Mar 172015


When I am at the summer house I have a lot of free time. I read and look around. Whatever I read gets projected onto whatever I see. Here are two metaphorical systems I found fitting to my Dacha story: the semiosphere of Juri Lotman illustrating the microcosmos, and the time-duration cone of Henri Bergson illustrating time.

Juri Lotman (1922–1993) is a Russian/Estonian literary and cultural historian, a founder of the Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School. Unfortunately, his sign systems studies are not as well-known as Umberto Eco’s. Juri Lotman seems to have been a very kind man, and he is my imaginary best friend at the moment. Please remember him; he is a hero.

The semiosphere , a bubble of signs or meanings, is a universe or microcosmos, a text or a city, one’s imagination or my head. Just like my summer house – an actual private place, separated from the rest of the world by a fence and wishful thinking, stuffed with a dense collection of personal metaphors. By returning there every year I keep seeing things that are so familiar in a new light. It is coloured by too much oxygen and the emotions that come with being my parents’ child again. Every object or gesture can become a metaphor with multiple meanings if you give it enough time – as in Bergson’s ‘attention to life’, the point of actual time duration that finds its place at the apex of a funnel filled with memories and accumulated experiences.

fuji-at-torigoe   Jurij Lotman

Usually I stay at the summer house for one or two months. While I am there, my perception of time changes, and some of my priorities change with it. This happens gradually. It takes me about two weeks to get ‘synchronized’ with the surroundings and my parents’ pace. A day feels endless; every day looks like the day before. Somehow, because I don’t do much, this period becomes productive. A bored brain seems to create its own entertainment by connecting the dots, by finding unexpected associations and creating new meanings. My head is empty enough to find a story on a kitchen table or under a berry bush. Or to find justification for my passivity, so I can just lie under the apple tree with a book and wait for my mother to bring me food.

The dacha has a long history as the summer estate of the Russian gentry; an ancestor’s home with serfs and hounds, a place to lose at the gambling table; with a little teahouse in the garden – a place for secret meetings with a naive but wise girl in a white dress (so Turgenev). There, a Russian novel. The dacha was also a dream and a must-have for Soviet citizens who spent their summers butts up, weeding and digging potatoes to hoard them up for winter. There are several famous dachas near Pskov (where I come from) – Nabokov’s, Rimsky-Korsakov’s, Musorgsky’s, Pushkin’s, and mine.

img226 - kopieDSCF2705
Alexander Pushkin spent two years in exile at his family estate Mikhailovskoye; Joseph Brodsky was sentenced to 18 month of labour in the village of Norenskaya – that, with a bit of a stretch, could also be called a dachaesque experience. Those periods of exile were later considered very important in the development of the poets’ oeuvres. Both wrote a lot, there were visible changes in their styles and ‘life positions’, both frantically asked friends to sent more and more books. Brodsky was 24, Pushkin 25; Pushkin wrote around 100 works, Brodsky around 80. Pushkin’s place was much more comfortable than Brodsky’s of course, if you can possibly compare a family estate to a hut in a kolkhoz. Pushkin had his nanny tell him fairytales, made a baby with a maid, and visited his neighbours – five women he fell in love with, one after the other. What did Brodsky have? Some knitted carpets, hopefully.  According to his friend and biographer Lev Loseff, Brodsky looked back at this period as one of the best of his life. Vyazemsky, a friend of Pushkin, wrote that it was a miracle that Pushkin didn’t become an alcoholic – ‘ne spilsja’. The same goes for Brodsky, I guess. Especially if you consider the drinking habits in the deep Russian province. I mentioned already the deep admiration Lotman had for Pushkin’s ‘zhiznestroitel’stvo’ – life-building, the inner logic of his life path that can be discerned in all his actions. His biography is not a sum of events shaped by external factors, but by his internal, psychological integrity.


(from Unreal Estate #1 2014)


Feb 202013

During my recent stay in Japan, I figured out that I could use the clouds in Japanese folding screens as a metaphor for suggestive space that gets the imagination going – the clouds cover big parts of the depicted action. Only the use of the viewer’s imagination makes the contact between the picture and the viewer direct and personal.

How much space does association need? How does the imagination work when the direction is not clearly specified, when the given information is absurd or chaotic, or simply too much – when you don’t know how to begin to understand. How can one find a balance between subjective associations that are perhaps too personal, and common metaphors that tend to be clichés?

Launching a chain reaction of associations is one of the main tricks of poetry. I found some descriptions of this process; here they are in my free translation.

Haiku’s cannot be read and understood without knowledge of the historical context, says one little book.

The long associative rows start to unfold when things are named and placed next to each other. Each of the carefully chosen parts refers to a number of set associations (mood and weather, always ending with transience. There is a history of associative implications; a well-educated reader with experience does it almost automatically. Without the traditional reader there is no context. A translated haiku is only the peak of an iceberg.

Henri Bergson made a drawing of a cone to illustrate his time duration theory. This cone, a funnel of accumulated memories and experiences, slides over the plane of the present. The point of the cone that touches the plane is where the actual time duration takes place, what he called ‘attention to life’.
If a poem is an iceberg, then obvious associations stick out above the water.

Joseph Brodsky writes about his style models, Boris Pasternak and Osip Mandelstam: they find a detail or metaphor and start to unroll it, unfold it. Like a rose. A poem acquires centrifugal force. It accelerates itself. Like a whirlpool, as I imagine it – water streaming through a funnel; the Titanic crashes against the iceberg and is sucked into the water. All the Russian writers I mention here are tragic martyrs of the Soviet regime, a whirlpool of history.

In 1927 a group of leftist St Petersburg writers started the ‘Association for Real Art’- OBERIU. The association existed only for 3-4 years. One of the members later collected the archives of his repressed friends. The aim of the group was to ‘broaden the meaning of thing, action, word’. Alexander Vvedensky does it by ‘tearing the act in parts’ – what seems absurd doesn’t, in fact, lose it’s creative logic. The reader should be more curious, not so lazy, according to OBERIU Manifesto. The ‘fantasmagoria’ of Konstantin Vaginov appears as if seen through a mist of vibrations. But through the mist one can feel the closeness, the warmth of the object. Daniil Charms concentrates his attention on the clash between things and their inner relations.
In short, life is alogical. In the depth of chaos and absurdity one might be able to discover a flash of true meaning.
In another essay about Vvedensky I read that one should move through his poems as if in the dark – from one sparkle of understanding to the next. The poet measures the intervals between the ‘clearings’ with great precision – slightly bigger and we are lost, a bit smaller and the path is too straight. As we reach the end of the poem we cannot trace back the covered route of associations. Our wish to find meaning activates the imagination. The active reader reaches for the stock of his memory.
We are back at Bergson’s funnel, shaped like a triangular clearing between the trees.

Try to see all that Russian namedropping as ink spots – a Rorschach test.

KG 2012

KG 2012

Written for the artist book of Ans Verdijk.
August 2012