Osip Mandelstam, “Suddenly in a light shawl”

Machiavelli testifies to “catching thrushes with my own hands” in the Letter to Vettori. “I would get up before daybreak, prepare the birdlime, and go out with… a bundle of birdcages on my back.” It wasn’t a hobby. Stripped of any honor or power, left with only his family’s land, he sounds like he’s trying to survive. He depends on woodsmen to turn the trees on the land into firewood. He fights with those buying the firewood. He gets into even more fights over card games.

I teach the Letter because it’s relatable. Maybe we’re not trying to survive the same way. But the loveless, joyless, fairly lonely life depicted makes sense. We’ve all been there, at least once. (Sometimes, we’re there and don’t quite realize it.) He is writing a letter; he does talk with the woodsmen; he does have people to argue with. But for most of the text, there’s no sense of intimacy as in Mandelstam’s poem below:

"Suddenly in a light shawl"
Osip Mandelstam (translation by David McDuff)

Suddenly in a light shawl
you slipped out of the half-darkened hall –
we disturbed no one,
we did not wake the sleeping servants...

This is overcharged with erotic energy, but why exactly? We can picture someone strikingly beautiful, bathed in shadow, absolutely in love and willing to go anywhere with us. It’s a dream sold to us through novels and movies. It’s not an unnecessary dream, either. If romance had nothing to do with love, romance wouldn’t be as attractive or misleading as it is.

For my own part, I’m drawn to the various ways this poem creates mystery. A “shawl” covers; “the half-darkened hall” doesn’t allow much vision; no one is “disturbed” (not even the audience!); no one is awoken. Whatever these two share is intensely private, their own personal bliss that can’t be understood or analyzed by others. The erotic energy comes from the privacy, not what is done in privacy. 

The poem can speak to the contemporary situation. Society at this moment is failing. People indulge conspiracy theories and extremism, which both cheapen the lives of others. Some who may be more privileged ask if it is ethical to bring kids into a world that looks doomed; others speak of pandemic relationships. Still others face persecution by the state or those the state empowers. The overwhelming feeling among nearly everyone is that one has to run away from this time and place to have something profound or lasting. That what is real has to reside in the fantastic, because it has to be worth remembering.

It sounds strange to connect Mandelstam’s indulgence of sensuality with Machiavelli’s complaining about bad firewood buyers. But there is a direct connection. For both, the worlds in which they lived had ample amounts of terror and misery. Mandelstam’s story is well-known. The very first thing I remember reading about Machiavelli is how he was tortured.

Mandelstam’s poem serves as a memory and a love letter. It holds someone dear at the moment it is read. It places them in a remembrance which transcends both, but only they have the key to it. Machiavelli’s letter goes a different direction. He eventually speaks about his daily reading as if he were feasting on ambrosia. It sounds strange to consider a lust for knowledge the same as, well, lust. I confess I’m not entirely convinced of any connection myself. But true privacy seems to be about creating spaces in which one can reveal oneself to others, where the few involved are fulfilled, heard, seen.

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