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Mayakovsky... ...and the Russian Futurists

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

On returning from the Soviet Union shortly after the revolution, Lincoln Steffens wrote, "I have seen the future, and it works." In the afterglow of the victorious revolution, anything seemed possible; a new age had begun! Even as the groundwork of a socialist economy was being laid, Russian Futurist avant-gardists were experimenting with socialist consciousness.

The most famous of these avant-gardists is Vladimir Mayakovsky, made poet laureate of the revolution after he shot himself in 1930 in despair. His posthumous canonization was a bit of Stalinist genius, for while he was alive, Mayakovsky had consistently been at odds with the Communist part. On receiving an autographed copy of one of Mayakovsky's books, Lenin remarked, "You know, this is quite interesting literature. It's a peculiar kind of communism, it's hooligan communism."

Trotsky, too, had questioned the Futurist avant garde. He believed that its dreams of socialist art would not be realized until there was a classless communistic society. Strict materialism precluded the possibility that a new art could exist autonomous of the level of social development.

The proletariat's task was not the writing of great literature, said Trotsky. The bourgeois, educated to leisurely pursuits, could do that better. Its task was the nuts and bolts construction of the new socialist order. Mayakovsky admitted as much when he write in a poem, "Shakespeare had at his disposal a total of 60,000 words. But the genius-poet of the Future shall possess in every moment 150,000,000,000." Mayakovsky had the vision of the future genius-poet but was stuck with Shakespeare's used-up diction.

Mayakovsky had joined the Bolshevik party at thirteen; been arrested and jailed for subversive activity by fifteen; and emerged from prison at sixteen determined to become a poet. In 1910, he entered a recently formed Futurist circle, much influenced by Marinetti and the Italians. But from the beginning the Russian Futurists were more given to formal literary experimentation and less given to aesthetic polemic than the Italians. And when Marinetti arrived in Russia in early 1914 to sign the Russians on to his own Futurist Program, he was rebuffed.

This is not the place for a detailed comparison of left and right wing Futurism. Both shared an impatience with the world that led them to activist politics, and both became irrelevant to the political movements that had subsumed them. Yet their senses of the present and its tasks were poles apart. I include a drawing of Mussolini by Mayakovsky with his poetic notation.

I draw Mussolini for those who've not seen him.

Point for point, line for line--this is Mussolini.

No need for his parents to puff-up into critics!

Not like him? The exactest copy of his politics.

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