Prophet and poet of Russian Revolution
Chris Knight looks at the legacy of Velimir Khlebnikov. This is an edited transcript of a talk given to Communist University 2018
Velimir Khlebnikov is almost unknown in the west, but to those Russians who know a little bit about literature and poetry in their own culture he is the greatest Russian poet since Pushkin.
He had an unusual childhood: a tribal upbringing, with ethnic music and wonderful, colourful traditional costumes. He was born into the Kalmyk tribal group (originally Mongolian Buddhists) in 1885 near the Caspian Sea. His father was a tsarist administrator. As a child Khlebnikov grew up with animals in the house and with camels wandering around outside. Nearly all the homes in the village were yurts1 - his was the only solid building. Kalmyk instruments and dancing had a huge effect on him, and his childhood environment was very relevant to his later life.
As a boy, he was used to ride horseback. He would go to a stable and liberate a horse by riding it away. He considered horses a lot more intelligent than many humans he had met. He once noted:
I have discovered the fundamental laws of time and I believe that now it will be as easy to predict events as to count to three. If people don’t want to learn my art of predicting the future, I will teach it to horses.
Here is a typical, innocent, Khlebnikovian poem, ‘When horses die’:
When horses die, they breathe.
When grasses die, they wither.
When suns die, they go out.
When people die, they sing songs.
Anyone who knows a little about the Russian February and October revolutions will know that they were more than just political upheavals. The period was also the culmination of an immense scientific, intellectual and artistic ferment. If you think of cubism, you may think primarily of Picasso and Braque. But in Russia the movement of art into abstraction and modernism went further than anywhere else. You only have to mention Kandinsky,2 Prokofiev,3 Shostakovich4 or Meyerhold.5 These and so many other geniuses propelled a spectacular outpouring of revolutionary, iconoclastic art.
Khlebnikov prophesised the date of the Russian Revolution back in 1912 - he was crazy enough (and he was completely crazy!) to think that he had worked out the laws of time. He used mathematical calculations, dates going back to the age of the dinosaurs, and different periodicities and wave lengths of history, and concluded: ‘Ah, it’s going to be 1917!’ After this, his friends bestowed on him the honorific title, ‘The King of Time’. One of the loveliest books in English on Khlebnikov is titled The King of Time: selected writings of the Russian futurian.6
When the February revolution took place in 1917, Khlebnikov had worked it all out - the whole thing was his revolution! The metaphor of a liberated horse came immediately to his mind: “The tsar abdicates. The white mare of freedom. A wild gallop, a breakthrough.”
When the Bolshevik revolution broke out a few months later, it was Khlebnikov’s wild, anarcho-feministic, cubo-futurist artists, musicians and playwrights who most enthusiastically rushed to its defence. These artists were the ones who invented the term agitprop to describe what they were doing. As the Bolsheviks resorted to art, drama and music to spread the flames of revolution following October, their propaganda was overwhelmingly the work of these futurists. And Khlebnikov was the genius of futurism - they all treated him as their leader.
There was a lot of laughter about it all, because Khlebnikov was not an organiser of any sort. He was painfully shy, to the point of being inarticulate. Because he was socially awkward and strange in his behaviour, he was regarded not only as a genius, but a kind of holy fool. All of the futurists looked up to him as their main inspiration. Nearly all the other schools of art and literature dithered, taking a long time making up their minds about the revolution. But, for the futurists, it was their revolution right from the start.
With his conservative tastes, Lenin was uncertain about all this, to put it mildly. Trotsky was more progressive - or at least prepared to cope with unexpected novelty. But of all the Bolsheviks it was Lunacharsky who most appreciated the futurists. Of all of them, Mayakovsky7 is the most famous. In the early days he would wear a gaudy yellow jacket and paint his face. Whenever the futurists had a poetry recital, there would be a riot and the police would turn up. Their idea of a piano concert was to haul a grand piano up to the ceiling on ropes and, when the audience turned up to listen, they would cut the ropes. You would hear an almighty crash, as the whole thing fell to the ground. That was the recital!
Internationally, there were two wings of futurism: the Italians versus the Russians. The Italians worshipped the machine age, as represented by war, aeroplanes, machine guns, motor cars and electric lighting. Celebrating violence, many of these moved towards the far right and their leader, Filippo Tomasso Marinetti,8 was already a fascist by 1914. They ended up supporting Benito Mussolini.
However, in Russia things went in quite the opposite direction. Khlebnikov was a futurist in a very personal way. His motto was something like Back to the future - which takes me to his early childhood, with the Kalmyk camel herders. He was sure that the future would mean a return, on a higher-level, to a romantically envisaged Stone Age, to a period before writing. He hated writing, considering it the language of bureaucrats and executioners. He thought all poetry should be sung and spoken aloud, considering it his anti-capitalist mission to lead an army of songs:
Today I will go once again
Into life, into haggling, into the market,
And lead the army of my songs
To duel against the market tide.
His whole idea was that, thanks to technological progress, the human race was poised to return to our prehistoric roots, taking us to a higher and more collectivist moral, political and spiritual level. Khlebnikov’s supersagas are constantly wafting us to some distant period of cosmic time:
The sea. A shoreline spurting golden fire ...
Three suns burn in the sky …
Those were the first days of existence on Earth.
Sea horses playing in the waves.
A solitary naturalist walks by them carrying a tin can, studying the dry whale bones …
In those years, there was huge excitement around the invention of radio. And radio for Khlebnikov was going to get rid of writing. Who wanted writing, when you could have this? Radio would restore the human voice to its ancient centrality. It was in this sense that Khlebnikov and the futurists were ‘primitivists’. Picasso and his fellow cubists were equally primitivists, as shown by their enthusiasm for traditional African art, but Khlebnikov took that idea much further than anyone else. For him, the tragedy was that music, dance, colour, laughter and magic had all become set aside by the rise of patriarchal religions, states, class society and the enlightenment. It all had to come back. If the revolution was not musical and full of laughter - as well as full of science - then it was not their revolution at all.
In my book on Chomsky9 I point out that Khlebnikov was a poet who in his creative writing effectively invented modern linguistics. Shortly after World War II, Chomsky took much of his inspiration from Roman Jakobson, who was then recognised as the world’s foremost scientific linguist. But everything that Jakobson knew about language had come from Khlebnikov. So, unbeknown to Chomsky, he was in effect Khlebnikov’s student.
Khlebnikov was a poet, but he was also a thinker about what language is:
The earth’s axis splashed out another day,
Night’s bulk is closing in.
I dreamed I saw a salmon-girl
In the waves of a midnight waterfall.
In his poetry, Khlebnikov often played with sounds in ways which were quite astonishing. The nearest you can get in English is to think of James Joyce in, say, Finnegan’s wake or Ulysses. He was interested in the intrinsic properties of different vowels and consonants, each with its own voice, as opposed to mere habitual, conventional meanings. But that Joycean modernism was anticipated and taken a lot further by Khlebnikov.
Khlebnikov died in 1922 at the age of only 37, during the post-revolutionary civil war and famine. It was one of the early disasters for the Russian artistic movement. One after the other, the futurists died - they committed suicide, ended up in one of Stalin’s concentration camps or got shot for some purported deviation. One of the few to escape was Roman Jakobson, who got out early by becoming an emissary to the Red Cross in the Soviet embassy in Prague.
When Khlebnikov was reciting poems in St Petersburg and Moscow, the teenage schoolboy who was following him around was Roman Jakobson, busily taking notes and storing up ideas for his future as the world’s leading theoretical linguist. Jakobson devoted the rest of his life to the task of taking Khlebnikov’s crazy, unformulated and unfinished, but brilliant, work and making a science out of it in the shape of modern linguistics. There is lot in Chomsky’s linguistics which is equally brilliant. Most of his formalism actually comes via Jakobson from Khlebnikov, and Chomsky’s linguistics is an extreme version of formalism.
Khlebnikov’s aim was to deploy laughter, animal cries, birdsong, the rustling of forest trees and every other sensory resource in a sustained revolutionary project to re-enchant the world. To understand where he was coming from in all this, we need to know something about the historical and cultural background.
In his classic text, The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, the sociologist Max Weber described how bourgeois ideology emerged out of Protestantism in general and Calvinism in particular.10 The essence of Calvinism was the desire to disenchant the world, eliminating the last traces of pre-Christian belief in magic. It was as if these gloomy preachers were warning their followers, ‘Don’t be fooled by the deceptive majesty of a lake, a waterfall, a forest glade or a spectacular sunset! Don’t let nature’s wiles seduce you! Unmask her, strip her of her magic! Salvation depends on disenchantment!’ The only comfort you’re allowed after all this, once the magic in life has been stripped away, is the promise of salvation, through one thing alone: the blood of Jesus.
Elaborating on this idea, Weber writes that disenchantment is also central to the ideology surrounding modern science. Calvinism lives on as the doctrine that to study nature you must take the magic away. Don’t fall into that trap. You must somehow strip nature of her own voice, making sure that she behaves the way you want, submitting to your will. You are in charge with your experiments, your torture, your vivisection, your felling of the trees. When Khlebnikov spoke of restoring to nature her own voice, he had all this in mind. His mission was to reverse the entire project of the enlightenment by deliberately re-enchanting the world.
Mikhail Bakhtin11 is another Russian genius from the same revolutionary stable. I want to mention him here because he had many of the same revolutionary instincts concerning the deepest nature of language. You could call Bakhtin the scientist of carnival and laughter. His trenchant criticism of the underlying ideology of bourgeois science was that it started out by silencing nature, depriving it of its own authentic voice. “The entire methodological apparatus of the mathematical and natural sciences,” wrote Bakhtin, “is directed toward mastery over mute objects, brute things, that do not reveal themselves in words, that do not comment on themselves.”12 Bakhtin went on to argue that the same approach, depriving others of their voice, has always been the method of the state and its ecclesiastical servants. The meaning of carnival is that it turns all this upside down, empowering the powerless and giving a voice to the silenced.
Bakhtin came to the fore during the Stalinist terror, some years after Khlebnikov’s death, but there is a sense in which he continued down a similar path. With his futurist project for a universal language, Khlebnikov pushed back against the whole enlightenment project. He was urging: ‘Let’s go the other way and be real revolutionaries, back to the prehistoric future - to laughter, the magic of dance, the lost voices of animals, children and trees.’ This line in particular haunts me: “And does the land not cry out within us: Oh, give me a voice! A voice! Give me a voice.”
But he was not arguing for the rejection of science. He thought you could take the core of science - the mathematical part - and turn it round. All the mathematics that had previously served to disenchant the world would now be placed in the service of a quite different agenda: Khlebnikov’s own revolutionary project of cosmic re-enchantment.
Khlebnikov wanted the revolution to be magical and for revolutionaries to be like shamans. He saw himself in those terms. He believed it essential to get everyone laughing. Both ideas are illustrated in this, his best-known poem, ‘Incantation by laughter’:
O, laugh, laughers!
O, laugh out, laughers!
You who laugh with laughs, you who laugh it up laughishly
O, laugh out laugheringly
O, belaughable laughterhood - the laughter of laughering laughers!
O, unlaugh it outlaughingly, belaughering laughists!
Uplaugh, enlaugh, laughlings, laughlings
O, laugh, laughers!
O, laugh out, laughers.
You can see what is happening here. If you take the word ‘laughter’, it has a strange spelling (not ‘larfter’!). The ‘augh’ is telling us something about the history of the English language. This translation plays around with that. The difference is that a Russian reader cannot recite Khlebnikov’s original for more than a few lines, because they will be consumed by laughter before reaching the end.
Khlebnikov’s fundamental political position was that the world should have no borders. That was partly due to his upbringing: the camels and horses in the camp where he grew up were not interested in borders. Throughout his life, he remained committed to the nomadic values of the Kalmyk people.
But, although Khlebnikov hated territorial borders, he loved the idea of borders in time. He did not want fences, customs posts and certainly not trenches (remember this is going on during World War I, when people were fighting for a few yards of squelching, blood-stained mud). But what about borders in time? When people sing together, they must all keep to the same beat and sing each note together. Synchronising the voice means being aware of borders in time. Once the whole planet is singing, the only borders will be in the dimension of time. Natural rhythms, such as human heartbeats, the sun, the moon and the tides, would be used to set up these borders. He considered it vital not to transgress borders in time - they were needed if the world’s inhabitants were to get on with one another. By contrast, borders in space were in his eyes just bloodshed and murder.
As well as being an administrator for the Kalmyk people, Khlebnikov’s father was a noted ornithologist, studying birdsong in particular. Khlebnikov was inspired by his father and followed him in making careful observations of the notes of birdsong. From his poetry you get the feeling it might possibly be a form of human language, but if so it is on the cusp, like a dawn chorus on the verge of speech - almost articulate, but not quite. Khlebnikov wanted to connect human speech with birdsong and animal cries, using the scientific methods of an ornithologist. In his own words: “Only the development of science has permitted us to discover the full wisdom of language - which is wise because it is itself a part of nature.”
Khlebnikov was not by any means a Marxist. His inspiration came from physics, chemistry, mathematics and the natural sciences. And he did not have much of a feel for the laws of history in a sociological sense. Any scientific laws had to be expressed in mathematical form if he was to feel comfortable with them.
For Khlebnikov, the interesting features of language had nothing to do with social agreement, habit or convention. If you were an ornithologist, you would just listen to the sound of a given word and break that sound down. You let the bits of sound speak to you via a meaning intrinsic to each vowel and consonant. In other words, the meaning is inseparable from the form. Roman Jakobson had very similar ideas, passing some of them on years later to Noam Chomsky.
Of course, in real life, once a language has become conventionalised, form and meaning have only an arbitrary link. There is no logical reason why the letters ‘d’, ‘o’ and ‘g’, when combined, should mean the creature that wags its tail and barks at you. That is just convention.
Well, Chomsky was not interested in that and neither was Khlebnikov, who hated the very idea of convention. Convention means business as usual, more of the same. It is mindless habit. When you think about it, if you are a poet you do not want to get into the habitual use of the words. You want to let the sounds sparkle with their own intrinsic meanings - that is how poetry works. So maybe at a deep level there is just one language - human. Then again, according to both Chomsky and Khlebnikov, this universal language reflects the architecture of the mind itself, which might be captured in a mathematical formula. In Khlebnikov’s words: “Beautiful are the sounds of the mind! Beautiful are its clear crystal sounds.”
Anything habitual is likely to become boring, and boredom was something that Khlebnikov hated more than anything else. Like Mayakovsky with his outlandish yellow jacket, these iconoclasts all hated what they call in Russian byt. This word roughly translates as ‘boringness’ or ‘business as usual’. Byt meant more of World War I, more bureaucracy, more issuing of death warrants by some tsarist minion. Khlebnikov wanted to explode the whole thing from the inside out - completely shatter it. So in linguistics we should not be interested in byt - the habitual, familiar meanings of words. We should find instead that deeper voice, when the tongue by its own nature is allowed to make its own unexpected sounds.
Every child is a creative genius from birth - that is a Chomskyan idea, but it is also another of Khlebnikov’s insights. It is the anarchistic idea that schoolteachers are going to be drilling rubbish into you, when it would be better to build on what you already know. A child understands all kinds of things about laughter, play, jokes, humour and imaginative games. And at school it all gets drummed out of them. If only each child’s innate genius were allowed to develop, education would be so much better. The way Chomsky translates that is to say that every child possesses a language organ, which is pre-programmed with language. And so there is no need to learn a language - it is there already. That is a somewhat extreme version of a rather lovely, anarchistic idea which contains much truth.
Then there is another Russian word - sdvig - which is interesting, because it can nowadays be connected with digital computers. On a computer you press a key and the whole screen shifts from one state to another in an instant. It is like switching a light off or on - it does not gradually get lighter or darker. So this word sdvig means a shift, sudden transition - or sudden quantum leap, if you like - and it is linked to the idea of a digital system of communication. Almost as if he was anticipating the computer age, Khlebnikov had the idea that language is intrinsically digital. Take consonants and vowels. Deleting just one can suddenly shift a word from one state to a completely different one:
Wind is song
Of whom and of what?
Of the sword’s longing
To be the word.
Remove one letter from a word and you get another. So it is not like mixing black and white to get grey. Each switch is a total shift, not a gradual slippage. Khlebnikov considered the Russian Revolution itself to be a massive sdvig or shift. Nothing of the recent past should be retained into the future, because that would muddy the message. Khlebnikov illustrated the same principle by writing a long saga consisting of chapters which followed one after another, without the slightest connection between them.
Khlebnikov was no scientist, although he had studied mathematics at Kazan University, and loved physics and chemistry. For him it was the magic, the aesthetic of science that was so powerful. In fact you could say of the whole futurist movement that it was inspired by an aesthetic of science. They wanted to paint it, draw it, hear it, make music out of it. Science should be the dominant motif in the new culture. Everything we thought we knew about time, space, matter and energy was to be completely revolutionised.
Khlebnikov foresaw not just the Russian Revolution, but also our current situation in facing climate catastrophe. He wrote these strangely prophetic lines just before he died:
Man has taken the surface of Planet Earth away from the wise community of animals and plants and now he is lonely; he has no-one to play tag or hide-and-seek with. In his empty room, surrounded by the darkness of non-being, there are no playmates and no games. Who can he play with? He is surrounded by an empty ‘no’. The souls of animals banished from their bodies have invaded him, and the plains of his being are now subject to their law.
They built animal cities in his heart.
Man seems to be choking to death on his own carbon.
It was his luck to have a printing press that did not have enough of the many twos and threes needed to print a reckoning. For without these numbers the Beautiful Program could not be written. As animals fell into extinction, each took with him to the grave the private numbers of his species.
Entire entries in the ledger book of fortune vanished like pages torn out of a manuscript. Twilight loomed on the horizon.
But a miracle happened: courageous minds have awakened the sleeping soul of the sacred gray clay that covers the earth in layers, awakened it as bread and meat.
Earth has become edible, and every clay pit has become a table laid for dinner. The beautiful gift of the right to live has been given back to animals and plants.
And once more we are happy: a lion has curled in my lap, asleep, and I sit here smoking my supper of air.13
The Kalmyk yurt is a round, portable, self-supporting structure composed of lattice walls, rafters, roof ring, felt covering and tension bands.↩
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Russian pioneer of abstract art.↩
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), Soviet composer, conductor and pianist.↩
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), Soviet composer and pianist.↩
Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874-1940), Soviet theatre director, actor and producer.↩
V Khlebnikov The King of Time: selected writings of the Russian futurian Harvard 1990.↩
Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), Soviet poet, playwright, artist and actor.↩
Filippo Tomasso Marinetti (1876-1944), Italian poet, editor, art theorist and author of the Futurist manifesto (1909). He co-authored the Fascist manifesto in 1919.↩
C Knight Decoding Chomsky: science and revolutionary politics London 2016. See chapter 10: ‘Russian formalist roots’.↩
M Weber The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism - originally published in German as a series of essays 1904-05; translated into English in 1930 by American sociologist Talcott Parsons.↩
Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (1895-1975), Russian philosopher and literary critic. See especially Rabelais and his world, translated by H Iswolsky, Indiana 1984.↩
M Bakhtin The dialogic imagination: dour essays Texas 1982, p35.↩
V Khlebnikov, ‘A cliff out of the future’, in C Douglas (ed) and P Schmidt (translator) Collected works of Velimir Khlebnikov Vol 1, ‘Letters and theoretical writings’, p399, 1987.↩