LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 23, No.1 - Spring 1977
Editor of this issue: Thomas Remeikis
Copyright © 1977 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
THE APPLIED AESTHETICISM OF HENRIKAS RADAUSKAS
Dr. JONAS ZDANYS
Henrikas Radauskas was born in 1910 and spent his early childhood in a small village near the city of Panevėžys in north central Lithuania. Shortly after the start of World War I, Radauskas moved with his family to Novo-Nikolajevsk in Siberia, where he attended elementary school. He returned to Lithuania in 1921, attended the Panevėžys elementary school and, in 1929, graduated from the Panevėžys Teachers' Institute. He taught at the Kazokiškis elementary school until 1930, when he entered the University of Kaunas, where he studied Lithuanian, German, and Russian languages and literatures. After completing his studies, Radauskas served as a radio announcer, in German and Lithuanian, in the Baltic sea town of Klaipėda, and in 1937 was named editor of publications for the Lithuanian Ministry of Education, a post he held until 1941.
During World War II large scale migrations of people left the Baltic countries in the attempt to escape the onslaught and persecutions of the Russian armies, and Radauskas was no exception. He left Lithuania shortly after the Russian occupation and settled in Germany, first in Berlin and then in Reutlingen where, in 1949, he served as a secretary in the French consulate. That same year, 1949, he came to the United States, settled in Baltimore, where he worked for one year, and then in 1950 moved to Chicago. After almost a decade of manual labor, he joined the Library of Congress in Washington and worked there along with a number of other exiles until his death in August 1970. He was a member of the Lithuanian Writers' Association and the International P.E.N. Club.
Radauskas published only four short volumes of poetry - Fontanas (The Fountain, 1935), Strėlė danguje (Arrow in the Sky, 1950), Žiemos daina (Winter Song, 1955) and Žaibai ir vėjai (Lightnings and Winds, 1965) but they suffice to establish him as one of the most accomplished Baltic poets of the post-World War II years, and perhaps the greatest Lithuanian poet of the twentieth century. While most other modern Lithuanian poets, both in the West and in Soviet Lithuania, produce poetry which roots itself in the ground of established knowledge or belief, old or new, and which typically makes use of conventional structures, Radauskas created "organic unities," works in which the poetic truths revealed both govern and are governed by the configurations of form. This is, by definition, an allegiance to "aestheticism," but a reading of Radauskas' work, especially of Žaibai ir vėjai and Žiemos daina, reveals it to be of a rather complex and unusual variety. As those volumes illustrate, Radauskas takes the three-headed dogma of traditional "pure" aestheticism art as non-practical, non-cognitive, and non-personal -- and transforms it into an "applied" aestheticism - "art for the poet's sake," a way through which he can use the parts of the world that surround him to create a personal universe, protected by tight walls of metaphor and of carefully crafted and controlled language, in which he could reside safe from the terrors of History, "the old whore Clio," and her "used truths." That eremitic withdrawal into the universe of art is Radauskas' version of the often tried poetic attempt to protect the artistic sensibility from ever-threatening psychosomatic and emotional pain, past and present, an attempt especially valid for the émigré poet who had witnessed various armies of occupation steamroller much of Eastern Europe into continued submission. The result of that attempt for Radauskas is that the devices of the aesthetician become the sources of defense of the recluse, and it is that notion and its corollaries and consequences which this essay will attempt to elaborate.
The poet's withdrawal through the deliberate construction of a mediating frame, the realm of art, which removes him from direct and painful contact with the world involves and allows for the expression of two related and interdependent strains in Radauskas' poetry. The first of these, and the most evident, is the refusal by the poet to be simply one of nightmarish reality's parts. This sentiment can be found in a number of poems. "Harbor," for example, is a plea for relief from the pain of the world, from the "holiday of lightning, flames, embers," which surrounds the poet; "Beneath Autumn's Tree" is a poem about the viability of escape through art, a movement which is curiously linked with death; and "Asiatic Sun" is a poem which stands as a single metaphor of withdrawal into the world of artifice, symbolized by the one-way movement of light into crystal. But it is in the poem "The Lines" that the need for and the dynamics of withdrawal are most clearly defined:
A two-headed black man an animal
(The old man is sad and the lion is fierce)
Looked with cold orange eyes
At sun-flamed old trees
From which flying flames
Rose to heaven like a song. Beneath them
A crowd laughed, drank and traded
Weapons and pots, love and horses.
He wrote the first line.
A crazed prophet with a cruel beard
That thundered like Vulcan's hammer,
Raising his hands above the panicked earth
(The palms' shadows large spiders
Crawled over the heads of cows and people),
Began to shout that the country's end
Was nearing, that the holiest thread of wool
Dropped at night into clear waves
Showed in a convex silver mirror:
A throng of demons pours to earth:
Leviathan, Essas, Asmodeus,
Baal, Botis, Pruflas, Abbadon,
Agares and Mercurius quadratus
Will burn the town in a howling fire.
He wrote the second line.
Like the remnants of a massacred army
Years traveled through time's desert,
The moon's belly waxed and waned.
Trees outside the window flew to heaven,
Fires and plagues hewed the town,
Gods ran screaming to the woods,
In an empty house, the kingdom of shadows,
He wrote the third line.
This is a brutal vision of the apocalyptic rending of a city and its destruction by a horde of mythological demons which have suddenly and inexplicably come to life. But it is also a curiously detached and impersonal vision, one in which the "he" of the poem the mask of the poet as detached observer - takes on the distinct outlines of a rhetorical figure, passionless and bodiless. Radauskas here posts the figure of the poet who sits removed from the "reality" of the events which transpire around him, and instead, contentedly, writes "three lines" we never see. In this poem Radauskas tells us, rightly or wrongly, that there is "reality" and that there is "art," and that the poet, the art maker, does and must exist in a neighborly relationship with the world near it, and yet not inextricably with it or of it. He implies that the man who becomes enmeshed in that reality must also, of necessity, fall victim to the demons, literal or metaphorical, which plague the world. And, he tells us that only the man who can remove himself sufficiently from the events which transpire around him will save himself and will not dissolve in the demonic conflagration. Safety, we learn, exists only where and when the man of sensitivity can create it for himself; the farther from the world of noise and poison, the better.
The extent of Radauskas' conviction in the idea that the artist is a figure removed from reality is perhaps best exemplified in the final images of the poem "Hot Day," a poem about transformed nature, art, and death. In those last lines, an artificer who has created and "merged" with a work of art, "a glass tree with invisible buds," sees in a sudden epiphany that his union with the work of art which had been generated through his act of creation, is in fact a source of liberation which frees him from the constraints of Time and reality, and he therefore says he doesn't "care if tomorrow ever comes." The realization of the inevitability of death an occurrence of the objective world of pain is mediated here by the concurrent realization that in and through the work of art the subjectivity of the artist is made invulnerable and immortal. What more powerful or compelling reason for withdrawal from the "real world" can there be than that?
That first strain, the refusal by the poet to be simply one of the parts of reality, the objective world of pain, and his resulting withdrawal from it, is tied closely to and, indeed, is the source of the second strain in Radauskas' work. To refuse to be one of the parts of the world of pain is, in a very real sense, also to deny or to refuse the body, and that motion strikingly dominates many of Radauskas' later poems- The literal and metaphorical dynamics of the denial of the body, in those poems, involve the continuous and reductive derealization of the human and of the poetic self. Derealization, a term most often associated with the French surrealists, and particularly with the theoretical writings of André Breton,* in its most general sense refers to a denial of the importance and actual existence of matter. The lack of dependence on or concern with logical connections in the objective world is certainly an aspect of Radauskas' later work which exhibits a strong surrealistic strain -- and in such poems as "Fair," "Death's Angel," "Sunday," "Muse," and "Hot Springs," and in many of the prose poems in Žaibai ir vėjai and Žiemos daina, one can see the breakdown of traditional structures and expectations in what, for Radauskas, may be the (surrealistic) attempt to reunite man's inner and outer realities by forcing him to look at them anew. In "Fair," for example, the emotion of joy is expressed as a desire to "drink a jug of fire, pick a wax rose,/ Grab a giraffe by the hair, and dance through trees," a curious and eye-opening collocation indeed. In like fashion, the sound of a distant voice singing, a common occurrence, in the strongly surrealistic poem "Sunday" is described as an unusual event, bordering on the grotesque: "An anemic voice runs up the cellar stairs,/ Coloratura dripping candles and tears."
But Radauskas, who refuses simply to take note of luminous phenomena, is more Cartesian than Surrealist, and his essential procedure in those poems consists not so much in denying the real by distorting logical expectations, as in reconquering the real by positing the necessary existence of the reordering artistic consciousness in a special realm of the knowable world: artist's mind removed from, and able to transcend, the limitations of matter. Derealization as a by-product of the surrealistic attempt to charge man's imagination and allow for the reconciliation of man with the real and with himself is not Radauskas' primary goal or concern. Indeed, Radauskas wants little or nothing to do with objective reality. The recluse, metaphorically (and hence metaphysically) safe within the world of art he has crafted for himself, continues to fear the world of pain which surrounds him "out there," and attempts to reduce further the danger of confrontation and contamination. The solution Radauskas offers and makes use of in a number of poems is simple: derealize or eliminate the body, or most of it, and you eliminate all or most of the chance for pain. Many of Radauskas' poems, especially those which deal directly or indirectly with pain, suffering, or discomfort, physical or emotional, are filled with striking examples of just such derealizing reduction. In "Death's Angel," for example, an eloquent and moving poem about sickness and impending death, the only direct reference to a human presence is the phrase "The patient's eyes" in the third stanza: .
The hundred year old oak door
Screeches like a newborn. Through yellow fog
The patient's eyes see: rainbows
Slump to earth like cackling parrots.
In "Harbor," also, aside from the rhetorical and, thus, finally unconvincing "me," the only real reference to the human trapped in a world filled with noise and pain is the same part of the body, here mentioned in the opening lines:
Locked up in a midday hard as diamond
My eyes begin to fail.
In "September," a poem about a coming endpoint and change, literal and metaphorical, the only reference to a human presence is the brain, a place where "summer's fevers burn"; and in "Winter and Summer," a similar poem, it is the phrase "The breasts of a young girl" which provides the only human element. In these poems, and in others like them, it is as if Radauskas tells us that if the artistic consciousness must have some sort of contact with the real world, aside from the neighborly relationship it by definition must have, then the smaller the area of contact, the more focused the penetration of the shell of art, the greater the chances are for avoiding pain. If only parts of the body are presented, only parts can be harmed; the rest of the physical and emotional self exists safe from violation within its self-constructed protective frame.
As disconcerning as the absolute reduction of the human being, and of the poetic self, to a single part of the body may be, it is not as disconcerting as total disembodiment. In a number of poems, and especially in those which concern emotional discomfort or malaise, the body disappears completely and is replaced by an associated thing or activity. In "Midday," for example, a strangely static poem in which the depicted actions are divorced from historical or chronological sequence, a suicide who has convinced himself that he "has no soul," loses identity until he becomes just a "flying shadow," a nameless and bodiless cipher, in life already what he will be in death. In "Autumn in the Park," a vision made in and of the "autumn of life," the poetic self is reduced to and exists as "an echo," as a "voice floating afar," a removed by-product of the body. And, in "In the Hospital Garden," perhaps the most sinister of Radauskas' poems, the poet himself tells us that he has lost all contact with his "real" body and says, rather surprisingly,
I burn like a funeral candle
Near my hanging coffin
And swim into the bottomless box.
This total disembodiment is the ultimate means of preservation of the self within the already removed and fortified aesthetician's sanctuary, the realm of art, for if there is no part of the self, physical or psychological to venture forth into the world, there can be no pain. If the poet can transform himself into something the world can only vaguely (if at all) recognize as related to the poet, then perhaps the world can be fooled and the pain and terror associated with it escaped. For shadows and echoes cannot be grasped or captured, and in death, in the state of being a "funeral candle," all pain is vanquished.
Derealization, reduction of the human body and of the poetic self to a single part, or total disembodiment, is of course not an end in itself and not simply a means whereby psychic or physical pain, the pain of living in the real objective world, can be transcended. As the artistic subjectivity of the poet loses more and more substantive reality, as it withdraws farther and farther out of the "real" world, it moves ever closer to a specifically non-religious union with the cosmos. That notion, that the poet is an integral and non-transcendent part of the cosmos, runs throughout Radauskas' poetry, beginning with a number of whole poems and separate images in his earliest book, Fontanas, and culminating in two interesting and significant "epitaph" poems in Žaibai ir vėjai and Žiemos daina, Fontanas, from one perspective, is a beginner's book, filled with stock studies of human nature and of the poet in the world, but it also presents important indicators of the direction the poet wishes to take in his personal, artistic, and intellectual life. One major indicator is the fact that these earliest poems are filled with various references to cosmic bodies - - the planets, the stars, constellations, the moon, sun, comets, rays from space and in several poems these references are connected with and serve to express the idea that the poet is powerful in the cosmos. In "Changes," for example, Radauskas tells us of the power (less literal than metaphorical) he has over celestial bodies:
I lift a falling star like a child
On the limitless open spaces. . .
I break off the new moon's horn
And he: thrashes all night on the ground.
That notion of having power over the objects of the cosmos in the early poems is linked with the notion of the possibility of ultimate union with the cosmos, a theme repeated with more conviction and force in the later poems. The early "Mourning," thus, for example, a poem which expresses the poet's identification with the universe, ends with his exultant observation and conviction that "I'm as endless as a star."
In the later books the dimensions of the poet's union with the cosmos are expressed in terms of the reciprocity which exists between the poet and the universe: the poet both acts and is acted upon celestial bodies, especially by the sun and the moon. In "Elegy," for example, a central poem in Strėlė danguje, the poet tells us:
I stand alone in this large
Planet round as a tear.
The sun and moon laugh,
And a wind blows from the cold
Emptiness of space and tears my hair. . .
But it is the title of the book, "Arrow in the Sky," which is of singular importance because it provides us with a glimpse of the poet's metaphorical vision of his own future, a vision later elaborated in the two "epitaph" poems I mentioned above. "Arrow in the Sky" is a poem about the transformations and revelations possible through Art. In it, it is the poet who is transformed into the arrow in the sky, the direction provider, who, after a series of metaphorically significant experiences, is thrust outward from the world to take his proper place among the stars:
I am an arrow shot by a boy
t a while apple tree near the green sea,
And a cloud of blossoms, like a swan,
Glittering descended into a wave,
And the boy stares but can't tell
The blossoms from the foam.
I am an arrow that a strong and young
Hunter shot at a flying
Eagle, but he didn't hit the bird
And wounded the big old sun
And blood poured on the whole evening
And the day died.
I am an arrow that a soldier not right
In the head, in a fort circled by enemies,
Shot at night toward mighty heaven
To ask for help, but, not finding God,
The arrow wandered among the cold stars
And was afraid to return,
Fear of returning is not a pathological failing here. Rather, what fear there is is fear of the known and the despised: the poet tells us in this poem, and especially in the last stanza, that once he has escaped the objective world of pain, where madness and the murder of war surround him, he simply no longer wishes to re-immerse himself in it. It is interesting to note here, also, that the poet as direction provider does not find God. As I mentioned earlier, Radauskas' vision of his ultimate union with the cosmos is specifically non-religious: it is a dispassionate (hence the "cold stars") consolidation which involves the contented movement out of the world of pain, not into heaven, but into the very fabric of the universe.
It is this idea, the indissoluble consolidation of poet and cosmos, which marks the two "epitaph" poems I mentioned, "For the Poet" and the short title poem, "Lightnings and Winds," of Žaibai ir vėjai. Like "Elegy," "For the Poet" locates the poet in the midst of the cosmos, among the ongoing changes of the stars:
Like the sun in the dimming cosmos
In the shade of blackened stars,
That's how you'll stand in the poems
You leave behind, quiet and alone.
Planets tangle in a spiderweb
Buzzing before death like flies.
And you, who don't believe in eternity,
And your works, smothered,
Will freeze in ice.
This is an interesting and complex poem, and it involves personal and artistic self-evaluation which is metaphorically mixed with the violent changes in and of the universe. More specifically, some of the themes or ideas expressed in this poem are developments of some of the ideas expressed in Radauskas' earlier works. First, for example, is the notion that the poet stands in his poems, in his specially crafted universe, "quiet and alone," removed from direct contact with the world. Another idea is that the relationship between the poet's created universe and the "real" universe, the home of the celestial bodies, is a relationship of equals which are not necessarily separate or distinct. There is more at work in the opening lines than just simile, and the fact that the poet describes himself in cosmic terms is an important indicator of his imagined (or metaphorical) relationship with the universe. The third related idea expressed here, though obliquely, is the non-religious nature of Radauskas' ultimate union with the universe: he describes himself as a man who does not "believe in eternity," a distinctly a-religious sentiment, and hence we are able to assume that the union he imagines he will ultimately have with the universe, whatever else it may involve, will not involve the numinous or the transcendent. This is a fascinating notion, indeed, and it is the culmination of the calculated withdrawal from the world and the metaphorical derealization of the poetic self which mark Radauskas' poems.
The other "epitaph" poem, "Lightnings and Winds," published some ten years after "For the Poet," in its second stanza presents an even more striking example of Radauskas' belief in his ultimate consolidation with the cosmos:
Lightnings and winds carry my heart
That knows neither love nor guile.
The sun will nourish it, rains will water it,
The moon will stand in place of its copper tombstone.
Here Radauskas tells us that after his death parts of the universe which man normally cannot control, the sun, the moon and the rains, will come serve a "heart/ That knows neither love nor guile," the symbol of the subjectivity which, because it has been removed from the corrupting influence of the real world, ensconced in the crafted universe of art, has not learned its treacherous ways. Even more curious is the implied notion here that the sun, rains, and the moon will act of their own accord, willingly and freely. These parts of the cosmos, in this poem, become servants of and surrogates for the poet's unadulterated subjectivity. Through their act, the poet, even in death existing only as a single body part the heart freed of even the tombstone that ties him to the ground of reality, will be free, like the spider in "Death's Angel," to "hang his web among the stars."
The poetry of Henrikas Radauskas, thus, reveals a man who, through his art, has consciously and purposefully removed his artistic subjectivity from direct contact with the objective world of pain and from its "used truths"; who has filtered reality through a carefully crafted and controlled set of metaphors; who has reduced the chance of contamination from the world of pain by reducing the human to single parts and, finally, by totally disembodying the poetic self; and who has thereby achieved a non-religious union with cosmos, a return to origins, perhaps, through which he has been able to find peace. It is to this end that Radauskas' allegiance to and use of "applied" aestheticism leads.
* See Manifestations of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, I969.