Vasyl' Stus and Death: On the Thirtieth Anniversary of his Death

September 2015
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Vasyl' Stus and death: a complex, many-sided theme. In spite of the obvious and necessary mourning that anniversaries of this kind entail, such dates might be for both critics and casual readers occasions to reconsider their critical approach (as well as their personal, intimate relationship) to those imposing figures who form a substantial part of their cultural and intellectual lives. What does Stus's death mean to us thirty years after that tragic day? Are we now able to understand his human and artistic legacy? What is the relationship between Stus's actual death and the image of death that we constantly, almost obsessively encounter in his poetry? These are just some of the questions we should raise in order to commemorate in a proper way the thirtieth anniversary of Stus's passing. My reflections on Stus's death and the theme of death in Stus's work will be guided by these three questions, and I will devote particular attention to the third one.

From the (more or less comfortable) viewpoint of today, it is difficult not to interpret Stus's physical annihilation by the already agonizing Soviet regime as a case of irrational, almost sadistic rage against an intractable dissident, whose actual subversive political power was, however, not so frightening for the Soviet machine. It was rather the private rebellion of Stus's conscience that constituted a symbolic threat to the homogenizing fury of the Soviet ideology. What nevertheless does not cease to astonish in the case of Stus's death is its incredible chronological proximity to our present day. That premeditated murder, that deliberate act of revenge is too close to us to be simply qualified as a dreadful occurrence of the past.

In the painful, incomprehensible, and unpredictable situation of present-day Ukraine, the unsettling vicinity of Stus's death cannot help but serve as a clear warning against any temptation of political repression and cultural regression. In dealing with this date and with its enormous symbolic potential, we should, however, try to avoid the risk of falling into the trap of uncritical praise of Stus. As repeatedly pointed out over the years by intellectuals such as Marko Pavlyshyn, Mykola Rjabchuk, and Yury Bedryk, the battle surrounding the interpretation of Stus's legacy is a reflection of the present state of the Ukrainian humanities.

The preponderance of eulogistic, ecstatic accounts of Stus's biography, aptly seasoned with decontextualized quotations from his poetry, has been an indisputable feature of Stus studies for many years, factually undermining or at least retarding the establishment of a truly scholarly tradition of literary criticism with focused on Stus's poetry. Stus's “Shevchenkonization,” his ascent to the “iconostasis” of Ukrainian divinities, which some scholars were able to recognize as early as 1992, actually demonstrates a general ignorance of the peculiar features of both his literary output and his intellectual personality in its complexity.

The excessive reduction of his complex poetic world and his imagery to the Ukrainian national theme that is found in most works on Stus's art is a clear marker of the immaturity and inadequacy of the current critical approach, not to mention those contributions that consider Stus's poetry as a useful tool (sic) for the patriotic education of young Ukrainians. Thirty years after Stus's death, we are confronted with the fact that his intrinsically European, modernist, intellectual poetry is still awaiting its fully deserved recognition by international scholars, as well as the highly necessary revision of scholarly methodologies in Ukraine in general. The reduction of Stus's art to a single, in most cases nationalistically biased narrative should be firmly dismissed as a manifestation of utter disregard for its complexity and multifacetedness. Stus's reference to several literary models and national traditions...

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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka