And we sang the Warszawianka.
With reed-choked lips, Petrarca.
In tundra-ears, Petrarca.

Paul Celan (1)

We can single out four key elements in Greek tragedy, elements that today have either been irretrievably lost or, at least, have become problematic. First, the connection between tragedy and the ancient mysteries: tragedy has its origins in rituals dedicated to the god Dionysus. The cult of Dionysus or Bacchus involved a (temporary) ecstatic escape from the established cultural order, the revocation of fundamental boundaries and distinctions – social, gender, sexual, and even anthropological (between god and man, between man and beast). The Bacchic frenzy concluded with the dismemberment of the god’s body or that of his deputized victim (the goat or tragos), thus indicating the ritual – sacrificial – source of tragedy. Second, this transgressive drama was matched by the utterly exclusive – sovereign – status of the characters: they were heroes in the strict, ancient Greek sense of the word – warrior chieftains, demigods, prophets, kings, their blood relatives and their retainers. In the baroque period and, later, in classicist tragedy and romantic drama, they were joined by generals, tyrants, tyrannicides, and outstanding individuals, people who rose above “the crowd” – that is (again), by figures who embodied supreme power, hierarchy, and the law, and who simultaneously transgressed this law. The third obligatory element is the fatal course of events, destiny. Its structure is paradoxical. On the one hand, irreversible consequences are provoked by unrestraint and audacious behavior on the part of the hero, the hubris that calls down catastrophe not only on him but also on the community (the kingdom, the country). On the other hand, fate is something predestined, something proclaimed from on high. The hero strives with all his might to avoid this destiny, but it is precisely his efforts that lead to excess and release the mechanism of catastrophe. Finally, the fourth element: the hero’s tragic insight, his horror at realizing how irreparably far he has gone. The catharsis (2) experienced by the spectator corresponds to the hero’s insight.

With the triumph of Christianity, which established its own sacrificial cult, the Passion of Christ, and later, with the enthronement of “prosaic” bourgeois civilization, these four key elements were gradually bled from the theater (and exited from life itself). The first to sense this was Nietzsche. His The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1872) was a desperate attempt to bring back Dionysian jubilance, an ecstasy that reaches the point of self-destruction in its violation of borders. Nietzsche experienced the disappearance of the tragic spirit as the tragedy of modern man. And, in accordance with the fateful Greek scenario, this brilliant mind who longed for heroics, for the superman – that is, for the god-man – went mad and, stricken by paralysis, dragged out a semi-vegetative existence in mental clinics and the care of his mother and sister for the final ten years of his life.

Nietzsche’s fate is prefigured in the image of Ivan Karamazov, who likewise seeks to rise above “mere mortals” and ends in madness. Indeed, the tragic principle manifests itself in Dostoevsky’s works with a truly ancient scope and fury – perhaps for the last time in modern history. His heroes are moved by the sovereign, destructive desire to go to the bitter end in answering the “ultimate questions.” They trample basic prohibitions and test the limits of the cosmic order and human nature itself. Dostoevsky’s novels deal in nearly undisguised form with ritual slaughter: at stake here is the keystone of any social order, what Renй Girard calls the “founding murder.” This murder is foundational in the sense that it puts an end to the vicious circle of “primitive” violence (history – not only Biblical history – begins with fratricide or parricide) and opens up a new vicious circle, the circle of sacrificial rituals. Girard argues that this is the circle of our culture per se – that is, the institutions that regulate relationships within the community and impart humanity to people. Hence, the kinship between the feast day celebrating the god Dionysus (and any holiday whatsoever) and the sacrificial ritual at the heart of tragedy. The function of the sacrifice is to reinforce and restore the cultural order by reprising – by performing – the original foundational act.

Any order has the tendency to become unstable and collapse over time. When the institute of sacrifice dies out (even in the residual form of public executions) and free-floating violence spreads over the streets of cities in turgid, tiny streams, permeating our “everyday practices” and becoming a workaday backdrop as gray and impersonal as the bureaucratic state (the coldest and most impersonal of all monsters), high tragedy is replaced by the comedy, the tragifarce, the domestic drama. We witness people sitting at a table having dinner; they are simply eating dinner, but at the same time their lives are crumbling (Chekhov). However, the sacrificial element has been reanimated during times of great social upheaval: on the stage of history, and later on the theatrical stage, new heroes – the most ordinary people – lay down their lives for the cause of the working class, thus bringing the “world’s new dawn” closer. Along with the cult of revolutionary leaders, this cult of “rank-and-file” martyrs became the binding element in a new sacrificial ritual, the support structure of a classless society.

At the same time, the most sensitive artists understood the unendurable falsity of “optimistic tragedy,” (3) of the heroicization of the individual in an age when the popular masses had been set into historical motion, not to mention the “wholesale deaths” seen in the theaters of military operations during the First World War and other wars. In January–February 1937, at the height of the mass repressions, Mandelstam said his farewell to ancient tragedy (less than two years later he would perish in a transit prison camp near Vladivostok):


Where is the chained and nailed-down moan?

Where is Prometheus, supporter and abettor of cliffs?

And where the kite – and the yellow-eyed heat

Of his claws, flying out from sullen brows?


That is not to be: tragedies cannot be returned.

But these advancing lips –

But these lips lead straight into the essence

Of Aeschylus-the-loader, of Sophocles-the-woodcutter.


He is echo and greeting, he is milestone; no – ploughshare.

The aerial-stone theater of growing times

Has risen to its feet, and all want to see everyone –

The ones who were born, the fatal ones, the ones deprived of death.


As in most of Mandelstam’s late poems, the semantic fabric here is excessive and simultaneously obscure, filled with hiatuses, missing links, and associative leaps from one unknown to another. It is unclear, for instance, whose “lips” are referred to. We might assume that they belong to an actor declaiming the tragedy Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, but this is merely our “realistic” – rationalizing – guess, a guess unsupported by factual evidence. But meanwhile, “these lips,” repeated twice and “advancing,” bristling with the doubled adversative conjunction “but,” are extremely vital to the poem: in these two lines, it literally breaks in half, leading us into the “essence” of a historically irreversible shift. Essentially, we are in state of ignorance. What is more, we remain in this state when confronted with the pronoun “he” that opens the third quatrain. Who is this? Aeschylus, author of Prometheus Bound? Or Sophocles, author of Oedipus Rex? Or perhaps Prometheus? (This is conceivable from the purely grammatical point of view.) Or is it the kite? Certain scholars argue that it is Stalin, insofar as the poem was written at the same time as the notorious so-called ode to Stalin. (4) It is written in the same meter and contains variations on similar motifs; in particular, there is a reference to Prometheus, with whom both Josephs – the tyrant and the poet – are alternately identified. If we pursue this line of argument, then the “advancing lips” are his as well: in the “Ode,” the supreme leader and father of all peoples appears speaking from a podium. But the pronoun “he” might also refer (in the original Russian) to the “aerial-stone theater” in the next line: this is the ancient theater, as suggested by “echo” and “greeting.”


The uncertainty principle is constitutive here. The poem does not simply presume a multitude of readings; its meanings – and significance – are unreadable in their own right, in isolation from the many other poems written during the same period and, more broadly, from the poet’s entire creative trajectory, which also includes his own death “with a crowd and wholesale” (“Verses on an Unknown Soldier”). The poem’s syntax – the syntax of the “chained and nailed-down moan” – is out of joint, just as the time of tragedy is out of joint. It has been severed and mounted on a ploughshare, which opens up a perspective in which the tiers of the ancient Greek amphitheater and the serried ranks of the Last Judgment as depicted in old Russian icons converge – the eschatological perspective of immortality. In turn, this perspective is unthinkable without the communist perspective – the redemption of humanity’s curse as a species, the division of labor. It is unthinkable without the sting-like hyphen – deadly for art, and thus for tragedy as well – that secures the transfiguration of Aeschylus into a loader, and Sophocles into a woodcutter; without this line drawn under art, the line that resurrects the proletarian within the artist (and, vice versa, the artist within the proletarian). Proletarians of all lands and fire-encircled centuries rise to their feet along with the tilted bowl of what once was the theater. This is the chorus. In modern tragedy, said Brodsky, it is the chorus that perishes, not the hero. The chorus is singing the Warszawianka and the Internationale, I read on the lips of Mandelstam-the-woodcutter as he reads Aeschylus.




(1) The epigraph to this essay is taken from a poem in Paul Celan’s collection Die Niemandsrose (1963), whose dedication reads, “Dem Andenken Ossip Mandelstams” (“In Memory of Osip Mandelstam”). Mandelstam was born in Warsaw, and legend has it that he read his translations of Petrarch to other prison camp inmates. Celan prolifically and congenially translated Mandelstam’s verse, and his own poems contain a fair number of references to the poetry and fate of his Russian (and Jewish) colleague. Celan’s profound and frankly unorthodox understanding of Mandelstam’s poetics is borne out by the text of a radio program (broadcast March 19, 1960), in which, in particular, Celan said, “For [Mandelstam] – and this evinces a chiliastic character particular to Russian thought – revolution is the dawn of the other, the uprising of those below, the exaltation of the creature – an upheaval of downright cosmic proportions. It unhinges the world.” Translated by Pierre Joris; accessed at


(2) There is much controversy over Aristotle’s notion of catharsis. Rather than delve into the subtleties of the various interpretations, it would be more appropriate to dwell on the meanings of the word catharsis, as reconstructed by Renй Girard: “The Greek term for an evil object extracted by means of similar ritual is katharma. This term was also used as a variant of pharmakos to designate a sacrificial human victim. […] The word katharsis refers primarily to the mysterious benefits that accrue to the community upon the death of a human katharma or pharmakos. […] In addition to its religious sense and its particular meaning in the context of shamanism, the word katharsis has a specific use in medical language. A cathartic medicine is a powerful drug that induces the evacuation of humours or other substances judged to be noxious. The illness and its cure are often seen as one; or at least, the medicine is considered capable of aggravating the symptoms, bringing about a salutary crisis that will lead to recovery. […] The operation is the same as that of the human katharma, although in medicine the act of purgation is not mythic but real.” Renй Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (London: Athlone Press, 1988), 286–288.


(3) “An Optimistic Tragedy” (1933) is a renowned play by Vsevolod Vishnevsky (1900–1951). Its title became a proverbial expression. Before the action begins, one of the chorus leaders addresses the audience: “Hello, new generation! These fighters did not ask you to mourn their deaths. Whole armies of such fighters were laid away under the sod in the great Civil War but your hearts didn’t stop beating. Life does not die. Why, men can laugh and eat their dinners over the graves of their fellow-men. And this is beautiful! When our boys lay dying they’d say, ‘Keep smiling! Look lively, Revolution!’ As I said, this regiment turns to posterity. But don’t think you’ve come to a funeral—just forget about all that, the crиpe and the last sad rites. We’re only asking you to sit here tonight and think about, and understand, the meaning that struggle and death really have for us.” Vsevolod Vishnevsky, “An Optimistic Tragedy,” trans. H.G. Scott and Robert S. Carr, in Ben Blake, ed., Four Soviet Plays (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1972), 84–85.


(4) This ambivalent poem was published, under the title “Ode to Stalin,” in full for the first time only in 1989. Nadezhda Mandelstam, the poet’s widow and custodian of his archives, had not wanted the poem to be made public, fearing that it might damage Mandelstam’s reputation as a consistent opponent of the “criminal regime” and hater of Stalin beginning with the 1934 epigram (“We live without feeling the country beneath our feet”) that provoked his first arrest and exile. The controversy over the “Ode” has still not subsided. The central question in this debate is whether Mandelstam’s praise of Stalin was sincere, or whether, on the contrary, the poem was a tortured attempt to ward off the impending threat to his life. The most balanced stance has been taken by Mikhail Gasparov: “The people accepted the regime and accepted Stalin: some, in memory of the Revolution; others, under the influence of hypnotic propaganda; still others, out of a stupefied endurance. The raznochinets tradition prevented Mandelstam from imagining that everyone was out of step, but that he alone was in step. Mandelstam’s key poems from the Voronezh years are poems about acceptance: first, of the regime; later, of the supreme leader. At the heart of the first group of poems is “Stanzas” (1935), which are reminiscent of Pushkin’s “Stanzas” (1826). At the heart of the second group is the so-called ode to Stalin (1937), which is reminiscent of Ovid’s eulogies to Augustus in Tristia.” Mikhail Gasparov, Izbrannye stat’i (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 1995), 361. This opinion echoes Mandelstam’s own words from 1928: “The October Revolution could not help but influence my work, insofar as it took away my ‘biography,’ the sense of personal significance. I am grateful to it for the fact that it once and for all put an end to spiritual security and existing on cultural income… Like many others, I feel indebted to the Revolution, but I bring it gifts of which it has no need for the time being.” Osip Mandel’shtam, “Poet o sebe: otvet na anketu ‘Sovetskii pisatel’ i Oktiabr’” [The poet about himself: response to the questionnaire “The Soviet writer and October”], Sobranie sochinenii, vol. 2 (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1990), 310.