Vygotsky & Bakhtin, Madelstam & Walter Benjamin

Russian poet Osip Mandelstam circa 1930sMy friend and teacher Nancy Mack invited me to visit her seminar on Lev Vygotsky, Mikhail Bakhtin, and the social nature of language. When I took her course ten years ago, it was the most stimulating subject I encountered in graduate school. It tapped my long-standing interest in Russian literature and led eventually to the essay A Word Is The Search For It. I called on Bakhtin for theoretical support for Blowback, a talk about the Supreme Court’s Buck v. Bell decision given last year at the Ohio State University Law School. Otherwise, I haven’t worked much with the Russians for several years. Like the swallows in Osip Mandelstam’s poem, the Russians return dependably in the seasonal cycle of my attention. Something as simple as an invitation to speak to a class can herald their arrival. There is an untold story that I need to tell about Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam’s influence on me when I first lost the ability to read books. And I’ve mused for along time about affinities between Mandelstam and Walter Benjamin and the totalitarian machines that sought to destroy them. So I’m adding Osip to this web site’s Dramatis Personae. Nadezhda Mandelstam, one of the greatest Russian prose writers of the 20th century, will join him there in due course. Thanks to Nancy for steering me again in this compelling direction.

This entry was posted in Osip Mandelstam, poetry, Russians, Walter Benjamin. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Vygotsky & Bakhtin, Madelstam & Walter Benjamin

  1. Pingback: a blind flaneur

  2. Mannoushka says:

    I’ve read the word is the search for it and loved it. (aside: I’ve translated it and posted the translation in a Persian - my native tongue - weblog, naturally without permission from you. I’m not proud of it, but just hope you don’t mind. The article was too good and felt too close not to be transmitted. I made absolutely no money out of it, for what it’s worth.) Your blog is so full of dramatis personae I cannot be sure as to whether or not I’m addressing Mr. Mark Willis through this comment. So, sorry to have to ask, but have you already written on the way OM and Nadzhda influenced you? Because I should love to read what you may have written on this. Many thanks!

  3. Mark Willis says:


    I am deeply honored and gratified to learn that you read my essay on Mandelstam and Vygotsky and translated it into Persian. You certainly have my permission and best wishes to publish it on your web site. I ask only that you publish it under a Creative Commons 3.0 license – attribution, non-commercial, share alike. Please send me a URL to the essay on your site. Even though I will not be able to read it in Persian, I want to document its publication.

    I’ve planned to move the original essay to a blind flaneur, and when I do, I’ll let you know its new URL.

    I have much more to write about Osip Mandelstam and look forward to having time in the future to give him the attention he deserves. Until then, your interest buoys my spirit (which, like the name of your blog, is a streetspirit). That you found, read, translated, and published my words confirms what Mandelstam wrote in 1921 about the renewal of language:

    The age will shout itself out, culture will fall asleep, and the people will be reborn, having given their utmost to the new social class; and this current will draw the fragile ship of the human word away with it, out into the open sea of the future where there is no sympathetic understanding, where cheerless commentary will replace the fresh wind of contemporary enmity and sympathy. How can one equip the ship for its distant voyage, without furnishing it with all the necessities for so foreign and cherished a reader? Once more I shall liken a poem to an Egyptian funerary ship. In that ship everything is provided for life, nothing is forgotten.

    My ship is fortunate to have found you, Reader. Please keep in touch!

    Best regards,

  4. Mark Willis says:

    streets[irit.ir translationA Word Is The Search For It on streetspirit.ir:

    Translation of Part I: In the Shadow of Stalin’s Terror

    Part II: The Work of Inner Speech

    Part III: Subtext and Secret Writing

    Part IV: The Living Word

    Part V: The Renewal of Motive

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