This is the second part of an essay about John Ashbery's copy of the Selected Writings of Boris Pasternak, published in 1949 by New Directions, as Direction 9.
A younger Pasternak
I appreciated then how well trained are our facial muscles. Unable to breath properly from nervousness I mumbled something with a dry tongue and washed down my replies with frequent swallows of tea so as not to choke or make matters worse in some other way.
The skin began to creep along my jaw-bones and the protuberances of my forehead, I moved my eyebrows, nodded and smiled, and each time I touched the creases of this mimicry upon the bridge of my nose, creases ticklish and sticky like cobwebs, I discovered my handkerchief clutched convulsively in my hand and with it again and again I wiped the large beads of sweat from my brow. Behind my head, spring, bound by the curtains, rose smokily over the whole mews. In front, between my hosts who were trying with redoubled talkativeness to guide me out of my difficulties, the tea exhaled in the cups, the samovar hissed pierced by its arrow steam, and the sun, misted with water and manure, circled upwards. The smoke of a stump of cigar, wavy like a tortoiseshell comb, pulled its way from the ashtray to the light, on reaching which it crawled repletely along it sideways as though it were a piece of felt. I don't know why, but this circling of blinded air, the steaming waffles, smoking sugar and silver burning like paper, heightened my nervousness unbearably. It subsided when going across to the salon I found myself at the piano. --lined passage from page 22-23
The most amazing aspect of this scene is that it is an account of Pasternak going to visit Aleksandr Scriabin, the great Russian pianist and composer of demonic revolutionary works, who was Pasternak's instructor, to play some of his own original keyboard compositions for the master. Pasternak's first intention had been in fact to become a serious musical composer, and it was only later that he gave up this dream to pursue poetry. Like all translations, this one may suffer from the impenetrable idiomatic membrane which insulates separate languages from each other, especially those as different from each other Russian is from English. Nevertheless, certain things can be noted. First, there is almost a kind of dissociation of the speaker from his presence of mind, such that the details of events become overwhelming, a nervousness brought on by the anticipatory anxiety of playing before his teacher. The passage has some of the encapsulating weirdness that I've always identified with Ashbery's own prose writing, both the kinds he's employed in his poetry, or that to be found in his narrative prose (e.g., A Nest of Ninnies, with James Schuyler, New York: Dutton, 1969).
Greece distinguished excellently among ages. She understood how to meditate on childhood which is as sealed up and independent as an initial integrated kernel. How greatly she possessed this, can be seen in her myth of Ganymede and many others which are similar. The same convictions entered her interpretations of the demi-god and the hero. In her opinion, some portion of risk and tragedy must be gathered sufficiently early in a handful which can be gazed upon and understood in a flash. Certain sections of the edifice and among these the principal arch of fatalism, must be laid once and for all from the very outset in the interests of its future proportions. And finally, death itself must be experienced, possibly in some memorable similitude.
And this is why the ancients with an art that was generalized, ever unexpected, enthralling as a fair-tale, still knew nothing of Romanticism.
Brought up on a demand never afterwards made on anyone, on a superworld of deeds and problems, she was completely ignorant of the super world as a personal effect. She was ensured against that because she prescribed for childhood the whole dose of the extraordinary, which is to be found in the world. And according to her ways, when man entered gigantic reality with gigantic steps, both his coming out and his surroundings were accounted ordinary. --lined passage from pages 25-26
This passage follows upon a declaration that the author realizes he will soon abandon music and musical composition. It seems to be a way of saying that the decision to move away from music, towards another challenge, means an entry into the larger world ("superworld"). Much of the early part of Safe Conduct seems intended to convey a sense of tremendous abstraction, a generalized confusion which a tightly-wound-up artistic youth might feel on the threshold of alarming, but inspiring, discoveries and revelations. Descriptive passages like the one below abound.
I stood craning my neck and breathing hard. Above me towered a dizzy height on which in three tiers stood the stone maquette of the university, the town hall and the eight-hundered-year-old castle. After my tenth step I ceased to understand where I was. I remembered that I had forgotten my tie with the rest of the world in the railway carriage, and it was not be be recalled now any more than the hooks, the luggage-racks and the ashtrays. Above the clock-tower clouds stood festively. The place seemed familiar to them. But they too explained nothing. It was obvious that as the guardians of this nest, they were not to be parted from it. A mid-day silence reigned. It communed with the silence of the plain stretched out below. They seemed to rise to the sum total of my bewilderment. The higher passed to the lower in a weary wave of lilac. Birds chirruped expectantly. I scarcely noticed the people. The motionless contours of the roofs were filled with curiosity--how would it all end?
The streets clung to the steeps like Gothic dwarfs. They were situated one below the other and their basements gazed over the attacks of their neighbours. Their narrow ways were filled with wonders of boxlike architecture. The floors which widened out upwards lay on protruding beams and, their roofs almost touching, they stretched out their hands towards each other over the road. They had no pavements. You could not walk freely in all of them.
Suddenly I realized, that a day must have preceded the five-year strolling of Lomonosov along these same bridges, when he first entered this town with a letter of introduction to Christian Wolff, a student of Leibniz, and still knew no one there. It is not enough to say the town had not changed. One had to realize that it might well have appeared just as unexpectedly small and medieval even for those days. And turning one's head, one could be jolted, repeating exactly one terribly distant bodily movement. As in the days of Lomonosov scattered at one's feet with the whole grey-blue swarm of its slate roofs, the town resembled a flock of doves enticed in a lively flight towards their cot at feeding time. I was in a flutter as I celebrated the second centenary of someone else's neck muscles. Coming to myself I noticed that the décor had become reality, and set off to find a cheap guest-house to which I had been directed by Samarin. --lined passage from pages 47-48
This passage recounts a visit that Pasternak paid to the ancient German city of Marburg, seat of an important Protestant university . The town was, and is still architecturally impressive, with many old, Gothic structures. Again, one has the sense of a disorientation, as if the young poet's faculties have been overwhelmed by the scene set before him, as the rush of descriptive language comes pouring forth in an unedited stream. The air of unconcealed excitation is one, again, that seems to my mind to have a ring of familiarity in Ashbery's curious specimen-like fascination for isolated accounts of mental confusion expressed almost as a descriptive possession.
This is all so far away that if imagination reaches back so far, at the point where it meets this scene a snowstorm rises of its own accord. It breaks out from extreme cold in obedience to the rule of the conquered unattainable. Night will set in there, the hills be clothed with forests, in the forests wild beasts will come. And human manners and customs will be encrusted with ice. --lined passage from pages 51-52
This passage is inspired by the author conjuring up the historical figure Elizabeth of Hungary, a Countess of Thuringia who died at age 24 and was canonized as a saint for her work among the sick, in the year 1230. But the important thing is not the specificity of the personage evoked, or even its antiquity, but the conviction that civilization will eventually crumble and capitulate to the advance of wild beasts from the forested countryside. Though dream-like in its aspect, this passage, though much like the rest of the text, can stand alone as a sort of capsule miniature scene, an enclosed illuminated vision.
The last two passages are brief, but telling.
Taste teaches morality and power teaches taste. --lined passage from page 60
Like my fellow-travellers in the compartment, it would have to take into account that every love is a crossing over into a new faith. --lined passage from page 69
The first--rather like a proverb or aesthetic axiom--seems to summarize a whole attitude towards art and culture. If taste, as Oscar Wilde might have averred, determines morality, then power (as in the Nietzsche's will to power) nevertheless may hold sway, since taste is at the mercy of enforced circumstance. The second, though rendered in the course of a seemingly trivial event in a rooming-house where Pasternak was staying in Marburg, where he spent several months in 1912, has a similar kind of formulaic ring: A passage in a railway car to meet someone important for dinner. Rail transport often has a deeply metaphysical symbolic significance in Pasternak's imagination.
Pasternak in later life
Though these passages are not linked, it should be noted that Pasternak's text is impressionistic, and poetic in its pacing and details. It is an example of what is called "spiritual autobiography" rather than a straight report. Albeit, as I have elsewhere said, all autobiography is by its nature a kind of self-deception, if not outright dissimulation, or a deliberate kind of lying. It's best to remember this, especially in judging the meaning of a work like Safe Conduct. It is precisely this impressionistic aspect that probably attracted Ashbery's interest.
Ironically, perhaps the most telling instance of Ashbery's acknowledgment of Pasternak is the quotation to his poem "The Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers" [from Some Trees]. This concluding passage is not marked in the text, but it's certainly likely that Ashbery first read it here. The quotation precedes the poem, and is the last line of Pasternak's Safe Conduct:
He was spoilt from childhood by the future, which he mastered rather early and apparently without great difficulty.
But to understand that engaging statement, one must realize that it is the culmination of the collective grief of a literary coterie which was facing a kind of doom. In Pasternak's narrative, Mayakovsky, the great Russian poet, and Pasternak's contemporary, had just killed himself, and his body put in a coffin.
When I returned in the evening, he was already in his coffin . . . Suddenly, outside, underneath the window I imagined I saw his life, which now already belonged entirely to the past. I saw it move away obliquely from the window like a quiet tree-bordered street resembling the Povarskaya. And the first to take its stand in this street, by the very wall, was our State, our unprecedented and unbelievable State, rushing headlong towards the ages and accepted by them forever . . . And it occurred to me then in the same irrelevant way that this man was perhaps this State's unique citizen. The novelty of the age flowed climatically through his blood. His strangeness was the strangeness of our times of which half is as yet fulfilled . . . All these [character traits] were explained by his familiarity with states of mind which though inherent in our time, have not yet reached full maturity. He was spoilt from childhood by the future, which he mastered rather early and apparently without great difficulty.
I have no idea what the Russian idiom for "spoilt" is; in English, a child "spoiled" means a child pampered or over-indulged, which carries a double-meaning. One can be spoiled for the future. But how can one be affected by something that has not yet happened? Or is the meaning that one's childhood itself is ruined? That one's innocence is maimed? Or perhaps that one's fate is sealed, like an unknown destiny? Actually, it's more likely that those with great aptitude or genius see too much, and thus become instruments of their superior grasp.
Ashbery, of course, was a very precocious child, appearing on a radio program for very smart children, later attending Deerfield Academy, where he wrote poems that were published in Poetry (Chicago) Magazine. Ashbery's life, if you follow the thread, suggests that he has always managed to master every obstacle in his path. Though somewhat misunderstood early in his career, the official literary culture has embraced him with increasing affection over the last 30 or so years.
Recent photo of Ashbery
Unlike Pasternak, who suffered the opprobrium of being officially despised by his own government, Ashbery has basked in glory. He may not have been spoiled by the future, but he certainly has mastered it.
Following clues from textual scraps is one of the duties of scholarship, hence the proliferation of literary "archives" among many of our more prestigious institutional libraries. There is even an Ashbery Resource Center Archive at Bard College, a project of the Flow Chart Foundation (named after Ashbery's longest single poem). I humbly submit my little bit of research to the world at large, in the hopes that it will find a better home than my idle imagination. If Ashbery wants his book back, he'll have to write me direct. Years ago, I asked him to submit some poems for a literary magazine I was editing, and he gratefully responded with three works. I actually paid him for these, but they were never used. One was included in his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror book, which won all the prizes the year it was published.
This whole exercise is like the footnote to a footnote. And footnotes, like marginalia, are parasitic growths on the actual stuff of literature.