The Ukrainian Solzhenitsyn:
Matthew Raphael Johnson
The Poetry of Vasyl Stus, Part 3
Part 3 of 3
Stus illustrates the idea of meaningless toil that ends only in death in this excerpt:
That building, which was wakened by distress,
or which the edges of a cry of secret alarm ascended, languidly submitted
to the embrace of snowy startled soil and threw itself into the flow of time,
abandoning itself to restless currents.
Then sought relief and comfort in exhaustion and listened closely to the pricked-up groves
that stole behind the traces up the mountain.
The shriveled arms and hands of limping pines were hesitant to brush against him, fearful
as if he were a syphilitic. Tufts of autumn clouds released an arid drizzle
to unify aloud the consonance of wooded lands, whose paltry consolation
was capable of turning back the threats.
The building is an icon for Babylon, the tower so closely connected with modernity. The restless currents are the aimless, constant and pathological motion and energy of the modern worker, where quantitative growth is the only final purpose (especially in the USSR). In the camp as the factory, exhaustion is welcomed since it shuts that part of the brain down that might shed light onto one’s plight. Ignorance is everywhere because it is easy. The flow of time is alienation. God sees things as a single, undifferentiated object, the “Eternal Now” of the theologians. Time is proof of human sin, since imperfection requires action, and this implies time and change. Stus’ symbolism throughout his corpus is unmistakable: the camp is just as much the product of Darwinian materialism as the factory or abortion clinic.
In this passage, a glimmer of hope is seen in the “consonance” of clouds, rain, and the forest, all ancient symbols common to Ukrainian folklore. Of course, in Soviet Ukraine, this is a cold comfort, since the rain is probably poison, but it is part of this evocation of a “secret alarm” that only the sensitive feel. It is an imperfect copy of a long lost idea. Stus writes in another poem, “Streams,” from 1968:
. . . rent the partings just like the atlantes of slagheaps and barrows full of coal tailings
rend and rip through arteries and veins; something tore at the breast . . . the boundaries
of earth — otherworldly deflections into hell — freely admitted the soul as their very own).
You are the limit. A shard of ageless strife for a shatterless fall. You are a hollow
of earthly moan: the world is turning cold and chills our callow palms with swirling snow.
You haven’t changed. Neither years nor care have worn you down. You are as mute as a mirror —
the mirror that reflected your fleeting likeness, etching it forever into the gloom.
Stus’ referent could be any number of people, though a “mother” is one. The earth requires sacrifice when it is constantly exploited for more and more power though technology. This is war, disease, totalitarianism, industrial accidents and all else that civilization engenders as it grows into an empire. There is a price to pay for these neurotic demands placed on Mother Nature. She is mute: nature is not truth or meaning, she is mere protoplasm that will soon change once the next rung in the evolutionary ladder will be reached. Darwin did not believe in “species” despite the title of his most famous book. Those were terms of convenience that have no real meaning except as a collection of extremely slow adjustments to pain. Science in its modern guise is nominalist to its core, and hence, universals like the prototypical term “species” cannot exist except as verbal identifiers of a complex process. If this is true, then there can be no human or “self” either.
The death of the Mother mirrors the Promethean “killing of the king.” In a powerful indictment of industrialization, he continues:
You are — Mother (an amphora of your bitterness) — your distant son falls into the grass
by a mountainous crossroad, and the grass will grow nurtured by his hardy peasant’s weeping . . .
Do you remember that night? the great night?
and somewhere near a stream in Ural mountains and pines (those that may be called a pine),
and silence (just barely grown in saplings green).
Do you remember this? so much is lost in memories: someday each one of us
will change in memories. Must we recall?
We must recall. You must remember this.
A blazing fire.
And memories that blazed within ourselves, like crimson cockerels;
and cedar cones, still green, that wouldn’t burn, but smoked instead of bursting into flames.
And stars above us in the purple sky?
and then you said: this is the hue of madness,
the hue of Judgment Day. There was no judgment, but something warned us of impending rain.
Half of the sky was blazing in our souls. The earthly hemisphere was furrowed by the blaze,
and these remembrances lulled half my soul, and following the dream, went half my self.
What was all this? Can’t tell. What will it be?
Can’t guess. But I keep asking this of her, The One Apart, The Distant One, The Mute:
if I can be with you in just a trice, then why the years? and why the thieving moment
that drives me into childhood like a nail that’s driven into a coffin’s closing board?
This is one of Stus’ most complex ontological excerpts. The Urals were the birthplace of Russian industrialization. They were the providers of iron and coal to the foundries close by. It is also a boundary. The pine is known as the tree of communal celebration. It is paralleled to the suffering and dying peasant who was forced to serve the Leviathan of industrial psychosis starting from the deeply esoteric mind of Peter I. He is the “crossroads” between two worlds as well as the conjurer of a new spirit that will create civilization and empire on the backs of the dying farmer.
Purple is intuition, the form of knowledge (and communication) before the fall. Green has similar connections; both are intensely social and communal. Both colors are artistic and often reject concepts as being too arbitrary and fragmentary. Memories are problematic because the archetypal nature of their form cannot be easily translated into modern, nominalist language. Realities such as Plato’s Forms, St. Augustine’s seminal reasons or Jung’s archetypes cannot be apprehended by moderns except by mutilating them. Yet, this is both the “silent alarm” and the “memories” that are being unpleasantly evoked by the burning of Russia, the forest and the soul by this psychoneurotic drive to industrialization and empire.
In his 1968 poem, he confirms his metaphysical allegiance to Eden. The “secret alarm” is a reference to human devolution. Eden remains in the collective unconsciousness:
From our birth we take upon our soul the great primeval sin:
Perforce, we will atone for it, and our fervent penance will
be done through memories and dreams (what will the everlasting fledgling
do when something frightens him:
that which roams about and speaks of Lent?)
All faults of our ancestral souls from neolithic times, indeed,
have penetrated our hearts replete with sins. Don’t touch this heart,
don’t touch this heart, for it will ooze, and blow a blast of blinding fumes
that have collected in the gloom of ageless caves, and cloud your view
with it. From our very birth the soul in us longs painfully for that, which sleeps apparently,
but truly teaches, and exhorts, and then commands: revenge, revenge!
requital for the silenced shame!
(and makes revenge our only aim, and makes us headsmen in exchange).
From birth we take the great primeval sin upon ourselves. The day
that swiftly spreads its wings will lay upon us like a heavy burden.
(The evil one bewildered you,
and turned your friendship into thrall).
By icy bounds you were subdued, and all desires were your fall.
The dawn of a new age arrives with darkling Mesozoic souls . . .
The epoch crushes ancient faults and mankind stifles as it strives for Eden, without hope . . .
His conception of the heart is not dissimilar to the patristic notion, not to mention Skovoroda’s. His evocation of something like the Jungian archetypes suggests here that their “location” is in the heart: the center of the person (that is, opposed to the ego, the social man). He also suggests that sin has a sort of Lamarckian means of getting passed down from generation to generation, obscuring the divine “seminal reasons” of our collective subconscious.
When the heart is “touched,” it gives off “fumes” as if it’s a factory of sorts. It pollutes the person. “Ageless caves” is certainly a Platonic reference in that it is isolated from light and therefore knowledge. Less clear is the nature of this “revenge.” The archetypes are present, but are clouded. The soul years for its home in Eden, immersed in uncreated energy, but our present life distorts it. “Shame” is silenced. The modern project, broadly speaking, “liberated” the individual from that which prevented its expression in the past. Shame was, as Solovyev argued, the foundation of this moral self-discipline. Once it is silenced, it must come out in other ways.
The horror genre in literature, as E. Michael Jones argues, is one way that this “return of the repressed” reappears. Jones’ Monsters from the Id makes the argument that modern man (that is, we living today) do not have the cognitive means to express the older, traditional constraints on human sexuality in particular. Given this, the negative results of its lack of inhibition cannot be fully understood by a society dedicated to rejecting these constraints. The result is horror, almost always connected with a sexual act. The cliché is that the virgin never gets killed: there is a reason for that. “By icy bounds you were subdued, and all desires were your fall” Stus writes, making a very similar point. Our drives, stemming from a disordered soul, had at one time been repressed by this “icy” discipline. Now, without it, it must come from the external authority. The self fails because it is reduced to a bundle of passions chaotically demanding satisfaction. Modernity then, whether socialist or capitalist, focuses on exploiting the lower desires and denying the existence of any other.
One of Stus’ most important metaphysical ideas is that oppression forces the mind to think in binary terms. The binary is separation: the number 2, or the demonic severing of heaven from earth, grace and the soul, or word and meaning. The modern has no conception of three, since this is the nature of the content-saturated Universal that modernity has denied.
Man is progressive or regressive; there are reactionaries and revolutionaries; the self is confronted with the group; there is the regime and the “backward” — these are the unsolved puzzles of modernity since the Symbolic concept of 3 cannot be admitted.
There is hope. Stus gives a blueprint of the journey:
. . . it was a time of geographic discoveries;
the day unfolded like a magic cloth, and I beheld the first of many
dawns; when taking my first steps I multiplied myself twofold and more,
and saw a hundred suns like fuzzy bumblebees,
and rubbed two stars for flinty sparks,
My palms bloomed with petals of the heart, and trustingly I came to know the land.
My primer was — remembered to this day — a miner’s settlement with all its warmth.
So I recall — my happy mother leads me by the hand. She leads me past the orchards
where apples fall with muffled sound, and fill
the silence thus (red apples, nicknamed “gypsies”).
Why were they always red, the apples I was given as a child? So that I’d smell
the fragrance of the earth and human blood?
The return to sanity is a journey. The “geographic” is the rediscovery of the nation, the ethnos which had been subject to genocide under the Soviet. This is underscored by “self multiplication.” The nation, at its best, eliminates the boundary between self and other: a common language, faith, law and history are manifestations of unity that meld people into an organism that has a life and personality of its own. Under oppression, the similarity of the victims and their status is a self “multiplication.”
“Trustingly, I came to know the land” is another expression of this same notion. His “mother”(land) shows him apples, the produce of the people. Apple symbolism in Ukraine is highly complex. They are often symbols for autumn, and hence age, maturity and knowledge. Since he was given them as a child, they might be symbols for the wisdom that the ethnic culture preserves in the church, folktales and poetry. Furthermore, apples in Russian folk tales are a symbol of health. In this case, it might be the psychological health of a unified nation and the fruit of this togetherness being psychological and economic health.
The road back to the “apple” or to health is geographic. It is to learn the wisdom of the mother(land) and the earth (the agrarian life, the folk). Stus was a strong Ukrainian nationalist (in the ethnic sense) and hence, the geographic nature of this knowledge and its resulting health is very significant.
In an almost overwhelming condemnation of modernity and industrialization, Stus remains optimistic that there is a route back, but only when the real leaders, the poets, the truly noble, have suffered enough:
Someday we’ll weary of perpetual strife and we will want to sleep,
and thus escape the withering awaiting without hope.
Admit the truth: you are the vanquished one.
Remember? so very bright was the beginning,
with tolling bells heavily resounding against the thatched roofs, Weeping willows piously swayed over the pond, and the whirling day smelled as tartly as a green walnut, untimely cracked.
Thus vibrated childhood through the veins.
The tolling bells rolled like ripened plums, you twirled a fiddle-stick so brazenly —
just like an ancient goliard, who left the school and swapped his grammar for a roving life.
Oh, Lord! so bright was the beginning!
The roads began to bark like village dogs, while sunrays twinkled on a pool of songs,
and your white form became a triangle of hope, a little vessel, lost among the waves.
The eyes took in a hundred suns, and then a hundred birds over the tepid pond.
The pine trees blazed with black and yellow shimmer.
The guelder-rose, blooming by the fence, appeared so white, that just a fleeting glance —
no more than a quick look — could give frostbite.
And all you needed in this life was trouble.
You sought misfortune. And was it worth your while?
You asked for it. You thought that youthful strength and the ancestral thews of serfs will not bend down no matter what. Remember it?
And now all this is gone. It left the heart like faithful dogs will leave a burned out home.
And you have disappeared with all of it.
Socially speaking, the above passage is programmatic in understanding Stus’ agrarianism and traditionalism. The simple life of the village is no “irrational romanticization” as modernists say, but was woven within the ascetic teachings of the Christian life. Modern liberals cannot fathom a time where rest was seen as superior to motion, and desires were few and limited. Such backwardness! They might intone. The nomad, or so it seems, is the force that sought the village’s destruction.
Who would seek misfortune? In this writer’s view, it is incorrect that humans naturally desire pleasure and peace. Men often deliberately inflict pain on themselves and others. The profit seeking aliens in the cities demanded higher profits, faster ships and larger armies, and the permanently unorganized countryside was the “protoplasm” to get the job done. As hundreds of thousands died in the construction of industrial society — or the tens of thousands just in the construction of Petrograd! — are seen as a needed and legitimate sacrifice for the “conveniences” men have today. How many are maimed in auto accidents every year? This is also an acceptable sacrifice. Moloch still lives as paganism is just this contempt for human life.
After all, if man is nothing but a bundle of disordered drives, then distinctions among people serve no purpose, and there is certainly nothing sacred (or even interesting) about human life. Darwin justifies this battle and the carnage it leaves behind. Colonialism and empire, or so it is asserted, were justified by an appeal to religion. The truth is that these monstrosities were usually justified as “progress.” Traditional religion was being purged at home, meaning it was not used as a justification abroad. Whatever religious symbolism once marginally justified a commercial empire, it certainly was not the patristic consensus, but the meaningless deism of the Darwinian protoplasmic soup. The Reformation helped jump-start the empires of Antwerp and London, built on the cultural corpse of secularized monasteries and plundered cathedrals. “Progress and civilization” were the vaporic justifications for empire.
It was not Holy Russia that colonized Ukraine, but the Petrogradian bureaucracy and its banking establishment that sought to “bring civilization” to the goyim in the Ukrainian countryside. So why did Stus’ ancestors seek misfortune? Because to preserve profits, city elites and their love of luxuries, the worker needed to be controlled, foreign markets secured and massive bureaucracies erected. Mass death, immense productive capacity, advances in health and medicine and constant war were just some of the results.
There are many reasons why Stus remains unknown and almost totally untranslated. First, as a victim of the Gulags and a nationalist, he has no place in liberal, postmodernist America. Secondly, he is proof that commodity consumption is not needed for happiness. Third, excessive concern with the Gulag victims will take attention from the Holocaust survivors and hence, can only be dealt with in small doses. Finally, Stus’ real target is mass society, and the “cultural” stagnation, standardization and uniformity of “liberal” societies that have long dispensed with any meaningful sense of self and instead have focused on the individual. Stus, like so many other political and literary writers of the first rank that suffered under Marxism, is just too inconvenient for western elites.