Conspiring Against Emptiness and Non-Existence: 

Mandelstam’s Gothic Pine Cones

by John Baalke


To build means to fight against emptiness, to hypnotize space.  The fine arrow of the Gothic belltower is angry, for the whole idea of it is to stab the sky, to reproach it for being empty.


Mandelstam, “The Morning of Acmeism”


In his memoir Journey to Armenia, Osip Mandelstam writes:  “Stupid vanity and a sense of false pride held me back from berry-picking as a child, nor did I ever stoop over to pick mushrooms.  I preferred the Gothic pine cones…I would stroke the pine cones.  They would bristle.  They were attempting to persuade me to do something.  In the tenderness of their shells, in their geometric giddiness, I sensed the rudiments of architecture whose demon has accompanied me all my life” (Harris 355).  Looking back from a middle-aged vantage point, Mandelstam recognized a fledgling Gothic sensibility in his childhood preference for pine cones.  Here, perhaps, was the rudimentary pointed arch, the seed of verticality, and the tender bristling of teleology that would eventually form the cathedral of his poetics.


But how did Mandelstam arrive at his Notre Dame and the intuitive pinnacle of Acmeism?  What comprised his Gothic sensibility, and how did the “fight against emptiness” work itself out in his poetry?  These are huge questions which cannot be answered in this brief consideration, but it is still worth taking a closer look, even if it is only to see the small and dry thing (like a pine cone).  Such an attitude is the key to understanding Mandelstam’s sensibility; inclining the mind’s eye toward the exact curve of monstrous ribs, the fine geometric tracery of tall windows, how the plain light of day shines through symbols in stained glass.


The Neoclassical Pine Cones


Mandelstam’s pine cones were first, and foremost, neoclassical pine cones.  As such, they were not steeped in ether to make potpourri for the gods, not suitable for Romantic metaphors of flight to flit over abysses and circle about the infinite; they were subject to earthly dynamics like gravity and squirrels.  T.E. Hulme states in Romanticism and Classicism:  “The classical poet never forgets his finiteness, this limit of man.  He remembers always that he is mixed up with earth.  He may jump, but he always returns back; he never flies away into the circumambient gas” (Adams 769).  Mandelstam confirms and integrates this idea in his poetic manifesto, The Morning of Acmeism:  “Acmeism is for those who, seized with the spirit of building, do not cravenly renounce their own gravity, but joyously accept it in order to awaken and use the forces architecturally sleeping in it” (Brown 144).


Mandelstam’s pine cones were subject to the classical boundaries, but he recognized that they possessed a certain dynamic in their resistance.  It is in this vicinity that the struggle with words can begin, and a “cobblestone…is transformed into substance” (144).  Out of emptiness and non-existence comes the pine cone, the ribbed vault, Notre Dame.  One must acknowledge the limits and their inherent resistance to really have anything at all.  Mandelstam states:  “The first condition of successful building is genuine piety before the three dimensions of space – to look upon them not as a burden or unlucky accident but as a God-given palace” (144).  This dynamic neoclassicism is borne out in Mandelstam’s poem “48 – The Admiralty”:


                        In the northern capital a dusty poplar languishes.

                        The translucent clockface is lost in the leaves,

                        and through the dark green a frigate or acropolis

                        gleams far away, brother of water and sky.


                        An aerial ship and a touch-me-not mast,

                        a yardstick for Peter’s successors, teaching

                        that beauty is no demi-god’s whim,

                        it’s the plain carpenter’s fierce rule-of-eye.


                        The four sovereign elements smile on us,

                        but man in his freedom has made a fifth.

                        Do not the chaste lines of this ark

                        deny the dominion of space?


                        The capricious jellyfish clutch in anger,

                        anchors are rusting like abandoned plows―

                        and behold the locks of the three dimensions are sprung

                        and all the seas of the world lie open. 

                                                                           (Brown and Merwin 5-6)


Here the clock-tower of St. Petersburg’s “Admiralty” is seen through the limbs of a poplar (perhaps through organic relationship).  The building and tower are like a frigate and mast.  The tower/mast stands like a “yardstick” of beauty, and beauty is not some Romantic whim of the gods, it is well within the builder’s realm.  The “four sovereign elements” are favorable for building and sailing, yet man tends to think he needs something else, a fifth element.  The “chaste lines” of the Admiralty (“this ark”) are enough; they conspire against the emptiness of space.  The “jellyfish clutch in anger”― the Romantics, Symbolists, et al, are not happy with what is; they work best away from home as spineless drifters or shape-shifters.  The classical “anchors [rust] like abandoned plows,” but the “seas of the world lie open” for the neoclassical builder/sailor who springs “the locks of the three dimensions.” 


In his essay On the Nature of the Word, Mandelstam writes:  “We have no Acropolis.  Even today our culture is still wandering and not finding its walls.  Nevertheless, each word…is a kernel of the Acropolis…a winged fortress of nominalism, rigged out in the Hellenic spirit for the relentless battle against the formless element, against non-existence…” (Harris 126).  Mandelstam’s pine cones were brought into the circle of Hellenism by the Russian language; impersonal objects were transformed into “domestic utensils” which both surrounded and connected to the body.  Essentially, this was the idea of embodiment.  Mandelstam elaborates: “Hellenism is a system…which man unfolds around himself, like a fan of phenomena freed from their temporal dependence, phenomena subjected through the human ‘I’ to an inner connection”  (128).  This “inner connection” or embodiment is figured in Mandelstam’s childhood experience as he stroked the pine cones and the pine cones bristled in response.  Mandelstam’s sensibility was classical to the point of maintaining a natural equilibrium; the domestic and everyday, the craftsman, the sense of human order and finiteness, and the Hellenic sense of embodiment. 


The Symbolist Pine Cones


For a time, Mandelstam’s pine cones may have been something else; perhaps, a likeness of the “colossal structure” of Russian Symbolism, a sealed image in the Baudelareian “forest of symbols.”  Soon, however, Mandelstam realized that Russian Symbolism (unlike French Symbolism) lapsed into the Romantic pitfall, and was really a pseudo-Symbolism.  The Russian Symbolists, notably the brilliant Vyacheslav Ivanov (whom Mandelstam admired), took the Baudelaireian sense of “correspondences” to the mystical level.  This was another form of what T.E. Hulme called “spilt religion” where “[t]he concepts that are right and proper in their own sphere are spread over, and so mess up, falsify and blur the clear outlines of human experience”  (Adams 768).  In On the Nature of the Word, Mandelstam expresses the dilemma of the Symbolists:  “They sealed up all words, all images, designating them exclusively for liturgical use.  An extremely awkward situation resulted:  no one could move, nor stand up, nor sit down.  One could no longer eat at a table because it was no longer simply a table.  One could no longer light a lamp because it might signify unhappiness later” (Harris 129).  Once again, Mandelstam found himself in the struggle against non-existence, trying to meld the representation, the symbol, the form, and the thing itself, the pine cone.  If everything was a symbol denoting something else (which in turn denoted something else), then nothing existed as itself, nothing was real, nothing really existed.  Existence requires empty space be filled with real things―domestic utensils― with which the human “I” connects.


The Russian Symbolists gutted the image and repacked it with something foreign, creating a forest of “scarecrows.”  The so-called “correspondences” were false; the word-image bond was broken, and what remained amounted to “eternal winking” at best. (128)  The Symbolists “sought to turn language into music,” creating a sheerness of sound that would serve as a means of getting beyond, to the mystical.  Mandelstam viewed language in very physical (Gothic) terms, and sought to counter “the demand for music in words by concentrating upon the verbal, logical qualities in music – the discursive reasoning of it” (Brown 202).  Mandelstam converses with the Symbolist dilemma in his poem No. “96”:


                        A hush that evening in the organ forest.

                        Then singing for us:  Schubert, cradle songs,

                        the noise of the mill, and the voice of a storm

                        where the music had blue eyes and was drunk and laughing.


                        Brown and green is the world of the old song,

                        and young forever.  There the maddened king

                        of the forest shakes the whispering crowns

                        of the nightingale lindens.


                        With darkness he returns, and his terrible strength

                        is wild in that song, like a black wine.

                        He is the Double, an empty ghost

                        peering mindlessly through a cold window.

                                                (Brown and Merwin 20)


The poem opens in silence; it is “evening in the organ forest.”  This is Mandelstam’s controlling image for the poem, and it runs counter to the Symbolist “forest of scarecrows” with its unreal “correspondences.”  Mandelstam’s forest is Gothic, literally filled with complex and integral organs (and organisms), in every sense of the word.  In his essay Conversation about Dante, Mandelstam writes:  “Long before Bach and at a time when large monumental organs were not yet being built and only the modest embryonic prototypes of the future wonders existed, when the leading instrument for voice accompaniment was still the zither, Alighieri constructed in verbal space an infinitely powerful organ and already delighted in all its conceivable stops, inflated its bellows, and roared and cooed through all its pipes” (Harris 406).


Mandelstam proceeds, constructing an organ in verbal space out of the real and historical man, Franz Schubert.  The organ plays and the singing begins:  Schubert, his Wiegenlied (cradle song), the mill, the storm―his loves, labor, death―the altogether familiar view of the congenial man at the tavern.  The accreted Schubert rings out for a moment then fades into the periphery as Mandelstam moves from the man to “the world of the old song” and its hopeful tension between the earthy and immortal.  Against that “world,” there is a mad king, linked in the image by Mandelstam to the mythic medieval king of the forest, Goethe’s “Erl-King,” reiterated in song and music by Schubert.  Mandelstam accretes the entire sense of Goethe’s poem in this image:  a father calling his son back to the certainty of the natural world as the Erl-King lures the child’s life away in fear.


In the lines that follow, Mandelstam juxtaposes “The Linden Tree,” fifth song in Schubert’s final song-cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey), and its inherent medieval romantic emblems of the linden tree and the nightingale, which are tied back to German mythology and Freya, goddess of love.  Mandelstam continues to press the logic of the poem forward as the king of the forest “shakes the whispering crowns / of the nightingale lindens.”  In winter, the lindens only whisper in the wind because the nightingales are gone.  The king of the forest wants music (like the Symbolists), but sometimes there is only silence and whispering; Dante and Schubert understood this.  The linden tree may be emblematic of love in May, but in December, it is emblematic of death as in Schubert’s Winterreise.  There is a breakdown of correspondence in the forest of symbols at this point.


In the final stanza, Mandelstam weaves at least four textile warps (to use his terms), creating the effect of palimpsest:  the man Schubert, Schubert’s “Der Doppelganger” based on Heinrich Heine’s poem “Still ist die Nacht,” “The Erl-King,” and Winterreise.  Brown and Merwin render the first phrase with what seems an appropriate sense of Mandelstam’s intended doubling.  The king of the forest returns “[w]ith darkness,” meaning both at night and bringing something; namely, the darkness.  The second line equates “darkness” with “that song,” indicating the king has brought his own dark song, and the nature of the song is intensified with “terrible strength” and “black wine.”  The dark song is undiluted, full-strength, and wild―it is Polyphemus blinded by nobody (Odysseus) in the cave.  The song is wildly blind― there is no logic, no discursive reasoning―it is the empty song of the Symbolists.


Mandelstam raises the meaning of emptiness and non-existence to the tenth power as he brings the poem to a close.  The phrase “He is the Double” condenses meaning from Schubert’s life and musical works.  Late in life, Schubert suffered from the effects of syphilis which eventually led to his death.  The double life he had led became more apparent to the public, and there was nothing Schubert could do about it; he had to face his own turpitude.  In “Der Doppelganger,” the narrator sees the tormented self reflected in the moon, his “double-goer” and “pale companion.”  Similarly, at the end of “The Erl-King,” the reader is left with the impression that the Erl-King is the desperate father’s double.  The final song of Winterreise finds the estranged poet casting in with the penniless hurdy-gurdy man on the street in an unresolved doubling. 


All of these warps, and perhaps others, are part of the “conscious sense” of Mandelstam’s phrase “He is the Double,” and one understands the complexity of this real doubling, but in the logic of the poem, the double of empty Symbolism is empty Symbolism; it is the “empty ghost,” and it peers “mindlessly” at nothing.  Symbolism is incapable of real doubling since it operates on the principle that A always equals non-A, and this means that A will never see a double of itself because it is not itself.  Doubling requires the law of identity:  A equals A.  Mandelstam believed this was the sovereign law of poetry, and the obvious basis for logical relationship.  In The Morning of Acmeism he states:  “For us logical relationship is not some ditty about a siskin but a choral symphony with organ, so difficult and inspired that the director must exert all his powers to keep the performers under his control” (Brown 145-146).


The Gothic Pine Cones


Mandelstam’s poetic included “genuine Symbolism surrounded by symbols, that is, by domestic utensils having their own verbal representations, just as men have their own vital organs”   (Harris 131).  There was true “correspondence” and “logical relationship” between Mandelstam’s pine cones and their verbal representations, allowing the pine cones freedom to denote and connote a full range of meaning, and to take their rightful place in literature, history, science, architecture, and music.  In dynamic resistance, they could grow and bristle, or sportingly tumble with gravity on any given day as every earth-bound pine cone should.  Most importantly, they could be wholly themselves down to the exact curve, conspiring against emptiness and non-existence with Mandelstam’s “Notre Dame” (3rd stanza):


                        An elemental labyrinth, and inscrutable forest,

                        the Gothic soul’s rational abyss,

                        Egyptian might and Christian modesty:  next to a reed –

                        an oak, and everywhere plumb is king.


                                                          (Brown 187) (lineation mine)



Works Cited


Adams, Hazard (Ed.).  Critical Theory Since Plato, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1971.


Brown, Clarence.  Mandelstam, Cambridge University Press, London, 1973


Brown, Clarence and Merwin, W.S. (Trans.).  Osip Mandelstam: Selected Poems, Atheneum, New York, 1974.


Harris, Jane Gary (Ed.).  Mandelstam:  The Complete Critical Prose and Letters, Ardis, Ann Arbor, 1979.


Mirsky, D.S.  A History of Russian Literature, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1969.