[Marxism] Mayakovsky

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Feb 9 12:40:32 MST 2017

LRB, Vol. 39 No. 4 · 16 February 2017

When were you thinking of shooting yourself?
by Sophie Pinkham

Mayakovsky: A Biography by Bengt Jangfeldt, translated by Harry Watson
Chicago, 616 pp, £26.50, January 2015, ISBN 978 0 226 05697 5

Volodya: Selected Works by Vladimir Mayakovsky, edited by Rosy Carrick
Enitharmon, 312 pp, £14.99, November 2015, ISBN 978 1 910392 16 4

When Vladimir Mayakovsky shot himself in 1930, some Soviet writers 
interpreted it as an act of protest: stifled by political censorship, he 
couldn’t go on. In the decades since, the suicide of the great poet of 
the Revolution has been seen as the Soviet Union’s point of no return. 
This is the view taken by the Swedish scholar Bengt Jangfeldt in this 
biography, the first significant non-Soviet Life of the poet: ‘The 
bullet that penetrated Vladimir Mayakovsky’s heart also shot to pieces 
the dream of communism and signalled the beginning of the communist 
nightmare of the 1930s.’ Anti-communist critics have tended to dismiss 
Mayakovsky’s early political commitment as naive idealism, and later in 
his life as a self-destructive effort to conform. His political poems – 
about a third of his output – are rarely translated and considered 
hackery. Rosy Carrick’s new selection of his work, Volodya, doesn’t go 
along with this reading. In her introduction Carrick argues that the 
Western preference for the less political poetry has meant that ‘an 
understanding of the great diversity of Mayakovsky’s works has been to 
some extent lost, and, with it, the complexity of his political and 
social character too.’ Volodya includes poems and prose works unfamiliar 
to anglophone readers and collects the work of many translators who use 
a variety of techniques (Edwin Morgan translates Mayakovsky into Scots: 
‘Een/gawp oot/fae a sonsy bap-face’). Political poems, manifestos and 
lectures that are usually ignored in the West are included here. The 
result is a fuller view of the poet struggling to reconcile his gift 
with his ideals, and to press his voice into the service of the 
Revolution. Though this Mayakovsky is often unsuccessful, he is stronger 
and more grown-up than Jangfeldt’s lovelorn, neurotic and misguided genius.

He was born in Georgia in 1893. His father, a forester from the 
impecunious minor aristocracy, died in 1906, and Mayakovsky joined the 
Bolsheviks soon afterwards. As a teenager he was arrested several times 
for disseminating radical literature and spent five months in solitary 
confinement, where he passed the time reading poetry. After his release 
he parted ways with the Bolsheviks and went to art school in Moscow, 
where he cultivated a Byronic image and gained a reputation for 
insolence. He fell in with David Burlyuk, a Cubist painter who 
recognised his poetic talent, and the two of them got together with the 
avant-garde poets Velimir Khlebnikov and Aleksei Kruchenykh to release 
the first Futurist almanac, A Slap in the Face of Public Taste. They 
announced that they had tossed the classics overboard from the ‘Ship of 
Modernity’, and would reinvent not only literature but language itself. 
They set out on a scandalous recital tour, performing with radishes in 
their buttonholes and airplanes painted on their faces. Mayakovsky wore 
a yellow blouse sewn, he wrote, from ‘three ells of sunset’. The 
Futurists aimed high. In 1913, Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov had written an 
opera libretto called Victory over the Sun. Mayakovsky imagined a more 
collegial relationship: in ‘An Extraordinary Adventure which Befell 
Vladimir Mayakovsky in a Summer Cottage’, the poet is infuriated by the 
ceaseless rise and fall of the sun; besides, it is ‘caressed by clouds’ 
while he has to sit and draw propaganda posters. He invites the sun over 
for tea, hiding his fear when the sun obliges.

Mayakovsky was easily the most accessible (and the most translatable) 
Futurist poet. He made extensive use of neologisms and puns, but he 
didn’t write in a nonsense (‘beyonsense’) language, as Kruchenykh did, 
and his poems are full of emotional as well as linguistic exuberance. 
His feelings animate the landscape: sidewalks and streetlamps spring to 
life, as if in a Bolshevik Disney movie, and a nerve can ‘leap like a 
sick man from his bed’. In his best poems he seems to want to transcend 
the limits of the individual and permeate the whole world. These poetic 
fantasies often resemble narcissistic personality disorders. In 1915’s 
‘The Cloud in Trousers’ he imagines himself as a cloud, complaining: ‘I 
feel/my ‘I’/is much too small for me.’

After the February Revolution, artists of all aesthetic and political 
persuasions formed the Union of Cultural Workers, with Mayakovsky 
elected the writers’ representative on the ruling council. ‘The motto of 
myself and all the rest of us,’ he declared, ‘is … long live Russia’s 
political life and long live an art free from the state! I do not say no 
to politics, but there is no room for politics in art.’ He no longer 
belonged to any political party, and, in Jangfeldt’s account, supported 
a libertarian socialism with an anarchist inflection. But the Bolsheviks 
had little interest in either the avant-garde or art free from state 
control. After taking power in October 1918, they supported Proletkult, 
the workers’ organisation that promoted the transmission of 
revolutionary messages in a realist form accessible to the proletariat. 
Proletkult’s position was the antithesis of the avant-garde stance that 
revolutionary form and content were inseparable. Mayakovsky rejected an 
invitation from Anatoly Lunacharsky, the People’s Commissar of 
Education, to work with the Bolsheviks, and redirected his attention to 
poetry and performance at the Poets’ Café in Moscow, a meeting place for 
anarchists. Although Futurism’s demise was a consequence of political 
censorship, the avant-garde would probably have declined anyway: for 
most people, Lenin included, it was simply incomprehensible.

Mayakovsky remained popular, an exceptional performer, a natural 
celebrity. But he had to struggle to get his books published, and he 
began to make choices that some of his literary friends thought 
unsavoury, and that Bolsheviks found unconvincing. In 1920, he wrote a 
verse epic that began, ‘150,000,000 is the name of the author of this 
poem,’ identifying himself with the population of Russia. He pretended 
to submerge his voice in the collective, though the tone remained 
unmistakably his own. The audience for the first recital included 
Lunacharsky, who doubted the poem’s sincerity and didn’t promote it as 
Mayakovsky had hoped. It took more than a year for it to be published, 
after many interventions, and even then the run was small. Mayakovsky 
sent a signed copy to Lenin, who said it was ‘rubbish, stupid, stupid 
beyond belief, and pretentious’. Pasternak, who had once worshipped 
Mayakovsky, called it ‘uncreative’.

Lunacharsky and Pasternak were right, though Lenin may have been 
exaggerating. The rebellious, grandiose ‘I’ was the centre of 
Mayakovsky’s poetic universe, the logic of his style; without it, his 
poems were unmoored. His political rhetoric was most effective when 
subordinated to a larger emotion. ‘The Cloud in Trousers’ compares 
clouds to workers in white overalls on strike against the sky; the image 
is effective not because it glorifies workers but because it connects to 
the theme of Mayakovsky’s larger rebellion against the world. In 
‘Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’, he offers a much less effective cloud image: 
‘the workers’ wrath/condenses/into clouds,/slashed/by the lightning/of 
Lenin’s pamphlets.’ The propaganda poems seem impoverished even on the 
level of rhythm, assonance, consonance and rhyme. Lines like ‘Long 
live/the Revolution/with speedy victory,/the greatest/and justest/of all 
the wars/ever/fought/in history!’ lose little in translation.

Mayakovsky continued to write about his faith in the ‘third revolution 
of the spirit’ and the avant-garde, and about his hatred of statues and 
monuments. He explored options for publication abroad, but these soon 
proved unnecessary. The New Economic Policy, introduced in 1921, allowed 
private publishing again, and he won a surprise endorsement from Lenin 
for a poem condemning the proliferation of conferences in the Soviet 
bureaucracy. ‘I am not one of those who admire his poetic talents,’ 
Lenin said, ‘although I willingly confess my lack of expertise in this 
field. But it has been a long time since I last felt such enjoyment from 
a political and administrative standpoint.’ Mayakovsky promptly 
published a follow-up, the ‘Bureaucratiade’.

Many of the Russian intelligentsia were emigrating, willingly or under 
duress. Mayakovsky never considered leaving; he had no talent for 
foreign languages, and despite his frequent conflicts with the literary 
establishment, he was well connected and relatively affluent, in part 
because of his relationship with Osip and Lili Brik, a very wealthy 
couple. In 1915 they had watched him perform ‘A Cloud in Trousers’ and 
were entranced by his talent, if put off by his poor grooming. Osip paid 
for Mayakovsky’s book to be printed, with ‘O.B.’ on the cover and a 
dedication to Lili inside. Mayakovsky fell wildly and melodramatically 
in love with Lili. She had him cut his hair and trade his yellow blouse 
for a jacket and tie, and paid for him to have new teeth made. (At 
twenty, his teeth were already rotten stumps; he smoked a hundred 
cigarettes a day, though Jangfeldt claims he never inhaled.) But he 
wasn’t really Lili’s type, and it would be more than two years before 
she accepted his sexual advances and announced the relationship to her 
enlightened husband. Mayakovsky moved in, and the threesome formed what 
they called a ‘marriage cartel’ that lasted until Mayakovsky’s death, 
even after Lili and Mayakovsky had ended their sexual relationship. 
(Osip and Lili, it seems, never really had one.)

In 1920 Osip became an investigator in the Cheka’s department for 
‘economic speculation’, apparently assigned to keep an eye on the former 
bourgeoisie – his old friends. ‘At that time we regarded the Chekists as 
saints,’ Lili said later; there are indications that she too may have 
worked for the secret police. Mayakovsky and the Briks made many trips 
to Western Europe, bringing back consumer goods unavailable in the 
Soviet Union. In 1925, Mayakovsky went on a recital tour of the United 
States, the topic of a book that he entitled, with his usual bluster, My 
Discovery of America. In New York, he fathered a child with a Russian 
émigré – a dangerous secret.

Mayakovsky was a huge, handsome man, and in the atmosphere of the time 
he had no shortage of lovers. Lili was probably the most important woman 
in his life, and she plays a central role in Jangfeldt’s book, which 
reads almost like a joint biography. She was born Lili Kagan, child of 
an affluent Jewish family in Moscow. As a teenager, she had a talent for 
mathematics and an extraordinary physical allure. In her younger sister 
Elsa’s description, she sounds something like the sun:

She had a large mouth with perfect teeth and a glowing complexion, as if 
she was illuminated from within. She had a neat bust, round hips, long 
legs and very small hands and feet. She had nothing to hide; she could 
have gone around completely naked; every little part of her body was 
admirable. Moreover, she liked going around with nothing on at all; she 
was completely lacking in shame. Later, when she was going to a ball, 
Mama and I liked to watch her getting dressed, putting on her 
underclothes, fastening her silk stockings and pulling on her little 
silver shoes and lilac dress with the square décolletage. I was dumb 
with admiration when I looked at her.


The allure came at a price. Jangfeldt uses quaint phrases to describe 
what sounds like sexual persecution by teachers, relatives, friends, 
even strangers. When Lili was 17, her music teacher ‘robbed her of her 
innocence while his girlfriend was busy washing up in the next room’. 
She later said she’d been afraid of seeming bourgeois. Her mother forced 
her to have an abortion and a surgical restoration of her ‘maidenhead’. 
‘Lili reacted with her usual defiance,’ Jangfeldt writes. ‘When, several 
days later, the doctor removed the stitches, she rushed straight into 
the toilet and robbed herself of her innocence again, this time with her 
finger.’ But Lili’s troubles weren’t over. Her Uncle Leo, her mother’s 
brother, couldn’t ‘resist Lili’s precocious charms but threw himself at 
her and demanded that she marry him’. As if intent on compensating for 
decades of puritanical Soviet censorship, Jangfeldt spares us no detail 
of Lili’s sexual and romantic exploits. His fascination seems tinged 
with disapproval; I lost count of the number of times he described Lili 
as ‘promiscuous’. Maybe the word sounds friendlier in Swedish. Perhaps 
I’m being unfair; because Jangfeldt doesn’t use footnotes or otherwise 
make clear the origins of specific passages, it’s difficult to tell 
where he ends and his sources begin. I paused over his account of Lili’s 
relationship with a young painter:

He had her completely in his power: she was impressed by his drawings, 
and his conversation was so inspiring that it brought a blush to her 
cheeks. Once when she picked up his powder compact to apply some powder, 
he screeched: ‘What are you doing, I have syphilis!’ With that 
exclamation he won her heart, and during the last two weeks before she 
left for Munich they began an intimate relationship, without a thought 
for his illness.

The coquettish tone – ‘his conversation was so inspiring that it brought 
a blush to her cheeks’ – suggests that the source of the story is Lili 
herself. (Her unpublished memoirs were a major source for Jangfeldt, who 
also knew her personally.) But did Lili really say the painter ‘won her 
heart’ by announcing that he had syphilis? Was she being ironic? Memoirs 
and personal recollections are unreliable, and Lili, who lived to be 86, 
always had an eye on posterity. Jangfeldt indulges in plenty of casual 
psychologising – Mayakovsky is ‘obsessive compulsive’, has a ‘split 
personality’, and exhibits ‘schizophrenic’ behaviour – but it doesn’t 
seem to occur to him that being impregnated against one’s will by a 
teacher, or being proposed to by one’s own uncle, could lead to 
compulsive or self-destructive sexual behaviour. Perhaps there was 
something more than light-minded ‘promiscuity’ at play.

Lili eventually married Osip Brik. She had loved him since she was a 
teenager. Osip knew all about her sexual experience, and didn’t seem to 
mind. He and Lili went on business trips to the far reaches of the 
Russian Empire and to Western Europe, making time for research: they 
visited a brothel in Samarkand and a lesbian sex show in Paris. In 
Petrograd, a bored Lili got blackout drunk with two young men and woke 
up the next morning in a brothel. ‘Where other men’s wives would have 
made every effort to hide their shame,’ Jangfeldt writes, ‘Lili 
immediately told Osip what she had been up to … Osip, for his part, 
reacted coolly and rationally where other men would have been beside 
themselves with jealousy.’ Lili took lovers openly throughout the 
marriage. Unorthodox sexual and domestic arrangements formed part of the 
period’s experiments with the place of women in society and the family 
once traditional marriage had been rejected as a manifestation of 
capitalist property rights and an instrument of women’s oppression. 
Jangfeldt dismisses these experiments as mere pleasure-seeking. Carrick, 
on the other hand, draws our attention to Mayakovsky’s poems agitating 
for a revolution in everyday life and for fair treatment of women, 
citing his 1926 poem ‘Love’:

At the parade he sings out:
                     ‘Forward, Comrades …’
but forgetting
           his solo arias
                     at home
he yells at his wife for her faults:
       that her cabbage soup has got no fat
and the pickles
           have got no salt.

Still, Mayakovsky wasn’t entirely on board with free love. He was 
acutely jealous of Lili’s other liaisons. In 1919, Roman Jakobson told 
her sister Elsa that ‘Lili tired of Volodya long ago; he has turned into 
a real bourgeois philistine who is only interested in feeding and 
fattening up his woman. This of course is not Lili’s style.’ Victor 
Shklovsky said that Mayakovsky suffered from premature ejaculation; 
Elsa, who had introduced Mayakovsky to the Briks, said Mayakovsky was 
‘not good in bed’, because he ‘wasn’t indecent enough’. Mayakovsky was 
certainly squeamish, a hypochondriac and germophobe. (According to 
Jangfeldt, the neurosis had its origins in his father’s death by blood 
poisoning after a needle prick.) He avoided public transport, handshakes 
and doorknobs; always carried his own soap and drinking cup; and 
travelled with a folding rubber bathtub.

Mayakovsky’s neverending drama with Lili seems to have inspired much of 
his best poetry, including 1923’s ‘About This’, published with 
photomontages by Aleksandr Rodchenko and a picture of Lili on the cover. 
He also started writing advertising copy in verse. Accused of wasting 
his talent, he said his efforts were poetry of quality and an important 
source of money, as were propaganda and advertising posters. (Volodya 
includes examples of his advertisements and public health posters, all 
in rhymed verse: ‘Don’t drink raw water – remember, it’s soiled/Water 
should only be drunk when it’s boiled.’) He had to support his mother 
and sisters, and Lili had expensive tastes.

When Lenin died in 1924, Mayakovsky wrote an epic homage, in which he 
warns against the institution of a Lenin cult – against processions, 
mausoleums and statues. ‘Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’ (an excerpt is included 
in Volodya) argues that one man cannot be worshipped, since he is only a 
manifestation of the collective.

The voice of a

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