Daniil Kharms: Back to the Future

Daniil Kharms [aka, Daniil Ivanovich Yuvachov] (1905-42)

There lived a redheaded man who had no eyes or ears. He didn’t have hair either, so he was called a redhead arbitrarily. He couldn’t talk because he had no mouth. He had no nose either. He didn’t even have arms or legs. He had no stomach, he had no back, he had no spine, and he had no innards at all. He didn’t have anything. So we don’t even know who we’re talking about. It’s better that we don’t talk about him any more. “10,” January 7, 1937  from The Blue Notebook, translated by Matvei Yankelevich

“I am interested only in ‘nonsense’; only in that which makes no practical sense. I am interested in life only in its absurd manifestation.”


Born in St. Petersburg, Kharms was part of an avant-garde, modernist group of writers & artists who embraced much of Marinetti’s earlier manifesto of Futurism [“Fondazione e Manifesto del Futurismo”].
However, literary, artistic & political differences developed between the Italian & Russian Futurists.  The later, although exhibiting an aggressive character in their art, were less enamored with the aggrandizement of war, & more interested with the function of language.  Although both had political leanings, the Italian Futurists aligned themselves to the right with Mussolini & Fascism; the Russians to the left with the Bolsheviks.
Abhorring the symbolist movement & distaste for all  things traditional including the current literary establishment, they advocated throwing Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy et al. from the “Steamship of Modernity”.  They often utilized arbitrary words free of syntax, & logical sequence, & an “expressive” use of typography (ala Guillaume Apollinaire’s Calligrammes). Indeed, Bakhtin’s identification of the disruptive function of the novel, in contrast to the “high literature” of epic or tragedy, is reflective of the anarchic, disruptive elements which characterized Russian Futurism.
While little of his work was published in his lifetime, Kharms produced several works for children, which seems ironic for one who would proclaim: “I don’t like children, old men, old women and the reasonable middle-aged. To poison children — that would be harsh. But, hell, something needs to be done with them!”
In 1931, Kharms was charged with anti-Soviet activities & briefly exiled. In 1941, he was arrested & incarcerated in the psychiatric ward of a prison hospital where he died of starvation the following year, during the siege of Leningrad.  It wasn’t until the late 1970s that Kharms’s work began to appear in mainstream publications in Russia & recently translated into English.

Dadswell, Sarah  “Re-approaching Russian Futurism: The Inter-Revolutionary Years, 1908-1915,” Studies in Slavic Cultures
Yankelevich, Matvei   Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms (Overlook, 2007)

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