Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Mayakovsky and the Ballad of Reading Gaol


        "About This" is a long poem by Mayakovsky.  It appears in Herbert Marshall's 1965 book Mayakovsky.  Marshall was a committed Communist but like so many others he couldn't stomach Stalinism.  In his "Notes on About This" Marshall writes "The introduction to the poem states the theme . . .  This theme -- love -- was considered 'personal and petty' both in the early days of the Revolution and indeed right up to this death.  It was considered a 'petty-bourgeois hangover' and not a theme for poetry of social significance.  But despite Mayakovsky's own sincere attempts to 'crush under foot the throat of his very own lyrics, this theme kept hammering at his brow, however much he tried to repress it out of Party discipline.

One year later, in [his poem] "Lenin," he said:

    About this, and that I'll write in its hour,
    But now's no time for a lover and his lass
    All my ringing poetic power
    I give to you, attacking class

A major portion of "About This" is subtitled "The Ballad of Reading Gaol."  Mayakovsky was only self-imprisoned -- nothing at all like Oscar Wilde's two-years in Reading Gaol, but Marshall writes, "The editors of the 1940 edition of the Collected Works give this note to the section headed 'Ballad of Reading Gaol':  'This work of Oscar Wilde, written in prison, was taken for its association with the external conditions in which Maykovsky found himself at the time.'"

I'm not so sure about that.  Mayakovsky had his party-hack critics but he was not physically persecuted.  And no one told him he couldn't write whatever he liked.  Lenin disapproved of one of Mayakovsky's writings and said the person who published it ought to be whipped, but he never said Mayakovsky should be.

I stopped and reread Oscar Wilde's ballad.  Wilde's emphasis isn't upon his own incarceration -- well to some extent it is when he writes about the conditions and rules, but he is caught up with and catches us up in the situation of an inmate who is to be hanged.  The events leading up to as well as the actual hanging and subsequent burial have a great effect on the rest of the prisoners, but especially on Wilde, and apparently on Mayakovsky who couldn't read English but had access to, according to Marshall, an excellent translation.

Marshall quotes the two lines ending section three of Wilde's poem,

    For he who lives more lives than one,
    more deaths than one must die

Perhaps I didn't read Wilde's poem carefully enough because I didn't understand what multiple lives the condemned man lived or Wilde either for that matter.  He had a somewhat hidden life as a homosexual, but he wasn't executed for it.  The condemned man killed his wife but how was that a double life?  In regard to Mayakovsky, however, Marshall said he lived a double life in the sense of being a lover in the extreme sense -- think of Somerset Maugham's By Love Possessed -- while at the same time being a committed Communist wanting to do his best for the revolution.  Suicide is mentioned more than once in "About This," which makes no sense to me.  If Mayakovsky was feeling guilty about his excessive attraction to Lily Brik, suicide was even more objectionable in Communist terms.  That is, if a prominent Communist committed suicide it was taken as a criticism of the Revolution.  Writing poems about Love were merely hangovers of bourgeois thinking and something to be disapproved of but not condemned to the same extent that suicide was.  After all, one must doubt that Mayakovsky was the only Communist to fall in love; so there was probably an underlying sympathy for him in the party.

I couldn't help but notice that Wilde's Ballad can be read as a condemnation of prison as an acceptable alternative to execution.  The condemned man accepts his fate with equanimity.  He deserves to be executed for murdering his wife and accepts it.  The rest of the prisoner of Reading Gaol are another matter.  They are overwhelmed and tormented by what is happening.  Their suffering, according to the poem, is much worse.

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