A micro-analysis of “Как давно я топчу, видно по каблуку”

Oct 31st, 2013 | By | Category: Interpretation, Literary Studies

Brodsky’s poetic-indexical ontology

Как давно я топчу, видно по каблуку. Паутинку тоже пальцем не снять с чела. То и приятно в громком кукареку, что звучит как вчера. Но и черной мысли толком не закрепить, как на лоб упавшую косо прядь. И уже ничего не снится, чтоб меньше быть, реже сбываться, не засорять времени. Нищий квартал в окне глаз мозолит, чтоб, в свой черед, в лицо запомнить жильца, а не, как тот считает, наоборот. И по комнате точно шаман кружа, я наматываю, как клубок, на себя пустоту ее, чтоб душа знала что-то, что знает Бог.


Preliminary remarks

Вычитая из меньшего большее, из человека – Время, […]. „Йорк”, 1977 Subtracting the greater from the smaller, the time from the man[…]. „York”, 1977

 We2 want to demonstrate by way of micro-analysis how a poetic-ontological and indexical3 mode of thinking develops in this poem, as though Brodsky discovered this mental region of the human being poetically. That Brodsky’s poems display a mark of a poetic ontologism [ontological poetry] is both postulated and microanalytically demonstrated here. What we mean by “indexical mental region” can perhaps be explained in terms of Pjatigorskij and Mamardašvili. In Simvol i soznanie (Symbol and Consciousness) they develop the notion of a symbolically configured consciousness (сознание). There is no ontological access to this consciousness, but only a symbolic access, i.e. an access through conventional arbitrary signs. In their book Pjatigorskij and Mamardašvili postulate a “pragmatic necessity” to speak symbolically on the intersubjective level, a necessity that is pre-conditioned by the “work” or “struggle” with consciousness.4 In the poems of Brodsky there is a similar necessity. However, what Brodsky expresses should not be understood symbolically but in an inductive5 -indexical way. Pjatigorskij and Mamardašvili, in their turn, operate deductively. They separate [quite in the Kantian sense] consciousness (сознаниe) [noumena] from the object of knowledge (знание) [phenomena]. The symbols as arbitrary units are given as purely spiritual. There is no [either logical or natural] relationship between the two “mental” regions: between сознание [symbolic, because spiritual] and знание [physical, vital, because merely verbal]. The consciousness (сознание) would make us think, as do symbols, that it is simply there. Because it is symbolic, it appears in relation to knowledge as its Meta. The knowledge (знание), however, does itself know of its constructed nature, which is not linguistic, but natural. However, because сознание claims to be knowledge, the verbal philosophising of the two Russian thinkers about consciousness is meta-paradoxical. Consciousness cannot be grasped scientifically6 , and yet they talk about it in philosophical terms. In contrast, what Brodsky discovers poetically lies not within the a-verbal сознание, but ontologically in the verbal знание/язык. This is certainly also a Meta, but a poetic-ontological Meta.7

This poetic-ontological Meta, obtained from знание/язык, does not lead discontinuously (by means of a jump) towards the symbolic, but continuously to the indexical, which can be physically grasped through indices. The indices are both symbolic and non-symbolic, i.e. physical. Paradoxes are constructed through breaks and jumps [e.g. into/out of the Doxa]. The continuous – and in this sense inductive – Meta in Brodsky’s poetry ensures that his poetry does not ultimately appear to be paradoxical.8 The subtly differentiated transitions [which Brodsky also calls “transformations” and “metamorphoses”] are a-paradoxical, and therefore Brodsky’s metamorphoses are not paradoxical either, being active neither on one nor on two different levels. Rather, they mark a continuum which knows no hierarchy but only phase transitions.

According to Brodsky, it is both possible and necessary that a new ontology should emerge from language and logos. This new ontology can exist only in poetic form. For Brodsky, there can be no other new ontology than the poetic.

Microanalysis of Как давно я топчу, видно по каблуку.

Numbered Lines Syllabic structure – Enjambements – Distribution of unstressed syllables
1. Как давно я топчу, видно по каблуку. υ υ – υ υ -, – υ υ υ υ -.       2/2/0/4
2. Паутинку тоже пальцем не снять с чела. υ υ – υ – υ – υ υ – υ -.        2/1/1/2/1
3. То и приятно в громком кукареку, υ υ υ – υ – υ υ υ υ -, ↓[2]9    3/1/4
4. что звучит как вчера. υ υ – υ υ -.                        2/2
5. Но и черной мысли толком не закрепить, υ υ – υ – υ – υ υ υ υ -,         2/1/1/4
6. как на лоб упавшую косо прядь. υ υ (-) υ – υ υ – υ -.            (4)/2/1
7. И уже ничего не снится, чтоб меньше быть, υ υ – υ υ – υ – υ, υ – υ -,      2/2/1/2/1
8. реже сбываться, не засорять – υ υ – υ, υ υ υ – ↓[3]          0/2/4
9. времени. Нищий квартал в окне – υ υ. – υ υ – υ – ↓ [1]         0/2/2/1
10. глаз мозолит, чтоб, в свой черед, – υ – υ, υ, υ υ -, ↓ [2]          1/4
11. в лицо запомнить жильца, а не, υ – υ – υ υ -, υ -, ↓ [2]        1/1/2/1
12. как тот считает, наоборот. υ – υ – υ, υ υ υ -.               1/1/4
13. И по комнате точно шаман кружа, υ υ – υ υ – υ υ – υ -, ↓ [2]    2/2/2/1
14. я наматываю, как клубок, υ υ – υ υ υ, υ υ -, ↓ [2]       2/5
15. на себя пустоту ее, чтоб душа υ υ – υ υ – υ υ, υ υ – ↓ [3]   2/2/4
16. знала что-то, что знает Бог. – υ – υ, υ – υ -.                   0/1/2/1

Как давно я топчу, видно по каблуку. (How long I have been trampling can be seen from the heel of my shoe)

The duration of the trampling is indicated by the heels of the shoes, i.e. by the degree, to which the shoes have been worn out. The verb топтать (to trample) cannot normally be conceived without что (what), which means that this is an elliptical construction. In everyday language the verb топтать has the meaning of ходить / идти (to go, walk). Phraseologically it can be associated with землю (earth, ground) and can receive the metaphorical sense of “to live” (“to stomp the ground”). The degree of abrasion of a [synecdochic] shoe heel is thus not only an index for a certain period of walking, but also for an indexical durativity of life, which is not further specified here. Thus, the very first line of the poem is already marked indexically: the worn shoe heel indexically indicates the duration of walking/life. In this lies a double poetical indexing, because a figurative meaning [the reference to the duration of life] can be grasped through elliptically constructed phraseology. However, the first index, that of the period of walking, is so visibly marked that this almost has to be qualified as exposure of the poetic device обнажение приёма). Because the duration is not specified in the first line, the durativity of walking/living remains at first a mere formula.

Паутинку тоже пальцем не снять с чела. (The cobweb, too, can’t be taken down from the forehead with a finger)

The second line specifies in hindsight the degree of the abrasion of the shoes and/or the life. The particle тоже (also) makes it clear that the first and the second lines are moments of a single movement of determination. The cobweb can be thought to relate to a specific lifespan in two ways:

1. Naturally – causally: The forehead [the person], has, like an object, been abandoned for such a long time that a spider could cover it with its web. The spider’s web refers so to the long-lasting abandonment of the forehead; such a person or forehead would have to be absolutely immobile, i.e. dead.

2. Phraseologically – elliptically: паутинка морщин, the cobweb of wrinkles. Such phraseological omissions can be described as “indexical traces”: the wrinkles on the forehead indicate the advanced process of aging or weathering, обветшание.10 This also marks the interpretational pattern of the poem, and обветшание becomes structurally confirmed by the fact that the aging speaker [by way of abstraction] imagines himself in the following lines as a de-animated entity. Oбветшание is actually yet another [unavoidable, but natural] form of alienation/остранение.11

There is a synecdochic order in the poem, according to which the singular stands for the natural dual/plural: каблук, палец, глаз (heel, toe, eye). The function of this poetical use of the singular can be seen as making the concrete plural become abstract [as the simplest abstraction formula] or in обветшание [as lessening]. Owing to the phraseology of the expression паутинка [морщин] (cobweb [of wrinkles]) retrospectively retrieved on the basis of the word чело, the metaphorical character is suspended. The elliptical expression first activates it and then brings us to think of a real spider’s web as a literal index of обветшание.

The cobweb pattern of forehead wrinkles is a pattern of lines, which we can also observe at other levels of the poem, e.g. in the a-metrical distribution of accents. Alternately rhymed accentual lines12 are structured in such a way that the distribution of accents structurally encompasses обветшание. The sections between the stressed syllables in particular form the rhythm13 in this manner, for example the period of four unstressed syllables at the end of the respective line. The monosyllabic and bisyllabic stressing shifts in the first four lines and second four lines respectively [marked with angle signs in the table] also dictate a pattern of breathing and time that rhythmically refers to обветшание. Because the respective accents appear one or two syllables earlier, they point [more quickly] back to the previous line with which they form a single accent line. The faster movement forwards signifies the faster movement backwards, which corresponds to the vector of обветшание.

The word чело comes from the Old Church Slavonic. This is also a link to the past which should be understood indexically in terms of the обветшание of the age-old word itself. The forehead stands metonymically for skull / brain. Yet whose forehead is it? Who is the speaker who is poetically growing older in this poem? The narrator (“I”) of the first line undergoes a transformation into a “general person” in the following infinitive sentences, in other words, the personal subjectivity is gradually abandoned [which is also one of manifestations of обветшание]. This narrator is not to be conceived of as a lyrical “I”-subject, which in modernism was reflexively very close to the poet. The “I” is stated as “я” twice –  in the first line and the third last line. Like the words “now/here”, “I” is context-dependent: “I” is the person who is speaking. Thus, “I” is basically also an index – that of the speaking person.14 The double “I” in the poem [я топчу, я наматываю пустоту] is so impersonal / general that it is possible to relate it to anyone. In contrast, the “general subject” implied by all the infinitive sentences is specified much more in terms of personal characteristics [for example, in line 7: И уже ничего не снится (and nothing is being dreamed of anymore)]. The fact that two subject and non-subject conceptions respectively are being combined here without a paradox being created shows how far Brodsky is from both modern and postmodern styles. The steady transformation of the lyrical subject into a de-animated entity in the following lines is also a part of the обветшание of the post/modern subject/object. Personal subjectivity may be formally marked by я топчу/я наматываю пустоту, but, firstly, it turns out to be an empty formula [partly due to the following пустота] and, secondly, it is filled only with negative determinations in the process of обветшание [see the row of negations with не]. We can thus distinguish two movements within the speaker: leaving the I-subjectivity behind on the one hand, but not necessarily turning into an I-objectivity on the other – merely because these two terms are correlative. We see here a new direction being marked to go beyond the subject-objectivity and object-subjectivity, i.e. on the whole to abandon modern self-reflexivity.15

The poetic self transcends the subject-object relationship by poetically considering himself abstractly, in the temporal [and historical] обветшание. This is not a total abstraction, but rather a continuous less [concrete, subjective or objective] being / becoming or more [abstract] being / becoming. In contrast to postmodernism the speaker here does not cut himself as a subject out of real objectivity, nor does he hang himself suicidally above the discourse. However, he does not necessarily want to return to I-objectivity.16

То и приятно в громком кукареку, что звучит как вчера. (What is pleasant in a loud cock-a-doodle-doo is that it sounds like yesterday)

What now follows is the clarification of what can be pleasant in a loud cock-a-doodle-doo: the recurrence of yesterday’s event, of the cock-a-doodle-doo-pattern. Yet why should this repetition of sound be pleasant? Statements such as “something is pleasant” or “unpleasant” [as in глаз мозолит, in line 10] are poetic assessments with all the axiological consequences.17 What reoccurs here is not a typical sign, but a sign which possesses phonetic iconicity despite its arbitrary nature. However, this iconicity has nothing to do with index, for the sign is pleasant not because it is iconic, but because it iterates [“like yesterday”]. The onomatopoeic кукареку refers to the source and the cause of that particular sound recurrence, the cock.18 Because the cock announces the beginning of the day, his loud shouts could stand metonymically for the sunrise, and the sun indeed rises/has risen again today “like yesterday”. Cock-a-doodle-doo actually refers to today – a future today. Yet here the situation is reversed: it refers today to yesterday. An iterative “retrospection” is being marked here, which further determines обветшание.

All the rhymes in these 16 lines obey the classical rules of the perfect [to some extent even rich] rhyme except for с челавчера, which is an assonance. The avant-garde assonance technique is thus subtly woven into the classical Yesterday. This rhyme can only be resolved by assumption of contiguity, suggesting that the word чело is of yesterday. All the other rhymes can also be interpreted on the basis of this assumption. An/The exception is the rhyme pair клубок Бог, which allows also certain equivalences. The dominance of contiguity [inter alia of rhyming words] poetically confirms the indexical nature of the poem, and indeed of Brodsky’s poetry in general. We construe the rhyme “каблуку – кукареку”  as the initiation of (onomatopoeic) acoustics of the heels that belong to the speaker.

At first it may seem that the “cock-a-doodle-doo” has something absurd in it. Nevertheless, there can be no absurd figures in Brodsky’s poetry because he does not aim at the “total pragmatisation of poetics” or “pragmatisation of paradigms”,19 but at [negatively grounded in обветшание] ontologisation and indexation [revealing of the causal] generally – including of the absurd, and thus at its nullifying. When all traditional semantics [and paradigmatics], including that of the paradox, had been realised in modernity [inter alia by the absurd], then these semantics could either move on as infinite potentiation [in the absurd of the absurd] or turn poetically into causal index. The effect of this is nothing less than the onto-poetical nothingness [cf. пустота in line 15], lying only in one direction, namely in the future. Thus, the “cock-a-doodle-doo” should not be regarded as absurd, but is rather a retrospective sound pattern grounded only in the [onto-] poetic acoustics [as are the rhymes]. If the absurd is thought of as an index for something [even if this something is a nothingness], then it is no longer absurd, or at least not in the usual sense. If the absurd itself is reduced to absurdity [in the forward vector], then the [ontological/poetic] turn is needed – simply so as to be able to stay alive “mentally”. For this one does not have to act “museally”20 but to find one’s way [back] to ontological thinking21 through обветшание.

Но и черной мысли толком не закрепить, как на лоб упавшую косо прядь. (But the black thought, too, one cannot properly fix, like a strand of hair that has fallen askew on the forehead.)

 Further moments defining the aging life are collected and summed up, whether that of the speaker or of the abstract person in the concessive infinitive sentence “But the black thought, too, one cannot properly fix” – in contrast to the cobweb that cannot be removed. Both statements can be (“naturally”) correlated within the index field. Phraseologically, “black thoughts” mean dark and sad thoughts [for example of death].22 Here, this thought can be considered as the thought of обветшание that had been uselessly or incomprehensibly written down with black [printing] ink in this very poem.

The non-fixability of the “black thought” and that of the strand of hair are connected through “как, i.e. the comparison is based largely on the verb [as is точно шаман кружа later in the poem]. Yet the comparison also occurs through the nouns, although their spatial proximity [the head or forehead region] somewhat reduces the intensity of this comparison.23 The characteristics of the strand of hair, as for example the nexus of many lines [cf. the cobweb of wrinkles on the forehead] and their obliqueness [косо] are linked to the black [written] thought.24 The infinitive sentence marks the iterativity of the impossibility to hold this thought rationally. This iterativity is in the nature of the thought [about обветшание]. The sublime Old Church Slavonic чело becomes лоб [tautologically paraphrased],25 constituting another determining moment of onto-poetic aging.

И уже ничего не снится, чтоб меньше быть, реже сбываться, не засорять времени. (And by now nothing is being dreamt of, in order to be less, to come true more rarely, to not clutter up the time.)

A parataxis unfolds here: тоже То и – Но и – И уже – И […кружа]. This is complex in the sense that it is extended by hypotactically differentiated infinitive final clauses with чтоб. In addition, the progressing definition of обветшание [of the speaker, but also of the general non-person contained in the infinitive constructions] develops negatively up until the middle of the poem through the accumulation of the negated verbs: не снятьне закрепитьне снитсяне засорять.

The infinitives in the main clauses have the mode of inevitable necessity or impossibility, which then mutates into final intentionality in the subordinate clauses. This is also how we have to imagine the ontological/poetic aging/weathering. The infinitives [as basic forms] denote here not the beginning of a development, but the advanced effects of it. They are grammatical indices of a reduction of the usual chronological movements or actions, i.e. they are higher grammatical abstractions, because the action/movement as well as the time in обветшание are being made to become abstract. These negative infinitives should actually be understood as nouns. This is exactly where/when the speaker becomes inconceivable both as a subject and as an object.

“And by now nothing is being dreamt of, in order to be less”: The quasi-mathematical more and less [> and <] are often encountered in Brodsky’s poetry, being indices for the continuous quantification of the apparently purely qualitative.

The continuum of обветшание is finalistic. The statement of no longer dreaming of anything results in an intention: to be less. Thereby the metaphysics of being and of entity becomes enabled and/or indexed. We are not interested here in the [qualitative] reduction – neither to the classical metaphysical presence [in the identity] nor to the postmodern absence [in the difference], but the indexically natural quantitative continuum of being less [in the weathering of обветшание]. In any case, attention is drawn to the poetic necessity that someone who dreams of nothing exists to a lesser extent. [And that is good in that it is poetically intended]. The perfective facet of быть becomes the imperfective through the continuous меньше, i.e. the difference between these aspects gets blurred, which indicates also the lack of distinction between being and becoming.

A sleep without dreams is connected more closely with consciousness [i.e. with cognitions of being awake; cf. “in order to know” in line 16] than with the [inter alia symbolic] unconscious. Thus in quantitative terms, the consciousness finally increases. Finalisms in the poem are not linked to specific pictorial [-symbolic] dreams or visions.

“In order to become real more rarely” follows “to be less”. Conventionally, сбываться (to come true, to become real) is transitively connected to dreams and wishes. Nevertheless, as there is nothing more to be dreamt of, the grammatically required completion has to be eliminated as well. As a reflexive verb this verb is uncommon in Russian. Here it shifts to become an intransitive/reflexive verb of personal self-fulfilment, which, however, becomes continuously rarer. This is an [onto-] poetical extension towards reflexive intransitivity or a limitation [because no longer referring to dreams or wishes] of the grammar of this verb.26

The finalistic intentional chain of dreaming of nothing is therefore threefold: to be less, to fulfil oneself less often and not to “pollute” time. The lesser-being/becoming determines in its turn that the time itself does not become “polluted” [anymore] – with dreams and with being-more.

“Being/becoming”, “time” [also as “space of time”, because the verb засорять presupposes space] – the most abstract concepts in the history of philosophy come together, interlinked through чтоб, in one sentence to create a poetic finale. As defining moments of обветшание, they on the one hand form a paradigm together with the worn shoe heel, loud cock-a-doodle-do (of yesterday), unfixable black thought and irremovable cobweb-like wrinkles on the forehead. On the other hand, in other lines of the poem they are related to пустота, душа, Бог. Thus, being and time are connected here in a finalistic [and indexical] continuum. The being-less refers to purer time, i.e. to abstract time. However, how can we think at all of time as disconnected to being and as connected to being-less or the non-being of пустота (emptiness)? Transcendentally with Kant? Or as the Platonic idea of ​​the Good? Perhaps like this: Being and Time represent different levels of abstraction, and time is the [absolute] Meta of being. It would be better yet if пустота were beyond the Meta: beyond the abstract and the concrete, objective and subjective, present and absent, continuous and discontinuous, etc. – Time as exterior to being and time?27 Such [onto-poetic] time is still negatively defined, yet it is microanalytically organised in a continuum [of knowledge] and thus still knowable through inductive-indexical tracking of this “continuum”, relying on the [poetic and abstract] experience.

времени. Нищий квартал в окне глаз мозолит, чтоб, в свой черед, в лицо запомнить жильца, а не, как тот считает, наоборот. (time. The pauper quarter in the window makes the eyes sore, just to, in its turn, memorise the resident by face, and not, as he thinks, the other way round.)

The succession of several negations [ничего не не времени] itself refers to being/becoming less and less. This leads first to нищий квартал (the pauper quarter), then further to пустота (emptiness). The word “time”, separated by the enjambement from its syntactical context, combines with “pauper quarter” beyond the end of the sentence [thus overcoming the punctuation]: времени нищий квартал (the pauper quarter of time). In Russian квартал means both a city district and a quarter of a year. [¼ is a partial quantity, a being-less, i.e. it also refers to the onto-poetic quantification, which is spatiotemporal.]

Though the “pauper quarter” is the “grammatical” subject, there are still interferences. The colloquial idiom глаз мозолит means that something annoys someone with its permanent presence. Yet it is not clear whom the “pauper quarter” annoys. The idiom strongly presupposes an I-[me-]personality,28 yet it turns into a he-[him-] personality [запомнить жильца] as the purposive clause continues [while the “pauper quarter” remains the subject]. The phrase в свой чередalso makes it clear that midway through the sentence a change of perspective occurs [or will finally occur]. First, the pauper quarter [denoting metonymically a complex of houses and streets] sticks in the [visual] memory of the speaker due to its permanent presence, but after the reversion it is the tenant who sticks in the memory of the quarter through his permanent presence. This is a kind of poetic text interference,29 in which not only the first- and the third-person perspectives are superimposed, but also the personal and the non-personal, i.e. thing-perspective [an equivalence to the authorial perspective in the prose is quite conceivable here]. This shows that the process of becoming less in обветшание is not just linear, but also non-linear/chaotic.

The annoyance caused by the quarter in the window is intended [by the quarter itself] inasmuch as it later retains the speaker in its memory, and not vice versa, as the speaker thinks. The memory is initiated by the animated quarter. Yet how can such an animated [visual] memory be associated with aging? The following correlation can be made here: the less one is/becomes and the less one remembers [this possibly constitutes the cleaning of time], the more ontological, [non-museal] final-oriented spatial memory there is. It is not the person who has the functionality of remembering in the course of the aging process, but the material environment itself.

Only in its centre is the sentence final and infinitive; around it we find main clauses with subject-predicate-structure and dependent clauses. The sentence, which spreads over four lines, is structured through commas in such a way that it seems to have almost burst syntactically. It consists of no less than seven separate parts: чтоб und а не organise the sentence logically, в свой черед and наоборот differentiate it a-logically. [They are also almost tautologically joined together in the rhyme.] в свой черед belongs to the purposive [future] area of чтоб, which is being initiated by the quarter; наоборот refers from the present point to а не of the resident. Considered individually, both mark a reversion; together they mark the reversion of reversion [of perspectives, relationships]. The verb rhymes in the preceding four lines are now followed by the adverbial rhymes наоборот в свой чередand а нев окне. The first rhyme is both tautological and amplifying; the second involves a discrete oppositional negation, which is so strong that it is able to negate the line with “time” and “pauper quarter”. In this manner – based on the rhyme paradigm – the reversion and the negation can be correlated.

The relation of reversion is also to be found in the indexical relation: smoke → fire. Similarly, the phonic equivalences обооро in the word наоборот [рот”, as the organ of speech, refers metapoetically back to реку ] phonically mark a relationship of reversion.

И по комнате точно шаман кружа, я наматываю как клубок на себя пустоту ее, чтоб душа знала что-то, что знает Бог. (And circling around the room like a shaman, I reel as though on a clew, its emptiness on myself, so that the soul would know something that God knows.)

The structure of the final purposive sentence reflects that of обветшание, which is both final [teleological] and indexical. In the being/becoming less of the speaker, i.e. in наматывать пустоту30 too, the efficient and the final cause intertwine.31 In this case, the efficient and the final clause build a single continuum.

The a-personal [material] memory initiates the movement of the lyrical a-person, in the course of which the emptiness is absorbed. However in doing so it also initiates the absorption of knowledge by the soul, which again refers to being less, just as the emptiness refers back to the preceding negations.

Thus it arrives at a “metaphysical” loss,32 but through this loss it also arrives at onto-poetic knowledge. The onto-poetical process of aging or weathering is a process of abstraction, in the course of which the speaker or lyrical [a-, i.e. non-] person distances himself from his subjectivity and from being by way of abstraction. This abstraction is a loss, even if in terms of Meta it is a gain.

The speaker is an “I” (я”) again here, although this only becomes explicit in the second simile due to enjambement.  Comparing the attributes of a shaman33 to that of the speaker (as a non-person) the circular motion is emphasised, and this continues in the second simile which immediately follows. The “ecstasy” of the speaker is grounded in aging. It is determined by several negations and reversions of being or becoming less. As such it is a beyond-oneself of abstraction. It is not a mystical ecstasy, as is shown merely by the fact that the imagery is greatly reduced.

The shaman-simile is extended by the second simile of a clew and the speaker becomes further de-animated. The “Soul” of the final clause is separated from the “I” of the main clause by the insertion of the second simile, so that the soul gains a relative independence in the process of reeling in the emptiness,34 with the [necessary] intention to learn something.35 The poetic distance between the “I” and the “soul” de-psychologises the latter in order to ontologise it. The speaker reels the emptiness in on itself like a clew (клубок) [which is a reference back to прядь/паутинка]. The inversion in пустоту ее (i.e. the emptiness of the room) makes the spatial emptiness exist ontopoetically for itself for a fraction of a second. Winding up the emptiness or the nothingness implies at the same time the uncoiling of the fullness or of the one [in the being / becoming less of обветшание], and this movement is connected with the knowledge [of God].

“Kлубок is a circle entity, which usually consists of threads/lines overlapping and crossing over each other [also in phrases: клубок мыслей, противоречий (a tangle of thoughts, of problems)]. To unravel a clew means to give the lines another form/structure. To unravel the tangled thoughts means to find certain solutions. Here we have both new poetic patterns [e.g. indexical patterns in the poetry] and ontological solutions, for example: the longer one has been, the more one knows. Or axiologically: The less one becomes, the better. And epistemologically: To learn to unravel solutions of interpretation through the microanalytical [inductive, because emanating from the poems themselves] analysis of the onto-poetic pattern of the poem.

The clew pattern is given not so much in the semantics as in the structure: in the altered distribution of accents, in the highly structured sentences and – connected to that – in enjambements of various strengths [especially the sequence of three enjambements in the last sentence], in the poetical as-if text interference, and ultimately in the immediate succession of two similes.

The rhyme Богклубокis the finale of the poem. It cannot postulate a personal God anymore firstly because of the reference to the poetical “shamanism” and secondly because of the de-personalising rhyme. According to the rhyme, God is a clew entity. If the [personal] soul in the course of being/becoming less [обветшание] increasingly distances itself from the speaker and is able to obtain knowledge of God through this, which means that it comes closer to God, then we have to think of God as being a-personal too. This must also result in the separation of knowledge from [psychologic, subjective-objective] personality. This is more than metaphysics! The condition for this knowledge is the wound up emptiness, or being/becoming less, which, again, determines God in terms of quantity. The abstract knowledge [of God/emptiness] is also associated with the time-purism of the middle lines of the poem. The Christian God as the [absolute] transcendent Other here becomes a clew entity. The transcendence thus becomes a reified and figurative Meta.

The symbolic sign can be said to imply a relation of transcendence insofar as in it the sign itself is “transcendent” in its relation to the thing/reference. By contrast, an indexical sign is itself immanent to the signified thing and is only a Meta in the poetical abstraction. [Why should mental moves be possible only through the “symbolic” means of сознание?] According to Brodsky’s poetical ontologism, knowledge [знание/язык] as justifiable cognition is directly related to being emptier or less – hence to обветшание. The knowledge of things known to God36 is accessible through aging and through things-based and signs-based remembering of what/who has been. The justification of knowledge as God’s knowledge, as knowledge of the Meta, takes place in the onto-poetic aging and becoming wiser of обветшание.

It has been our goal to show that Brodsky was the last original ontologist of European cultural history. Philosophical ontology no longer works, because there is no rational, discursive or scientific but only a poetical access to being. “-logy” in ontology comes in terms of Brodsky’s poetry from logos: word/language. We also aimed to show how Brodsky poetically exploits the natural figurativeness of the index for ontological use. It is not the symbolically functioning consciousness through which the being can be accessed, but precisely the indexical function of language. Language points directly to being. It is neither necessary nor useful to refer back to the merely symbolically accessible consciousness in order to understand being.

Dr. Irina Spiegel, Universität München


Afanas’ev, Aleksandr: Mifologija drevnej Rusi (Mythology of ancient Russia), Moscow  2005. Brodskij, Iosif: Sočinenija Iosifa Brogskogo (Works), vol. 3., St. Petersburg 1994. Brodskij, Iosif: Bol’šaja kniga interv’ju (The Big Book of Interviews), Moscow 2000. Ėtkind, Efim: Materija sticha (The Matter of the Verse), Paris 1978. Gasparov, Michail: Russkij stich načala XX veka v kommentarijach (Russian Poetry of the Earky 20th Century), Moscow 2001. Groys, Boris: Die Erfindung Rußlands, München 1995. Grübel, Rainer: Literaturaxiologie. Zur Theorie und Geschichte des ästhetischen Wertes in slawischen Literaturen, Wiesbaden 2001. Hansen-Löve, Aage: Paradoxien des Endlichen. Unsinnsfiguren im Kunstdenken der russischen Dichter des Absurden, Wiener Slawistischer Almanach 44, München/Wien 1999. Mamardašvili, Merab and Pjatigorskij, Aleksandr: Simvol i soznanie (Symbol and Consciousness), Moscow 1997. Platon: Sämtliche Werke, Vol. 1, Hamburg 1957. Schmid, Wolf: Proza kak poėzija (Prose Read as Poetry), St. Petersburg 1998. Schmid, Wolf: Narratologija (Narratology), Moscow 2003. Smirnov, Igor’: Čelovek čeloveku filosof. Homo homini philosophicus, St. Petersburg 1999. Snell, Bruno: Die Entdeckung des Geistes, Hamburg 1955. Zubova, Ljudmila: Forma „sut’“ v poėzii Iosifa Brodskogo (The word “sut’” in Brodsky’s poetry), Wiener Slawistischer Almanach 37, München/Wien 1996.

Translation from German by Jahangir Bashirov and Annie Rutherford

  1. Sočinenija Iosifa Brogskogo [Works of Joseph Brodsky], Vol. 3., St. Petersburg 1994, P. 141. []
  2. By “we” we mean myself and the “hypostatised virtual Brodsky”, whom I imagine abstractly in the micro-analytic dialogue. Such a Brodsky is in principle a poetic [personal] equivalent of a prosaic [a-personal] “abstract author”. “I” imagine the poet as an allegorically abstract whole with which an intelligible contact is possible. []
  3. Index is a term from semiotics. A sign is denoted in such a way that its sign character consists of a direct, physical indicative relation between itself and the signified. In most cases this is a deterministic relationship (cause-and-effect). An index is thus a sign which is related to its referent in time and space. C.S. Peirce distinguishes the index from the symbol [a sign due to convention] and the icon [a sign on the basis of similarity]. For Brodsky the mathematical index also plays an important poetical role. Modern mathematics would not function without the index; there it consists of a number or a variable from a set of indices which is used for numbering of mathematical objects. The temporal numbering can also be seen in обветшание (the weathering process). []
  4. M. Mamardašvili, А. Pjatigorskij: Simvol i soznanie, Moscow 1997, p. 29. []
  5. Inductive, because induction starts from a specific and individually existent entity. []
  6. Philosophers of mind would nowadays say that consciousness is an epiphenomenon because it is not physically parametrisable, has no variables, and cannot be physically described. []
  7. This is not modern, merely reflexive meta-poetics. []
  8. Brodsky only applies baroque means humorously. His paradoxes are ostensible; they can be dissolved continuously and in a non-linear way. Although Brodsky knew John Donne’s work very well, he discovered something of which there was not a trace in the poetic Baroque. The differences between similar things are much more striking than the similarities. []
  9. These numbers indicate the strength of enjambements. The criterion of quantity is based on the grammatical syntagmatics: the highest grade belongs to the separation of a transitive verb and its object and the separation of the subject from its predicate. []
  10. Обветшание cannot be simply translated with “aging”. It means rather weathering or yellowing. In Brodsky’s poetry at least “aging” means not the aging of a subject, but of the object. []
  11. Oнтологическое остранение! (Ontological alienation) []
  12. The accentual verse exceeds the 1-2-3-syllables regularity in the accent distribution of Taktovik, which means that rhymes become the organising power in such lines. The number of stressed syllables varies greatly. One regularity of the distribution of stresses in the poem is for example that the first and last two lines contain four stressed syllables. Cf. M. Gasparov, Russkij stich (The Russian Verse), Moscow 2001, p. 155. []
  13. The pattern of unstressed syllables is shown as number rows in the table above. []
  14. In ontopoetics there is no insurmountable gap between “fictional” and “real” worlds anymore! They merge through subtly graded and continuous ties. []
  15. That this might be possible recalls ancient Greece. For example, there is not only no distinction between subject and object in Homer, but no body-mind-conflict either. Cf. Bruno Snell, Die Entdeckung des Geistes (Discovery of Mind), Hamburg 1955, pp. 17 et seq. []
  16. According to Igor Smirnov it is still possible to conceptually retrieve the archaic I-Objectivity by means of physio-psychological extremes [„крайности”], e.g. in Sorokin’s prose. Cf. I. Smirnov., Čelovek čeloveku filosof. Homo homini philosophicus, St. Petersburg 1999, pp. 33-34. []
  17. Cf. Rainer Grübel, Literaturaxiologie. Zur Theorie und Geschichte des ästhetischen Wertes in slawischen Literaturen, Wiesbaden 2001, p. 43 et seq.

    In the statement concerning the pleasant nature of the sound pattern of cock-a-doodle-doo a value is being semantically marked. Rainer Grübel understands value [“in the sense of semiotic realism”, ibid] as based on its equivalence to the triadic sign. The valuation basis in this poem is the iterativity of the cock-a-doodle-doo-pattern [“like yesterday”]. The valuation mode is positive. The repetition of the onomatopoeic cock-a-doodle-doo is in the valuation field both ethic and aesthetic. Brodsky links ethics with aesthetics in a practically ancient Greek manner. He explicitly says that aesthetics is the mother of ethics. Cf. Iosif Brodskij, Bol’šaja kniga interv’ju (The Big Book of Interviews), Moscow 2000, p. 286. The following two-way relationship pattern is thereby implied: 1) genealogical relationship: first the mother “aesthetics”, then the daughter “ethics”; 2) indexical relationship: the daughter “ethics” [the good] refers back to the mother „aesthetics” [beauty]. []

  18. In ancient Russia the cock was associated with the clock. In Russian mythology he was “петушок – золотой гребешок”, who sits in heaven and fears neither water nor fire; he dispels the night and summons the day. (Cf. А. Afanas‘ev, Mifologija drevnej rusi (The Mythology of Ancient Russia), Moscow 2005, p. 168.) Despite обветшание a semantics of Enlightenment is being activated here, though it refers not to the future, but to the past. If the cock is analogous with the clock, then “ку-ка-ре-ку” can also be thought as “тик-так” (tick-tock); this acoustic-indexical time formula is to be found very often in Brodsky’s poetry. []
  19. Cf. A. Hansen-Löve, Paradoxien des Endlichen. Unsinnsfiguren im Kunstdenken der russischen Dichter des Absurden, Wiener Slawistischer Almanach 44 (1999), p. 127 et seq. []
  20. To live and to think “museally” is a postmodernist strategy, which Boris Groys discovered analytically; cf. for example B. Groys, Die Erfindung Rußlands, München 1995, p. 198. []
  21. For Brodsky the antiquity has a model function, partly because it follows the most “natural” course [the indexical thinking bases, too, on naturalness of relations – smoke from the chimney → fire in the stove]. Not only do we get older, but so do the „old masters“, and therefore there is a lot to learn from them, Brodsky tells us. []
  22. That they are no longer rationally fixable, is within the Doxa [толк] axiologically speaking good. толком не закрепить could thus be literally read as follows: the written thought is fixable within the A-Doxa [not Para- Doxa!], and only from this point the cock-a-doodle-doo is being drawn on. []
  23. In contrast to metaphor or metonymy, the relation between two elements of simile is grammatically marked and therefore simile is closer to index. This is also because the “causal relation” of an index can safely be thought of as equivalent with the syntactical. []
  24. Assuming that this thought is an immediate written thought, the lines can be seen also as lines of verse and their nexus as a stanza. []
  25. Indeed, the whole poem is a paraphrase of обветшание. []
  26. Cf. L. Zubova, Forma “sut’” v poėzii Iosifa Brodskogo (The word “sut’” in Brodsky’s poetry). In: Wiener Slawistischer Almanach 37, München/Wien 1996, S. 109-118. Zubova demonstrates that Brodsky intensively uses the grammatical modification of the old church slavonic copula «суть», with other or new semantics; here this is the case with the verb сбываться. []
  27. The strong enjambement “не засорять [3] времени“ also separates the word “time” from the enumerated finalistic being/becoming-less on the rhythmical level. Etkind speaks in such cases of the “double segmentation of text” and the “conflict” between rhythm and syntax; thereby the word strives to retrieve its original “grammatical syncretism”. It makes, for example, that predicative and substantivised meanings become indistinguishable. “De-Grammatisation” results in [here: onto-poetic] “new semantisation”. See: E. Etkind, Materia sticha (The matter of verses), Paris 1978, p. 115. []
  28. This poetic I/me-personality was until this point clearly marked only in the first line. Incidentally, the verb мозолить also refers back to the first line [the continual walking]. []
  29. Cf. Šmid, W.., Narratologija, Moscow 2003, p. 195 et seq. Of course, narratological principles cannot be readily transferred to the sphere of poetry [despite all the similarity of Brodsky’s poems to prose]. Nevertheless, they can be applied in so far as we understand the [micro-] analysis of the poetic text as reduced to, for example, contiguity relations. The narratological analysis of perspective itself is also an analysis of indications. In the poetic micro-analysis, indications are neither perceptive nor ideological, but [onto-]logical. [Furthermore, the “event”, as a fundamental element of narration, can be understood here as a “negative”, “inverted” event of becoming less.] []
  30. The phrase наматывать пустоту is a verb-based metaphor [as a complement to verb similes]. The semantic transfer can be interpreted as follows: 1) phraseologically: circling in nothing but the air, in an empty room; 2) onto-poetically: absorbing more and more of Nothing, i.e. being less and less affected by Being. Despite the use of metaphors, the imagery of this expression is minimal. []
  31. The terms “efficient clause” and “final clause” can be understood in the Aristotelian sense. []
  32. The theme of loss is traditionally covered by the elegy. Brodsky expands the boundaries of the elegy, so that they no longer mark a poetic genre, but the poetic attitude as such. This broadening process had already begun with Pushkin and Baratynskiy. [Cf. Schmid, W., Proza kak poėzija (Prose Read As Poetry), St. Petersburg 1998, p. 168.] A few characteristics of this expansion are according to Schmid: a clear reduction of emotionality, the ambivalence of melancholy and joyfulness and the differentiated (reflexive) analytics of the speaker [the latter is especially distinct with Baratynskij]. Although Brodsky takes up this line [he turns the ambivalence of melancholy and joyfulness into that of melancholy and humour!], he nevertheless removes himself from it by ontologising the elegy itself. On the one hand, this exceeds the basic psychological-reflexive function of the elegy; on the other, the elegiac attitude becomes determined by ontological questions, such as: Why are there only constructed entities, i.e. nothingness, and not rather something that just IS? … []
  33. That one becomes a shaman through an aptitude (ecstatic ability) and after an apprenticeship with older shamans, that a shaman’s duties consist in accompanying the dead, healing the sick and restoring of the cosmic order, that he is not a priest – all these become related to the speaker by way of comparison. Shamanism is a variant of animism, where the natural forces, at first impersonal, are imagined as personalised and acting souls and spirits in everything that exists [cf. the animated “quarter”]. The shaman himself is an index, a visibly living symbol for “spirits” or for the Other, no matter how deeply transcendent or immanent this Other is. []
  34. On the rhythmic-metrical level of accent the emptiness, i.e. the distance between the stresses, becomes greater. The recurrent pattern of four unstressed syllables on the end of almost every line here becomes five syllables. []
  35. An explicit reference to the poetic Platonism of Brodsky! []
  36. Бог весть! А Бог его знает! (God knows!) This final idiom is probably meant ironically and it marks the limits of man, who knows nothing, and God, who supposedly knows everything. And God knows if God knows that he IS. []
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