Vaginov: An Afterword
The Tower (original title: The Goat-Song) is the tragedy (Greek “goat-song”) of an idealist circle of artists and scholars, headed by Teptyolkin, who flee from the chaotic cultural void of post-revolutionary Leningrad in search of a utopian classical huma-nism. Teptyolkin himself serves as a kind of John the Baptist to the pagan but Christ-like Unknown Poet, whom he and his circle revere and emulate. The Unknown Poet is the pivotal center of this tragic multi-faceted satire. In this respect, The Tower anticipates, by at least a decade, Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, which similarly contrasts a tragic center (Pilate and Christ in Judea) with a satirical periphery (con-temporary Moscow). Unlike Bulgakov, however, Vaginov does not separate these two strands. Instead, he interweaves center and periphery throughout the 35 chapters of the novel, creating thereby a rich and complex texture and tone.
The Tower is directed both at the new and the old: at Bolshevik materialism but also at Teptyolkin’s doomed and deluded circle. Seeking refuge in their leader’s ivory tower, they are brought to ruin as a result of their own carnal and material needs and by the inherent imperfectibility of human nature and human institutions. The Unknown Poet, i.e. Agafonov (in Bakhtin’s opinion, he is Vaginov himself) alone resists the temptations of the new materialist age. The name Agafonov may allude to a) the classical Greek agon or dramatic conflict of Athenian tragedy, b) the Russian agonia or death-throes, and c) the Greek New Testament agape, i.e. Christian love (or “charity”). The Unknown Poet recalls Dostoevsky’s Kirillov and Jesus of Nazareth, two other rebels tormented by their allegiance to a higher sacred order. Like them, Agafonov overcomes his inner struggle and accepts the logical consequences of his commitment to an absolute in a world of perpetual change. Madness and self-destruction follow without fail. The Unknown Poet’s martyrdom stands in stark contrast to the accommodation sought by members of Teptyolkin’s circle.
To create his expressionistic novel, Vaginov utilizes a whole array of modernistic techniques: dislocations of time, place and plot, multiple voices, synchronicity, stream-of-consciousness, dissonances of style and genre, arcane literary allusions, dazzling metaphors, cultural exotica, and a tone that ranges from the lyrical to the tragic, from the ironic to the epic, from the parodic to the visionary. All of this takes place within the context of a multi-layered structure with an elusive “plot.” In short, Vaginov constructs a surrogate universe that refracts reality instead of reflecting it.
As the self-proclaimed heirs to the exalted ideals of the Renaissance (as they understand them), Teptyolkin’s pagan disciples turn their backs on the new materia-listic Bolshevik order (identified paradoxically, in Vaginov’s allusive historical texture, with the rise of early, primitive Christianity on the ashes of a glorious classical past). In its place, and inspired by the artifacts of Greece and Rome, they seek to restore a dubious absolute order based on classical values. They cling for dear life to these relics as if to a surrogate religion: They are a surety against cultural collapse. In the process, the dynamic humanism of Athens becomes a petty, ritualistic enterprise indulged in by cultural antiquarians. An overpowering sense of nostalgia-pathological and decadent, no doubt, and expressed in English by the ubiquitous retrospective “would”-emanates from every pore of The Tower (“Often would Philostratus walk alongside Teptyolkin and converse with him. ‘Observe,’ Teptyolkin would hear Philostratus saying-or so he thought-’Observe how the phoenix dies and how it is reborn.’ “- Chapter 1, etc.).
As one prototype for Teptyolkin’s tower (also referred to as an “island”) we may consider the circle of Vyacheslav Ivanov, who, like Vaginov’s hero, was a teacher of the classics. We may also connect it with Alexander Blok’s circle, where the great poet, surrounded by his devotees, recited his poems on the Beautiful Lady, that is, the mystical Sophia. In fact, we cannot help but recall the hermetic circle that gathered in Paris in the 1880′s around Mallarmé, the high priest of French Symbolist poetry. He too scorned the utilitarian values of his society, that is, the values of republican France.
In the preface to The Tower, the author (appearing as a character in his own novel) informs us that he is a maker of coffins, not cradles, that his business is not to celebrate the new (Leningrad) but to bury the old (Petersburg). He has no use for the new utilitarian culture of the Bolsheviks, that is, for Leningrad, the cradle of the Revolution and of the New Soviet Man. The reverse is equally true: the Bolsheviks had no use for poets or “culture” either.
Held in contempt by both the Bolshevik ideologues and the bourgeois philistines of the capitalist NEP, Vaginov’s characters were doomed to figurative if not always to literal extinction. One by one, they came down from their humanist tower to become-by choice or otherwise-dentists, clerks, engineers and professors in the new Soviet world. Only the Unknown Poet, whose poems served as a spiritual magnet for the circle, remained adamant and uncompromising in his devotion to the Ideal and ended up a suicide.
This may have been a premonition: Two years after the publication of The Tower (i.e. in 1930), the great Futurist poet Mayakovsky, an exponent of unbridled experi-mentation in life and art, blew his brains out. With this, the cultural exuberance that had flourished for a generation came to an end.
In one ironic respect, Vaginov was fortunate. While most of the writers and artists of the Stalinist period, which commenced in a big way with the first Five-Year Plan in 1928, were either silenced, exiled, imprisoned or executed, Vaginov died of tuberculosis. He was one of the few lucky enough to die a natural death.
Vaginov’s tragic satire of philistines and idealists is given shape and direction by his magic lantern. In distorting the mundane reality of the world around him, Vaginov triumphs over the mediocrity which he himself satirizes. In The Tower, he captures the magnificence of late autumn.