Certain writers from the past speak to us with an urgency more immediate than anything a mere contemporary might have to say. Our coevals have not transcended the provinciality of now. The old writers, the ones who remain vital, have written for us because they haven’t written for their time, which is always a temporal cul-de-sac, while timelessness remains contemporary. In his essay “Concerning the Nature of the Word” (trans. Robert Tracy, introduction to Stone, 1981), Osip Mandelstam in 1921 likens a poem to
“. . . the funerary boat of the dead Egyptians, in which they store everything that is needed for carrying on with a man’s earthly journey, even a jar of spices, a mirror and a comb. . . .
“The century falls silent, culture goes to sleep, the nation is born again . . . and this whole moving current carries the fragile boat of the human word out into the open sea of the future, where there is no sympathetic understanding, where dismal commentary takes the place of the bracing wind of our contemporaries’ hostility and sympathy. How is it possible to fit this boat out for its long voyage if we do not supply it with everything necessary for a reader [in the remote future] who is at once so alien to us and so precious? Again, I compare a poem to an Egyptian ship of the dead. Everything needed for life is stored in this ship, and nothing is forgotten.”
A daunting challenge to any writer, but think especially of those mired in the topical, trendy and fashionable. How could they hope to build a container large and sturdy enough to transport “everything that is needed for carrying on with a man’s earthly journey?” One answer is “By not trying,” but that sounds too coyly paradoxical, like Chesterton on a lazy day. Mandelstam’s medium was words, of course, but more insistently words in time. He was prophetic while never presuming to call himself a prophet. He once wrote, in Tracy’s translation, “From cruel weight, I someday will make beauty rise,” a precise prediction of his fate. The line concludes “Notre Dame”:
“Where a Roman judge framed laws for alien folk
A basilica stands, original, exulting,
Each nerve stretched taut along the light cross vaulting,
Each muscle flexing, like Adam when he first woke.
“If you look from outside you grasp the hidden plan:
Strong saddle-girth arches watchfully forestall
The ponderous mass from shattering the wall
And hold in check the bold vault’s battering ram.
“A primal labyrinth, a wood past men’s understanding,
The Gothic spirit’s rational abyss,
Brute strength of Egypt and a Christian meekness,
Thin reed beside oak and the plumb line everywhere king.
“Stronghold of Notre Dame, the more my attentive eyes
Studied your gigantic ribs and frame
Then the more often this reflection came:
From cruel weight, I too will someday make beauty rise.”
Seventy-eight years ago this week, Mandelstam was starving, sick and out of his mind in the frozen transit camp at Vtoraya Rechka near Vladivostok, where he had been transported for “counter-revolutionary activity.” He was a Jew, a poet and a citizen of Western Civilization. He was buried in a common grave and his brother was notified of his death three years later. We think he died on this date, Dec. 27, in 1938.