Early in my study of Lev Vygotsky’s work I asked an experimental psychologist, an eminent authority on the evolution of the mammalian brain, what he knew about Vygotsky. He was working on sabbatical in London at the time, so our email conversation had the abbreviated quality of inner speech. He explained that he had looked at Thought and Language after the first English translation appeared in 1962. He skimmed the book as a busy scholar would, just to stay abreast of current developments at the margins of his field, and found little that was relevant to him. Despite the translators’ efforts to expurgate the book’s polemics, he was put off by its Communist overtones. He read it at the height of the Cold War and could not readjust the lens of political ideology. His assessment of Lev Vygotsky ended succinctly: “A man of his times — feet of clay.”
That image haunted me. I could not reconcile it with the author who dared to quote Osip Mandelstam on the eve of the Great Terror. Seeking to understand “feet of clay” is what led me deeper into Vygotsky’s and Mandelstam’s lives. I encountered it again in “On the Nature of the Word,” where Mandelstam noted that the Symbolist poets erected a colossal edifice of empty words while “standing on clay feet” (81). Eventually I traced the allusion back to Dante, Mandelstam’s beloved interlocutor across space and time. Mandelstam’s final prose work, unpublished until 1967, was “Conversation about Dante” (Critical Prose 252-290). He so loved the Florentine poet that he carried a pocket edition of Dante wherever he went in the 1930s, so he would have it if arrested. Mandelstam carried Dante twice into prison.
Mandelstam was anguished for a time in the 1920s when he could not write poetry. According to Nadezhda Yakovlevna, this was not simply a dry spell, but a deep inner conflict over motive. Mandelstam had turned to hack work in provincial newspapers in order to make a living, and he tried without much success to make his ideas fit the times’ popular dogma. He even criticized Akhmatova, his closest friend and soul-mate, in a newspaper review. As a result, his muse left him and would not return until he recognized that he could not remain silent about Stalinist oppression (Hope Against Hope 173). His late poetry revealed aspects of the inner speech where it was composed and preserved. According to poet Joseph Brodsky,
His became a poetry of high velocity and exposed nerves, with numerous leaps over the self-evident with somewhat abbreviated syntax. And yet in this way it became more a song than ever before, not a bardlike but a birdlike song, with its sharp, unpredictable turns and pitches, something like a goldfinch tremolo. (134)
After his first arrest and exile in Voronezh, Mandelstam wrote a cycle of poems comparing his need for self-expression, whether he was caged or free, with that of a goldfinch. About the same time, he wrote another, even more anomalous poem about Stalin. This one glorified the Great Leader, and it was Mandelstam’s only attempt at recapitulation. It could not save him, but in the end it may have spared Nadezhda Yakovlevna’s life (left; Hope Against Hope 103).
Before his death in 1934, Vygotsky faced a similar conflict between motive and recapitulation. Soviet psychologists whose work related to researchers in the West, as Vygotsky’s did with Piaget and others, were condemned for not following the philosophical authority of Marxism-Leninism. There is scant documentary evidence to show how Vygotsky and his research group responded to the ideological pressure, according to Kozulin. Vygotsky’s colleague, Alexander Luria, was forced to publish a renunciation of his earlier interest in Freudian psychoanalysis. Notes prepared by Vygotsky in advance of an ideological “discussion” of his theories in 1933-34, published for the first time only in the 1980s, suggest that he did not intend to recant. Another colleague who survived the 1930s, Bluma Zeigarnik, claimed in the 1980s that Vygotsky was so distraught over being misunderstood that he hastened his death from tuberculosis. In the end, Kozulin writes, Vygotsky “seemed to respect the wisdom of the disgraced poet Mandelstam much more than all the volumes of his Marxist contemporaries” (Vygotsky’s Psychology 240-243).
The best evidence for this is the “Swallow” epigraph in Thought and Language. Preparing the book’s manuscript was one of Vygotsky’s final acts before his death. Inserting Mandelstam’s words in his text became a gesture of resistance like Mandelstam’s “peasant-slayer” poem. More than thirty years would pass before another Mandelstam quotation appeared in a Soviet book. The quotation was neither an accident nor an afterthought, but an indication of the motive that prompted Vygotsky’s thinking. The subtext I hear in it is this: words that are cut off from motive are dead things; words that return to motive, like the fluttering swallow, are renewed and can come alive again. Like the search for a word, a back-and-forth movement through the planes of thought and language, the renewal of motive is a continual process.
Like many Russian Jews born amid the pogroms at the end of the nineteenth century, Mandelstam and Vygotsky embraced the 1917 Revolution for its promise of ending Russia’s entrenched anti-Semitism. Each lost his enthusiasm for the Great Experiment as it convulsed into the Great Terror. Both men drew deeply on cultural traditions that could not be confined by national or ideological boundaries. Had they somehow survived the 1930s, Vygotsky and Mandelstam would have faced repeated Nazi and Stalinist threats for being “cosmopolitans” — a sinister code-word for “Jews.” Despite the harshest efforts at authoritarian control, each of them refused to surrender the motive of his own thoughts. Grounded in history, both believed their words would survive the material conditions of their age. Like Egyptian funerary ships, their words were preserved against decades of official proscription and silence until the words could come alive again in the minds and language of others. Osip Mandelstam and Lev Vygotsky were both men of their times, and they surely stood on feet of brass, not clay.
Read the complete essay: A Word is the Search for It