Natalia V. Krylova Revol(T)ver: Gender aspects of V. Mayakovsky's anthropological experiment

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Natalia V. Krylova
Revol(T)ver: Gender aspects of V. Mayakovsky's anthropological experiment (1910-ies - 1920-ies)
Vladimir Mayakovsky’s role and place in the Russian revolution has been defined many times by himself, his contemporaries, and numerous academic researchers. The most laconic and articulate way his own position was expressed was in this short phrase from his autobiography “I Myself” (”Ja Sam”, 1922, 1928): “…MY revolution”. Equally straightforward is the Stalin’s famous remark: “Vladimir Mayakovsky was and is the best, the most talented poet of our Soviet epoch”. However, the critical and most profound definition of Mayakovsky’s ‘revolutionism’ belongs, from my point of view, to a poet of a distinct anti-revolutionary mindset and fate – Marina Tsvetaeva.

“Poet of revolution (le chante de la Revolution) and revolutionary poet –difference [sic]. They fused together only once, in Mayakovsky… Therefore, he is a miracle of our days, their harmonized maximum.”1 Tsvetaeva wrote this in 1932, two years after Mayakovsky had publicly announced the Mauser revolver, caliber 7.65, to be his only solution for a inescapable personal and social situation.

Despite an enormous amount of research, both Russian and foreign, conducted since Tsvetaeva’s time, in order to unveil the actual reasons and significance of Mayakovsky’s suicide, the problem has became even more complicated. The evolving interpretation of the Russian revolution, of which Mayakovsky’s poetry was an extension and reflection, requires a further questioning of existing concepts related to his creative and personal drama. Was his life a victory or a defeat? Was “his” personal revolution a brave artistic accomplishment or a fatal historical mistake? In this paper, we shall attempt to outline the trajectory of the poet’s biography using some categories of gender analysis as basic tools.

Any revolution, as a political event, presumes deconstruction of the preceding power system at its starting point, and the creation of a new power structure at its end. Gender hierarchies, as was noted in many classical works on gender, provide very distinct explication and reaction to the changing political realities, since gender roles per se are the projections of power (or one of the capillary levels on which power realizes itself according to Michel Foucault).

Considering the prevailingly patriarchal nature of pre-revolutionary Russian culture, one may reasonably expect that it would be the structure of masculinity that should have been mostly impacted by the dramatic political shift of the year 1917. The revolution, with its hallmark motto of fraternité (with egalité and liberté), unprecedented violence, positivistic rationalism as the core of Marxist philosophy (all three coming from the synonymic line of masculinity) and gradual suppression of feminist movement was and is traditionally perceived as a quintessentially patriarchal excess2. Thus, an analysis of the structure of gender identity of a poet who is recognized to be an exemplary model of Russian/Soviet masculinity, looks to be a very promising quest especially given that it has not been attempted before in any substantial way.

On one hand, this lack of gender research on Mayakovsky seems rather amazing, given the volumes written in discussion of his love and family affair(s), as well as the eccentric/explicit nature of his artistic performance. On the other hand, it is not surprising at all, because the image of masculinity, created by Mayakovsky’s joint poetic and behavioral practices, is to a large degree a personal myth that possesses a strong hypnotic power.

The “brave new world” of Russian revolutionary reality initially argued a new, happy and harmonized man to be its pre-condition and its ultimate goal: cosmogony was starting as anthropogony. As author of the tragedy called simply “Man” (“Chelovek”), Mayakovsky was a playwright and a willing actor in this anthropological experiment. In fact, his multi-sidedness creates an even greater confusion for any researcher.

N. Aseev, a close friend and brother in avant-garde arms for Mayakovsky, has proposed a deep and pithy image of his friend’s original masculinity – “Man of Orleans” (as opposed to the “Virgin of Orleans”, expression ironically applied by a cynical contemporary to Mayakovsky’s last lover and a suspected culprit of his death)3. In Aseev’s interpretation, “Man of Orleans” supposedly meant a quintessentially pure manliness, exalting the soul of the passed knight of the Revolution “over the heads of governments and poets”4 to the heights of Eternal Masculinity. It is no wonder that in the following Soviet cultural discourse Mayakovsky obtained the status of a Father figure, the personification of power and authority, - a status, he was so desperately deprived of in the reality of his earthy life. A similarly mythologized Mayakovsky image appeared in V. Kataev’s metaphorical narrative “My Diamond Crown” (“Almaznyi moi venets”, 1978), where he was positioned incognito among the artists of his generation as Commodore (‘Komandor’) - a vigorous image with a sensitive flash-back to the repressive phallic character from A. Pushkin’s version of Don Guan, “The Stone Guest” (“Kamennyi Gost’”). Meanwhile, neither post-Soviet (or anti-Soviet), nor postmodern scholarship have suggested a newer, more dialectic concept of Mayakovsky’s unique persona. In his famous pamphlet Yurii Karabchievsky argues that the poet’s most unforgivable fault is his dedication to the power, not just Soviet power, but also ontological power. In fact, the overtones of the discussion may even involve mythological figures of power (e.g. Mefistofel). Mayakovsky has given voice to the evil power, according to the author of “Mayakovsky’s Resurrection” (“Voskresenie Mayakovskogo”, 1983 – 1990). Fourteen years later, Vadim Rudnev, the author of the rather polemical “Dictionary of XX Century Culture” (“Slovar’ kultury XX veka”, 1997), describes Mayakovsky from a post-structuralist perspective, but ends up with the same characterological patterns of flamboyant machismo: “…Aggressive, with roaring voice, athlete…”.

Was Vladimir Mayakovsky’s personal and creative identity really organized according to the existing patterns of Russian patriarchal masculinity? In what way was his unique model of masculinity interacting with and affecting the hegemonic gender patterns in pre- and post-revolutionary realities? Was his identity a static or a dynamic phenomenon? Finally, was his poetic and anthropological experiment a revolt (leading to a real cultural novelty), or rather, it was a revolution (with inevitable ultimate regression to even more archaic cultural and social archetypes than before)5? These questions reach far beyond the framework of this short article. Here I shall focus on the structure of V. Mayakovsky’s masculinity, represented in some of his writings and artistic behavior, taken in the cultural context of his time. All the problems mentioned above might become the prospective extension of this preliminary analysis.

First of all, the analysis of Mayakovsky’s early work, when his futuristic persona was most intensively constructed and rationalized, brings us to a paradoxical conclusion about the uniquely problematic gender identity of this poet. The cultural masks his lyrical hero tends to choose belong to the semantic areas of social marginality, irrationality (on the edge of insanity, sometimes – beyond it), animalism, disease or immorality. Thus, looking for an audience for his prophecy, he finds only leprosarium patients, prostitutes, animals or just animated objects (e.g. a violin or a flower on the wall paper) and a group of apocalyptic creatures that includes “a man without an eye and a leg”, “a man without a head”, “a man with two kisses”, etc. (Tragedy “Vladimir Mayakovsky”, 1914). Even God, in the rare cases when fictional ‘Mayakovsky” encounters him without a following scandal, seems to be a trickster creature (e.g. “But Anyway…”, “A vs’e-taki”) rather than the embodiment of spiritual power. The philosophical intentionality of the futuristic “Slap on the face of Public Taste” has been successfully studied in dozens of works on avant-garde aesthetics. But no one, so far as I am aware, has yet put the emphasis on the fact of the overwhelming femininity of Mayakovsky’s futurist self-representation6. The imagery of weak, victimized, extraordinary sensual and impulsive, tongue-tied to the edge of muteness (‘zaum’)7, principally irrational (sometimes breaking into hysteria8), fleshy (as un-spiritual), animalistic et cetera, perfectly fits the Fin de siècle concept of femininity! An original culmination of this tendency could be found in the title image of Mayakovsky’s early programmatic poem – “Cloud in Trousers” (“Oblako v shtanah”, 1916). It is appropriate to remember, that the abovementioned image serves as a summary of the author’s self-identification – chauvinistically male on the rhetorical level (with recognizable replicas to Nietzsche), but paradoxically feminine in its metaphoric realization. The signifying object – trousers – are intended to emphasize the hero’s manliness and youth juxtaposed on the “senile tenderness” of the degenerating world. But in fact the symptomatic lack of the phallic object in them (substituted by the shapeless fogginess of a cloud) may be interpreted as a failed project of masculinity. But is it really a failure?

The consistence, with which Mayakovsky designs his fictional alter ego using the framework of ‘Eternal Femininity’, rather speaks of the opposite. Furthermore, we may find additional confirmation to the conscious character of this self-modeling - in the poet’s artistic dress code. It was, of course, the carnival and masquerade nature of the pre-revolutionary culture in Russia that determined young Mayakovsky’s interest in performative practices and special scenic dressing. Some of his garments underwent a very effective transition from cabaret stages to the symbolism of his poetry. If we were to try to identify the most favorable costume for the young futurist, it would doubtlessly be his famous “yellow shirt” (“zholtaya kofta”), which penetrates the dense metaphoric tissue of his early lyrics and which happened to become his own original metonymical definition9.

The semantic potential of this dominant image displays an unexpected gender marker as the direct lexical meaning of the word “shirt” is the concept that is being addressed. According to V. Dahl’s “Explanatory Dictionary of the Live Great Russian language”, “kofta” (a shirt) – is a “female coat of different design”10. One might suppose that the particular style of this shirt could be identified as “apache”11 – a very popular shirt style in the men’s fashion of 1910’s, as popular as the very emploi of an apache (declassed urban tramp) – widely celebrated by European bohème since the turn of the century. The image of an Indian, a “savage” (in the discourse of European civilization), after being manifested through the poet’s dress code, have embellished the gender identity of his lyrical hero, since the notions of untamed sensuality, a-sociality, closeness to nature are traditionally building into the semantic complex of femininity in patriarchal cultures.

Possible interpretations of Mayakovsky’s newly articulated and problematic gender identity could range from the perspectives of art history (e.g. the continuation of the symbolists’ cult of Eternal Femininity), from the perspectives of psychoanalysis (e.g. as a rudimental representation of Oedipus’ complex), to the perspectives of the utopian philosophy of avant-garde art.

But in any case, his programmatic self-marginalization through the enforcement of feminine elements in artistic self-representation created a logical and convenient foundation for the alienation of the existing universe as a false one, reducing and deforming the very human nature. Positioning himself beyond (and above!) the existing gender patterns/models, Mayakovsky obtained a perfect niche for the further attack on this world – in the cultural nowhere, in absolute inaccessibility. And due to that – at the point of absolute power.

In the future, after the October revolution, the semantic area of femininity will remain a consistent source of cognitive and non-conformist strategy in Mayakovsky’s creative endeavors. Thus, at the turning point of the social turmoil, of 1918, he produced a lyrical jewel wherein his auto-biographical animalistic character, a dying female horse (loshad’), would balance the atrocity and indifference of the impersonal world portrayed through just a single detail, the male trousers typical of revolutionary sailors (“klyoshi”). As for the author of “Good Attitude to Horses”, he shares the “sort of fellow animal pain” with the fallen horse, experiences the revelation that “we are all essentially horses, / each and every one of us is something of a horse”. This plot inevitably recalls, in a Russian reader’s memory, the classical female characters from Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”, the slaughtered peasant’s horse from Raskolnikov’s nightmare, and his two female victims. And it is very important, that Mayakovsky who had no problem identifying himself with Raskolnikov in other poems12, found the words of compassion and self-humiliation in the midst of the year when White and Red terrors were announced by the two competing political authorities, the bloody Civil war began and the family of the Russian monarch was assassinated.

After successfully questioning the homogeneous monolithic masculinity of early Mayakovsky, it is not difficult to trace the feminine structures in his later work, especially those created during the periods of philosophical revisions which were correlated with the reformulation of identity. The last, but not the least evidence of ambivalent gender identity can be found in his farewell writings – the two plays (“The Bedbug”, 1928, and “The Bathhouse”, 1930) and the first prelude to his “immortal” (B. Pasternak) poem “At the top of my voice” (1930). The latter, despite the dominating and morose tone of Commodore’s epitaph, contains a striking image of “a freshly laundered shirt”, the late replica of his futuristic yellow shirt. In this particular context, in addition to its role as an unauthorized female carnival garment, it also plays the role of both a burial shroud and a baptismal robe.

The phenomenon of parallelism between the funeral and initiation rituals is well-known in cultural anthropology, and both traditionally include the moment of gender reduction: that is, the one who goes through a transcendental experience is not the subject of profane power or gender relations. Thus, Mayakovsky demonstrated his devotion to the initial utopian project, articulated earlier in “Left March” (1918): “Enough of living by laws / that Adam and Eve have left”.

From this short study, we may conclude that:

  • Vladimir Mayakovsky’s gender identity, despite his reputation as an exemplary representative of masculine values of power, displays a distinct ambivalence, even at the first approach.

  • The feminine imagery and axiology penetrate his poetry and artistic behavior throughout all of his creative biography, more explicitly on the aesthetic, rather than rhetoric level. That, in turn, reflects the complexity of the Creator-to-Creation relationship, where Mayakovsky played both roles.

  • Feminine identity strategies proved to be a powerful source of personal transformation and an effective tool for confronting the actual power, both political and cultural.

  • Hence, we may hypothesize that Mayakovsky’s avant-gardist trajectory of gradual change in human nature is not through androgenic reduction of sex, as was proposed by Symbolism; but rather through the elimination of “capillary” power presence in gender relations, sustained during the political turmoil and personal dramas encountered by the poet.

  • Applying the Hegelian theory of power to this case, we may conclude that the tragic shot from the Mauser revolver on April 1st, 1930 was a manifestation of the Sovereign’s choice, and a playful creative act.

1 Marina Tsvetaeva. "Poet i vremia" // Izbrannaia proza v dvukh tomakh, vol. 1 (New York: Russica Publishers Inc., 1979). P. 374.

2 See in more details in: Russian masculinities in History and Culture. (L., Palgrave Pres, 2002); O muzhe(N)stvennosti: Sb. Statey / Sost. S. Ushakin. (M., NLO, 2002); Borenstein, Eliot. Men without Women: Masculinity and Revolution in Russian Fiction, 1917 – 1929. (Duke University Press, 2000); Zolotonosov, M. Slovo I Telo. Seksualnye aspekty, universalii, interpretacii russkogo kul’turnogo teksta XIX – XX vekov. (M., Ladomir, 1999); Sexuality and the Body in Russian Culture, ed. by Jane Costlow, Stephanie Sandler, and Judith Vowles. (Stanford University Press, 1998).

3 Aseev, Nikolay. Vosspominaniya o Mayakovskom // V. Mayakovsky v vosspominaniyah sovremennikov. (Moscow, GIHL), 1963. P. 183.

4 A line from Mayakovsky’s poem “At the top of my voice” (“Vo ves golos”, 1930).

5 This concept is represented, for example, in one of the best among recently published monographs about Mayakovsky: Vajskopf Mikhail, Vo ves’ logos. Religiya Mayakovskogo. (Moscow – Jerusalem, Salamandra), 1997.

6 Some other futurists were more “lucky” in this aspect; for example we may mention the brilliant scholarly works by Dubravka Oraič-Tolič on Velimir Khlebnikov.

7 “…The tongueless street merely writhes / for lack of something to shout or say…” (“Cloud in Trousers”).

8 See the relevant interpretation of V. Mayakovsky’s “Cloud in Trousers” in: Etkind, Efim. Tam, vnutri: O russkoi poezii XX veka. (Moscow, 1997). Etkind rather convincingly tracks the plot of this very surrealistic poem as a chronicle of developing/evolving delirium.

9 K. Chukovsky remembered, for instance, how Vlas Doroshevitch, a famous essayist of the time, reacted to Mayakovsky’s possible visit to him: “If you’ll dare to bring your yellow shirt here, I shall call for a policeman”.

10 Dahl Vladimir. Explanatory Dictionary of the Live Great Russian language. Vol. 2. (Moscow, 1955). P. 180.

11 Mayakovsky’s iconography and numerous memoirs of his contemporaries create a solid ground for this assumption.

12 E.g., in “About That” (“Pro eto”, 1923).

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