them or give them to somebody, and then forget to take them back. This is how all his poems of 1934-1935 got lost, the ones that were in the keeping of A. S. I. In 1936 he stopped seeing her, but the poems stayed in her room. She held onto them for several years and then burned them. (4) It’s hard to say what part of Vvedensky’s work survived—at best, I think, no more than a quarter. <…>

Chinars, chinar art. <…> “Chinar, authority of absurdity”: this was how Aleksandr Vvedensky signed his poems in 1925-1926. <…> Vvedensky’s friend Daniil Kharms was also a chinar; in those years he referred to himself as “chinar the eyer” [chinar’—vziral’nik]. <…> Apparently, the word chinar derives from the word chin, rank: what is meant is a certain divine rank, called upon to substitute the human series by the divine <…>. (5) Chinar art liberates art from psychologism in the Husserlian sense. Chinar art may be investigated and defined absolutely, historically and in its particular cases.

Absolutely: How can the divine series be introduced into art, how does it realize itself? Chinar art is associated with the following concepts: “the star of absurdity” (Vvedensky), (6) the absurd and the paradox (Kierkegaard), the foolishness of God (St. Paul).

Historically: As a concept, the foolishness of God arose in the first century, the absurd and paradox in the nineteenth, absurdity and its analogues— non-figurativeness, atonality, athematicity and so forth—in the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of twentieth. Did chinar art exist prior to the twentieth century? What is the difference between old “chinar” art and modern chinar art?

I will not attempt these questions for now, limiting myself to particular cases: Webern and Schoenberg, Vvedensky and Kharms are all chinar art. <…> In their art, they thought neither in emotional or aesthetic tonalities (beautiful vs. not beautiful), nor in psychological categories in general, but in chinar categories: the true vs. the false. This is why their art cannot be separated from philosophical, or rather philosophical and religious, questions. For example, already in the twenties Vvedensky used to say: “I am interested in three things: time, death and God.” Kharms said: “There are two lofty things: humor and holiness.” Also the phrase he repeated in the month before his arrest: “to kindle woe around yourself.” (7) <…>

Almost every phrase of Vvedensky’s poetry has the main direction of thought and also the defect [pogreshnost’], the word that transgresses against the main meaning. His poems are two-dimensional, and frequently even multidimensional. This is what real spirituality [dukhovsnost’] is: speech either abstract or oblique, freed from sentimentality, as Kierkegaard said. In this lies Vvedensky’s atonality and, more exactly, his dodecaphony, since there is also tonicization in the main direction. <…>

Vvedensky used to say: time (and life) are irrational and incomprehensible. This is why to really understand time (and life) one must not understand them. (8) In this lies the meaning of his absurdity. His position lies <…> closest to the apophatic theology of Dionysius the Areopagite, the via negativa. (9) Hence the majority of Vvedensky’s pieces are eschatological and God appears in almost each one. This is linked to the sense of instability of one’s place and condition in the world and in nature. Such instability is neither political nor social, but ontological: on the ruins and fragments of all. <…>

Let us take <…> one of Vvedensky’s poems: “Rug-Hydrangea” (“I regret that I am not a beast…”). There are some absurdities here, occasionally ones you can make sense of. But this poem also forms an exception in Vvedensky’s oeuvre: it is the most lyrical, in some way the most personal of all his pieces. And it is written almost entirely without rhyme, in free verse, which Vvedensky never does. Vvedensky called “Rug-Hydrangea” a philosophical tractatus. This fact does not contradict its lyricism: “Rug-Hydrangea” is a lyrical philosophical tractatus. But why philosophical? Vvedensky here is interested in what we were all interested in, in what Lipavsky and I called neighboring existences, neighboring worlds. “Rug-Hydrangea” intersects with Lipavsky’s meditations on neighboring worlds (I simply call them L-worlds) and with my Messengers. Perhaps this is why Vvedensky told me: “Rug-Hydrangea is a philosophical tractatus, you should have written it.” This does not mean that I could have written it. This means that Rug-Hydrangea has themes I touched on as well. In that sense, Lipavsky could have written it. And also Kharms, and Oleinikov. <…>

Let us take one more of Vvedensky’s pieces: “Frother”. It is among his most perfect pieces; Lipavsky considered it the best thing Vvedensky ever wrote. Here the star of absurdity is given full reign. Perhaps nowhere else does Vvedensky achieve such a perfect and clear—both semantically or morphologically, and architectonically—construction of the star of absurdity; nowhere else does he reach such rigorously logical alogicality and completely uninterpretable absurdity. In that sense, “Frother” too forms an exception in Vvedensky’s oeuvre <…>. Many of Vvedensky’s pieces could be called mystery plays. They are not imitations, not stylizations, but rather modern mystery plays, abstract drama, abstract theater that Vvedensky created 20-30 years prior to Beckett and Ionesco. Admittedly, in some few pieces Vvedensky is inspired by or parodies Russian seventeenth-century folk drama <…>. But for the most part his mystery plays are altogether original, independent and modern. And perhaps this applies to “Frother” most of all. “Frother” is a mystery pantomime with short monologues and dialogues by the characters. I already said that Vvedensky’s pieces are polyphonic. I’ll add that they are also musical. Vvedensky himself thought his work could be set to music. Music could be written for “Frother”: then it would be a pantomime ballet with a reader and singers. (10)

(edited and translated by Eugene Ostashevsky)


1) Bessmyslitsa literally means that which is devoid of sense (bez smysla). To translate the word as “nonsense” would point too closely at Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll; to translate it as “the absurd” would point too closely to Beckett and Ionesco.

2) Veresaev’s Pushkin v zhizni is a biography of the poet in the form of a chronologically ordered collage of memoir excerpts (first published 1926-1927). For the role of Pushkin in Vvedensky’s oeuvre, Russian readers may consult Anna Gerasimova’s wonderful “Bednyi vsadnik, ili Pushkin bez golovy,” available at www.umka.ru/raznoe.html.

3) Zaumnyi, that which is past reason, is etymologically linked to the futurist term zaum, standing for transrational language, which Kharms sometimes employed and Vvedensky shunned, preferring transrational sentences to transrational words. The political connotations of equating the “normal” view of life in the 1930s with zaum are obvious.

4) Burning the papers of the arrested was a common precaution in case of a police search.

5) Druskin’s substitution of “human series” with the “divine series” refers to St. Paul. Paul’s “foolishness of God” (1 Cor. 1:18-25) indicates the mendacity of worldly hierarchies: that which is great in the eyes of the world need not be great in the eyes of God. The Last Judgment shall replace the apparent order of precedence (= human series) with another, truer order (= divine series): as Jesus says, “many that are first shall be last; and the last first” (Mark 10:31).

6) In God May Be Everywhere, Vvedensky writes: “The star of absurdity burns / it alone is bottomless.”

7) Kharms and Vvedensky were re-arrested in the fall of 1941, after Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Vvedensky died in a prison train on the way to Siberia; Kharms, feigning madness to avoid the firing squad, died in the mental asylum for the criminally insane during the German blockade of Leningrad.

8) See Vvedensky’s Gray Notebook, translated by Matvei Yankelevich in New American Writing, 20: 139-44, and as a separate publication by Ugly Duckling Presse (New York, 2002).

9) Apophasis: meditative technique invented by pseudo-Dionysius, the sixth-century Christian Neoplatonist pseudoepigrapher for whom God exceeds being, and is therefore beyond anything that can be experienced or thought. In apophasis we move “closer” to God by meditating on our incomprehension of him and on the unlikeness between him and the things that are.

10) This translation was made from Mikhail Meilakh’s abridgment of Druskin’s Zvezda bessmyslitsy and Stadii ponimania in Aleksandr Vvedensky’s Polnoe sobranie proizvedenii v dvukh tomakh (Moscow, 1993). I also consulted the full text in “…Sborische druzei, ostavlennykh sud’boiu: ‘Chinari’ v tekstakh, dokumentakh i issledovaniakh”, edited by Valerii Sazhin (1998). The customary Russian title of “Rug-Hydrangea” is “Kover-gortenzia”. The Russian title of “Frother” is “Potets”.