Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Word is the Search for It: Vygotsky, Mandelstam, and the Renewal of Motive

Whilst wandering the cyber-streets, I happened upon an excellent essay I wish I'd written:

A Word is the Search For It (Mark Willis)

The swallow is a hunting metaphor...for the life of the mind shared by poet and psychologist in the shadow of Stalin's Terror. That life of the mind continues to resonate back and forth in the writing of Osip Mandestam and Lev Vygostky. This essay is a search to recover something of that life, to understand how it remains both elusive and resilient.

The author waxes eloquent upon the manner in which the word (слово, slovo) has been viewed and developed in Russian history, language and poetry, through the double lenses of both the poet Osip Mandelstam (inseparable from the presence/memory of his wife Nadezhda) and the psychologist Lev Vygotsky.  I find the descriptions of Vygotsky's theories on the development of speech to be especially notable, since I've spent a great deal of time around speech therapists. In how many ways the word can be lost or found? (My short answer: as many as there are human moments.)

Willis cites Vygotsky, from his book, Thought and Speech:

 “Thought is not begotten by thought,” he wrote. “It is engendered by motivation, … by our desires and needs, our interests and emotions. Behind every thought there is an affective-volitional tendency."

Willis quotes a Mandelstam poem at the end of his article, which I'll share here:

The Swallow

What had I wanted to say? I forgot.
The blind swallow flies back to Pluto’s palace
on amputated wings, and plays with transparent souls.
Night songs sing in unconsciousness.

But no birds sing. Flowering evergreens aren’t in flower.
Night’s horses have transparent manes.
An empty canoe drifts in the dry river.
The grasshoppers’ password is: be unconscious.

Growing, slowly, like a tent, a temple,
now throwing itself to the side, suddenly, like mad
Antigone, now like a dead swallow throwing itself
at your feet with Stygian tenderness and a green branch.

Oh, if I could give back the shame of sensate
fingers, the shameful joy of knowing.
Niobe's tears terrify me,
and the fog, the ringing, the gaping opening.

And men can love, men can know,
even sound pours itself into their fingers,
but I forgot what I want to say
and the unbodied thought goes back to the palace of ghosts.

That transparent thought keeps repeating the wrong thing,
keeps fluttering like a swallow, my friend, Antigone. . .
and echoes of Stygian ringing
burn on her lips, black like ice.

--Osip Mandelstam

(Trans. Burton Raffel and Alla Burago)

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