‘The delusion of causes’ Osip Mandelstam

The last two of the eleven stanzas of Octets are as follows in the translation by Tony Briggs, translator of Yevgeny Onegin and War and Peace, Graham Rooth and myself.

From pricking plague-filled goblets
we drink the delusion of causes,
with large hooks we catch at small 
quantities - an easy death for example.
And in the game where spillikins are cast
a child will look and fall silent -
a large universe lies asleep
in the cradle of a moment's eternity.

And I emerge from the void
into the tangled garden of quantities,
fighting against what seems certain 
and the facile agreement of causes.
And your primer, infinity, I study alone,
no one else being near -
a leafless almanac of natural cures,
puzzle book of enormous roots.
  
 

These stanzas are difficult, and I don’t pretend to fully understand them. The opening four lines of the first stanza above are oddly topical. It seems to me that when we think of causality, we think of a chain of linked causes and effects. A billiard ball striking another one is a frequently used image. Our ability to analyse what is going on in the real world is feeble, unless we artificially control things in a laboratory. When we attribute death to poisoning from a contaminated drink, can we be sure? Might there not be a predisposing vulnerability in the victim, for instance? The child playing spillikins is creating a microcosm, the moment the spills are cast defies analysis. It is sensed by the child as a solemn and significant moment.

The following stanza refers to the poet’s birth as ex nihilo, from the void. He fights against what seems certain, that is against determining constraint, the facile agreement of causes. Set against the determinism of the scientific vision, is the intuition of infinity, the void from which he came. He is meditating on his own origin, on all origins. What are natural roots? The pun is the same in Russian and English, the roots of the vegetable/material world, and the roots of algebra which include irrational numbers, such as the square root of two which continues to an infinite number of terms. The almanac and puzzle book are perhaps posing the same question, the problem of how mathematics and the physical world may be brought into relation.

Published by davidcookpoet

I am a husband, father and grandfather. I retired from a busy working life as an adult psychiatrist in 2014. My interests are in literature, philosophy, modern jazz and horse racing. I might represent those four fields by Shakespeare, Kant, Charlie Parker and Lester Piggott. Like nearly all of us, I can identify a number of formative experiences, one of which was a psychotic episode in my first year as a psychiatrist. This reinforced an already established interest in mystical experience, and a sense of how little human beings know. My intellectual bugbear is reductive materialism, and I am surprised at the lack of moral imagination of those who promulgate such views. It seems to me they need to consider ,perhaps by exposure, just why totalitarianism is so horrific.

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