I come to you from my solitude

22 June 2006
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Legendary Georgian philosopher Merab Mamardashvili (1930-1990) was once ironically referred to by the Cheka as "the freest man in the country". But Mamardashvili was no dissident, believing that the authorities, having "faced the truth about what I really am", had no choice but to curtail his freedom. However, it is exactly the problem of what Mamardashvili really was that everybody is so interested in, says Rigas Laiks editor Uldis Tirons.

“His philosophising is reminiscent of a dream – it’s both reasoned and felt, yet objective. It ventures where there is no dislike or hate and returns from there pure.”
Alexander Piatigorsky.

It is often said that Merab Mamardashvili (1930-1990) was the greatest philosopher in the Soviet Union; Vernant dubbed him “the Georgian Socrates”.

The phone call with the news of Merab Mamardashvili’s death found me in a basement office on Maskavas (Moscow) Street [in Riga – ed.], and I still remember the feeling that overwhelmed me after I had recovered to some extent: it seemed to me there was no longer any space for truth in the world; this space had been taken away by Merab’s1 death. It’s not that I was thinking there was no truth or wondering what this “truth” could be, no – when Merab was alive I knew that truth existed.

The dead Merab on the table in the Chavchavadze Street flat looked startlingly small, and I had always thought him quite tall. An incredibly stupid thought passed my mind at that moment: that all the knowledge locked inside this unique skull was now lost forever. This clumsy thought now resurfaces as I read the question Merab asked a friend in July 1978: “Where was the Greek thought when the ancient Greeks had all disappeared and its addressees had not yet appeared?”

When in the spring of 1990 I asked Merab to make an inscription in his just-released book The Way I Understand Philosophy, he wrote: “To Uldis, as a memento – via this thin and strange thread of passing down… Where to? To whom?… From Merab.”

The many people who mention that they attended Mamardashvili’s lectures probably think that this event has somehow made their lives particularly valuable. While browsing through Russian web sites I stumbled on the home page of an actress and read that Mamardashvili had been a lecturer at the Institute during her studies and that he had talked to his students about Kant’s light blue eyes. True enough; in the book compiled from audiotapes of lectures at the Moscow Institute of Psychology, we learn that “Kant had very regular and expressive facial features and enormous light blue eyes. To those who saw him the eyes seemed larger than they actually were because of the eerie and rare ether-blue hue. They were slightly moist which added to their brightness and made them seem piercing.” Indeed, according to a woman who knew him well, no other philosopher has ever spoken of Kant with such tenderness as Merab did – as if he was talking about his younger brother.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the auditoriums at Mamardashvili’s lectures were alyways full. “When he started to read lectures at the Institute of Psychology, half of intellectual Moscow was there. The auditorium was crammed full to the limit. These days it’s unthinkable, but people would be standing and lying all over the place. Somebody who hated Mamardashvili’s guts once said: “I do respect Merab Konstantinovich exceedingly, there’s no doubt about that. But why do hairdressers go to his lectures? I find it a complete mystery.”2

The “hairdresser” in her turn could post the following on her web site: “I remember attending Mamardashvili’s lectures with a friend of mine; he spoke about Descartes’ wavy hair.” And indeed, in a 1981 lecture on Descartes at said Moscow institute Mamardashvili mentions that “there is a portrait of Descartes (not the Hals one, by another painter) with a gentle and thoughtful face and quite weird-looking hair; it’s usually very gentle and somewhat disfigured people who have hair like that.”

That’s hardly all Mamardashvili has ever said about Kant or Descartes; yet, to be honest, I remember even less of his Riga lectures.3 Now, when I’m perusing the book, I can adapt them to my style of reading, halt wherever I choose, rouse myself from slumber, and go back over what I have missed or haven’t understood; there was no chance of doing that during the actual lecture. Hairdressers were not the only ones who couldn’t make sense of these lectures, and it wasn’t their fault anyway. Moreover, the freedom of not comprehending was one of the several reasons they were there in the first place; within Soviet ideology, the truth was clear and to be found in the works of Marxist classics, while incomprehension was a deficiency or perhaps the sort of thinking which was to be overcome by the careful study of said works.

Speaking of passion in his Proustian Lectures, Mamardashvili says that only that which doesn’t interest us is ever comprehended. I’m still not sure why the incomprehensible uttered by Mamardashvili touched each separate person the way it did. As Silvana Davidovich, Italian theatre and literary critic put it: “Those were words spoken directly to you, explaining you to yourself.”

“The first impression from Merab Konstantinovich’s lectures was a profound shock. He was emanating a force of sorts. He created by philosophising before my very eyes. Like many of my peers, I went to his lectures the way people go to church – he was addressing precisely the questions which were tormenting me; he spoke of personality, of human responsibility and freedom.” This was written by a woman who was a student at the Tbilisi University at the time. In the same month, in fact, just a few hours after what she describes took place, I spoke with Merab, who confessed that perhaps he was an impostor, a con-man who would be exposed any minute. “I am not at all convinced that I have deep thoughts; trust me, it’s not for me to judge. And the fact that my courses of lectures attract hundreds of listeners has to do with the general intellectual situation, the intellectual starvation – that’s the most important reason. And secondly, people just need someone to be standing somewhere in front of them and talking… I offer this opportunity to choose, but it’s not for me to judge what their choice is going to be.”

“Someone” was indeed “standing and talking”. Not just anyone, though: “Would you believe it, I just saw Mamardashvili for the first time. Now, that was quite a ghostly sight! Has anyone seen him on a photo? An enormous bald skull. […] A sturdy man in a sweater was walking toward me across the fifth floor of the Institute of Philosophy, his bald and shiny head inclined. I found his appearance striking and blurted out: Who’s that? I was told: That’s Mamardashvili. He was not handsome – a flat face with a huge nose, bad teeth – because he smoked a lot. Myopic, too – minus 12. Enormous eyes just like Kant’s, light blue and bulging. (‘His eyes were set like a deer’s’.)”
Perhaps Vernant was the first to notice Mamardashvili’s physical resemblance to Socrates: round forehead as an extension of a bald scalp, flat nose with wide nostrils, fleshy lips, round and bulging eyes and, most importantly, the look: a steady frown like a bull’s or a quick sideways glance, but always piercing, intense, ironic.

I can’t think of another Soviet era philosopher the description of whose facial features would still be recalled, but then again – their presence was not really important, since the truth was somewhere away from a Lenin or a Marx. The scientificity and ideological adequacy was gauged by their written works; Mamardashvili wrote with great difficulty, if at all, taking after Socrates in this respect as well.

It was in lecturing that he considered his job as a philosopher consisted. Transcripts of these lectures were circulated by samizdat and officially published only posthumously. Therefore, his presence was, I’m tempted to say, real, not written; the immediate impression he left and stories of him were of more importance. Socrates was loved and because of that his young interlocutors blossomed in his presence and very often came to feel a need to change, to improve themselves and turn to things they hadn’t even noticed before meeting Socrates; I think something similar happened in Mamardashvili’s presence too.

Sure enough, all of these descriptions have appeared within an already complete framework of how the legendary personality is perceived, and yet I wouldn’t hasten to claim they aren’t in any way connected with his philosophy, at least as presented by Mamardashvili himself. Anatoly Akhutin, a philosopher from Moscow remembers a shocking incident from the late 1970s, when it unexpectedly turned out that behaving that way was also permissible. Having been banished from the Institute of Philosophy, Mamardashvili worked at the Institute of Natural and Technical History, and the deputy head of said establishment had called out after the passing philosopher: “Come into my office!” When Mamardashvili had walked on without saying a word, the man had turned up the volume: “I said – my office!” Mamardashvili had turned around and replied simply, “Fuck off.” Later, when he had to write an explanation for his behaviour, Mamardashvili had pointed out (on a page torn out of a child’s copybook, addressed to the head of the institute) that he was not a serf working at the deputy head’s stables and didn’t have to obey the latter’s orders, that among decent people a person is spoken to with respect, and that therefore he was expecting the deputy head to come forward with an apology. Needless to say, the deputy head had kept to himself from then on. (Actually, the authorities suffered Mamardashvili surprisingly gladly.) For the present, please note that in no way did Mamardashvili’s actions fit any “power-subordinate” pattern; he acted according to his own idea of how things ought to be. That’s probably also the way the KGB officer who summoned him to Lubyanka saw it; he began his warning to Mamardashvili to stop having undesirable contacts with foreigners by saying: “We know you are the freest man in the country.” Which, reading between the lines, probably translates as: you act as if we, the almighty cheka, didn’t even exist!

Unlike the KGB, Merab’s contemporaries either loved and admired, or envied and detested him – but simply as “one of us”. For instance, some were jealous of his command of and ability to read in foreign languages. Alexander Zinoviev, a philosopher and former friend of Merab’s, in his caustic satire of the early 1970s entitled The Yawning Heights, includes Mamardashvili into the cohort of Soviet ideologists, assuming that, regardless of motivation, each and every philosopher of the time was greasing the machinery of power and, correspondingly, personal advantage.4 Similarly, quite a number of people are of the opinion that Mamardashvili, as a philosopher, is thinkable exceptionally within the context of the Soviet hierarchy; or, in the words of Erikh Solovyev, another philosopher of the period, his uniqueness “could only have emerged in a society of absolute power and absolute intellectual oppression”. Indeed, it wasn’t as if Merab never felt the wrath of authorities; yet it is only worth mentioning if we regard oppression as a precondition for anything at all – but in this case we are speaking of philosophy.

In the early 1970s, there was a period when in the high-rise building of the Moscow State University, in the same long marble passage but in different auditoriums, three philosophers were starting their respective courses: Merab Mamardashvili, Alexander Piatigorsky, and Sergei Averintsev. According to Piatigorsky, the subject matters each of them considered were approximately as flollows: trends in contemporary philosophy; the main postulates of ancient Indian philosophy; and philosophy and poetry. Reports were immediately dispatched to the “appropriate authorities” – on Piatigorsky – for smoking in the lecture hall, on Mamardashvili – for dressing inappropriately (“With his casual elegance he always stood out against the backdrop of all the dreary Soviet jackets and rumpled trousers; he owned a single pair of corderoy jeans but always wore them with beautiful sweaters,” recalls Anny Applbuen), and on Averintsev – for who knows what. What we do know is that the commission sent by the Party Committee “opened the auditorium door only to hear Averintsev’s ‘bleating’, as a contemporary permitted himself to call it: “The beautiful knows neither a subject nor an object, the beautiful exists only in the pure space of pure thought…” In Mamardashvili’s auditorium they heard: ‘Hegel pointed out that the truth can only be concrete. Marx followed this point of view in his philosophy’, or something to that effect. And in mine: ‘From the viewpoint of early Buddhist dhyana, the transcendental categories of the Upanishads…’ The first to get sacked from the university was, for some reason, Averintsev; Mamardashvili was next and the last – as someone whom no one could make any sense of anyway – was I.”

The ban on reading lectures at the university was only one of the steps taken by authorities; after an unsanctioned month in Paris during an official trip to Italy, Mamardashvili was no longer permitted to leave the country. He was gradually expelled from various academic boards, sacked from the magazine Voprosi Filosofii and finally forced to leave Moscow. Yet Mamardashvili didn’t seem to react in any way; he had no intention of becoming a dissident, attempting to improve the Soviet system or revise Marxism. He didn’t expect anything from the Soviet authorities, since he honestly believed that “they” couldn’t act in any other way, having “faced the truth about what I really am”.

In fact, it is exactly the problem of what Mamardashvili really was – he considered himself to be a philosopher – and, particularly, where he had come from, that everybody is so interested in, sometimes even more than his philosophy. When I asked Iza Mamardashvili, Merab’s sister, how he, in her opinion, became what he was, she replied: “I don’t know. I can’t answer that question.”

What is the normal way to go about problems such as this? First we tackle the family and, thanks to psychoanalysis, the early years.5 But what exactly are we to extract from the fact that Merab was born not far from Gori, the birthplace of Stalin, or that Mamardashvili’s father was a political commissar in the Red Army and fought in the war from day one going all the way to Berlin? Or that the father was a cheerful soul and paid attention to his children’s education? Or that his mother loved books and at least for a year paid for an English teacher so that Merab could study the language after classes? True, Merab’s grandfather on the mother’s side was called Platon (Plato), but then again it was not an uncommon name in Russia at the time.

Perhaps then we should focus on Merab, then known as Funk, at school in Tbilisi, on the fact that he graduated with a gold medal? Or maybe – as is most common – on the Moscow University in the early 1950s where talented philosophers attempted to improve Marxism (like Evald Ilyenkov) or concentrated on problems of methodology (like Yuri Shchedrovitsky), before they became habitual drunks or died? But perhaps we should adhere to the view that Merab as a philosopher formed in Prague, where the editorial board of the magazine Problemi Mira i Socialisma had assembled many of those comparatively civilised and educated young Soviet “cadres” who later became high-level ideological apparatchiks and managed to hold on to their chairs up to the era of perestroika; where he really made the acquaintance of Westerners, Althusser and Sartre among them, had a chance to go to Paris, Rome, and Venice, fell in love with jazz and took up reading Marcel Proust and detective fiction? But perhaps we should listen to those who say that Merab changed profoundly when he met Zelma?

Zelma Haiti, to whom Mamardashvili’s series of lectures on Proust are dedicated, was from a traditional Jewish family from Kuldiga, a small Latvian town, and ten years Merab’s senior. A Latvian army officer by the nickname “Nanks” (his real name was Janis Vabulis) had fallen in love with Zelma and somehow got her out of the ghetto; when the Russians drew closer, both fled to Sweden. But Janis had left his mother and sister behind and in 1945 they returned to Latvia, even though Zelma’s mother and sister had been killed in Rumbula.

In 1946, Zelma and Nanks were arrested; both spent the next few years in Stalin’s camps. In 1960, Zelma happened to be visiting a woman who was then Merab’s landlady, and he fell in love. “She was quite different, quite a Western lady. Her clothes were different, her behaviour was different. She was well-educated and had suffered a lot; it was as if she came from another planet,” remembers Merab’s sister.

The story goes that during a seminar at the then famous Tartu University Merab had suddenly told Yuri Lotman [Russian semiotician, 1922-1993 – ed.]: “Would you please excuse me, Yuri Mikhailovich, I have to leave for Riga now. It’s my beloved’s birthday tomorrow.” Lotman had first thought it a joke, but Merab was serious.

In 1971, Zelma decided to emigrate. She asked sculptor Ernst Neizvestny to tell Merab, but only when she was already gone. Neizvestny told Merab about Zelma’s departure while they were sitting in the kitchen. (Emigration was pretty much like death in those days; there was practically no hope of meeting or even communicating ever again.) When Neizvestny dropped in to check on Merab a few hours later, he was still sitting in the same position. And two days later – still the same. Merab and Zelma never saw each other again.

And now lets forget about all of this, all right? Lets give up looking for Mamardashvili where he will hardly be found or insist on considering things as if they necessarily followed from one another.6 As if philosophy ever needed premises. By the way, Mamardashvili was much preoccupied with the problem of something emerging from nothing – or the impossibility thereof – apropos of annihilation of the erstwhile cultural stratum in the Soviet Union: “It’s unrestorable and, most importantly, no links with it can be established; as of 1917, we have been separated by an abyss. A cosmic disaster took place and everything tumbled down into the abyss. And now, behold, I am here and all of that is over there. And there is no way of doing anything by linking something to what is on the other side, by cultivating, restoring and building it further. If something is ever to emerge, then it’s possible in one way only – from nothing but what actually exists.”

Thinking about Merab, it becomes clear that at some point in his life he brought into effect the principle he later contended in his Lectures on Kant: “World order has actually not been determined prior to my action, prior to the moment when I find in it the place allotted to me.” Quite possibly it’s not one particular moment or particular action he’s referring to here, but Mamardashvili refused to participate in the history of the “Communist tribe” headed by all the “tribal chiefs” – and that settled the matter. Fine, even if there is nothing, there is still me…

At some point, Mamardashvili made up his mind that thinking, while simultaneously being part of the horrible mess in which Soviet people lived, was impossible, and that was that. We’re dealing with, Mamardashvili says, “the consciousness of disorganised, lost savages which can only be visualised in phantasmagoric images, for example, think of a human head with hair growing not from the inside out but the other way round. Imagine this horrific growth where everything is hopelessly tangled and one part of a thought can never find the other to create a single complete and legitimately born thought. What is happening in reality? What exists? It’s not even given a proper name.”

What is happening in reality? What exists? What is it that can’t even be given a name? Mamardashvili loved metaphors; he mentions visiting the Georgian seaside with his Italian lover – the marvellous welcome they received, all the fantastic treats and how glad everybody was to see them, how happy they both felt. Afterwards they had had to use a toilet – no more than ten metres from the festive table, a heap of faeces. And just a few steps further – pine-trees, an Italian lady, the sea, hospitality… Venechka Yerofeev, a favourite of Mamardashvili, once attempted to describe what the eyes of the classics of Marxism really looked like: “Have you ever been to the toilet on Petushki Station? If so, you’ll remember right down in the murky depths, underneath the round shit-holes the brown slops splashing and twinkling. Well, that’s what their eyes were like, all four of them.”

The Brezhnev era was labelled by Merab the “era of fossilisation of imperial shit” and, staying within this very metaphor, each moment that was spent in this situation made getting out more difficult. “Many of them tend to turn into a closed system – eternal repetition of the same conditions. Somebody who finds himself in a situation of the kind is incapable of becoming a detached observer and recognising himself as a participant of a conditional game, never daring to question the rules thereof.”

I’ve heard that the first serious conversation – which means an affair of ten or so hours – between Mamardashvili and one of his closest friends, Sasha Piatigorsky, was about truth. How is it possible that a person taking an interest in various exciting things, living life to the fullest, may not attempt to seek the truth? This little 1960s mise-en-sc�ne is of no importance other than the fact that the truth that was the subject of the two friends’ conversation could have also been understood differently than truth within the framework of life, however comfortable or unpleasant, scientific, or cultural the latter may be. No one even asked: what is truth? Mamardashvili realised that to contemplate that – the truth, that is – one had to take drastic action. Somehow, one had to get out of – sorry, for the last time, I promise – the shit in which all those who thought they could try to make some sort of sense of the Soviet outlook, to improve the theory, to make things more truthful, were stuck. And yet, to renounce all that would mean “to admit that one’s whole life up to that point had been senseless. A human being never makes that choice, and is probably right, too, since in the wake of that nothing can follow but death.”

I’m running ahead of myself now, but Merab had to reaffirm these things said between friends in more dramatic circumstances when, during the Congress of the Georgian Popular Front in the late 1980s, he declared that truth is above all else, his native country included. Mamardashvili left the podium accompanied by catcalls, but returned the next day to repeat the same thing again, and this time he was greeted with an applause. Later his quip – “If my people vote for Gamsakhurdia, I’ll have to go against my people” – became a textbook quote. Well, guess who his people voted for. And nevertheless, one of the most idiotic myths about Mamardashvili is the “absolutely fact-based” insinuation that he could have been done in by Georgian nationalists.

I’ll risk getting stuck in pathos and say that Mamardashvili’s drastic action was “simply” a thought, one single complete thought, but after the emergence of this thought the “world order” couldn’t remain the same – as if this thought had never existed. As of that moment, the world had changed. This idea can be traced to a quote used by Mamardashvili (he seems to have discussed Kant, Descartes and Proust in the light of his own experience): “Don’t think true to act true but do act to think true.” This is almost incomprehensible, but reminiscent of the cogito principle introduced by Descartes where “I think” can become an irreversible part of the world. These kinds of constructions manifest themselves in life as events which we may not understand but which, in a manner known only to themselves, “arrange” not only our whole life but all rest as well. An occurrence of such a thought permits Mamardashvili to say: “Thinking is my way of being or my way of being in a way I wouldn’t be if I didn’t think what I do think. Thinking of existence is a mode of existence of the thinker.”

It is quite obvious that such a factual event, a turn in Mamardashvili’s life, took place around the late 1970s when he started to read his famous series of lectures on Western philosophy, Descartes, Kant and Proust. These series were striking both in that, as it turned out, it was possible to philosophise without citing anything – in that they were unthinkable in the Soviet Union, yet were in fact delivered.

Seen from this perspective, Mamardashvili’s biography also appears quite different. As Piatigorsky put it: “Whatever a philosopher is doing, he is always doing philosophy.” One can observe how Mamardashvili gradually grooms himself into someone who will be able to think despite the awareness that ultimately his thinking may be a matter of accident and luck. Mamardashvili’s friends from his university years fall within this category of luck; they used to walk around Moscow in large groups, visited each other, talked about philosophy – they were “people who had recaptured within themselves and for themselves a space for inner and, as we liked to put it, happy freedom.”

In later years, Mamardashvili would also point out the importance of organic and unschedulable social formations – in the strictly regulated Moscow of the 1950s it was “spontaneous resurgence of various forms of student cohabitation”.

But it was also an opportunity to learn that others may think differently and to accept this otherness. Lots of friends fell out while defending their beliefs and thoughts whereas Mamardashvili seemed to remain unaffected; much more important than the content of the conversations was the model of friendship itself, which embodied the concept of the code of friendship and its role held true by Tbilisi guttersnipes. To simplify things – it was the concept of “one of the lads”, and Merab easily recognised it in people in later years as well, both in men and women: the social stratum to which these “lads” belonged was of no consequence whatsoever.

“Our life in the 1960s was pretty much determined by these ‘freemasons’ who accidentally happened to also be, say, heads of research institutes or laboratories, and they could offer you a job, ask you to work for them simply for the reason that they liked you, felt some sort of inner, totally baseless affinity for you, and you could officially read a lecture, perhaps even a series of lectures. […] As far as surface sociality is concerned, you are lonely, but friendship is the interconnection of two lonelinesses, three lonelinesses, four… There is nothing else that matters. And the real content of all that socialising was not a seminar-like discussion; it was a spontaneous togetherness of people, which represented, I’d say, the immortality of life.”

By the way, the venue of this friendship – Moscow – was also accidental. Clearly no Merab would have come out of the 1950s Tbilisi; it had to be the intellectually disoriented, “oriental” (as Pushkin would have it) Moscow. Admittedly, on hindsight – and surely by now we can start using hindsight, can we not? – the Moscow where Merab’s friendship, love and philosophy all happened was more of a Merab’s Moscow than a Moscow where Merab fulfilled himself. I remember being extremely surprised by his aphorism which I found difficult to grasp: “A lonely man cannot not have friends.” I was surprised not only because it was difficult to grasp this but also because it seemed that he was talking about me. That’s definitely an art in itself – addressing your listener. Perhaps that was the central axis of Mamardashvili’s philosophy: man is but a potential being; you have to act to actually start being. This idea coincides with Mamardashvili’s own being, and perhaps it was more his own example than his philosophy – which spoke of the same thing – that permitted his listeners and readers to recognise a chance for themselves, because he – he was, wasn’t he? Words said by Mamardashvili, though referring to someone else, could well be applied to the speaker himself: “The very presence of a free and thinking man, presenting of himself to others, was evidence that living like that was also possible.”

In early summer, I opened Merab’s lectures on Proust for the umpteenth time and for some reason started to read the introduction: “We belong to each other – and it is never going to happen.” He read those lectures in Tbilisi, and that may be the reason why he mentioned the wonderful Georgian feasts with toasts and rituals, and then suddenly there’s “delirious and tangled-up consciousness, all of a sudden interrupted by a burst of songs like a frightened flush of birds: but where are we? Who are we? I’ll never be able to be a Georgian.” Merab was talking of himself; he was fifty-two years old and longed to be where he could no longer return. (When in love we can’t see things as we would if we didn’t love – but I have no wish to go back to the place where I was not in love, just like I don’t want to revert to my youth when I hadn’t yet made my choice.) “No one will ever exempt us from pain and suffering – and the unamendable. But no-one will ever kill joy, dissolve its sweetly sad and proud crystal-clear note. […] The world is not wonderful, and it’s not my seriousness that will save it. The task of philosophy consists in restoring what already exists and justifying it.”

In 1980, Mamardashvili moved back to Georgia. “I come out of my solitude to your orphanhood and desolation,” – with these words he is reported to have started his first lecture at the Tbilisi University. Very soon he started looking back at his previous life in Russia: how can you live in that bog? In that darkness? Dampness. Mold. Swamp. What can emerge from a swamp? – Rasputin, Skovoroda, Peter I… This northern dampness! This sickly mysticism! Clarity, light, blue sky is what I love. Montaigne slowly sipping wine…

Merab was a Francophile, he loved the fine things in life, cheese, good wine, beautiful women who offered him the pleasure of their company, conversations with his friends, and he seemed – no, he definitely was – happy.

In the mid-1980s, I asked Merab to write a piece on Kant – his Kantian lectures hadn’t been published at the time. The deadline was fast approaching and I still hadn’t heard from him. I called him. It was morning, and I was sitting in the editorial office on Aspazijas Boulevard; I think there was a time difference of several hours between us. To my question about how things were with Kant, Merab replied: “Oh, well, nothing special – it’s warm and birds are singing outside…” I can still see those bird songs and the shouting of children in the yard when I look at the photos taken by Gints Berzins in April 1990, when we had gone over to interview Merab in Tbilisi. In the plane I had been rejoicing and laughing about Wittgenstein’s On Certainty, which had been just published in Voprosi Filosofii; the mood of the piece – no, that’s not possible! People don’t think like that! – was so close to what I’ve been trying to say in this article. So very much light. As much light as in Tbilisi in early spring, early summer, early autumn: “A particular transparency of light – a very special light consuming all material substances. To me, it’s the primary light, light in itself, the prime form of any light – that is, a light to which I – when I’m already sixty, fifty, forty – to which I can respond, which can excite me, evoke some sort of feelings, lead me to some sort of thoughts.”

Merab died six months later; I have a story to tell in this connection, albeit a bit pretentious, but nevertheless. On the fortieth day after his death a memorial meeting was held in Moscow, at the Institute of Philosophy, and, while the more prominent guests left for a function at Dr Motroshilova’s, two young girls and an older lady stayed at the institute and told me the story I’m about to relate. Both girls had been working with Merab, and one of them, a nice, kind, cultured Moscow girl with a round face – I think her name was Masha – had on the night before baked some sort of buns which Merab had been particularly partial to. So there we are, sitting and eating the buns, and suddenly the rotund girl, a bit of a bun herself, starts crying uncontrollably, wailing in the manner of Russian village mourners; she is literally howling now: “Me-rab Kon-stan-ti-no-vich, why have you left me… aahhh…” And then the other girl, not Russian-looking at all, with an almost German face (let’s call her the German Girl) speaks out almost like an oracle: “Don’t you cry. I am going to tell you a story. I had two favourite teachers at the university – Merab Konstantinovich and Asmus. When Asmus died, I thought – how can that be? Is he really dead forever? And that’s it? I felt as if he had died for me personally. The emptiness was horrible. We spent the whole day getting ready for the funeral; I came home exhausted, cuddled up in an armchair and only then did I allow myself to start crying. I cried and cried, and cried till I fell asleep. And then I had a dream: I dreamt that we had once again gone to visit Asmus in his summer cottage in Peredelkino where we used to gather. We used to sit in a large and round room with a door leading to the garden, except we usually went there in winter, so the door was normally locked. And in this dream we somehow know that he is dead, so we are wandering around the rooms lost and forsaken. I am looking for him even though I know it is absurd. It is very cold outside and quite cold inside the cottage as well, but suddenly I open the door, and it’s summer in the garden. And I realise that it’s not the garden of the Asmus family, that it’s a different garden altogether because there are all sorts of plants with huge green leaves, shrill bird song and the noise of running water, so I realise it’s a southern garden. And I move in the direction of the whispering little brook and I hear voices. I look around the corner, and there are two men sitting on a white marble bench and talking. One of them is half-turned towards me, and it’s Asmus; the other one I see from behind but somehow I know that it’s Kant. When I woke up in the morning I felt at peace because I knew that he was back home.”

When the German Girl had told the story to Merab’s closest friends of the time, they had exchanged significant looks and told her the following: In 1982, when Merab was reading his series of lectures on Kant, he didn’t turn up for the lecture one morning. Normally he was never late – level-headed people like him aren’t late, – so the worried friends went to his Moscow flat. Merab opened the door wrapped in a towel, apologised and then explained that he had been talking with Kant all night and woken up in the morning to find out he was bleeding from everywhere – from his ears, mouth and nose. “When I repeated the story to my brother Vissarion,” the German Girl went on, “he said: you know, monks have a prayer like that – they pray till they start bleeding. The tension is so great that blood vessels simply give in to the pressure.”

Merab writes: “Goethe said that when approaching Kant one was overwhelmed by a feeling of coming out from a dark forest into a sunlit meadow – a certain space extracted and united by light. The space in question is a sort of “understanding place”, a place in and from which something can be seen. In this lucid space, the light is so bright that you begin to understand and yet, having understood, you still understand nothing – in other words, you can’t explain what you have understood.”

When I took the liberty of asking Iza whether there was any sense to go on living if there was no Merab, she said: “You know, I just don’t know… What sense could there be? Merab wanted to live so much. He wanted to live. He loved the sun, light, sunrise… In the morning I tiptoed into his room to draw the curtains because the sun was beginning to enter… But he said: no, leave, go away, you are in the way, leave me the sun…”

Thanks to Iza Mamardashvili, Alexander Piatigorsky, Yuri Senokosov, Anatoly Akhutin, Erikh Solovyev, Tamara Dularidze, Noemia Ahimeir and all the other people, conversations with whom were used in this article.

  1. Merab -- I never called him that during his lifetime, he was always Merab Konstantinovich to me, and by using this friendly form of address here I am not posing as his acquaintance or friend; in memoirs or essays practically everyone refers to him in this manner. Unlike his many Soviet colleagues Merab was a democratic and approachable man who didn't keep his distance and knew how to make the so-called "little people" feel noticed -- eg the neighbours in his communal flat, among whom there were ex-convicts, and also a stukach (informant), whose duty was to keep an eye on Mamardashvili.
  2. Valery Podoroga in a 2003 lecture on Grigory Shchedrovitsky and Merab Mamardashvili, delivered at the School of Culture Politics.
  3. In 1979 in Riga, in the overcrowded Auditorium 1 of the Faculty of Philosophy Mamardashvili delivered six lectures on consciousness, published in 1984 I don't know of another contemporary philosopher (admittedly, I'm not sure since I haven't paid it much attention, but Heidegger and also Wittgenstein are reported to have been like that) who would have insisted on speaking practically off the cuff so much, perhaps occasionally making use of quotes and examples prepared beforehand. Mamardashvili believed that it is exactly when speaking in this manner that the something of which we have no previous knowledge but which nevertheless happens, could happen.
  4. In his novel, which was published in the West, Zinoviev calls Mamardashvili "Thinker". He tries very hard to include him among those Soviet intellectuals whose motivation in life indeed was self-interest, envy, heavy drinking, etc. To quote: "Thinker knew he was the smartest and best-educated man in the whole of Ibansk. He held a post in the Magazine and felt content because most people didn't even have that. But he was also discontent because there were others who occupied higher posts. [...] The reputations of decent and progressive people grew. There even emerged a specific type of Soviet intellectual which Chatterer referred to as "the sort of oppressed". Their ideal was gorging on devilled chicken or shish-kebab in a chic restaurant or an opulent flat, washing it down with excellent dry wines, drinking French cognac or Scotch, going to bed with every bird or bloke who had caught their eye, and appearing oppressed and persecuted at that. Classic examples of the type were Thinker and Spouse."
  5. To dissociate myself from attempts of the sort I include a very short list of biographical facts as a footnote. After completing a postgraduate course in 1957, Mamardashvili worked in Voprosi Filosofii, one of the most ideologised Soviet magazines, then spent six years in Prague working in a western-orientated magazine "with a human face" -- Problemi Mira I Socializma. Work in various Moscow academic institutes followed as well as lecture courses in several educational establishments in Moscow (for instance, at the Institute of Cinematography), Rostov, Vilnius and Riga; as a rule, he was offered those jobs thanks to his friends. In 1970, he defended his doctor's thesis in Tbilisi and two years later became a professor. For six years he was the deputy editor-in-chief of the above mentioned Voprosi Filosofii magazine (which is, to all purposes, a publication of the Soviet nomenclature) but in 1980 returned to Tbilisi where he read several series of lectures at the university and Institute of Theatre, worked at the local Institute of Philosophy occasionally visiting Moscow as a guest lecturer. For a short period before his death, he enjoyed the freedom of travelling abroad and read several lectures in the US and France. He died of his third heart attack, on 25 November 1990 on his return from the US, at Vnukov Airport, while passing through the passenger checkpoint for a flight to Tbilisi.
  6. I have to admit it's quite often that I catch myself saying or writing something which has already been said by Mamardashvili. Compare with: "But Kant makes space for action, saying: I understand world as a place where nothing follows from anything."

Published 22 June 2006

Original in Latvian
First published in Rigas Laiks 3/2006 (Latvian version)

Contributed by Rigas Laiks
© Uldis Tirons/Rigas Laiks Eurozine

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