Sunday, 9 August 2015

Mayakovsky's Theories on Time Travel

I made clear in my first post on this blog that the central reason for building a time machine has to do with my plan to go back to the year 1930 to meet the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Mayakovsky himself was extremely interested in the concept and potential reality of time travel, and here I will lay out the key examples of his writings on the subject, which to me are very interesting.

As early as 1917 in the poem 'Man' Mayakovsky wrote about leaving earth in despair and returning to St Petersburg, thousands of years later, only to discover that the Mayakovsky of the past had shot himself in the doorway of Lili Brik's house on Zhukovsky Street, where he too had been living at that time, and that the street's name had since been renamed Mayakovsky, after him. In fact, although in real life Zhukovsky street has retained its name, one of its intersecting roads has since been renamed Mayakovsky Street after the poet who, as we know, did indeed go on to shoot himself in 1930.

In his poem 'About This' (1923), Mayakovsky first sees the figure of himself, as described in 'Man', hanging over the railings of a bridge over St. Petersburg's Neva river, and begging to be released from them, and later grasps madly into the future towards the prospect of immortality as he appeals desperately to "Comrade Chemist" to be one of the first to be resurrected in the distant future by Alexander Bogdanov's blood transfusions:

Regard him
                     the quiet, highbrowed
before the experiment
                                     his brow is furrowed
His book—
                     “the entire planet”—
                                                       he searches for a name.
Resurrect someone?
                                  In the twentieth century?
— Mayakovsky for example?…
                                                     We could find someone better —
Just some pretty poet
                                   won’t do.

I cry
        from off
                         this very same
— Quit riffling!
                               Resurrect me! 


In his 1925 futuristic sci-fi poem 'The Flying Proletarian' Mayakovsky "just for a joke" describes Russian life in the far future (the year 3000 I think, but I don't have it to hand right now to check), a life in which everyone has their own private aeroplane, tables are self-clearing after mealtimes, baths, toothbrushes and razors operate themselves at the touch of a button, and people's daily work is described thus:

                         What they make, generally speaking,
is compressed
                                 for interplanetary travel.
Pop a tiny cube
                              into a cockpit of any size,
and you can breathe for days—
                                                               fresh, pine-scented air.
In the same way,
                                  ages and ages ago,
they’d make tasty broths
                                                 from Maggi cubes.
                   now they manufacture
                                                        from clouds
artificial sour cream
                                  and milk.
          they’ll forget
                                   what to call cows.
You’ll never
                                 that much
                                                     from any cow’s udder!  

In his 1929 play The Bedbug, a bureaucratic philistine (often described as filthy and bedbug-like by Mayakovsky) is inadvertently frozen following a housefire, and is defrosted agan by scientists in 1979, only to be placed in disgust in a zoo alongside an actual bedbug who was frozen with him in 1929. Probably Cronenberg's The Fly found its inspiration from this very play!:

 "Klop" = "Bedbug"


Incidentally, the exact date on which this defrosting takes place is the 14th April – the same date on which, the year after The Bedbug was written, Mayakovsky killed himself.

 But it is in his final major work – the 1930 play The Bathhouse – in which Mayakovsky goes into the greatest detail on not just the notion but the specifics of time travel. This play, which was the poet's most explicitly satirical attack on the contradictions and hypocrises of Stalin’s increasingly bureaucratic society, was scathingly attacked in return by the literary bureaucrats of the State-run press, by whom Mayakovsky’s subsequent Twenty Years of Work exhibition was almost entirely boycotted. Soon after its release Mayakovsky killed himself, and his suicide letter included a note to one of the play's most bitter critics, Vladimir Ermilov.

The play play opens with two characters, Chudakov and Velosipedkin, in a basement. Chudakov is revealing his new invention – a time machine:

Henceforth the Volga River of Time, into which, by our birth, we were cast like so many logs for floating ­– cast, I say, to flounder and float downstream – that river will be subject to our control! I shall compel time to stop – or else to rush off in any desired direction and at any desired speed. People will be able to climb out of days like passengers out of a streetcar or bus. With my machine you can bring one second of happiness to a halt and enjoy it for a whole month – or until it bores you. With my machine you can make long-drawn-out years of sorrow flash by like a whirlwind. You just duck down, and the projectile of the sun will whiz over your head a hundred times a minute without once wounding or even grazing you, thus bringing your days of gloom to an end. Just look! The firework fantasies of H. G. Wells, the futuristic brain of Einstein, and the bestial hibernating habits of bears and yogis – all these are compressed, squeezed together, and combined in my machine!


Look closely. Do you see those two little bars, one vertical and one horizontal, with graduations like a ruler or a scale? […] With those little rulers you measure off the cube of the requisite space. Now look again. Do you see that dial there? […] Well, with that control switch you isolate the occluded space, and you cut off all currents of the earth’s gravitation from all other gravitational forces. Then, with those funny-looking levers there, you put in the speed and direction of time.


I’m giving you an explanation of universal relativity – how the definition of time is converted from a metaphysical substance, a noumenon, into a reality subject to chemical and physical action.


 Watch! I just touch this dial, and time picks up tremendous speed and starts to compress and alter the space we have compartmented here in this insulated chamber. At this very moment I am creating mass unemployment for all prophets, seers and fortunetellers.

[When Velosipedkin moves to transport himself into the future, Chudakov pulls him away, saying:]

Careful, you madman! In the future they may build a subway through here. If that happens, and you’ve interposed your puny body in the space where the steel tracks go, you’ll be instantly transformed into tooth powder. Besides, the cars of the future subway train may go off the tracks, causing a huge, unprecedented timequake that will smash this whole basement to kingdom come. So right now it’s dangerous to go in that direction. What we have to do is wait for the people coming from there. I’ll just turn this dial here very slowly, only five years per minute…

 The time machine works, and from the future – the year 2030 to be precise – emerges the mysterious "phosphorescent woman", whose interactions with the various characters Mayakovsky uses to lay bare his assault on Russia's bureaucratic philistines. Through her he also expresses his criticism of the sexism and misogyny of such characters, as she, through her dialogue with the female characters, tries to understand their situation – exploited both in their marriages and in the workplace at the hands of those very men who outwardly make a show of post-revolutionary gender equality. 

The phosphorescent woman's plan is to select a group of people to take back with her to the future. As they ready themselves for departure, she announces:

Comrades! At the first signal we’ll rush ahead, breaking through the old, decrepit time. The future will accept anyone who possesses even one trait making them kin to the collective of the commune: joy in working, eagerness to make sacrifices, unwearying creativeness, willingness to share advantages, pride in being human.

It is my belief that Mayakovsky was not merely theorising on the subject of time travel but that he somehow had first-hand experience of it or, at the very least, exact and technical information on the matter, and with this in mind I intend to consider his writings not just as creative representations but as practical guidelines for my own research.


1 comment:

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