by Natasha Bershadsky
This space of the CI Poetry Project is dedicated to links of poetic inspiration reaching back to ancient Greece and mediated by the figure of Osip Mandelshtam. Mandelshtam had his own, utterly personal, understanding of Hellenism. Hellenism is a spirit that Mandelshtam perceives as inherited by the Russian language and literature from Greece. Mandelshtam’s essay “Nature of the word” describes Hellenism in a series of connected images, centering on the idea of krug ‘circle.’ Hellenism is a unity of physical and metaphysical; it is the living warmth of culture in the terrifying cold of cosmos; it is a little nutshell of form in the formlessness of non-existence (incidentally, “walnut” in Russian is called ‘Greek nut’); it is the protective walls of an Acropolis. It is a system of interconnected ideas extending through time, which can also be unfolded all at once, as a fan. It is a circle of everyday objects around a person, felt as sacred. Mandelshtam describes these objects as utvar’, a word that a dictionary might translate as ‘utensils,’ but doing justice to the etymology it should be rendered as ‘created things.’ The concluding image indicates what kind of everyday life Mandelshtam has in mind: Hellenism is also an Egyptian boat of supplies for posthumous travel, everyday necessities for all eternity. A poem starts its sailing as such a boat, equipped to continue forever.
Perhaps the idea of a warm circle in the surrounding cold darkness also has something to do with the light that a kerosene lamp would be throwing onto written pages when Mandelshtam was composing his essay in February 1922. Let me attempt to extend the ‘fan’ of images even further: the image of a circle of light surrounded and highlighted by darkness brings to my mind the visualization of alētheia ‘truth,’ suggested by Gregory Nagy: an inner shining circle of things that are absolutely un-forgettable, foregrounded by the surrounding shadowy circle of things that may be forgotten. This visualization leads us back to the idea of Hellenism, more exactly, pan-Hellenism: Nagy has argued that the concept of alētheia can be applied to a core of myths that are deemed true because they are pan-Hellenic.
Mandelshtam wrote about another great Russian poet, Innokentiy Annensky, that he “perceived all of the world’s poetry as sunbeams thrown by Hellas.” Mandelshtam’ poetry detects and transmits these beams of light, and later poets keep drawing on Mandelshtam’s intricate optics — its prismatic refraction, its sensory magnification — as they conduct light and warmth from that radiant source.