Report on 2011 field trip to Iran

(SLAVIC STUDIES MA External Candidate/LCL)

Angelina Saul

Maslenitsa [Shrovetide] in Iran
(A literary quest from Astrakhan, Russia, to Rasht, Iran)

You have still not understood that my word
Is a god howling in a cage.
- Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922)

“Khlebnikov?” “You’re travelling through two days of snow to honour a crazed poet? Are you all there?” These are the general questions I am faced with once I’ve explained, hesitatively, the reason for my two-day train journey from St. Petersburg to Astrakhan. Caught between misted frames, the wide expanse of Russia blasts past as I look through my notes and books on Khlebnikov, the unsteadiness of the countryside proving to be the perfect backdrop to my field trip.

The poetry of Velimir Khlebnikov is not an easy topic to chat about over sips of a strong cuppa with my fellow passengers. Khlebnikov is one of Russia’s most entrancing and ambiguous literary figures defying a neat title of classification: philologist, mathematician, ornithologist, dervish, and of course, poet. His immense and disorderly poetic oeuvre, his vigorous (and not to mention endless) essays on language, the future, mathematics, skybooks, Asiaunion, historical calculations and all sorts of odd-topics, led him to being called “The President of the Globe” and “King of Time” by his contemporaries.

The location of Astrakhan is crucial in terms of understanding Khlebnikov’s works. The poet’s hometown is a swirl of colour and rustic dilapidation – a breathing testament to the various cultures that invaded, traded or settled there. The director of the Khelbnikov Museum, Alexander Mamayev, gives me a guided tour of the city, pointing out and elaborating on the significance of  different ghettos, temples of faith, and historical monuments. As a port of trade nestled quite discreetly near the Caspian, it is a city which lends itself to history and multiculturism. In the essay “An Indo-Russian Union” Khlebnikov declared Astrakhan to be the centre and uniting force of three worlds, “the Aryan world, the Indian world, the World of the Caspian: the triangle of Christ, Buddha, Mohammed”. It is this variety of languages and cultures in Astrakhan that most likely incited the poet to delve into verbal experiments that explored the hidden meaning of phonemes, morphemes, lexemes, as well as completing a theory on the meaning of many consonants in the Russo-Slavic tradition. In his most heavily anthologised poem, “Incantation by Laughter”, the following whimsical effect of his explorations ensues:

Hlaha!Uthlofan Lauflings!
Hlaha!Uthlofan Lauflings!
Who lawghen with lafe, who hlaehen lewchly,
Hlala! Ufhlofan hlouly!
Hlala! Hloufish lauflings lafe uf beloght lauchalorum!

As the snow was beginning to fall along the Volga, I headed back to the library in the Museum of Khlebnikov. Stopping by the market for some evening tidbits of fruits, nuts and produce I have never seen before, the elasticity of Russian is laid bare, as tens of languages are added for richness. The usual boundaries of language seem to bend, leading me to question just exactly how much did Velimir invent, and how much he may have heard. I am left to my thoughts and research to mull over, although later on I note that several different languages were used in the one sentence in order to bargain.

In 1921, with the Red Army’s insurgence into the Gilan province of Iran, Khlebnikov decided to go along for the ride. Overlooking the fact that the region had been going through the turmoils of a revolution (the Red Army supporting the local revolutionaries, who themselves turned on the Soviets later on due to power struggles between the Soviets, British, Germans, and centralised government in Tehran), Khlebnikov wanted to fulfil his dream of ‘going East’, and so was a part of the Cultural contingent of the Red Army. As I am en route for Rashte from Tehran, I am reminded of Khlebnikov’s idealism and astonishment in this part of the world, where he writes of, “The smell of the night, these stars/ Are a wild inhalation in the nostrils/ as the water floats on a bed of  nails/ murmuring into foam”.

Mapping out Khlebnikov’s whereabouts in Iran ninety years on proves to be more complex than in Russia. Firstly, the history of the area has undergone several revolutions since there, and the preservation of history has suffered. The Russian influence in the area, although acknowledged, is rather poorly maintained. Secondly, the culture of enshrining history with a temple as in Russia seems to be something of an anomaly outside of Russia. Thirdly, like Khlebnikov, I have also arrived during difficult times. The tautness in the air could tune a violin, as more and more anti-government activities are taking place, as the hostility of people towards power is gaining momentum, and I have arrived several days prior to the ‘Day of Rage’.      

Despite this, I am able to note and explore some parts of the Russian and Soviet presences in the region, especially in the main museum of the region, in the architecture, even in some expressions in the local language. Students from the university are obliging and happy to translate all my questions, explaining and probing for more information on my behalf.

However, the finer details of Khlebnikov’s wanderings are inexplicable, as the cultural clubs where he read his essays, ‘The truth of time’, and ‘Fate in a mouse-trap’, are unknown. The exact location of the newspaper, ‘Red Iran’, where Khlebnikov published many poems, is also unknown. Having made contact via contacts with some Slavic professors at the University of Gilan to discuss my research, I am forbidden from entering the premises of the University, although I am told that they were expecting me. A day of wasted diplomacy ensues, toing and froing from one office to another, ending with a deflated dead end conversation with the Director of International Scientific Office, where I am told that the Slavic professors know nothing about this topic.

On the other hand, this is the fault of the poet too. Not many people knew of his whereabouts even then. He didn’t take his role in the Red Army seriously, and was instead occupied with writing, drawing, and philosophising in the local tea-houses, drifting about the countryside (the locals branding him as a ‘Russian dervish’), and endlessly taking an active role in being absent from his responsibilities. His life-style eventually drew the attention of the Cheka, an incident he also draws upon in one of his poems. Although wanting to stay, this ‘Rose-Mullah’ was forced to leave once the Soviets withdrew and made a peace treaty with Iran in 1921.

However, whether I was walking along the Volga in Astrakhan, or along the Caspian in Enzeli, I am not thinking of these stories and intrigues, or of the poet’s biography. Caught within the blustery storm moving in from the Caspian, I instead think of the lines:

Ra, who sees his own eye in the red rusty swamp water,
Envisions his dream and himself….
A thousand eyes, a thousand dots and pupils.

Characteristically, the poem captures the psychedelic and exuberant flux of the Khlebnikovian world of myth and history, where the Egyptian sun god is interconnected with the Volga, which in turn is connected to the rebel peasant, Razin, who in turn is connected to the kidnapping of a Persian Princess. It these genial-like abstractions of time and language that darkens my mood as I make my way back to Tehran the night before Tuesday’s ‘Day of Rage’, as I’ve come to the conclusion that I am no closer to me goal, and although it is not the Volga staring back at me, there is the ambivalence lurking in Khlebnikov’s words that are also in bewilderment in the face of my own bewilderment.

Adopting a Nitzchean tone, the poet suggested that with the hidden powers of language “we now extend our law over the abyss”. There is something utopic, grand, even frighteningly naïve in Khlebnikov’s desire to reform reality within human consciousness via language. As I am faced with several hundred (or is it thousand?), military forces near Tehran University the next day, the notion of reality being reformed strikes a chord. On the way to the theatre with a friend and a professor from the Foreign Languages Department, a hush falls over us as English, Russian, and I assume even Farsi, are not welcome at this very moment. Trying to look inconspicuous, we enter the student theatre to see Beckett’s play, ‘Act without words’, sadly apt given the clashes on the other side of the fence.

The picture of revolution Khlebnikov conjured up in Gilan, which was also a part of the local Iranian New Year festivities (Nawruz), was something to be seen to be celebrated, as

Again, we are in the first days of humanity!
Celebrating Brahim,
Adam is walking behind Adam.
Crowds of them,
In this verbal game.

Leaving Tehran on Maslenitsa, a Russian pagan holiday, I am filing through my notes as the plane is ready to take off. One Khlebnikoved states, that “Khlebnikov’s Persian poems are inherently Russian, tell us more about Russia than about Iran, and are certainly not Persian”. Having written a poem about Easter in Enzeli, I am not sure how afflicted Velimir would have been by such an observation, as his poetic vision and my quest to seek out that poetic vision have only added to the idea of language’s displacement and the displacement of place, voice, time, and self.

March 2011