"Meaning and Dislocation: The Mandelstams in Exile," 3 Quarks Daily, August 4, 2014.
Soviet logic worked in two directions at once. A right to live meant a right to be traced, monitored, interrogated, moved. Nadezhda lived in twelve cities between the time of her husband’s arrest in 1934 and his death in 1938. “Every time we joined all the other people making the rounds of offices to get our bits of paper,” she writes, “we trembled in case we should be unlucky and be forced to move in some unknown direction for reasons not revealed to us.” Osip’s first city of exile was Cherdyn, where he was required to report to a bureaucratic office every three weeks. The reporting, the applications for permits, the constant threat of informants. The state forced on the Mandelstams and countless others a life of dislocation.
No wonder Osip Mandelstam loved Dante. When the police took him to prison in the middle of the night, he brought The Divine Comedy with him. When Nadezhda followed him, months later, she brought another copy in case the first had been lost or confiscated.
Dante’s exile is so complete, the only way to recount it is to create a new encyclopedic universe, a work of art that articulates a new location for every dimension of life. Everywhere Dante is a stranger. And yet, he moves through heaven and hell guided by a poet. He cannot simply tell us what he learned. We won’t understand the fullness of his insight until we have travelled with him.
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