If my own experience in poetry is reflected in, or has any bearing on, the common culture of our times, then I would have to insist that the obscure mirror or skeleton key to understanding our times is to be found in that obviously & oddly unfinished fragment of an essay by Osip Mandelstam, "Pushkin & Scriabin". It was first published outside Russia, long after the poet's death; but scholars believe it was written about a century ago, probably in 1915.
The unfinished character of this text is like an open invitation - pregnant with future (exploratory) life. It's been for me what they used to call a touchstone : a word, a gospel, a message - a voice that keeps coming back, recurrent, at unpredictable intervals.
Mandelstam is writing about Pushkin, and about Scriabin - but the words are prophetic in their weird self-portraiture. He himself is foreshadowed in Pushkin's & Scriabin's exemplary suffering. "They served as an example of a collective Russian demise, they died a full death... their personality, while dying, extended itself to a symbol of the whole people, and the sun-heart of the dying remained forever at the zenith of suffering and glory." [tr. Sidney Monas]
This is only in the opening paragraph!
M. sketches out a symbiotic contrast between the two culture heroes, with Scriabin as a sign of Russia's cultural regression from the wholeness and integrity of the "Christian chronology". Pushkin is the perfect icon of an "encrypted" Christian sacrifice for the whole people; Scriabin is the sign of its dissipation or betrayal. Yet watch how Mandelstam refuses to descend into some kind of elegiac complaint! He himself is enmeshed in both Pushkin's chaste clarity (the whole essay is rooted in prior Acmeist insights & formulations of his martyr-friend Nikolai Gumilev) and in the "Hellenic" (revolutionary) frenzy of Scriabin - the Dionysian element of the Greek dyad (Dionysus/Apollo).
But the substantial, the quintessential nectar embedded in this garbled fragment is sketched out in Mandelstam's vision of the relation between Christianity - as the fulness of God's free & loving redemption of the whole cosmos - and the soul and personality of the individual artist. It is this "logic" of soul freedom and integrity - again, foreshadowed in Pushkin and Gumilev in particular, along with Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Nadezhda Mandelstam, so many others - as actually a result of the divine gift of free grace & redemption - which, for Mandelstam, explains the vitality, wholeness, and integrity of Western art in general.
"Christian art is free. It is, in the full meaning of the phrase, 'art for art's sake'. No necessity of any kind, even the highest, clouds its bright inner freedom, for its prototype, that which it imitates, is the very redemption of the world by Christ. And so, not sacrifice, not redemption in art, but the free and joyful imitation of Christ - that is the keystone of Christian esthetics. Art cannot be sacrifice, for a sacrifice has already been made; cannot be redemption, for the world along with the artist has already been redeemed."
"What then is left? A joyful commerce with the divine, like a game played by the Father with his children, a hide-&-seek of the spirit!"
Mandelstam does something here akin to one of his 19th-cent. heroes, Chaadev. He distinguishes clearly between religion and art, in order to illuminate the actual relationship between the two.
"Nourishing art, giving art of its flesh, offering it in the way of a sturdy metaphysical foundation the most real fact of redemption, Christianity demanded nothing in return."
This is a very fascinating formulation. But for contemporary Western culture, it sounds like some arcane, indecipherable mathematical equation. This too, however, is foreshadowed here (Russia has a strange way in general of foreshadowing & echoing cultural phenomena in the West). Mandelstam talks about the contemporary regression from "the Christian calendar", the sense of history under the sign of a metaphysical Redemption. There is no spiritual light at the end of the tunnel. We have forgotten, or forsaken, or bowdlerized, the pure affirmation of the message upon which our culture was built.
"O ye of little faith! Verily, if you say, lift up this mountain & toss it into the sea, & ye have faith, it shall be done for you!"
What is the meaning here? It is not to declare that any one of us can perform weird magic tricks at any time of our choosing. It is to say : The Son of Man is coming with Power, on the clouds of heaven. The Earth has already been redeemed, by the manifestation - the incarnation - the sacrifice - & the heroic victory - of perfect Love.
This is a kind of pure Christian Classicism. It can be heard in the taut moral scales of Shakespeare. It can be heard in the ineffable organ-music of Donne. It can be heard in the melody of Andrew Marvell. It can even be heard lifting under the anxious heartbeat of John Keats.
It's that to which Wallace Stevens alluded, perhaps unknowingly, as his desire to celebrate the "normal" (a hard thing to do).
The world is not "normal" now. The world is undergoing the symphonic stress of global birth-pangs. Yet the Redemption stretches out the warm spiritual hand of healing, reconciliation, sanity, wholeness, integrity, hope, joy, freedom & love. The structural harmony of the world is - the Redemption itself. This metaphysical-historical fact, according to Mandelstam, is the substance of the "poetic license" of artistic freedom & truth.
America has in some respects lost sight of its own cultural inheritance. The arts, and society as a whole, are overwhelmed with a righteous, judgmental, Puritanical fervor - splintered into multifarious factions, partisans of subcultural identifications. The soul seeks some kind of moral justification : but it's an anxious, deracinated search, akin to the Dionysian frenzy of Scriabin & the revolutionaries of 1915. God is playing hide & seek; but no one knows where to look for release... & yet...
"I shall be released."