If I leave off for once the nagging question of why it is that I am in this way my worst enemy and just steady my aim at the description of my internal constitution, such as I find it now in my fortieth year of encumbering creation, why then this little equation goes some distance in explaining my sad career heretofore, my fancy word for “up until now”.
The reason I failed my senior year (well, not every single subject, but many of them) at Caltech is identical to the reason I failed to complete my final research seminar under Heilbron at Berkeley, even, after studying to be an electronics technician and preparing for the federal test, the reason why I passed the 3rd class with contemptuous ease, passed 2nd class with scant difficulty, and failed 1st class by one question.
So now, while my cat lies on the bed licking his furry anus and Iraqi warplanes bomb a few more Iranian ships in the Persian Gulf with tacit American support, I confront my self-constructed prison bars by writing about them. The Struve translation, if done professionally, would have taken a couple of months. From start to finish. Perhaps a summer’s project, back in 1978, when I had finished with Marx’s Mathematical Manuscripts.
The thing is a pedestrian project, not worth overcoming all my reservations. It is obsolete, without an audience;far better to write, as the former president of the Institute for Historical Studies advised me last year, my own biography of F.G.W. Struve. My brain revolts at Russian vocabulary these days, so that when I write down the words I am forced to find in the dictionary my list gets no shorter per page and never ceases to repeat itself. Words I didn’t know three or four pages ago I still don’t know now, and I get a cold chill of mortality as I write down the definition yet one more time in a notebook crammed with more words in Russian than I will ever know.
No, my friends, I will have done with doing the sensible thing. My banal and mediocre list of failures will not get any longer: from here on my life is a record of mean and contemptible successes. You know what would happen if I threw over the translation and began to write a biography of my own, don’t you? It would never get finished. Or started to write a novel about my time in jail for refusing the draft? Unfinished. Instead the world will get a translation of Struve and a few, maybe quite a few, letters about my life and times.
Recall that my last letter described the self-recognition which struck me upon reading the great Russian novelist, and in order to convey this description I had to take you from my desk in my room, where Dostoevsky is available only in German, over to the public library twenty blocks away, where the fiction shelves lack that book but the literature shelves have a book by an Australian teaching in Hong Kong which describes it. That is, I didn’t have to, it would have been easier to read in fact if I hadn’t, but it would have been less true.
It was on the shelves of the Oakland Library’s literature section the other day that I discovered an obscure poet named Boris Poplavsky, whose philosophy of literature so resembles my own half-formed, half-forced notions that I devote this letter to the parallels between him and His Nibs, that is, yours truly. What I found in the Russian literature section was a survey of Russian émigré literature, The Bitter Roots of Exile, by a couple of Berkeley heavyweights: ah, Girard tells me just now that I have deified academia. This may be true. So much a worshiper am I before the throne of scholarship the greater part of my own belles lettres are quotations, and I offend Seidel by quoting an academic himself quoting an authority, nearly exhausting my expression of originality.
The article in Simon Karlinsky and Alfred Appel’s anthology by one Anthony Olcott describes this one-book-of-poetry-in-his-short-lifetime brilliant literary star as “the heir presumptive of Montparnasse,” one of five Russian Writers in the West, 1922-1972, given in the book’s subtitle.
This guy was a drug taker. He died because an addict and he took poisoned opium together. Nevertheless at his mid-thirties he had several other books of poetry better than his published works and almost three novels complete in manuscript.
Poplavsky was opposed to literature as a discrete activity and wished to merge it with private correspondence and other writings done without thought of an audience.
— where, en rebours, I’m so vain my private correspondence is done before an audience.
This idea was bound up in his preoccupation with spiritual existence, with the specific fact of each human life. Literature can express only that fact, and every thing outside it is sham beauty or hackwork. In Poplavsky’s words
The artist describes only himself and that which he could become, his potential. Every artist who creates from the void the new, and that which never was, relative to his past, his memory, lies and invents.
Literary hackwork of all kinds, every concession to the public, is a betrayal of spiritual torment, the wages of which are petrification and cabalistic death.
It was on the basis of this opposition that Poplavsky was attempting to build a new spiritual form, one which would represent his own existence and the piritual fact of the emigration, and he was seeking it in the form of the diary. As early as 1930 he wrote of the spiritual life
The private letter, the diary, and the transcript of a psychoanalysis are the best methods of expression;
and by the last issue of 1934, he wrote of this new literary form as an accomplished fact.
The new subjective diary-like literature teaches a man, as much as possible, greater respect for himself, his eternal love, eternal separation, eternal loyalty, eternal betrayal, entirely personal, of God. This new literature is saving man from Russian self-abasement, fatal to every life.
Now the Gurdieff system has an explanation of why this literature succeeds at the above non-trivial tasks, namely that salvation lies in self-awareness. As for Russian self-abasement, surely the fact that the character Gary in Dorothy Bryant’s novel Prisoners and the would-be historian of the use of science by nineteenth-century Russia who is writing these lines — Italo-American that he is — both practice it should remind you that not simply Russians are susceptible to it.
In this sense the modest aside that Iraq is now bombing Iran with American tacit approval is the salient point of this letter, for it defines my prison-exile in temporal terms. My leukemia-ridden cat has as much affect on American warmongering abroad as I do; my sole transcendence is in honestly expressing not my disagreement — how can a moral cripple disagree with national policy? — but my situation. The internal exile writes, and having written, has served his native land.