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Mayakovsky at Mirafori: Operaismo and the Negation of Poetry

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This chapter seeks to redress the neglect of poetics in the reception of Italian workerist Marxism (operaismo) by exploring some writings on Vladimir Mayakovsky by Alberto Asor Rosa, the foremost operaista literary critic. For Asor Rosa, Mayakovsky embodies the utopian premise of the ‘revolutionary intellectual’, which makes possible an instrumentalist conception of poetics, shared by avant-garde ideology and Stalinism. Asor Rosa contrasts this with a conception of poetry as intrinsically bourgeois in its autonomy and separation. The chapter challenges the parameters of Asor Rosa’s position by investigating two dimensions neglected by the Italian critic: Mayakovsky’s own antagonistic thematization of byt (everyday life) and the role of temporal unevenness in the making of his poetry (as emphasized in Leon Trotsky’s writings on the Soviet poet).

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  1. 1.

    Alberto Asor Rosa, The Writer and the People: Populism in Modern Italian Literature, trans. Matteo Mandarini (Calcutta and London: Seagull Books, 2019).

  2. 2.

    I have explored the controversies over politics and poetics between Asor Rosa and Fortini in ‘The Labour of Division’, my introduction to Franco Fortini, A Test of Powers: Writings on Criticism and Literary Institutions (Calcutta: Seagull, 2016).

  3. 3.

    On ‘negative thought’, see especially Massimo Cacciari, Pensiero negativo e razionalizzazione (Venice: Marsilio, 1977), and, in English, his Architecture and Nihilism: On the Philosophy of Modern Architecture, trans. Stephen Sartarelli (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993).

  4. 4.

    Alberto Asor Rosa, ‘Majakovskij e la “letteratura sovietica”’, in Le armi della critica. Scritti e saggi degli anni ruggenti (1960–1970) (Turin: Einaudi, 2011), 78. Originally published in Contropiano 1 (1968).

  5. 5.

    Asor Rosa, ‘Majakovskij e la “letteratura sovietica”’, 78–9.

  6. 6.

    Asor Rosa, ‘Majakovskij e la “letteratura sovietica”’, 91–2.

  7. 7.

    Asor Rosa, ‘Majakovskij e la “letteratura sovietica”’, 92.

  8. 8.

    Jacques Rancière, Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art, trans. Zakir Paul (London: Verso, 2013), 55–74.

  9. 9.

    Vladimir Mayakovsky, ‘Address at the Krasnaya Presnya Komsomol Club at an Evening Dedicated to Twenty Years of Work: An Exhibition of the Life and Work of Mayakovsky, 25 March 1930’, in Volodya: Selected Works, ed. Rosy Carrick (London: Enitharmon, 2015), 267. I am very grateful to Enitharmon Press for permission to quote from this collection.

  10. 10.

    Mayakovsky, ‘Address at the Krasnaya Presnya Komsomol Club’, 273.

  11. 11.

    Mayakovsky, ‘Address at the Krasnaya Presnya Komsomol Club’, 273–4.

  12. 12.

    Mayakovsky, ‘Address at the Krasnaya Presnya Komsomol Club’, 268.

  13. 13.

    Mayakovsky, ‘Address at the Krasnaya Presnya Komsomol Club’, 269.

  14. 14.


  15. 15.

    Mayakovsky, ‘Past One O’Clock’, in Volodya, 218. For another version, see ‘Verse Fragments’, 220: ‘I’m in no hurry and why should I send/express telegrams to wake you with fear/As they say the incident is cloves/the love-boat wrecked on reality [ byt ]’.

  16. 16.

    Roman Jakobson, ‘On a Generation that Squandered Its Poets’, in Language in Literature, ed. Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy (Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987), 277–9.

  17. 17.

    Asor Rosa, ‘Majakovskij e la “letteratura sovietica”’, 81.

  18. 18.

    Asor Rosa, ‘Majakovskij e la “letteratura sovietica”’, 85.

  19. 19.

    Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, ed. William Keach, trans. Rose Strunsky (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005), 127.

  20. 20.

    On Mayakovsky, for instance, he writes: ‘his poem, “A Cloud in Trousers,” a poem of unrequited love, is artistically his most significant and creatively his boldest and most promising work’. Literature and Revolution, 148.

  21. 21.

    For further commentary on this, see my ‘The Broken Music of the Revolution: Trotsky and Blok’, Crisis and Critique 4(2) (2017): 404–26.

  22. 22.

    Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, 142–3.

  23. 23.

    ‘Mayakovsky has one foot on Mont Blanc and the other on Elbrus. His voice drowns thunder; can one wonder that he treats history familiarly, and is on intimate terms with the Revolution? But this is most dangerous, for given such gigantic standards, everywhere and in everything, such thunderous shouts (the poet’s favorite word) against the horizon of Elbrus and Mont Blanc—the proportions of our worldly affairs vanish, and it is impossible to establish the difference between a little thing and a big’. Literature and Revolution, 143.

  24. 24.

    Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, 147–8.

  25. 25.

    Nicholas Gorlov, ‘On Futurisms and Futurism (Concerning Comrade Trotsky’s article)’, in The Futurists, the Formalists & the Marxist Critique, ed. Christopher Pike (London: Ink Links, 1979), 169. Thanks to Steve Edwards for making me aware of this rich collection of texts.

  26. 26.

    ‘It is clear that only by standing on the basis of his class culture can the worker not only assimilate Pushkin, but also overcome him. Otherwise … Pushkin will throw him to ground. This gives rise to the question: is the worker sufficiently well armed by his culture to withstand this competition? There can only be one reply: from the political point of view (after six years of mass struggle with the old order) he is armed, but from the aesthetic point of view (in relation to the old way of life) he is almost unarmed; politically he will overcome Pushkin, but aesthetically he will be crushed by him, as from this angle he has nothing with which to resist Pushkin. Parodying a little (but just a little) the thought expressed by Comrade Trotsky, I could say thus: to the intellectual Marx it was necessary and important to escape from the clutches of bourgeois economics, but the worker, leaving to one side Marx’s experience, needs to adhere to it’ Gorlov, ‘On Futurisms and Futurism’, 173.

  27. 27.

    Gorlov, ‘On Futurisms and Futurism’, 175.

  28. 28.

    Gorlov, ‘On Futurisms and Futurism’, 177. This resonates with Shklovsky’s observation: ‘A great poet is born out of the contradictions of his time. He is preceded by the inequality of things, their dislocations, the course of their changes. Others do not yet know about the day after tomorrow. The poet defines it, writes and receives no recognition’. Viktor Shklovsky, Mayakovsky and His Circle [1940], ed. and trans. Lily Feiler (London: Pluto, 1972), 10.

  29. 29.

    Gorlov, ‘On Futurisms and Futurism’, 179.

  30. 30.

    Alberto Asor Rosa, ‘Lavoro intellettuale e utopia dell’avanguardia nel paese del socialismo realizzato’, in Intellettuali e classe operaia. Saggi sulle forme di uno storico conflitto e di una possibile alleanza (Firenze: La Nuova Italia, 1973), 211. See also ‘Avanguardia’ (1977) in Un altro Novecento (Firenze: La Nuova Italia, 1999).

  31. 31.

    Mayakovsky, ‘Conversation with a Tax Collector About Poetry’, in Volodya, 177–185.

  32. 32.

    For a version of the analogy of poetry and manufacture which is not animated by the same kind of irony, and which is perhaps more open to Asor Rosa’s objections, see the concluding theses to ‘How Are Verses Made?’, in Volodya, 263–5.

  33. 33.

    Mayakovsky, ‘How Are Verses Made?’, 230.

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Toscano, A. (2019). Mayakovsky at Mirafori: Operaismo and the Negation of Poetry. In: Jennison, R., Murphet, J. (eds) Communism and Poetry. Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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