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The Ukrainian Solzhenitsyn:
The Poetry of Vasyl Stus, Part 2

Vasyl-Stus [1]3,156 words

Part 2 of 3


Solid ground is death; it’s the rule of matter and the mundane; both air and water are the alternative, the boundary between the nominal and the Real it refuses to see. Yet, terms like “desert” or “tundra” refer to the lonely life of non-affirmation. One cannot create a substitute world; civilization is materialization of dominance. God, in this human struggle, seems lonely, as is any manifestation of greatness; the great are to be isolated. “Materialized reproach” is the rape of this faceless world.

Solitude is the origin of the boundary; the ice melts, yet the depression is the cycle of Spring that will soon die into Fall. Alienation from the present reality is the start of freedom. Alienation in solitude (a healthy reaction to a dying Regime) is the first step, it gives hope.


While crawling through the needle’s eye —
you’ll be scratched like a dog in the brambles.
Almost everything stays with your clothing,
almost nothing — with you.
On this side, narrowed down to a crevice,
a graveyard of souls, flayed and dressed.
On this side — plentiful motley,
and you — utterly bare.
your shameful naked flesh.
In paradise they bound up with threads
Indignation appears in furrows,
and sorrow is furrowed.
On this side you become as newborn,
straightened out, head to toe.
On this side — one measure for all.
Everything slithers.

The “needle’s eye” is a reference to Christ’s harsh conception of salvation in the Gospels. The “needle” is a mode of entrance into a walled city that was so small that only a single man on a camel could pass through. All extraneous items had to be removed. This was a clearly visible symbol of Christ’s mission to reject that which most men seek as the route to “happiness.” This of course, is also what it stripped of the man in prison. “One measure for all” can only be a fact in a system where every possession or even physical attribute is stripped.

By saying that “almost everything stays with your clothing,” Stus is making it clear that possessions are no substitute for the personality. Most men, with their possessions taken (and this includes all honors and reputation), are rendered totally vulnerable: they are nothing. Your nudity is “shameful” because, outside of the artificial and plastic prestige of society, you as a man are nobody.

Weep, sky, weep and weep! Wash the unabated sea
Of thin-voiced waters and humidify the heart.
It seems it was just now, just yesterday
That a deathly shiver buried you alive.
Weep, sky, weep and weep! The past cannot be returned,
Today has been reduced to naught, the future will not come.
Something weighs on the mind that can never
Be torn from the heart. This prison is a prison for prisons!
Weep, sky, weep and weep! Spill over your horizons
And let the stars fall from darkened skies!
Is there in this world a trumpet that will sound
A final blast to keep me from my resurrection?
Flow, water, flow and sweep me away from my weariness,
for eternities of bondage have crushed me.
High upland thunder, girdle the earth!
Pitch-winged cloud, bless me!
Lightning, send a message!
Hallowed be the world. The night is its companion.
So, water, flow forth! And you, misfortune, rage!

The sky is potential, freedom in spirit and truth. It is not necessarily manifesting truth, but gives a glimpse as to its nature; it is not of this world. It is confronted by the “unabated” sea,  the chaotic feminine. The sky weeps in that the language of Old Rus’ is now tainted, nominalism has severed man from the sky, the scythe of materialism has reduced all to nothing. There is no truth, just the power of those capable of imparting meaning.

God rules over the world (lightning) while clouds (usually the Spirit) come to consecrate the world, but the one who severed epistemology from its source and ground would not recognize it. This severance is the nature of modernity, and its totalitarianism lies in the fact that once passion has been kindled against reason and against the transcendent, there is no return. The world will always seem hostile, distorted, and chaotic once its ground is thought to not exist. Now, the mind cannot even consider the fact, so absolute and “blunt” the nature of the “given” is. Even St. Michael’s trumpet at the last times will not rouse those so victimized, since reality presents itself as absolute, such manifestations will be seen as “mental illness.” So what is the result?

Through centuries
our memory has thirsted avidly for this:
to go perpetuated. To preserve
one’s self for trials; for a role unplayed
in life; for the fulfillment of the wish
to multiply by all the days to come
the feelings that remained unharmonized;
for the completion of experiments
of ages, if not by one’s own hand, then by
descendants (who will know what kept us distanced
from each other).
Oh, the shards of bitterness
that oppress the heart! You — less than human;
and time — invented just for penances,
to cleanse the lips from a defiling muteness,
to have communion with the primal word,
the word that is unable to extinguish
a thirst precipitous — impetuous flight —
that lost its sting, and now it merely lures,
and merely casts a spell with its lost start
and with its end foreseen.
You are a mutant.
An untimely guest. Your age has met you
much too late. And you arrived too early
and only falsehood flourished in your heart.
What have you become? And what can you become?
aren’t you alone? utterly alone?
like an accusing finger, a lament in the highest?
to countervail is much beyond our strength
for it encompasses both love and hate.

This is the eternal condemnation of the traditionalist. “To have communion with the primal world” is to connect oneself with natural law and the specific cultural forms that develop around it. You’re a “mutant” because you cannot abide the standardization of modern life. To “preserve oneself for trials” is the very purpose of the nation. Nations are not random collections of individuals, but these are people united in language. “Language” is a broad term that denotes not just vocabulary and syntax, but mores, the universe of meaning that gives words any purpose at all. For small nations like Ukraine, their history is largely one of suffering. External pressure, foreign occupation and exploitation by larger states seems to be their lot.

Oh, slender-waisted poplar!
You look like a sword but only from afar.
You’re no sword.
You’re just sorrow.
You’re a shout, stifled in the throat.
From ancient times,
storms, like prophesies, roar above you
while you sway in grief
and grieve along the tillage.
Oh, sorrowful poplar!
So many years you’ve grieved and keened!
You have lamented, seagull-like.
along the high road.
You — a lofty farewell.
You bowed to earth for countless ages
when your sons parted from you,
and you waited, mute with sorrow.
The wide world
takes your sons. None come back.
You are doomed throughout life
to await their return in your loneliness.
If they come — welcome them.
If they don’t — where would you be?
Remain ever watchful
with a rough tear between eyelashes.

Trees are noble elements; wood a tremendous fruit. It is ancient Ukraine. The poplar in particular is the nation. It is the folk, the ancient idea. This is an extension of the concepts above. “You bowed to earth for countless ages,” this is the lot of the small nation and often, those who cannot be forced into any kind of mold.

Multiplied twofold, threefold, a hundredfold,
you diminish. You deepen — and become deaf.
Thus — don’t rush. All will come in time,
(because your thirsting roots still keep on growing?)
The age soars unceasingly. Hey — yes!
The hands — on the road, the feet — on the road,
the mind and all your feelings — on the road,
and with them, as a non-paying passenger,
let’s say, a stowaway — the heart, insatiable
for roaming without end.

One of the essential concepts in Stus’ poetry is that the self, the “I,” is never an object. In the above passage, Stus is mocking the pretense of modernity: dialogue for the sake of more dialogue, while the Regime continues its misrule without serious opposition. The “road” is a very old icon for mystic initiation into the materialist halls of power.

Let’s soar, oh, ship!
You are bartered away by desires,
one piece at a time. You lose yourself
in the world that had encompassed you childhood,
the threshold of the village home, grandmother’s gifts,
and mother’s calloused earnings of each day.
A tiny lump, you sink into a bottomless abyss.
Your world is bursting forth from brazen clarions
(and every span of time — a golden circlet,
and all the years the years — like golden trumpeteers).

This is one of the most profound passages in Stus’ work. Of all societies in history, only Marxism and capitalism are based exclusively around the satisfaction of desire. The problem is that it reduces man to simply a bundle of desires. Mere matter in motion that can be standardized and administered such that the bulk of these desires can be satisfied. One loses oneself when citizenship is given up for commodity consumption.

One excellent example of this failure is how Westerners have misinterpreted Gogol’s “Old World Landowners.” This is suitable here because Stus mentions the connection between tradition and “grandmother’s gifts.” The problem with all academic Gogol scholarship is that Gogol was mocking the pretensions of literary scholarship, especially in the conformist and bureaucratic machine of the American university. At the end of Government Inspector, Gogol confesses that it is the smug bureaucrat (whether in the private or public sector is not important) in the audience, the man who thinks he understands it all, that is primarily being mocked. Yet, even with Gogol’s open mockery, the academics still try to “interpret” a poet who loathed their very existence.

Apart from the absurdity of culture-less, urban, underworked, liberal-elite academics having the gall to interpret a poet whose whole reason for writing was to destroy their pretensions, moderns cannot grasp even basic, simple symbols and arguments Gogol’s readers would be fluent with. Whether it is the symbolism of Vyy or “The Portrait,” the nominalist professor has not the mental, ideological, or even ontological tools and vocabulary needed to even begin to make sense out of these poems. Instead, they search for the job-security of discovering all the latent “gender” and “sexual” issues Gogol was “repressing.” Of course, Gogol was well aware that this deracinated class would try to discover what he did not say bereft of any understanding of what he did. Stus says precisely this about the academics of his own day above.

“Old World Landowners” is one of the most significant of Gogol’s short stories. It is as far as human beings can get to a utopic existence. Perfection is not possible, but the elderly couple has come close. Rest is the state of man, the urbanite is constantly moving; the rural idyll is concerned with simple needs, the urbanite has no grounds to rank any needs; the couple in OWL sees joy in the tiniest thing, while the deracinated has trouble defining what a “thing” is and what it would mean for something to have such significance. Worse, the typical arrogant rhetoric of this class in the condemnation of their alter egos in the short story is odd given its polemical nature. This writer is polemical on a daily basis, they at least struggle to maintain some sort of ethereal, faux-neutral approach to literature. It is as if they realize Gogol has them, and they do not have the vocabulary to respond.

The connection with the Stus passage above is that it is very reminiscent of the typical academic butchery of OWL. In fact, given the reference to grandparents, it might be an explicit reference to the story. There is a very significant difference: Stus above is dealing with  the modern nominalist. There is no simple joys since neither “simple” or “joy” have any real referent. Stus briefly shows the downward spiral where the simple joys of the old Ukrainian life quickly become mutated under the radiating gaze of commercial capitalism and materialist socialism: desire becomes a creed to be manipulated.

He states that, once the memory of the grandparents, OWL-style life is firm, “your world” then takes it and makes something different out of it. Nominalism has no stable meanings, objects, or referents, so there is no ontological ground to protest. Youth, the time of innocence, of intuitive knowledge, will soon be destroyed in arbitrary concepts and neurosis. To make reference to two circles afterwards, as well as the trumpet (as if announcing the real ruler), shows that there is no end, no purpose but power. Youth is sacrificed to the Moloch of urbanizing neurosis and spiritual necrosis.

The broader point to this digression is that the camp liberates the spirit because this destruction is kept at bay. Certain Russian nationalists give a grudging thanks to the USSR for keeping some corrosive Western ideas at arm’s length for some time. For all the suffering of the camp, the spirit, the mind and soul all have a new life to lead unencumbered by the daily life of the administrator.

Stus’ hatred of nominalism is of course inherent in all poetry. Nominalism and poetry contradict each other essentially. For Stus, nature is the symbol, the poet is to see logos — the origin of the archetype — in both human and otherwise created nature. Since the modern nominalist, capitalist and socialist, rejects the very existence of such archetypes, the poet becomes easy prey to the propagandist, since one line is as good as another. Abstractions like “freedom” or “totalism” have no third entity to unify them in order to contrast them.

The following lines in the same poem confirm this horrid end:

The woods and the sprites hasten towards the sound.
Left alone in the trees, in the shadows,
in the shards of people’s sunny eyes,
from morning grasses, and from the shimmer of stars,
you turn away so that face yourself.
And so unfathomably grows the heart!
May the eyes drink all in sight. The ears
perceive and hear. The scent inebriate
and choose. And may the the sun invade the soul,
creating a whole world without horizons!
And now, already lost among the stars,
amidst the suffering you gladden sadness,
amidst the sorrowing you give new strength to joy
(and through remembrances surmise the future?)
So many hopes are nested in the soul!
So many golden hornets fill the breast!
Thus — don’t rush: your brow will bloom again —
and you will weave a path with youthful steps.

This is life in mass society; life in the camp. It is salvation — suffering purifies and brings one to God and, often for the first time, to the real self. Without God, man is empty. When man is empty, he seeks to fill this chasm with whatever the Regime offers. Today, it’s commodities, fashion, ideology, and pretense. Then, it was “production” and the future utopia of the party elite. Stus knows better: he will never permit the blind to tell him that there is no sun, or the tone-deaf to condemn Mozart. However, to reach this, suffering is required, or specifically, one must be removed from materialism, whether of the east or the west. Modernity is bureaucracy, quantity, and standardization: the self does not exist unless it’s externalized in the images of the Regime.

Despair is the abyss, mentioned above. Frustration, loss of faith and hope is the pit; a hall, hole, pit, any empty, dark space is abandonment. The opposite is the sky, hope. One becomes deaf since what is “real” is what is useful. It is what “society” or some other abstraction has seen fit to name for you. The transcendent ground for anything is gone, so one can do nothing.

“Desires” have destroyed innocence. The truth that is often only available to children becomes the victim of power, “production” or quantity. He writes elsewhere:

What is the unity of souls? and truth?
And trust? And what is friendship, and what love?
They are habits in stasis. Fossilized
astonishment, extended into ages,
. . . no more than this? And what of empathy?
and what of self-bestowal — instead of
self-preservation? What of the heart-cry?
these generous sparks of self-awareness —
are they merely mute reflections of spiritualities, hoary with grief?
isn’t so? Say — isn’t so? Say — that
we entrust ourselves exceedingly to that which until now has not been named,
but which already demarcates its essence
on boundaries of madness? In truth?
It seems — tranquility has stiffened out,
congealed — and, like cast iron, will not bend.
(a fortress of faith, so to speak). And we —
go on and bow our foolish little heads
and rejoice. Heaven deprives us not of its bounty. Deprives us not.
You say — a son; I trust — a son! When dusk
begins to peek around the corner at the gate —
I bow my head over the bedstead
and my soul, my glances, my lips, go
towards the place where, like a pitcher of milk,
my little son rocks in his cradle,
starting in his sleep . . .

“Self-preservation” is the death of humanity. It lies at the root of capitalist and socialist ideologies. It is the essence of Darwinism and the politics of empire. This is the boundary between “madness and truth.” Madness can only exist when images are taken for reality and worse, when those rejecting the image are themselves condemned as “insane.” The nation, the church, the sobor — these are the unities based on “self-bestowal.” Darwinism takes the decay of the Enlightenment idea of the egocentric, isolated atom of the Leviathan and makes it a “scientific truth.” It justifies industrialization, oligarchy, empire, and “progress” — everything the elite wanted to hear in the middle of the 19th century in western Europe. It is the ideology of Babylon.

Against it stands the Orthodox nation. The root of this is the unity of symbol, language and referent in a single unity, Sobornapravna. The folk tradition is the first step for the poet and prisoner in unlocking this. The poet, the oppressed, marginalized struggler, can see logos in the symbolic world of the agrarian life which manifests the historical suffering of Ukraine. Modernity rejects this and puts mechanization in its place. Isolation and depression are the only consequence as moderns, suffering under nominalism’s Saturnalian tyranny, grope for a lost Eden that exists in the collective unconsciousness. It cannot be given verbal or symbolic identity given the total lack of appropriate cognitive structures in the modern mind. His “little son” is the real victim: the intuition of Eden is condemned as “primitive.” Childhood is merely a stage where the human unit is prepared for a life of toil ending in meaningless death.