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The Zaumniks

The word zaum' was coined in 1913 by Aleksei Kruchenykh (1886–1969). It is a difficult word to translate—for two reasons. The less important is that there is no English word that renders clearly what it means. "Transrational language" is often used, since za - corresponds to trans - and -um ' has to do with mind or reason. But "transrational" has a technical, philosophical ring to it that is entirely missing in zaum', and since no one has come up with a more plausible English equivalent, many writers simply use the Russian word. The more important reason is that zaum' was used to mean more than one thing.

The principal exponents of zaum' language theory are Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov, both commonly classified as members of the avant-garde Cubo-Futurist group. Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov show the transitional stage of thinking that is typical of the era. They are at home in an Edenic world of mysticism—much more than Bely is—yet we see in them a pull toward the modernist "fracture."

Their pronouncements on language can be divided into two broad categories. In both versions of zaum' theory the constant factor is that zaum' language is distinct from any existing language and is ideally referential, which is to say that it shows an ideal correlation with the things it designates. The difference between the two versions is one of orientation.

The first version of zaum' theory is an old-fashioned nativist theory of language. Poetic language is seen as being motivated directly by the objects it designates. There is thus an intrinsic connection between any object and a set of sounds that will express that object. In his first zaum' manifesto, "Declaration of the Word as Such" (1913), where the word zaum' was introduced, Kruchenykh invented a word for "lily" composed entirely of vowels since he felt that in this sequence of sounds the object's


"original purity" was restored.[27] In an essay called "The Simple Names of Language" (1916) Khlebnikov listed words beginning with the consonants m, v, k, and s, hoping to demonstrate that the words in each group have an idea in common and that this idea is expressed by the intrinsic quality of the initial sound. Thus words beginning with m often signify "the smallest members of certain varieties," an initial v often denotes the "action of subtraction," words starting with k often have to do with death, and so forth.[28] If one envisions the sign-signified problem as a polarity between word and world, then in this version the point of inception is the world since objects in the world motivate the formation of words appropriate to them.

In the other version, things are reversed, and the point of inception is the word. In a manifesto called "New Ways of the Word" Kruchenykh points out that in the archaic conception of language, thought takes precedence over words. He feels this view is wrong and has undertaken to correct the error. "Until now," he says, "it has always been asserted that 'thought dictates laws to the word, and not vice versa.' We have pointed out this error and come up with a free language that is both transrational (zaumnyj ) and universal. Previous artists have proceeded from thought to the word, but we proceed by means of the word to direct comprehension."[29]

If words precede thought and comprehension, it is because they create meaning, indeed even surpass it. As the theory comes to be elaborated in the writings of Khlebnikov, language creates its own worlds through the same necessary sign-signified correspondence that exists in a nativist conception of language, but with the obvious difference that the signified comes into being only at the moment it is named. This is where Khlebnikov's version of the poetry-prose distinction comes in. In more than one place Khlebnikov distinguishes between the function of a word when it serves reason and its function when it serves poetry. "The word lives a double life," he says in an essay titled "About Contemporary Poetry." "Either it simply grows like a plant, putting forth a cluster of neighboring sound stones, and then the principle of sound lives a self-spun life, while the portion of reason named by the word remains in shadow; or else the word goes over into the service of reason, and sound ceases to be almighty and autocratic; the sound then becomes a 'name' and obediently fulfills the commands of reason."[30] In another essay, titled simply "About Verses," Khlebnikov likens poetic language to magical invocations, saying that in the case of invocations "the demand


may not be made on the word, 'Be easy to understand like a billboard.' "[31] The poetic word thus shows a certain density, whereas the ordinary word is transparent.

The creative power of poetic language is not exactly the same thing for Khlebnikov as it is for Bely in "The Magic of Words." Language certainly created its own worlds for Bely, but those it created were recognizable worlds marked by the subjectivity of the speaker. Bely's chief concern in asserting the creativity of language was to emphasize the existential autonomy of meaning. Khlebnikov has in mind the creation of a realm of existence that has nothing to do with the one we are familiar with. In his notion language generates objects and worlds that not only never existed before but were never even conceived of. Bely's magic is thus a form of ontogenesis, whereas Khlebnikov's zaum' is a form of mythopoiesis.[32]

Needless to say, when Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh put their ideas into practice and actually create transrational words, the results are predictably unrecognizable and look like little more than gibberish. But this is not really a problem for us, even if they took all their zaum' poetry seriously. The theory simply has to be seen as idealist, like Bely's, and not designed to produce practical results.

Why view zaum' theory as anything but madness or, at best, regressiveness? In both versions it is clearly mystical, as Kruchenykh himself was not ashamed to point out. In "New Ways of the Word" he characterizes the poetic word in general as transrational (zaumnoe ) and then, by way of explaining the term, adds "mystical" in parentheses, along with other adjectives.[33] But there is something modern and even philosophically interesting about zaum' . The mystical leap from signifying word to signified object (an object that is actual in the first version and mythical in the second) leads to the assertion that poetic language is objective and autonomous. The phrase that the Futurists used to speak of the autonomy of language was similar to the one Bely used in his critique of Potebnia. The Futurists talked of "the word as such" (slovo kak takovoe ); Bely had used the phrase "mysticism of the word itself (mistika samogo slova ).[34] The word "as such" has an existence all its own in both versions of zaum' theory. In the first, nativist version, word and object exist in a relation of solidarity, owing to the perfect, intrinsically motivated referentiality of the word. The word thus shares in the existential autonomy of the object. In the second version it is autonomous because it is the existential point of departure for the mythic "concrete" reality it creates, this reality itself being seen as separate and


independent. This is where the modernist fracture modestly appears in zaum' theory.

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