On Demyan Bedny (Obituary Reflections)

From Marxists-en
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Demyan Bedny is in disgrace. The immediate reasons given are somewhat vague. They say he antagonized all the young literary people as well as the old; they say he made himself impossible because of some personal trick or other; they also say he tried to set a mine for Gorky and was himself blown to pieces by it Probably there is a little of each involved. The three different explanations don't contradict one another but derive in equal measure from the nature of the circumstances and the man.

The man, it must be said right off, does not inspire any sympathy, but neither are the attendant circumstances attractive. Nevertheless, in the persecution that is at present being conducted against a gifted writer, we consider it our duty to come to the defense of Demyan Bedny. Certainly not because of the persecution itself: that kind of sentimentalism is foreign to us. What is decisive in our eyes are the questions: Who is doing the persecuting and why? Although our views might appear at first sight paradoxical we are not afraid to formulate them with all possible clarity: the malevolent criticism of Demyan Bedny is part of the bureaucracy's general work of liquidating the political, ideological, and artistic traditions of the October uprising.

Demyan Bedny had long been honored as a proletarian poet. One of the Averbach people even declared he demyanized Soviet literature. This must be taken to mean that he gave it a completely proletarian character. "Bolshevik poet," "dialectician," "Leninist in poetry" — how unseemly that looks! — in his own field, Demyan Bedny incarnated the whole October Revolution together with its proletarian current. Only the miserable, shortsighted schematism of the terror-stricken epigonic period can explain the startling fact that Demyan Bedny is to be found enrolled among the poets of the proletariat. No, he was a fellow traveler, the first of the many literary fellow travelers of the October uprising. He spoke not for the metal workers but for the insurgent peasant and the urban petty bourgeois who had taken the bit between his teeth. We don't say this in order to attack Demyan Bedny. Petty-bourgeois poetry formed a part of the grandiose background of October. Without the red cock of the peasant, without the mutiny of the soldiers, the workers would never have gained the victory. Maxim Gorky represented in literature the mishmash of "culture" which was frightened by the unrestrained poetry whereas, on the contrary, Demyan swam in it like a fish in water or like a dolphin of solid build.

Demyan is not a poet, not an artist, but a versifier, an agitator who rhymed but in very powerful fashion. The basic forms of his verse were fables and couplets, both extremely archaic forms, deliberately peasant and to that extent, not proletarian. Appearing on the revolutionary arena right in the very depths of the masses of the people, primarily of the peasantry, his old forms of popular literary works could not but rise to the surface of the shallow stream. This made Demyan one of the first …

The October uprising stirred to life a whole peasant-singing literature which, struggling to come to birth with the revolution, at the same time ostentatiously displayed archaisms. This dressed-up, decorative (Klyuev!) literature was obviously painted by the kulaks. Yes, and how could it be otherwise? Only the prosperous peasantry had leisure, play of fancy, and clinking money for the ornamentation of the wing of the house. The kulak put his imprint on popular literature in bygone days.

Peasant-singing literature was conservative since the powerful peasant was conservative though already drawn into the vortex of October. Of all the peasant-singers, Demyan Bedny was closest to the proletariat, boldest in welcoming the revolution already showing clearly its proletarian features, which essentially sickened him inside. But for all that he remained only a fellow traveler. The times favored him — the years of the civil war, the struggles of the peasants against the monarchy, the nobility, the priests, yes, and the bankers too. In those years Demyan was not a poet, in any case not a proletarian poet, but a revolutionary rhymer of historical stature. Perhaps Demyan Bedny did not move literature forward by as much as an inch; but with the help of literature he helped move the revolution forward. And this covered him with merit. Stories that Lenin rated Demyan Bedny's artistic talents extraordinarily highly are the purest legend. Lenin valued the first-class agitator in rhyme, the remarkable master of popular speech. But this did not prevent Lenin saying openly of Demyan: "He's a vulgarian, alas, what a vulgarian, and possibly not without pornography." And vulgarity and pornography colored Demyan with a kulakish medley of color.

Basically, Demyan was finished when the civil war was. Peasant-singing verse fell by the wayside. To the forefront came problems of industrialization, tempos, world revolution — areas not teeming with fables or couplets. In the first period Demyan tried, and not without some success, to enliven most of the organized reaction against the Left Opposition. The essence of the reaction consisted in the non-proletarian fellow travelers of October — the educated kulaks, the Nepmen, the left intellectuals, the specialist turncoats, the petty bureaucrats — rising against the proletarian leadership and solemnly gathering together to send "permanent" revolution, that is, the international proletarian revolution, to the devil. To this mood Demyan gave highly natural, clear, gut expression. There was no need for a political microphone to make out in the art of Demyan Bedny of the years 1924-27 the truly Russian melody of Thermidor. His pieces on marriage and divorce stuck in the memory as disgusting images of everyday insensitive reaction. His nationalist onomatopoeia smelled of the Black Hundreds, belching straight from Kievlyanin.But this too-revealing reaction evidently embarrassed and scandalized the Stalinist bureaucracy, although in the most acute period of struggle against the Left Opposition it had not been altogether ashamed of fully consciously using these Black Hundred sentiments which at first it had tried to keep aloof from. This fellow traveler of October turned out to be a fellow traveler of pre-Thermidor officialdom. After that, Demyan finally became outdated.

Through inertia, he continued to be one of the influential figures. Insinuating, and sly people from RAPP did not waste time in praising him to the skies. Demyan himself did not waste time. He counted himself an aristocrat of the revolution and although he did not spare his back before those in power, he was not unwilling on occasion to put his feet on the table. Having contemplated the impressive soles and heels of the honored writer, the Averbachs declared in chorus: It is necessary, oh, how it is necessary to demyanize proletarian literature

"Why?" rose the voice of a bureaucrat of refined taste.

"Why, Demyan is the clearest sound-film we have while Gorky's away at Capri playing host to Bernard Shaw."

"Demyan isn't suitable for a clean public. Besides, he has obvious deviations: in the latest piece, three columns long, twelve lines from the end, on the question of the collectives’ hens. He also doesn't highlight Stalin as a theoretician. He, Demyan, belongs to the past'"

It is not difficult to imagine how agitated the poet became when, familiar with the ways of the bureaucracy, he felt that he was being pushed out On this occasion he was capable of going so far as to be rude: "Is this why we fought?" It's known that Gorky was on the other side of the barricades but when the fighting was over he sat on top of the barricades, shed a few tears, and proposed a general peace, with no annexations and no indemnity. But Demyan was there, on the night of October 25, and on other days and nights, tireless with songs in the camp of the Red soldiers. …

True, all too true: but it altered nothing. Ambitious, stubborn Demyan both in his near-October personality and his somewhat Black Hundred substance was needed no more. It is true he was ready to dance attendance, so to speak, on a grand scale; to fish up some circulars and little zigzags to cover up yesterday's tracks; sweetly to trill at Kaganovich's eloquence — but he was no longer able to do this: for such things there are the Bezymenskys, seniors and juniors. And the Averbachs suddenly obtained full "apologies for his wit"; not only was it not necessary to demyanize literature, it was necessary to undemyanize Demyan himself, to the last stitch. So the wheel turned and crushed a not very sympathetic but nevertheless an outstanding figure There was Demyan Bedny — then there was no Demyan Bedny. And if we dwell here on his sad fate it is because the liquidation of Demyan Bedny is part, although indirectly, of the bureaucratic liquidation of the feelings and moods of October.