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Possession without a touch: letters of Marina Tsvetaeva
Written in and translated from the Russian by

Natalija Arlauskaite

Everyone has repetitive events in their life.
This is called “destiny”.

Marina Tsvetaeva, “Synoptic Notebooks”

This paper explores the construction of intimacy as an interiorisation without touch in the work of Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaeva.  For Tsvetaeva physical touch was as divisive as it was inclusive, so she looked for a kind of spatial imagery that could express her understanding of intimacy, without depending on conventional understandings of tactile, bodily intimacy.  In order to understand her work I begin with a brief study of late twentieth-century re-workings of the genre of auto/biography, noting particularly their location of critical images that identify the autobiographical imaginary of their subject, and can be used subsequently by biographers and readers to explore and deconstruct that individual/subject.  

The end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century is marked by a new turn in a chain of previous linguistic, narrative, and cognitive turns in Humanities and Social Sciences – the biographical (Chamberlayne 2000). Even though it is rather modest compared to previous turns, the field of auto/biography studies is fundamentally multidisciplinary combining the apparatus and methods of linguistics, anthropology, history, psychology, gender studies, and other disciplines.

One direction in auto/biography studies focuses on the forms, registers, modes, or figures of the auto/biographical imaginary employed primarily in first-person writings, such as memoirs, letters, diaries, and ‘proper’ autobiographies, regardless of their authenticity or fictiveness (which are hardly distinguishable). The notion of the (auto/biographical) imaginary points to the well-known triad of the Real—Imaginary—Symbolic developed in psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan. Applied to the realm of auto/biography it emphasises the interplay between the individual strategies of life-writing (auto/bio-graphication) and literary conventions of the representation of private life developed in different cultures.

One example of a study of the auto/biographical imaginary perceived in this way is Recognizing Biography by William Epstein (1987). One of the chapters of the book discusses the figures of auto/biographical imaginary that Izaak Walton develops in his biography of John Donne (Life of Donne 1640), and analyses the strategies of biographical writing, which later would become widely accepted in the British tradition of life-writing.  According to Epstein, the creation of biography is a sacral act – biographer builds the altar and selects necessary material altering it at the same time: altar-building is the altering, the construction of the plot of alteration (Epstein, 13—15). Alteration appears to be a chain of conversions, such as Donne’s consecration at the end of his life and his refusal to write lyric poetry as it was regarded as an improper activity for a priest. The final conversion of John Donne – monumentalization – takes a bodily form: it was his wish to be buried in a certain pose, which later acquired its final embodiment in the sculpture of Donne placed in St. Paul’s church “probably facing the altar” (Epstein 28). Epstein shows how Walton’s biography-writing subscribes to the auto/biographical imaginary of alteration — conversion — monumentalization.

Another case comes from the book by Valery Podoroga on Sergey Eisenstein (Podoroga 2001: 11-140). Podoroga introduces the notion of the “writerly text Eisenstein”, which is almost equal to the biography but is seen as a dynamic process, an activity of auto/biography building, stemming from diverse sources: memoirs per se, photographs, drawings, preparatory materials for films, films themselves and their projects. Podoroga is interested in stable textual forms that provide an expression for personal experience and so for the auto/biographical imaginary itself.  He found such a textual form in Eisenstein’s work in the image of the scaffold-crucifixion  (76).  Podoroga detects this hanging figure in Eisenstein’s writings about his childhood, in pictures of Eisenstein as a child, in the composition of the frame of his films and in other elements of the “writerly text Eisenstein”.

A discussion of the structure of the auto/biographical imaginary developed in the letters and other texts of Marina Tsvetaeva requires a brief remark on the level of literariness of these writings. The distinction between true, authentic and fictional auto/biography is rather vague in literary theory. There are no structural devices which could indicate whether the piece of writing belongs to the literary first-person narration or to so-called documentary and, thus, authentic auto/biographical narration. Tsvetaeva addresses this point herself regularly, claiming that all her prose is autobiographical. Even if she had not made this comment, the framework of auto/biographical imaginary tends to ignore this difference, regarding all texts in the genre as equally fictional.

I am now going to show how forms of private space are constructed in the epistolary and literary works of Marina Tsvetaeva.  The main focus is not on the distinction between private and public spaces, but on the space, which might be called the closest one, without any higher degree of closeness. It is, however, still measurable and performs certain functions. I will also locate the images and other textual strategies used by Tsvetaeva to create this closest space, which constitute the auto/biographical imaginary in her texts.

Tsvetaeva’s letter to Anatoly Steiger, dated July 29, 1936 could be considered first:

Whether you wish or not, I have already taken you there inside, where I place everything what I treasure, before I look at it, seeing it already inside. You are my grasp and catch <…>.

This is my grasp – not anybody else’s. (In a real life, I will probably never take your hand, which – I see it – will be in a few inches of distance, perfectly within my reach, within a reach just as the cigarette-holder, which I constantly take into my mouth. To take a thing – is to admit, that it is outside you, not even “admit”, but by the same gesture – to dispose of it: move it into the realm of outer things. All partings begin with this hand. But, knowing, that maybe I will still take it – because, how otherwise to give?... at least – a feeling <)>.

<…> I tell you in advance – whatever you will be, when you enter through my door, -- I will be loving you anyway, because I love you already, because – the miracle has happened – and this is only about the degree of pain – the better you will be – the worse it will be – to me.

<…> Your letter has gored my icy scurf, it opened up my own vibrant abyss – where you immediately and fully have engulfed yourself. (СС 7, 566)

Initial observations reveal the following meanings implicit in the text.  Firstly, for Tsvetaeva a relationship of exceptional value is equal to possession (“I have already taken you”).  Subsequently, this relationship is described as a movement of the beloved into the space of I, which has a volume (“seeing it already inside”).  The movement that is involved in establishing this intimacy is set against physical touch (“I will probably never take your hand”).  Touch is understood as border-construction, border not connecting, but dividing (“to take a thing – is to admit, that it is outside you”).  Note here also that Tsvetaeva employs dash rather unconventionally, graphically structuring the text and meaning through her choice of punctuation, including ellipsis and the iconic sign of the gap. This use of textual graphics is comparable to that of Emily Dickinson.  In this letter Tsvetaeva describes interiorisation as instantaneous, painful and like a miracle (“the miracle has happened – and this is only about the degree of pain”), while the space it occupies (the volume of I) is indefinite; its form is unknown (“vibrant abyss”).

A similar construction of interiorisation without touch as a form of private, or to define it more precisely, erotic space, appears in at least three groups of texts: letters to Abram Vishniak (1922), letters to Anatoly Steiger (1936), and “The Tale of Sonechka” (1938). In 1933 Tsvetaeva’s letters to Vishniak were transformed into the epistolary story “Florentine Nights”, following the model of “Florentine Nights” by Heinrich Heine (1836). The construction of erotic space in these texts was persistently developed by Tsvetaeva in the 1930s, even if some isolated elements have appeared earlier.  Its purpose is to be the place for the final incessant confluence of lovers:

 “You are my humanly home on earth, make it sure your chest (precious!) could bear me up, - no! – it could be roomy for me, WIDEN it UP – not for me: an incident, but for what sweeps out of me to you”, letter to Vishniak. (СТ, 101)

In these texts Tsvetaeva develops different images to create the sense of this intimate space that cannot be achieved through the mundane physical act of touch.

The body in these contexts adopts the quality of a warm, comforting, supple fur.  Its plasticity calls for further transformations of the inner space, which are indefinite and limitless: 

““Everything goes through the soul, my dear, — and back to the soul. (A self-feeding fountain.) Only fur — doesn‘t, as well as: only souls. You know it, because of your animal touch. – My sheer fur! (not only animal — fir-needle as well)” (СТ, 93).

 “... it‘s good to be with you in the darkness: in voices (as in a fur!), I would say: in vocal vigilance” (СТ, 92).

“Fur: night — lie — stars — yowl — and vast again. // Logos and lie”. (СТ, 92)

In this last example, note that in Russian ‘lie’ is ‘logovo’; the alliteration of ‘logos’ and ‘logovo’ metaphorically equates logos and lie. In some texts the fur (space) transforms into sea (space):

If I only could dive my hand into your soul – as into the sea – Vous retireriez Votre main pleine de Vous. (CC 7, 574)

All these texts present erotic space as exhibiting volume. Its borders, however, either do not exist or they are flexible and inconsistent; its composition is amorphous, hollow:

“How many times? Don’t I know that everything ends; don’t I believe that this (what is in me for you) will end one day, will ease me that I will think out of you: will become again an empty – bleak – and roomy house: domaine?” (СС 7, 574)

The bilingual word-play of Russian dom (‘house’) and French domaine (‘sphere’, ‘area’) virtually connects the stable and defined arena of the “house” with the undefined spatiality of the “area”, preventing the containment of this intimate space by the domestic space of the everyday home.

Another example transforms the “inner house”, where the beloved is placed, into the spacious womb:

“I fill myself the castle, where you live. Deserted, huge, safe, and embracing you all around – this embrace is so loose! – it is so roomy, you may go everywhere, there is no forbidden corner – and above all there is huge, empty, and echoing attic with gothic ribbed vaults – above which – one vault more – and on the very top – bells. They never ring. They would ring themselves”. (СС 7, 577)

This womb accepts both lovers: “But I would like to be with you and no other people at all, all alone in a huge womb – in the castle <...>” (СС 7, 575).  In “Florentine nights” two persons create a womb for the beloved:

“Take me away one night – for the whole night. Beholding you I would forget you a little bit. We would be carrying you together”. (С, 256)

“The Tale of Sonechka” creates the space of possession in the outer world, nevertheless it obtains the same structure of enshrouding absorption:

“We were sitting – like that: Volodia on the left, me on the right, Sonechka in the middle, both of us – with Sonechka in the middle, we adults – with a child in the middle, we loving – with the love in the middle. Of course, embracing: we — with hands on each others’ shoulders, she – inside us, inside our distanced embrace, dividing and connecting us, she has given one hand to each and to each herself in wholeness, whole love. Her little body has been wiping out the verst separating me and Volodia. // Sonechka has been sitting in us as in a chair – leaning at its live back, in a woven basket of our interwoven arms. Sonechka has been laying in us as in a cradle, as Moses in a woven ark on the waters of the Nile”. (С, 210)

In most of these examples interiorisation, the shift from outside to inside, is not preceded by any kind of contact or touch. The hands are a dividing obstacle in “The Tale of Sonechka” as well as in the very first excerpt from the letter to Anatoly Steiger:

“Do not make gifts that are too beautiful for your beloved because the giving hand and the taking hand will inevitably separate as they have already separated – in the very gesture of giving and taking, separating, not bringing together: one hand is empty and the other is full. They will inevitably separate, all the world will rise up through the gap opened up by the very gesture of the giving and taking. // From hands to hands – you pass the separation <...>” (С, 2, 213); “ give — even if it is the soul — is to divide”. (СТ, 131)

The ability of hands to separate is not the result of the interpretation of Tsvetaeva’s texts; it is highly reflected by the discourse itself, as even grammatical structures convey the meaning. Thus, a letter to Steiger ends with the following passage:

“I am finishing, — because it’s time. Although I am still telling you: I am longing for you. Never — without you. As — to be longing for a bread — means to be taken by thoughts about it. To be longing without a bread — means to be swallowed by it. Never in my life I’ve been longing – without a person. One thing — an overflow, another — emptiness. I will never be empty — by you. — I hope. (I think, I have never been empty even for a second)”. (СС 7, 580)

A few days earlier she wrote: “Now I am thinking about you: thinking — you”, — then she speculates about the differences in French and German phrases “she thinks a child” (СС 7, 576). Similar word phrasing can be found in “Florentine Nights”: “There will never be a chair in your life empty <of> me” (С, 257). All these examples demonstrate Tsvetaeva’s preoccupation with the discursive erasure of the signs of distance in the act of possession. Her writings stress the transience (grammatical as well as semantic) of the possession, which she indicates through multiple graphic and grammatical strategies. Many pages of Tsvetaeva’s and Steiger’s epistolary-exchange  are a sort of “literary university”: mature poet, Tsvetaeva teaches a beginner in poetry, Steiger the art of writing, in which italics, graphic accents, the place of the text on a page are scrutinized as carefully as the vicissitudes of their own relations.

The figure of interiorisation without touch, which represents the structure and mode of functioning in the auto/biographical writings of Tsvetaeva, typologically may be defined as Immaculate Conception. It is regularly constructed through traditional metaphors of the womb – fur, moisture, and arch (“I don’t like encounters in a real life: head-crashing. Two inscrutable walls. <...> This is not the way into. Encounter has to be an arch, better – a rainbow” (СТ, 148)) – complemented by the sensation of miracle and pain.

The culture of the twentieth century is marked by the articulation of intimate, erotic experiences, which are often given para-sacral status. In Tsvetaeva’s work, possession of the beloved as direct absorption, confluence without bodily contact, and extreme intensity as well as the importance of this experience creates a form of mystical possession supported by the references to the mystical tradition from the Middle Ages to high Romanticism: “I know only one example of happy love: Bettina’s for Goethe. Great Teresa’s – for God. Without response. Hopeless. Without an accepting hand. Like into the abyss” (СТ, 525).

The private or erotic experience discussed in this paper is not only expressed textually, however in Tsvetaeva’s case the white page is frequently the only place where this experience is constructed and presented. Many of  Tsvetaeva’s romances were exclusively or mainly epistolary – literally literal. It might be said that her auto/biographical writings are a purely aesthetic construction of erotic space – interiorisation without a touch – identical to the Immaculate Conception, which implies the very terminality of possession.¸

The earlier version of the article is published in: Новое литературное обозрение, 2004, 68, p.148—153


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CC 7 – Цветаева, M. (1995) Собрание сочинений в семи томах. Т. 7. Письма. Москва: Эллис Лак.

CT – Цветаева, М. (1997) Неизданное. Сводный тетради. Москва: Эллис Лак.

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