Bobeobi by Khlebnikov, Part Two

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January 30, 2017 by AK

Paul Schmidt’s translation of Bobeobi can be found here, and Ronald Vroon’s comment explaining the logic of Khlebnikov sound-painting is accessible via Google Books. Schmidt goes for “lipsong,” “eyesong,” “eyebrowsong” to circumvent the reflexivity problem.

Raymond Cooke gets the reflexives wrong but, like Vroon (even in more detail), clarifies Khlebnikov’s sonic symbolism:

‘Bobeobi’ is clearly not an exercise in Futurist gibberish, but an attempt at the representation of colour in terms of sound, a type of synesthaesia. Such experimental work had at the time a considerable pedigree.

True: see Voyelles by Rimbaud. (The French word for “vowel” is begging to be associated with voir, via voyeur, perhaps – it’s surprising this had to wait until Rimbaud.) Curiously, it’s only consonants that Khlebnikov colors, adding that vowels were “less studied.”

But that’s not all there is to Khlebnikov’s little poem. Vyacheslav Ivanov, the famous linguist (not to be confused with his namesake the poet), notes in Khlebnikov and Science that the poet’s hopes

went far beyond the synesthetic “correspondences,” to which his predecessors limited themselves…

That much is clear from Khlebnikov’s writings from as early as 1904, when he was only nineteen:

There exists a certain… indefinitely extended multiform, constantly changing, which occupies the same position relative to our five senses as a two-dimensional continuous space occupies relative to a triangle, a circle, a cross-section of an egg, a rectangle. In the same way as the triangle, the circle, the octagon are parts of a plane, our auditory, visual, olfactory senses are parts, accidental tongue-slips of this single great, extended multiformity.

It has raised its leonine head and is looking at us, but its lips are closed.

Further, exactly in the same way as, by continuously changing a circle, one can obtain a triangle, and the triangle can be continuously transformed into an octagon; as from a ball in a three-dimensional space one can obtain, though continuous change, an egg, an apple, a horn, a barrel – exactly in the same way, there exist certain values, independent variables, with whose variation the sensations of different orders – for example, auditory, visual or olfactory – transform into each other.

For one, there exist values with whose variation the blue color of a cornflower (I am taking a pure sensation), changing continuously, passing through areas of rupture [discontinuity?] unknown to us humans, will turn into the sound of a cuckoo’s cuckooing or a child’s weeping, will become that. In this, chainging uniterruptedly, it forms a certain extended multiform, all points of which – except those close to the first and the last one – will belong in a realm of unknown sensations; they would be as if from another world.

Back to Ivanov:

It’s the “canvas of certain correspondences” that refers to the “realm of unknown sensations” into which Khlebnikov tried to make his way in his youth both in his scientific and poetic activities.

Finally, two lines from Hiawatha, pointed out by Ivanov (via Chukovsky – both had Bunin’s translation in mind):

“Minne-wawa!” said the pine-trees,
“Mudway-aushka!” said the water.

Lines that Khlebnikov read as a child, most likely, and later transformed (almost) beyond recognition.


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