Excerpt from an old essay ("Journey to Hoboken") first published in Witz, 12 yrs ago. A report on a Russian-American poetry conference I attended, in Hoboken NJ. (I've reprinted the whole thing over at Essays + Reviews)
"Craft and personality (passion) have always been rivals,
variables. Now toss in another variable--history. Enlightened
America protects the Individual proper (properly tied), to the
"detriment" of State and Religion. Russia experiences the
reverse. In America, the Individual, so glorified, becomes
commodified; in Russia, the Individual, so abased, becomes a cog.
The old East/West yeast. . .
Modernism, experiment, avant-garde. . . these in the West mean
subsuming the Individual to Craft, for the sake of utopia.
Postmodernism, in the West, is only blurredly differentiated from
the above, a reaction. Modernism, avant-garde, etc., in Russia
mean the same thing: subsuming the Individual. Now refer back to
paragraph #1 (history). So postmodernism means. . . something
very different, in Russia. It strongly opposes modernism and the
avant-garde from beforehand. It means the tradition of the
human, the primordial, the transcendent--a utopia beyond
"utopia"--and beyond the reach of power, force, and will. Only
miracle and grace achieve utopia. This is the Russian
Everything is reducible to Futurism vs. Acmeism. Miracle and
grace have aesthetic implications.
* * *
Still--who or what is this mysterious Person, this Personality,
this Personalism? Are we to fall back into the blasted
ego-poetries of the seventies, into the nightmare of pale baby
Shakespeares, the filigree of greed and self-promotion? (Have we
even awakened yet?)
Once, in the nineteenth century, there was a Russian thinker
named Chaadev, a bold explorer, akin perhaps to Emerson. He
journeyed into the West, but then returned, called back to his
homeland by a sense of duty; bringing with him, like an unwelcome
prophet, a Western lesson--the gospel of moral freedom.
What is this moral freedom? A word, a phrase-capsule, for a
concept of the basic dignity of the human spirit--resting on the
human being's capacity to dedicate herself or himself--out of love
and piety (in its full uncanniness) and daring--to something
better, something beyond self, some One, some Other, some others.
The vanishing point where "moral" and "freedom" fuse.
Part of the artistic and identity crisis of the West has been the
fracture of the Person: the demand, the pull from both Right and
Left on behalf of either autarkic or subliminal--either nostalgic
or futuristic--concepts of justice and the good. Like mirror
images, Right and Left command our allegiance with the full force
of both rhetoric and experience.
Yet perhaps--perhaps by some strange grace, it is Russia--that
great animal, that evil empire, beyond the pale of enlightened
democracies and the full birthright of humanism--impoverished
Russia, suffering Russia, Potemkin Russia--that will return the
gift of Chaadev's moral freedom to the West. Mandelstam wrote
that in such times as these (speaking of his pyramidal, "Assyrian
age"), Man must become the hardest thing in existence, harder
than diamond. The free, loving gift-of-self is the essence of
art and the limit of artistry: but it is another step to
recognize it everywhere as an ontological fundament of reality.
Mandelstam again (trans. Robert Tracy):
It's not Rome the city that lives through the centuries
But man's place in the universal scheme.
This is the voice one hears in the strange, ceremonious finality
of Russian recitation; it is an echo, the curve of a shell, the
arch of a wave, a ghost dance, washing up in Hoboken."