Sinyavsky, Andrei (Abram Tertz)

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Other relevant keywords: Aphorisms, Chorus, Christianity, Russian Language, Rozanov, Sexuality, Sots Art, Theatricality


Andrei Sinyavsky (Abram Tertz) (1925 – 1997)

If a complete history of Russian postmodernism is ever written, then Andrei Sinyavsky (1925–1997), who published some of his most seminal works under the pen-name Abram Tertz, will definitely stand as one of its founders. Although Sinyavsky himself does not use the term, generally preferring to disassociate himself from any established philosophical school, his writing has persistently taken a postmodern perspective, particularly as it tends to reinterpret classical models of socialist realism in the spirit of post-utopian Sots Art, or “socialist art” (a term introduced by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid in 1973). Sinyavsky emerged on the Soviet intellectual scene as a talented young critic and scholar affiliated with the Moscow Institute of World Literature. In the late 1950s and early 60s, he managed to smuggle some of his fiction and a long essay on socialist realism to the West, where they were published under his pseudonym, Abram Tertz. When this was discovered by the KGB, Sinyavsky was sentenced to exile in the Mordovian labor camps. His trial in 1966 received international attention, since the persecution of a writer was unprecedented in the post-Stalin era and was taken as an act of rescinding Khrushchev’s thaw in favor of Brezhnev’s politics of re-Stalinization. In 1973, after six years in prison camp, Sinyavsky was allowed to emigrate and settle in Paris, where worked as a professor of Russian Literature and Culture at the Sorbonne.

Along with fictional pieces, Sinyavsky has authored several books of literary and cultural criticism, as well as several collections of aphorisms and short essays. His non-fictional writing is difficult to classify either as scholarship or journalism; in the peculiarly Russian tradition inspired by Dostoevsky’s The Diary of a Writer and Rozanov’s Fallen Leaves, Sinyavsky’s non-fiction work is a synthesis of philosophy, artistry, and polemics, sometimes closer to academic discourse (as in his books, Soviet Civilization and Ivan the Fool: Outlines of Russian Popular Belief), and sometimes bordering on free-flowing reflections and associations (as in Unguarded Thoughts and A Voice from the Chorus). As one commentator puts it, “Sinyavsky is philosophic but not a philosopher, he is building no system, inventing no new vocabulary. This puts him in the mainstream of the Russian tradition, in which literature and philosophy are not, as a rule, entirely differentiated” (Lourie 122). Sinyavsky generally prefers to publish his scholarly works under his real name, while his works of fiction and more whimsical non-fiction are offered under his pseudonym, Abram Tertz, which reverses and parodies the conventional tendency of Soviet Jewish writers to take Russian pen-names, since Sinyavsky is a Russian who takes a Jewish pen-name. The relationship between his two personalities is so complex as to require a special discussion; here suffice it to say that Sinyavsky prefers to express his most personal thoughts as Abram Tertz, which is typical of postmodern authors writing in a citational mode.


Religious Parody and Aesthetics of Communism

Sinyavsky’s book, On Socialist Realism (Chto takoe sotsialisticheskii realizm?), published in Paris in 1959, offers an original interpretation of the Soviet literary and artistic method, challenging both the official valorization of socialist realism and its skeptical reception in the West. Sinyavsky exposes the inner contradiction of the method, which attempts to join a teleological element (socialism) with a scientific one (realism). He contends that Marxism is not only teleological but borders on religion, since it formulates an ultimate goal of history and interprets all past and present events in relation to this goal. “The specific teleology of Marxist thought consists in leading all concepts and objects to the Purpose, referring them all to the Purpose, and defining them all through the Purpose. The history of all epochs and nations is but the history of humanity’s march toward Communism… ” (On Socialist Realism 35). Sinyavsky reveals that even the material base, which in Marxist philosophy determines the ideological superstructure, is inherently idealistic, since, in the words of Stalin, “the base produces the superstructure so that it can serve the base” (qtd. 35). Such a presupposition is at least quasi-religious in its congruence with the notion that God created man so that he might serve God.

Socialist realism is logically inclined towards classicism as an aesthetic model, with its orientation toward sublime and idealistic norms of discourse. The realistic component, which is alien to socialism, introduces an involuntary element of parody into Soviet art. “It is impossible, without falling into parody, to produce a positive hero in the style of full socialist realism and yet make him into a psychological portrait. In this way, we will get neither psychology nor hero” (On Socialist Realism 90). Sinyavsky would prefer both hero and parody. He is not only sensitive enough to grasp the inherently parodic element in socialist realism, but he goes so far as to advise the self-conscious exploitation of parody as an enhancement of Soviet heroic art. He regrets that the eclectic mixture of realism and classicism that was officially promoted from the 1930s through the 1950s lacks the genuinely phantasmagoric proportions capable of transforming dull, didactic imitations of life into inspirational imitations of didacticism and teleology itself.

For example, Sinyavsky proposes that Stalin’s death, if presented as a religious event, could have become a theme of great art, intrinsically deeply parodic.

We could have announced on the radio that he did not die but had risen to heaven, from which he continued to watch us, in silence, no words emerging from beneath the mystic mustache. His relics would have cured men struck by paralysis or possessed by demons. And children, before going to bed, would have kneeled by the window and addressed their prayers to the cold and shining stars of the Celestial Kremlin. (On Socialist Realism 92)

Such a transformation of socialist realism into a religious-parodic form was accomplished more than twenty years later in the Sots Art of Komar and Melamid. The titles of many of their paintings—such as Stalin and the Muses and View of the Kremlin in a Romantic Landscape (both from the series “Nostalgic Socialist Realism,” 1981-2)—suggest an implicit reference to Sinyavsky’s meta-socialist project.

Instead of condemning socialist realism as false, demagogic, or simply bad art, as was done in the West, or praising its truthful reflection of life, as in the Soviet Union, Sinyavsky eliminates the criterion of truth altogether, reinterpreting this canon as a system of interrelated signs which may be used for artistic purposes—not because they refer to some knowable reality, but precisely because they escape it. He was among the first to formulate the principle of parody and conscious eclecticism as a new source for contemporary art, and he opened the way for a highly innovative postmodern assimilation of socialist realism, which in the 1960s was generally considered a dead-end movement both in the West and in dissident circles within the USSR.

In later articles and in his book, Soviet Civilization (1988), Sinyavsky continues his investigation of communism as a unique historical formation possessing its own unexplored, mystical depth. What interests him is “not so much the history of Soviet civilization as the theory and even what I might call the metaphysics” (Soviet Civilization xii). As compared with other researchers in this field, Sinyavsky stresses the theatrical nature of the Soviet system, which was designed as a spectacle by the great directors Lenin and, especially, Stalin; “in his eyes he was the only actor-director on the stage of all Russia and all the world. In this sense, Stalin was a born artist” (98).

In his assessment of the aesthetic nature of communism, Sinyavsky emphasizes the crucial role of language in the success of the Soviet regime. Official ideology coined at least three words that captured the popular imagination [of the people] by virtue of their suggestiveness: “Bolshevik” (literally, “he who gives more”); “Cheka” (the early name of KGB, resonating with “nacheku,” or “on alert”); and “Soviet” (“sovet” means “council, advice” and, moreover, sounds almost like “svet”—“light”). These words, in Sinyavsky’s semi-ironic estimation, are “the three whales on which the Soviet system stood and still stands” (“Literaturnyi protsess” 192–193), an argument which prefigures the conceptualist explanation of Soviet reality as extension of verbal models.


Absurdity, Religion, and Sexuality

Sinyavsky’s philosophical position is elaborated, in a deliberately unsystematic mode, in his books Unguarded Thoughts (Mysli vrasplokh) and A Voice from the Chorus (Golos iz khora). The style of these works follows Rozanov’s philosophical journals and might support the classification of Sinyavsky as an existentialist writer. Sinyavsky acknowledges his debt to Rozanov in a scholarly investigation of the latter’s work, and we can readily apply his characterization of Rozanov to Sinyavsky himself: “He was attracted to the opportunity of being incoherent and disjointed, the possibility of contradicting himself without exposing a harmonious conception … Owing to this contradictoriness, we get the sense of a very natural and living process in the growth of his thoughts” (Ocherki 1, 187). The existential direction of Sinyavsky’s work is influenced by his position as a clandestine writer in Unguarded Thoughts, and then as a political prisoner in A Voice from the Chorus. These “boundary situations,” to use Jaspers’ term, strip the personality of all usual social determinants and plunge it into the void of an absurd environment, where, in Sinyavsky’s own words, people “do not live—they exist (ekzistiruiut)” (A Voice from the Chorus 6). Prison is a place for metaphysical discovery, since “[m]an becomes really close and dear to one when he ceases to be known by his official tags—profession, surname, age. When he ceases even to be called ‘man’ and turns out to be simply the first person one meets” (Unguarded Thoughts 27).

In these two books, Sinyavsky’s existentialism is of a religious variety and may be compared to that of Druskin and Pomerants. From such a perspective, God cannot be identified with the dogmatic image of any existing religious tradition, since any definition would prove to be a denial of His inconceivability and omnipresence. “Our notion of Him is so wide that it can appear as its own contradiction even within the framework of the same religious doctrine. He is unknowable yet recognizable in everything, inaccessible yet closer than the closest friend, cruel yet kind, absurd, irrational yet utterly logical” (Unguarded Thoughts 83). Sinyavsky’s relationship to God is highly personal, and in some fragments he addresses him directly as “thou” and summons him to display his will in the most ordinary and random occurrences, which he would take as signs of a conspiracy between himself and his God hidden also from himself. Sinyavsky values Christianity because, in its original spirit, it is devoid of any pretension to wisdom or contemplation of eternity. It is rather “a shock regiment, a penal battalion, thrown into the hottest, deadliest sector of the front… and armed only with the readiness to die” (Unguarded Thoughts 90-91). In other words, faith is neither the aloofness of meditation nor the solemnity of the temple, but an existential drive leading from despair to hope, from death to the possibility of resurrection. From Sinyavsky’s point of view, Christian faith is something abnormal and paradoxical, since, contrary to nature, it teaches us not to fear death, not to avoid pain, and to rejoice when we are beaten (Unguarded Thoughts 79).

At the other pole of life’s absurdity, Sinyavsky directs particular attention to sexuality, which, along with religion and art, becomes central to his philosophizing. One situation he subjects to repeated theorizing is the sexuality of prison life, where the absence of a partner makes the sexual organs absurd, since their natural meaning is derived from their union with another body. This explains why sexuality in Sinyavsky’s interpretation becomes an object of humor that plays on the reduction of the human to a purely organic nature: a man without clothes seems far less natural than one who is dressed. Nakedness reveals “the neighborhood of sex and laughter” (Sobranie sochinenii 475). Even without the special circumstances of loneliness and alienation, Sinyavsky finds sexuality to be something absurd, owing especially to the placement of the genitals: “The very location of sex, in direct proximity to the organs of excretion, is discouraging. It’s as if a squeamish, sarcastic grimace were provided by nature itself” (Unguarded Thoughts 25). Sinyavsky is sensitive to humor as an objective component of reality; his absurdity is not the tragic category of Western existentialism, but a source of comic inspiration. Sexuality is an existential joke, but the entirety of life may also be conceived in this way.  “… [A]t some stage you realize the frivolousness of all you have done and lived by, and this feeling is capable of driving you to despair, until it occurs to you that the whole of world history is pretty frivolous too” (A Voice from the Chorus 130).


Existentialism and Postmodernism

One might wonder how a single thinker can combine existential and postmodern perspectives. This is one of Sinyavsky’s striking traits: the process of his intellectual maturation coincided with the ascendancy of existentialism on the European philosophical scene, but at the same time he grew up in an atmosphere of ideological indoctrination and Marxist scholastics, which developed his taste for linguistic and conceptual games. This convergence of existentialist and conceptualist patterns is not unique to Sinyavsky; it is consistent with the inherent logic of philosophical evolution. In the history of continental philosophy, existentialism immediately preceded structuralism, whereas postmodernism grew out of post-structuralist presuppositions. Thus, existentialism and postmodernism share an opposition to structuralism’s pretensions to objective scientific knowledge. Accordingly, these thought systems coincide in their gravitation toward such categories as “absurdity” and “nothingness,” which challenge the structuralist infatuation with rigorous semiotic analysis. The decisive difference between them is that existentialist “nothingness” reveals itself within the depths of the self, affording the individual absolute freedom in the process of self-creation. In postmodern thought, nothingness arises from the relativity of meanings, which denies any absolute claim of reference, of a real signified behind the signs. This view emphasizes not individual freedom but the contingency, and even illusoriness, of selfhood, which converges with a network of such suprapersonal mechanisms as language and the unconscious.

Sinyavsky’s thought, with its valorization of absurdity, establishes itself on the middle ground between existentialism and postmodernism; or, more precisely, it sets up a vibration between these two poles, alternately problematizing each of them. For example, Sinyavsky is inclined to reject the existentialist project of self-realization, the heroic pessimism that recognizes the world’s absurdity but aspires to imbue it with personal meaning by the exercise of freedom. For Sinyavsky, European existentialism is too “liberal,” in the sense that it underestimates the strength of human dependency, sometimes abnormal, whimsical and obsessive. Sinyavsky subscribes to existentialism as a theory of liberation from historical and social determinism, but criticizes it for undermining personal ties and idiosyncrasies, which no one is free to choose.

I never know what liberal philosophers mean by the “freedom of choice” they are always talking about. Do we really choose whom to love, what to believe in, what illness to suffer? /…/ How can we think of freedom when we are swallowed by the whole, when we see nothing, are aware of nothing except the One who chose us and, having chosen, torments or bestows favors on us? /…/ Freedom is always negative, it implies an absence, a void hungering to be filled. (Unguarded Thoughts 49)



This void hungering to be filled but never satisfied expresses one of Sinyavsky’s metaphysical infatuations. In his book, Strolls with Pushkin (Progulki s Pushkinym, written in custody in 1966-68), he argues that Russia’s most beloved poet, who is traditionally considered to be a model of absolute artistic perfection, lacks intellectual and psychological substance. According to Sinyavsky, Pushkin’s celebrated novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, is inherently empty, devoid of content; the narration dissolves among infinite digressions as it escapes all obligations of plot and idea. What then is the mysterious reason for Pushkin’s commanding presence in Russian culture? He is invoked on all levels, from the most banal idioms of common speech, like “Who can you blame? Pushkin?” or “Who will do it? Pushkin?,” to Gogol and Dostoevsky’s grandiloquent acknowledgements of his messianic role in Russian cultural history. The 19th century critic Apollon Grigoriev once proclaimed: “Pushkin is our everything.” Sinyavsky suggests an alternative formula: “Pushkin is our nothing.” And, indeed, it is nothingness that inspires the proliferation of his image in literary criticism, historical novels, memoirs, ideological schemes, and everyday life, creating an illusion that conceals the absence of Pushkin as reality.

Emptiness is the contents of Pushkin. Without emptiness he would have been incomplete. /…/ While loving everybody, he loved nobody, and this ‘nobody’ gave him freedom to nod to the left and to the right–his every nod is a vow of loyalty … /…/ Something vampirical was hidden in such a heightened receptiveness. This is why Pushkin’s image shines with eternal youth, fresh blood, high color … ; all fullness of being… in the empty package of the man who actually is nothing, remembers nothing, loves nobody … . (Progulki s Pushkinym 373)

This interpretation of Pushkin as the personification of nothingness outraged critics from many camps as an act of sacrilege when the book appeared in 1975 in London and in 1989 in Moscow (a fragment). Traditionally, Pushkin had been revered either as a singer of revolutionary freedom associated with the Decembrist movement (the official Soviet interpretation) or as a poetical sage who in the course of his stormy life comprehended values of humility and experienced religious illumination (the popular interpretation in the context of late-Soviet Orthodox revival). For Sinyavsky, both Pushkin’s revolutionary tendencies and his religiosity are interchangeable masks because they adorn his absolute lack of originality. Sinyavsky agrees with Belinsky’s famous definition of Eugene Onegin as “the encyclopedia of Russian life,” but the defining characteristic of an encyclopedia is to render commonplaces in a universal language, and this is where Pushkin is most skillful—as a compiler of hidden citations from all of world literature. Despite the public outcry, it is clear that Sinyavsky never intended to disparage Pushkin; rather he presents him as a “postmodern” figure whose genius is not originality but universality.

In general, Sinyavsky’s understanding of writing privileges emptiness as both the origin and destiny of creativity. “In order to write something worthwhile one needs to be absolutely empty” (A Voice from the Chorus 234). Language for Sinyavsky is not so much a network of meanings as it is a network of silences artistically engrained in words. Language becomes “a means of silent communion—absolutely empty, a snare or net: a net of language cast into the sea of silence in the hope of pulling up some little golden fish caught in the pauses, in the momentary interstices of silence” (291). One can easily identify in Sinyavsky’s approach to language a postmodern conception of the endless play of signs that erases meaning in the exponential growth of their possible associations, denying the attribution of any single, definitive meaning.


Chorus and Russianness

This desemantization of the word is further illustrated by Sinyavsky’s central concept of the chorus, in which each voice is anonymous and loses all trace of intention as it is incessantly overlaid with other voices. In his book, A Voice from the Chorus, composed in custody primarily of the disjointed speech of anonymous prisoners, there is no dialogical tension between the various voices (including the author’s). Instead we sense the gaping of an indifferent void that makes interpenetration impossible. The mechanism of the chorus works to nullify the individuality of the voices, reducing them to semantic garbage. Another of Sinyavsky’s methods for splintering the unity of meaning is the use of brackets and parentheses, which transform the one-dimensional flow of speech into a multi-layered syntactical construction that becomes a sort of grammatical chorus composed of heterogenous pronouncements. As the author explains his own understanding of this style:

… Prose has so far taken little account of the possibilities of brackets. By and large, brackets have always played an ancillary role and have never presumed to claim special attention. Yet a verbal construct moving on parallel and intersecting ways or levels, which can be shown graphically by means of brackets brings writing close to certain forms of geometric art… . (A Voice from the Chorus 213)

Sinyavsky argues that the Russian language, with its love of digressions and parenthetical constructions, is a convenient vehicle for the nullification of reality because the same “nothingness” that generated Pushkin’s works exists as well in the depths of the Russian national character, as a principle of both creativity and destruction. In his assessment of Russians, Sinyavsky implicitly opposes both Slavophiles, who vaunt the positive virtues of Russianness (such as diligence or hospitality), and Westernizers, who criticize their compatriots for deficiencies in the domain of civil freedom and cultural innovation. Russians, in Sinyavsky’s view, are absolutely incapable of accumulating valuables, but this freedom from material possessions accounts for their open-mindedness and artistic giftedness. It is also true that Russians are inclined to drunkenness and thievishness, but these same qualities are indispensable for the artist—one who is carried away by the imagination and assimilates the property of others into his works, packing them with allusions and citations. Sinyavsky derives the positive qualities of the Russian people from their very negativity:

The main point about the Russians, when all is said and done, is that they have nothing to lose. Hence the generosity of Russian intellectuals /…/ Readiness for anything—readiness to give up the last crumb, just because it is the last and there is nothing else, because this is the end of the road. And the frivolity of our reasoning, of our judgements. Anything will do. We have saved nothing, learned nothing. Who shall dare judge us on whom sentence has already been passed? (Unguarded Thoughts 36)

Again, as with writing, emptiness as a national category becomes the way for endless spiritual growth and the source of the abundant, vague, and amorphous inspiration so typical of Russian culture. Sinyavsky even argues that among the hypostases of the Christian Trinity, Russians are especially open to that of the Holy Spirit, who has no anthropomorphic incarnation and thus speaks from nowhere and everywhere.

This religion of the Holy Spirit somehow accords with our national characteristics—a natural inclination to anarchy…, fluidity, amorphousness, readiness to adopt any mold…, our gift—or vice of thinking and living artistically… In this sense Russia offers a most favorable soil for the experiments and fantasies of the artist … . (A Voice from the Chorus 247)


Artistry. Holy Fools and Buffoons

In general, artistry (khudozhestvo) is the central category in Sinyavsky’s thought, not only in the specific domain of art itself, which he explores as a professional critic, but as an all-embracing characteristic of reality. Artistry is the world of fabricated illusions, which are more tangible than anything in the real world. Even nature is perceived as deriving from art, as a museum where all styles are exhibited simultaneously, rather than in historical succession.

Everywhere in nature we keep coming across art. Mountain architecture which foreshadows the Gothic. Clouds and puddles done in the tachiste manner./…/ A museum in which everything is preserved and renewed, in which everything–as in art–has a measure of realism and a measure of illusion. (Unguarded Thoughts 78)

Sinyavsky anticipates the conceptualist interpretation of reality as an artificial construct, but he understands “concept” as an artistic idea rather than as an ideological scheme. His version of conceptualism is “soft” and sometimes borders on a more traditional aestheticism that perceives life as a theatrical play but does not reduce it to the play of signs and codes. For Sinyavsky, as for Nietzsche, life is justified first and foremost as an aesthetic phenomenon. But this aestheticism is alien to Nietzsche’s militantly adversarial position toward Christianity and morality. Postmodern aestheticism, as distinct from its modernist predecessor, is not hostile to traditional ideological systems and easily incorporates their fragments, including Christian “saints” and “fools,” in its network of metaphoric  discourse.

This does not mean that Sinyavsky “aestheticizes” religion and morality. He does not privilege one discourse (artistic) over another (didactic); instead, he searches for a common ground uniting artistry, morality and religion. He discovers this in the two key figures of Russian folk culture: “iurodivyi” and “skomorokh”—“holy fool” and “buffoon.” Religion and morality, for Sinyavsky, become distorted when they acquire a stern, purely didactic character that denies the comic, ridiculous, laughing aspect of spirituality which is implicitly presented in the holy fool and explicitly in the buffoon.  From this point of view, Nikolai Gogol, who in his declining years condemned his own artistic work and suppressed his comic gift in preference for religious preaching, becomes a holy fool precisely through this pathetic self-denial of his past buffoonary as a comic writer (though contrary to his intentions). Sinyavsky’s book, In the Shadow of Gogol (V teni Gogolia, 1970-1973), is mainly addressed to the relationship between art and religion and concludes with a paradox: the artist best fulfills his religious destiny when he faithfully serves the self-sufficient goals of his art. “In his poetic creations Gogol seems even more religious than in his anemic and calculated Christianity” (Sobranie sochinenii v.2, 334). This is why a simple buffoon, who is unashamed of his art, is bound to accomplish greater moral deeds than Gogol, who developed a false sense of his own importance as a prophet and preacher. “Skomorokhs Kuz’ma and Dem’ian are singing … Only through them may Gogol save his soul (tol’ko s nimi spasen Gogol’). Only through them will Russian art save its soul” (336).

The best illustration of the archetypal, folkloric roots of Sinyavsky’s thought may be found in his interpretation of Ivan the Fool, the traditional figure of Russian folk tales. Foolishness, for Sinyavsky, is the most profound and reliable indication of genuine wisdom. A fool does not follow the conventional path of success but instead finds himself in the most ridiculous and humiliating situations; nonetheless, in the Russian tradition, this brings him to the ultimate triumph—finding a miraculous source of wealth and marrying a princess. It is by his vulnerability and non-conformity that he invokes the blessing of some higher spiritual force. The underlying principle of foolishness is a refusal of rationality and an openness to the randomness of existence. Sinyavsky finds that the archaic cult of foolishness has affinities with the wisdom of the most profound philosophers, whose knowledge proceeds from an acceptance of the limits of knowledge.

… The Fool’s philosophy intersects here and there with the assertions of some of the greatest ancient sages: ‘I know only that I know nothing’—Socrates; ‘Wise people are not learned, learned people are not wise’—Lao Tsu—and also with the mystical practices of various religions. The essence of these views is the rejection of the activity of controlling reason, which prevents the comprehension of highest truth. This truth (or reality) on its own appears and reveals itself to an individual in that happy moment when it seems that the consciousness has been switched off and the soul abides in a peculiar state of receptive passivity (Ocherki 2, 39).

Foolishness illustrates the paradox of creative nothingness, since the state of receptive ignorance yields the fruits of wisdom. “…If we cast everything aside and empty our minds, ceasing to expect anything at all, we can hope that the door may open a little, suddenly and of its own accord …” (A Voice from the Chorus 169-170). Sinyavsky, in his ultimate credo, is guided by the same expectation of a miracle as the heroes of the ancient fairy tales that are the favorite subject matter of his critical research.

As critic Alexander Genis has observed, in the contemporary humanities Sinyavsky demarcates the unique position of “archaic postmodernism.” He plays with archaic patterns of thinking and derives from them an ambivalence and ambiguity of meaning that a more narrow-minded critic would ascribe to the postmodern period exclusively.

The world was then sufficiently metamorphic to keep turning on its side, changing one thing into another and prodding language to bring forth allegorical riddles. We are here present, as it were, at the act of the birth of art, when metaphors sprouted profusely in the still hot and steaming soil of folklore and when language, mindful of the miracle of its origin, still showed off the tricks—as well as the riddles, knavishness, deceit, invention and cunning which fill our fairy-tales and make them so effervescent. Here it becomes clear that a poet even in the new, modern sense of the word, is a failed magician or miracle-worker who has substituted metaphor for metamorphosis, word-play for deeds (A Voice from the Chorus 200).

Though Sinyavsky seems to be nostalgic about the magical origin of art, he recognizes that this origin cannot be known directly, but only through the effervescence of contemporary language games.  Sinyavsky discloses the intellectual links between postmodern reflective relativity and the playfulness inherent in the primordial roots of mythological imagination.

Mikhail Epstein, August 2020



Lourie, Richard. Letters to the Future. An Approach to Sinyavsky-Tertz. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1975.

Sinyavsky, Andrei. Ocherki russkoi kul’tury 1. “Opavshie List’ia” Rozanova. Paris: Sintaksis, 1982.

—. Ocherki russkoi kul’tury 2. Ivan-durak. Ocherk russkoi narodnoi very. Paris: Sintaksis, 1991.

—. Soviet Civilization. A Cultural History. Trans. Joanne Turnbull, with Nikolai Formozov. NYC: Arcade Publishing. Little, Brown and Co., 1990.

—. Unguarded Thoughts. London: Collins & Harvill Press, 1965.

Tertz, Abram. A Voice from the Chorus. Trans. Kyril Fitzlyon and Max Hayward. NYC: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976.

—. “Literaturnyi protsess v Rossii.” In Literaturnyi protsess v Rossii. Literaturno-kriticheskie raboty raznykh let. Moskva: Rossiyskiy gosudarstvennyi gumanitarnyi universitet, 2003, pp. 176–204.

—. On Socialist Realism. NYC: Pantheon Books, 1960.

—. Progulki s Pushkinym, in Sobranie sochinenii v 2 tomakh. Vol. 1. Moscow, SP “Start,” 1992, pp. 339-436.

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