Friday, January 15, 2016

Vladimir Mayakovsky: 'My Discovery of America' (1926)

In the words of Mickey Newberry, "I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in" (1967): a periodic delving into times gone by. Drop in anywhere and look around: what's different? What's the same? 

For today's time travel experience, let's consider Vladimir Mayakovsky's My Discovery of America, first published in Russian in 1926 (English translation by Neil Cornwell, 2005). Mayakovsky (1893-1930) was a lively Soviet Futurist poet at the time of his 1925 shoestring excursion to Cuba, Mexico and the United States. He traveled mostly by ship and rail (whereas today, one would more likely make the same journey by jet and car). Being a Futurist, he was particularly observant about technology, its impact and possibility. Being a Soviet, he was attuned to class warfare, conditions, and attitudes. A few snippets will give some of his flavor.

He notes of the three classes of passengers aboard the steamship Espagne: "The first class puke up wherever they like; the second -- down on the third class; and the third -- over themselves" (page 6). A vestige of this sentiment can be found  today aboard airplanes, usually divided among but two classes of passengers.

In wandering around the US from poetry reading to poetry reading, Mayakkovsky in 1925 picks up on a segment of American rhetoric that he finds humorous: "There isn't a country that spits out as much moralistic, lofty, idealistic, sanctimonious rubbish as the United States does" (page 68). Comments made by Ted Cruz last night -- in 2016 -- remind us that such hayseed rhetoric still persists.

He sees Havana, Mexico City, parts of Texas, Detroit, St. Louis and Chicago, but his descriptions of Manhattan are the most detailed. This part still rings true, beyond Mayakovsky's astonishment of the widespread use of electric traffic lights (a new development for most of the world in 1925):

During the afternoon work commute in Manhattan, "you can see thousands of cars, racing in six or eight lanes in either direction . . . Every two minutes, the green signal lights up on the traffic lights, so as to let through those tearing out from the side streets . . . Fifty minutes is needed at this time of day for a journey that in the morning would take a quarter of an hour, and pedestrians have to stand and wait . . . deprived of any hope of immediate crossing . . . (page 51). 

There's much more, but there's a taste of it. Traffic hasn't changed a mite in the way it manifests, ninety years later. Mayakovsky is dead, however (suicide at age 36); the Soviet Union came and went. Now we have Putin's Russia, Obama's USA and the internet. Lose some, win some. The human condition remains about the same, I suppose, only with a lot more people scampering around, some livelier than others.   

Today's Rune: Signals. 


Charles Gramlich said...

The signal is coming in. Not so loud an dclear, though.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

How delightfully prescient! I wonder what Mayakovsky would make of the state of things today?