PRAYER, INCANTATION AND POETRY
by Giorgy Meyer
[Sbornik literaturnykh statei, Posev, 1968]
(Copyright © 1986 by Benjamin Sher)
In the course of critiquing the poems of various writers in Vozrozhdenie, Khodasevich recalled incidentally the words uttered by Z. Gippius long ago: “a poem is a prayer.”
“The religious nature of poetry notwithstanding,” writes Khodasevich, “it is impossible to agree with such a definition, for it presupposes the possibility of divorcing form from content. In a prayer (however broadly we may construe this word) it is possible to disassociate form from content. In poetry, one cannot. For prayer to become poetry, it must not only assume a form consonant with its content. It must also arise out of a specifically artistic impulse. This primary distinction is essential in the highest degree, for it protects poetry from aesthetic indifference and prayer from religious frivolity.”
Khodasevich’s words, cited above, are extraordinarily convincing, save for one implication, which calls for certain objections, or rather amplifications. But of that later. Meanwhile, we shall observe only that Khodasevich scorned the character of that epoch, for it strongly inclined many, especially Z. Gippius, to frivolous maxims and definitions.
No critic, however, is duty-bound to concern himself with the psychology of the author nor to ask whether the author in question has grasped the full meaning of his own words. Z. Gippius equates a poem with prayer. In response, Khodasevich, remaining by rights within the confines of the subject under discussion, delineates the fundamental features that distinguish poetry from prayer. But was Gippius, to be precise, really speaking of prayer on this occasion? Understandably, it is our lot as human beings to strive for terminological precision. Yet, the literary and “religious-philosophical” milieu in which Z. Gippius the writer was nurtured — so alien to us — abounded in demons, argonauts, demiurges, prophets and angels. But it most certainly did not abound in professional literary people earnestly devoted to their arduous craft.
According to ancient legends, angels were characterized by flight, demons by deeds of sabotage and demiurges by insufficiently understood functions in the regions above. The precarious conditions of an extraterrestrial existence are hardly conducive to verbal clarifications. It is no accident that the great wizard and demon Valery Bryusov was, to his dying day, incapable of accommodating himself to the rules of Russian grammar. Through a murky and artificial symbolism, the writers and poets of that time saw theirs as a distorted and perverted world. Balmont, the inveterate argonaut, ascribed to tender water lilies the “firm resolve to live out their dream.”
Betraying a fundamentally unsound prosaism at heart, the author reveals here his penchant for tasteless abstractions. Vyacheslav Ivanov, a prophet, spoke of the crystal ringing sound of the cicadas as if he were talking about rusted iron. He pompously declared:
Cicadas, cicadas, beating your hammers,
Gnashing with your saws, thunderous in sound,
Forgers of iron.”
The prophet, evidently, had not suspected that such deliberate heapings-up define not so much cicadas as his own method of versification. Similar images can be produced again and again. Our literature of the Decadent-Symbolist period proliferates everywhere with just such images.
This terminological confusion and strained rhetoric were strongly fostered by the institution of mutual courtesies, brought into being in those bygone years by the efforts of the parties involved. Valery Bryusov, e.g. had only to consecrate Andrei Bely as an angel in his private circle for the latter, in gratitude for such service, to promote the great wizard in print to the order of demiurge. Noblesse oblige. It remained for the poor demiurge only to climb reluctantly onto his invisible stilts and — never mind ordinary speech! — to commence prophesying, calling beings, phenomena and objects by wild and wondrous names. Like it or not, a gully turned out to be an abyss, a fly an eagle and a sparrow a dragon.
Is it any wonder then that under such a monstrous displacement of concepts a Sybil and pythoness — Z. Gippius — confused poetry with prayer and Christianity with magic, the latter, moreover, reduced to the impoverished level of the Decadentist salons?
After the Russian Revolution of 1905, everything went to pieces until it all became one big mess. Morbid years ensued, narcotic-induced and contemptible to the highest degree. In the two capitals, people hastily formed playful circles for the study of Buddhism, Brahmanism, and Hellenism. Some presumptuous folks, made up to look like peasants, even promised to resurrect the ancient cults of Egypt and Assyria-Babylonia all over the breadth and length of Russia. The matter did not, of course, end without anthroposophy, the “dernier cri” of West European thought. And above all this boorish nonsense loomed the “Beautiful Lady” of Blok, — a mangled legacy of the poorly understood Vladimir Solovyov. Nothing remained for the Narodniks, who had suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Church authorities but to await the coming of new times by occupying themselves with mysticism and a fashionable aesthetic.
A religious-philosophical society was founded in St. Petersburg. My God, what these naive adherents of Orthodoxy, plunged in gloom and unrelieved drudgery, did not cram their ears with! On the other hand, there appeared in the wake of Z. Gippius a true follower, the famous revolutionary and aesthete Lunacharsky, who had recited Balmont’s “Liturgy of Beauty” sing-song style over the grave of his own son. There is no need to mention the fact that these lines were not in the style of the refined Sybil of the Neva shores. What mattered was the consistent implementation of a principle.
It is difficult now, at a distance of thirty years, to determine with precision what Z. Gippius meant by prayer. At any rate, our poetess did not distinguish prayer from incantation. Nevertheless, however broadly we may construe the meaning of prayer, its unchanging essence will remain that of a free communion with the Spirit, an act that sweeps aside all conditions and all conventionalities. The ancient world, with the exception of the Old Testament, knew nothing of prayer. The latter arose first in the Bible from a yearning for a Messiah, from the hope for His coming, for His emancipation of the world form the Fate that hung over it, a feat which he was uniquely capable of.
This hope must be understood as the threshold of Grace, leading to spiritual freedom and bestowed as a gift by God to the Chosen People as a pledge of the coming victory over the doomed nature of Fate. For the absolute, that is to say, ideal pagan, prayer was and shall always be absurd, for, born out of a hope for Grace, it affirms Christ’s victory, through an unconditional communion with the Spirit, over law and Fate, the fundamental premises on which paganism rests. In proportion to its fulfillment here on earth, Christianity releases man from servile dependence on destiny, abolishing thereby man’s need for magic. The true Christian freely communes in prayer with the Spirit, while the ideal pagan conjures his god. In other words, the latter seeks willfully to cast spells on and subdue the forces of Nature, personified by his gods.
Moreover, from the point of view of Christianity, it is inadmissible to allude to the apparitional quality of pagan personifications. No, pagan mythopoesis reveals authentic and real spiritual categories. But, being estranged from Grace, this mythic creativity, this magic opens up to us the exclusively demonic possibilities of spiritual existence.
Born out of a miraculously bestowed hope, prayer resolutely pleads with God to accomplish a new miracle, an authentic spiritual transformation of the world, or, at least, of its individual phenomena. Incantation, on the other hand, does not proceed from the miraculous: its sources are deeply empirical, devoid of a transfiguring light and for that reason spiritually impotent. The sorceress, at the command of King Saul, summons up the shadow of the prophet Samuel out of the grave, and nothing more. But the Son of Man truly resurrects Lazarus. A sincere prayer dares not only to alter the decree of destiny but to nullify it altogether. For saints completely in command of the gift of prayer, there is not, nor can there ever be such a thing as a horoscope, for, humbly walking in the footsteps of Christ, they have fulfilled His bidding: “Come to me and I’ll teach you to be free.” Incantation may be capable of bringing about a mechanical displacement of the monads, even of revealing the foreordained nature of fate, but it is powerless to transform anything spiritually.
Nurtured by a keen, rational observation of the phenomena of life, magic rests on the strictest succession of coordinated signs, movements, omens, premonitions, images, sounds and words. In any incantation, form and content cannot be disengaged. This simple verity was known as much by the ancient priests, deeply proficient in their science, as by the benighted shamans of Siberia. They were convinced that a word is a living organism and that an expediently selected combination of words is as inseparable as are the yoked flesh and spirit of a human being. By means of a centuries-old, purely empirical experience, it had been fully demonstrated that incantation diminishes in effectiveness or else completely fails to attain its objective once its verbal-rhythmic structure is violated. Not in vain have poetry and art been considered, since ancient times, an inalienable part of the domain of magic. The latter seeks to take possession, in their entirely, of all the phenomena of life. By means of incantation, the physician would arrest a hemorrhage and allay diseases of the mind and body. A commander, planning to take the field, would consult with his magicians, and, on the basis of a most complicated system of signs and omens, would try to surmise in advance the outcome of battle. Finally, the poet would habitually steal the spark of heaven from the gods à la Prometheus. The pagan consciousness, whole and integral, and not undermined by the tragedy of Christianity, named things and phenomena with perfect clarity. Thus, every verbal incantation arising from artistic impulses and given a form corresponding to its content was called by the pagans poetry.
No one doubted, during the first period of the Christian era, that the foundations and concepts of Paganism would be overthrown forever in their entirety. In expectation of the Second Coming of Christ, Christians renounced pagan culture and cursed its art. Yet, the process of christianizing the world turned out to be agonizingly slow, while Paganism turned out to be extra-ordinarily obstinate and hardy. In the confrontation of two Weltanshauungen, everything which till then had appeared clear now became equivocal and ambiguous. And who shall now resolve the insoluble question: what are we to call the poet? A man chosen by God or, as before, a magician who absconds with the spark of heaven, a rebellious heir to Prometheus?
Before attempting, in response to this question, to arrive at any conjec-tures, it is necessary for us to separate the poetry which arose spontaneously within the bosom of the Church and its community from the secular poetry, for the latter, being deeply personal, was inherently seditious from the Christian point of view. Naturally, such a radical classification might call forth the objection that the Spirit, after all, moveth where it pleaseth.
Nonetheless, Christianity teaches us precisely this: that the Spirit does not wish to move within a sphere that embraces deeds and dreams nurtured outside the Church and its community. One thing is beyond dispute: a poet does not grow nor does he mature in a wilderness, cut off from the world. And not unlike other mortals, he too is infected with themes of Christianity. A theme, and especially a Christian theme, is not a dead abstraction. It yearns for embodiment and growth. In making their way into the creative work of a secular poet, Christian ideas impinge upon the pagan foundation of poetry. The muse of the secular poet attaches itself, as it matures, to the destiny of the new world: it becomes Janus-like. And if Konstantin Leontev was incontrovertibly right in calling Pushkin’s poetry seditious and magically demonic, then to a certain extent, Dostoevsky was not mistaken either in detecting in it Christian nuances. Be that as it may, even a highly biased person will not succeed in concocting a prayer out of Pushkin.
What cannot be doubted, however, is that in some mysterious fashion secular poetry became subject to the process of Christianization. But this process, having reached no more than the first phase of its development, explodes poetry from within and presents the poet with the tragic choice of either welcoming fate and perishing prematurely (the destiny of Pushkin, Lermontov and many other poets) or else of heeding the wise counsel of Baratynsky:
Push away your tripod. Cast it away.
You are not an artist, you are of the Elect.
On this earth your genius shall not enjoy
Its full nourishment nor full care.
Perhaps up there your voice will sound,
Ringing above in the celestial choir.
For the poet there is yet a third path, chosen long ago by Fet, that is, consciously and zealously and from one’s earliest years, to insulate poetry from so much as the slightest contact with Christianity, to deal with the “legend” of Christ only from a superficially aesthetic standpoint. True, with such an attitude towards the Gospel, it would be better not to bother with Christian themes in the first place, thereby avoiding aesthetic failures. We meet with just such a failure in those poems of Fet that are devoted to Christ in the wilderness: they are remarkably lifeless and of little worth.
There is not enough space here to examine in detail the price that might be exacted from a poet who seeks to attain a creative equilibrium on this third path. Nonetheless, the terrifying schism to which Fet subjected his own personality demonstrates with sufficient clarity that the poet’s atheistic conversations, which used to bring Vladimir Solovyov to tears, were not a mere whim on the part of the spoiled landowner. One half of Fet’s being lived its everyday, mundane life in a spirit of calm practicality, while the other half dreamt and cast spells on life, summoning, like Gogol’s sorcerer in “A Terrible Vengeance,” the quivering, affectionate shadow of a woman long since deceased. We know that Fet, having lived to ripe old age, died a most unusual and horrifying death.
The believing Christian cannot help but consider that our poet has paid dearly for his captivating sorcery. To the end of his days, he conjured Beauty with an insatiable pagan rapacity. And not once did he ponder the experience of Baratynsky:
The muses’ love is not unlike the enmity
Of Fortune. I remain silent lest
My fingers plucking on the strings
Awaken once more the thunderbolts
In which my fate forever sleeps . . . .
But why, I ask, does the poet’s destiny, bound up with the thunderbolts that have fallen silent for now, threaten to awaken malevolently from its slumber at the merest contact with the lyre? Is it not first of all precisely because this is Destiny and not Grace, sent down from God on high? And can the poet guarantee that the forces conjured by him and summoned up from forbidden and mysterious regions shall not overthrow the rebellious poet-conjurer himself. He has not, after all, been transfigured by the feat of holiness.
I had already quoted Khodasevich in the beginning of this essay: “For prayer to become poetry, it must not only assume a form consonant with its content. It must also arise out of a specifically artistic impulse.” There is no gainsaying the fact that a state of prayer, born out of the contemplation of Beauty, or, rather, out of a longing to create it anew, promotes the poetic act. And yet this will not cause prayer to become poetry: the essence of prayer, its spiritual content, free from all conditions and conventionalities, will unfailingly remain above poetry. So, e.g. the sacraments performed by the Church are above the rituals, though they also communicate with them in a direct and immediate way. A ritual, to be sure, is a vessel of angelic, heavenly beauty. It has been conferred upon the Church by way of revelation. A sacrament, on the other hand, cannot be transformed into a ritual, much as prayer cannot become poetry. The Church is a witness: “God speaks even through babble.” In glorifying the beauty of the divine vestments we are not praying to God . Rather, we are returning poetry to the bosom of the communal Church, thereby releasing it from magic.