On Thursday, Associate Professor of Russian Janneke van de Stadt began the 2012 faculty lecture series with a lecture titled “Worth One’s Salt: Isaac Babel and Craftsmanship.” The lecture was the first of six faculty lectures on a variety of subjects, which will take place every Thursday over the next six weeks. Van de Stadt’s lecture was focused around Babel’s writings on the fictional murder of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart by Antonio Salieri.
Van de Stadt was introduced by Assistant Professor of American Studies Dorothy Wang, the Div. I representative on the Faculty Lecture Series Committee. Although they work in different departments, Wang explained that both she and Van de Stadt have a “shared love of literature.”
Van de Stadt began the lecture with a short biography of Babel, elaborating on his situation as a writer in early 20th-century Russia. While he has not studied English literature extensively, he has a strong foundation in 20th-century Russian literature. The Mozart and Salieri myth, which was popularized in America by the 1984 movie Amadeus, and in Russia by fellow author Alexander Pushkin, states that a desperately jealous Salieri poisoned Mozart. Close to his death, Mozart told his wife that he wrote his “Requiem Mass in D Minor” for himself, that he felt singled out by his fellow composers and that he feared he was being poisoned. Late in his life, a senile Salieri confessed to poisoning Mozart, and the international press soon picked up the story.
Pushkin drew the story from the Parisian press and subsequently wrote a short play titled “Mozart and Salieri”as part of his Little Tragedies series. The play was originally called “Envy,” due to Salieri’s envy of Mozart. In Pushkin’s interpretation, Salieri’s jealousy of Mozart, who he viewed as lazy in opposition to his own lifetime of discipline, made him contemptuous of God. Eventually, he grew so envious that he killed Mozart. Just after Mozart’s death, Pushkin’s Salieri realized his error, recognizing that he would never be able to hear Mozart’s beautiful work again.
In Russia, Mozart came to represent the idea of “effortless creation,” and, despite Pushkin’s more sympathetic intention, Salieri came to represent the model of excessive hard work and discipline. Babel, in 1917, wrote a short story called “Inspiration,” which painted a more flattering picture of Salieri. In Babel’s story, two authors named Mishka and Sashka represent Mozart and Salieri, respectively. Mishka gives Sashka an unedited manuscript to read, claiming that the work is genius. Sashka tells him the manuscript needs work, but Mishka ignores him. Unlike Pushkin’s Salieri, who regrets murdering Mozart, Babel’s representation is “saddened by his inability to save Mozart.”
Babel’s view was that creativity is all about “sustained effort, not divinity,” explained Van de Stadt. Babel compared creation to childbirth in intense detail, stating that even after the birth, “you end up with a slimy blob” which “you need to nurture” before it is really great.
In 1931, Babel wrote a different story titled “Awakening.” This was written under Stalin, during which time Babel had to “write for the drawer” for his safety. “Awakening” was part of Babel’s Odessa Tales, and was only released after his death. “Awakening” took place in Babel’s hometown: The author grew up in Odessa’s Jewish community, one of many diverse communities in the important port town, and identified himself as neither Jewish nor Russian, but as an individual from Odessa.
“Awakening” follows a 14-year-old Jewish boy in Odessa. The boy was sent to the Zagursky Music School by his father, who wanted him to be a famous violinist. The boy, however, had a passion for writing. He followed his father’s orders until, eventually, he rebelled. He began cutting class and going to the beach. There, the boy met an Englishman named Trotyburn, who shared with him a piece of advice. Trotyburn said that one has to hand-make pipes for them to be good, disparaging mass-produced pipes as “factory kids.” He went on to make an unprompted call to Cellini, the renaissance goldsmith and writer, “a master,” for his craftsmanship, who produced distinctly non-factory products.
Trotyburn’s advice reaffirmed the boy’s dislike for being a factory kid and also asserted Babel’s emphasis on hard work and training, as he ignored the fact that Cellini was not only a terrific craftsman, but a famous criminal. Van de Stadt also pointed out that Cellini’s autobiography, Vita, tells almost the exact same story as that of the Jewish boy, and uses the same sort of child rearing metaphors as Babel.
The next person the boy meets is Nikitich, a local water god who mentors the boy when he appears in his two dreams swimming and writing. Nikitich says that swimming and writing are the same thing, as both are based on hard work and resilience. Nikitch also acts as a foil for Zagursky of the music school. They are both old men with sticks, but Zagursky’s supports him as he stifles his students, while Nikitich’s is merely a teaching aid.
Nikitich also matched the figure of Neptune in Cellini’s masterpiece salt cellar, which shows Neptune and Synthia, the sea and the land, connecting at the seashore. All of this brings the story of “Awakening” back to Salieri: Salieri, in Italian, means “salt cellar.” “Only through hard work can one create art worth one’s salt,” Van de Stadt said. In this way, Babel continued to stand behind Salieri against the dominant Russian narrative of spontaneous creativity.
“Awakening” was also a criticism of the “mass-produced factory literature” of the Stalinist period, which was produced in a fashion analogous to factory goods and was centered around factory life. Babel never accepted the factory literature of the Stalinist regime, he was arrested in 1939 under “trumped-up charges” and was executed a year later, van de Stadt said.
Van de Stadt finished her lecture by showing a picture of the recent monument to Babel, which was erected in the city of Odessa in Sept. 2011, which she said shows “possibilities of intimacy built in,” but “nothing to reflect his energy.” She then quoted Babel by saying “writing is like walking on a tightrope.”