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Konstantin the Apostate

Никто нам не хотел помочь
За то, что мы остались дома,
За то, что, город свой любя,
А не крылатую свободу,
Мы сохранили для себя
Его дворцы, огонь и воду

Иная близится пора,
Уж ветер смерти сердце студит,
Но нам священный град Петра
Невольным памятником будет.

                        -Anna Akhmatova

No one wanted to help us
Because we stayed home,
Because loving, not freedom
On the wing, but our city,
We preserved for ourselves
Its palaces, fire, and water.

Another time draws near,
The wind of death now chills the heart,
But, for us, the sacred city of Peter
Will be an unintended gravestone.


by Chris Lovett

A coffin-maker, not someone who builds cradles. This was the author of Goat Song. At age 27, ten years after the October Revolution, Konstantin Konstantinovich Vaginov set out to write a book of the dead. He was old enough to have grown up at the height of the "Silver Age" in Russian literature. He was also young enough to see war and revolution give way to the slippery compromises that preceded hard-line Stalinism. More importantly, Vaginov may have also known how little time he had for taking his measure of Russia's mutability: even as he was writing Goat Song, he knew his life would be cut short by tuberculosis. He died in 1934, just as Stalin's reign of terror was intensifying. Though the cradle-makers failed to enlist Vaginov in their collection of dead souls, they did postpone his immortality. For thirty years after his death, his work remained in almost total oblivion.

Written between 1925 and 1927, and published over the objections of government censors, Goat Song is Vaginov's first novel. Its characters are based on members of an intellectual circle grouped around the philosopher and literary theorist Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (1895-1975). As writers, scholars and artists, they try to match and carry on the influential role of Russia's intelligentsia in the last decades before the October Revolution. Their everyday perceptions and cultural cross-references allow Vaginov to use contemporary Leningrad as a window on a larger world extending through space and time, even as far as ancient Rome and the world of mythology. But his characters are also former people in a former capital, under a new government that was changing its stance toward the intelligentsia from ambivalent courtship to outright domination. Some of them would be mired in obscurity and mediocrity, while others would suffer some degree of persecution. Bakhtin himself would spend much of his life in exile after members of his group were arrested in 1929.

As a society in transition, post-revolutionary Russia of the 1920’s was in some ways a reverse of the post-communist Russia of the 1990's. Under the New Economic Policy (NEP) introduced by Lenin after the civil war, the socialist path to a communist future went hand in hand with the practice of day-to-day capitalism. From the outset, NEP was supposed to have been a temporary response to shortages of goods and skills. Those shortages nourished a black market and fostered a market mentality obsessed with hoarding and speculation--a mentality shared by many of Vaginov's characters and, in some respects, the author himself.

But NEP also had a parallel in government relations with artists and thinkers. The wave of innovation that started before World War I was, to some extent, allowed to continue, especially when new kinds of art and new ways of engaging the public coincided with government needs for propaganda. This tolerance for experimentation gave writers freedom to sometimes irreverently finesse ideology. Just as important, experimentation also meant breaking down barriers between “high” art and popular art, propaganda, entertainment, and even advertising.

The historical backdrop for Goat Song is the death of an empire, announced by two prologues, about Petersburg and Leningrad. The old city is evoked here without nostalgia, as something shallow, hallucinatory, even chimerical. If the chapters to come, as the author insists, have little to do with Leningrad, the fallen empire that concerns Vaginov is not strictly historical or political. Among his characters, the empire is a dream of greatness, whether as cultural immortality or some notion of Russia's utopian mission. By the end of the novel, the empire shrinks to the diminished possibilities and compromises of survival, or even a failure to survive. The progression is also from the more sublime to the more trivial, the more genuine to the more counterfeit.

The notion of downfall is a key to the novel’s title, Goat Song, which is a literal translation of the Greek words for tragedy. In The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche equated the forest music of the satyr, and the wild dance of the satyr chorus, with the power of poetry to intoxicate or "magicalize." Rather than an orderly byproduct of civilization or culture, Nietzsche thought of  poetry and its music as a force of nature. His explorations of Hellenism had a strong influence on literary figures of Russia's Silver Age, especially the poet, playwright and philosopher Vyacheslav Ivanov, whose salon in St. Peterburg, starting in 1905, was a magnet for many artists and thinkers—including poets such as Osip Mandelshtam, fellow Acmeist Nikolai Gumilyov, and the leading Symbolist, Alexander Blok. Exotically furnished and located on the top floor of a six-story apartment building, the salon was referred to as as "the tower," and it became widely known as a cultural landmark--the Parnassus of pre-war St. Petersburg. The period was the zenith of Russian Symbolism, an artistic movement that went beyond counterparts elsewhere in affirming the notion of the artist as a visionary endowed with a supernatural gift, not to mention a mission apart from that of public institutions such as the government or the Russian Orthodox Church. In Russian music of the time, the cult of the artist was taken to an autobiographical extreme by the composer and pianist Alexander Scriabin--most noticeably in his work for piano and orchestra, Prometheus. By this measure, the artist was not just a gifted person with a mission of importance to many other people, but one of the gods.

Even before the outbreak of World War I, the frontiers of Symbolism were pushed even further by a new generation of artists drawn to movements such as Acmeism and Futurism. In music, the hazy mysticism of of Scriabin gives way to the rugged and primitive material—actual or imagined—in the "Russian period" works by Stravinsky. The most famous of these works, the epochal ballet of 1913, The Rite of Spring, even begins with a reedy voice--a solo bassoon in high register, sounding almost like a primitive instrument, a goat song straddling the border between human expression and a force of nature.

After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the breakthrough of native culture is no longer just a task to managed by the intelligentsia for its own purposes. In his 1919 lecture, "The Collapse of Humanism,” Blok tried to reconcile Nietzsche's Dionysian forces with the political upheaval of revolution. The poet called on the Russian intelligentsia to ally itself with the new culture taking shape from the masses, like the Christianity that superseded the paganism of the Roman Empire (as famously signaled in the 1918 poem, "The Twelve"). For the time being, Blok said, only a few people would have an ear for what he called the "music of the revolution." Guided by a tragic sense of the whole that eluded the optimists of civilization, and meeting with resistance or incomprehension, they would be what Blok called "living catacombs of culture." And he believed they would also attune themselves to the true music of culture, not by sleepwalking along a straight, chronological line of progress, but waking from the "age-old sleep of civilization" to the frenzied rhythm of recurrence and connection that transcends the grid of "calendar time."

What Blok did not anticipate so clearly in 1919 was how much of the new artistic mission would be managed top-down by the new regime. In the first years of widespread hardship after the revolution, as Kornei Chukovsky relates in his diaries, writers in Petrograd depended on the government, not just for access to publication, but even for necessities such as food and firewood. Under the Soviet government’s top official for culture and education, Anatoly Lunacharsky, writers found a degree of tolerance and sympathy, but there were pressures—ideological and financial—to serve the mission of art for the masses and their new rulers.

By the end of 1921, after the death of Blok and the execution of Gumilyov, it was clearly more difficult for artists to see themselves as centers of their own universe. Earlier that year, in his lecture on Pushkin, Blok aired his growing frustration with government interference. Instead of being the center of a universe, artists felt squeezed or, in Blok’s term, suffocated, by a lack of autonomy. And, in the face of increasing pressure from the government, a few people with an ear for the "goat song" could just as well mean artists with little support or following outside their own narrow circles.

Along with having been a student of Gumilyov, Vaginov was among the admirers who walked in the funeral procession for Blok to a cemetery on Vasilyev Island. By the mid-1920’s, when Vaginov began his first novel, the upheavals of revolution had largely subsided and the "goat song" was a distant echo. While the new government was developing a cultural apparatus of its own, Vaginov tried to depict the values of the "Silver Age" as a recurring phenomenon going back over centuries, but also as a cultural moment that can break down in a few years. On one level, the characters in the novel can be viewed as protoypes, relating to figures and narratives that Vaginov knew about from the Middle Ages or antiquity. On another level, the characters are ordinary people who engage with with their cultural legacy in a diminished or degraded form. Instead of being a new Prometheus, or even an adventurer in the manner of Gumilyov, their engagement might be more mercenary (if paid for by the government), trivialized, or passive. If Goat Song still has poets and scholars, it also has a poet’s obsessive biographer and laborious imitator, collectors of literary artifacts, and even a dealer in antiques who is also (as was Vaginov, at times) a collector of kitsch. In a world of toppled barriers between the creative and the mechanical, one character takes the progression to the next level by going from a hobby of imitative poetry to a day job as a dentist putting crowns over root canals.

As Vaginov portrays it, the downgrading of culture and the artist has a comical dimension, but the humor is sometimes dark, and the consequences, as the title of the novel indicates, can be understood as a tragedy. In his "Meetings with Blok" from 1936, the Acmeist poet and friend of Vaginov, Mikhail Kuzmin, would later define the downgrade as a tragedy of the disconnect between the intelligentsia and the Russian people. Though the characters of Goat Song have little in common with conventional tragic figures, they do invite both sympathy and disapproval. If the characters can be reproached for perpetuating the elitism and hubris of artists in Russia’s "Silver Age," they might also invite sympathy for going against the flow of their time, materially and politically. At other instances, their dependency on the past--for tokens of status, as a sentimental refuge from the present, or even a mental playground for compulsive irony--invites ridicule.

The ridicule, as the text of Goat Song acknowledges, begins in the portrayal of one the central characters, Teptyolkin, recognized by contemporaries as having been based mainly on one of Vaginov’s acquaintances in the Bakhtin circle, the literary scholar and linguist Lev Vassilyevich Pumpyansky. The first character to appear in Goat Song, Teptyolkin seems at first as almost totally out of step with his time, given to flights of poetic fancy and scholarly digressions. According to contemporaries, Vaginov began writing the novel soon after Pumpyansky underwent a conversion from freewheeling neo-paganist to doctrinaire Marxist.

In the novel’s first chapter, Teptyolkin has visions of the Phoenix bird rising from the ashes of the past, and he periodically consults with an imaginary role model, Philostratus, the Neo-Platonist defender of paganism and biographer of the miracle-worker and sage, Apollonius. Like Vyacheslav Ivanov, Teptyolkin creates a salon of his own, inviting his friends to the tower in a dacha abandoned by a merchant owner who fled the revolution. In later chapters, Teptyolkin marries, furthers Marxist indoctrination by teaching a course in comparative revolutions, and even gets elected as a kind of block captain for his apartment building. In the final chapter, he finds himself with birds of a different feather—not a wondrous firebird, but a flock of ordinary pigeons who descend and gather round him expecting to be hand-fed, almost like domesticated animals. Mundane as it may be, the scene takes place before Kazan Cathedral, the city’s homage to the grandeur of Rome at St. Peter’s Basilica. And, if pigeons don’t materialize from nests of fire, the ones gathered around Teptyolkin at least have grey smudges of color that, as Vaginov notes, look almost like burn marks. Whether in the minds of characters or in the physical surroundings of the city, the past goes on. Even its afterlife can make the profile of ridicule stand out more sharply.

For one of the other central characters, the unknown poet, the “goat song” ranges more freely through stretches of time and spheres of metaphor. In the early chapters, it is hard to see the line between bouts of physical intoxication—be it from alcohol or cocaine—and the transports that empower creative vision. By the end of the novel, the intoxicants are presented more clinically, and any detour from day-to-day reality is only a hallucination. But, unlike Teptyolkin, who adapts to exterior realities with declining enthusiasm and leaves his intellectual refuge farther behind, the unknown poet goes over to a different kind of other side, choosing the mental exile of madness, even while physically (like the body of a zombie) haunting the city of his past. Even in death, the unknown poet continues to haunt, but as prey for collectors of poetic artifacts. And looming over the dark comedy is the myth of Orpheus and his breakdown into scattered limbs (in Ovid's words, "disiecta membra poetae").

While the characters in Goat Song are split between their empires and their surroundings, one other figure lives strictly in the present: the author. Not to be confused with Vaginov himself, the author in the book observes and chronicles the lives of other characters, even occasionally showing the work in progress or disputing with them about how it should be written. But, for all his dispassionate curiosity, he is a less than perfect observer, and his judgments are not necessarily shared by Vaginov himself at all times. The presence of an author in the novel also indicates the other characters know, at least sometimes, that they are being observed. If nothing else, this makes any notion of fictional truth more elusive and breaks up the narrative plane in a way analogous to the visual tectonics of Russian artists in the early 20th century.

Multiple authors and multiple prologues are also found in the work of Vaginov’s contemporary, Mikhail Zoshchenko, especially in the Sentimental Tales. In Zoshchenko, the prologues function almost as a hedge against censorship, all but apologizing for a failure to reflect the positive aspects of life under Socialism. While allowing that readers should demand “real revolutionary content, grand themes, planetary tasks and heroic pathos,” Zoshchenko’s fictional proxy makes an excuse for his “peculiar emotional characteristics and humoristic tendencies.” The result is writing that “describes a person, how he lives, what he’s doing, and, for example, where he’s headed.”

Besides distinguishing between a basic notion of realism and what would become even more dogmatic as “Socialist Realism,” Zoshchenko allows that the persons he writes about are not exactly average. Instead, they are the “petty, weak people,” in a book about a “pathetic life on the way out.” In another work of the mid-to-late 1920’s, Yuri Olesha’s Envy, the difference between the old and new is more polarized, and its narration, by Kavalerov, is emotionally skewed by the feeling of resentment.

By contrast, the composite narrative in Goat Song seems, if often disenchanted, more detached. In the first prologue, “on the threshold of the book,” Vaginov’s author renounces his dream of St. Petersburg, with its own dreamers of separate dreams and poses. In the next prologue, while “in the middle of the book,” he declares himself a coffin-maker for his fellow mortals and his own life. Rather than rising to the task of building a new Soviet world (as a maker of cradles, in a Leningrad known as the "cradle of the revolution"), he can at least try to gather elements of the past and put them in a container. If the narrative in Goat Song sometimes has the self-effacing discretion of an undertaker, there are also times when it is hard to tell where gravitas crosses the line to mock grandeur.

In the opening chapter, Teptyolkin prefers to see the rot and ruins of the past as the makings of a new perfection, the scholar’s idea of a “lofty Renaissance.” In this, he is somewhat like the frustrated inventor in Envy, Ivan Petrovich Babichyov, who wants to convert the wreckage of the old world, with its discredited urges and emotions (the “conspiracy of feelings”), into an amazing new machine. “The end of an epoch, a time of transition,” Ivan Petrovich says, “requires its legends and fairy tales.” For Teptyolkin, the new wonder is the work of the unknown poet. For Ivan Petrovich, his channeling of the “old world” and its “bearers of a decadent mindset” is like a fixture of modern times—the light bulb:

And if you give this burned-out bulb a shake, it will flare up once again and it will glow for a certain time. Inside the bulb, it’s still going to pieces (происходит крушение). The tungsten filaments are being shattered, and from the fragments scraping against each other, the bulb comes back to life. A brief, artificial, indisguisably doomed life – a fever, an excessively bright incandescence, a flash. Then comes darkness, life doesn’t return, and in the darkness there will only be the clink of dead, burned out filaments. You with me? But the brief flash is beautiful!

For all their professed desire to present things as they are, Vaginov, Olesha, and Zoshchenko write about characters who are at least ambivalent about their time and place. As people with dreams and towers, the characters of Goat Song often choose the artificial—even the fake—over the real. In this they are like one more character of the late 1920’s, the Kovalyov in Shostakovich’s opera based on The Nose. In a telling departure from the original story by Gogol, Kovalyov, while getting a shave, tells his barber in the opening scene that his hands stink. It is this affront to reality, the fatal disconnect, that leads to the loss of his nose.

By alluding to the opening of Berg’s Wozzeck (successfully premiered in Leningrad in 1927), Shostakovich turns an operatic convention on its head. Instead of revolving around a new Figaro, as heir to the comic heroes of opera buffa—the servants as would-be masters—the main character of The Nose is enthroned on the barber’s chair. Rather than asserting human dignity, he is reduced to asserting his right to human appearance, only to find that what is assumed to be natural depends on something more artificial—status.

Goat Song also draws inspiration from one of Vaginov's favorite books, Walter Pater's Imaginary Portraits. One section of Imaginary Portraits deals with the life of Antoine Watteau, the 18th century French painter famed for his fêtes galantes, portraying historical or mythological themes in the guise of people and costumes from pre-revolutionary Paris.

Though the contemporaries deployed in Goat Song originate in the ancienne régime of Vaginov's St. Petersburg, a similar mythological subtext can be found in another figure from the portraits, Denys l'Auxerrois, described by Pater as a kind of "Wine-god" returned from the east. The appearance of Denys in the village of Auxerres during the Middle Ages coincides with the discovery of an ancient coffin, which contains a green glass ("like a great emerald") lined with the residue of what may have been wine from ancient Rome, or what Pater calls "the riotous and earthy heat of old paganism itself." The discovery leads to strange events, including an uprising of common folk in a "revolution" that begins with euphoria. After events take a more ominous turn, Denys leaves the village under suspicion but later returns, to the safer confines of a monastery. While there, he seemingly inspires the monks to higher artistic artistic endeavors, among them an Ovid manuscript with graphic treatments showing ancient myths in medieval guise. For his own project, Denys builds an organ with pipes made from reeds (the satyr's instrument), combining "simple and pastoral" sounds with a "wild, savage din," in an exquisite instrument that would be like the "book of his life."

After the organ is heard for the first time, there is a festival, with winter being symbolically hunted in the village streets. Denys becomes the quarry, and the frenzied crowd tears him apart, making off with pieces of his flesh and clothing. Pater's narrative anticipates what happens in a more comical way after the suicide of Vaginov's unknown poet. In his early 20th century manner, the poet comes the closest of Vaginov's characters to embodying a Denys or an earlier Dionysus, the man in the vine-tangled tapestry that Pater calls a "suffering, tortured figure" with "all the regular beauty of a pagan god." And the tapestry itself is a frenzied swirl of figures set to music from the organ--the music of ancient Greece, transposed to the Middle Ages and later re-choreographed by Vaginov as the goat song.

A decade after Blok hailed the wild music of the revolution, Zoshchenko came closer to the literal braying of a goat song when he made a show of apologizing for backwardness and political incorrectness among characters in Sentimental Tales. In one prologue, he allows that the stories will strike some critics as the shrill music “of a squealing flute, some kind of offensive, sentimental rubbish.” With the presence of an author in Goat Song, it is the characters themselves who fear their author will present them, not as radiant and heroic, but as politically flawed or simply mundane.

Years later, Bakhtin would sum up the story of Teptyolkin as "the tragedy of a laughable man." Bakhtin recognized the elements of real life and real people that formed the basis of the book, but also a wider dimension. "And there now," said Bakhtin, "unfolds Vaginov's splendid gift: on the one side, the detailing, the most subtle nuances; and, on the other side, the extraordinary breadth of the horizon, almost cosmic. And it is that uniqueness that unfolds in Teptyolkin."

The process of creating Goat Song becomes the central concern of Vaginov's next novel, Works and Days of Svistonov, named for an author who methodically produces fiction by rearranging elements of real life. When real people see  their transformations in Svistonov's work in progressespecially when they react  negativelythey are changed again, and so is the novel, and even the author himself. In their different ways, they all try to represent life (their own or someone else's), define it, and transform it, so they are all authors as well as characters. Svistonov feeds their craving to be characters in a life story, but the aspiration collides with reality in sometimes unflattering ways, not unlike the collision of words that preoccupied the unknown poet.

A more self-referential work, Works and Days of Svistonov has fewer overt allusions to changes in social and political climate. But there are vivid elements of everyday lifefrom the city's canals to a painstaking inventory of personal  memorabilia, and even the details of a cottage industry in fake jewelry. In search of a garden, Svistonov instead finds a lost inner paradise brought back to life. This happens in a bar at three o'clock in the morning, when an old man is brought to tears while a motley ensemble performs an early 19th century Baratynski romance set to music by Glinka, "Don't Tempt Me Needlessly." Yet, for every overlap between author and character, between the real and the unreal, there is also a disconnect. The vignette from the bar registers a failed connection (not unlike the original song itself). If the novel's impressions of Leningrad/St. Petersburg can strike a reader as even minutely picturesque, they can also leave the author himself, on a given occasion, utterly indifferent. No matter how much similarity there is between an author's experience and material for a novel, there is still a difference, even if mainly of perspective. As Svistonov put it, the author's mission was to make the difference part of the story, by shifting perspective and showing the world as if from outside of a particular time:

Svistonov wrote in the past tense, sometimes in the remote past. As if what he described had come to an end long before, as if he captured not a vibrant reality, but a long foregone semblance. He wrote about his epoch just as another writer would have written about times remote and not familiar enough to his reader.  Occurrences of everyday life were generalized without being individualized. Without suspecting, he described contemporary life with a historic method, uncommonly insulting to to his contemporaries.

For another figure in Pater's Imaginary Portraits, Duke Carl of Rosemold (described as a precursor of Johann Wolfgang von Gœthe), engaging with the past through "informing thought" was a way to increase understanding: "To understand, would be the indispensable first step towards the enlargement of the great past, of one's little present, by criticism, by imagination." Though that might also describe the earlier mission of a character such as Teptyolkin, Vaginov shows that a character's life can be a different story. In the unfolding of chronological time in Goat Song, Teptyolkin’s vision of rebirth all but literally turns into ashes, and his imaginary ancient literary double, Philostratus, grows old and fades away. Even the author in the novel can finally be overruled, as when Vaginov adds one more version of what finally becomes of Teptyolkin, with Philostratus appearing once again, not unlike an irrepressible ghost of Stravinsky's Petrushka:

And there on his deathbed, Tepyolkin was overtaken by a frightful thought—he understood that, for the sake of people, he abandoned the lofty Renaissance and, pale, with eyes ablaze, he rose and felt that his ideas were beautiful, but that his reason had been clouded for many years by the insignificance of people, that he extended the insignificance of people into ideas, into prototypes that were by no means insignificant; and there, in all his glory, appeared a Philostratus, not historic, but rather symbolic and luminiferous.

In Works and Days of Svistonov, the author himself meets an ending that's more prosaic. Without the binding power of a narrative, even a mythical overtone, the particulars of the world lose their singularity:

With each day, he felt things around him were fading out. For him, the places he had described turned into a wasteland. For him, the people he knew lost all interest.

Each one of his heroes dragged in his wake whole legions of people. Each description became like the idea of a whole series of localities.

The more he reflected on the novel that had emerged from printing, the more disintegration, the more emptiness that surrounded him.

In the end, he felt he had been terminally shut inside his novel.

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